What We Learned This Weekend
At Belmont Park on Saturday…
In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, we saw how important it is to keep an open mind when handicapping these major Grade 1 stakes. Decisive winner Ron the Greek was an outsider on paper, but hardly merited going off at 21-1. He had run competitively against many of the best older horses out there this year for a Hall of Fame trainer. It didn’t seem like a stretch that he could hit the board, which is why I keyed him in second in exactas with the favorites (it was in my blog analysis, for the record!). Fortunately I still had a winning $2 exacta that paid a nice $222.
Palace Malice and Flat Out ran races that could have won some editions of that race but they ran into a beast who chose this day to run his absolute best. A repeat of that effort by Ron the Greek, or any horse, would be asking a lot, so I still consider the second- and third-place runners to be among the main threats to Game On Dude in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The Kentucky Derby winner’s confounding effort suggests he might still be worn out from the Triple Crown. If there had been a beauty contest in the paddock, Orb would have been named a unanimous winner. But sometimes even the best horses can fool you like that. He did what was asked of him in the mornings, showed up sculpted and fit, yet once the real running started he dropped the bit and didn’t want to be there. Perhaps there’s time for him to rediscover that spark before the Breeders’ Cup but I will have a hard time backing him even if he trains well in Southern California.
Cross Traffic stumbled at the start so you have to forgive that poor effort. He’d never been more than a couple lengths off the lead and it’s understandable that a horse with that running style would throw in the towel after breaking dead last. I didn’t particularly love him stretching out to 1 1/4 miles on Saturday but if you are one of those that did then there’s no reason not to give him another chance in five weeks.
In the Beldame, we saw one of the most impressive 3-year-old fillies of our time upset one of the top mares of our time in a race we’ll all still refer to years from now. It could have been a passing of the torch from one great champion to the next, as Princess of Sylmar will run at four as the clear top filly of her generation. Royal Delta, meanwhile, we not geared up for the effort, according to Bill Mott, and will still be a deserving favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. While the Beldame was likely the end of Princess of Sylmar’s year and a key goal for her, Royal Delta was approaching the race as an easy prep for her Breeders’ Cup title defense. There is little reason to doubt that she will be primed for a return to top form when she takes aim at history on Nov. 1.
In the Kelso, it was heartening to see the ultra-talented winner Graydar run so big off of a six-month layoff. Pletcher could run him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic but the Dirt Mile seems like a more attractive spot. Trying to go 1 ¼ miles against the best in the world off of only one start in the fall would be awfully ambitious. Think about Fusaichi Pegasus, the striking son of Mr. Prospector, who was a heavy favorite in the Classic off of a single race in the second half of the year – a win in the one-mile Jerome – but had no kick in the 10-furlong Classic against the likes of Tiznow, Giant’s Causeway, Captain Steve, Albert the Great and Lemon Drop Kid, all of whom finished ahead of the Kentucky Derby winner. The Dirt Mile won’t be an easy race, either, but you can’t expect to win one of the world’s toughest races playing catch up with your stamina.
In the Vosburgh, neck winner Private Zone demonstrated what a strong hand Doug O’Neill has for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. This Macho Uno gelding shipped across country, in part, so he wouldn’t have to face stablemate Goldencents in Saturday’s Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship, also a Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” proposition. If Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents is the favored child in the barn, that doesn’t bode well for Trinniberg, Fed Biz, Points Offthebench, Centralinteligence and anyone else that might be pointing to the Santa Anita Sprint Championship. Meanwhile, Justin Phillip ran a winning race in the Vosburgh but was almost certainly compromised by his rough journey. There was the objection/inquiry as a result of bumping with winner Private Zone in the final strides, but note also that Justin Phillip bumped with The Lumber Guy turning into the stretch. Justin Phillip had the lead in the final sixteenth before seemingly beaten Private Zone surged to take it back while they jostled to the wire. The final margin was a neck and you would think a minimum of three hard bumps in the final quarter-mile would disrupt a stride enough to account for at least that. I was very high on Justin Phillip’s chances Saturday and will likely bet him back with no less enthusiasm in five weeks.
In the Flower Bowl, seven competitors gave the race to Laughing, who set the pace galloping through opening fractions of 25.68, 51.46 and a downright criminal 1:16.02. One might suspect that she won’t have it so easy in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf but the truth is that race usually has a very soft early pace. The Europeans like to gallop around in a bunch and avoid any actual running until the final three-eighths. Look at the six-furlong split over the history of the BC Filly and Mare Turf (in order, since 1999, non-firm going noted): 1:14 (good), 1:12 2/5, 1:13 2/5, 1:13 2/5 (yielding), 1:10 2/5, 1:18 2/5 (yielding), 1:13 3/5 (good), 1:14 4/5, 1:18 4/5 (soft), 1:14 3/5, 1:12 4/5, 1:15 4/5, 1:16 4/5 (good) and 1:13 3/5. I can already envision bettors refusing to give this mare her due credit, which is fine by me, as it will only help my price. If the field does its usual thing and gallops around the Santa Anita turf in 1:13 or more, this mare will be two lengths clear when they turn for home and the closers will be chasing a mare that won’t be coming back to them.
