The video above is a roundup of the top racing action from the opening act of Thoroughbred racing's second season, including the Haskell Invitational Stakes, the Jim Dandy Stakes and Paynter's return to stakes competition in the San Diego Handicap.
The weekend of the Jim Dandy Stakes and the Haskell Invitational marked the starting point of the second half of the season for America’s Best Racing, and for me this weekend has always been perhaps the key weekend of the racing year.
In the Jim Dandy and the Haskell we get to see many of the best 3-year-olds who thrilled us in the Triple Crown come back to the track a little bit more mature physically and mentally.
In my opinion, this weekend almost always offers significant insight into what we have to look forward to for the rest of the year from the current group of 3-year-olds, plus the championship race really starts to take shape. I think it’s also a fair starting point to begin evaluating the crop overall.
We hear a familiar refrain every June (sometimes much earlier): “this year’s group of 3-year-olds stinks.” I prefer reserve judgment and give 3-year-olds a chance to bounce back from a grueling Triple Crown trail before making my assessment.
Based upon speed figures leading into the Triple Crown, this year’s 3-year-olds certainly were below par for a crop of 3-year-olds, but I do like very much that a number of the top runners in the division look like they were bred to get better with age and distance, in fact each of the three winners of the Triple Crown races qualifies in this regard.
Jim Dandy and Haskell weekend in 2013 provided a small sampling of what we can expect.
In the Haskell Invitational, Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow brought the classic resume into the race with Verrazano toting the hype. Verrazano more than lived up to advance billing with a tour de force 9 ¾-length runaway win in the 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds.
“He made,” trainer Todd Pletcher said, “a huge statement today.”
VERRAZANO: ONE OF MOST IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCES OF YEAR
Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire
Billed as the “War at the Shore,” Verrazano turned Monmouth’s signature race into a personal highlight when he surged away from six challengers with ground-devouring strides in the stretch. Verrazano’s lone defeat in seven career starts was a troubled 14th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.
“This was one of - if not the most – impressive [performances] by any 3-year-old this year,” Pletcher said. “I would say this was his most impressive race for a horse that’s near perfect minus a sloppy race in the Kentucky Derby.”
Plenty of horses find trouble in the Kentucky Derby but few of them come back like Verrazano has since that race, his only start on a sloppy track. He subsequently won the Pegasus Stakes by 9 ¼ lengths at Monmouth on June 16 and then the Haskell by a virtually identical margin on Sunday.
Verrazano is a massive horse and it could be that he is just beginning to grow into his body. If that’s the case, it could be a scary second half of the year for the rest of the 3-year-old division.
"Those of us who’ve been around this horse have always had a lot of confidence in him, and anyone who knows him isn’t really surprised by what they see,” Pletcher said.
Without a classic win Verrazano probably would have to beat older horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to have a real shot at the 3-year-old division title. A win in the 1 ¼-mile Travers Stakes on August 24 at Saratoga Race Course could certainly bolster his claim in the division, and that is exactly where Pletcher is headed next with the Haskell winner.
The Haskell win was especially rewarding to Verrazano’s co-owner Let’s Go Stable, whose principals Bryan Sullivan and Kevin Scatuorchio call Monmouth their home track.
“This is a dream,” Scatuorchio said. “Having worked here as my summer job in High School with my friends, you one day dream of this and to have it happen today is unbelievable.”
As visually stunning as Verrazano’s Haskell victory was – and it was a special performance – I actually think the real coming-out party for a 3-year-old came in the Jim Dandy with Palace Malice.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Palace Malice’s Belmont Stakes win and that surely made him a household name, but I did think he benefitted tremendously from having the five-week break between the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. Derby winner Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow both were running their third race in five weeks and looked pretty gassed in the final jewel of the Triple Crown.
For me, Palace Malice still had something left to prove post-Triple Crown.
Give credit to trainer Pletcher for keeping the Curlin colt fresh this season. After finishing a close second in the Blue Grass Stakes, Palace Malice disappointed in the Kentucky Derby when he reacted poorly to wearing blinkers for the first time. The main idea of blinkers is to keep a horse focused (I know I’m oversimplifying) and Palace Malice certainly was focused on one thing in the Kentucky Derby – running as fast as he could run for as long as he could run. He faded to 12th after setting the torrid pace.
