“Five Takeaways” for the Week Concluding January 23, 2022
By Jeff Siegel, 1stbet.com Analyst and Handicapper
1 – Even after Corniche completed a perfect freshman campaign (three-for-three including two Grade-1’s) with a dominating gate-to-wire victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-G1, we were prepared to accept the initial impression that the 2-year-old class of 2021 wasn’t much better than ordinary. So when Pappacap made his seasonable bow in the Lecomte Stakes-G3 at Fair Grounds last weekend, we eagerly anticipated the opportunity for further reflection and analysis on the overall crop and specifically the merits of Corniche, to whom the Mark Casse-trained colt had finished second to in both the BC Juvenile and the American Pharoah S.-G1 last fall.
Pappacap, himself a Grade-3 winner in California last summer at Del Mar but something of a trial horse since, struck us as being genuine and consistent but perhaps a bit of an overachiever, and thus was an absolute “play against” in the Lecomte, especially with the presence of the Steve Asmussen-trained Epicenter, a recent runaway winner of the listed Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds last month. Epicenter would leave at 8/5 as the second choice behind Pappacap (3/2) and looked all over the winner every step of the way while enjoying a cozy and uncontested trip on the front end.
But if Epicenter was truly all that, he would have never been tagged on the wire by the late charging (and obviously improved) Call Me Midnight, who required five races to break his maiden and was last seen finishing a non-threatening seventh (beaten 10 lengths) in the Kentucky Jockey Club S.-G2 at Churchill Downs in November behind Smile Happy, who many sharpies believe is the best Derby prospect currently in training.
The victory by Call Me Midnight certainly adds fuel to Smile Happy’s reputation, while Pappacap’s third place finish, despite a perfect, ground-saving trip, does little to refute the belief that Corniche, his Eclipse Award credentials notwithstanding, may be little more than a JAG (just a guy).
For the record, Call Me Midnight’s Beyer speed figure of 88 represented a career top and a 13 point jump from the string of 74’s he had earned in his previous three starts. The number is okay but there has to be quite a few better 3-yearolds out there somewhere.
2 – In handicapping last Saturday’s Louisiana Stakes at Fair Grounds, we sided with Midnight Bourbon in what looked to be a virtual match race with Mandaloun. The Steve Asmussen-trained colt was clearly the quicker of the two and projected to inherit the role as the controlling speed, and his two 107 Beyer speed figures that appeared in his Daily Racing Form past performance chart were five points better than anything Mandaloun had ever achieved. Both colts were coming off layoffs, but each had apparently trained extremely well while providing strong evidence of being fit and ready. Additionally, both displayed prior success over the sometimes quirky Fair Grounds main track, with Midnight Bourbon having defeated his rival in last year’s Lecomte Stakes before Mandaloun turned the tables on him in the Risen Star.
Both were adding Lasix last Saturday, with Midnight Bourbon also being equipped with blinkers for the first time, an equipment change that guaranteed he would be allowed to show his natural early speed.
Two things about the race ending up surprising us.
First, Mandaloun, trained by the typically red-hot Brad Cox (28% at the meeting) left as a solid favorite at 4/5 over Midnight Bourbon with serious punters clearly seeing something in this head-to-head matchup that we missed. Second, despite enjoying the lovely, uncontested front-running trip that we believed was the key to the race, Midnight Bourbon simply was unable to rise to the occasion when challenged by Mandaloun from the quarter pole to the wire, eventually going down by a decisive three-quarters of a length that left no doubt which was the better colt.
The key factor that we failed to give sufficient emphasis to in the handicapping process was that Midnight Bourbon now has won just two races from 14 career starts and has failed to finish first in each of his last eight outings. Conversely, Mandaloun’s lifetime mark now reads a much more impressive six wins from nine career races, though to be accurate one of those victories came via disqualification in the Haskell Stakes.
Bottom line is one horse wants to beat you and the other doesn’t quite have the same killer instinct. We’ll try to remember that the next time they meet in the $20 million Saudi Cup-G1 February 26.
