It was 40 years ago that John Henry, a gelding who rose to stardom from relative obscurity, won the world’s first $1 million Thoroughbred race, the Arlington Million, by a scant nose.
John Henry won 39 times during his extraordinary career. Of those 39 victories, the 1981 Arlington Million quite possibly was his finest because of what he overcame in order to prevail.
Ron McAnally did nothing less than a fantastic job as John Henry’s trainer.
“He won that day despite the unfavorable conditions,” McAnally once told me with respect to the 1981 Arlington Million. “The surface was so soft and John adjusted to it to come from way back and win by a nose.”
Daily Racing Form’s esteemed Joe Hirsch wrote: “The bottom line is that John Henry won when his cause appeared completely lost.”
John Henry defeated such accomplished runners as Madam Gay, second to Shergar in Ascot’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes; Key to Content, winner of the United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City; and Argument, who had been victorious in the 1980 Washington, D.C., International.
But it was a 40-1 longshot by the name of The Bart who came within a whisker of beating John Henry in the inaugural Arlington Million.
As a huge John Henry fan (like so many others), I was tickled that he won Thoroughbred racing’s first seven-figure event. But I also could not help but feel sorry for The Bart and his connections, most especially trainer John Sullivan. To lose a $1 million race by such an excruciatingly small margin was about as brutal a defeat as it gets.
Speaking of The Bart, when I was a writer for the Daily Racing Form in the early 1980s, I broke the story of his retirement from racing. One afternoon while I was typing away in the Del Mar press box, I received a phone call out of the blue.
“This is John Sullivan,” he said.
“What’s up, John?” I asked.
“Unfortunately, I’ve got a scoop for ya. The Bart is retired. I wanted you to have it first.”
I told Sullivan I was sorry to hear that. I then told him how appreciative I was that he was giving me the scoop.
While the purse for the 1981 Arlington Million was a huge deal at the time, races worth $1 million are fairly commonplace nowadays. And four decades after John Henry nosed out The Bart in the first running of the Arlington Million, a race offering a $20 million purse, the Saudi Cup, will be held this Saturday at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
America’s Knicks Go and Charlatan head the field of 14 entered in this year’s Saudi Cup, which has the distinction of being the world’s richest horse race.
Knicks Go is No. 1 in this week’s first 2021 NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll. Charlatan is No. 2.
The other American shippers running in this year’s Saudi Cup are Max Player, Tacitus and Sleepy Eyes Todd.
Brad Cox trains Knicks Go. Cox was voted a 2020 Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer.
Knicks Go is taking a four-race winning streak into the Saudi Cup. His two most recent victories have come at the Grade I level. The Maryland-bred colt took the Grade I BC Dirt Mile by 3 1/2 lengths in his final start of 2020, then won Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational by 2 3/4 lengths in his first start of 2021.
The 1 1/8-mile Pegasus was Knicks Go’s first time going longer than 1 1/16 miles in his 18-race career. The Saudi Cup will be run at 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) around one turn.
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert trained Paynter, the sire of Knicks Go. Paynter at 3 finished a close second to Union Rags in the Grade I Belmont Stakes and won the Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
In this year’s Saudi Cup, Baffert will be trying to beat Paynter’s son Knicks Go with Charlatan, who has finished first in each of his four career starts. Charlatan won a division of last year’s 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby by six lengths, but then was disqualified from purse money due to a medication violation.
In his most recent start, Charlatan won Santa Anita’s Grade I Malibu Stakes at seven furlongs on Dec. 26. The Kentucky-bred Speightstown colt sat comfortably just off the fast early pace set by Nashville, then drew away in the lane to win with authority by 4 1/2 lengths.
My selections for the Saudi Cup are below:
- Knicks Go
- Chuwa Wizard
I’m going with Knicks Go over Charlatan in a very tough call. My main reason for giving the nod to Knicks Go is he recorded a 108 Beyer Speed Figure the one time he’s raced 1 1/8 miles. In Charlatan’s lone start at 1 1/8 miles, he received a career-low 96 Beyer. This is quite a disparity.
But I have considerable respect for Charlatan. He is an extremely talented colt who has yet to be anything but first at the end of a race. And I will not be the least bit surprised if he once again is in front at the end of Saturday’s Saudi Cup.
Watch out for Mishriff. He’s got class (winner of the Group I French Derby on turf last year), a great trainer (John Gosden) and has run well on dirt at King Abdulaziz Racecourse (second in last year’s Saudi Derby).
One also should never take horses from Japan lightly on the international stage these days. Chuwa Wizard won the Group I Champions Cup on dirt Dec. 6 in Japan.
SOUTHWEST STAKES POSTPONED YET AGAIN
Wintry weather certainly has wreaked havoc on the racing schedule at Oaklawn Park. It has caused the cancellation of eight racing days from Feb. 12 through this Sunday. The sport is slated to resume there on Feb. 25.
The Grade III Southwest Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race on the road to the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby on May 1, was supposed to have been run at Oaklawn on Feb. 15. Then the race was moved to Feb. 20. Then it was moved to Feb. 21. And now it has been moved to Feb. 27.
