Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: On to Monmouth

Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: On to Monmouth
Photo: Coglianese Photos
Front-running Champagne Stakes winner War Pass heads to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile
 The preps are over and the journey to Jersey begins. This past weekend’s stakes orgy did not measure up to the stirring stretch battles and top-class performances we saw the previous week. While there were some big efforts and exciting finishes, it was not a good weekend for favorites, with several big-name stars and division leaders going down to defeat.

Instead of solidifying the Breeders’ Cup World Championships picture, it left a number of question marks. We saw favorites Majestic Warrior (even money), Lava Man (6-5), The Tin Man (3-5), Hystericalady (1-2), Irish Smoke (6-5), and Greg’s Gold (3-5) all get beat, as well as short-priced horses Lady Joanne, Ready’s Image, Surf Cat, Asi Siempre, and The Roundhouse. Of those, Majestic Warrior, Lava Man, Surf Cat, Ready’s Image, Irish Smoke, Asi Siempre, and The Roundhouse all finished off the board. As a footnote, most people who saw the Ancient Title Stakes (gr. I) had to come away believing that Greg’s Gold should have won after being badly trapped for most of the stretch run.

So much for who didn’t win. Horses who were relatively unknown last week, such as War Pass, Wicked Style, Indian Blessing, and Artiste Royal, all catapulted to the top tier of their respective divisions.

There were, however, victories by such familiar names as Panty Raid, Diamond Stripes, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Out of Control, Tough Tiz’s Sis, and Idiot Proof. But, several of those are either iffy for the Breeders’ Cup or definitely looking elsewhere. Idiot Proof, winner of the Ancient Title, now returns to his favorite track, Monmouth, where he won the Jersey Shore Breeders’ Cup (gr. III) in 1:07 2/5, earning a 113 Beyer Speed Figure.

And what happened to that first wave of Europeans we saw walk off with the grade I Man o’War Stakes, Secretariat Stakes, and Garden City Stakes back in August and September? Two of the three winners of those races –Shamdinan and Alexander Tango -- apparently became victims of the so-called “Euro bounce” and fizzled in their next starts, while Man o’War winner Doctor Dino high-tailed it back to Europe to point for races in Hong Kong.

So, why did the Europeans put a halt to their invasion? Only the old reliable Aidan O’Brien sent a horse to compete in one of the 17 grade I stakes run over the past two weekends. That horse, French 2,000 Guineas (Fra-I) winner Astronomer Royal, was never a factor in the Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. IT) at Keeneland. Another old reliable, Michael Stoute, sent over Craven Stakes (Eng-III) winner Adagio for the grade II Jamaica Handicap, but he, too, failed to fire.

As a result, other than Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I) winner Dylan Thomas, who also accounted for the group I King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Irish Champion Stakes this year, Americans will not know the extent of the European Breeders’ Cup invasion.

Dylan Thomas clearly is the marquee European horse, and has been made the 7-4 favorite by William Hill, but it must be noted that the son of Danehill has had eight starts this year, racing twice in April, and once each in May, June, July, August, September, and October, and will have to come back in three weeks for the John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) following a very hard race at Longchamp. He is, however, an extraordinarily talented colt, who loves firm ground. Americans will remember him for his dismal showing on the dirt last year in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I). But as of now, the feeling here is that it’s going to take a monster effort to beat English Channel at Monmouth Park, assuming the going is good to firm.

In addition to Dylan Thomas, Ballydoyle could have the favorite for the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) in either Excellent Art, an unlucky second in the recent Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (gr. IIT), or George Washington. Duke of Marmelade is another possibility from O’Brien’s barn. Also possible for the BC Turf is last year’s winner Red Rocks, who has run well, but hasn’t exactly been setting the world afire this year. Until we have a better idea who else will be coming over from Europe, let’s turn our attention to the 2-year-olds.

War Party

Since the summer of 2005, grade I victories not only have been eluding Nick Zito, they have been taunting him. Each time Zito has had them within his grasp they’ve vanished in the proverbial puff of smoke.

Finally, after finishing second or third in 18 grade I stakes over the past two years, Zito was able to grab hold of one, and it was only appropriate that his run of bad luck should end in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I), a race he’d previously won four times in a six-year period.

