From the week concluding July 18, 2021
By Jeff Siegel, xpressbet.com handicapper/analyst
1 – The disqualification of Hot Rod Charlie in the Haskell S.-G1 – the fastest (and easiest) decision by a board of stewards we’ve seen since maybe ever – lands strictly on the shoulders of Flavien Prat, not Paco Lopez, not the no-whip rule, and certainly not Hot Rod Charlie, who didn’t lug in but was clearly steered in, either carelessly or purposely, by Prat. In a television interview the following day on TVG, Prat said he wasn’t even aware that his actions had placed Midnight Bourbon in close quarters in mid-stretch. “I had no clue what happened. It was just after the wire that I realized he was in between us.”
Well, folks, that’s the definition of carelessness. And Prat, a great jockey to be sure – head-and-shoulders above his colleagues on the Southern California circuit and never considered to be a rough or dirty rider – appeared to make a calculated mistake, that of assuming that Midnight Bourbon had dropped away and was clear of heel-clipping range. In leaning to his left in an effort to have Hot Rod Charlie better engage his main challenger Mandaloun, Prat did what he thought he needed to do in order to extract the maximum competitive energy from his colt. And the maneuver served its purpose, as Hot Rod Charlie indeed sensed the challenge, dug down deep and got the best of Mandaloun right at the wire.
We’ll never know which of the two would have crossed the wire first if Prat had not decided to change lanes without signaling; we can only be thankful that Midnight Bourbon (who managed to keep his feet in a truly magnificent display of athleticism) and Lopez (who must be thinking what the reaction would have been if HE had done what Prat did) weren’t injured.
2 – There were several superior performances last weekend by horse and trainer, not the least of which was the second straight victory by Althiqa (and now three-out-four in head-to-head battles) over Summer Romance in the Diana S.-G1 at Saratoga that produced yet another one-two finish from these two terrific Great Britain-based fillies. We expected the result of last month’s Just A Game S.-G1 to be reversed because of a highly favorable pace flow that likely would favor the front-running Summer Romance (it did), but Althiqa, despite being forced to rally wide into slow fractions, collared her Godolphin stable mate close home while continuing the superlative form that had been evident this past winter in Dubai.
It’s been reported in Daily Racing Form that both fillies will return to the States in the fall, Althiqua for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf over 11 furlongs at Del Mar, and Summer Romance for the First Lady S.-G1 at Keeneland. We’re not sure there’s an American-based older filly or mare turf specialist who could beat either one of them right now.
3 – Just in time for the late-summer yearling sales, freshman stallion Practical Joke is off to highly-promising start at stud, with his first crop represented by Wit, now unbeaten in two starts, a six length maiden win at Belmont Park last month and then the Sanford S.-G3 over the weekend at Saratoga by eight lengths, with runner-up Headline Report more than five clear of the rest. If Wit turns out to be as accomplished a racehorse as his sire, that will be nice, but if you recall, Practical Joke was notorious for being almost unbeatable in one corner races but something far less than that when stretching out around two turns.
Though it’s far too early to pigeon-hole Wit as a late-running sprinter, at this stage of his young career, there is a strong possibility that is what he will prove to be. Assuming he stays healthy and continues on a logical schedule that should include the 7f Hopeful S.-G1 and then perhaps the 8F Champagne S.-G1, the Todd Pletcher-trained colt won’t have to cross that bridge until the 8.5 furlong Breeders’ Cup Juvenile S.-G1 on the first Friday in November at Del Mar.
4 – And then there’s Gun Runner, who appears on the path to where his sire, Candy Ride, always has been. With his first foals racing this year, the Three Chimneys stallion already has sired eight winners (seven doing so in their debuts), perhaps none more impressive than the filly Echo Zulu, successful by five and one-half lengths at Saratoga opening day for her sire’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, in a performance that was assigned a 92 Beyer speed figure, 16 points better than what Pretty Bird earned when easily winning the Schuylerville S.-G3 later in the day.
While Echo Zulu has been the most impressive juvenile filly we’ve witnessed so far, we also very much liked what we saw at Del Mar from Smash Ticket in her victory on Saturday. Second to the very speedy Wicked Halo in her debut at Lone Star Park, the daughter of Midnight Lute (and a May foal, no less) earned a stakes-quality 78 Beyer speed figure in a five-length maiden romp, winning like a filly who seems certain to run on.
5 – News flash: the rail is death at Del Mar. Like always. Like it’s certain to be on Breeders’ Cup weekend in November, just as it was when Championship Day was held there four years ago. Yes, things could change (no, actually, they won’t), but during the first three days of the 2021 season, here are the stats for post position number one on dirt: Sprints (15 races, no wins, no seconds, three thirds). Routes: (5 races, no wins, no seconds, one third).
