Big-Race Showdown: Kentucky Derby Championship Series Visits Fair Grounds, Turfway
The path to the 2021 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar on Nov. 5-6 is a road with plenty of ups and downs as talented racehorses vie for a spot in one of 14 championship races and $31 million in purses and awards.
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 two weeks ago.
Let’s get right to it and take a look at some of the big movers over the past couple of weeks of racing action as the focus of U.S. Thoroughbred racing centers on the 2021 Breeders’ Cup.
The speed-figure makers did not agree on Jackie’s Warrior’s 7 ¼-length runaway victory in the Grade 2 Amsterdam Stakes Aug. 1 at Saratoga Race Course. He earned a solid 101 Beyer Speed Figure and a rather dull 99 Equibase Speed Figure after setting the pace through a blistering opening half-mile in 21.46 seconds en route to completing 6 ½ furlongs in 1:15.46 on a sloppy main track. Brisnet gave him an impressive 103 rating and TimeForm US was the highest of the four on the performance, giving Jackie’s Warrior an eye-catching 130 rating. It can be tough to accurately gauge a fast, front-running victory on a sloppy track, but the Amsterdam passed the eye test for me and I think this colt is formidable now that he’s back sprinting after testing the waters on the Triple Crown trail in the spring. He was a well-beaten third in the Southwest Stakes in February, but since then Jackie’s Warrior has two wins and a second (by a neck) upon returning to one-turn races. I think there is very good chance we see Jackie’s Warrior mature into an elite sprinter in the second half of this season like we did with Cajun Beat in 2003 and Trinniberg in 2012. In fact, six of the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint were won by 3-year-olds and Jackie’s Warrior has amassed six wins and one second in one-turn races. It’s clear, sprinting is his game.
This turf sprinter has emerged as an elite talent this year. After running third in her season debut, the 4-year-old Mizzen Mast filly has won three straight stakes, including the last two by open lengths. She made her graded stakes debut July 24 in the Caress Stakes at Saratoga Race Course and surged away in the stretch to win by 2 ½ lengths as the heavy favorite, earning a career-best 108 Equibase Speed Figure. She also received for the Caress a 97 Beyer Speed Figure, 94 BrisNet speed rating, and 114 TimeForm US rating, so on paper she looks like she profiles as a serious threat for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint Nov. 6 at Del Mar. With five wins and two thirds in seven lifetime starts for trainer Elizabeth Merryman, Caravel has been very consistent and has demonstrated the ability to win from on the lead, pressing the pace, or stalking the pace. Female racehorses have enjoyed success against males in the Turf Sprint in recent history, winning four of the last nine editions of the race, including the last two.
The last spot for me came down to Shedaresthedevil and Royal Flag. While I think the latter’s win in the Shuvee Stakes was the more impressive individual performance, I believe Shedaresthedevil is the more likely of the two to win the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff in three months after winning the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes Aug. 1 at Del Mar. That last part – at Del Mar – really is an essential component here as the 4-year-old Daredevil filly looked terrific when reeling in Venetian Harbor to win the Hirsch by 3 ¼ lengths on the main track that will host the Nov. 6 Distaff. I also thought she looked like she had plenty left in the tank late when bouncing back from her first loss of the year in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes June 5. Last year’s Longines Kentucky Oaks winner is now 3-for-4 on the year with a pair of Grade 1 wins. Her speed figures for the Clement L. Hirsch came back a bit light compared with some of the top Distaff contenders – 99 Equibase Speed Figure, 96 Beyer Speed Figure, 98 BrisNet speed rating – but they were solid enough … and she’s posted faster figures earlier in the year. There is no doubt, the Longines Distaff could be a loaded race in 2021 with Letruska, Monomoy Girl, Swiss Skydiver, and now Royal Flag. But a proven Grade 1 winner like Shedaresthedevil, both at 1 1/8 miles and on the main track at Del Mar, should not be overlooked.