The Southwest situation no doubt has been frustrating for the connections of Essential Quality, Keepmeinmind and Jackie’s Warrior, the three marquee 3-year-olds expected to run in the race.
Essential Quality, the undefeated Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male of 2020, sits atop my Kentucky Derby Top 10. Keepmeinmind, who is No. 9, won the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 28.
Jackie’s Warrior won a pair of Grade I races last year, the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga and Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. He then finished fourth as the 9-10 favorite in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland on Nov. 6.
Essential Quality won the BC Juvenile at odds of 7-2. Hot Rod Charlie ran second at 94-1, while Keepmeinmind came in third at 30-1. Hot Rod Charlie currently is No. 8 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10.
My Kentucky Derby Top 10 for this week is below:
- Essential Quality
- Life Is Good
- Caddo River
- Greatest Honour
- Concert Tour
- Medina Spirit
- Hot Rod Charlie
- Roman Centurian
The plan still is for Essential Quality to run in the Southwest, according to 2020 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox. The same goes for Jackie’s Warrior, according to Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. The two colts have been able to continue their training regimen at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds.
Because the Southwest is being run at a later date than originally scheduled, Fair Grounds’ Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 20 has been taken “out of play” for Essential Quality’s second start of the year, Cox told BloodHorse’s Bob Ehalt.
Cox said the two races “that are in play” after the Southwest for the Kentucky-bred Tapit colt are the Grade II Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 3 or Oaklawn’s Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 10.
As for Keepmeinmind, his Southwest status is up in the air. That’s because he is stabled at Oaklawn, the winter base of trainer Robertino Diodoro. In addition to the canceled race dates at Oaklawn, horses have not been able to train there due to the wintry conditions.
“For us to run [in the Southwest], we need to be on the track on the weekend and we’ll just play our cards from there,” Diodoro was quoted as saying in a Daily Racing Form story written by Mary Rampellini. “Our plan is still to run in it. But I really can’t see us running next weekend if we’re not on the track by Saturday.”
While Diodoro’s preference remains to run Keepmeinmind in the Southwest, the trainer stressed that “our number one goal is to do what’s right for the horse.”
If Keepmeinmind does not start in the Southwest, Diodoro said the alternate plan is for the Kentucky-bred Laoban colt to await the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 13. Like the Southwest, the Rebel is a 1 1/16-mile race.
RISEN STAR WINNER RETURNS TO DERBY TOP 10
Mandaloun is back on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week following his victory as the 2-1 favorite in Fair Grounds’ Grade II Risen Star Stakes at 1 1/8 miles last Saturday.
A close-up third early in the field of 11, Mandaloun took the lead with slightly more than a furlong to go, then went on to get the job done by 1 1/4 lengths in 1:50.39. Proxy came in second at 4-1. Midnight Bourbon, 5-1 in the wagering, finished third, a half-length behind Proxy.
These were the same first three finishers in the 1 1/16-mile Lecomte Stakes on that same track Jan. 16, only on that occasion Midnight Bourbon won, Proxy was second and Mandaloun third.
Going into the Lecomte, Mandaloun had been No. 10 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10. He dropped off my Top 10 after he did not win the Lecomte.
Senor Buscador drops off my Top 10 this week after he finished fifth as the 5-2 second favorite in the Risen Star.
The plan for Mandaloun is for him to make his next start in the $1 million Louisiana Derby, which will be contested at 1 3/16 miles.
Cox trains three on this week’s Top 10. In addition to No. 1 Essential Quality, he conditions No. 3 Caddo River and No. 5 Mandaloun.
Caddo River lost his first two starts, both at seven furlongs. The Kentucky-bred Hard Spun colt subsequently won a one-mile maiden race by 9 1/2 lengths at Churchill on Nov. 15, then cruised to a 10 1/4-length triumph in Oaklawn’s one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes on Jan. 22. The next scheduled start for him is the $1 million Rebel.
Bob Baffert also trains three on my current Kentucky Derby Top 10. They are No. 2 Life Is Good, No. 6 Concert Tour and No. 7 Medina Spirit.
Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby a record-tying six times (Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, War Emblem in 2002, American Pharoah in 2015, Justify in 2018 and Authentic in 2020).
Ben Jones likewise has six Kentucky Derby victories to his credit (Lawrin in 1938, Whirlaway in 1941, Pensive in 1944, Citation in 1948, Ponder in 1949 and Hill Gail in 1952).
Mandaloun raced with blinkers for the first time in the Risen Star. He recorded a career-best 98 Beyer Speed Figure. He now has won three of four lifetime starts. He’s been the favorite in each of his races.
In terms of other recent Risen Star winners, Mandaloun’s 98 Beyer Speed Figure stacks up quite well. It’s the highest Beyer by a Risen Star winner since El Padrino likewise posted a 98 Beyer in the 2012 renewal.
