Now that the calendars have been flipped over to July, it’s time for my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during the first half of 2020.
When there were just a handful of tracks conducting live racing for several weeks earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, I was concerned that there might be a dearth of candidates for this list. But it turned out that there actually were quite a number impressive performances to choose from.
A Thoroughbred’s performance can make this list for a variety of reasons, such as:
--A win by a big margin while showing brilliance.
--Recording a fast final time and/or speed figure.
--Being especially game in victory or defeat.
--Defeating a particularly strong group of opponents.
--Carrying more weight than usual and/or spotting considerable weight.
--Achieving something historic.
The importance of the race itself also plays a role in determining whether or not I believe a performance deserves to make the list.
Here is my list of the Top 10 performances this year from Jan. 1 through June 30:
10. HONOR A.P. in Santa Anita’s Grade I Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles on dirt June 6. (Owned by CRK Stable; trained by John Shirreffs; ridden by Mike Smith.)
In Santa Anita’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on March 7, Authentic won by 2 1/4 lengths. Honor A.P. ran second.
In their rematch, Honor A.P. won the Santa Anita Derby going away and rather authoritatively by 2 3/4 lengths. Authentic had to settle for second this time, his first defeat in four career starts.
Honor A.P. had been at a pace disadvantage vis-a-vis Authentic in the San Felipe. Authentic had it his own way on the front end that day, but that was not the case in the rematch.
Seven faced the starter in the Santa Anita Derby. Breaking from the outside post, Authentic veered outward in the initial strides, which is not unusual for a horse starting from an outside post. But when Authentic veered out and had to be straightened, it essentially eliminated the possibility he would be able to get a clear early lead.
Entering the clubhouse turn, Authentic found himself involved in a three-way battle for the lead while outside Shooters Shoot and Anneau d’Or. These three continued as pace factors through the early furlongs while Honor A.P. was lurking within easy striking distance in fifth.
At the quarter pole, Shooters Shoot, Anneau d’Or and Authentic were just heads apart while slugging it out for the lead. Honor A.P. now was gaining strongly while wide and loomed boldly as the field reached the top of the lane.
“Honor A.P. coming with a big, powerful, sweeping move on the outside of Authentic and Anneau d’Or!” said track announcer Frank Mirahmadi.
Surging to the front in upper stretch, Honor A.P. had so much momentum that he already was 1 1/2 lengths clear at the eighth pole. He then steadily increased his advantage the rest of the way. Honor A.P. completed the race in 1:48.97.
Honor A.P. continued his improving Beyer Speed Figure pattern. He recorded a 77 Beyer in his career unveiling, then a 91, then a 95, then a 102 in the Santa Anita Derby.
It was a terrific training job on the part of John Sherriffs to have Honor A.P. ready to run a biggie in the June 6 Santa Anita Derby while making his first start since March 7. Meanwhile, as I previously wrote, Hall of Famer Smith rode a perfect race, which is SOP for M.S. when big bucks are on the line. They don’t call him “Big Money” Mike Smith for nothing.
9. ZULU ALPHA in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational at 1 3/16 miles on turf Jan. 25. (Owned by Michael M. Hui; trained by Michael Maker; ridden by Tyler Gaffalione.)
Shuffled back in heavy traffic when passing the stands the first time, Zulu Alpha was toward the back of the field of 12 going into the backstretch. Rallying while racing next to the inside rail, he overtook the classy mare Magic Wand in midstretch and drew clear to win by two lengths at 11-1.
Magic Wand, the 7-2 second choice in the betting, held on to finish second. Instilled Regard finished third at 10-1.
As an indication of the strength of this race, Zulu Alpha, Magic Wand and Instilled Regard all subsequently won Grade II races.
Zulu Alpha won the Grade II Mac Diarmida Stakes at Gulfstream on Feb. 29.
Magic Wand won the Group II Lamwades Stud Stakes in Ireland on June 13.
Instilled Regard won the Grade II Fort Marcy Stakes at Belmont Park on June 6.
Zulu Alpha, a 7-year-old Kentucky-bred Street Cry gelding, recorded a 106 Beyer Speed Figure for his Pegasus victory.
At the end of the first half of 2020, Zulu Alpha ranked No. 7 on the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll, highest of any grass runner.
