The gas tank situation was considerably different for the horse I picked to win last Saturday’s Belmont Stakes (War of Will) than it was for my selection to take the 2018 renewal (Justify).
After Justify won the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby and 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes for trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith, the undefeated colt was seeking a Triple Crown sweep in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. Many wondered just how much gas Justify would have in the tank for the stretch run of the Belmont.
That’s why when Baffert said these three words to Smith before last year’s Belmont, it pretty much spelled doom for Justify’s nine foes:
“The tank’s full.”
Bet down to 4-5 favoritism, Justify led through the early stages of the race they call The Test of the Champion. In my Belmont Stakes recap for Xpressbet, I wrote: “With a quarter of a mile remaining, the answer as to whether there was enough fuel in Justify’s tank was answered emphatically in the affirmative.”
Justify prevailed by 1 3/4 lengths and thus became a Triple Crown winner. He would never race again.
My picks for Xpressbet in last Saturday’s 151st running of the Belmont were 1. War of Will, 2. Tacitus, 3. Sir Winston, 4. Spinoff.
Tacitus was sent away as the 9-5 favorite. War of Will was the 7-2 second choice in the wagering. Sir Winston and Spinoff each were 10-1 when they exited the starting gate.
War of Will raced in contention through the early furlongs. But in the final quarter of mile, the needle on War of Will’s gas gauge was near E. He retreated in the stretch and finished next-to-last in the field of 10.
Many had taken a stand against War of Will in the Belmont due to the fact that he was the only horse this year to go through the grind of running in all three Triple Crown races. That approach seemed to be validated when War of Will ran out of steam in the lane.
However, Mark Casse, War of Will’s trainer, does not agree with those who say running in all three Triple Crown races was the reason for the colt’s disappointing Belmont performance. On Steve Byk’s radio program At the Races, Casse said Monday it’s his belief that War of Will just did not handle the Belmont Park main track, an oval that is nicknamed “Big Sandy.”
Whether War of Will lost because running in all three legs of the Triple Crown took a toll and/or the colt struggled on that particular surface, Casse nevertheless managed to still win the race with Sir Winston, who rallied from eighth to get the job done.
As I noted in the Los Angeles Times racing newsletter last Friday, of the 10 horses to run in this year’s Belmont, not one of them had ever won on the Belmont Park main track. Sir Winston was the only one of the 10 to have even finished second. That was one of the reasons I did pick Sir Winston third.
Sir Winston’s breeding was another reason I felt he had a license to do well in the Belmont.
“His pedigree suggests he might relish lone-distance races,” I wrote in the newsletter. “His sire is Awesome Again, who won the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1998. Sir Winston’s maternal grandsire is 2005 Belmont winner Afleet Alex.”
I also noted that Sir Winston would be ridden by Joel Rosario, who won the 2014 Belmont on Tonalist.
It turned out that Rosario played a major role in Sir Winston’s victory. Rosario’s ride was a masterpiece.
Exiting the gate from post 7, Rosario deftly moved Sir Winston down to the inside rail shortly after the start. This proved to be a key maneuver, especially vis-a-vis both War of Will, who raced wide throughout after breaking from post 9, and Tacitus, who raced even wider throughout after starting from post 10.
MAKING ALL THE RIGHT MOVES
Sir Winston and Rosario continued their rail-skimming journey all the way until they approached the top of the stretch. They briefly had to bide their time in heavy traffic turning for home. Just before reaching the top of the stretch, Rosario moved slightly away from the rail into the two path, then quickly angled further out into the four path for the stretch run.
Charging to the front just inside the eighth pole, Sir Winston went on to win by one length in 2:28.30. Tacitus came on willingly to finish second in an admirable effort in light of his wide trip. Pacesetter Joevia held on well enough in the final furlong to finish third at 21-1.
In my view, if Jose Ortiz had somehow been able to avoid racing wide throughout, Tacitus quite possibly would have won. But I don’t feel it was a bad ride. I think it was just bad racing luck after having to break from post 10.
Owned by Tracy Farmer, Sir Winston lost the first two races of his career by 13 3/4 and 11 3/4 lengths. The Kentucky-bred colt finished sixth on the dirt at Churchill Downs last year on June 14, then ran ninth on the turf July 21 at Saratoga.
Sir Winston made his next three starts on synthetic footing at Woodbine. He finished in a dead heat for first in a maiden race on Sept. 12, ran third in the Grade III Grey Stakes on Oct. 21, then won the Display Stakes on Dec. 8.