Meanwhile, horses drawn in either of the two extreme outside posts in all main track events have won 10 of the 19 races. So, when you open your Form and peruse the past performances charts, start from the outside and work your way down. If you find something you like right off the bat, circle it and just move on to the next race. Hey, just trying to make things easy.
From the Weekend Concluding July 11, 2021
By Jeff Siegel, xpressbet.com handicapper/analyst
1 – It may be difficult to truly appreciate the impact that Galileo had on thoroughbred racing, both on the track and in his record-setting career at stud. Arguably the sport’s most influential stallion in the past half-century if not of all time, the winner of both the Epsom Darby and the Irish Derby in 2001 was the product of 14-time champion sire Sadler’s Wells and Arc winner Urban Sea and thus truly epitomized the old saying, “breed the best to the best and hope for the best.” At stud, Galileo sired at last count 338 stakes winners, including the undefeated Frankel, certainly one of the greatest race horses in European history.
Galileo’s influence is guaranteed to carry on through his sons and daughters for as long as The Jockey Club keeps records. He was euthanized July 10 at the age of 23 due to a chronic injury to his left fore front, hours before his 3-year-old son of Bolshoi Ballet became his 91st Grade/Goup-1 winner when capturing the Belmont Derby-G1.
2 – Trainer Aidan O’Brien is properly regarded as one of the world’s greatest trainers but gamblers who have backed his Irish-based runners in New York in the past few years have been wondering what the hype is all about. Having a record of something like 1-for-61 prior to his sending Santa Barbara and Bolshoi Ballet across the pond gave many handicappers what proved to be an unnecessary reason for pause in the Belmont Oaks-G1 and Belmont Derby-G1, respectively, even though both imports appeared on resume to be absolute standouts. Both runners left at just slightly better than even money, with Santa Barbara accelerating impressively in the closing stages to win the Oaks as much best and then an hour later Bolshoi Ballet taking an overland journey to produce a smart score in the Derby.
It must be noted that they are 3-year-olds and thus have plenty of room for further development. However, neither are considered to be at the top of the list among those that could venture to Del Mar in the fall for the 2021 Breeders’ Cup festival, a scary thought for an American long distance turf contingent that, as usual, appears at the midpoint of the season to be only slightly above ordinary.
3 – It’ll be interesting to see if Oaklawn Park’s decision to move next year’s $1.2 million Arkansas Derby-G1 up to April 2, five weeks prior to the Run for the Roses rather than its traditional three week slot, has any impact on the placement of the yet-to-be-scheduled $750,000 Florida Derby-G1, which, if tradition holds, would be positioned to run on that same day. One would think that with a more lucrative purse of $450,000, the Arkansas Derby might be in line to attract the stronger field. However, when it comes to Kentucky Derby preparation, most horsemen are far less concerned about a purse discrepancy than taking the path of least resistance towards the accumulation of points that assures a spot in the starting line-up on the first Saturday in May.
Gulfstream Park management could move the Florida Derby to the next day (Sunday), wait a week and make it a Stronach Group coast-to-coast double header with the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby-G1, or simply stand pat. As a loyal employee, whatever management decides is officially fine by me.
4 – As impressive as any performance witnessed during the past weekend was the runaway romp by Bella Sofia in a first-level allowance sprint for 3-year-olds fillies Sunday at Belmont Park. The margin of victory (six and one-half lengths) and the manner in which the win was accomplished (she easily disposed of a pace rival and then drew off with a ton left) surely stamps the daughter of Awesome Patriot as a legitimate threat to repeat on the raise when facing graded stakes company at Saratoga. Though she won her debut by more than 11 lengths and then was beaten just a length by (at-the-time) undefeated Australasia in the listed Jersey Girl S. last month, this effort left her previous two outings far behind while earning an Equibase speed figure of 112, easily a career top.
It’s hard to believe that the Rudy Rodriguez-trained filly brought only $20,000 at the 2020 OBS June sale, though to be fair she was a sibling to nobody and her 10 2/5 seconds breeze during the preview session was visually average at best.
5 – It’s been getting worse by the year but in 2021 the proliferation of mis-timed fractions and final times of races throughout North America has reached a level of absurdity. Not a day goes by when horse players, especially those that depend on accurate speed figures as the backbone of their handicapping process, aren’t burdened with charts that are peppered with the infuriating “hand-timed” designation. What’s worse is when final times are clearly wrong, and the tracks don’t even both to issue a correction.
On Sunday alone, the Equibase official chart failed to list any fractions or final time associated with the featured River Memories Stakes at Belmont Park. We put a man on the moon more than 50 years ago. It shouldn’t be that difficult to accurately clock a horse race.
