Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
The path to the 2019 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 1-2 is a road with plenty of ups and downs as talented racehorses vie for a spot in one of 14 championship races.
This blog provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and three horses whose Breeders’ Cup chances are not quite as strong as they were a week or two ago. In the new edition of Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down for the 2019 Breeders’ Cup, we take a look at the previous week of races.
1. Mr Vargas
The top spot was a very tough call between TVG Pacific Classic Stakes winner Higher Power and Mr Vargas coming off an impressive win in his stakes debut in the Grade 3 Green Flash Handicap Aug. 17. Both racehorses essentially came out of nowhere to vault into contention for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, respectively. Ultimately, the tiebreaker came down to which horse I though had the better chance to actually win a Breeders’ Cup race, and that’s why I landed on Mr Vargas. The 5-year-old Midshipman gelding has bounced back and forth between the main track and turf races, but trainer Brian Koriner seems to have identified his sweet spot in turf sprints. He pressed the pace while winning a five-eighths of a mile turf sprint July 21 at Del Mar and then led from start to finish to defeat Eddie Haskell (who was 6-for-7 on the turf at Del Mar entering the Green Flash) and two time Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Stormy Liberal in the five-furlong Green Flash last weekend. Mr Vargas didn’t just win, he was much the best in prevailing by 2 ¼ lengths and equaling a career best speed rating with a 110 Equibase Speed Figure. Several aspects of this win impressed me, starting with the quality of competition. Mr Vargas might have snuck up a bit on Eddie Haskell and Stormy Liberal in his stakes debut, but he defeated a pair of horses capable of winning the Turf Sprint on Nov. 2. He also showed he can maintain his speed throughout, clicking off an opening quarter-mile in :22.44 according to Trakus data, followed by a :21.90 second quarter-mile, and capped by a final eighth of a mile in :11.80. He’s based in Southern California, where the Breeders’ Cup will be held in 2019, so Mr Vargas won’t have the stress of shipping out of state. He very likely will need to improve to win the Turf Sprint, but not too much. Over the last 10 years, the Turf Sprint winner ran between a 102 and 124 Equibase Speed Figure with an average of 115.8 and a median of 116. If Mr Vargas can improve by just a few points, he should be a serious threat on Nov. 2.
2. Higher Power
He was an easy choice for a top-three spot given he had never won a stakes race, much less a graded stakes, before romping by 5 ¼ lengths in the Grade 1, $1 million TVG Pacific Classic Stakes to earn an automatic spot in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Higher Power rated just off the early pace under jockey Flavien Prat, who made a heady move to take charge approaching the final turn, and dominated the opposition. Purchased at auction in April, the 4-year-old Medaglia d’Oro colt has flourished in Southern California under the care of John Sadler, posting the best four Equibase Speed Figures of his career despite bouncing from the main track to turf for two races and then back to the main track. The 112 Equibase Speed Figure he earned for winning the 1 ¼-mile Pacific Classic equaled a career top. Even though he’s 4, I do still think there is a chance Higher Power can still improve significantly, especially given the strides he’s taken in Sadler’s hands. He looks to be very comfortable with longer distances and given his pedigree – by Medaglia d’Oro, who was a Grade 1 winner at 1 ¼ miles, out of a stakes-winning and multiple stakes-producing Seattle Slew mare – Higher Power is certainly bred to excel at classic distances. Higher Power’s tactical speed also is a valuable asset as evidenced by the way he utilized it in the Pacific Classic. My main concern with Higher Power as it pertains to the Breeders’ Cup Classic is, while I believe he can improve, he probably will need to do so by seven to nine points when considering the average winning Equibase Speed Figure for the Classic over the last 10 years is 120.4 with a median of 119. While there might not be a Gun Runner or Arrogate looming, I don’t think a 112 Equibase Speed Figure gets it done in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic, so Higher Power’s next start will be very important when evaluating his chances.
3. Prince Earl
It’s rare to see three racehorses without a stakes victory on their résumés jump up on the same weekend to win key Breeders’ Cup prep races. Prince Earl joined the aforementioned Mr Vargas and Higher Power by closing powerfully to win the Grade 2, $200,000 Del Mar Mile Handicap Aug. 18. According to the Equibase chart, Prince Earl completed the final quarter-mile in about 22.80 seconds while rallying from sixth to win by three-quarters of a length. It was a heck of a comeback for a 4-year-old who had not raced in 8 ½ months since running fourth in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby Dec. 1. Prior to that, Prince Earl ran fourth by less than a length in the Let It Ride Stakes. He had strung together Equibase Speed Figures of 108, 108, 109 in the final three starts of his 3-year-old season, a promising four-race campaign that also included a win in his career debut and an allowance victory. “I thought a lot of him as a 3-year-old. He had some unlucky trips in some pretty strong races his last two as a 3-year-old,” trainer Phil D’Amato said after the Del Mar Mile win. “We gave him plenty of time off, did a minor throat procedure on him and he’s come back with a vengeance as a 4-year-old. We decided to take a big shot here and got a great ride by Geovanni Franco.” The Del Mar Mile victory earned Prince Earl a new career-top 119 Equibase Speed Figure, well within striking range of the 121.6 average winning speed figure for the TVG Breeders' Cup Mile over the last decade, and with only five starts to date the Paddy O’Prado gelding has plenty of room to improve.
