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Quality Road is back on track.
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Countdown to the Cup: The Road Keeps Going

Quality Road is back on track on the Classic trail following his Woodward victory.

So, Quality Road  is back on track and headed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Todd Pletcher loved his race in the Woodward (gr. I). Johnny Velazquez loved his race in the Woodward. In fact, everyone close to the horse loved his race in the Woodward.

But their initial reaction to the colt’s 4 ¾-length victory was more relief than anything.

After all, Quality Road ruled the older male division before his defeat as the 1-2 favorite in the Aug. 7 Whitney Handicap (gr. I). He looked to have the extreme brilliance at all distances that would make him the horse to catch, and to beat, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

And if there was any horse who could thwart Zenyatta’s bid for perfection in the Classic it was the son of Elusive Quality – Kobla, by Strawberry Road, who went into the Whitney off brilliant victories in the grade I Donn and Metropolitan handicaps.

But his head defeat at the hands of Blame  knocked him off his pedestal and off the top spot in the older male division. Trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Edward P. Evans were well aware that another defeat in the Woodward would be a crushing blow to the colt's chances in the Breeders' Cup..

So, when it was over and Quality Road was jogging back to the winner’s circle, there was the proverbial sigh of relief.

“Watching the way he did it, it went beyond relief,” said Chris Baker, who manages Evans’ Spring Hill Farm near Casanova, Va., and was representing Evans in his absence.

“I’m shaking like a leaf,” said Baker’s wife, Diana, who assists her husband at the farm.

Pletcher also was relieved that Quality Road was able to redeem himself and put his name right back in the Classic picture.

“In these situations, anything less than a win is unacceptable,” Pletcher said. “Anytime you’re in that situation, you’re going to be relieved. I hate losing, and I hate losing with a horse like this. It’s frustrating. But that’s part of the game and you have to accept it. This is the race we expected. He’s proven before he’s a top-class horse and he proved it again today.”

Quality Road’s next stop is the Breeders’ Cup Classic in nine weeks. Pletcher thinks the colt again has a legitimate claim at Horse of the Year and is looking forward to taking on Zenyatta, as well as a rematch with Blame.

“We have tremendous respect for Zenyatta, there’s no question about it, but we don’t expect to show up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and have it be an easy field,” he said. “Sure, I’d like to meet Zenyatta; that’s what championship events are about.”

As for the loss to Blame, Pletcher said, “He was beaten by a very good horse who had won six of his last seven starts and was coming off a grade I win, and we were giving him five pounds to boot. And he only got beat a half a head. We made a couple of adjustments, the way we rode him, and I think he redeemed himself today on a track that did not appear to be playing very fast.”

Even Velazquez thought this was a different horse than in the Whitney. “He was much, much better than last time,” he said. “In the Whitney, I was struggling to get him going. But today he was much more willing and much more on the bridle. It was better for him to have a horse to follow. It made him much more competitive.”

So, will Quality Road be a major force to reckon with in the Classic? After the Woodward, many came right out and said he didn’t look as if a mile and quarter off a nine-week layoff would be to his liking, especially the way he was being urged on to beat a mediocre field, coming home his final eighth in :13 2/5.

Logically speaking, going into the Classic without a 1 ¼-mile race under his belt this year and coming off a layoff to boot will not be to his advantage, especially considering he was beaten in his only two 10-furlong appearances last year.

But let’s look at it in a different way. Will stamina or speed be more beneficial to him in winning the Classic? A gifted, brilliant horse can often carry his speed farther than he wants to go if he’s honed to a razor’s edge. And a nine-week layoff could freshen him up enough to accomplish that if Pletcher can keep him sharp. He is not a horse who is going to outclose Blame or Zenyatta or perhaps even Lookin At Lucky on even terms. His strength is his ability to dictate a race by using his high cruising speed and running his opponents dizzy, neutralizing their closing punch, much like a Skip Away, and even Rachel Alexandra last year. That’s why Rachel’s presence in the Classic could make things a bit difficult for him.

As for the Woodward, that was a deep, laboring track that took away a lot of his brilliance. But by running over a track like that, perhaps it helped give him the bottom he’s going to need in the Classic.

