Every January (and for many of us long before that), the focus of the Thoroughbred racing ecosystem shifts to the Triple Crown races and the 3-year-olds on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
I write a weekly Making the Grade blog profiling a big Derby trail winner and also a regular Heating Up, Cooling Down feature tracking which 3-year-olds are heading in the right direction and which ones took a step back.
This year, though, with the Lecomte Stakes behind us, I wanted to have some fun with the names of this year’s contenders – but, of course, it is almost impossible to escape COVID-19, so let start there.
Last year the Derby was forced to be rescheduled from May 1 to the first Saturday in September because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the country and the entire world struggled to understand, cope with, and contain a novel virus unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.
The calendar has flipped to 2021, but while the year has changed much has remained the same. The COVID-19 pandemic remains front and center in all of our lives and shapes the way each of us much approach every day, and not surprisingly we’re seeing some racehorse names reflect that.
Fauci (Malibu Moon – Tashzara, by Intikhab): Wow, that happened quickly. At the start of 2020, I’d wager less than 1% of Americans were familiar with Dr. Anthony Fauci. In a post-coronavirus United States, he’s now a household name and he’s got a nice 3-year-old colt who has placed in a pair of stakes named after him. Fauci, of course, is the immunologist who has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.
Herd Immunity (Union Rags – Enhanced, by Malibu Moon): As with the racehorse Fauci, most Americans didn’t lie awake at night thinking about things like herd immunity 12 months ago. Now, many of us know exactly what that term means as it pertains to contagious disease: when enough people become immune to a disease either via vaccination or infection to make its spread unlikely. As for the 3-year-old Union Rags gelding, he’s been unplaced in two starts since running third in the Grade 3 Bashford Manor Stakes back in June 2020.
Isolate (Mark Valeski – Tranquil Song, by Unbridled's Song): This Mark Valeski colt won two of three races in 2020 and finished third in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes in November. People world-wide have become very familiar with isolation since COVID-19 crippled the world in early 2020, whether it is self-isolation after possible exposure or simply isolating out of caution to play a part in slowing the spread of coronavirus. For me, Isolate the 3-year-old racehorse will serve as a somber reminder of the year 2020.
PANDEMIC ON MY MIND
Ambivalent (Constitution – Screwgie, by Smart Strike): I have no reason to believe that Ambivalent’s name has anything to do with COVID-19, but it does describe fairly aptly my reaction to dozens of things that used to be hugely important in my life that no longer held much significance while hundreds of thousands of Americans died from the pandemic. Things like the World Series and the Stanley Cup Finals offered some escape from a depressing reality but generally passed in 2020 with not much more than a shrug. The Keeneland Fall meet, while fun to bet, lost appeal without Sundays at the track with the family. As for the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes third-place finisher, he’s yet to win in six starts but he’s run well enough that he’s got a chance to be a nice 3-year-old, so you could say I have mixed feelings.
Editor in Chief (Curlin – Tapas, by Tapit): I’d wager 2020 was a nightmare year for an editor in chief at a major newspaper with a pandemic and incredibly divisive political rhetoric. As for the well-bred Curlin colt who was a $650,000 purchase as a yearling, he ran a solid second in his career debut before an unplaced finish in his first start as a 3-year-old on Jan. 3.
Ten for Ten (Frosted – Summer Vacation, by Eskendereya): I had not planned to include Remsen and Nashua Stakes runner-up Ten for Ten in this section, but a quick Google search revealed Ten for Ten is an at-home learning math workbook … and also a Frank Turner album. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this talented 3-year-old was not named after a math workbook.
Over the last 12 months I have, for sure, enjoyed a Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow – Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon) and a Whiskey Double (Into Mischief – Lake Sebago, by Munnings) and there were several nights where the word Swill (Munnings – Walking Miracle, by Into Mischief) accurately described my approach to the second half of my day. Midnight Bourbon, Whiskey Double, and Swill also happen to be promising 3-year-olds. If they ever wind up in the same race, that track’s racecaller is going to have multiple puns at the ready.
