Making the Grade, which will run through the 2018 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
When Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, typically a fairly conservative trainer when it comes to placing horses in races, entered maiden winner Hofburg in the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby on March 31, the horse racing community took notice. In a nine-horse field, Hofburg was sent off at 8.60-1 odds and rewarded Mott’s confidence with a runner-up finish. He endured a terrible trip when seventh in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, but with a little better racing luck, Hofburg looks like a solid Belmont Stakes contender. Let’s take a closer look.
Ability: A homebred from powerful Juddmonte Farms, Hofburg got off to a slow start in his career debut in September 2017 but passed a few horses late to finish a decent, but nonthreatening fourth going seven-eighths of a mile at Saratoga.
Given some time off after his debut, Mott brought Hofburg to Gulfstream Park in the winter and he returned to the races in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race on March 3, in which he drew the outside post in an 11-horse field with a short run into the first turn.
Hofburg showed some immaturity before the race when briefly refusing to load into the starting gate and then was forced six or seven paths wide entering the first turn. Jockey Jose Ortiz hustled him ahead to settle four wide on the backstretch, within 1 ¼ lengths of the pace. Hofburg rallied boldly on the final turn to take the lead and opened up a clear margin in early stretch, but he finished greenly as he wandered a bit and appeared to idle. Late-running Just Whistle closed to make it a race but Hofburg held on for a half-length win that earned a 102 Equibase Speed Figure.
From there, Mott and Juddmonte decided to test Hofburg to see if he was ready for the Triple Crown in the Florida Derby. He settled in much farther off the pace and made a nice late rally to finish second, three lengths behind Audible but 7 ¾ lengths clear of the third-place finisher. The result was a career-best 107 Equibase Speed Figure and a career-top 104 Brisnet Speed Figure. Hofburg also earned a 94 Beyer Speed Figure and a 118 Timeform US speed figure.
The speed figures indicated he belonged with the second tier of Kentucky Derby hopefuls, a cut below the top group headed by Justify, but with only three races and plenty of room to grow.
Hofburg trained very well leading up to the Kentucky Derby and looked like a very appealing longshot at 27-1 when the field neared the starting gate, but he was bumped at the start and raced in 16th in the 20-horse field early. He actually dropped back to second to last briefly on the backstretch. Then, twice when he was launching his rally on the final turn he was steadied in traffic behind horses losing valuable momentum.
To his credit, Hofburg finished gamely and was really striding out well at the finish line while running seventh, beaten by 8 ¾ lengths. It’s tough to make much sense of a race in which Hofburg encountered so much trouble that he was pretty much stopped twice on the far turn and raced on an off (wet) track for the first time, but it’s hard not to appreciate his perseverance.
With five weeks of rest and far less traffic, and with half the number of runners he faced in the Derby slated for the Belmont Stakes, Hofburg should be viewed as one of the top threats not named Justify.
Running style: Hofburg is a closer who has, in his lone victory to date, shown the ability to stalk from a bit nearer to the front if the pace is leisurely. I could envision him racing in midpack behind an easy pace in the Belmont or dropping back if several other horses decide to press the issue with Justify. I expect, however, his connections do not want to see him nearly as far back as he was in the Kentucky Derby.
Connections: Hofburg is owned and was bred by Juddmonte Farms, the operation of Khalid Abdullah, the brother-in-law of King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Khalid Abdullah began racing in 1977 and probably is best known in the U.S. as the owner of champion Arrogate, winner of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic and 2017 Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup. A four-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding owner, Juddmonte also won the 2003 Belmont Stakes with Empire Maker and has raced countless superstars in Europe, led by two-time European Horse of the Year Frankel, who retired to stud unbeaten in 14 starts. Juddmonte also bred and raced arguably the greatest broodmare of the modern era of horse racing in Hasili, who produced European/U.S. champion and Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Banks Hill; U.S. champion and Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Intercontinental; Canadian Horse of the Year Champs Elysees; multiple Grade 1 winners Heat Haze and Cacique; Group 2 winner and influential sire Dansili; and Grade 3 winner Deluxe.
Three-time Eclipse Award winner Bill Mott was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1998. He has won 10 Breeders’ Cup races and his lone win in a U.S. Triple Crown race came with 2010 Belmont Stakes winner Drosselmeyer. Mott is best known as the trainer of Hall of Famer Cigar, who put together a 16-race winning streak, won the inaugural Dubai World Cup, and was named Horse of the Year in 1995 and 1996.
Irad Ortiz Jr. rode Hofburg in the Kentucky Derby and in the colt’s debut. He will be aboard for the Belmont Stakes two years after winning the race with Creator. Ortiz, the regular rider of champion Lady Eli, has ranked in the top five by both wins and purse earnings for North American jockeys every year since 2014. He led all riders by victories in 2017 with 318.
Pedigree: Hofburg is by Tapit, the leading North American sire in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Tapit is the sire of three of the last four Belmont Stakes winners: Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016), and Tapwrit (2017). When taking the top half of the pedigree into account, there really is no better sire for a Belmont Stakes contender than Tapit.
As you might expect from a Juddmonte Farms homebred, the bottom half of this pedigree also packs some punch.
Hofburg’s dam (mother), Soothing Touch, by Touch Gold, also produced multiple Grade 1 winner Emollient, who won the American Oaks at 1 ¼ miles in 2013; and stakes winner Courtier. His grandam (maternal grandmother), Glia, by 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy, was a stakes winner at 1 1/8 miles and Grade 2-placed.
Hofburg’s third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Coup de Genie, was a multiple Group 1 winner who was third by a neck in the 1994 One Thousand Guineas. Coup de Genie produced four stakes winners and is the grandam of 2004 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Bago. Coup de Genie is one of three Group or Grade 1 winners and five group or graded stakes winners produced by Hofburg’s fourth dam (maternal great-great-grandmother), Group 3 winner Coup de Folie, by Halo.
Hofburg was closing like a freight train in the Kentucky Derby stretch once he escaped the traffic trouble. With this pedigree, it’s logical to expect he’ll have plenty of stamina in the stretch of the Belmont Stakes. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better 1 ½-mile pedigree.