Countdown to the Cup: Autumn Blossoms
by Steve Haskin
Date Posted: 8/30/2005 10:14:38 AM
Last Updated: 9/1/2005 5:31:09 PM

Steve Haskin says Flower Alley's Travers win does not overshadow Afleet Alex but makes the dual classic winner's achievements look even better.
Photo: Skip Dickstein
With the majority of the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships races beginning to sort themselves out, it looks as if this year's events for the most part are going to be wide-open races, with no standout. And that means Horse of the Year also is still very much up for grabs.

A headline on Monday that caught the attention was this one in the New York Post: "Flower Alley Making People Forget Alex"

Although Flower Alley has developed into a top-class 3-year-old, he is only boosting Afleet Alex's reputation, having finished eight lengths behind him in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) and 6 1/2 lengths behind him in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), the only two times they have met. In fact, Afleet Alex has soundly defeated, or finished in front of, every one of the seven starters in Saturday's Travers Stakes (gr. I) and has never been beaten by any of them. So, it seems inconceivable that Flower Alley, or anyone else, is making people forget Afleet Alex, whose heroics on the Triple Crown trail still have provided racing with its most unforgettable moments this year.

Last year, Smarty Jones   was deprived of Horse of the Year, losing out to Ghostzapper. Many voters took offense to the colt's early retirement, while others felt he didn't beat anyone of note. As it turned out, Smarty Jones' injury was much worse than it was made out to be. According to Three Chimneys Farm owner Robert Clay, there still is so much cartilage damage that the colt in all probability will never be able to be ridden, as so many of the Three Chimneys stallions are. And as for the horses he defeated in the Preakness alone, Rock Hard Ten this year won the Santa Anita Handicap, Eddington captured the Pimlico Special, and Borrego won the Pacific Classic (all grade Is). Other horses he defeated in the Derby and Preakness, such as Castledale, Imperialism, Limehouse, and Sir Shackleton have also won grade I or grade II stakes this year.

So, it would not be wise to knock this or any year's Triple Crown horses until they've had a chance to prove themselves over the course of a career.

If there is any 3-year-old who is staking a serious claim to the 3-year-old title at this point it is the remarkable Lost in the Fog, who ran his unbeaten streak to nine with another emphatic victory in Saturday's King's Bishop Stakes (gr. I). The son of Lost Soldier still must branch out and defeat older horses in the TVG Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) to have any kind of chance at the title. But championships aside, he has proven himself to be one of the most amazing, machine-like horses of recent years – one whom trainer Bob Baffert compared to the great sprinter Housebuster. He comes to run regardless of the track or the surface, and has never run a Beyer Speed Figure less than 102. He's won at Golden Gate and Gulfstream twice, Belmont, Saratoga, Aqueduct, Calder, and Turf Paradise. So dominant has he been, he's gone off as the odds-on favorite in every race but his career debut, and has been bet down to 1-20 on two occasions.

Despite all the injuries and retirements this year, there are several brilliant horses with flawless or near flawless records still around, such as Whitney (gr. I) winner Commentator (seven-for-eight and an average winning margin of 8 1/4 lengths); Ballerina (gr. I) winner Happy Ticket (10-for-11 and an average winning margin of six lengths); Alabama (gr. I) winner Sweet Symphony (four-for-four with an average winning margin of almost four lengths); Hopeful (gr. I) winner First Samurai (three-for-three and an average winning margin of 5 1/4 lengths); and Fourstardave (gr. IIT) winner Leroidesanimaux, who has won seven straight on the turf, including two grade Is, a grade II, and two grade IIIs.

All of these horses have won stakes at this year's Saratoga meet, and four of the six won this past weekend. Also, there is the undefeated Calder 2-year-old In Summation (four-for-four with an average winning margin of 5 3/4 lengths), Smuggler, winner of five of seven (with two seconds), including the grade I Coaching Club American Oaks and Mother Goose; and Australian champion Alinghi, a winner of 11 of her 17 career starts, including her U.S. debut in Monday's Ballston Spa Breeders' Cup (gr. IIIT).

Remember the last two dominant 2-year-old filly champions, Halfbridled and Sweet Catomine? Well, there is another one that may be coming out of California this year. Wild Fit, by Wild Wonder, has won both her starts with explosive stretch runs and could be the next exciting filly to use a victory in the Del Mar Debutante (gr. I) as a springboard to an Alberto VO5 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) win.

Speaking of 2-year-old fillies, one of the biggest overlays of the year had to be the $17.40 payoff on Adieu in last Friday's Spinaway Stakes (gr. I). The daughter of El Corredor   had gone off at odds of 3-5, 3-2, and 6-5 in her three career starts, won the Astoria Stakes, then was stuck down on the rail for most of the way in the Adirondack Stakes (gr. II) and still was beaten only 2 1/2 lengths. The Adirondack winner, Folklore, amazingly also was 7-1 and finished second in the Spinaway, triggering a $103 exacta.

Getting back to the top horses in training, throw in Flower Alley and Bellamy Road, who was brilliant and gutsy in defeat in the Travers (gr. I) coming off almost a four-month layoff and a splint injury, and there is no reason to still fret over the losses of Ghostzapper, Roses in May, Afleet Alex, Giacomo and the others who have fallen by the wayside. Both colts are scheduled to meet again in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I). And if Funny Cide is over his back problem, then the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner could also show up in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, a race he won last year. Also pointing for the Gold Cup is Saratoga Breeders' Cup (gr. II) winner Suave.

And then there is Rock Hard Ten, who is being pointed for the Goodwood Breeders' Cup (gr. II), which has produced four Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I) winners (Tiznow   twice, Pleasantly Perfect, and Alphabet Soup  ) and two Classic runners- up (Budroyale and Silver Charm) in the past nine years.

Whitney runner-up and current kingpin in the older horse division, Saint Liam, is going to take a lot of beating in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) Sept. 10; Powerscourt and Kitten's Joy, one-two in the Arlington Million (gr. IT), should provide more fireworks in the male turf division this fall, as should 3-year-olds Gun Salute and English Channel, the top two finishers in the Secretariat Stakes (gr. I). The latter was particularly impressive in defeat, getting stuck on the rail and battling on the lead, and was unable to utilize his explosive turn of foot. Look for a much-improved effort next time out. And Angara, Megahertz, Melhor Ainda, and Wonder Again, the first four finishers in the Beverly D. (gr. I), should make for an exciting Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT).

One foreign note: if you're looking for a potential big score in the future book, be advised that Coral is quoting last year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I) winner Bago at 20-1 for the Classic. Bago, a brilliant horse on his best day, had been pointing for the Classic last year as a 3-year-old, but his connections decided to put him away and wait until this year.

Bago has run well this year, but has come up a bit short in his last three races, all group I events, and a change to the dirt could be just what he needs. This is a horse with a ton of natural ability, and considering the recent performances of Giant's Causeway   and Sakhee in the Classic, don't be surprised to see Bago run a huge race if his connections decide to give it a go. He drew raves after winning his first six career starts, including the Prix des Chenes (Fra-III) and Criterium International (Fra-I) at two and the group I Prix Jean Prat and Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris at three. He has plenty of dirt breeding in his tail-female family through Mr. Prospector and Halo, and definitely bears watching. He'll likely head for the Arc again, but if the Niarchos family, which owns the horse, and trainer Jonathan Pease announce that the Classic is also in his plans, now is the time to take a shot on him, especially with no standout in the Classic picture.

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