In Sir Winston’s 2019 debut, he ran fourth in Aqueduct’s Grade III Withers Stakes on Feb. 2. Tax, who won the Withers, finished fourth in last Saturday’s Belmont.
After the Withers, Sir Winston was disrespected by the betters to the tune of 46-1 in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby at 1 1/16 miles on March 9. With Julien Leparoux in the saddle, Sir Winston finished fifth, four lengths behind the victorious Tacitus.
Two days later, Byk said on his radio program during an interview with Casse that Sir Winston had run “a sneaky good race in the Tampa Bay Derby that nobody’s talking about.”
Casse then said something very interesting: “Sir Winston’s my little secret weapon.”
Thirteen weeks after Casse said that, the trainer’s “secret weapon” captured the Belmont Stakes.
In Casse’s March 11 interview with Byk, the veteran conditioner talked about how “extremely proud” he was of Sir Winston.
I remind you that Sir Winston had just finished fifth at odds of 46-1. Yet, Casse was “extremely proud” of the progress Sir Winston had made up to that point.
Sir Winston “showed absolutely nothing early on, but I kept saying to Mr. Farmer that this horse is better than he gets credit for,” Casse said to Byk. “The problem is he has no speed.
“I have to say,” Casse continued, “Julien Leparoux has ridden many, many horses for me. And he seldom gets excited. He got off of Sir Winston [after the Tampa Bay Derby] and was as excited as I’ve ever seen him. He told me that if he’d known him better, we probably would have won. He said he couldn’t get him to run at all [early]. He said that when he finally got him outside, he just took off with him.
“There obviously was a lot of pace in the race. So it did collapse some. But he was running over the top of some serious horses [late]. I always told Tracy that a mile and a sixteenth was too short for him.”
At that time, Casse said there would be “only one shot” for Sir Winston to earn enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby. That one shot would be Keeneland’s Grade II Blue Grass Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on April 6.
“If he gets to the [Kentucky] Derby, he will be running at the end of the mile and a quarter,” Casse said.
But there would be no Kentucky Derby for Sir Winston. He failed to threaten in the Blue Grass and finished seventh.
Considering Sir Winston’s Belmont trip in which he had dirt kicked back at him for furlong after furlong until the top of the stretch, it is a sign he has matured a lot since early March. After the Tampa Bay Derby, Casse said dirt being kicked back at Sir Winston was something the colt did not like one bit. It was a primary reason why Casse opted to run Sir Winston in the Blue Grass instead of Aqueduct’s Grade II Wood Memorial at the same distance and on the same day.
“There’s a little more kickback at Aqueduct than there is at Keeneland,” Casse said on March 11. “And the kickback is what gets him in trouble. It’s why he doesn’t show more [early speed]. Dylan Davis rode him in the Withers. He said the kickback got him in big trouble. And even Julien [after the Tampa Bay Derby] said he doesn’t react well to the kickback. Keeneland’s probably the best track in North America [for that].”
Casse then again said something very interesting: “Distance will not be an issue whatsoever for Sir Winston.”
And what happened when Sir Winston got the chance to go a long distance, 1 1/2 miles, in the Belmont? He appreciated the longer trip and registered his third victory in 10 career starts.
HE’S COME A LONG WAY BEYER-WISE
When Sir Winston lacked the points necessary to get into the May 4 Kentucky Derby, Casse decided to run him in Belmont’s Grade III Peter Pan Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on May 11. Sir Winston finished second to Global Campaign.
Sir Winston was credited with a career-best 100 Beyer Speed Figure in the Peter Pan. In addition to being the only Belmont Stakes starter to have finished in the exacta on the Belmont Park main track, he was the lone Belmont Stakes starter to have ever recorded a triple-digit Beyer. Yet, despite those attributes, he somehow paid $22.40 for each $2 win ticket following his Belmont Stakes triumph.