8. NADAL in Oaklawn Park’s Grade II Rebel Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on dirt when the track was sloppy March 14. (Owned by George Bolton, Arthur Hoyeau, Barry Lipman and Mark Mathiesen; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Joel Rosario.)
Any way you slice it, this was an outstanding performance.
It is easy for people to rave about a runaway winner. It takes more of a keen eye to recognize just how marvelous Nadal was to win the Rebel.
Nadal prevailed by three-quarters of a length in 1:44.97.
While this performance by Nadal did not produce a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure, it took a special colt to do what he did. The big 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Blame colt had to run hard for every step of the entire race.
Heading toward the first turn, Nadal vied for the early advantage with No Parole. No Parole had come into the race having won all three of his career starts by a combined 34 lengths, albeit in races restricted to Louisiana-breds.
On the first turn, a fresh American Theorem, who was making his 2020 debut, rushed up to engage Nadal and No Parole for the lead. The preliminary fractions of :22.89 and :46.00 were swift.
After being involved in such a hot early pace, both American Theorem and No Parole faltered badly in the final quarter of a mile. American Theorem lost by 27 1/4 lengths. No Parole got beat by 49 lengths.
Considering the early pace, Nadal had every right to also throw in the towel in the last quarter of a mile. Yet he came home well enough to get the job done, but not before having to stave off bids from Three Technique and Silver Prospector near the top of the lane, then Excession in deep stretch while he and Excession drew well clear of the rest of the field.
Excession gave it a good try at odds of 82-1, but could not pull off the upset. Not only did Nadal win as the 9-10 favorite, he then also stayed in front after the finish while galloping out, which again was impressive after he had to run hard during the entire race.
Nadal proved a lot with this triumph. It was his first race around two turns and on a wet track. He also proved he could succeed when shipping away from his home base at Santa Anita.
It was announced on May 28 that Nadal had been retired from racing as a result of a condylar fracture in his left front leg following a four-furlong workout in :48.80 that morning at Santa Anita.
7. VEKOMA in Belmont Park’s Grade I Carter Handicap at seven furlongs on dirt when the track was sloppy June 6. (Owned by R.A. Hill Stable and Gatsas Stables; trained by George Weaver; ridden by Javier Castellano.)
Sent off as the 8-5 favorite, Vekoma led in the opening furlong, then deferred to 16-1 American Anthem.
After relinquishing the advantage, Vekoma was content to stalk before regaining the lead turning into the stretch. He then drew away from his foes in the stretch to reach the finish 7 1/4 lengths in front.
Noted for his way of moving in which it appears he is paddling with his front legs, Vekoma gave the impression he was swimming home on the wet track in the Carter. This was his first Grade I win.
A 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Candy Ride colt, Vekoma posted a laudable final time of 1:21.02.
Vekoma received a 110 Beyer Speed Figure, bettering his previous top of 102 when he won Gulfstream Park’s Sir Shackleton Stakes by 3 1/4 lengths on March 28 in his 2020 debut. His 110 tied him with Gamine for the second-best Beyer during the first half of 2020, exceeded only by Volatile’s 112.
6. MUCHO GUSTO in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational at 1 1/8 miles on dirt Jan. 25. (Owned by HRH Prince Faisal bin Khaled bin Abdulaziz; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr.)
The $3 million purse for this race was considerably lower than the $9 million purse for the 2019 renewal won by City of Light.
There is no question that Mucho Gusto’s task in this year’s Pegasus was made much easier after both Omaha Beach and Spun to Run were scratched.
Omaha Beach, the even-money morning-line favorite, was scratched and retired from racing when X-rays detected the start of a cannon bone fracture in his right rear ankle, BloodHorse reported.
Spun to Run did not run due to a skin problem. He was the 7-2 second choice on the morning line.
Following the important defections of Omaha Beach and Spun to Run, a field of 10 started in the Pegasus. Higher Power was sent away as the 5-2 favorite. Mucho Gusto left the gate at 3-1.
Mucho Gusto exited the gate alertly, then raced in third and fourth while 7-1 Mr Freeze showed the way through the early stages. Taking command at the top of the stretch, Mucho Gusto kicked clear to win by 4 1/2 lengths in 1:48.85.
Going into the Pegasus, Mucho Gusto’s top Beyer had been a 101 when he finished third in the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga in 2019. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Mucho Macho Man colt was credited with a 107 Beyer for his Pegasus victory.
