By Jeff Siegel, 1stbet.com Analyst and Handicapper
1 – We had a sneaky feeling that Messier might be vulnerable in the Los Alamitos Futurity-G2 last Saturday, his 50 cents on the dollar price notwithstanding. After the 2-year-old colt’s three and one-half length victory in the Bob Hope S.-G3 at Del Mar last month, on the surface a convincing score that followed his more than six length maiden stroll at Santa Anita in October, we had expressed some uneasiness due to the high expectations that some – including us – had placed upon the son of Empire Maker after his Santa Anita maiden win. In this column a few weeks back, we stated that his Bob Hope S. win wasn’t as good as it looked, that it was in fact a “let down,” and given his pristine trip, a truly good colt would have annihilated his foes, not just outstayed them. We also called his final quarter mile (:26 2/5) “mediocre.”
Still, there were reasons to believe he’d produced a much better effort last Saturday. Blinkers were being re-equipped, his pedigree suggested he would enjoy the two-turn trip, and recent works were sparkling. But what was saw in the Futurity actually was quite similar to what we witnessed in the Bob Hope, and this time it wasn’t good enough to beat a California-bred son of Nyquist named Slow Down Andy, himself a beaten favorite (at even money) in a state-bred affair at Del Mar on the Breeders’ Cup undercard.
What was most disappointing was that Messier failed to find extra under pressure in the final furlong and went down by a length in a race in which the winner was assigned a moderate 85 Beyer speed figure. So far, the juvenile crop in California, other than soon-to-be named Eclipse Award winner Corniche (who is wintering in Kentucky), has turned out to be underwhelming so far.
2 – Trainer Bob Baffert no doubt was disappointed in Messier’s performance but earlier on the same program he had to be pleased with the smart debut of Doppelganger, a son of Into Mischief that brought $570,00 as the Fasig-Tipton Select Yearling Sale last year. Out of the New York stakes winning mare Twice the Lady, he probably wasn’t beating a whole lot in the six furlong sprint, but he did manage to score from the dreaded rail post position (the inside lanes are death at this track) to score handsomely with a thoroughly acceptable (for a first-timer) 80 Beyer speed figure. He had plenty left in reserve at the finish, so we expect he’ll have no trouble stretching out. A possible next start would be the Sham S.-G3 over a mile at Santa Anita on New Year’s Day, the same race that Baffert saddled the first two finishers last winter, Life Is Good and Medina Spirit.
3 – Trainer Todd Pletcher, always loaded with good young prospects during the early portion of the Gulfstream Park championship season, took the wraps off a couple of juvenile colts on Saturday, both of which figure to participate in stakes races for Derby-aged runners after the first of the year. In the fourth race, the Speightstown colt Dean’s List was sent off as the second choice at 6/5 and never looked like losing, pressing the pace from his comfortable outside draw and then drawing clear when given his cute to graduate by more than five lengths in 1:09.92, which translated to an impressive 83 Beyer speed figure. However, he never changed leads, and is not likely to reach his potential until he gets his proper footwork down.
About 90 minutes later in the seventh race, the Pletcher-trained Emmanuel took serious early, middle, and late action before finally leaving as the 7/5 favorite despite having the difficult task of going the one-turn mile from the rail post. No matter. The son of More Than Ready, a $350,000 Keeneland yearling, made the running while mostly in hand to the head of lane and then drew off as much the best from another extremely well-meant first-timer, Touch Code, winning by nearly seven lengths while never being asked for his best (‘Code five lengths clear of the rest and will be odds-on next time). Though the winner’s Beyer speed figure was 78 – five points below the fig for Dean’s List – he was to our eyes considerably more pleasing in victory. His dam, the unraced Hard Spun mare Hard Cloth, is a half-sister to two Grade-1 winners (Hawkbill, Free Drop Billy) and since he’s already won at a mile, there’s no reason to think he won’t handle additional ground down the road.
4 The veteran gelding Hollis had raced 21 times prior to his appearance in a three-other-than allowance sprint at Oaklawn Park last Friday. The durable and consistent son of Street Sense had made a nice living in allowance races and restricted stakes on the “B” circuit over the years while compiling earnings just shy of $400,000, the bulk of which was earned after being claimed by John Ortiz for $50,000 a year ago May at Churchill Downs. Prior to the race, perhaps the best you could say about him was that while he’d never shown the talent to beat a good horse, it usually took a good horse to beat him.
