On Track With Johnny D: Now We Know

Now we know why the Kentucky Derby traditionally is run on the first Saturday in May, the Preakness two Saturday’s later and the Belmont on the first Saturday in June. Because that’s how long most 3-year-old stars that have been most successful since Jan. 1 are ripest. And not a moment longer.


We were reminded of that lesson when a trio of top-ranked sophomores recently visited respective MASH units. The late, great trainer Charlie Whittingham is quoted as saying, “Horses are like strawberries, they spoil overnight.” Don’t know if the Bald Eagle made that one up or if he was quoting someone else but, unfortunately, it’s an accurate observation. To be even more specific, it also can be suggested that top 3-year-old runners most mimic strawberries in that they have a short, sweet, limited season, usually disappearing in June, following the final leg of the Triple Crown.


When COVID 19 arrived and altered our life experiences, including the interruption of racing, I wondered what we’d ultimately learn from a delayed and tangled Triple Crown series. For decades, many have labeled the Triple Crown as too strenuous and demanding on 3-year-olds. That fragile bones and psyches can’t withstand the pressure of a grueling schedule of three challenging races in five weeks. Traditional Triple Crown series detractors argue that that’s why our fastest and best horses often disappear midway through their sophomore seasons.


Now we know that even if we didn’t have a traditional Triple Crown series, several of our brightest 3-year-old stars still will develop mold in early June. Horses haven’t been getting injured because of the Triple Crown series. Injuries just happens. We didn’t even have a Triple Crown campaign this year and top sophs still evaporated like ice on a July sidewalk.


Maxfield missed last November’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile due to an owie that kept him sidelined until May 23, when he returned to win the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill. He looked sensational that afternoon—like a colt racing aficionados could be excited about. First word was that Maxfield would skip next Saturday’s Belmont Stakes in favor of a start in the Blue Grass, in July, at his home base Keeneland. That made some sense. Then, yesterday, it was announced that Maxfield is through for the year and, maybe, forever with a condylar fracture. An operation to repair the injury was termed ‘successful,’ but with this type of injury one can’t be certain if the patient will recover sufficiently to race again.


Two weeks earlier, in California, Nadal, a consensus top three among the most highly regarded Derby hopefuls, had been sidelined with the same injury. Two screws were inserted into the colt’s leg and that surgery, too, was described as ‘successful.’ Owner George Bolton immediately announced Nadal’s retirement.


Roughly 10 days after Nadal’s retirement, conditioner Bob Baffert, the most accomplished living human when it comes to winning Kentucky Derbies, also lost Charlatan–unbeaten six-length winner of the Gr. 1 Arkansas Derby—to injury. The son of Speightstown underwent surgery to remove a tiny chip from his ankle. He is expected to return to the races and, according to his trainer, possibly could make the Preakness October 3.


That’s a trio of 3-year-olds sidelined since June 6. Combined they had 10 wins and zero losses. Six graded stakes victories, including three Grade 1s! Nadal owned four of those wins and three of the graded stakes victories. Charlatan and Nadal are/were speedy, front-running types. Maxfield is a closer with an explosive turn of foot that snapped heads when he rallied from eighth to draw off and win the Gr. 1 Breeders’ Futurity by five and one-half lengths.


Is it mere coincidence that around the time we normally would have been running the Belmont Stakes as the final leg of the Triple Crown we lose least three top 3-year-olds to injury? Must be, right? Is there a ‘Use By’ date stamped somewhere on the best racehorses that warns ‘At three they’ll sour by mid-June?’ Has anyone ever bothered to look for one?


Tiz the Law remains the most accomplished 3-year-old on the detour to the Kentucky Derby. Veteran trainer Barclay Tagg has handled the Constitution colt judiciously, first passing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and then avoiding the Fountain of Youth—between romping triumphs in the Holy Bull and Curlin Florida Derby. Tagg had planned on having a ‘fresh’ horse for the first Saturday in May. Now, on June 11, he’s got a nearly uncirculated runner with just two 2020 starts that hasn’t performed in the p.m. since March 28. The colt will be less than even money against what appears to be seven or so foes in the Belmont Stakes—first leg of the 2020 Triple Crown.


Now we know which horses are likely up and comers in the sophomore division. Honor A. P. forged to near the front of the class with a declarative table-turning triumph in the Santa Anita Derby over Baffert’s unbeaten Into Mischief colt Authentic. Authentic had been two and one-quarter length better when they first met in the Gr. 2 San Felipe Stakes March 7. Honor A. P. is trained by John Shirreffs and ridden by Mike Smith. You may remember them rocking the Louisville toteboard with Giacomo at $102.50 in 2005. Shirreffs, who guided the fortunes of Zenyatta (also with Smith), among others, is a specialist at bringing horses along slowly, deliberately. And Honor A. P., by Honor Code, appears the type of colt that might relish such treatment.


In an example of his equine embarrassment of riches, as Baffert saw two top soph prospects exit stage left with injuries and Authentic take it on the chin from Honor A. P., another of his students debuted to rave reviews. On Santa Anita Derby day, Cezanne, a son of Curlin, dusted maiden foes by two and one-quarter lengths going six and one-half furlongs under Santa Anita’s leading rider Flavien Prat. Based on breeding and the colt’s performance, it’s permissible to anticipate that Cezanne just might turn out to be another Baffert masterpiece.


While it will be entertaining to watch this pandemic affected sophomore season continue to play out, we can’t help but shake our heads imagining what could have been had the last two weeks not robbed us of so much talent.


Now we know to avoid counting chickens before they hatch and Triple Crown starters before they leave the gate.


Race On!

On Track With Johnny D: Now We Know

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