Welcome to this week’s edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.
Each week in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past seven days, detailing a story that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.
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This week’s story is about a highly anticipated showdown that actually exceeded expectations.
Matchups between No. 1 and No. 2 in any sport often fail to live up to the hype. Just ask of the high-ranked rivals that have the misfortune of facing the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team.
Yet on Saturday, when the 3-year-olds ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll met in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park, they put on a dazzling show filled with a spine-tingling stretch duel, enough controversy to last into next year’s Kentucky Derby trail and rather appropriate battle in a year marking the 40th anniversary of the epic Affirmed-Alydar wars.
The condensed version of what happened in the San Felipe is that approaching the quarter pole, Bolt d’Oro, the No. 1 horse in the NTRA poll, and jockey Javier Castellano tipped out and drew alongside McKinzie, the second-ranked horse, and jockey Mike Smith. It looked like “The Bolt” was poised to cruise past his rival, but McKinzie dug down and would not let him forge to the front. The two remained locked together for the remaining quarter of a mile, neither giving an inch, until McKinzie grabbed a slight lead in the final yards and prevailed for what seemed to be a victory by a head.
Yes, seemed, because the stewards ruled that McKinzie drifted out in the final yards and bothered Bolt d’Oro enough to warrant a disqualification and a reversal of the two horses’ order of finish.
“I don’t think the fans and everybody else could have had a better finish from the two horses they thought were going to run like they expected,” said Mick Ruis, owner and trainer of Bolt d’Oro.
Clearly, the San Felipe was an outstanding race between two evenly matched rivals who promise to be among the prime players on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. Bolt d’Oro came into his 3-year-old debut with just one loss in four career starts, that one coming in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile when he finished third and lost his chance to be named the champion 2-year-old male. McKinzie was undefeated through three starts, benefitting from a disqualification two starts earlier in the Los Alamitos Futurity.
They ran to their resumes, matching strides to the wire and finishing 6 ½ lengths ahead of Kanthaka, who was third, in a gripping two-horse duel to the wire that did nothing to alter their status atop the 3-year-old class. They were still 1-2 in Monday’s NTRA poll, though the margin between them shrank despite the official order of finish. A week ago, Bolt d’Oro was No. 1 with 31 first-place votes and 419 points, while McKinzie had 10 first-place votes and 379 points. In Monday’s poll, Bolt d’Oro’s totals slipped to 29 first-place votes and 414 points, compared to 12 first-place votes and 391 for McKinzie.
Whether either or both horses will benefit or regress after such a grueling race is debatable, and their next race should be quite revealing. Yet for now, fans were treated to a great show that can only heighten the excitement as March turns into April and then into May and the races grow exponentially in importance. Bolt d’Oro surely showed that there were no ill effects in his growth from 2 to 3 and a four-month layoff, while McKinzie showed great determination and grit in holding off Bolt d’Oro and crossing the wire first.
“The horse is good right now. Hopefully, we’re moving forward and he’ll be at his best in a couple months. This horse has the heart of a lion,” Ruiz said.
The flip side was that sadly someone had to lose and unfortunately the fans who wagered on McKinzie had to rip up their tickets on a call that seemed borderline.
As memorable as the battle between the two 3-year-olds was, the debate over the disqualification has been equally heated.
Resurrecting more memories of Affirmed and Alydar, this was the 1978 Travers for a new generation of rivals.
Compounding matters is that to some observers there were fouls by both horses, though the stewards felt there was only one that was conclusive. As the race unfolded and Bolt d’Oro joined McKinzie from the outside on the final turn, the two moved past the tiring frontrunner Lombo from the two and three paths. As the two horses swept into the stretch, there was jostling between them, with some saying that Bolt d’Oro seemed to push McKinzie to the rail as they straightened away in the stretch.
In the stewards’ eyes it was inconclusive who caused the bumping at that stage of the race.
Later, near the end of the duel, McKinzie came out multiple paths, taking Bolt d’Oro with him. In the stewards’ opinion, that drifting, though Castellano did not take up on his horse, caused Bolt d’Oro to fall short at the wire.
The backers of Bolt d’Oro surely agreed with the decision, though those who wagered on McKinzie can’t be blamed for being dismayed. It was a rough race and perhaps it would have been best to let the horses decide the outcome. In contrast, having a verdict rendered in the stewards’ booth, rankled many, including McKinzie’s trainer, Bob Baffert.
“That’s some bull,” Baffert said. “Javier had a better story, I guess. I’m shocked, after the way he hit us at the top of the stretch. I don’t know what they’re looking at, but apparently he talked them into it. That’s why they should never talk to the jockeys, just watch it themselves.”
As for the two Hall of Fame jockeys, Smith said, “That last hit where he hit me in the (hindquarters), he turned me out. I was just trying to ride my own race and he was on top of me. At the quarter pole, after the quarter pole, and through the lane he hit me and turned me out. I mean he’s got the whole racetrack and he’s on top of me on the fence. I didn’t feel that I did anything. I was forced out. He hit me hard behind and it took me out. It turns you out. Well . . . you win some that way and I guess you lose some that way.”
Castellano saw things differently.
“They say he tried to intimidate my horse and that is why I couldn’t get past him,” he said. “I wish it would’ve just been the two horses running straight in the race. We were the best two horses in the race. I just want to see who the better horse is.”
So does everyone else, and that verdict should be delivered in the weeks to come. The San Felipe was, after all, a prep race. In the end, what matters most is the kind of performance and excitement a horse can generate in the Kentucky Derby and after the drama of the San Felipe as well as the week before when the previous No. 1 3-year-old, Good Magic, went down to defeat in the Fountain of Youth, the outlook for America’s most famous race seems as rosy and exciting as ever.
The Also-Eligible List
Here are some of the other noteworthy stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: