On Track With Johnny D: Showstopper

One definition of ‘showstopper’ is: A performance receiving prolonged applause from the audience. Saturday, we clapped so often and for so long our palms ached.

At Arlington Park, in the Grade 1 Beverly D. Stakes, Chad Brown-trained horses finished first, second and third. Sistercharlie (Ire), Fourstar Crook and Thais (Fr), came home less than two lengths apart, respectively. However, the amazing 1-2-3 stablemate finish was more ‘no-hitter’ than ‘perfect game,’ because Inflexibility, also saddled in the race by Brown, missed fourth by a nose. A cold, ‘All-Brown’ super would have brought down the house.

A clean sweep of win, place and show dough in a nationally televised Grade 1 event would be considered a career moment for just about any trainer. To Brown it merely was a good day at the office. He’s done it before. Probably more than once.

Each January, Brown must assume that come August he will win the Beverly D. Stakes. In fact, his stable’s annual budget projection must include the winner’s share of the Bev. D. purse. Taking second, third and fifth-place cash is all gravy. How can Brown not anticipate success in that race? Saturday was his fifth victory in the event and fourth-in-a-row!

Obviously, he requires a bigger challenge than merely winning the Grade 1 turf extravaganza for fillies and mares. This year his aim was a superfecta sweep. Next season’s plans may be to hijack the Hi-5!

In the afternoon’s very next race, the Grade 1 Arlington Million, a prestigious worldwide event, Brown pupils didn’t fare quite as well. They only managed to finish first, second and fifth. A Brown exacta instead of a trifecta.

Robert Bruce, a Chilean-bred 4-year-old making his third start in the United States, won for the eighth time in nine lifetime appearances. His only defeat accompanied a troubled trip in the Manhattan Stakes at Belmont. Saturday, Robert Bruce’s stablemate Almanaar, bred in Great Britain and going for his third consecutive U.S. win, finished a clear second after some traffic issues. The victory was Brown’s third Million triumph. He joins Hall-of-Fame residents the late Charlie Whittingham and 86-years-young Ron McAnally as the only trainers to have won the Million three times.

Domination is familiar to Chad Brown-- especially on turf and notably with fillies and mares. The 39-year-old conditioner has accomplished more on grass than anyone since Snoop Dogg. Now, he’s also winning on dirt, as evidenced by Good Magic’s achievements. So far this year, that colt’s been the best 3-year-old in the nation not named Justify.

A native of nearby Mechanicville, NY, in 2016 Brown won the Spa training title with 40 tallies, a new record immediately matched in 2017 by perennial leading conditioner Todd Pletcher. That trainer’s race came down to the meet’s final day and Pletcher went one better than Brown.

Although Brown lost that particular battle, he won the war and was named North America’s top trainer in 2017. He also garnered the honor in 2016, mostly on the strength of turf triumphs. This summer, despite the fact that the 2018 Saratoga turf experience has been a wash-out, Brown is well ahead in the standings--25 to 13 over Pletcher. The margin illustrates how deep and versatile is Brown’s current roster. He no longer is, merely, an exceptional ‘turf trainer.’

Brown’s education under Hall-of-Fame trainer Bobby Frankel is well documented. But Brooklyn Bobby wasn’t Brown’s only tutor. In fact, Frankel isn’t even the only Hall-of-Fame conditioner to influence Brown. While an animal science major at Cornell, Brown began his racetrack career with Shug McGaughey--who owns a plaque in the ‘Hall. Brown also later interned with veterinarian Steven Allday.

Don’t know how a guy could get a more substantial head start than that, but the father of two girls has made the most of the opportunity. Like Napoleon Dynamite, he has skills.

Another dude with mad skills is jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. He and brother Jose now dominate the NYRA riding colony. No wonder. They’re both young, talented, hard workers and they benefit from shared access to live mounts—'if Irad can’t ride this one, maybe Jose can’ or vice-versa. They should be around and on top for a long time.

Saturday was Irad’s 26th birthday. 26! I’ve got ties older than that. And, get this, Jose is two years younger than that! Irad celebrated his big day about the best way a jockey can…by winning a legendary Grade 1 race for the nation’s top trainer. It was the Arlington Million aboard Robert Bruce, for Chad Brown. Irad also finished second in the Beverly D. aboard Fourstar Crook, again for Brown. Jose didn’t ride the Beverly D. and was forced to ease favored Oscar Performance in the Million. Not a banner afternoon for him. That’s OK, it wasn’t his birthday. In the afternoon’s final race, the Grade 3 Pucker Up Stakes, big brother got the better of Jose by a length and one-quarter. An Ortiz brothers’ exacta—a familiar angle to NYRA and Gulfstream horseplayers--returned $35.80 for a buck.

Not to permit the ‘under 40’ crowd to depart Arlington Heights, IL with all the loot, veteran jockey John Velazquez piloted Sistercharlie home for Brown in the Beverly D. At 46, Johnny V is closer to fellow Hall of Fame residents Mike Smith and Gary Stevens in experience than he is to the Ortiz brothers in age. And that’s a good thing. A very good thing. Old-timers like yours truly need guys like Johnny, Mike and Gary to root for. When they win, we win. Even if we don’t have a ticket on them. They say, ‘youth is wasted on the young!’ And the older one gets, the more that rings true. Anyway, I’ll take a cagey vet in a big-money pinch anytime!

On the left-coast, a real ‘baby’ validated a previous powerful performance. Instagrand, a 2-year-old Into Mischief colt, won the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar. ‘Won’ doesn’t seem a fitting description. Under another twenty-something riding phenom, Drayden Van Dyke (24), the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained juvenile absolutely breezed home first. There…that’s better. Instagrand glides along effortlessly, like he’s about to rise from the earth on a cushion of air ala Marty McFly on a hoverboard.

You might crack, “What do you expect for $1.2 million?” That’s what owner Larry Best Instagrand paid for him in March. Unfortunately, (or fortunately) a high-price tag doesn’t directly correlate with success on the racetrack. The future still hinges on several dice tosses. Each year, many horses sell for over $1 million. Label them expensive. Ones that move like Instagrand? They’re priceless!

Does all this mean you should immediately rush out and plunk your hard-earned cash on him to win the Kentucky Derby? No! First of all, he’s 8-1 in the future book, which is absurd. It’s August, people. Last I checked the Derby is in May. Nine months out I wouldn’t take 8-1 on Instagrand starting in the Kentucky Derby, let alone that price on him winning the race!

It’s a handy criticism to argue that racing needs stars and I get that. I miss Justify as much as you do. But, truth is, we have stars. Human and equine. Some young and some ‘experienced.’ They’re all capable of delivering a showstopper.

Race On!

On Track With Johnny D: Showstopper

On Track with Johnny D |