3 – First Constitution was a hot-shot 3-year-old in Brazil in 2020, winning his first three races by a combined 38 lengths before finishing third as the 6/5 favorite in his final South American start in that country’s St. Leger-G1 over an 11 furlongs. It was expected that he would pick up where he left off when he made his North American debut at Saratoga in September of 2021, but things didn’t go as planned, as the Northern Hemisphere-foaled son of Constitution finished last of nine while being eased in the stretch to win up 44 lengths behind Thomas Shelby.
Three additional starts during the fall produced much better, in-the-money performances, and although he was still seeking his first U.S. victory in last Saturday’s listed nine-furlong Jazil Stakes on dirt at the Big A, there was hope that the horse would continue to improve with additional acclimation and produce a career top effort.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Taking control in the opening quarter mile from the projected pacesetter (and even money favorite) Core Conviction, the Todd-Pletcher-trained colt simply ran his foes into the ground en route to a nearly seven length victory that produced a career top 100 Beyer speed figure, one that surely will entice his connections to try graded stakes company next time out. There are plenty of options available, perhaps even including a turf race or two, because First Constitution was produced by a Kitten’s Joy mare and has yet to be given a run on grass.
4 – A single speed figure quantifies how fast a horse ran. It doesn’t tell you what he could have run, or what he’s capable of running, which is why you might be advised to ignore the modest 59 Beyer number that was assigned to the first-time starting Vinco in the fifth race at Fair Grounds January 22.
A colt by Quality Road whose third dam produced A. P. Indy, Vinco brought $1.5 million at the 2021 Timonium 2-year-old in training sale, where he knocked a few socks off after breezing 10 seconds flat around the bullring. Though he would not make it to the post until eight months later, the strong, powerful colt had done everything right for trainer Dallas Stewart, and though it might have been disappointing to his connections when he had to settle for second money behind another promising first-timer, Ferociously, he’ll have the opportunity to hone his craft against maidens next time and be much better for the opportunity rather than be subjected to more seasoned and experienced colts that already have advanced to the allowance and stakes ranks.
In the race and after breaking from the disadvantages rail, Vinco encountered severe traffic trouble in the opening stages and was shuffled back to last, a dozen lengths behind the leader after the opening quarter mile. Jockey B. J. Hernandez, Jr., sensing the cause was lost, pivoted to Plan B, which called for an easy run designed for educational purposes. Yet, despite never being knocked about any stage and weaving his way through traffic on his own courage, he miraculously rallied to be second (beaten less than three lengths), before galloping out wanting to do more.
Yep, he’ll do.
It’s important to remember it’s still early. It’s January.
5 – Not surprisingly, “All Other 3-year-olds” closed as the favorite (9/5) in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager which included any and all runners currently stabled in Bob Baffert’s barn and the Lecomte S. winner Call Me Midnight. The strongest-backed individual colt again was Smile Happy (8-1), who also was the second choice behind the mutuel field in Pool 1, which was offered in late November.
Based on no small part to social media videos that has shown him outworking Smile Happy in a recent drill, Tiz the Bomb, who like Smile Happy is trained by Kenny McPeek, was also heavily supported at 10-1, and while he has done nothing but perform on grass so far in his career, he sure moves like a colt that will get over the dirt just fine.
And, if you take the time to go back and view his last race, when he finished fastest of all to be second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf-G1 despite taking the worst of the race flow, you just might conclude that Tiz the Bomb really is the one that all of the others have to be most concerned about.
“Five Takeaways” From the Week Concluding January 17, 2022
By Jeff Siegel, 1stbet.com Analyst and Handicapper
1 – The three finalists for each of the 2021 Eclipse Award categories have been announced. We were happy to see Flightline included in the Sprint division because, after all, he WAS the fastest sprinter in North America last year. But he wasn’t the most accomplished.
We no longer participate as a voter in the Eclipse Award proceedings, but when we did, we always tended to choose the horse that we simply thought was the best. In retrospect, that might not have been a proper course of action. The entire body of work, which includes the ability to participate year round, must be factored in. So, in 2021, Jackie’s Warrior should, and almost certainly will, get the trophy.
