Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
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 for the first 2021 edition of this blog on June 9.
Let’s get right to it and take a look at some of the big movers over the past three weeks of activity as the focus of U.S. Thoroughbred racing centers on the 2021 Breeders’ Cup.
1. Set Piece
Visually and on paper, I really liked what I saw from Set Piece in winning the $300,000 Wise Dan Stakes at Churchill Downs by a half-length from game pacesetter Somelikeithotbrown, who looked in early stretch to be in great position to wire the field. Set Piece, however, navigated a winding path through a ton of traffic to catch the front-runner and finished powerfully for an eye-catching win. I loved the way he maintained speed/momentum despite not really having a clear path until deep stretch as he finished his final five-sixteenths of a mile in a very fast :27.79 according to Trakus data. It’s not as if Set Piece snuck up on us – he’s a Juddmonte homebred who was Group 3-placed in England as a 3-year-old and improved to 9-for-16 lifetime – but this was his first group/graded stakes win in the Grade 2 Wise Dan and he’s put together a nice three-race winning streak for trainer Brad Cox. The 5-year-old Dansili gelding earned a 112 Equibase Speed Figure for the win, four points off the career top he earned for winning the Opening Verse Stakes at one mile at Churchill on April 29 to start the winning streak. His Beyer Speed Figure (100) and Brisnet rating (98) were likewise solid and he has plenty of class within a powerful Juddmonte pedigree, so I view Set Piece as a key contender for the 2021 FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile.
At first, I considered leaving Campanelle out because the only option on the Breeders’ Cup card looks like a showdown with older males in the $1 million Turf Sprint. Very quickly I realized that if she can beat 14 of Europe’s top 3-year-old males at Royal Ascot in the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup June 18, she can absolutely beat top U.S. turf sprinters of all ages. Campanelle began her career in 2020 with three straight wins in sprints, including a Group 2 and a Group 1 victory in Europe, before closing out her juvenile campaign with a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf while stretching out to 1 1/16 miles. She faded from second late in her first try navigating two turns but returned to a three-quarter-mile sprint distance for her 3-year-old debut in the Commonwealth Cup. Returning from a seven-month layoff against top-level European competition, including males, was a tall order but Campanelle proved up to the task. She dueled with Dragon Symbol through the final eighth of a mile as the pair pulled away from the rest of the field. Dragon Symbol carried Campanelle out and bumped her before pushing ahead in the final strides, but Campanelle won the race via a fairly obvious disqualification to improve to 4-for-5 lifetime. It was nice to see her perform that well coming back from the extended layoff for trainer Wesley Ward … Campanelle is a filly with a heck of a future.
I believe this year’s crop of 3-year-old fillies is strong and deep, and in the $242,500 Mother Goose Stakes June 26 at Belmont Park another improving runner from the division delivered a breakout performance. Zaajel put away front-running 4-5 favorite Always Carina near the eighth pole and surged clear to win by 1 ¼ lengths for an 18.40-1 upset win in the 1 1/16-mile race. The Street Sense filly showed promise in January when she improved to 2-for-2 with a win in the Grade 3 Forward Gal Stakes in her stakes debut, but some of the shine faded after she was unplaced in both the Fair Grounds Oaks and the Edgewood Stakes presented by Newport Racing & Gaming, the latter on the grass April 30. Back on the main track, Zaajel returned to top form and posted a new 17-point top 106 Equibase Speed Figure and a 16-point jump to a 101 Brisnet sped rating for the Mother Goose win. The potential field for the Longines Distaff looks to be powerful. That, combined with the inconsistency from her two previous races, led me to slot her here in third, but I do believe she has the makings of a very nice filly for trainer Todd Pletcher and owner-breeder Shadwell Farm.
Also-Eligibles: Maxfield won the $600,000 Stephen Foster Stakes June 26 and Letruska dominated the $300,000 Fleur de Lis Stakes, also June 26 at Churchill Downs, but both already were locked in as prime-time performers in the older male and older female divisions, respectively. I profiled Maxfield for this week’s Getting to Know blog on Breeders’ Cup contenders; Letruska is not nominated to the Breeders’ Cup and would need to be supplemented to the World Championships. … Behave Virginia made a nice impression in her stakes debut in the $150,000 Debutante Stakes June 26 at Churchill Downs, overcoming a slow start to win by a length and earn a 92 Equibase Speed Figure, 83 Beyer Speed Figure, and 90 Brisnet speed rating. The filly from the first crop of Unified should be able to stretch out to longer distances and profiles as a nice contender for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Nov. 5. … After a dazzling 11 ¾-length romp on the May 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve undercard, Masqueparade made his stakes debut against a solid group in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby and prevailed by a half-length in a blanket finish that included graded stakes winners King Fury, Keepmeninmind, and Promise Keeper. It was a more workmanlike win at Thistledown than flashy like his previous start but nonetheless a solid win facing a significant class hurdle for Masqueparade. He earned a 105 Equibase Speed Figure and 98 Beyer Speed Figure. … Nice to see Kentucky Derby runner-up (and possibly winner if Medina Spirit is disqualified) Mandaloun return with a victory June 13 in the TVG.com Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park. He’s a very talented 3-year-old and it definitely appears his lone poor race, a sixth-place finish in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, was the outlier race as all of his other starts have been very good.
A 6-year-old Juddmonte Farms homebred, Juliet Foxtrot is a Grade 1 winner but a bit too inconsistent for my taste and sometimes she lacks the fight you like to see in deep stretch. She set a fairly easy pace in the Grade 3 Old Forester Mint Julep Stakes June 12 at Churchill Downs but could not hold off 12.60-1 Mintd late in a runner-up finish. Juliet Foxtrot seems to be a runner who relishes a little moisture in the turf and there is no doubt she’s a classy individual, but I have trouble viewing her as a serious candidate for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar, where there will be more pace pressure, very likely a hard, firm turf course, and better competition than she has proved capable of beating. I thought maybe she had taken a leap when she won the Grade 1 Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes in April at Keeneland, but she probably is just a cut below the top turf females.
Like Juliet Foxtrot above, Envoutante is a filly I view as a terrific racehorse but perhaps just a tier below the best of her division. It’s not really a slight to say a racehorse is better than only 98% or 99% of her/his peers, but that’s pretty much what separates the main Breeders’ Cup contenders from the fringe players. I expected a bit more from Envoutante in the $300,000 Fleur de Lis Stakes June 26 at Churchill, where she ran third, beaten by 6 ½ lengths, as the second betting choice behind favored runaway winner Letruska. While I did not expect Envoutante to beat Letruska, I was hoping to see her be a little more competitive. As has happened in previous spots against top females, the Uncle Mo filly just lacked the needed punch late in an even performance.
This year’s Rebel Stakes runner-up flopped in the Arkansas Derby, costing him a spot in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, but I thought Hozier bounced back a bit when he finished second by a head on the Preakness Stakes undercard in the Sir Barton Stakes. That was a race he should have won as the 3-5 favorite, but my thought was that it might provide a steppingstone for a better race in his next try. Unfortunately, the opposite happened as the Pioneerof the Nile colt turned in an absolute clunker when ninth, beaten by 24 ½ lengths, in the Ohio Derby June 26 at Thistledown in his first start since being transferred from Bob Baffert to Rodolphe Brisset.