By Jeff Siegel, 1stbet.com Analyst and Handicapper
1 – Flightline may have earned an historic118 Beyer speed figure in his Malibu S.-G1 demolition but what isn’t part of the equation is that he was taken in hand outside the furlong pole and allowed to coast home, meaning the fig tells us only what he did, not what he could have done. Often times you’ll see a jockey take hold of his mount that is far in front approaching the wire and give the impression that the horse could have won by a few extra lengths if ridden out, but that’s not usually the case, as most of the time the horse is pretty much doing his best, anyway. But not Flightline, not in any of his three races to date. There is really no telling how much more he really had in reserve last Sunday but take a look at the tape of the Malibu and watch him gallop out. Despite being geared down pretty much the length of the lane, he continued to lengthen on his rivals and must have been 20 lengths ahead before reaching the clubhouse turn.
In just three career starts, Flightline has established himself as a world class sprinter, so next he’ll be given the opportunity to show his strength over a distance of ground. In fact, it would not be surprising if Flightline never sprints again. According to Steve Andersen’s Daily Racing Form story, Flightline will be pointed for Met Mile in June, though there’s certainly a possibility he’ll have a race or two – perhaps one that doesn’t even appear on any track’s stakes schedule yet – earlier in the spring.
Flightline is naturally fast, but he’s such an exceptional athlete with a fluid, easy, effortless stride that he is certain to be able to carry his speed farther, and in fact may be even more devastating as the distances increase. Chew on that for a minute.
2 – Thoroughbred racing fans hoping to see an aggressive 2022 campaign from Flightline are going to be disappointed, but at least he’ll be racing, even if his number of starts might not exceed four or five. Purse money is of small consideration; the true goal during the upcoming year will be to mold a campaign that maximizes his reputation and desirability a stallion prospect for the 2023 breeding season. That’s where the real money is.
Flightline’s sire, Tapit, has been exemplary for two decades but never established himself as a sire of sires until Constitution came along. Thanks very much to that young stallion’s early success, breeders now will have no concern about Flightline’s sire line, which means a beginning stud fee of $150,000 or more can be anticipated if the colt builds upon or at least maintains his superiority over whatever competition is brave enough to line up against him.
3 – While Flightline was extraordinary in victory, earlier on the opening day program fan favorite Hot Rod Charlie disappointed at 20 cents on the dollar when failing to take advantage of a pristine journey to miss by a nose to Express Train in the San Antonio S.-G2. Admittedly, we’ve been a Hot Rod Charlie apologist for most of the year. We even gave him an excuse when he flattened out to be a fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic-G1 after he was forced to race on what we believed was the deeper part of the track (the rail) in what otherwise could have been viewed as a perfect trip.
He and his people are good for the game but looking at his Beyer speed figures the son of Oxbow is slowing up. His most recent 97 speed figure was his lowest since the 94 he was assigned when third in the Lewis S.-G3 last January seven races back and his recent chart shows a drop from 111 (Pennsylvania Derby) to 107 (BC Classic) to 97 last Sunday.
Hot Rod Charlie now is bound for Dubai, where he’ll race at least once (Dubai World Cup) and perhaps twice against competition that he really should be able to beat. Let’s hope he can regain his mojo.
4 – A good colt can come from anywhere and Epicenter is the best we’ve seen so far in New Orleans. A developing son of Not This Time, the Steve Asmussen-trained colt verified a promising recent maiden win by pulverizing his rivals by more than six lengths in the 8.5 furlong listed Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds on Sunday, coming away with authority after pressing the issue throughout. His 87 Beyer speed figure, a career top mark and quite legitimate for this time of the year, puts him squarely in the picture for the spring classics and the important races for 3-year-olds on that circuit after the first of the year.
5 – Saw a couple of nice maiden winners Sunday at Gulfstream Park, colts have the potential to be spring classic candidates after the first of the year. In the third race, Songbird’s full brother Galt broke no stopwatches on his way to an authoritative three length maiden score over a distance on ground but at least his Beyer speed figures of 67-59-49 are moving in the proper direction. As a son of Medgalia d’Oro, the Bill Mott-trained colt should get nothing but better with distance and maturity; we’ll find out much more about him when he tackles winners next month.
More impressive an hour later was the debuting Gun Runner colt American Icon from the Todd Pletcher barn. Breaking from a cozy outside draw in a seven furlong sprint, the Todd Pletcher-trained sophomore quickly established the pace in hand and then found plenty extra when asked for a second move entering the lane, eventually posting and eight-and-one-half length tally. The assigned Beyer figure of 74 won’t wow anybody but it’s a good starting point for another colt that projects to step forward considerably around two turns.
“Five Takeaways” for the Week Concluding December 19, 2021
By Jeff Siegel, 1stbet.com Analyst and Handicapper
1 – Not sure if Make It Big, victorious in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park last Friday evening, can be considered a major player quite yet for the spring classics, but there’s nothing wrong with at least being in the conversation this time of the year. Now undefeated in three starts following his half-length victory over Churchill Downs invader Osbourne, the Florida-based Make It Big pulled a bit early in traffic, advanced outside in the clear midway, and then was clearly doing his best late to prevail in 1:41.23 over a fast but very deep track that translated into a not-terrible 84 Beyer speed figure.