LAUGHING BEATS STABLEMATE TANNERY IN THE FLOWER BOWL (PHOTO COURTESY OF ECLIPSE SPORTSWIRE)
In the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, how cool was it to see Little Mike return to top form, and just in time for a Breeders’ Cup Turf title defense? Here’s a reminder excerpt of what I said about him in the blog last week:
The presence of the rabbit and King Kreesa might not even bother him, as he’s rated successfully in the past, most notably in the Breeders’ Cup win. The last two starts were certainly respectable, finishing within four lengths in two Grade 1 events. I could go either way with this horse and will let the price guide me. If the public likes him, then I don’t; if the public dismisses him, then I’ll use him.
The public let him go at 7.40-to-1, which was too generous for a horse that had legitimate reason to be less than his normal self earlier in the year. With the quality he beat – a nose and a length in front of the Sword Dancer and Arlington Million winners – there is no denying that this horse is back. Slumber, who I had touted more enthusiastically, had to take back to go around horses but still came running for a good fourth, only 1 ¼ lengths back, and is one I hope to use to hit the board in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at a big ol’ price.
Mike Smith’s post-race comments, by the way, were fascinating:
“I was handicapping the race and after looking at it I told Dale [Romans] that Little Mike's best race, in the Breeders' Cup Turf last year, was when he was off the pace. So I decided I was going to ride this horse the way Ramon [Dominguez] rode him. I can mimic all these jocks; I know how they all hold their hands. Ramon always puts one on the neck and one way out, and he's brilliant at it. So I did it, and he kept running and running and running. It worked! My hat's off to Ramon Dominguez."
Meet the Press
Notable and prescient quotes from last week’s NTRA National Media Teleconference…
Trainer Todd Pletcher on Princess of Sylmar coming into Saturday’s Beldame, which she would win easily: “I don't think she has anything to prove at this point. You know, the year that she's had has been unbelievable, and winning the Alabama and Coaching Club and the Kentucky Oaks, those three races in a row, it's pretty hard for any three-year-old filly to do. But we have a lot of respect for Royal Delta and she certainly is going to be the mare or filly to beat in this particular race. But we just felt like it was the best program for our filly that we had the—kind of a decision to make between the Cotillion and this, and felt a little uncomfortable backing up to a mile and a sixteenth and giving the field a lot of weight and running on a surface that can be a little peculiar, so we felt like staying home and trying our luck against some of the best older mares was the right time to try it.”
Jockey Mike Smith on riding Little Mike for the first time in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, which he would win by a nose: “You know, at times he's been on the lead most of the time, but I've seen one of his best races was from off the pace. So it's just about a matter of getting him into a rhythm that I feel like he's comfortable with, and I won't know that until I'm on him where that is, and then just try and go from there, and so hopefully he'll come back into form. I'm sure they wouldn't be running him in this race if he wasn't doing well, but it's just a matter of him just getting that form back, because I know the ability's there, we've all seen it, so we just have to wait and see what happens.”
Trainer Richard Mandella on the four-month, post-Kentucky Oaks layoff he gave to Beholder, who would win Saturday’s Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita: “I've had my best luck in the Breeders' Cup doing that. Going back to [1993 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner] Kotashaan, I ran him hard at Santa Anita in the wintertime and gave him the Hollywood Park summer meet off, and then prepped him with a race at Del Mar and the old Oak Tree meeting, and it worked out well. And I believe if you've got something as big as the Breeders' Cup to point at, you'd better take that into consideration that you can't keep them at the top of the game all year long.”
Mandella on Indy Point prior to winning Sunday’s John Henry Turf Championship at Santa Anita: “He got banged up in the Arlington Million, tried to grab both of his quarters on both feet being in traffic in the race, and, you know, gave us a pretty good scare for a day. But with poulticing and working on him the pain went away, and he's back in good shape.”
Note that a transcript and MP3 file of each Tuesday’s NTRA National Media Teleconference is accessible within 24 hours of the call at http://ntra.com/en/news-media/teleconferences.
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I love that this guy is arguing Palace Malice’s merits with the horse himself. Palace Malice doesn’t back down and the dude continues to address the horse as “you” as if there’s nothing at all strange about this exchange.