Below are the Beyer Speed Figures for Risen Star winners going back to 1992 (the figures prior to 2020 are listed in the American Racing Manual, which is now digital only):
2021 Mandaloun (98)
2020 Wells Bayou (91)
2019 War of Will (90)
2018 Bravazo (93)
2017 Girvin (93)
2016 Gun Runner (89)
2015 International Star (92)
2014 Intense Holiday (97)
2013 Ive Struck a Nerve (96)
2012 El Padrino (98)
2011 Mucho Macho Man (94)
2010 Discreetly Mine (94)
2009 Friesan Fire (97)
2008 Pyro (90)
2007 Notional (92)
2006 Lawyer Ron (106)
2005 Scipion (89)
2004 Gradepoint (98)
2003 Badge of Silver (106)
2002 Repent (102)
2001 Dollar Bill (102)
2000 Exchange Rate (97)
1999 Ecton Park (95)
1998 Comic Strip (91)
1997 Open Forum (91)
1996 Zarb’s Magic (100)
1995 Beavers Nose (92)
1994 Fly Cry (100)
1993 Dixieland Heat (93)
1992 Line in the Sand (88)
LIFE IS GOOD AGAIN FAVORED IN FUTURE WAGER
In Pool 1 of the 2021 Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW), which closed on Nov. 29, Life Is Good was the 5-1 favorite among the 22 individual horses and the “All 3-Year-Old Fillies” option. Essential Quality was the second choice at 8-1.
In Pool 2 of the KDFW, which closed on Jan. 24, Life Is Good was the 7-1 favorite among the 23 individual horses. Essential Quality again was the 8-1 second choice.
In Pool 3 of the KDFW, which closed last Sunday, Life Is Good again was the 7-1 favorite and Essential Quality the 8-1 second choice among the 23 individual horses.
The actual 3-1 favorite in Pool 3 was the “All Others” option.
Life Is Good is two for two after winning Santa Anita’s Grade III Sham Stakes on Jan. 2 for Baffert. The Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt recorded a 101 Beyer Speed Figure in the Sham. Life Is Good is scheduled to make his next start in Santa Anita’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes on March 6.
Authentic last year won both the Sham and San Felipe. He would go on to capture the Kentucky Derby and BC Classic for Baffert en route to 2020 Eclipse Awards as champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year.
Below are the final odds for Pool 3 of the 2021 KDFW:
3-1 “All Other 3-Year-Old Males”
7-1 Life Is Good
8-1 Essential Quality
9-1 Greatest Honor
15-1 Caddo River
17-1 Concert Tour
25-1 Medina Spirit
25-1 Risk Taking
26-1 Jackie’s Warrior
28-1 Dream Shake
30-1 Fire At Will
35-1 Candy Man Rocket
35-1 Hot Rod Charlie
37-1 Highly Motivated
38-1 The Great One
39-1 Senor Buscador
41-1 Midnight Bourbon
41-1 Roman Centurian
52-1 Freedom Fighter
91-1 Nova Rags
NTRA REVEALS ITS FIRST POLLS FOR 2021
The first editions of this year’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll and Top 3-Year-old Poll were announced Tuesday.
The Top Thoroughbred Poll is indicative of who might be crowned a divisional champion and, moreover, Horse of the Year. Eligible journalists and broadcasters each week submit their Top 10 horses, with points awarded on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 points basis.
The 2021 Top Thoroughbred Poll concludes after the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar on Nov. 5-6.
Voting in the final Top 3-Year-Old Poll of 2021 will be released following the Grade I Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 5.
Depending on what happens this Saturday, Knicks Go’s reign at the top of the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll could be short-lived. If Knicks Go gets beat in the Saudi Cup, he no doubt will drop out of the No. 1 spot in next week’s poll. If Charlatan wins the Saudi Cup, look for him to move up a notch to No. 1 next week.
The Top 10 in the first NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll of 2021:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
- 341 Knicks Go (27)
- 250 Charlatan (4)
- 232 Maxfield (1)
- 223 Monomoy Girl (3)
- 146 Colonel Liam
- 124 Swiss Skydiver
- 102 Jesus’ Team
- 72 Gamine
- 56 Channel Maker
- 55 Whitmore
The Top 10 in the final NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll of 2020:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
- 355 Authentic (34)
- 311 Improbable (2)
- 309 Monomoy Girl (1)
- 132 Vekoma
- 111 Swiss Skydiver
- 107 Tiz the Law
- 104 Gamine
- 100 Rushing Fall
- 97 Whitmore
- 82 Maximum Security
FIRST 3-YEAR-OLD POLL TOPPED BY ESSENTIAL QUALITY
Essential Quality received by far the most first-place votes and is No. 1 in this year’s first NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll.
The Top 10 in the first NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll of 2021:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
- 325 Essential Quality (24)
- 272 Life Is Good (5)
- 212 Greatest Honour (1)
- 212 Mandaloun (4)
- 176 Medina Spirit
- 137 Caddo River (1)
- 85 Concert Tour
- 84 Keepmeinmind
- 66 Jackie’s Warrior
10 63 Risk Taking
The Top Three-Year-Old Poll that the NTRA released listed Mandaloun third with 212 points and Greatest Honour fourth with 204. However, a number of voters incorrectly spelled it Greatest Honor. Those eight points were not properly attributed to Greatest Honour. Thus, I have credited him with those eight points, which puts him in a tie for third with Mandaloun.