Also-Eligibles: I’ve long been a fan of Dunbar Road, and she exceeded expectations Aug. 17 in the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, rolling past six fillies in the final half-mile to win by 2 ¾ lengths on a sealed-sloppy track at Saratoga that I do not think she relished. It was a visually impressive victory from a clearly talented and well-bred filly. My main quibble with her is that she still has not yet run an exceptional race from a speed-figure perspective – the 98 she earned for winning the Alabama was a career top. Dunbar Road is a promising filly, but to be a factor in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, which could have the likes of Midnight Bisou, Elate, and Monomoy Girl, she needs to get faster. I believe it’s in her, and perhaps facing older females will draw that talent out. … Cambier Parc looked terrific in closing from off the pace to post a 1 ¼-length win in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks Presented by The Jockey Club. She clearly outclassed her competition in a 13-horse field and the resulting 107 Equibase Speed Figure was the best of her career. She’s been very good in five starts this year with three graded stakes wins and a third in the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes, but if she’s targeting the Maker’s Mark Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf and older females, Cambier Parc will need to be even better. … Acclimate led from start to finish to win the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap Presented The Japan Racing Association and punched his ticket to the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. He was taken off the pace in his previous start, but his best races, including both graded stakes wins, have come when he was sent to the front. That would seem to be his best chance looking down the road to the Breeders’ Cup. I’m not sure he’s good enough to beat the best turf horses in this country plus European invaders, but he could be in front at the top of the stretch while feeling plenty brave.
It’s difficult to put the reigning champion turf male and two-time Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner in the top spot considering he’s finished in the top three in each of his four starts this year, but the reality is he was a winning machine in 2017 and 2018 and has not won a race in four tries this year. Granted, the trip to Dubai for the Al Quoz Sprint can be very taxing, but he’d had 4 ½ months to recover and finished third by 2 ¾ lengths in the Aug. 17 Green Flash Handicap to a horse making his stakes debut. Sure, Mr Vargas ran very well to win the five-furlong, Grade 3 sprint, but the Stormy Liberal of last summer wins that race – he did, in fact, win the Green Flash in 2018. He has yet to come close to matching the 116 Equibase Speed Figure he earned for winning the 2018 Turf Sprint, much less the 124 he posted for winning the 2017 edition. The is still a fast, classy turf sprinter, but it’s fair to wonder if the 7-year-old gelding might have lost a step … or at least a half-step.
I thought the most disappointing runner from the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes was Seeking the Soul, who just didn’t seem to fire at all in a seventh-place finish, beaten by 18 ½ lengths as the 2.30-1 favorite. He’s a racehorse I’ve always held in high regard, who’s capable of the occasional monster race. The Grade 1 winner ran huge last fall when second to City of Light in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Churchill Downs and entered the Pacific Classic off a victory in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster Handicap, but his first trip to California led to his worst Equibase Speed Figure (87) since he ran 12th in the Belmont Stakes in his fourth career start way back in June 2016. I’m willing to give Seeking the Soul another shot as he has sprinkled in a few clunkers throughout his 28 lifetime starts, and especially after Dallas Stewart told reporters that his charge suffered a bout of the “thumps” (an electrolyte imbalance) on raceday at Del Mar. Still, if his connections had Breeders’ Cup aspirations this fall, Seeking the Soul’s Pacific Classic was not a confidence-inspiring performance.
After winning the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap in April and running second in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster Handicap in June, Quip came up short as the second betting choice in the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes Aug. 17. The Distorted Humor colt set an uncontested pace through a half-mile in :47.69 but he faded badly late and finished ninth, beaten by 29 ½ lengths. The only other real blemish in his past-performances was an unplaced finish on a sloppy track in the 2018 Preakness Stakes in which he was distanced (beaten by more than 40 lengths). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Quip’s two poor performances came in his two tries in races longer than 1 1/8 miles; he seems to have distance limitations. I would have liked to see Quip fight back just a little in the Pacific Classic, however, after Higher Power swept past to take the lead. That seemed to really dishearten him and he dropped back quickly after that. The 73 Equibase Speed Figure Quip earned for the Pacific Classic was well below the triple-digit numbers he’d recorded in his three previous starts in 2019. I don’t think the Pacific Classic was representative of Quip’s overall ability, but it’s fair to wonder if it was the distance, the quality of competition, his first time shipping to California, or a combination of all of those things that led to last Saturday’s dud.
Of note: Both 2018 champion 2-year-old male Game Winner and 2019 Arkansas Derby winner Omaha Beach were forced to miss planned starts this weekend after coming down with a virus that touched multiple barns in Southern California. Game Winner was targeting the Runhappy Travers Stakes Aug. 24 but will be rerouted to a different race yet to be determined once he is back at full strength. Omaha Beach had been working well in his comeback from surgery to repair an entrapped epiglottis, which forced him to miss the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. He was pointing to the Aug. 25 Shared Belief Stakes before his virus was detected. Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella said he hopes it is a minor setback, but for a 3-year-old who has not raced since early April the situation is worth keeping a close eye on.