Also-Eligibles: The depth of class for the Longines Distaff continues to grow as both Maracuja and Royal Flag posted impressive wins at Saratoga Race Course over the last two weeks. Maracuja upset Malathaat to win the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks July 24 at the Spa and earned a new career-best 107 Equibase Speed Figure. I don’t think it was a fluke, either, as her only unplaced finish in six starts was a seventh in the Longines Kentucky Oaks. Royal Flag, a half-sister to dazzling multiple Grade 2 winner Catalina Cruiser, improved upon a runner-up finish in her 5-year-old bow back in April at Keeneland with a three-quarter-length win over Horologist in the Grade 3 Shuvee Stakes July 25. After establishing a level of consistent excellence as a 4-year-old when she won three times in six starts and never was worse than third, Royal Flag could be sitting on a monster season for top trainer Chad Brown. … Nice to see Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets winner Essential Quality return with a half-length win in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes July 31 at Saratoga. He got mixed reviews for the workmanlike win, but that’s his grinding style and he’s won seven of eight lifetime with Equibase Speed Figures between 107 and 109 in his last four starts. He just brings it every time. … I profiled Dr. Schivel in this week’s Getting to Know feature. He punched his ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with a neck victory in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes July 31 at Del Mar and is another improving 3-year-old sprinter with a shot to be a factor in the male sprinter division. … United, the 2019 Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf runner-up, won the Grade 2 Eddie Read Stakes for the second year in a row July 24 at Del Mar. He loves the turf course there – he’s a neck and a head away from being 5-for-5 on the Del Mar turf – and Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella will have him ready to run a big one come November in the Longines Turf. He might have lost a half-step, but he’s still talented and incredibly game.
Country Grammer opened his 4-year-old season with a strong second by a neck in the Grade 2 Californian Stakes in April at Santa Anita Park and followed with a head victory over Royal Ship in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup May 31. He earned the two best Equibase Speed Figures of his career 112-111 for his first two starts of the season, 13 points higher than his previous best, and appeared to be an emerging candidate for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic. News came July 25 via Daily Racing Form that the WinStar Farm colt by Tonalist would be sidelined with an ankle injury. Although trainer Todd Pletcher said the initial diagnostics came back clean, Country Grammer will be sent to rest at WinStar and very likely will miss the major races in the fall. “I don’t want to rule anything in or out, but I think the horse is going to need several weeks to let everything quiet down and when you’re pointing for major races this time of year you can’t miss too much training,” said Pletcher, who took over training Country Grammer for Bob Baffert following the Hollywood Gold Cup. “He’s going to go to WinStar for a more thorough evaluation in hopefully what will amount to a short rest and we’ll have him back in time for maybe a prep for the Pegasus [World Cup].”
Last year’s Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf third-place finisher and champion turf male, Channel Maker has not been able to find in three starts this season the elite form that led to back-to-back Grade 1 wins in the summer-fall of 2020. He ran a solid second in the $1 million Neom Turf Cup in Saudi Arabia in February but next was a well-beaten eighth in the Longines Dubai Sheema Classic in March. In his first start back in the U.S., Channel Maker finished seventh, beaten by nine lengths in the Grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes July 31 at Saratoga Race Course. It’s fair to wonder if maybe the trip to the Middle East just took something out of the 7-year-old gelding and, perhaps, we’ll see a return to top form in his next start. But you can’t help but wonder if maybe age is beginning to catch up a bit to Channel Maker, who has made 40 career starts and earned more than $3.2 million. He’s also winless in five starts in Southern California, so the Breeders’ Cup host venue probably is not ideal for a turf runner who seems to thrive with a little moisture in the ground.
A 4-year-old filly by 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah out of multiple Grade 1 winner Take Charge Lady, by Dehere, As Time Goes By has started to live up to her pedigree in 2021. A half-sister to champion Will Take Charge and Grade 1 winner Take Charge Indy as well as Charming, the dam (mother) of champion Take Charge Brandi and Grade 1 winner Omaha Beach, As Time Goes By won one of three starts in 2020 at a 3-year-old. She turned in a breakout win by 9 ¼ lengths in the Grade 2 Santa Margarita Stakes in April and followed with a nose victory as the 2-5 favorite in the Grade 2 Santa Maria Stakes in May. She earned a career-best 107 Equibase Speed Figure for the latter victory for trainer Bob Baffert and was the 3-2 second choice for the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes Aug. 1 at Del Mar. As Time Goes By was no match, however, for 2020 Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Shedaresthedevil in the Hirsch as she ran fourth, beaten by 14 lengths. As Time Goes By still looks like an incredibly promising filly who could mature into one of the best of the older female division, but she does not appear to be quite good enough right now to match strides with the leading candidates for the Longines Distaff Nov. 6 at Del Mar. She’s also winless in two starts at the seaside track having run third at Del Mar in her career debut in August 2020.
Of Note: It’s hard to knock a racehorse for losing for the first time, by a head no less while earning a new career-top 107 Equibase Speed Figure. So, let’s say Malathaat has earned the benefit of the doubt after she was caught late by Maracuja in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks July 24 at Saratoga. Prior to that, she had won the Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland Stakes and Longines Kentucky Oaks and she remains the leader of the 3-year-old filly division. Her first loss did make me a little less optimistic about her chances against what is shaping up to be a deep, talented group of older females targeting the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff Nov. 6 at Del Mar.