The horse that broke the schneid was Robert La Penta’s War Pass, a front-running speedster who was winning his third race in as many starts. The son of Cherokee Run, out of Vue, by Mr. Prospector joined The Groom is Red (1998), Greenwood Lake (1999), A.P. Valentine (2000), and Birdstone (2003) on Zito’s list of Champagne winners. The last two went on to finish second and first, respectively, in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

“That takes a lot off our back,” Zito said as he headed to the track after the race. The “lot” Zito was referring to was the 800-pound gorilla that had been on there for so long. With it gone, Zito now hopes to return to his more prosperous years between 2003 and 2005 when he won the grade I Belmont Stakes, Travers, Kentucky Oaks, Whitney, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Champagne, Acorn, Gazelle, and Blue Grass Stakes.

The 2004 Blue Grass, won by The Cliff’s Edge, had been the last, and only, grade I victory for La Penta, so this was a sweet win for his camp as well.

Four of Zito’s 18 grade I placings were by La Penta’s Andromeda’s Hero.

With Zito having had success for a number of owners in recent years, such as Mary Lou Whitney, Tracy Farmer, Arthur Hancock, Charlotte Weber, Len Riggio, and George Steinbrenner, it should have come as no surprise that it was La Penta who would be the recipient of Zito’s return to grade I glory.

If anyone cared to refer to him as “Lucky La Penta,” no one could argue. Despite pinhooking every horse Zito picks out for him at the yearling sales, La Penta has yet to get burned, and has managed to be a major player in graded stakes with the horses who failed to meet their reserve. Of course, no one will ever know what some of these horses could have accomplished had they not been subjected to the rigors of the 2-year-old sales, but, the fact remains La Penta has been able to play simultaneous games of chess without getting checkmated.

Such was the case with War Pass, whom Zito picked out for him for $180,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale. Consigned to the Fasig-Tipton March 2-year-olds in training sale, the colt was being touted as one of the standouts out the sale, and was high up on the lists of some of the most prominent buyers.

“He would have brought a million dollars,” Zito said. “He was gone. There’s no way we would have kept the horse. (Agent) David Scanlon said he was one of the top horses in the sale. He loved the way he trained, and all the top buyers liked him. But right before the sale, David called and said the horse had a small issue that wouldn’t bother him later on, but he had to take him out of the sale.”

So, La Penta was forced to keep what would become his second grade I winner and one of the favorites for the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.”

La Penta, who also has Jim Dandy (gr. II) runner-up C P West, this year, has sold 2-year-olds for as much as $4 million and has bought them back at the sale for as much as $750,000. And now he has knocked off the two top-ranked juveniles in the country – Majestic Warrior and Ready’s Image, the one-two finishers of the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I).

“Never challenged,” La Penta said while watching the replay on the infield board. “He had them all the way. And he was still striding out at the wire.”

Zito thanked his help for sticking with him through the drought, and expressed his relief at finally getting in the grade I win column. “Even though we’re in all these big races and are always a factor, if you don’t win, people don’t like you. It’s the same old story,” he said.

“Coming back in three weeks is a concern, but he’s doing so well now. So, we’ll take it as easy as we can with him. We’ll send him back up to Saratoga, give him one breeze, and go to Monmouth a couple of days before the Breeders’ Cup. This is a fast horse and he should love that track.”

 La Penta said he's turned down substantial offers for the colt, and there no doubt will be even larger ones following the Champagne. So, we'll see what his priorities and goals are.

There isn’t too much to tell about the Oct. 6 Champagne. War Pass shot to the front under Cornelio Velasquez, and basically ran his field into submission with fractions of :22 4/5, :45 3/5, and 1:10 1/5. He kept extending his lead, opening up by 5 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole. Majestic Warrior, the even-money-favorite, and Ready’s Image, second choice at 5-2 in the eight-horse field, were never a factor, finishing sixth and eighth, respectively, with the latter being outdistanced. Bill Mott said Majestic Warrior came out of the race fine, making his effort all the more perplexing. He’ll likely still go on to the BC Juvenile. Owner Jim Scatuorchio said Ready’s Image would be examined after coming off the bridle early and seeming quiet, according to jockey Eibar Coa. He will be given some time off.

It was the 32-1 shot, Pyro, who rallied for second, beaten 1 1/2 lengths, and 35-1 Z Humor, who chased the winner the whole way and finished a clear-cut third. The final time for the mile was 1:36, which was one and three-fifths seconds faster than the Frizette, one race later.

As for La Penta, he’s closing in on the opposition’s king and is one move away from an Eclipse Award. Checkmate.