From the Weekend Concluding July 5, 2021
By Jeff Siegel, xpressbet.com handicapper/analyst
1 – The most significant performance of the extended holiday weekend comes courtesy of St Mark’s Basilica in his nothing-short-of-exceptional victory in the 10F Coral-Eclipse S.-G1 at Sandown on Saturday. After winning three previous Group-1 races against his own age group, including the Dewhurst S. at Newmarket, the French 1000 Guineas at Longchamp and the French Derby at Chantilly, the Aidan O’Brien-trained colt made a mockery of older rivals, chief among them Saudi Cup-G1 and Dubai Sheema Classic-G1 winner Mishriff, while producing the type of acceleration two furlongs out that only the great ones possess.
The French-bred son of Siyouni must now be rated the best horse in Europe, if not the entire planet, and would be a wonderful addition to any Breeders’ Cup field, though he may very well have other fish to fry overseas in the fall. “Of all the times we’ve trained horses through all the years, I can’t remember that we’ve had (a performance) like that,” said O’Brien.
2 – A critical race at Belmont Park for older horses, the 10F Suburban S.-G2, offered a rematch of the first two finishers from the 2020 Jockey Club Gold Cup-G1, the unbeaten Happy Saver, and the Dubai World Cup-G1 winner Mystic Guide. But over a sloppy sealed surface that neither appeared to grab, it was Max Player (not Maxfield) who sprung the upset in a race that proved little other than the winner’s affinity for a muddy track.
A distant third in both the Belmont S.-G1 and the Travers S.-G1 last summer and then nowhere to be found in his four most recent races (including a 24-length drubbing to the aforementioned Mishriff in Saudi Arabia), the son of Honor Code was game in victory but earned only a 101 Beyer speed figure, an indication that the others ran down to his level, not the other way around. Attached to the victory is an all-expense paid ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Classic-G1 at Del Mar. But there will be no rain on the first Saturday in November in San Diego county.
3 – A legitimate Grade-1 front-runner such as Breeders’ Cup Mile-G1 winner Knicks Go facing a handful of thoroughly outclassed rivals that have no chance to apply even a modest amount of early pressure is the perfect recipe for the easily predictable outcome of the 9F Prairie Meadows Cornhusker-G3 Friday evening. His 10 length margin of victory manufactured a career-top 113 Beyer Speed Figure while reaffirming what trainer Brad Cox said after the 5-year-old son of Paynter finished a fading fourth at 4/5 in the Met Mile in early June. “He’s a two-turn horse, was Cox’s simple but entirely accurate explanation.
Now, with 21 races on his resume, Knick’s Go clearly has established one other indisputable characteristic: when facing top class company; he is a dyed-in-the-wool need-the-lead type. Though unproven at 10 furlongs – but certain to stay the trip under pristine conditions – he could very well resurface at Del Mar August 21 for the $750,000 Pacifica Classic-G1 in what would serve as a dress rehearsal for the Breeders’ Cup Classic-G1 that will be staged over that same course and distance 11 weeks later. Mystic Guide could be headed in the same direction, as well.
4 – It’s the time of the year when we’re inclined to seek out potentially high-class, late-developing 3-year-olds – those that weren’t ready or seasoned enough for the Triple Crown – to make an impact in the sophomore ranks and perhaps even steal an Eclipse Award, such as what Arrogate did a few years back. While he’s nowhere near that level just yet, First Captain will have his chance to establish championship credentials at Saratoga, with the 10F Travers S.-G1 his late-summer goal. Unbeaten in three starts but yet to race farther than a mile, the son of Curlin, at 40 cents on the dollar, was workmanlike when grinding out a one and three-quarter length victory in the Dwyer S.-G3 at Belmont Park on Monday. The Beyer speed figure was a just okay 90, a career low.
However, Shug’s colt has a pedigree to excel over a classic distance and farther. In as division which currently has Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie squarely at the top, a new shooter such as this $1.5 million yearling purchase, may still be capable of bringing fresh blood and new life to a division that remains there for the taking.
5 – Gamine has been beaten just once in nine starts. She failed to see out the nine-furlong trip in the 2020 Kentucky Oaks-G1 when third (and then subsequently disqualified for a bad test) but has been otherwise perfect, most recently coasting home to register a 10-length romp in the 6.5F Great Lady M. S.-G2 at Los Alamitos on Monday. In any other year, she’d probably be sent to Saratoga, where she won the 2020 Test S.-G1 by seven lengths, but a trip to New York isn’t currently an option for trainer Bob Baffert. We anticipate Gamine will remain in the West and be given a run, perhaps two, to prepare to defend her title in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint-G1.
The Rancho Bernardo (Aug. 20) at Del Mar logically would be next, but that race is just a Grade-3 with a $100,000 guaranteed purse and will be carded under handicap conditions, so you have to wonder just how much weight she’d be asked to carry in order to make the race competitive. Facing males eight days later in the 7F Pat O’Brien for twice the purse money (it’s a win-and-your-in race, too) might be a better option, especially under the 122 lb. impost she would carry, according to the conditions of the race.