The Saffie Joseph, Jr.-trained juvenile, from the first crop of Neolithic, a multiple Grade-1 stakes-placed son of Harlan’s Holiday, was purchased for $120,000 at the OBS Spring Sale, a goodly sum considering his first cop sire stood for advertised fee of $5,000. Make It Big’s resume contained a couple of visually pleasing seven furlong wins at Gulfstream Park and was predictably knocked down to 6/5 on the tote.
He’s never raced on Lasix and won’t anytime soon if his connections want to add to the 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points that he earned in Oklahoma. We might not see him again until the Fountain of Youth S.-G1 March 5, when we suspect he’ll be found out, one way or the other.
2 – Happy Medium somehow managed to get himself beat in his debut last March at Aqueduct – those who took the 22-1 and watched him fade under pressure in the final furlong must now be wondering how that happened – but since returning in the fall the Michelle Nevin-trained gelding has strung together three highly impressive victories, most recently at Aqueduct in a two-other-than extended sprint that earned a career-top equaling 103 Beyer speed figure, one that makes him graded stakes material right now.
In each of his three wins, the son of Runhappy was considerably farther in front at the wire than he was at the furlong pole to indicate that he can switch off and re-break if the situation allows, just as he did on Saturday when crushing his rivals by seven lengths despite being geared down in the final sixteenth of a mile.
Purchased at Keeneland two years ago for $300,000, he’s a half-brother to the outstanding Dubai stakes sprinter Mendip but certainly should stay a mile (at least around one turn), and because he’s a gelding there’s no reason for his connections to do anything that would jeopardize his longevity. Tougher assignments certain lie ahead but it will be fun following him as he moves up the ladder.
3 – Speaking of geldings, Lone Rock and Fearless did themselves proud in their respective victories over the weekend, the former capturing the listed $200,000 Tinsel S. at Oaklawn Park, while the latter, in a career top performance, strolled to a four length score in the Harlan’s Holiday S.-G2 in what certainly should earn him a start in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup-G1 January 28 over the same Gulfstream Park main track.
Lone Rock is without question the premier dirt marathoner in North America – okay, not a major accomplishment but admirable nonetheless – but he proved to be far from just a one-paced stayer after winning the mile and one-eighth Tinsel with a 98 Beyer speed over a track listed as muddy (he’s four-for-six in his career over a wet track). The son of Majestic Warrior has raced for tag only three times and was claimed on each occasion for $40,000, once by Bill Mott and twice by his present conditioner, Robertino Diodoro. The six-year-old concluded his 2021 campaign with seven wins and two seconds from nine outings to improve his career record to 14 victories from 37 career starts.
Fearless, a year younger than Lone Rock and with just 11 career races that includes five wins and three seconds, didn’t make it to the post until December of his 3-year-old season and has had to be started and stopped on a couple of times since then, but he did win the Gulfstream Park Mile-G2 last winter and appears to be as good if not better now than he’s ever been. The Todd Pletcher-trained son of Ghostzapper employs an ideal second-flight, stalking style, so in the Pegasus, if Knicks Go and Life Is Good pummel each other on the lead as what very well could happen, Fearless just might find himself in the right spot at the right time.
4 – The most chilling quote published in various newspaper and trade accounts of Jorge Navarro’s five year jail punishment for using performance enhancing drugs came in a story in Daily Racing Form penned by David Grening, who, when exiting the courtroom, managed to get a response from the trainer after asking if he had any comment following the sentencing.
“The day after they catch everyone, we’ll talk,” said Navarro.
There is a strong belief within the industry that Navarro will eventually implicate others. There is a likelihood that further indictments will be handed down in 2022. We suspect there are a number of nervous trainers and veterinarians who fear a similar fate if and when the new evidence is presented, and this should include owners whose horses were cited in the indictment, especially those whose conversations with Navarro were wire-tapped.
Though he’ll never be able pay it, Navarro was ordered to pay restitution of around $26 million, which represents the amount of purse earnings he “earned” during his reign of cheating.
Navarro got what he deserved. Wouldn’t it be lovely if his owners, or at least those that can be proven knew about it, or even in some cases encouraged it, wind up paying the freight?
5 – Entries were draw yesterday for opening day, December 26, at Santa Anita with the most intriguing of the six stakes carded being race 10 of 11, the $300,000 Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds over seven furlongs. Flightline, the undefeated colt who won both of his races by a combined 26 lengths earlier this year, will be making the jump from a first-level allowance sprint into a Grade-1 event, but the bettors won’t be worried about that. The John Sadler-trained colt is certain to be below even money based on speed figures that make him the fastest horse in North America in 2021.
A reminder that we’ll publish our full-card analysis/wagering strategies for the entire Santa Anita season in our blogs at xpressbet.com, xbtv.com, and santaanita.com. Also included will be video links and commentary to key workouts, and a new feature produced by our personal analytics program that will provide true odds for each race’s major contenders that will help identify overlays and underlays. It’s all free, as always.
“Five Takeaways” for the Week Concluding December 12, 2021
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.