5. TIZ THE LAW in Belmont Park’s Grade I Belmont Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on dirt June 20. (Owned by Sackatoga Stable; trained by Barclay Tagg; ridden by Manny Franco.)
To the surprise of virtually no one, 4-5 favorite Tiz the Law won the Belmont with authority by 3 3/4 lengths at a distance much shorter than the traditional 1 1/2 miles due to the coronavirus pandemic. Also because of the pandemic, this was the first time ever that the Belmont kicked off this country’s Triple Crown series. Furthermore, this year’s 152nd running of the Belmont was the first in its history to be contested with no customers on hand, again as a result of the pandemic.
Tiz the Law had an ideal trip. He sat third through the early furlongs when on the outside and in the clear while only a couple of lengths off the pacesetting Tap It to Win.
When Franco pushed the button, Tiz the Law responded readily to take the lead coming into the stretch. The New York-bred Constitution colt went on to prevail by daylight in 1:46.53.
Tiz the Law recorded a 100 Beyer Speed Figure for his Belmont triumph. The 100 matched his previous top Beyer achieved when he won Gulfstream Park’s Grade III Holy Bull Stakes by three lengths in his 2020 debut on Feb. 1. Sandwiched between the Holy Bull and Belmont Stakes, he won Gulfstream’s Grade I Florida Derby by 4 1/4 lengths on March 18.
Through the Belmont Stakes, nobody had ever defeated Tiz the Law on a fast track. His only loss in his first six career starts came in last year’s Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes when he had a troubled trip on a sloppy track and finished third.
Tiz the Law became the first New York-bred to win New York’s Belmont Stakes in 138 years. Only four New York-breds have ever won the Belmont. They are Ruthless (who took the inaugural running in 1867), Fenian (1869), Forester (1882) and Tiz the Law.
Tagg, 82, became the oldest trainer to win the Belmont.
At the end of the first half of 2020, Tiz the Law held the top spot in the NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll.
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 409 Tiz the Law (40)
2. 367 Honor A.P. (1)
3. 276 Authentic
4. 223 Dr Post
5. 200 King Guillermo
6. 138 Gamine
7. 105 Charlatan
8. 97 Max Player
9. 71 Swiss Skydiver
10. 66 Maxfield
4. MIDNIGHT BISOU in Churchill Downs’ Grade II Fleur de Lis Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on dirt June 27. (Owned by Bloom Racing Stable, Madaket Stables and Allen Racing; trained by Steve Asmussen; ridden by Mike Smith.)
This was Midnight Bisou’s first start since she finished second to Maximum Security in the richest race on the planet, the Group I, $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 29.
Seven started in the Fleur de Lis. Midnight Lute was bet down to 1-2 favoritism.
Fourth early while being patiently ridden by Hall of Famer Smith, Fleur de Lis made an electrifying move on the far turn.
“Midnight Bisou, with a blitz on the far turn, has rocketed to the front! Midnight Bisou takes charge off the turn,” said track announcer Travis Stone.
For many it brought back memories of Arazi’s electrifying come-from-behind victory years ago on that same oval. I was at Churchill Downs when Arazi won the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Whether you saw that race live or on television, Arazi’s performance was one that you likely will never forget.
Next-to-last and a dozen lengths off the early lead in the field of 14, Azeri generated one of the most memorable rallies in the history of the Breeders’ Cup. Midway on the far turn, Bertrando was in front and running strongly. But Arazi moved with a rush to get the lead turning for home and went on to prevail by five lengths.
“And they are coming down to the finish here. Here is indeed a superstar!” said Tom Durkin during his call of the race. “Arazi, absolutely brilliant. He was taken under a hard hold, to win it here by five, and he could have won by 10 perhaps.”
After Midnight Bisou had opened a commanding lead during the stretch run of this year’s Fleur de Lis, Smith similarly allowed her to just canter home. The 5-year-old Kentucky-bred Midnight Lute mare won by 8 1/4 lengths in 1:48.99.
