Countdown to the Cup: Musket Loaded
As soon as Musket Man crossed the wire, a neck behind Etched, in the 1 1/8-mile Monmouth Cup (gr. II) last Saturday, he became one of the favorites, if not THE favorite, for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I). After all, here is a horse who has excelled at seven furlongs this year and finished a strong second to Quality Road in the Met Mile (gr. I) in a near stakes record 1:33 flat.
But trainer Derek Ryan has other ideas. In fact, the Dirt Mile never even entered his mind. It’s been the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) all the way, as Ryan is steadfast in his belief that Musket Man is a better two-turn horse. The bottom line is that he is passing a race where he could very well be the favorite to run in a race where he’ll likely be 20-1 or higher. Now that is what you call a gamble. It’s also what you call confidence in your horse.
Can a son of sprinter Yonaguska, out of a mare by sprinter Fortunate Prospect, actually win a 10-furlong race against the best distance horses in the country?
The answer should be no, but what is important to remember about Musket Man is that he already has accomplished things most people felt he couldn’t. And the reason is simple. He is an immensely talented colt, who has had more than his share of bad racing luck, and is as honest and hard-trying a horse as we’ve seen over the past two years.
Is that enough for people to bet their money on a horse who has lost five in a row, was recently beaten at Monmouth at 1-2, and who has a pedigree geared more toward shorter distances?
When considering exotic bets, and, yes, even win bets, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that Musket Man is always a dangerous opponent, regardless of the distance or the competition.
He’s proven he can run with most anyone, over any distance, at any racetrack. In 13 starts, he’s been in the money in every one of them, from six furlongs to 1 ¼ miles, at nine different racetracks in seven different states.
He has managed to win the Illinois (gr. II) and Tampa Bay (gr. III) Derbys; finish third in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) in the slop; third, beaten 1 ½ lengths by Rachel Alexandra, in the Preakness (gr. I): second, beaten 1 ½ lengths by Quality Road in the Met Mile (gr. I); second, beaten a nose by Warrior's Reward , in the Carter Handicap (gr. I) in 1:21 3/5; and third, beaten 1 ¾ lengths by Blame and Quality Road, in the Whitney, being taken out of his game and still earning a 108 Beyer, which stacks up against any horse in the country (he ran a 109 in the Met Mile).
And he’s accomplished all this despite trouble line comments such as, “Shuffled, 5-wide” in the Tampa Derby; “Lost footing, bumped” in the Kentucky Derby; “Steadied, rail” in the Preakness; “Checked early” in the Carter; “Blocked, altered path” in the Churchill Downs Handicap; and in his last start, the Monmouth Cup (gr. II), he was trapped in a box most of the way and had to be eased back, losing his position on the far turn, in order to get clear sailing outside horses.
It is his performance in the Monmouth Cup that actually makes him a live horse for the Classic. This is a much better horse with a fast, contentious pace to run at, but at Monmouth, he was stuck behind snail-like fractions of :49.96 and 1:14.39. Eddie Castro, on the winner Etched, and Paco Lopez, on Duke of Mischief , did a great job of keeping Musket Man trapped on the rail, and it was Etched, winner of last year’s Meadowlands Cup (now the Monmouth Cup) who was able to get first jump and fly home his final three-eighths.
Once Musket Man was steered to the outside, he was forced to go five-wide turning for home, then exhibited such a quick turn of foot, it actually jolted Coa back in the saddle. Although still 1 ½ lengths back at the eighth pole, he appeared to have the race won at the sixteenth pole, but he was left with too much to do, and Etched simply came home too fast for him.
At first, it looked as if Musket Man had hung, but he came home his final three-eighths in :35 2/5 and final eighth in :11 1/5. You can’t expect a horse, no matter who he is, to run any faster than that. What made the race even more impressive was that he finished five lengths ahead of Chirac, who had won four of his last six starts at Monmouth, including a 6 ¾-length romp in last year’s Philip H. Iselin (gr. III), and was second, beaten a length by Etched, in the Formal Gold Stakes in his last start. Duke Mischief, who tired to finish a well-beaten fourth, was coming off a 2 1/4-length victory in the Iselin, and earlier had won the grade II Oaklawn Handicap.
And remember, Musket Man went into the Monmouth Cup off only a couple of breezes at Vinery in Florida, where he spent most of August freshening, and one breeze (five furlongs in 1:00 4/5) at Monmouth.
Vinery uses an Aquaciser, which is similar to a European walking machine, except in water. Horses move along in shoulder-high water and push off rubber mats as water is being pushed against their legs. That enables the horses to actually jog in water, putting less stress on the limbs, while getting them extremely fit and building up their lung capacity. Musket Man has been using Vinery’s Aquaciser on and off since last summer, which is a main reason why he’s remained fit for so long.
Now, does all this mean he is going to beat Zenyatta and company in the Classic? That’s for each person to decide. We’re merely putting together all the ingredients for a potential huge overlay, even to use in the exotics.
And the scenario of the Classic should suit him perfectly. With pace horses such as Quality Road, Haynesfield , Morning Line , First Dude , and Etched; and stone closers such as Zenyatta, Blame, Fly Down, Richard's Kid, and Pleasant Prince, he and Lookin At Lucky are really the only versatile, mid-pack horses who will be able to sit behind all the speed and get first run on the closers.
I have been an admirer of this colt since his early Derby Trail days at Tampa Bay Downs when he was knocking heads with General Quarters, and few horses deserve a grade I victory more than him. He is the only Derby and Preakness starter from last year who is still around and competitive at the highest level. Whether or not you feel he’s good enough or proficient enough at 10 furlongs to win the Classic, you can be sure of one thing; he’s going to run his heart out every step of the way.
Leave him off your exotic tickets at your own risk.
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