While his disappointing performance in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint-G1 was a stain on an otherwise spectacular sprint campaign, one poor race should not cost a horse a title if the resume is strong enough, and in the case of Jackie’s Warrior, it was. In his 2022 racing season, which was launched in February in hopes that he might develop into a legitimate candidate for the Spring Classics (he didn’t), the Maclean’s Music colt won four graded stakes races and placed in two others. And while just one of those victories was earned in a Grade-1, that win, in the seven furlong H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at Saratoga, came at the expense of Life Is Good, a better, faster thoroughbred than any horse Flightline has ever faced. Life Is Good was undefeated at the time, and subsequently won the Breeders’ Cup Mile-G1. He’s a legitimate finalist for champion 3-year-old honors.
The Jerkens was the best, most defining sprint race of the year. It was won by Jackie’s Warrior. He deserves the championship.
Okay, now having said that, if Jackie’s Warrior ever sees Flightline, he should run for the hills.
2 – Hall of Famer John Velasquez was handed a three-day suspension by the Santa Anita stewards for causing interference that resulted in the disqualification of Con on the Run in the first race on Friday, January 14.
We didn’t even think the winner should have come down. Yes, there was a minimal brush between the first two finishers, and while the disqualified winner did drift a couple of lanes and float out the runner-up Tizlightning in the final sixteenth, it certainly looked to us like the order of finish was not affected, and that the neck margin of victory was definitive.
But, on the egregious scale of 1-10, it was about a six, so we’ll just shrug it off and be happy we weren’t involved. The decision certainly was nothing like the completely absurd disqualification of My Boy Tate in the Say Florida Sandy Stakes at Aqueduct January 9, which was (channeling our inner Bill Walton here) one of the three worst stewards’ decisions in the history of thoroughbred racing.
As for Johnny V., the way he’s been riding, he’ll survive. Now, maybe some of the “have nots” in the jockey’s room will get some breadcrumbs tossed their way. We hit upon this last week, but through Sunday, some of the very capable guys that have been spinning their wheels at the current meeting include Tyler Baze (1-for-47); Joe Bravo (1-for-27) and Drayden Van Dyke (1-for-26).
3 – Rated R Superstar may not, in fact, be a superstar, but he’s a really neat older gelding, and it was great to see him secure career victory number 10 (from 57 starts) in the $150,000 Four Season Stakes at Oaklawn Park last Saturday. This was his second added money score in his last three starts and boosted his earning past the $1.2 million mark. The son of Kodiak Kowboy made his first start way back in the summer of 2015 when conditioned by Kenny McPeek and actually was Grade-1 placed as a 2-year-old when finishing third behind Brody’s Cause and Exaggerator in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.
That Rated R Superstar, at age nine, is still competing (and winning) at a high level is simply remarkable. He’s consistent, too, having finished in the money in seven of his last eight starts, five of which were in stakes races. This was his first outing since September and the punters probably thought he would need the race, which in part explains his 25-1 closing odds. Now, his connections have to consider the $600,000 Razorback H.-G3 at Oaklawn Park February 12. The old guy has tried that race four times in the past without success. Maybe the fifth time will be the charm.
4 – We’ve always maintained that if a sprinter is ever going to stay two-turns, his best chance will be in his first try. The first-time sprint-to-route angle is a powerful handicapping tool, especially when the horse in question projects to be on the lead or at least gain a favorable stalking position. An inside post makes the play even stronger. The angle certainly applied to Olympiad, who, in a 1 1/16 mile second-level allowance affair at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, was trying two-turns for the first time after finishing a respectable fourth in the one-turn Cigar Mile-G1 at the Big A last time out. The Bill Mott-trained colt was knocked down to 3/5 – on paper he looked it – and delivered as expected but did so in such a manner that suggests his sprint days should be behind him.
The four-year-old colt relaxed off the pacesetter in hand, kicked clear when ready, and drew off to register a more than seven length score while earning a 101 Beyer speed figure. Now, Olympiad looks very much like a major player in middle distance events for older horses and it will be interesting just how aggressive his connections get with him during the winter and spring season. We’ll be surprised if he’s not a graded stakes winner very soon.
5– Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby future wager will be offered this upcoming weekend beginning on Friday at Noon ET and closing on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET, with the mutuel pool – which includes Corniche and any other horse trained by Bob Baffert – listed at 7/5 on the “morning line.”
There is one Derby prep scheduled this weekend – the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds on Saturday – so if you are planning on diving in you should certainly wait until after the results of that race are known and can be evaluated.
