By Mike Curry
Making the Grade, which will run through the 2016 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), focuses on the winners of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the next 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.
Dam: Uchitel, by Afleet Alex
Owner: Samuel F. Henderson
Breeder: Branch Equine (Ky.)
Trainer: Donnie Von Hemel
Road to the Kentucky Derby points: 10 (Ranked No. 13)
Making his first start outside of Remington Park, Suddenbreakingnews delivered a career-best performance in the Southwest Stakes for veteran trainer Donnie Von Hemel. His last-to-first rally to win the Southwest was eye catching, but was this race as good at it looked?
Ability: Suddenbreakingnews showed significant improvement in his first start as a 3-year-old, charging clear in deep stretch to win the Southwest Stakes by 2 3/4 lengths in his graded stakes debut. Racehorses, especially the very good ones, often take a huge step forward with physical and emotional maturity at this time of year.
On the other hand, the 21-point jump from a previous-best Equibase Speed Figure of 87 for winning the Clever Trevor Stakes in November 2015 to a 108 for the Southwest is a little concerning. For one thing, that type of significant improvement frequently is followed by a regression. Past experience also has taught me that Oaklawn is a difficult racetrack for speed-figure makers to gauge. It's a deep main track that is wonderful for building stamina when horses are stabled there and train on it regularly, but it also yields some slow times on paper.
There were five races at 1 1/16 miles on the Monday card at Oaklawn and the Southwest was the fastest of a group that also included a starter allowance race for older horses and a pair of maiden races for 3-year-olds. The track, however, was drying out throughout the day, so it was different at the start of the card—it was listed as sealed for the first six races—than for the Southwest. Make no mistake, this was a huge leap forward for Suddenbreakingnews, but I think we'll have a much better feel for just how much he has improved after his next start.
A $72,000 purchase out of the 2014 Keeneland September yearling sale, Suddenbreakingnews flashed talent from the start. He finished first in his debut in August at Remington Park after rallying from more than 10 lengths back but was disqualified and placed second for ducking in and causing interference in the stretch. He showed early speed for the only time so far in his career in his second race and won by 4 1/4 lengths when pressing the pace. He then finished a fast-closing second in his third start before winning the Clever Trevor Stakes. He closed his 2-year-old season with a runner-up finish to Discreetness, a horse he defeated in the Southwest, in the Remington Springboard Mile Stakes.
Running style: With the exception of his second career start, Suddenbreakingnews has consistently raced from well off the pace. He's a deep closer who prefers to drop back and conserve energy early for a sustained late rally, like in the Southwest when he overhauled 11 opponents in the final five-sixteenths of a mile. With quite a few of the early hopefuls for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) doing their best work when on or near the lead, it looks like the race could potentially set up well for a closer, but keep in mind it's February. Of course, the usual caveats apply here: closers are often dependent upon other runners to provide the pace that sets up their finishing burst and navigating a path through a 20-horse field is a daunting endeavor.
Connections: Horse racing is part of the DNA of Suddenbreakingnews' trainer, Donnie Von Hemel, 54, who won his first training title at Louisiana Downs in 1988 and was inducted into the Remington Park Hall of Fame in 1998. Von Hemel is the son of Nebraska Horse Racing Hall of Famer Don Von Hemel, who has more than 2,500 victories to his credit, and his brother, Kelly, has amassed more than 1,300 wins as a trainer.
Donnie Von Hemel has trained a trio of grade I winners—Caleb's Posse , See How She Runs, and Clever Trevor—since he took out his trainer's license in 1984. He has 39 graded stakes wins and 328 stakes victories from 2,074 career wins through Feb. 15. Clever Trevor, who won six stakes for Von Hemel, is his lone Kentucky Derby starter to date, finishing 13th in the 1989 Derby. Caleb's Posse won the 2011 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) as well as the King's Bishop Stakes (gr. I).
Suddenbreakingnews is the first graded stakes winner for his Texas-based owner, Samuel F. Henderson.
Luis Quinonez is the regular rider of Suddenbreakingnews. He's been aboard for all six of his career starts. Quinonez, who has never had a Kentucky Derby mount, took out his jockey's license in 1989 and has won 3,558 races through Feb. 15, including 251 stakes wins. The Southwest was Quinonez's 13th graded stakes win. Quinonez, 49, is a native of Mexico and the oldest of three brothers currently riding in the U.S.
Pedigree: Suddenbreakingnews is from the ninth crop of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft , who won four grade I races during his championship campaign, including a pair at 1 1/4 miles. Mineshaft is by 1992 Belmont Stakes winner and Horse of the Year A.P. Indy, who was sired by 1977 Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year Seattle Slew. With no shortage of stamina from this sire line, it's no surprise that most of Mineshaft's top runners have excelled at longer distances, but his average winning distance of 7.36 furlongs as a sire is a little shorter than you'd expect.
Suddenbreakingnews also gets a healthy dose of stamina from the bottom half of his pedigree. His dam, Uchitel, was winless in three starts, but she is by 2005 Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex and is a half-sister to 2003 Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) winner Composure and 2008 West Virginia Derby (gr. III) winner Ready Set. Composure is the dam of 2016 Royal Delta Stakes (gr. II) winner Penwith.
Party Cited, by 1977 and 1978 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Alleged, is the grandam of Suddenbreakingnews. Party Cited was a graded stakes winner at 1 3/8 miles in the U.S. and group I-placed at a mile in Europe. She finished second by less than a length in the Santa Ana Handicap (gr. I) in 1993.
Digging deeper that are plenty of additional stamina influences here and it seems pretty clear that Suddenbreakingnews should be able to excel as the races get longer on the Kentucky Derby trail.
It's fair to be a bit skeptical of Suddenbreakingnews off of a single great performance, but it doesn't take too much imagination to envision this gelding passing horses in the Kentucky Derby stretch. He's improving, Suddenbreakingnews is in the hands of a fantastic horseman in Von Hemel and he's got the pedigree to relish 1 1/4 miles.