“An undefeated racehorse has an aura of invincibility.”
That phrase, written many years ago by the fabulous turf writer Charles Hatton, came to mind when I happened to notice that No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 list this week are all undefeated…so far.
Here is my current Kentucky Derby Top 10:
1. Game Winner
4. Hidden Scroll
5. War of Will
8. Mucho Gusto
9. Omaha Beach
Maximus Mischief went into last Saturday’s Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park with, yes, an aura of invincibility. But after the race, he no longer has an unblemished record.
Sent away as a 4-5 favorite after winning his first three career starts by a combined 17 lengths, Maximus Mischief finished third in the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull. Harvey Wallbanger rallied from far back in the field of nine to prevail by one length.
As another example of how Hatton had a special way with words, he wrote in 1963 that a 2-year-old sensation by the name of Raise a Native had “worked down the Belmont backstretch this morning. The trees swayed.”
Let’s just say that Harvey Wallbanger was far from making any trees sway in the Holy Bull. The final time was 1:43.69.
Harvey Wallbanger was dismissed in the wagering at 29-1. Another Hattonism: Harvey Wallbanger paid a “rags to riches” $61.20 to win.
Everfast finished second in the Holy Bull at 128-1. Would there be a Hattonism for that? You bet. One of Hatton’s phrases for such a gigantic longshot would be Everfast was “virtually ignored in the tote.”
Maximus Mischief, trained by Butch Reid, did get washy before the Holy Bull. It also was the Into Mischief colt’s first race since winning Aqueduct’s Grade II Remsen Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths at 1 1/8 miles on Dec. 1.
The morning after the Holy Bull, Reid reported in the Gulfstream Park notes that Maximus Mischief “came out of the race very well. He was a little tired this morning, so maybe I didn’t have him quite as tight as I thought I did. He came out of it fine and ate his dinner last night, but walked a little quiet this morning. I’m going to say he got a lot out of that race yesterday and it’s going to set him up perfectly for the next spot.”
The “next spot” for Maximus Mischief, according to Reid, will be Gulfstream’s Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on March 2.
It’s not as if Maximus Mischief lost the Holy Bull by a lot. He finished only 1 1/2 lengths behind the winner. But the Holy Bull was not a strong race from a Beyer Speed Figure perspective. Harvey Wallbanger was credited with a modest 85 Beyer. Maximus Mischief recorded a career-worst 83 after figures of 94 in his career debut, 98 in his second start and 97 in the Remsen.
Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman wrote that “the overall quality of the Holy Bull certainly is questionable regarding Derby contenders. The winning fig was allowance-class, and the heavy favorite, Maximus Mischief, regressed off his Remsen win. Anyone exiting this race will have to improve significantly in coming months.”
I made the decision to drop Maximus Mischief all the way out of the Top 10 this week after he was No. 4 last week. One of the main reasons for doing this is he failed to get the job done the first time he really did not get it pretty much all his own way. But Maximus Mischief does have the opportunity to earn his way back onto the Top 10 if he can regain his winning ways in the Fountain of Youth.
One aspect to the result of the Holy Bull is I see it as a boost to Signalman. Ken McPeek trains both Signalman and Harvey Wallbanger. At this point, I think Signalman is the better of the two, though it always must be kept in mind that things certainly can change dramatically during the first few months of the year as some 3-year-olds get better while others do not.
Signalman finished a respectable third in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill last Nov. 2. That race was won by Game Winner, who is at the top of my Kentucky Derby Top 10.
In Signalman’s final start at 2, he won the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on a sloppy strip Nov. 24 at Churchill Downs. McPeek recently said “he really liked” what he saw from Signalman on that occasion.
“We asked him for speed early and he did that, then overcame a bunch of trouble,” McPeek said. “You have to do that in May [in the Kentucky Derby], don’t you? You have to work through traffic. He seems to understand what to do.”
According to McPeek, Signalman is “extremely smart. And for a big horse, he’s fast.”