A Blessing from Bob

First Zito, then Baffert. Just like old times. About a half an hour after War Pass’ victory, Bob Baffert sent out Hal and Patti Earnhardt’s Indian Blessing in the $400,000 Frizette Stakes (gr. I). And like War Pass, the homebred daughter of Indian Charlie, out of the Flying Chevron mare Shameful, ran her opponents into the ground with fast early fractions and then blew the race wide open.

In her case, she was content to stalk the pace set by Dill Or No Dill and then charged right by her on the far turn, opening up an eight-length lead in the stretch before cruising to a 4 1/2-length victory in 1:37 3/5 for the mile.

Baffert, as well as trainer John Terranova, who had been looking after Indian Blessing in Baffert’s absence, were touting her as something special well before the Frizette. They were confident going into the race, as were the bettors who knocked her down to 3-5 favorite, despite her having only one runaway victory at 5 1/2 furlongs and stretching out to a mile.

After early fractions of :22 2/5 and :45 2/5, Indian Blessing stormed to the front, opening up with every stride. It was no contest, as she won under a mild hand ride from Garrett Gomez to defeat Backseat Rhythm, with Sunday Holiday third.

Baffert now has two of the favorites for the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) in Indian Blessing and Oak Leaf (gr. I) winner Cry and Catch Me.

Watch out for Grace Anatomy coming out the Darley Alcibiades Stakes (gr. I), won by the Bobby Frankel-trained maiden Country Star, who ran a remarkable race, rallying on the far outside to win going away. But if you’re looking for a price in the Juvenile Fillies, Grace Anatomy overcame a terrible start and a premature move and still finished a strong third, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths. She hasn’t run on a regular dirt track yet, but there’s no reason to think she won’t handle it as well or better than Polytrack.

Two closers to consider are the consistent A To the Croft, a solid second in the Alcibiades, and Izarra, runner-up in the Oak Leaf. Taking it one step farther, if you want to try to make a killing in this race, do not overlook Tasha’s Miracle, who came up a little short in her fifth-place finish in the Oak Leaf, beaten only 2 1/2 lengths. Expect big improvement from the daughter of Harlan’s Holiday.  Along with the unbeaten Matron (gr. II) winner Proud Spell, the Juvenile Fillies looks to be one of the more intriguing BC races.

Another Juvenile Fillies starter, Smarty Deb, a Smart Strike filly who is unbeaten in four starts and who beat colts in the Gottstein Futurity last out at Emerald Downs, was the first Breeders’ Cup horse to arrive at Monmouth Park, shipping in last week.

Style over Substance

Although last year’s Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) turned out to be a bonanza prep for the BC Juvenile, with the first three finishers running 1-2-3 in the Juvenile (not in the same order), one still must tread carefully in analyzing this year’s running. Wicked Style looked like the real thing wiring his field to win by 3 1/4 lengths and remaining unbeaten, but still hasn’t run on “dirt.” He is by BC Juvenile winner Macho Uno, out of a mare by Arc de Triomphe winner Trempolino, so there is a lot of diversity in his pedigree. He showed a lot of guts winning the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. III), battling every step of the way and then coming back after being headed by the Bill Mott-trained Riley Tucker in the stretch. You also have to give him credit for winning the Breeders’ Futurity from the 12-post.

Runner-up Slew’s Tiznow turned in a solid effort after breaking his maiden by 4 1/4 lengths at Saratoga and should improve off this race, returning to a conventional dirt track. The Roundhouse, who looked so good in his two stakes appearances at the Spa, never got going on Polytrack and made a feeble attempt to rally, finishing sixth. Don’t give up on him yet. The always dangerous Kenny McPeek sent out Old Man Buck to finish a rallying third at 24-1 after winning back-to-back races on the grass, including the Miller Lite Cradle Stakes. McPeek now has the option of going for the Juvenile or the Juvenile Turf.

Biz or Nobiz?

The Breeders’ Cup Mile is beckoning trainer Barclay Tagg after Nobiz Like Shobiz’ explosive victory in the Jamaica Handicap (gr. IIT), in which he blew his opponents away with a breathtaking turn of foot to remain unbeaten on the turf. But logic tells him that the Hollywood Derby (gr. IT) is the place to go, so that is the way he is leaning. But he hasn’t dismissed the BC Mile quite yet.

“The problem with running in the Mile is that even if he wins, he won’t get the accolades he deserves,” Tagg said. “English Channel, or whoever wins the Breeders’ Cup Turf will probably be turf champion and he’s not going to be three-year-old champion, so what does he really have to gain by running in the Mile?”