Is the mile and a quarter of the Classic ideal for him against the caliber of competition he’s going to face? The answer is no considering he hasn't won at the distance and his style of running. But we don’t know how the track that day is going to be playing or if Rachel or any other top-class pace horses are going to show up. As we said, many have already dismissed him, but right now it’s just too early to assess his chances. All we know is that he’s extremely gifted, can carry his speed, and knows how to win, having scored in eight of his 12 starts. For now, that's plenty.

On another front, how can you not feel badly for Mine That Bird? Has last year’s explosive Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner simply lost his competitive edge? Is something bothering him no one has discovered yet? He has put on a great deal of flesh since last year and may need to race himself back into racing shape. Blinkers woke him up early in the Woodward, but that’s not his game and he was done by the half-mile pole. Maybe taking the blinkers off and letting him drop back will help bring back that big closing punch. Who knows? It’s all conjecture now.

The Woodward still was only his third start of the year and he did virtually no running at all in the Firecracker (gr. IIT) on the grass. His fifth in the Whitney off a slow pace was acceptable enough to suggest improvement in the Woodward, but it didn’t happen. Perhaps the blinkers were partly at fault. The only thing that can help him now, if anything can, is racing his way back into shape. The Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) would be a good spot to let him go back to his normal running style and see if it can wake him up. No one wants to see a good horse, especially a Kentucky Derby winner, go out like this.

More Cup Comments

-- There is no doubt Twirling Candy  was many lengths the best in the Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT) and taking him down for his infraction would have been difficult. But there also is no doubt that what he did to Summer Movie normally would result in an instant disqualification.

The fact that Summer Movie apparently came out of the race battered and sore adds even more fuel to the fire. To the stewards’ credit, they did present an explanation on why they let the result stand, which resulted in a chorus of boos as the winner was led into the winner’s circle. But then they went and negated it by saying that they made their decision before talking to Summer Movie’s jockey, Victor Espinoza. Why? Because he didn’t come to the phone fast enough.

That’s like the police saying the victim of a crime didn’t come to the station quickly enough, so they let the suspect go. That comment was a major faux pas and only exacerbated the situation. Let’s also not forget what a disqualification would have resulted in, considering the amount of show money bet on Twirling Candy and the last-place finish by Summer Movie.

With all that said, how good is Twirling Candy? This colt has a ton of ability and raw speed and is only going to get better once he learns to stop gawking at things, like the leftover scaffolding from a Z Z Top concert. Between him and the other comet-like Candy Ride, Sidney’s Candy, it’s going to be interesting to see where John Sadler decides to ignite these two rockets next.

-- Speaking of Sadler, if there was a more impressive performance over the weekend than the powerhouse victory of Tell a Kelly in the Darley Debutante (gr. I) at Del Mar we sure didn’t see it.

The daughter of Tapit , far back early, wove her way through horses, ran into a traffic jam turning for home, and after she got clear, blew by the favored Wickedly Perfect like she was standing still. By coming from 2 ½ lengths back at the eighth pole to win by 4 ½ lengths over a grade III stakes winner, Tell a Kelly gets our vote for the performance of the week. This was powerful.

-- Kudos to Red Bank Handicap (gr. IIIT) winner Get Serious, who has now won 10 of his 13 starts at Monmouth.

-- One of these years, the Breeders’ Cup folks are going to get burned having the Washington Park Handicap (gr. III) a “Win and You’re In” race. Not to take anything away from the winner Gran Estreno, but this is the only race he wins, having won it the last two years. This year, he defeated four opponents, including Giant Oak, a winner of three of 19 career starts, and three allowance-caliber horses. Fortunately for the Breeders’ Cup, Gran Estreno is an Argentinian-bred, so his connections are unlikely to shell out the hundreds of thousands of dollars to supplement him to the Classic. Are these the kinds of horses the Breeders’ Cup want in the Classic at the possible expense of someone far more deserving? What if one of these allowance horses had gotten lucky on this particular day?

Again, Gran Estreno is a nice, hard-knocking horse who has worked his way up from the claiming ranks, and we love rags to riches stories as much as anyone. But the fact is he has never run in anything higher than a grade III race, and with only 14 horses allowed in the Classic, the Breeders’ Cup can’t be giving away starting berths to horses who are only going to fill up a spot.