On Track with Johnny D: Run On Fumes

2016 is nearly out of gas. Needle’s on ‘E.’ Between now and January 1 we’ll run on fumes. No worries. We’ll make it. We always do. Move on. Turn the page. Gas up. Proceed.

Toward what? #Whoknows

Guess that’s an advantage the past has over the future. Hindshight. 20/20 vision. We know where we’ve been, but aren’t sure where we’re going. It’s a mystery. Uncertain. Unpredictable. Unnerving.

2017 approaches like that. Go ahead, admit it: You’re fretting about what’s in store.

As far as Thoroughbred racing goes, 2016 was a banner year. I’m not taking about attendance, handle, takeout, aftercare, medication violations, etc. I refer to what happened between the rails. You know, on the track—dirt, turf and synthetic. The races. Wins, losses and dead-heats, only.

Last January, on the hoofs of American Pharoah’s 2015 Triple Crown triumph, I couldn’t imagine that the approaching season would top the last. On reflection, my vision was horribly flawed. 2016 is in the clubhouse as one of the most enjoyable racing seasons I’ve ever experienced.

You may not agree with my assessment and that’s perfectly understandable. After all, a difference of opinion is what makes a horse race. Below are merely this writer’s impressions.

First, I must openly admit that Santa Anita is my favorite racetrack. Hands down. No contest. Saratoga seeps history, charm; Del Mar boasts breathtaking ocean sunsets; Belmont is massive; Monmouth is quaint and Keeneland screams ‘horse,’ but Santa Anita has it all! At the foot of the majestic San Gabriel mountains, somewhere within the art deco grandstand, parking lot sprawl, a unique downhill turf course, spacious saddling paddock, picturesque walking ring, expansive stable area, centralized gap, Clocker’s Corner and versatile infield beats my heart.

I love Santa Anita so much that I once purchased a condominium across the street from the track just so I could keep an eye on it. Unfortunately, times change. Santa Anita remains, but I’ve been relocated.

Were my ashes to be sprinkled there, where Thoroughbreds have matched strides in glorious competition since before World War II, it would be jake. After all, I’ve experienced many of my most triumphant (and gloomy) times there. Why not eternity?

Forgive me, I digress, but I’m proud of my old friend’s year.

In 2016, Santa Anita hosted regular season performances by heavyweight California Chrome, Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, filly soph sensation Songbird, Preakness winner Exaggerator, and Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Arrogate. In a glorious and sun drenched 2016 finale, Santa Anita, fittingly, was the site of the most entertaining two-day Breeders’ Cup extravaganza ever.

More on that later.

Thanks to a $1 million bonus offered by the Fasig-Tipton sales company, the top two ranked 3-year-olds met at Gulfstream Park in the Florida Derby, a full month before the Kentucky Derby. It was a rare early showdown between Mohaymen, the best in the east, and Nyquist, the best in the west.

Nyquist scored a knockout in Florida and next roared home triumphantly in the Kentucky Derby before Exaggerator, Gun Runner and Mohaymen. An unusually formful sophomore prep season culminated in a rare Kentucky Derby finish where the top four betting choices finished in exact order.

Exaggerator won the Preakness, and dreams of back-to-back Triple Crown winners were quickly dashed. That was okay with me. I didn’t want another horse to complete the sweep immediately after American Pharoah had done it. In hindsight, waiting a seemingly interminable 37 years for another Triple Crown winner actually made the moment sweeter. I’m willing to wait a while for the next one. However, it should be noted by the racing gods, I can’t wait another 37 years for the next one. My expiration date won’t permit it.

The 2016 Belmont Stakes was a personal triumph as Creator, my Kentucky Derby and Belmont selection, scored by a nose over Destin at 16-1. In this very space I outlined a 10-cent Belmont superfecta ticket that returned over $1,300. Based on feedback, many Xpressbet account holders followed my lead and joyfully cashed tickets. Huzzah!

