On Track With Johnny D: Permit Me To Share

The past weekend was entertaining. Please, permit me to share.

Breeders’ Cup will return to Santa Anita in 2019, to Keeneland in 2020 and down San Diego way in 2021. Fine by me. In fact, if BC suits ever decide to play ‘em all in SoCal I’ll be happy. I know, the circus has to travel–Kentucky and California are current locations—but I sure do enjoy sunny SoCal weather on the first Fridays and Saturdays in November. Come fall, bluegrass can be beautiful, but there’s also the chance for significant frost on the pumpkin.

Sunday, August 19, jockey Drayden Van Dyke didn’t win all the Del Mar races. But he came close. Seven out of ten times his mount arrived first. Once second. Chances of him winning the other two remaining heats were severely compromised because he didn’t ride either race. The only other jockey to win 7 out of 10 at the seaside oval is recently injured Hall-of-Fame resident Victor Espinoza (2006). Espinoza’s fellow ‘Hall roomies Bill Shoemaker (1954) and Laffit Pincay, Jr. (1976 and ’78) each won with six-out-of-eight mounts at Del Mar. Rudy Rosales once booted home six-out-of-nine in ’69.

Set to turn 24 September 10, Van Dyke has been touted here and elsewhere as the next best thing since the Internet. He has so many positives. The Louisville native learned the ‘right’ way, at the school of hard knocks—otherwise known as the barn of Tom Proctor. He improved under Tom’s brother Hap at Glen Hill Farm in Ocala. Later, he attended graduate school in SoCal under the tutelage of Hall-of-Fame jockeys Mike Smith and Gary Stevens.

It’s important to have outstanding teachers, but education is useless unless the pupil pays attention. Several years ago, at Santa Anita, in a conversation with Stevens about the promising youngster, I asked, “Is he listening?” Gary raised his eyebrows for effect and said, “Yeah, he’s listening.”

Early on a jockey must overcome some hurdles. Van Dyke already had a leg up on one of them. He’s a natural lightweight. That’s a distinct advantage. No ‘pulling’ weight in the hot box on a daily basis or snacking on diuretics. Another significant roadblock for a young rider is when he loses his bug. That weight advantage attracts trainers like ants to sugar. When it’s gone a rider has to prove he still can win. Van Dyke did.

The kid also rebounded from a serious spill and subsequent surgery to repair a compound fracture of his arm. Sometimes, after a nasty incident (and this was one of those) a rider will lose ‘heart.’ ‘Tentative’ doesn’t work between rails in the afternoon. Trainers notice, and ‘live’ mounts quickly evaporate. Three years before his injury, at just 19, Van Dyke also overcame a painful personal challenge—the suicide of his father Seth, a former jockey. Personal travails can send anyone sideways, never mind a teenage athlete in SoCal with a pocketful of money.

But Van Dyke didn’t budge. He stayed the course. And, as far as I can tell, he’s got another immediate hurdle to leap: Fame. And that can be a killer affliction. It’s easy to diagnose the malaise, too. A swelled head is the first symptom. Young athletes in the limelight for the first time are most at risk. The disease can ruin a career. Let’s hope not this one. Stay tuned for the ‘official’ sign, but my money is on the kid.

SoCal-based trainer John Sadler’s shedrow currently suffers from an embarrassment of riches. Through Del Mar’s first five weeks he’s won the Pacific Classic, Eddie Read, San Diego Handicap, Del Mar Mile, and Rancho Bernardo—all graded stakes. The undisputable star of the barn is Accelerate, winner of the $1 million Pacific Classic by about as far as a really good rock-thrower can throw a rock. The 5-year-old is the current favorite to win the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. However, this is August and that’s not until November. More water must pass under the bridge. Diversify, recent impressive Whitney winner at Saratoga, is another with legitimate designs on the Classic, and the white-haired trainer that goes by the surname ‘Baffert’ also could have a candidate or two when the time comes.