Tagg no doubt has forgotten about last year’s Eclipse Award winner Miesque’s Approval, who was voted champion grass horse after winning the BC Mile. He is correct that English Channel will win it with a victory in the BC Turf, but if he should lose and Nobiz wins the Mile, that, along with his unbeaten grass record, would be enough to take home the Eclipse.

The Mile would be a tough spot, with a big field and post positions so important, but one thing is for sure, we haven’t seen an American turf horse with that kind of explosive turn of foot in quite a while.

In other Breeders’ Cup news:

-- Shadwell Stable’s vastly improved Daaher stamped himself as a live horse for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (and 70 yards) with his impressive score in the Jerome Handicap (gr. II). After pressing scorching fractions of :44 2/5 and 1:08 1/5, he drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:34 1/5 for the mile. Runner-up Forefathers finished almost six lengths ahead of the third horse. The winner, a son of Awesome Again, has now turned in two brilliant performances since trainer Kiaran McLaughlin added blinkers.

-- John Shirreffs said he will ship Goodwood Stakes (gr. I) winner Tiago to Monmouth Park either Oct. 16 or 20, depending on the flight schedule. Shirreffs wants to let the colt acclimate and have his final work over the track. Shirreffs also will send grass star After Market, who likely will contest the BC Mile after his big runner-up performance in the Kelso Handicap (gr. IIT).

-- Baffert is excited about the chances of Forego Handicap (gr. I) winner Midnight Lute in the BC Sprint. He said the son of Real Quiet, whom he ranks among his best horses ever, is training brilliantly. This horse is going to be dangerous going into the race fresh. Baffert's run of success continued in the Lady's Secret (gr. I) when Tough Tiz's Sis upset Hysterical Lady, wearing her down in the final strides.

-- Allen Jerkens is still waiting for word from owner Joeseph Allen whether or not he wants to point for the Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I) with Political Force, who won the Suburban Handicap (gr. I) in July and most recently finished a good third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) after encountering traffic problems turning for home. Jerkens and Allen teamed up to finish a fast-closing third with Teammate in Sunday’s Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (gr. I).

-- Rick Dutrow, concerned about the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Classic, said he’s pointing toward the BC Dirt Mile with Meadowlands Breeders’ Cup (gr. II) winner Diamond Stripes. Hats off to the 3-year-old Xchanger, who ran a huge race to finish a close third. Deviating from his normal running style, he came from last in the field of seven and made a big sweeping move around horses. He then closed determinedly to miss by a half-length, nearly giving the 3-year-olds a five-for-five record against older horses.

-- Speaking of the Classic, William Hill apparently is as confused as everyone else, making Street Sense, Curlin, Lawyer Ron, and Any Given Saturday 5-1 co-favorites.

-- The overlay of the day had to be the 20-1 on Shadwell Turf Mile winner Purim, who had run a huge race over the Keeneland turf course earlier in the year, finishing third, beaten three-quarters of a length, behind Kip Deville and Showing Up. And he was coming off an impressive score in the John Henry at Arlington Park.

-- As for the failures of Lava Man and Surf Cat in the Oak Tree Mile (gr. IT), the latter, for some reason, was rank early and charged to the lead. This is a natural come-from-behind horse who packs a devastating wallop on “dirt.” He is one of the most gifted horses in the country, and he seemed totally out of his element on the lead and on the turf. A return to his normal style and surface, and he still could be a major factor in the Dirt Mile. Lava Man was a beaten horse early, dropping out of it before they hit the quarter pole. He didn’t seem comfortable being on the inside and behind horses. In the Clement Hirsch, The Tin Man ran another courageous race, but simply was outrun late by Artiste Royal.

-- The Breeders’ Cup Sprint could get a boost if the connections of the hard-knocking Benbaun, winner of Sunday’s Prix de l’Abbaye (Fra-I), decide to send the son of Straviinsky, who has won 12 of his 35 career starts, including his last three, all group races.

 -- Finally, no report of the weekend’s racing would be complete without mentioning the tragic events at Keeneland, which saw the horrific death in the paddock of Dream of Angels before the Phoenix Stakes (gr. II), the fatal breakdown of Gold Train in the Breeders’ Futurity, and the severe breakdown of Teuflesberg in the Phoenix. The colt is set to undergo surgery and is currently resting comfortably.

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