Signalman exhibited some of that zip last Saturday when he worked four furlongs in a near-bullet :46 3/5 at Gulfstream. McPeek said it was a mistake for the General Quarters colt to work that fast. An unwanted fast drill like that is not a catastrophe when it does not occur close to a race. Signalman is not scheduled to make his first 2019 start until early next month in the Fountain of Youth.
Game Winner, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, worked five furlongs in 1:03.40 at Santa Anita last Wednesday. According to Baffert, the Candy Man colt is headed to Santa Anita’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on March 9 for his 2019 debut. Game Winner was voted a 2018 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male.
Baffert also trains the undefeated Improbable, winner of the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill last Nov. 2 and Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity on Dec. 8 in his most recent start. The City Zip colt zipped five furlongs last Friday in a bullet :58.40 drill at Santa Anita.
As for my current Kentucky Derby list, No. 1 Game Winner, No. 2 Improbable, No. 3 Instagrand and No. 4 Hidden Scroll all have that aforementioned “aura of invincibility” at this time. They are a combined 10 for 10.
Game Winner is four for four. Improbable is three for three. Instagrand is two for two. Hidden Scroll is one for one.
Another Baffert-trained 3-year-old, Mucho Gusto, moves up a notch this week to No. 8 after splish-splashing his way to a 4 3/4-length victory as the 3-5 favorite in Santa Anita’s Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes at 1 1/16 miles last Saturday. The Mucho Macho Man colt recorded a 90 Beyer Speed Figure.
Mucho Gusto now has three wins from four lifetime starts. His Lewis triumph flattered Improbable. In Mucho Gusto’s only defeat, he finished second in the Los Al Futurity when no match for Improbable, with five lengths separating the pair at the end of that 1 1/16-mile race.
Tax is among a plethora of 3-year-olds lurking below my Top 10. He won Aqueduct’s Grade III Withers Stakes at 1 1/8 miles last Saturday. Tax stumbled at the start, found himself briefly in claustrophobic quarters (yet another of Hatton’s phrases from time to time) in upper stretch and won by a small margin in a three-horse driving finish.
Favored at 2-1, Tax completed his journey in 1:50.23. He recorded a commendable 96 Beyer Speed Figure. Not That Brady and Our Braintrust finished second and third, respectively. Not That Brady came out and bumped Our Braintrust three-sixteenths from the finish, then those two brushed each other a number of times the rest of the way. No change was made to the original order of finish after a stewards’ inquiry and an objection against Not That Brady lodged by the trainer of Our Braintrust, Mark Casse.
Tax was making his 2019 debut in the Withers. In his final 2018 start, he finished third behind Maximus Mischief and Network Effect in the Remsen.
New on my Top 10 this week is Omaha Beach, who found a cure for second-itis in a big way at Santa Anita last Saturday. The War Front colt, trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, registered a resounding nine-length win in a seven-furlong maiden special weight race contested on a sloppy track. Omaha Beach’s final time was an excellent 1:21.02 after he carved out fractions of :21.75, :43.74 and 1:08.24. He posted a 90 Beyer to equal the figure earned by Mucho Gusto later in the card when he won the Lewis.
Network Effect, who is in Florida with three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown, exited my Top 10 last week due to the lack of a recent workout. He had not had a recorded workout since his five-furlong move in 1:01.80 on Jan. 13 at Palm Meadows. Network Effect very nearly moved back onto my Top 10 after he worked four furlongs Monday at Palm Meadows in :49.60. In his final start at 2, Network Effect ran second to Maximus Mischief in the Remsen.
HATTON PLAYED KEY ROLE IN AMERICAN TRIPLE CROWN
When I was young and read as much of Charles Hatton’s “furlongs of copy” I possibly could, I loved a myriad of his wonderful phrases, such as “furlongs of copy.”
For me, even the word “myriad” has a Hatton connection. The first time I can remember seeing that word in print was when it had been used by Hatton in something he had written in the American Racing Manual. And like many words Charles Arthur Hatton used, I had to look it up. In a way, though my major at Eastern Washington University was journalism, what really expanded my vocabulary back then was all the reading I did as a serious student of the University of Hatton.
