By Jeff Siegel, 1st.com Analyst and Handicapper
1 – You may have overlooked the opportunity to participate in the first of five pools for the 2022 Kentucky Derby Future Wager that closed on Sunday. Twenty two individual horses were listed, but nowhere to be found were any runners from the Bob Baffert stable, meaning the undefeated Breeders’ Cup Juvenile S.-G1 winner and slam dunk Champion 2-year-old Corniche, undefeated and similarly promising Messier, recent Nashua S.-G3 winner Rockefeller, and Sunday’s sharp Del Mar maiden debut winner Newgrange could not be wagered on as a separate entity.
Of course, you still could have backed them as part of the mutuel field (“all others”), as long as you were willing to accept the closing odds of 3/5.
Honestly, we’re not sure why the Baffert horses weren’t included. It’s a “future bet” and the gambler could easily have incorporated into the equation the much discussed arbitrary “banning” of his stock in the 2021 Derby. Do we think one or more of the Baffert-trained colts will actually run in the Triple Crown’s first jewel next spring? Of course, we do. For example, in a worst case scenario, they could have their final starts prior to the Derby (and then in the Derby itself) in another trainer’s name and then easily qualify if they run first or second in one of those final 100 point prep events. Risky, yes, but if they’re truly Derby-quality it’s doable.
Smile Happy, undefeated in two starts and the winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club S.-G2 at Churchill Downs last Saturday, closed at the 8-1 “favorite” among the listed runners after reportedly taking a $10,000 bet from Mattress Mack, , who clearly has confidence in the ability of the son of Runhappy to stay a mile and one-quarter and wants to earn $80,000 to prove it. The currently injured and out-of-training Champagne S.-G1 winner Jack Christopher was next at 10-1. Everybody else in 21-1 or higher.
For the record, the “field” has been the favorite in every Pool One listing since the wager was introduced in 1999. The 2021 Derby winner, Medina Spirit, was part of the field that closed at 6/5 when it was offered at this time last year.
2 – There is nothing sinister – at least nothing that we can determine – about the decision last week to send Corniche from Baffert’s home base at Santa Anita to WinStar farm in Kentucky for some freshening. The stated plan is to return the soon-to-be-champion to California to prepare for the Triple Crown sometime during the winter, though the colt’s connections certainly reserve the right to go in a different direction when the time comes. But as stated above, there are alternative ways for the colt to qualify for the Derby without forfeiting Baffert’s expertise, so we’re expecting a return trip to materialize.
3 Have to hand it to trainer Kenny McPeek. In addition to winning the Kentucky Jockey Club with Smile Happy, he saddled a pair of first-time starting fillies on Stars of Tomorrow Day at Churchill Downs that must really have fooled the private clockers – assuming they actually exist there – when Park on the Nile (21-1) won her debut by more than seven widening lengths in the afternoon’s third race, and then 30 minutes later when Cocktail Moments (26-1) crushed a maiden sprint field by nine lengths after finding herself more than eight lengths off the leaders with just a quarter of a mile to go.
It’s hard to say how much either one was beating but both were visually quite impressive and have every right to develop into stakes-quality 3-year-olds next winter. Park of the Nile, a strong Cairo Prince filly with plenty of scope, was assigned a Beyer speed figure of 66, which won’t knock your socks off until you realize that this was a 2-year-old making her debut over a distance of ground on dirt. That ain’t easy, folks. As for Cocktail Moments, her Beyer figure was a very respectable 77. She’s a first foal daughter of Uncle Mo and the Canadian champion sprinting mare River Maid. The rolling daily double returned $523.90 for a measly one dollar; hopefully, some of the stable’s grooms and hot walkers got down for at least a buck.