For now, we must salute Accelerate for an outstanding performance Saturday. Critics ask, ‘Who’d he beat?’ and that’s fine. They wondered that about Joe Louis and the ‘Bum of the month club,’ too, but nobody really wanted to fight him. Believe me, no one really wants to run against Accelerate right now, either.

Sadler also has a developing runner in Catalina Cruiser, nearly seven-length winner of the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. He’s maintained by Hronis Racing LLC, leading owners at the current Del Mar meeting, and the same folks that pay to feed Accelerate—although it must be noted that Accelerate, with over $1.5 million in earnings this year and $2.3 million all-time, picks up his own tabs. ‘Cruiser, “The best horse no one’s heard of,” according to Sadler, doesn’t need a scholarship, either. He’s three-for-three and has banked over $180k. Current plans call for a BC double play with Accelerate in the BC Classic and ‘Cruiser in the BC Dirt Mile. By the way, in 2016, Accelerate finished third in the BC Dirt Mile—three and one-half lengths behind Tamarkuz and a neck behind Gun Runner!

At the Spa Saturday, Eskimo Kisses benefitted from a long fuse, a fast early pace, a bit of moisture in the track and a ground saving ride by Jose Ortiz to win the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes. Early in the going, ‘Kisses was dead last, but foes were sizzling up front. Down the backstretch she made up ground. On the turn, Ortiz looked to be ‘loaded for bear,’ but horse and rider lacked clear running room. Off the turn, they found a sliver of daylight and managed clear passage to vault passed the tiring leaders. ‘Kisses won off by an emphatic six and one-half lengths!

The Grade 2 Lake Placid Saturday featured the return of Rushing Fall, a 3-year-old filly with merely a runner-up neck defeat as the only losing blemish on a six-race resume. At short odds, the winner of last season’s BC Juvenile Fillies Turf, romped home for trainer Chad Brown. It’s nice to see her back on her game as she appeared to relish some ‘give’ in the ground. The sky continues to be the limit for this daughter of More than Ready and it will be entertaining to watch her progress under Brown’s management.

Saturday is Travers day at Saratoga and yours truly will personally enjoy the action as buddy Will and I venture north for the weekend. I can’t wait. We begin to look forward to the next Saratoga sojourn around the time we check out of the hotel at the conclusion of the previous trip. This year should be especially enjoyable. Weekend weather, which has been dicey all meeting long, looks sensational. And, while I would have loved to see Justify in the Travers, it’s still going to be a great show without him.

Eleven passed the Travers entry box and the field includes something for everyone. Chalk players can embrace Good Magic, the most accomplished active 3-year-old in the nation, from post nine at 2-1 on the morning line. Belmont Stakes and Patriots loyalists can back Gronkowski at 4-1 odds from post 2 off a first-out-in-the-US runner-up effort for Chad Brown. Wonder Gadot, a 3-year-filly that has won two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown, is in post 2 at respectable 5-1 odds. It’s been over 100 years since a filly has won the Travers and over 40 years since one has even entered the starting gate! Catholic Boy certainly deserves some love, but he’s marooned in the historically unsuccessful 11-hole at odds of 8-1. Can he transfer outstanding turf form back to dirt? He owes me money from the Xpressbet Florida Derby when he bled. Remember that? My bank account does. Tenfold, winner of the Jim Dandy at the Spa this summer, is a generous 8-1 odds from post 10. Vino Rosso (post 5, 10-1), Bravazo (post 4, 12-1), Mendelssohn (post 8, 12-1), King Zachary (post 7, 15-1) and Trigger Warning (post 1, 30-1) round out the field.

The supporting Travers Day card looks outstanding, too, on what promises to be a rare 2018 ‘fast and firm’ Spa Saturday.

Until then, thanks for permitting me to share.

Race On!

On Track With Johnny D: Permit Me To Share

On Track with Johnny D |