Is there anything on the board worth playing? Well, as long as we’re just taking shots, there are three at least three that seem a bit intriguing:
The Todd Pletcher-trained Emmanuel (30-1), a colt by More Than Ready who was a debut winner by almost seven lengths on the lead over a one-turn mile at Gulfstream Park in mid-December and has been training steadily since.
The Ken McPeek-trained Dash Attack (20-1), a son of Munnings who is unbeaten in two starts, including the Smarty Jones S., with both victories over wet tracks and around two turns from the off-the-pace
Another Pletcher-trained colt, Major General, (50-1), by Constitution and a winner of his last two starts including the Iroquois S.-G3 at Churchill Downs in September. He’s back in training with a couple of easy recent breezes at Palm Beach Downs.
“Five Takeaways” From the Week Concluding January 9, 2022
By Jeff Siegel, 1stbet.com Analyst and Handicapper
1 – Given the commitment by Fox Sports to produce daily thoroughbred horse racing on its two sports networks (FSN1 and FS2) and its developing partnership with the New York Racing Association, last week’s announcement that the company had outbid NBC for the acquisition of the television rights for the Belmont Stakes came as no surprise. The eight year contract takes effect in 2023 and runs through 2030.
The Kentucky Derby, of course, is by far the most valuable media asset among the Triple Crown races and we suspect NBC will be decidedly more engaged in its efforts to maintain those media exclusivity when the bidding opens up in a couple of years. That said, the company permitted the National Hockey League to walk last year, and its primary sports investment is and will always be Sunday Night Football, so it remains to be seen how aggressive NBC will be.
Meanwhile, Fox, which owns 25% of the advance deposit wagering company NYRA Bets, can be expected to provide less airtime to Ladies Hats and more to handicapping and gambling on its Belmont Stakes telecasts. Fox Sports Executive Michael Mulvihill told the Thoroughbred Daily News that “we are going to be a little more willing to acknowledge that wagering is the lifeblood of the sport. We want to put a product on the air that appeals to the people who are playing the races regularly.”
While there’s always room for a few good human interest pieces during a multi-hour broadcast, we’re happy to learn that Networks – at least Fox – anyway, will concentrate on the actual product and the gambling that goes with it. We might actually tune in to see it.
2 – There were 76 races carded through the first eight days of racing at Santa Anita. Thirty eight were won by the combination of Flavien Prat and Johnny Velasquez. The other 38 were won by the rest of the room.
Prat has been a mainstay on the local circuit for several years and won’t be replaced as the top dog any time soon, but Johnny V. has been a revelation. Certainly, it’s not difficult to pile up the wins when riding first call for trainer Bob Baffert, but Hall of Famer Velasquez, at least in his current form, looks very much like the rider he was 10 years ago. With agent Ron Anderson calling the shots, Velasquez seems certain to remain in hot demand, though it’s not realistic to expect he can maintain his blistering 37 % win rate throughout the long season.
Highly capable jockeys such as Umberto Rispoli (3-for-26); Kent Desormeaux (2-for-28); Kyle Frey (2-for-36); Tyler Baze (1-for-34);Ricky Gonzales (1-for-25), Joe Bravo (1-for-20); Mario Gutierrez (1-for-19) and Drayden Van Dyke (0-for-22) are among those who have been hard pressed to locate live mounts. The meeting is young, but to avoid becoming yesterday’s news these guys need to generate some serious momentum pretty soon.
3 – Other than soon-to-be-named champion 2-year-old Corniche (currently wintering Kentucky), trainer Bob Baffert seems a little light (by his standards) in the Derby-aged division, not that it matters as long as his legal troubles with Churchill Downs remain unresolved, but his 3-year-old fillies appear to be doing just fine. They aren’t up to Echo Zulu’s level quite yet, but both Under the Stars and Adare Manor have star potential – ironically both earned identical 92 Beyer speed figures in their respective races over the weekend – and both appear headed into Grade-1 competition.
Under the Stars, a half-sister to Bodemeister, continued her ascent when winning the seven furlong Santa Ynez Stakes-G2 despite being under pressure from her rail draw every step of the way. A a daughter of Pioneerof the Nile, she appears ready to stretch out for the first time, and down the road we’d really believe she would be very competitive in a race like the classic Kentucky Oaks-G1. Of course, due to the Baffert ban, she’s no sure thing to be allowed to run.