4 – There were a ton of good turf races over the weekend, including two that especially caught our eye. On Friday at Aqueduct, the Constitution colt Never Surprised pulverized a field of seven 3-year-olds when winning the listed Gio Ponti S. by more than six lengths as the controlling speed, doing so like a colt that one would expect to develop into a very good older horse. Never worse than second in six career starts, the T. Pletcher-trained sophomore established the running and then lengthened through the lane to earn a career top 98 Beyer Speed figure. However, we had to slice off a few points from his “Goose Bump Scale” rating because (1) he won as the controlling speed and that type of pristine journey won’t always be available and (2) he was unnecessarily whipped and driven hard from the furlong pole to the wire by jockey Kendrick Carmouche, who apparently was under the impression that extra purse money was available based on margin of victory.
Much more visually impressive on Saturday on the West Coat was the Brendan Walsh-trained Santin despite the fact that he didn’t even win his race (the Hollywood Derby-G1) while being assigned a Beyer speed figure seven points less than what Never Surprised earned the previous day. The Godolphin homebred colt fell a neck short of catching “lone f” Beyond Brilliant in the nine furlong event at Del Mar after racing wide without cover every step of the way and then rallying into the race-flow (slow early, fast late) before just running out of room. This was only his third career start – “they” got 5-1 in his debut at Indiana Downs and then cashed at 4-1 in a subsequent first-level Keeneland allowance race – before this step up into Grade-1 company, and with any kind of normal pace his late kick surely would have resulted in victory. Santin left at 17-1 in the Hollywood Derby and there was no other 3-year-old colt in either race that we’d rather own heading into the new year.
5 – The announcement that 50-year-old jockey Johnny Velasquez will for the first time in his career winter at Santa Anita – as first reported by Jay Privman in DRF – is welcome news to California horsemen and horse players who have seen the local jockey colony dominated by Flavian Prat in recent years. Not that Johnny V. will accept enough overnight mounts to challenge Prat in the standings, but he will provide a reasonable stakes race alternative for those seeking a Hall of Fame rider who has won the Kentucky Derby four times to go along with 18 Breeders’ Cup victories.
He’ll almost assuredly be doing a ton of riding for trainer Bob Baffert, for whom he piloted Medina Spirit to a first place finish in the 2021 Kentucky Derby. But he seems certain to be heavily pursued by several of the other big name barns, much more so in California than he would be at the crowded and competitive Gulfstream Park winter championship meeting, which begins on Friday.
What we’ve seen of Johnny V. this summer and fall during his excursions to California for various stakes assignments is a rider that very much “still has it.” He’ll at least somewhat fill the void left by Joel Rosario, who has opted to campaign at Oaklawn Park on a regular basis this winter due in part to his relationship with trainers Steve Asmussen and Brad Cox, for whom he can ride just about anything horse he wants.
Both jockeys are represented by agent Ron Anderson, who has far more influence (in a highly positive way) over this game than most people have ever realized or given him credit for.
Five Takeways from the Week Concluding November 14, 2021
by Jeff Siegel, 1st.com analyst and handicapper
1 – Regular readers of this space probably are aware of our previously stated expectations that Messier – and not undefeated Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-G1 and slam dunk 2021 Eclipse Award winner Corniche – will eventually prove to be trainer Bob Baffert’s leading member of the stable’s Spring Classics contingent in 2022, an opinion expressed after the son of Empire Maker taunted a maiden field on Oct. 22 at Santa Anita when strolling home by more than six lengths in an eased-up victory that held value for at least twice the winning margin.
Thus, we eagerly anticipated what surely we expected to be another superior performance when he returned last weekend in the Bob Hope S.-G3 over seven furlongs at Del Mar in a four-runner affair that was designed to tick him over for next month’s Los Alamitos Futurity-G2, a middle distance event that Baffert has owned for seven consecutive years, his winners including such future stars as Improbable, McKinzie, Mastery, and Mor Spirit.
And Messier didn’t disappoint. Or did he? The 6/5 favorite settled off the pace and then rallied wide to gobble up the leaders to win going away by more than three lengths. Nothing wrong with that.
But given our high expectations, the performance was something of a letdown. Yeah, we know, tough crowd, but still.
