Cleburne won the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs to win the first 10 points towards the Kentucky Derby (Photo courtesy of Reed Palmer).
As odd as it may seem, with Labor Day only a little more than week behind us, the quest for the Kentucky Derby is now underway.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby point chase sprang from the starting gate on Saturday when longshot Cleburne captured the first race in the seven-month series, the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs, and earned 10 points.
But don’t get too excited.
The difference between leading the points race in mid-September and mid-April is about as wide as the distance between Earth and Jupiter, and it’s quite reasonable to believe that Cleburne is anything but the best 2-year-old male in the country right now.
Who is No. 1?
With the launch of the Road to the Kentucky Derby as the inspiration, let’s take at look at what we’ve seen so far from the leading male and female juvenile runners and what may await us in less than two months in some noteworthy races in California, not Kentucky: the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies.
Saratoga is renowned for its 2-year-old racing and the most impressive effort by a 2-year-old came in the closing-day, Grade 1 $300,000 Hopeful when Strong Mandate demolished nine rivals and won by 9 ¾ lengths in the seven-furlong stakes.
The wet, muddy track at Saratoga may have very well played a role in the outcome as some very good horses have been known to flounder in the Spa’s goo. I’ll Have Another, the 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, lost by 19 lengths in the Hopeful over a sloppy oval.
Yet Strong Mandate is hardly a one-trick runner. He was coming off a 4 ½-length score in a maiden race on a dry track at Saratoga, and the quality of that race was reflected in the runner-up, Tapiture, returning to finish third in the Iroquois.
STRONG MANDATE ROLLS IN THE HOPEFUL
Photo courtesy of NYRA
Also, having the services of 78-year-old trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile five times in a Hall of Fame career, can only help the son of Tiznow improve as his races get longer and more important.
Meanwhile, the others to watch from the Hopeful would be Big Sugar Soda and King Cyrus.
Trained by Steve Asmussen, Big Sugar Soda was bumped at the break and fell back to last before rallying belatedly to finish fourth. A dry track could also help him regain the form he displayed in an 8 ¼-length maiden win at Saratoga. Making his effort on a muddy track in the Hopeful even more curious is that Strong Mandate finished fifth in that maiden race, winding up 12 ¼ lengths behind Big Sugar Soda in his career debut.
King Cyrus, trained by Todd Pletcher, was eighth in the Hopeful, almost 15 lengths behind the winner, and looked nothing like the horse who had previously won his debut by 11 lengths. Perhaps a dry track will bring out the best in him once again.
In California, the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity went to the late-running Tamarando, a non-Breeders’ Cup nominee who closed from eighth in a field of 11 to take the seven-furlong stakes by a half-length for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
Dance With Fate, who was 10th after a half-mile, was second, a half-length ahead of Can the Man, who dueled for the lead and weakened late.
As much as the presence of the Breeders’ Cup in California would seem to be an advantage for West Coast-based horses, the artificial composition of the main track at Del Mar and Betfair Hollywood Park could work against them. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile will be contested on Santa Anita’s dirt main track, and form on synthetic racetracks does not always carry over to a natural surface.
Considering that of the 11 starters in the Futurity the only one who had raced on dirt was Skydreaming – who was last throughout at 44-1 odds – a more telling race figures to be the two-turn FrontRunner at Santa Anita on Sept. 28.
As for the Iroquois, Cleburne and Smart Cover gave trainer Dale Romans a 1-2 finish, but they were sent off at odds of 34-1 and 26-1 and the slow final time of 1:45.65 underscored why they were overlooked in the wagering.
At Monmouth Park, a dirt track, the six-furlong, Grade 3 Sapling went to the Asmussen-trained Dunkin Bend by 1 ¼ lengths over Tyro Stakes winner Yes I’m Lucky. Dunkin Bend had previously captured a Saratoga maiden race, and as a son of first-crop sire Dunkirk time will tell if he’ll be well-suited by a two-turn test like the BC Juvenile.
The Arlington Washington Futurity offered a longer test and was won in convincing fashion by Solitary Ranger, a maiden. Trained by Wayne Catalano, Solitary Ranger was razor-sharp for his first start since April 25 at Keeneland and romped by 5 ½ lengths in the mile contest.
Solitary Ranger, out of freshman sire U S Ranger - a grass runner in his racing days - was previously second to No Nay Never, who went on to win two grass group stakes in England. He has yet to race on anything but a synthetic surface, however, and his pedigree and lack of experience on dirt might steer him to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf as opposed to the Juvenile.
