Last Friday the wife wanted to know, “Are there any big races this weekend?”
“Yes, honey-bunny,” I answered (we’re Pulp Fiction fans), “from now through the first weekend in November.”
And that’s nearly completely true.
In the roughly 2 months leading up to the Kentucky Oaks and Derby, there are ‘big’ 3-year-old races almost weekly and each provides keys to unlocking a treasure chest of first-weekend-in-May exotic wager payoffs. And what about the older runners? They’ve got some major challenges coming up, too, here and in Dubai. Since Arrogate and City of Light are gone, who will assume ‘top gun’ status? Based on that San Pasqual tussle, Battle of Midway and McKinzie seem likely, but that could change. Then there are the older fillies and mare to consider, plus grass tests for all ages and both sexes, currently offered only in California, Florida and New Orleans. Don’t look now but it’s already late February and that’s the shortest month in captivity. Soon, spring will be sprung! March will rapidly come and go, and April will accompany superb grass racing at Belmont and Keeneland.
In May, after Derby there’s Preakness, then in June, Belmont and Royal Ascot. NYRA has sweetened July by adding two initial legs of new, rich, sophomore turf triples. They’ve also moved Saratoga’s launch to a week earlier on the calendar and jettisoned Monday Spa racing. That last maneuver was necessary, but unfair. Mondays already are universally despised; seven of them just got even more tedious.
In a break with tradition, Monmouth’s Haskell, gem of the summer seaside stand, has been moved from a traditional July Sunday to the day before--a Saturday. It will be interesting to see how loyal fans react to the switch, but it does give trainers and owners an extra 24 hours to consider running back in the Travers.
August highlights include the aforementioned Mid-Summer Derby, Pacific Classic, Arlington Million and much more. 2-year-olds--an entirely new group of manes and hooves—also contribute to serious August action. As with elders in other divisions, serious freshman begin a full-throttle drive in September and October in pre-Breeders’ Cup opportunities. Huge racing days on both coasts accompany the seasonal leaf discharge and the much-anticipated arrival of flying pigskins.
So, honey bunny, there’s no need to ask, “Are there any big races this weekend?”
Last weekend’s racing action extended into a special holiday Monday—President’s Day—when Oaklawn Park presented a stakes-studded card highlighted by the Southwest Stakes--a Kentucky Derby prep race with 17 Louisville starting-gate qualifying points (10-4-2-1). Longshot Super Steed upended the apple cart, live NYRA National Pick 5 tickets, and the entire Arkansas sophomore picture with a sweeping, breathtaking move off the turn that carried him to the front and to victory at 62.30-to-1. Cutting Humor, a Todd Pletcher-trained invader from Gulfstream Park, was the nearly 5/2 favorite in the race, but could only manage seventh. Local Smarty Jones Stakes winner and Southwest second choice Gray Attempt finished last of 11. Super Steed’s shocking form reversal casts shade on Natural State-based sophomores. However, Oaklawn Park’s most recent Kentucky Derby winner’s circle representatives were Hot Springs invaders—Smarty Jones, from the east, and American Pharoah, from the west—so let’s see who shows up for the Rebel and Arkansas Derby.
War of Will made it two-for-two in Fair Grounds 3-year-old stakes races when he parlayed a Lecomte win into an impressive Risen Star tally. He’s got the kind of high cruising speed style that’s been key to recent Kentucky Derby successes. With 60 Derby qualifying points beside his name the War Front colt already has sufficient collateral for a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. All he has to do is to get there healthy—not an inconsequential feat. Trainer Mark Casse is a 2019 Hall-of-Fame candidate, so the colt’s in capable hands. War of Will is the early favorite for the Louisiana Derby, but it will be interesting to see who arrives from out of town to challenge him over a track he obviously adores. Horsemen typically avoid such razor-sharp foes like they do black cats, but the quest for Derby starting-gate points forces hands. Second in the Louisiana Derby is worth 40 points, normally enough to earn a spot in the Louisville gate.
The Risen Star launched the Road to the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve’s ‘Championship Series’ where winners can earn 50 points each—and a nearly guaranteed spot in the Derby starting gate. Gulfstream’s Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth (March 2); Aqueduct’s Gotham, Santa Anita’s San Felipe, Tampa Bay’s Derby (March 9); Oaklawn’s Rebel (March 16) and Sunland’s Derby (March 24) all are worth 50-20-10-5 points to first four finishers.
The El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate on Saturday—awarding 10-4-2-1 Derby points and an automatic Preakness berth to the winner—was dominated by 6/5 favorite Anothertwistafate. The son of Scat Daddy played hide-and-don’t-bother-to-seek as he assumed early command from Kingly, a Bob Baffert trained, SoCal-based, third-string shipper and drew away strongly in the stretch. Despite jumping back to his left lead late, Anothertwistafate was picking ‘em up and laying ‘em down with authority in the lane. Had this performance come over a dirt surface against similar foes, this one’s Derby prospects would be grand. However, Golden Gate has synthetic footing and horses usually favor either dirt or artificial, rarely both. A winner of three of four starts, Anothertwistafate hasn’t seen another runner in front of him at any point in his last three races. That’s impressive. However, in his only dirt start first time out in a maiden allowance at Santa Anita he was ninth beaten 15 lengths.
Sophomore filly Serengetti Empress was a convincing winner of the Rachel Alexandra and moves near the top of any Kentucky Oaks discussion--if there ever is one. It’s a bit of a shame that sophomore colts and geldings hog the headlines, but that’s life in the big city. While Oaks Day certainly has become an established event on the racing calendar, the race still seems little more than an undercard event supporting a heavyweight title fight.
One female garnering a lion’s share of international coverage is Winx. If you don’t know of her, do yourself a favor and go online to watch her races. There’s no shortage of YouTube videos highlighting the ‘Queen from Down Under’ in her thrilling come-from-behind victories. She won her 30th consecutive race Friday (or Saturday depending on your continent) and, although I’m a huge fan, I didn’t avoid sleep to see it live. Good thing. The replay was a carbon copy of what she’s done on numerous past occasions—win under a confident ride by Hugh Bowman.
Supporters believe Winx is a wonder horse. Critics agree, as in ‘wonder’ what level of competition she’s beaten for those 30 victories? Personally, I don’t care who she’s been whipping. Scoreboard! 30-for-30 is special. The stuff of DiMaggio, Chamberlain and Williams. Her streak now has extended across several seasons and horsemen will agree that makes it an even more incredible accomplishment. Critics and supporters agree that they’d like to see Winx take her show on the road to Britain or to the US to face the best in the world. If I were representing Breeders’ Cup, I’d back a Brink’s truck up to her stall and negotiate a way to get her to Santa Anita in November. She’s a legitimate international draw that will put fannies in the seats and deliver an international boost in interest and handle.