Midnight Bourbon: This Tiznow colt won his second start then and then ran second in the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes Presented by Ford before finishing third in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes. He kicked off his 3-year-old season with a sharp win in the Jan. 16 Lecomte Stakes to move up the rankings of Kentucky Derby contenders. I like the fact that the dam (mother) is named Catch the Moon, hence the midnight part of the name.
Whiskey Double: He is an Into Mischief colt who won his career debut back on June 27 at Churchill Downs. He returned after a nearly seven-month break to run third in an allowance optional claiming race at Fair Grounds on Jan. 17.
Swill: This Munnings colt won his third race and then picked up Kentucky Derby qualifying points when fourth in both the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and Jerome Stakes.
Alright, time to lighten things up and go to the always-trusty sports references. I believe a lot of racing faces also happen to be sports fans and I’d guess that’s pretty similar among racehorse owners, so it makes sense that there are sports-related names almost every year on the Triple Crown trail.
The Great One (Nyquist – Little Ms Protocol, by El Corredor): There is little doubt 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist’s emergence as a sire will lead to quite a few ice-hockey-related names, thus it makes sense that the greatest player in the sport’s history is represented multiple times in his first crop of runners. Wayne Gretzky, nicknamed “The Great One,” was arguably the most dominant athlete of my childhood while amassing 1,086 goals and 1,669 assists in a 20-year career. Gretzky led the league in points in eight straight seasons and 10 out of 12 while leading the NHL in assists a remarkable 13 straight years. Gretzky owns the record for goals in a season (92) and four of the top 10 as well as nine of the top 10 seasons for assists, including a record 163 in 1985-86. His 2,857 career points are 936 more than Jaromir Jagr, who ranks second all time. The Great One, the racehorse, has some catching up to do. Unplaced in his first three starts, The Great One showed promise most recently when a close second in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity.
Gretzky the Great (Nyquist – Pearl Turn, by Bernardini ): This Nyquist colt has star potential having won a Grade 1 race as a 2-year-old while winning three of five starts, all in Wayne Gretzky’s native Canada. He’s unlikely to factor on the Triple Crown trail as his stakes wins were both on grass, but he did win a race on the synthetic main track at Woodbine, so it’s not impossible.
Joe Frazier (Distorted Humor – Third Dawn, by Sky Mesa): “Smokin’” Joe Frazier possessed one of the most devastating left hooks in the history of boxing. He won a gold medal at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, became the undisputed heavyweight champion in 1970, and subsequently defeated Muhammad Ali in what was billed as the “Fight of the Century” in 1971. Ali later defeated Frazier in 1974 and in 1975 in the “Thrilla in Manila” to conclude one of the sports greatest rivalries. While the racehorse Frazier opened his career with a win, he has not been as dominant as his namesake, subsequently running third in an allowance race before an unplaced finish in the Remington Springboard Mile.
Fenway (Into Mischief – Keysong, By Songandaprayer): This unraced colt is named after one of the most famous sports venues in the world – Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox.
Garoppolo (Outwork – Romantic Cuvee, by Cuvee): This Outwork colt is named after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who has won 24 of his 32 career starts and has almost exactly twice as many career touchdowns compared with interceptions (51-26). The 3-year-old colt won his second career race and has not started since running fourth in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Miller Lite.
Superman Shaq (Shackleford – Drumette, by Henny Hughes): This colt by Shackleford has a long way to go to match the accomplishments of MVP, Hall of Famer, and four-time NBA champion Shaquille O’Neal, the original “Shaq”. He’s won once in five races and is unplaced in his last three starts.
Parnelli (Quality Road – Sip Sip, by Bernardini): This Quality Road colt is named after Rufus Parnell “Parnelli” Jones, who won the Indianapolis 500 as a driver and owner and was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992. Parnelli, the racehorse, has been very consistent through five starts with a win, three seconds, and a third in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes Jan. 2 at Santa Anita.