As promising as Under the Stars is, Andre Manor may eventually develop into the better of the two, though at this stage all she has on her resume in a runaway 12-length maiden victory in her first try over a distance of ground. The daughter of Uncle Mo is as strong, powerful, athletic specimen and is the first foal from the multi-Canadian stakes-winner Brooklynsway that brought $375,000 at the OBS June sale. It’ll be interesting to see how long Baffert will be able to keep them apart.
4 – We’re always on the lookout for future stars, and any time trainer Todd Pletcher wins with a three-year-old at Gulfstream Park this time of the year we have to a take a closer look. What we saw on Saturday were a pair of sophomore colts that are definitely keeping close tabs on.
The first-time starter Iron Works, a Distorted Humor colt from Silverpocketsfull, a young stakes-placed Indian Charlie, mare was knocked down to 6/5 in a six furlong sprint and disposed of his foes from a cozy outside draw while being ridden out to the wire. The Beyer speed figure of 79 was solid if not spectacular, but the manner in which the win was accomplished – a stalking trip followed by a good late kick – suggests this colt will be perfectly suited by an extended sprint or a one-turn miler.
Thirty minutes later, the Pletcher-trained Dean’s List, himself a sharp debut maiden winner last month, verified that favorable early impression by coming back to score extra gamely at 1/5 by a nose over in a strong first-level allowance that produced a promising 86 Beyer speed figure. He’ll be seen in a sprint stakes next time out, either at Gulfstream Park or at Tampa Bay Downs. The runner-up, Dean Delivers will be odds-on next time. He’s a Florida-bred Cajun Breeze gelding who was making his first start since being nosed out in the Florida Sires Dr. Fager Stakes as a 2-year-old last July. There will be plenty of state-bred sprint stakes available for him this winter and spring.
5 – Earlier on the Saturday program yet another newcomer caught the eye, this one in a five furlong maiden all-weather affair event for sophomore fillies. Mouffy is an Uncle Mo filly and the first foal from Truly Together, a stakes-placed winner of three of six career starts whose dam was the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf champion, Forever Together. In addition to winning the five furlong event going away by almost two lengths, the Jonathan Thomas-trained Augustin Stable homebred set a new track record in :56.63 while easily dispatching the quick California shipper Comedic in the final sixteenth. Can’t wait to see this filly tried on grass and, in due time, over a distance of ground. Her winning Beyer speed figure of 81 makes her highly likely to become a stakes winner this spring, if not sooner.
“Five Takeaways” From the Week Concluding January 4, 2022
By Jeff Siegel, 1stbet.com Analyst and Handicapper
1 – As we all knew it would, the 2022 Sham Stakes for newly-turned Derby-aged colts at Santa Anita last Saturday featured a couple of highly-regarded runners trained by Bob Baffert (we’ll get to them in a bit). Adding in this years’ result, Baffert now has saddled the winner of this race six times since 2014, among them Collected, McKinzie, Authentic, and last year with Life Is Good (who held off Baffert’s “other” entrant, Medina Spirit), each having used the one mile main track affair as a steppingstone to bigger and better things. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty salty list, making one wonder how the Sham Stakes remains stuck at the Grade-3 level. At any rate, as long as Baffert has a dozen or so of the best young prospects in the land in his shed row at this time of the year – whether or not these runners can earn Derby points or not – he’ll always make sure that if you’re planning on beating him in the Sham, you’d better have a legitimate top class, Grade-1 type of prospect. And whenever you think you might have one, rest assured, he’ll have five.
The two colts that Baffert saddled in this year’s renewal finished one-two as expected, with Newgrange remaining undefeated in two starts after strolling on the lead and then holding sway over stable mate Rockefeller in a virtual parade that produced crawling splits of :24 2/5 and :48 4/5 (what, you thought they’d duel each into defeat with a sub :46 flat opening half?). Newgrange (5/2) had won his debut sprinting at Del Mar in late November in such a manner that we strongly suspected he’d come back to win this race over his more fancied barn mate (who left at 3/2) and that’s what happened, but our takeaway is that at this stage neither is even remotely close in terms of talent and potential as the pair that finished first and second last year. The numbers bear this out, as Life Is Good earned a 101 Beyer number when winning the Sham, a figure that is 13 points better than what was assigned Newgrange.