It must be stated that we can’t verify the race’s official final time of 1:22.74. Due to Del Mar’s thoroughly erratic and untrustworthy timing system and the inability to accurately hand time a seven furlong race because a building that blocks the view of the start requires the video replay to begin with a head-on shot, there’s no way of knowing for sure whether the absurdly fast early fractions (:21.40, :43.23) are accurate. But we can manually clock the final quarter of a mile, and despite a picture perfect, in-the-clear trip behind three dueling leaders, Messier’s big late kick was an optical illusion, according to the watch. We caught him coming home in a mediocre :26 2/5 seconds, with a winning margin that was “only” three and one-half lengths.
A truly exceptional colt, given the pristine trip, would have annihilated his foes, not just outstayed them.
The Beyer speed figure came up 86, just two points better than what was assigned for his maiden win. The number is okay, not great, but okay. There’s still hope for better, because based on pedigree, he shouldn’t be expected to show his best stuff until he stretches out around two turns, and that opportunity presents itself at Los Alamitos Dec. 11.
We’ll be watching.
2 – Baffert also had the goods in the Bob Hope’s filly equivalent, the Desi Arnaz S.-G3, at Del Mar on Saturday, with odds-on Eda performing up to standard when winning by herself in a career top performance (83 Beyer fig) that seems likely to lead to success in bigger and better things, specifically the Starlet S.-G1 December 4. That race will be her first around two-turns, but there are expectations that the daughter of Munnings will stay, as she was produced by the Lemon Drop Kid mare Show Me, a debut winner over a distance of ground on grass during her 3-year-old season at Gulfstream Park. Additionally, from a visual standpoint, Eda gives every impression that her easy pace-stalking stalking style will translate well on the stretch-out.
She’s no Echo Zulu but nothing else in the division is either, and there will be plenty of good races for her to choose during the winter and perhaps the spring, as well.
3 – Trainer John Sadler knows what do with a good filly and he may have one with a 2-year-old daughter of Maclean’s Music named Unbridled Mary, a five-furlong debut winner on turf at Del Mar last Friday. The margin was just a nose and the assigned Beyer figure of 59 wouldn’t win some maiden claiming races on this circuit, but you can forget thr number, this might be a decent prospect. Originally a $39,000 Keeneland yearling purchase when appearing deep in the catalogue, she was pinhooked for $155,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Santa Anita two-year-old in training sale in June and had done everything asked in the a.m. leading up to her first start. After a bit of a slow break, she settled nicely in the second flight, accelerated when set down, and despite being two lengths off the lead at the furlong pole displayed a superior turn of foot after angling to the rail to be up in time in race in which the final eighth of a mile was clocked in :11.55. She had to come home in somewhere around :11 1/5.
Out of an unraced Tale of the Cat half-sister to Personal Ensign S.-G1 winner Persistently and with champion mare Heavenly Prize as her third dam, Unbridled Mary has a right to be more than just a sprinter, though we suspect Sadler will keep her around one corner for now. Her dirt works were good but not flashy (hence her overlay 4-1 closing odds), so we’re not going to pigeon-hole her as a grass-only type just yet. We suggest you put her in your stable mail and keep close tabs.
4 – Sadler’s undefeated Malibu S.-G1-bound 3-year-old Tapit colt Flightline always puts on a show in the morning and turned in another “wow” performance on Sunday at Santa Anita when working a bullet half mile in :46 3/5 seconds. The association clockers assigned the drill an “h” (handily, or maybe they really meant hammerlock) because the boys upstairs never utilize “b” for breezing, but if you haven’t checked out the workout on our website at xbtv.com, do yourself a favor and click on the following link: Flightline Workout Video
A winner of both of his career starts by a combined 26 lengths, Flightline was assigned an Equibase speed figure of 130 for his allowance win at Del Mar Sept 5. The Equibase number given to Aloha West when he won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint-G1 over that same track and distance two weeks ago was 110. Make of that whatever you will.