Sonic Brees (Maclean's Music – Miss Hetty, by Congrats): I’m operating under the assumption that the second half of this name is referring to All-Pro quarterback and Super Bowl winner Drew Brees, currently leading the New Orleans Saints in the NFL playoffs. The Doug O’Neill-trained 3-year-old ridgling won his second start and has not raced nor had a timed workout since finishing third in the Grade 3 Best Pal Stakes in August at Del Mar.
Drain the Clock (Maclean's Music – Manki, by Arch): There is no fan of the NFL, NBA, or NHL who hasn’t wished their favorite team could hold on to a late lead by draining the clock, and in the case of a racehorse name it’s a bit ironic given horses are trying to run as fast as possible rather than waste time. This 3-year-old colt looks like a serious racehorse. He’s won three of four starts and, most recently, won the Limehouse Stakes by 7 ½ lengths Jan. 2 at Gulfstream Park. His only defeat came when he unseated the rider and the main question as it pertains to the Derby trail appears to be distance as he’s never stretched out beyond a sprint.
Olympiad (Speightstown – Tokyo Time, by Medaglia d'Oro): The 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have been rescheduled to begin in July 2021. Given some of the troubles pro sports have encountered this winter containing the virus, it will be interesting to see how the Olympics play out and if vaccinations will be required with so many athletes coming together in one city. This Speightstown colt trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott ran third in his debut but flashed potential in his second race when winning by 2 ¾ lengths Sept. 5 at Saratoga.
Spielberg (Union Rags – Miss Squeal, By Smart Strike): Named for three-time Academy Award-winner Steven Spielberg (twice for Best Director, once for Best Picture), this Union Rags colt trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert most recently won the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity Dec. 19 and rates as a top early contender for the 2021 Derby.
Chicks for Free (Constitution – Magic Reider, By Majesticperfection): This name was taken from the 1985 Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” off the album Brothers in Arms, which won the Grammy for Record of the Year. The Constitution gelding won his June debut at Churchill Downs and has not raced since an unplaced finish in an August allowance race at Indiana Grand. Chicks for Free has been working steadily for trainer Wesley Ward at Turfway Park.
Dr. Schivel (Violence – Lil Nugget, By Mining for Money): This name is one my comic/superhero-loving son would wholeheartedly support as it is the real name of notorious Batman TV show villain Mister Freeze. The aptly named Violence colt placed in his first two starts then won a maiden race at Del Mar before posting a 1 ¾-length score in the Grade 1 Runhappy Del Mar Futurity. Doctor Schivel has not raced since the Grade 1 win.
Inspector Frost (Frosted - Folk, By Quiet American): I had to look this one up, but it appears this horse was named for an inspector from the TV show “A Touch of Frost,” whose character was based on the Frost novels by R. D. Wingfield ... although maybe it is vice-versa, named for the book character. Regardless, the Frosted colt posted his first win in his second race Oct. 18 at Keeneland but subsequently ran ninth in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.
OTHERS OF INTEREST
I could go on and on here and mention Hercules (Brethren – Darby Rose, by Red Bullet) and Roman Centurian (Empire Maker – Spare Change, by Bernardini), named after the popular Roman hero and the commander of a centuria, which was the smallest unit of a Roman legion.
There are plenty of 3-year-olds named after places near and dear to the heart like Va Va Vegas (Empire Way – Letsgotovegas, by Indian Charlie) and Brooklyn Strong (Wicked Strong – Riviera Chic, by Medaglia d'Oro), the latter the winner of the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes Dec. 5. Stakes-placed winner Tacoflavoredkisses (Distorted Humor – Sweetpollypurebrd, by Parading) made me chuckle thinking about ABR contributor Jose Contreras and his family after a #TacosMoney night, and finally Dec. 26 maiden winner Wipe the Slate (Nyquist – Fancy and Flashy, by Zensational) seemed like a fitting way to end … after the pandemic year that was 2020, wiping the slate clean sounds pretty appealing.