Are you ready for 2019? You’d better be. It’s coming. Like it or not. And, as they say, ‘Time, like the subway, waits for no one.’
This past season was a good one. We had Justify, a Triple Crown winner, only the 13th in history. What’s that you say? Not a big deal? OK. Perhaps, the second such sweep in the last three years has muted the thrill. To this writer, however, who suffered through the 37-year Affirmed-American Pharoah drought, a Triple Crown winner remains a cherished gift. Particularly incredible is that in just 111 days Justify went from being an un-raced 2-year-old colt to a Triple Crown winner! It’s doubtful any of us will see that again. That trainer Bob Baffert was at the helm for the last two TC winners truly is amazing. What’s scary is that heading into 2019 the trainer seems loaded with even more potential sophomore talent than ever before.
Among veteran performers, Accelerate dominated Grade 1 events like no other—winning six. He even took his SoCal blockbuster show on the road to Kentucky and gifted trainer John Sadler a Breeders’ Cup-race victory…finally—the trainer’s first in more than 40-plus starts. That Sadler broke the ice by winning the Classic seems poetic justice.
The 2018 Horse of the Year debate between Justify and Accelerate backers will escalate from now until after sunset and a cocktail hour Jan. 24 at Gulfstream Park when the golden trophy is presented. Both horses sport worthy credentials and legitimate cases will be advanced vigorously by supporters. (More on where we stand on the issue at a later date in this space.)
Monomoy Girl, the 3-year-old filly that won 6 of 7 soph starts, including the BC Distaff against older foes, surely is the queen of 2018. In fact, she quietly has compiled an impressive career resume that shows her actually finishing second just once in 11 career starts by a mere neck at age 2 in the Golden Rod at Churchill Downs. Her lone defeat this year came via disqualification in the Cotillion Stakes at Parx when she dipsy-doodled her way home and may (or may not) have hampered the chances of runner-up Midnight Bisou.
The final month of 2018 began Saturday with Gulfstream Park opening for its 80th racing season. Claiming Crown, a day that honors daily performers in the majority of races at nationwide tracks, again delivered a rich, entertaining and challenging sequence of puzzles.
That trainer Jorge Navarro won three Claiming Crown heats is unsurprising. That two of the winners–Salsa’s Return ($35.60) in the Iron Horse, and Mischief Maas in the Glass Slipper ($30.20) paid over $30–is astounding. Navarro wins races about as often as some trainers brush their teeth. Apparently, before the afternoon was complete, horseplayers had learned a lesson. Navarro’s Aztec Sense, winner of the day’s richest race and finale, returned just $5 for every $2.
Chris Landeros was the day’s saddle star with three victories. That’s a fantastic start for a rider that had won just 7 of 122 races at Gulfstream a year earlier.
Claiming Crown handle jumped 14% over last year’s record number, totaling $13.6 million. Gulfstream has hosted Claiming Crown for seven consecutive years and is committed to presenting the event through 2021.
Saturday, on my laptop via the magic of Xpressbet, I witnessed an unusual sports coincidence: A father and son each winning a major league sporting event within minutes of each other. Off at 4:53 pm ET in the ninth race at Tampa Bay Downs, jockey Brian Pedroza rode Trophy Doll to a wire-to-wire score in a mile and one-sixteenth turf race. Mere minutes later, off at 5pm ET, on the opposite coast in the fourth race at Del Mar, Brian’s father Martin Pedroza booted Placido gate-to-wire in a six-furlong dirt race!
Saturday, north on 95, about 1,300 miles and 50 degrees Fahrenheit from Gulfstream, Aqueduct hosted four graded stakes races: Grade 2 Demoiselle, for 2-year-old fillies; Grade 3 Go For Wand, for fillies and mares; Grade 2 Remsen for 2-year-olds; and Grade 1 Cigar Mile.
A Positive Spirit, from the rising Rudy Brisset barn, absolutely dominated six foes at a mile and one-eighth in the Demoiselle. She entered the race with improved Beyer speed ratings in each of three starts at Saratoga, Keeneland and Churchill–a third, second and first, respectively. Despite that resume, she paid a surprising $24.40 to win.
Marley’s Freedom rebounded from her close fourth-place finish as 4/5 favorite in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint to win the one-mile Go For Wand over a game Come Dancing. ‘Marley, under Mike Smith for Bob Baffert, proved best at odds-on, but was less than dominating. It was her eighth start of the year and she doesn’t appear to be as sharp as she was in May when Baffert first assumed training duties for the 4-year-old filly.
Two-year-old glamor boys tangled in the mile and one-eighth Remsen and Maximus Mischief proved clearly best for his third win in as many starts. He’s trained by Robert Reid out of Parx and had won both previous starts there by open lengths. He’s got a high cruising speed, relaxes for jockey Frankie Pennington and, in the Remsen, delivered a turn of foot in early stretch when asked. This one will take some beating any time he’s in a race. However, there are two points of concern: First, he’s already run extremely fast, perhaps too fast for a 2-year-old. Therefore, he may already be as good as he’s ever going to be and running so fast, so early may set him back a bit. Second, his breeding suggests he may be distance limited. At the conclusion of the Remsen he switched back to his left lead and appeared to be slowing down. That might be nothing, or something. It’s difficult to tell. But that he didn’t finish straight and strong is a negative.
In the Cigar Mile, Chad Brown-trained Patternrecognition popped the gate from the far outside eight-hole under Jose Ortiz, gained the lead, immediately crossed over to the rail and backed up the field. Runner-up True Timber loomed in the stretch, but no one passed ‘Pattern to the wire. This certainly was not a memorable Cigar Mile congregation but the victory extended a few streaks for the winning 5-year-old horse. It was his third consecutive tally—an allowance at Saratoga; Grade 2 Kelso at Belmont; Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct—his third score in as many starts at the Big A and his third win out of three attempts at the one-mile distance.
Del Mar offered a pair of strong Grade 1 turf races Saturday and Sunday–the Hollywood Derby and Matriarch, respectively. Trainer Chad Brown and jockey Joel Rosario had their fingerprints on both winners—Raging Bull, who rallied off the pace to collar soph California turf star River Boyne in the stretch. Instilled Regard, fourth in the Kentucky Derby when trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, finished third in his first turf start and second outing for Chad Brown.
In the Matriarch, Uni scored her fourth in a row when she closed like an absolute freight train from out of the clouds to snatch victory from Daddy Is a Legend. Quidura, also trained by Chad Brown, finished third. Fourth was Vasilika, a superb story, as she was claimed by Jerry Hollendorfer for 40k out of a winning effort in February and subsequently won seven in a row for her new owners, including a Grade 1 and a pair of Grade 2 races and roughly $600k!
The past weekend’s Del Mar results were another indication (not that we needed one) that East Coast turf runners are far superior to their West Coast counterparts. This does not apply to dirt racing, where the best on the left coast continues to dominate nationwide.
That rumbling sound you hear is an approaching subway. Train number 2019. Better get ready to board. It waits for no one.