At the end of the first half of 2020, Midnight Bisou occupied the top spot in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 390 Midnight Bisou (25)
2. 347 Tom’s d’Etat (9)
3. 217 Mucho Gusto
4. 206 Code of Honor (4)
5. 180 By My Standards
6. 123 Tiz the Law (3)
7. 119 Zulu Alpha
8. 116 Vekoma
9. 90 Maximum Security (3)
10. 85 Improbable
In the week prior to the Fleur de Lis, I cast my first-place vote for Tiz the Law in the NTRA poll. At that time, Midnight Bisou had not yet won a race in 2020. But after Midnight Bisou’s dominant victory in the Fleur de Lis, she did receive my first-place vote for the final NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll during the first half of 2020.
3. TOM’S D’ETAT in Churchill Downs’ Grade II Stephen Foster Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on dirt June 27. (Owned by GMB Racing; trained by Albert Stall Jr.; ridden by Miguel Mena.)
Off as the 6-5 favorite, Tom’s d’Etat raced just off the early pace established by 14-1 Pirate’s Punch. Tom’s d’Etat took the lead with about three furlongs to go and drew away in the stretch to prevail by 4 1/4 lengths.
A 7-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Smart Strike, Tom’s d’Etat’s registered a praiseworthy final time of 1:47.30, only .02 seconds off the track record set by Victory Gallop in the 1999 Stephen Foster.
Tom’s d’Etat received a career-best 109 Beyer Speed Figure for his Stephen Foster performance.
The Stephen Foster was Tom’s d’Etat’s fourth consecutive victory. He won Keeneland’s Grade II Fayette Stakes last Oct. 26, then Churchill’s Grade I Clark Stakes on Nov. 29, then the Oaklawn Mile at Oaklawn Park on April 11, then the Stephen Foster.
By My Standards had to settle for second in the Stephen Foster. Going into this race, he ranked second behind only Midnight Bisou on the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll.
Why have I put Tom d’Etat’s win in the Stephen Foster higher on this list than Midnight Bisou’s victory in the Fleur de Lis? The main reason is Tom’s d’Etat’s final time of 1:47.30 in the 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster was considerably faster than Midnight Bisou’s final Fleur de Lis clocking of 1:48.99 on the same day and same track and at the same trip.
2. VOLATILE in Churchill Downs’ Aristides Stakes at six furlongs on dirt June 6. (Owned by Phoenix Thoroughbreds III and Three Chimneys Farm; trained by Steve Asmussen; ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr.)
Asmussen also trained Mitole, whose victory in the Met Mile at Belmont Park ranked No. 2 on my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during the first half of 2019. No. 1 was City of Light’s 5 3/4-length victory in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park early in 2019 on Jan. 26.
Mitole won the Met Mile by three-quarters of a length in a stellar field of nine. He stepped one mile in a splendid 1:32.75, not far off the track record of 1:32.24 set by Najran in 2003.
Most observers considered that Met Mile field to be the strongest for any race run in this country during the first half of 2019. McKinzie finished second (despite a troubled trip), followed in order by Promises Fulfilled, Firenze Fire, Pavel, Coal Front, Tale of Silence and Prince Lucky.
Mitole would go on to win last year’s Grade I Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita on Nov. 2. He was voted a 2019 Eclipse Award as champion male sprinter.
Volatile’s win as the 1-2 favorite in the Aristides was Mitole-like. Making his stakes debut, the 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Violence colt sat in third early, took over at the top of the stretch and drew off to win by eight lengths in a scorching 1:07.57. His final time was just .02 of a second off the track record set by Indian Chant in 2007.
“He’s just a tremendous talent,” Asmussen said of Volatile after the Aristides.
Volatile recorded a 112 Beyer Speed Figure. It was the highest Beyer during the first half of 2020.
1. GAMINE in Belmont Park’s Grade I Acorn Stakes at one mile on dirt June 20. (Owned by Michael L. Petersen; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by John Velazquez.)
Even before this race, Baffert had called Gamine a superstar. Baffert’s view of the filly was affirmed by her scintillating performance in this race, which deserved a 10 on a “wow scale” of 1 to 10.
Breaking from the inside post, Gamine dashed immediately to the front. She flaunted her speed while setting fractions of :22.48, :45.28 and 1:09.33. Gamine proceeded to pour it on while coming down the lane and won in isolated grandeur by 18 3/4 lengths as a 3-5 favorite.
The 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Into Mischief filly was credited with a 110 Beyer Speed Figure. That 110 figure tied for the second-best Beyer during the first half of the year. No 3-year-old of either sex posted a higher Beyer from Jan. 1 to June 30.