During the summer of ’16, there were two absolutely incredible individual performances: Frosted’s scintillating Metropolitan Handicap and Arrogate’s stunning Travers Stakes. The former came courtesy of a familiar colt that had shown flashes of talent at three–after winning the Wood in April, he was considered a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender, but finished fourth on the first Saturday in May. He didn’t win another race in 2015 until annexing the Pennsylvania Derby in September. At four, following winter and a victory in Dubai, Frosted returned to the states and immediately exploded at Belmont Park to win the Metropolitan Handicap by over 14 lengths in 1:32 3/5!

Arrogate’s stunning 13 ½ -half length demolition of Travers’ foes at historic Saratoga in track record time (1:59 1/5) was so unexpected (nearly 12-1 odds) that its relevance immediately was questioned. In a game where past performances mean everything, no one could recall when a horse had accomplished what Arrogate had. In just his fifth lifetime start and first stakes attempt, the 3-year-old colt had shipped cross-country and completely dominated one of the nation’s most hallowed events. Would we ever see a performance from him remotely like it again? Surely, the Travers had been a freakish event not to be duplicated. One of those things that just happens. Aligned stars and all that rot.

Under the care of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, we would wait more than two months to see more from Arrogate. When we did it was worth it.

As each 2016 calendar page surrendered to the next the sport continued to deliver entertaining moments. California Chrome, Songbird, Beholder, Arrogate, Frosted, Nyquist, Exaggerator, Tepin, Stellar Wind, A.P. Indian, Flintshire, Miss Temple City, Lady Eli and others rarely disappointed. As fall arrived, racing fans began to salivate over potential Breeders’ Cup showdowns in both male and female divisions.

They weren’t disappointed.

In her final race, 6-year-old Beholder and unbeaten sophomore Songbird matched strides through the stretch of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and hit the finish as one. No one at the track could tell the winner. Those watching on NBC were certain that Songbird had gotten there first—but, as veteran horseplayers know, the angle fools you. Officially, the photo finish revealed Beholder on top by the slimmest of margins. Cheers and tears of joy filled the grandstand. That two Hall of Fame jockeys, contemporaries, competitors and friends–51-year-old Mike Smith on Songbird and 53-year-old Gary Stevens on Beholder—were aboard enriched the moment. Neither the filly nor the mare had won or lost. A random moment in time merely had placed one in front of the other. That’s it.

The Distaff, aka Ladies Classic for a brief time, has showcased outstanding fillies and mares. However, in its 36-year existence, the race never has served as delicious a feast as was presented to racing fans in 2016. That is not to say that Beholder or Songbird are more or less talented than Bayakoa, Zenyatta, Ladies Secret, Princess Rooney, Personal Ensign or any other previous winners of the race. It is, however, aimed to declare that the 2016 duo delivered the best Distaff show ever.

Roughly 24 hours later, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza turned into the Santa Anita stretch with a decided advantage. As Espinoza’s head turned right and then left, as if on a swivel to assess the competition, Mike Smith deftly angled nearest pursuer Arrogate toward the middle of the track. In mid-stretch, Espinoza asked ‘Chrome the question and he responded in the affirmative. The matter appeared to be settled.

With a final attempt to rouse his mount, Smith switched the stick to his right hand and firmly laced Arrogate. The response was immediate and impressive. The 3-year-old colt that had shocked the racing world at Saratoga in August appeared to drop down, level out, and suddenly shift into another gear. With extensive, determined strides the leader’s margin evaporated. Arrogate arrived and California Chrome, a 5-year-old who had made a remarkable comeback in 2016 to win the world’s richest race, had no answer.

Hopefully, the pair will tussle again at Gulfstream Park in the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational—a $12 million dollar extravaganza destined to replace the Dubai World Cup as the world’s richest race. It’s at a shorter distance—a mile and one-eighth instead of a mile and one-quarter—so perhaps ‘Chrome will have an edge. Arrogate has youth on his side, and youth, though often squandered on the young, is a devastating weapon.

All that, however, won’t happen until 28 days after the ball drops in Times Square. 2017 The New Year. When we’ve moved on. Turned the page. Gassed up.

For now, we’ll run on fumes.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Run On Fumes

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