So, when Hollis made his first start in more than three months in a race that was headlined by the brilliantly-fast Nashville, his closing odds (4-1) didn’t appear to be particularly attractive to the punters, even though there was no guarantee that Nashville, in his first start in nearly a year, would return as well as he left. Turns out, even if he did, Nashville may not have been able to outrun him. Earning a Grade-1 level Beyer Speed figure of 109 (10 points better than his previous career top), Hollis stalked Nashville (2/5) to the head of the lane and then blew him away, winning by four and one-half lengths while breaking the Oaklawn Park five and one-half furlong track record by stopping the timer in a blistering 1:02.17.
Hollis is pretty good anywhere he performs but is nowhere better than at Oaklawn Park, where his record now stands at three starts with two wins and a second. It’ll be interesting to see if he returns to Earth in his next outing, but with the meeting at Hot Springs, Arkansas extended to early May, he’ll have plenty of chances to solidify the “horse for course” angle.
5 – Nominations were released yesterday for the six stakes races that are scheduled for opening day, Sunday, December 26 at Santa Anita, including the final Grade-1 event of the 2021 calendar year, the Malibu S. over seven furlongs on the main track in a race restricted to 3-year-olds. This is no ordinary feature race; it will match Flightline, undefeated in two starts by a combined 26 lengths, each victory with a triple-digit Beyer speed figure; Dr. Schivel, a nose away in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint-G1 from earning an Eclipse Award in the sprint division, and American Pharoah’s half-brother Triple Tap, also perfect in two starts with a pair of daylight wins but, like Flightline, untested in stakes competition.
Yet another eye-catching workout (5f, :59.4h) yesterday by Flightline appeared on the xbtv.com website. We caught him a ticket slower on our watch with splits of :24 flat (hard held), :35.4, and 1:00 flat before being coaxed out to the seven furlong pole in 1:13.1. The John Sadler-trained son of Tapit looked terrific, as always.
Meanwhile, Triple Tap (6f, 1:12.2h) breezed in company with Classier (5f, 1:00.1h) and was clearly best while under mild urging, splits of :24.1 and :36.4 from the quarter pole to the seven furlong pole. According to his speed figures, he’s not in the same area code as Flightline, but there’s a strong probability that we haven’t seen anywhere close to his best just yet.
“Five Takeaways” From the Week Concluding December 5, 2021
By Jeff Siegel, 1stbet.com Analyst and Handicapper
1 – The sudden passing of Kentucky Derby first-place finisher Medina Spirit following a workout at Santa Anita Monday morning was the subject of reactions on social media that, as expected, ranged from a small minority containing statements of grief and sorrow for the colt and his connections to the overwhelming majority expressing raging condemnation of the sport itself and blame to trainer Bob Baffert, who has become the scapegoat for all that is wrong with thoroughbred racing and therefore must be unequivocally responsible for this tragic occurrence even before a necropsy is conducted and completed by the University of California-Davis School of Veterinarian Medicine.
The cause of death from the postmortem examination most likely will be cardiovascular caused by an undetectable condition, but until the results are released – probably not for several weeks if not months – the industry again will be under severe attack.
An equine fatality under this type of circumstance is extremely rare, but when it happens to the Derby winner from the barn of a trainer that has been responsible for several bad tests and unexplained deaths in recent years and who has been barred for two years from entering horses in the most famous horse race in the world – the Kentucky Derby – the game’s critics are provided with an enormous amount of fuel to spread their agendas. In the coming days and weeks, they most certainly will be heard from and promoted by mainstream media. Brace yourself.
As an owner of a filly who suffered the same fate after pulling up following a race at Del Mar 20 years ago, I can relate to what the people involved in this magnificent racehorse are currently going through, and it has nothing to do with money. Most participate for sport, and almost all have deeper feelings for the animal than they can truly express. If a human is at fault or in some way contributed to the death of Medina Spirit, it will be determined, but I suspect that isn’t going to be the case. Tragedy happens. Though the anti-horseracing groups and even some within the industry surely will rush to judgement, it might be prudent to just wait for the findings.