Gamine’s margin of victory was the largest in the history of the Acorn, a race that was first run in 1931. Her final time of 1:32.55 was a stakes record and just .31 of a second off the 17-year-old track record owned by Najran. To put Gamine’s 1:32.55 clocking into further context, it was faster than Mitole’s excellent final time of 1:32.75 when he won the 2019 Met Mile on that same track.
The stakes record for the Acorn once was held by Ruffian. She won the 1975 renewal of the Acorn by 8 1/2 lengths in 1:34.40.
I consider Ruffian to be the greatest female Thoroughbred of all time. Her only loss in 11 career starts came when she tragically broke down in her 1975 match race against Foolish Pleasure.
In Ruffian’s 10 victories, she tied or broke a stakes or track record in all but one of them.
Andrew Beyer, father of the Beyer Speed Figures, went so far as to call Gamine’s Acorn victory a “great” performance.
In my view, Gamine’s performance in the Acorn was the finest to have occurred on the American racing stage during the first half of 2020.
MY CURRENT KENTUCKY DERBY TOP 10
The more I have looked at American-bred, Japan-based Cafe Pharoah, the more I think he could be very dangerous in the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby. Consequently, I have moved him up a couple of notches to No. 7 on my Kentucky Derby rankings.
Cafe Pharoah is undefeated in three career starts. Most recently, he won the Group III Unicorn Stakes at about one mile on dirt June 21 at Tokyo Racecourse. His sire is American Pharoah, who in in 2015 swept this country’s Triple Crown and was voted Horse of the Year.
Cezanne, who is No. 6 on my Top 10, is the 4-5 morning-line favorite in a one-mile allowance/optional claiming race Friday at Los Alamitos. A $3.65 auction purchase, he won a 6 1/2-furlong maiden special weight race at Santa Anita on June 6 in his lone start to date while recording a 90 Beyer Speed Figure. Bob Baffert trains the Kentucky-bred Curlin colt.
Uncle Chuck, who is ranked No. 5, is among five 3-year-olds entered in this Saturday’s Grade III Los Alamitos Derby at 1 1/8 miles. The first four finishers will be rewarded with points toward the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby on a 20-8-4-2 scale.
In Uncle Chuck’s only start so far, he won a one-mile maiden special weight race by seven lengths at Santa Anita on June 12. He was credited with a 95 Beyer Speed Figure. Baffert also trains Uncle Chuck, a Kentucky-bred Uncle Mo colt and $250,000 auction purchase.
Baffert also is represented in the Los Al Derby by Thousand Words. A $1 million auction purchase, Thousand Words has lost two straight (by 11 1/4 and 29 3/4 lengths) after winning his first three career starts. The Kentucky-bred Pioneerof the Nile colt won the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity last year and Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita this year prior to his back-to-back drubbings.
Here is my current Kentucky Derby Top 10:
1. Honor A.P.
2. Tiz the Law
4. Dr Post
5. Uncle Chuck
7. Cafe Pharoah
8. Max Player
9. Art Collector
TIZ THE LAW FAVORED IN KDFW POOL 5
Not surprisingly, Tiz the Law ended up being the favorite in Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW) Pool 5 that closed last Sunday. Tiz the Law’s price was 2-1.
Here were the final odds for Pool 5 of the KDFW:
2-1 Tiz the Law
6-1 Honor A.P.
8-1 “All Other 3-Year-Olds”
13-1 Uncle Chuck
14-1 Cafe Pharoah
20-1 Art Collector
20-1 Dr Post
24-1 “All Other Three-Year-Old Fillies”
24-1 Max Player
29-1 King Guillermo
47-1 Thousand Words
53-1 Ete Indien
54-1 Mystic Guide
57-1 Ny Traffic
69-1 Man in the Can
75-1 Money Moves
78-1 Mr. Big News
Here were the final odds for Pool 4 of the KDFW that closed back on April 4:
3-1 “All Others”
5-1 Tiz the Law
15-1 Honor A.P.
28-1 Wells Bayou
29-1 Ete Indien
31-1 Gouverneur Morris
34-1 Sole Volante
36-1 King Guillermo
45-1 Thousand Words
46-1 Mischievious Alex
53-1 Storm the Court
54-1 Major Fed
63-1 Three Technique
67-1 Max Player
71-1 Ny Traffic
*Actual betting favorite among the individual horses.