5 – Trainer Todd Pletcher told Daily Racing Form that Following Sea, third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint-G1 in a much-better-than-looked performance that was discussed in this column last week, will either run next in the Cigar Mile-G1 Dec. 4 at Aqueduct or return to the West Coast for the Malibu S.-G1 at Santa Anita Dec. 26.
If he stays in New York, Following Sea will face older horses, but he’s already proven he can do that, having won the Vosburgh S.-G1 while defeating among others Firenze Fire.
“We’ll assess the fields and see how he’s doing,” said Pletcher in the article.
Here’s our assessment. Flightline runs in the Malibu. Stay home.
Five Takeaways from the Week Concluding November 7, 2021
By Jeff Siegel, 1st.com analyst and handicapper
1 – Knicks Go was a very nice horse right from the beginning for trainer Ben Colebrook. He won the Breeders’ Futurity-G1 at Keeneland, after which he finished a commendable second to Game Winner in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But things suddenly went south for the Maryland-bred colt, and after failing to hit the board in seven of his next nine starts, he was transferred in the winter of 2020 to the barn of trainer Brad Cox, for whom he has now started 10 times and has won eight races, including the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Mile-G1 and, on Saturday, the Breeders’ Cup Classic-G1.
In his thrashing gate-to-wire victory at Del Mar that produced a 112 Beyer speed figure (one point shy of the career-top number he was assigned in his 10-length romp in the Corn Husker S. at Prairie Meadows in July), the 5-year-old horse wrapped up an Eclipse Award in the older division along with Horse of the Year honors that normally (and in most cases deservedly) comes with it. There could be one last dance for the son of Paynter before he goes off to stud at Taylor Made in Kentucky, in the Pegasus World Cup-G1 January 29, a race that he dominated in typical gate-to-wire fashion earlier this year.
Our initial reaction with regards to his people’s interest in the Pegasus World Cup was that it should be a case of been-there-done-that, and that there’s no way he could top the hype and good will earned in his Breeders’ Cup Classic win, so why would this final hurrah even be necessary? What’s to gain, other than the winner’s purse of nearly $1.8 million which gets sliced to considerably less after all of the help gets paid.
That said, for racing fans, it really would be neat if he runs, if for no other reason that Life Is Good reportedly has been targeted for the same race. You think there might be a contested early pace? About such a prospect, Life Is Good’s trainer Todd Pletcher told Daily Racing Form “they won’t be going in 23-and-one.”
2 – Yes, Knicks Go was superb in victory, but Life Is Good registered the higher number on our Goose Bump Scale. On twitter, we referred to his winning performance in the Breeders’ Cup Mile-G1 as “breathtaking,” but it was more than that, so much so that the son of Into Mischief really deserves some consideration for an Eclipse Award in the 3-year-old division. Remember, winners in each championship category are determined by a vote that offers no clearly defined rules or guidelines. Media members who participate can select the horse with the best resume, or they can vote for whatever horse they believe to be the fastest or most talented using whatever metrics they desire.
Let’s not forget that last winter Life Is Good – at the time trained by Bob Baffert – twice defeated (easily) subsequent Kentucky Derby-G1 and Awesome Again-G1 winner Medina Spirit, himself a colt that has a rightful claim to the title after finishing in front of Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie when winding up second in the B.C. Classic.
Those who tally Grade-1 wins as the prime component for determining a champion won’t consider Life Is Good, as the BC Mile was his only such win (so far) of that quality. Voters who prefer to reward what they believe is the best colt of his crop – one that was forced to miss the prestigious Triple Crown races due to injury – will opt for Life Is Good and be thoroughly convinced that they are right.
3 – The inside lanes on Breeders’ Cup Friday were fine. On an overcast day, the dirt strip was fairly glib and the final times (including the ones that had to be manually corrected) were within the range of normal. Everybody had their fair shot.
However, the following day on Saturday, the rail was dead, certainly not quite as deep as it was when the Breeders’ Cup was staged at Del Mar in 2017, but dead, nonetheless. We can’t say for certain that the track bias altered any of the winning results, but we’re fairly convinced that at least a few horses that got mired down near the fence could easily have finished closer or achieved a better placing had they been able to maneuver to the faster part of the track.