SOLITARY RANGER LOOKED IMPRESSIVE IN THE ARLINGTON-WASHINGTON FUTURITY
Photo courtesy of Four Footed Photos
At this time of year, stakes experience is hardly a prerequisite for a future champion and several impressive winners deserve close attention in their next starts.
Havana, also by Dunkirk, was an eye-catching debut winner for Pletcher on Aug. 23 as he blazed 5 ½ furlongs in a very swift 1:02.64 at Saratoga. His 2-5 odds on the toteboard indicate his powerful, gate-to-wire performance did not come as much of a surprise.
Kendall’s Boy, who pressed Havana and still finished a clear second, might also have a bright future.
Meanwhile, memories of last year’s Kentucky Derby were revived on Aug. 31 when trainer Shug McGaughey sent out Honor Code to register a rather astonishing maiden win. Last and more than 20 lengths behind after a half-mile, Honor Code seemed destined to be an also-ran, but then kicked into top gear and rocketed past his rivals to win by 4 ½ lengths.
While the win gave off the impression that McGaughey might have his heir apparent to 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb, it did come on a sloppy track, the kind of wet track that Honor Code may not find in southern California, where songs say it never rains.
Yet as much as Honor Code must still prove himself on a dry track, if the same storms that pelted Churchill Downs on the most recent first Saturday in May return for the next Run for the Roses, McGaughey will probably let his smile be his umbrella.
The Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont on Oct. 5 could be next for Havana and Honor Code as well as Strong Mandate, who may opt instead for a Santa Anita prep by racing in the FrontRunner.
At Del Mar, New Year’s Day and Schoolofhardrocks, who won divisions of a mile-long maiden race on Aug. 31, could also return in the FrontRunner. Of the two, Schoolofhardrocks went slightly faster, covering the mile in 1:36.85 in his career debut for trainer David Hofmans. New Year’s Day was clocked in 1:36.93 in his second start for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
Put the Breeders’ Cup at Saratoga on a wet track and Sweet Reason would be a 1-20 favorite.
In two starts, both on sloppy tracks at the Spa, Sweet Reason won by a combined 12 lengths. She took her debut by 6 ¼ lengths, rallying from 18 ¼ lengths back at one point, and then clobbered her competition by 5 ¾ lengths in the Grade 1 Spinaway.
Trained by Leah Gyarmati, Sweet Reason vaulted to the head of the class through her dominant effort in the seven-furlong Spinaway, but must still outrun questions about her ability on a dry track away from the Adirondack Mountains.
If she can do that, and there’s no guarantee she can, racing just might have a superstar on its hands.
SWEET REASON LOOKED LIKE SHE WAS PART DUCK IN THE SPINAWAY
Photo courtesy of NYRA
Given the track condition, some of the others who finished behind Sweet Reason in the Spinaway deserve a second chance. Runner-up Stopchargingmaria, from the Pletcher/Mike Repole barn and Spinaway favorite Sweet Whiskey, who was fourth for Pletcher, top that list.
Out west, She’s a Tiger won the seven-furlong Del Mar Debutante by a half-length for her third win in four career starts. In July, she won the six-furlong Landaluce for trainer Jeff Bonde on a synthetic surface at Hollywood Park.
Like most West Coast 2-year-olds, races on a synthetic surface dominate her past performances, but the Tale of the Cat filly did win on dirt by nine lengths in her career debut at Pleasanton.
Immediately behind her were the Baffert-trained Fascinating and trainer Doug O’Neill’s Concave, who beat She’s a Tiger in the Sorrento. Awesome Baby, the 6-5 favorite in the Debutante trained by Baffert, set the early pace and then faded to seventh.
A bigger acid test for the West Coast class will come in the Chandelier Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 28.
At Churchill Downs, the mile-and-a-sixteenth distaff version of the Iroquois and the opening race in the Road to the Kentucky Oaks series, the Pocahontas, went to Untapable, who was rank early but went on to triumph by a half-length.
The win was the second in as many tries at Churchill Downs for the Asmussen-trained Untapable, and that fondness for the Louisville track could come in handy on Kentucky Oaks Day 2014.
A slate of Aug. 24 stakes showcased the 2-year-old talent at Calder, and the most impressive of the bunch was Scandalous Act, who won the seven-furlong Susan’s Girl by 9 ¾ lengths. She previously won the six-furlong Desert Vixen by 7 ½ lengths and could create some problems for the New York and California contingents - if she can handle longer distances.
That’s a highly difficult “if” to overcome, but at this time of year she’s not the only the 2-year-old staring in the face of that perplexing two-letter word. She’s just one of many.
SCANDALOUS ACT DIDN'T LOOK BACK IN HER SUSAN'S GIRL VICTORY
Photo courtesy Coady Photography