Little lives up to the hype.
Check me if I’m wrong, but these days don’t you almost routinely expect to be somewhat disappointed by what you buy, view or otherwise experience? Rarely are we impressed by the quality, durability or entertainment value of anything. If we happen to have a memorable experience, we feel compelled to scream it from a mountaintop or at least to recount it in a weekly column.
There aren’t any nearby precipices, so here goes….
Entering this past weekend, Thoroughbred racing promised two attractive struggles—one on each coast—Saturday at Del Mar and Sunday at Saratoga. By all accounts, these conflicts--in the form of the San Diego Handicap on the left and the Coaching Club American Oaks on the right—didn’t disappoint.
Saturday, California Chrome, about as popular in the Golden State as a four-legged native son can be, always was scheduled to headline Del Mar’s San Diego Handicap. ‘Chrome’s connections originally viewed the Grade 2, $200,000, mile and one-sixteenth race as a mere formality, a walk in the park or, more appropriately, a day at the beach. It was supposed to serve as a sparring session, a paid workout and a mere tune-up for the Grade 1, $1 million, mile and one-quarter Pacific Classic August 20.
However, a funny thing happened on the way to the San Diego Handicap winner’s circle: Dortmund appeared. The real Dortmund, too! The big, bad version of the $1.7 million earner and not the knocked-out, unresponsive galoot trainer Bob Baffert had to start, stop and then restart on again since November.
In the San Diego Handicap, jockey Victor Espinoza, aboard California Chrome, allowed the 4/5 favorite to comfortably stalk pacesetter Dortmund--never more than one-length behind and not more than within a half-length of even. Finally, on the turn for home, Espinoza released the beast. ‘Chrome collared Dortmund and went passed him. Track commentator Trevor Denman’s voice elevated an octave, as if about to declare the matter settled.
Just then, in the race’s final furlong, things got more interesting. Dortmund counter-punched and ‘Chrome’s lead diminished. Was it a case of the champ shutting down, or had Dortmund suddenly found more in the tank? Doesn’t matter. What had seemed a budding blowout quickly transformed into an entertaining mere half-length winning margin.
It’s exhilarating when a race flow suddenly shifts in the final furlong. Rarely do horses that are passed off the turn re-rally to win in the stretch. When such a resurrection occurs at the game’s highest level—in the handicap division--it’s even more special.
The narrow San Diego Handicap conclusion adds to an already intriguing heavyweight showdown in the Pacific Classic. ‘Chrome, Dortmund, the race’s defending champion Beholder and possibly Santa Anita Handicap and Gold Cup winner Melatonin all are expected. That means the race will attract the level of hype reserved for Presidential candidates at respective conventions. Let’s hope it doesn’t disappoint.
At Saratoga, Sunday, unbeaten Songbird took her hit California show on the road to where previous champions had met their Waterloos. Just because her act had played famously to sell-out crowds in La-La Land, and once in Kentucky, there was no guarantee that it would be found nearly as entertaining at the foot of the Adirondacks.
Poised to spoil Songbird’s east coast premier was Carina Mia, a hotshot talent boasting a sterling Kentucky/Big Apple resume. If some thought Songbird could warble it was only because they hadn’t yet heard ‘My Dearest’ singing.
The official chart of the CC of A notes: “Should the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile
Fillies start in the Coaching Club American Oaks the purse will be elevated to $500,000.”
She did, and it was.
So, Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms collected $300,000 in US legal tender for Songbird’s victory, bringing her lifetime earnings to $2.4 million. Which is a hefty sum, especially for a young lady in a world where females don’t always earn at the same levels as male counterparts.
Out of the gate, as expected from the rail post-position, Songbird, under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, made the early running. Carina Mia, with patient Julian Leparoux fingering the reins, stalked her through a solid opening quarter of :23 4/5. Leparoux permitted the favorite to enjoy a comfortable one-length or so advantage through a half in :47 2/5 and six furlongs in 1:11 3/5.
Around the far turn, the plot thickened considerably.
Leparoux asked Carina Mia to engage Songbird, and she did so eagerly. The pair raced off the bend and into the stretch matching strides and bobs of the head as if they were one. To this veteran eye it appeared as if Carina Mia might have momentarily poked a nose in front of her foe.
Unlike other sporting events that take hours to complete, horseraces come to rapid conclusions. A winner usually is crowned within about two minutes. Therefore, during an encounter, a mere few seconds can be critical to the outcome. In the Saratoga stretch, for a tiny sliver of a 24-hour sunny summer Sunday, two 3-year-old Thoroughbred fillies matched eyeballs for a few glorious seconds, gave their riders everything they had without being asked and delivered a healthy dose of the game’s elixir.
If either Saturday’s ‘Chrome/Dortmund encounter or Sunday’s Songbird/’Mia exchange can be viewed emotionless or without an elevation in blood pressure then racing’s not your game. You just don’t ‘get it.’ Find something else to do with your spare time.
Yours truly happens to live for such moments and can’t wait until the next time racing doesn’t disappoint.
Picks for week of 07/26/16.