Among them were:
Cupid’s Claws (Thoroughbred After Alliance S.-G2) – Loomed a strong threat inside entering the lane but then spun his wheels and lost his punch, eventually winding up third behind Lone Rock, who was wisely kept in the middle of the track throughout the mile and five-furlong marathon.
Edgeway (BC Filly & Mare Sprint) – Wound up second to powerful rally-wide winner Cee Cee while scraping the paint throughout. Had this race been run on Friday, such a trip would have made it a lot closer. Not on Saturday.
Following Sea (BC Sprint) – Buried on the rail from the 1-hole while taking dirt behind Jackie’s Warrior throughout and then was forced to steady and alter course after straightening for home before finishing with purpose when clear. Have to think he’ll show up for the 7F Malibu Stakes-G1 for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita Dec. 26. Dr. Schivel should be there, too, along with the incredibly gifted Flightline and maybe even American Pharoah’s undefeated half-brother Triple Tap.
Malathaat (BC Distaff) – Broke from post position three and was never able to extract herself from the deep rail. Was beaten a nose and half-length, and is another that probably would have won had this race been contested over Friday’s surface.
Hot Rod Charlie (BC Classic) – Wound up fourth, beaten more than fourth lengths, after racing along the fence throughout. Maybe the trip cost him a placing, but he was never going to worry Knicks Go.
4 – Echo Zulu and Corniche completed their respective juvenile campaigns undefeated and will be unanimous top vote-getters for Eclipse Awards in their categories (that’s assuming a first place vote or two doesn’t surface for Jack Christopher from a New York honk). Top class two year old colts and fillies don’t always train on, so what we see now may not be what we get next spring, but our impression is that Echo Zulu is a superb filly, and as a daughter of Gun Runner has every right to be just as good if not better as she matures and will continue to dominate her division as a 3-year-old.
Corniche? We’re not quite sure. All three of his wins were accomplished gate-to-wire, and after watching him train for months in California we’re not convinced he’ll be as effective in any other role other than as the controlling speed.
Actually, in terms of long range success, we like his Baffert-trained stablemate Messier better. The Canadian-bred son of Empire Maker has no hardware – just a maiden win – but after seeing him breeze six furlongs yesterday at Santa Anita just galloping on our watches in 1:12 3/5 while using about 10 percent of his energy, he’s the one we’ll hitch our wagon to.
5 – We don’t think Jackie’s Warrior cost himself an Eclipse Award despite flopping badly at 50 cents on the dollar and finishing sixth in the BC Sprint. Had Dr. Schivel been able to hang on, yes, that colt probably would have vaulted to the top of the division, but the rally-wide upset winner Aloha West isn’t going to be voted the title, and the older sprinters just don’t have the credentials. The victory by Jackie’s Warrior over Life Is Good in the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial S.-G1 at Saratoga, to our eyes, was the definitive sprint race of the year.
However, his female equivalent, Gamine, is on treacherous footing. Yes, she did defeat Ce Ce on the square in the Ballerina S.-G1 at Saratoga but wound up a soundly beaten third by more than three lengths without apparent mishap in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint, as Ce Ce swept on by outside in the better part of the track to draw clear with complete authority. The Michael McCarthy-trained daughter of Elusive Quality finishes the year with four wins in five sprint races (the same as Gamine) but the tie-breaker has to go to the winner on Championship Day. That’s Ce Ce.
6 – Here’s a bonus takeaway. When the Breeders’ Cup was held at Santa Anita in 2019, the following attendance figures were announced:
Friday, November 1, 2019 – 41,243
Saturday, November 2, 2019 – 67,811
Last weekend at Del Mar, here were the equivalent attendance numbers:
Friday, November 5, 2021 – 20,536
Saturday, November 6, 2021 – 26,553
You think that maybe the next time the Breeders’ Cup brass chooses Southern California to stage the event they might consider going back Santa Anita? Just askin’.