After skipping the Preakness, Palace Malice returned a fresh horse for Pletcher and owner Dogwood Stable in the 1 ½-mile Belmont. He turned in a career-best performance in winning by 3 ¼ lengths and recorded a best-ever 105 Equibase Speed Figure.
With seven weeks between the Belmont and the Jim Dandy, Palace Malice returned a stronger, more mature horse. Palace Malice raced near the pace in the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy and held off a game Will Take Charge by a length, again establishing a career-best with a 115 Equibase Speed Figure that sets him up well for the Travers Stakes, Saratoga’s “Mid-Summer Derby.”
PALACE MALICE BEAT WILL TAKE CHARGE AMONG OTHERS IN THE JIM DANDY
Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire
“The horse keeps getting better and better and today was arguably his best performance yet,” Pletcher said. “Hopefully, on to the Travers.”
Palace Malice is from the first crop of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, winner of the 2007 Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic and a superstar at four. The best trait Curlin had on the racetrack was that he could just carry and carry his speed in a relentless way that wore down the competition. Palace Malice has shown some of that Curlin in him in his two most recent starts.
“He was better than last time [in the Belmont],” Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith said. “Those are kind of big words to say after winning the Belmont, but he truly was, and with room to grow. The last sixteenth of a mile he was well within himself. He was searching for more ground, if I needed it. I think he'll get every inch of the mile-and-a-quarter [Travers], I really do.”
In other 3-year-old division news, Kentucky Derby winner Orb is thriving at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., where he is enjoying a freshening following the grind of the Triple Crown. Tom Pedulla wrote a nice piece on Orb for America’s Best Racing, and it sure sounds like Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey has a plan in place to put the Malibu Moon colt in position for a big second half.
One of the key storylines of the weekend was, of course, Paynter’s start in the San Diego Handicap on Saturday.
The 2012 Haskell winner nearly died from a frightening bout of laminitis and colitis following last year’s victory at Monmouth, but the Awesome Again colt had the will to live and made his remarkable return to the races after more than 10 months off with an allowance in June at Hollywood Park.
Paynter ran his eyeballs out in the San Diego but came up a bit short in finishing second to impressive Kettle Corn. His owner, Ahmed Zayat, later tweeted that the Breeders’ Cup Classic is the long-term target for Paynter and his game San Diego performance should go a long way toward building the foundation for a run at the Breeders’ Cup. Blogger Michael Burns wrote a heartwarming piece (in English and Spanish) about Paynter’s place in the sport as one of racing’s true heroes.
PAYNTER (MIDDLE) FINISHED SECOND IN HIS STAKES RETURN
Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire
Around the sport:
- Hall of Famer John Velazquez passed Jerry Bailey on Saturday to become the all-time winningest rider at Saratoga Race Course during the historic track’s 150th season. Bailey had 693 lifetime wins at the Spa and Velazquez guided Unitarian to victory for trainer Todd Pletcher for his 694th career win at Saratoga.
- Forty Tales ran his winning streak to three – all in stakes – when he closed from out of the clouds to win the 6 ½-furlong Amsterdam Stakes on Sunday at Saratoga. That win should set him up nicely for the King’s Bishop Stakes in August.
- Laughing led from start to finish to earn her first Grade 1 win in the Diana Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga. The victory was her third graded stakes and stamped the 5-year-old Irish-bred mare as one to watch on the road to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
- Speaking of turf, perhaps no horse was more impressive this weekend than Novellist, who set a new 1 ½-mile course record at Ascot in winning the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Novellist extended his winning streak to four and earned a starting spot in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (his second automatic berth) via the Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” series.
- Lighthouse Bay pulled off a stunning 21.60-1 upset in the six-furlong Prioress Stakes on Saturday at the Spa, capitalizing on a disappointing last-place finish from heavy favorite Kauai Katie. Lighthouse Bay could be a contender for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint in November at Santa Anita Park, and I wouldn’t dismiss Kauai Katie’s chances for the Breeders’ Cup off one bad race. There are plenty of favorites who have not found Saratoga very welcoming through the years.
- Pointsoffthebench held off a determined charge from 3-year-old Goldencents to win the Bing Crosby Stakes on Sunday at Del Mar. The Grade 1 race offered the winner an automatic starting spot in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in November via the Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” series. The 4-year-old Benchmark gelding not only picked up his first career stakes win (in his stakes debut) but also punched his ticket to the Breeders’ Cup.