These are the Beyer Speed Figures for the Belmont Stakes winners going back to 1990:
2019 Sir Winston (95)
2018 Justify (101)
2017 Tapwrit (103)
2016 Creator (99)
2015 American Pharoah (105)
2014 Tonalist (100)
2013 Palace Malice (98)
2012 Union Rags (96)
2011 Ruler On Ice (100)
2010 Doresselmeyer (94)
2009 Summer Bird (100)
2008 Da’ Tara (99)
2007 Rags to Riches (107)
2006 Jazil (102)
2005 Afleet Alex (106)
2004 Birdstone (101)
2003 Empire Maker (110)
2002 Sarava (105)
2001 Point Given (114)
2000 Commendable (101)
1999 Lemon Drop Kid (109)
1998 Victory Gallop (110)
1997 Touch Gold (110)
1996 Editor’s Note (106)
1995 Thunder Gulch (101)
1994 Tabasco Cat (106)
1993 Colonial Affair (104)
1992 A.P. Indy (111)
1991 Hansel (111)
1990 Go and Go (111)
REST OF YEAR SHOULD BE FUN FOR SOPHS
Now that the Belmont Stakes has been decided, the national 3-year-old male division could be quite entertaining during the rest of 2019. This division is wide open in terms of who will get the Eclipse Award.
I still rank Omaha Beach as the best 3-year-old male that I have seen so far this year. We will just have to wait and see if he does or does not eventually prove to be the best of this group.
After Omaha Beach won the Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 13, he was installed as the 4-1 morning-line favorite in the Kentucky Derby. But Omaha Beach was scratched from the Run for the Roses due to an entrapped epiglottis.
Omaha Beach underwent throat surgery on May 3 at the Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. After the operation, he was sent to WinStar Farm in Kentucky. Omaha Beach originally was scheduled to return to trainer Richard Mandella’s Santa Anita barn on May 18, but it was decided to keep the War Front colt in Kentucky for a longer time.
Dr. Rolf Embertson, who performed the surgery, felt Omaha Beach’s swelling was subsiding slower than the veterinarian had hoped, according to BloodHorse’s Christine Oser. Omaha Beach finally returned to Mandella in California earlier this week. However, Omaha Beach is scheduled to undergo further testing before the colt resumes training, according to Daily Racing Form’s Steve Andersen.
“Mandella said he wants to make sure Omaha Beach’s throat has recovered from a procedure to aid his breathing conducted in early May,” Andersen reported.
Omaha Beach “will not resume racetrack training” until the inspection is completed, Andersen added.
“We’ll take him to get a video scope to see it,” Andersen quoted Mandella as saying. “It needs to be good enough to get the swelling out of the tissue. It’s down 80%, at best. We don’t want to go too quick and get it to come back.”
The calendar simply is not on Omaha Beach’s side with respect to his prospects to get the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male of 2019. There is no possible way he can run in Monmouth Park’s Grade I Haskell Invitational at 1 1/8 miles on July 20. It also appears to me that as far as Omaha Beach making a start in Saratoga’s Grade I Travers Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on Aug. 24, that race also probably is out of the question.
It seems to me the most likely possible scenario for Omaha Beach is for him to target Parx Racing’s Grade I Pennsylvania Derby at 1 1/8 miles on Sept. 21. I think the date and distance of the Penn Derby make it the most realistic goal for him at this point, with possibly some sort of prep race beforehand.
If Omaha Beach were to win a prep race and the Pennsylvania Derby, then also win or at least run the best of any 3-year-olds in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 2, he would seem to have a good chance to be voted the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.
But maybe it’s just wishful thinking on the part of this Omaha Beach fan to think that he can possibly even make the Penn Derby. If he does not resume training pretty soon, the race they might say they are aiming Omaha Beach for is the Grade I Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 26.
The NTRA’s final Top Three-Year-Old Poll of 2019, which appears at the end of this column/blog/article, tells us who the current leaders are to get the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male. That title, right now, certainly is up for grabs, thanks mainly to a different horse winning each of the three Triple Crown races this year: Country House (Kentucky Derby), War of Will (Preakness) and Sir Winston (Belmont).
Topping the final Top Three-Year-Old Poll is Maximum Security, who finished first in the Kentucky Derby but was disqualified and placed 17th for veering out sharply approaching the five-sixteenths pole and causing interference. Prior to that, he had won the Grade I Xpressbet Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.
THIS WEEK’S NTRA POLLS
Here is the Top 10 for this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
- 446 Bricks and Mortar (35)
- 408 Mitole (8)
- 296 Midnight Bisou (2)
- 290 McKinzie
- 233 World of Trouble
- 138 Catholic Boy
- 134 Gift Box
- 116 Thunder Snow (1)
- 108 Rushing Fall
- 75 Vino Rosso
Here is the final NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll for 2019:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
- 425 Maximum Security (24)
- 347 War of Will (8)
- 342 Tacitus (8)
- 312 Omaha Beach (6)
- 279 Sir Winston
- 262 Country House
- 169 Code of Honor
- 121 Game Winner
- 82 Guarana
- 37 Owendale