Hatton’s “erudite, lively writing elevated Thoroughbred racing to the classics during a time when horse racing was the most popular sport in the country,” Ryan Goldberg wrote in an outstanding 2012 profile of the man for the Daily Racing Form. “The charm and enjoyment of Hatton’s work lies in its time-machine quality. It takes you back to that grander time. From 1930 until months before his death [on March 15, 1975], Hatton wrote thousands of columns, most of which are lost to history save for the Keeneland library.”
Well, I have a couple of boxes filled with Racing Forms from the 1960s and 1970s, Racing Forms that I’ve saved specifically because Hatton’s columns are in them.
“Some of his best prose,” Goldberg continued, “can be found in the essays he wrote for the American Racing Manual, from 1949 through 1974. Slightly more available, they are a definitive source; there is no other place where the history of that golden era is so beautifully and fully told.”
Yes, I have every one of those American Racing Manuals from 1949 through 1974.
Did you know that Hatton is recognized as being the person chiefly responsible for linking the three races that we now refer to as this country’s Triple Crown?
This from the Encyclopedia Britannica: “The concept of an American Triple Crown was popularized in great part through the writings of Charles Hatton, a columnist for the Daily Racing Form. He frequently used the term Triple Crown in reference to the three races [Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes] in the 1930s, and as the term caught on, more and more owners and trainers began to prepare specifically for these contests. By the 1940s, newspapers were routinely using the term. The Triple Crown title was formally proclaimed in December 1950 at the annual awards dinner of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations in New York and retroactively awarded to Sir Barton, the first horse to win all three races in 1919.”
In my high school days, it was a rarity when I did not read Hatton in the morning while eating breakfast. My mother does not drive. She never has. In those years whenever I drove my mother somewhere, I often asked (okay, I insisted) that she read Hatton aloud from an American Racing Manual. And I continued to soak up all the Hatton that I possibly could after I first started working for the Racing Form as a chart-caller and writer in the Pacific Northwest in 1974.
One morning in the summer of 1975 in the publicity office at Playfair Race Course in Spokane, Wash., Jim Price asked me out of the blue if I was familiar with Hatton’s work. Price at that time was the track announcer and a fine writer in his own right as the track’s publicity director. I responded by saying that not only was I familiar with Hatton, I idolized him.
After Price admitted that he also was a big Hatton fan, he reached for the 1974 American Racing Manual on his desk. Opening it at random, Price started reading aloud. All these years later, I can still remember that Price started reading what Hatton had written about Riva Ridge following his 1973 campaign at the age of 4. In particular, I remember this passage:
“Riva Ridge won five of nine engagements last season, which is nice going for a handicapper, especially one who has problems and is unhappy in wet weather. He earned $212,602 and joined the sport’s millionaires with a total of $1,111,497. His stud potential was syndicated at $5,120,000.
“We do not quote these facts for support, as a drunk uses a lamppost, but for illumination. At the height of his fascination and power, Riva Ridge was a brilliant entertainer, though he sometimes appeared frightfully irresponsible.
“Whoever saw it will never forget his Brooklyn. He turned imminent defeat into victory when he condescended to get on the bit in the final frenetic strides, setting a world 1 3/16-mile mark of 1:52 2/5. He carried 127 pounds and repulsed True Knight a thrusting head in desperate finish, conceding his rival 10 pounds.”
Price stopped reading. He closed the book. We then looked at each other and shook our heads, awed by what had just been read. We marveled in particular at “as a drunk uses a lamppost.”
I worked at Delta Downs as a chart-caller for the Racing Form in 1976, filling in for the vacationing Dave Wilson. One morning Hatton’s name came up in the racing office. Much like what had happened at Playfair the year before, Wilson suddenly had an American Racing Manual in his hands. Before he opened the book, Wilson said one of the finest things he had ever read in his entire life was what Hatton had written regarding Secretariat’s conformation as a 2-year-old. To a group of 10 or so that had gathered around Wilson in the racing office, he proceeded to read aloud what Hatton written about Secretariat.