2 – Irad Ortiz, Jr. is a terrific jockey, a three-time Eclipse Award winner, but colleagues who watch him on a day-to-day basis on the New York circuit say he’s morphed into a modern day version of Manny Ycaza multiplied by 10 and use as evidence incidents such as what occurred at Aqueduct in Friday’s eighth race. His thoroughly unacceptable actions resulted in a month-long suspension that surely would have been far more severe had both the horse and rider that he fouled not escaped without harm. Ortiz, Jr. technically was suspended for “careless riding.” But after viewing the video of his over-the-top aggressiveness aboard Gran Cacique when he recklessly came over sharply to the rail and literally dropped bug boy Omar Hernandez Moreno, “careless” appears to be a considerable understatement. “Premeditated” might better describe it.
That wasn’t all. On the following day, Ortiz, Jr. surprisingly survived a stewards’ inquiry after piloting Mo Donegal to a narrow victory in the Remsen S.-G2 despite shifting in a couple of lanes (premeditated, for sure) approaching the wire and throwing an elbow above the head of runner-up Zandon, ridden by Johnny Velasquez, which very likely impacted the result for at least as much if not more than the official margin (a nose) of victory.
The elbow trick may be part of the act in the WWF, but I’m going to assumed it is frowned upon in this sport.
Surprisingly, the suspension encompasses 30 calendar days – not racing days – and won’t be appealed, which means Irad will be off until just after the New Year. Hopefully, he’ll utilize the time off for some self reflection.
3 – Somewhat lost in the Remsen controversy was the outstanding performance turned in by the first two finishers in a race that earned a strong 89 Beyer speed figure. Mo Donegal was third in his debut sprinting at Belmont Park in late September but now won two straight, including a strong maiden middle distance affair at Belmont Park last month. Since he’s already shown he can handle a mile and one-eighth, there shouldn’t be any questions about distance as he prepares next winter for the spring classics.
The son of Uncle Mo brought “only” $250,000 as a Keeneland yearling last year – the really good ones by this stallion usually sell for considerably more – but there only two Stakes winners listed in the first four generations of his female family, so perhaps a relatively light page kept the auction price reasonable.
Zandon is a son of Upstart that brought $170,000 at that same Keeneland sale. He has even less pedigree on the bottom side than Mo Donegal and showed only a debut maiden sprint win on his resume prior to the Remsen but galloped out considerably stronger, so trainer Chad Brown has plenty to work with. The two promising youngsters likely to cross paths again next winter at Gulfstream Park.
4 – Two significant races for juvenile fillies last Saturday, one on each coast, reaffirmed what we’ve known for more than a month, that Echo Zulu remains pounds the best in the juvenile filly division and seems certain to be the Eclipse Award winner by a unanimous vote. This isn’t to detract from Eda, successful in the Starlet S.-G1 at Los Alamitos by a half-length from Cairo Memories, or Nest, victorious in the Demoiselle S.-G2 at Aqueduct, by a neck from Venti Valentine. They’re nice fillies for sure, and Nest, a daughter of Curlin, deserves extra credit for being forced to race wide every step of the way before staying on bravely to get up close home.
However, when the final time is so dreadfully slow – a mile and one-eighth in 1:55 flat – it’s difficult to embrace the Demoiselle as anything more than a showcase for a plodder. Yet, the Beyer number, adjusted for the deepish, testing racing surface that negatively impacted the performance of the two-year-old fillies much more so than the older horses, came up a not-too-bad 76, so we remain bullish on the Pletcher-trained filly and anticipate that she’ll likely develop with maturity and seasoning.
5 – Caught a glimpse on Saturday of what we believe will be a slam dunk future stakes winner next winter when Chad Brown unveiled Marketsegmentation in a maiden special weight middle distance turf event for juveniles at Aqueduct. She’s a daughter of American Pharoah that was purchased as a weanling at Keeneland for $200,000 but RNA’d at last year’s September sale for $120,000. The first two dams are empty, but the third dam produced Irish champion 2-year-old Fasliyev, so it wasn’t surprising to see her debut going long on the lawn, even though she had never trained on grass and was ignored on the tote, leaving at 8-1 in the 10-runner affair.
She settled beautifully in a stalking position to the head of the lane and then quickened easily when giver her cue to win going away by more than two lengths with a ton left in the tank. While this might be comparing apples to oranges, her Beyer figure of 76 was the same earned by Nest in the Demoiselle. Wouldn’t mind owning either one.
“Five Takeaways” for the Week Concluding November 28, 2021
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 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.