2 – It’s usually difficult to trust form that has been established over an off track, so we’re not quite sure what to make of the visually impressive Dash Attack, perfect in two starts, a maiden win despite a less-than-ideal trip over a wetter-than-good main strip at Oaklawn Park in early December and then, after missing the break, a convincing two length triumph in the listed Smarty Jones Stakes over a track labeled “sloppy” on Saturday. His numbers have been nothing special so far (74 Beyer followed by an 82) and as a son of Munnings he’s no sure thing to get a classic distance, but the Kenny McPeek-trained colt has the look of a quality sort who should develop properly and handle more ground.
McPeek has three other higher-rated Spring Classic candidates, Smile Happy, Tiz the Bomb, and Rattle N Roll – all graded stakes winners at two – but Dash Attack may eventually prove to be their equal. We just have to wait to see him do it on a sunny day.
3 – Getting back to Baffert, his record during the first five days of the Santa Anita winter/spring season has been better than normal for him, which is another way of saying he’s not just winning almost everything, he IS winning everything. So far, during the first five days of the season, Baffert’s record of 21-9-3-4 is even more dominant than it looks when you consider that six of the “losses” came in races in which the stable won with another starter, meaning he’s won nine times (six with maidens) from the 15 races he’s entered.
The most impressive performance of the lot was the 13-length romp by As Times Goes By on Saturday in the La Canada Stakes-G3 for older fillies and mares. The veteran daughter of American Pharoah had never looked sharper in recent workouts, so her demolition of four outclassed rivals wasn’t entirely unexpected. Geared down in the final sixteenth of a mile, the now five-year-old mare earned a Beyer speed figure of 95, four points lower than her career top but a number that leads one to believe she could be among the best in her division in 2022, certainly in the West and perhaps even in all of North America. The Beholder Mile-G1 on March 5 will be next.
4 – We were somewhat surprised to see that the Beyer speed figure assigned to Cash Run Stakes winner Kathleen O. at Gulfstream Park on Saturday was “only” 78. From a visual standpoint, the performance sure looked a whole lot better than that (and that’s without factoring her atrocious start), and the one-turn mile clocking of 1:35 4/5 following quick early fractions of :22 3/5 and :44 4/5 indicated it was a legit fast-early, fast-late type of contest.
Kathleen O. brought $275,00 as the OBS April Sale, a rather substantial sum for a daughter of the young Flatter stallion Upstart (stands for $10,000), so she’s always been highly thought of. After breaking her maiden over seven furlongs at first asking by a head in a race that was race-shape aided and produced a modest 66 Beyer figure, the Shug McGaughey-trained filly was expected to step forward with that bit of experience behind her and an extra furlong to work with. The gamblers knocked her down to 2-1 and this time, instead of getting up close home, she took command with ease at the head of the lane before lengthening out at will for the eight and-half length margin of victory.
Still, we wouldn’t say that Echo Zulu has anything to worry about in the 2022 sophomore filly division. Well, at least not yet.
5 – Later on that same Gulfstream Park Saturday program in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes (the Cash Run’s equivalent for colts), Simplification got away with much softer early splits (:23.3, :45.4) on an easy lead and then proved uncatchable, drawing away through the lane to win by four lengths in 1:35 flat (four ticks faster than Kathleen O’s victory). By way of comparison, the son of Not This Time earned a Beyer speed figure of 90, 12 points better than the filly’s 78.
But which of the two ran the better winning race? Certainly the difference between a 90 Beyer and a 78 Beyer over the same track at the same distance on the same day is substantial. So, why do we believe three months down the road we’d rather be owning Kathleen O.?
Here’s the thing about speed figures. No matter which ones (if any) you use, they must be viewed in the context of how they were accomplished. Simplification’s victory was a product of a pristine trip. Kathleen O’s win was earned despite some serious adversity. It’s all part of the puzzle.
“Five Takeaways” From the Week Concluding December 26, 2021
By Jeff Siegel, 1stbet.com Analyst and Handicapper
1 – Flightline may have earned an historic 118 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” From 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” From 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” From 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.