Born in New Albany, Ind., on May 20, 1905, Hatton often visited Churchill Downs as a youngster. Hatton once wrote that he was “playing hooky from school” when he witnessed Sotemia set the world record of 7:10 4/5 at Churchill in 1912.
According to Goldberg, “Hatton’s strongest opinion” was in his hesitation to use the word “great.” It was a term “seasoned, discriminating turfmen rarely employ,” Hatton wrote in his profile of 1953 Horse of the Year Tom Fool.
But after Secretariat won the 1973 Kentucky Derby to break Northern Dancer’s track record by three-fifths of a second, Hatton felt that if there was ever a time to use the word “great,” this was it. Thus, Hatton banged out the following on his typewriter (for those of you who do not know what that is, it’s what we writers, once upon a time, would use to do our work before computers came along):
“Great is a term we seldom have occasion to employ. But this Derby was the greatest. The greatest of all its winners gave the greatest performance in its annals before the greatest audience ever when Secretariat reduced this ‘greatest two minutes in sports’ to 1:59 2/5.
“The Derby marked the only time this senior citizen of the turf has had occasion to think departed friends of Man o’ War’s era missed anything.”
As for the epic 1973 Belmont Stakes, in one of my boxes filled with Hatton’s columns, I found a yellowed column the master of prose had written after Secretariat’s 31-length tour de force to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
The headline: Horse of the Century.
“BELMONT PARK, Elmont, N.Y. -- From the tintype days of Old Rosebud, high buttoned shoes and livery stables, to the jet propelled present, one has seen a whole cavalcade of champions. It may sound very loud to say, but we incline to agree with Ken Noe Jr.: Secretariat is the Horse of the Century.
“He not only won the Triple Crown. He eclipsed the Derby and Belmont records and, as far as we are concerned, the Preakness record as well, since he was timed privately in 1:53 2/5 by Daily Racing Form.
“In the Derby he ran a final quarter in :23 1/5 and set a mark of 1:59 2/5. In the Belmont, he smoked Sham over in a match, then really went to running.
“His fractions were: :12 1/5, :23 3/5, :46 2/5, 1:09 4/5, 1:22, 1:34 1/5, 1:46 1/5, 1:59, 2:11 1/5 and 2:24.
“Catching sight of the teletimer the last sixteenth, [jockey Ron] Turcotte determined: ‘They weren’t going to rob him of this record.’ And all the fractions were Secretariat’s.”
Hatton went on to write:
“Time is by no means the only element in a horse’s quality, but it is a measurable one. The surface here is perhaps a second faster nowadays. And yet:
“Based on comparative times for the Belmont, Secretariat was beating Citation 21 lengths, Count Fleet 21 lengths, War Admiral 23 lengths, Omaha 33 lengths, Assault 34 lengths, Whirlaway 35 lengths and Gallant Fox 38 lengths.
“The track is not all that much faster. Secretariat is faster.”
As Goldberg pointed out, Hatton rarely used the word “great.” But in terms of those who have ever written about horse racing, the word “great” certainly applies to Charles Hatton. In fact, the belief here is he ranks as the greatest of them all.
THIS WEEK’S NTRA POLLS
Here is the Top 10 for this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 369 City of Light (36)
2. 295 Monomoy Girl (5)
3. 267 Roy H
4. 224 Battle of Midway (1)
5. 220 Bricks and Mortar
6. 208 Accelerate
7. 154 McKinzie
8. 141 Seeking the Soul
9. 86 Sistercharlie
10. 76 Game Winner
Here is the Top 10 for this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 405 Game Winner (37)
2. 350 Improbable (3)
3. 273 War of Will (1)
4. 220 Mucho Gusto
5. 163 Instagrand
6. 135 Knicks Go
7. 118 Hidden Scroll
7. 102 Signalman
9. 88 Gunmetal Gray
10. 66 Tax