If there is one sad fact racing fans have come to reluctantly accept, it is that its monarchs’ time on the throne is short-lived. Not one of the past four Horses of the Year stayed around to defend his title. The only Horse of the Year in the past six years to be given a shot of repeating was the filly, Azeri.
It looked as if Invasor would be given the opportunity to enhance his legacy, but his career ended abruptly after an auspicious start to his 5-year-old campaign.
Racing’s glamour division -- the 3-year-old males -- is even worse when you consider the promise that has gone unfulfilled. Of the past six 3-year-old male champions, only the gelding Funny Cide raced the following year. Deprived of their 4-year-old seasons were Bernardini, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones , War Emblem, and Point Given.
To compensate for losing its brightest stars, racing fans reach out for any star they feel will help illuminate the shadows left by those departed.
This is not to imply that racing is devoid of long-lasting stars. They are just much harder to find. Not to place Lava Man at this time among the elite of racing’s enduring heroes, such as Kelso, Forego, and John Henry, but it is difficult in this day and age not appreciate what this talented and durable warrior has accomplished over the past three years. Although he may not be the Gulliver of the racing set, let’s remember that Forego’s 34 career victories came at only four racetracks – Belmont, Aqueduct, Gulfstream, and Hialeah -- in two states. Certainly, no one held that against him, and it did not detract one bit from his greatness.
With that said, let us turn our attention to Saturday’s Whitney Handicap (gr. I), a race that could launch another everlasting legacy, should the resilient Cinderella horse, Brass Hat, defeat what promises to be a hard-knocking field of stars and potential stars. And there is still time for hard-nosed competitors Sun King, Lawyer Ron, and Magna Graduate to leave their mark before departing the racing scene. And then there are the potential stars who are just emerging as major players, such as Flashy Bull, Fairbanks, Diamond Stripes, and Dry Martini.
Finally, we come to the enigmatic Papi Chullo, who after a bizarre career looks to have found happiness and stability in the barn of Gary Contessa.
This is a horse that has had five different trainers, not counting his owner-“trainer;” has been ridden by 11 different jockeys; has raced at 13 different racetracks; made his career debut in the Gold Rush Stakes at Golden Gate; and finished second in the Sham Stakes (gr. II) and fourth in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) while still a maiden. He’s been through the sales ring three times -- twice as a yearling and once as 2-year-old. Since his sale to Steve Sigler’s Winning Move Stable and partners and being sent to Contessa, he’s won his two starts in spectacular fashion and in swift times.
Contessa is so confident in this horse’s ability, he still is disappointed he will not get an opportunity to face Invasor in the Whitney, something he was looking forward to.
That is the eclectic cast assembling for the Whitney. A victory in the 1 1/8-mile race would catapult any of these horses right up to the top, or near the top, of the older horse division and put them in position to take on the 3-year-olds for Horse of the Year honors.
Knocking off Rags to Riches, Curlin, Street Sense, and even Any Given Saturday on the ballots is not going to be an easy task. But if they are going to have any chance they must start by making a lasting impression in the Whitney, one of the country’s most historic and prestigious races.
Perhaps the most popular winner in New York would be Sun King, trained by New York’s favorite son Nick Zito, who has openly admitted his affection and admiration for the son of Charismatic.
Sun King’s unlucky string of second-place finishes in grade I stakes has given Zito his share of migraines, and a victory in the Whitney would no doubt be one of the highlights of his career.
Sun King has been knocking heads with the best for four years, finishing second in the grade I Haskell Invitational, Whitney, and Metropolitan Handicap, and finishing third in the grade I Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Champagne Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Woodward Stakes. He was beaten a nose by Invasor in the Whitney and a head by TVG Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) winner Silver Train in the Met Mile. And he was beaten only a length in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Despite having won a pair of grade II stakes and a pair of grade III stakes, he still has managed to accumulate earnings of over $2 million. So, it is safe to say, no one deserves to finally land a grade I victory more than Sun King.
Saturday at the Jersey Shore
Returning to the 3-year-olds, with all the talk centered around Street Sense and Curlin, Any Given Saturday continues to show all the signs of a horse who is ready to threaten the top two for divisional honors. The son of Distorted Humor turned in a bullet work at Belmont Monday, breezing five furlongs in :59 4/5 over a track listed as good.
If you throw out the Wood Memorial (gr. I), a race he was thrown into as a last-minute substitute and then was wide the whole way, and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), in which he suffered a foot bruise, he’s right up there with the best of them. In the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), he lost valuable ground racing wide, while Street Sense skimmed the rail and was able to outlast him by a nose.
Any Given Saturday is as handsome and classy a looking horse as you’ll see, with his powerful frame, yet finely chiseled features. He doesn’t walk, he swaggers, with a slight arch to his neck and a bounce to his step. He has always run with his head a bit high, but is more in sync and smoother than he was earlier this year.
It is interesting that Satish Sanan, who owns part of Any Given Saturday and Curlin, will have both his colts square off in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I). Could be that Todd Pletcher feels Any Given Saturday has a better chance to land his big grade I in the Haskell against a fresh Curlin than in the Travers (gr. I), where he’d have to face both Street Sense and Curlin with a race under their belt at a distance more to their advantage.
Fast Road to the Breeders’ Cup
Having spent the day at Monmouth Park Sunday, there is no doubt this is one super fast racetrack. The 5 1/2-furlong Post-Deb Stakes for 3-year-old fillies was won by La Traviata in 1:01 4/5 (1:01.91 to be exact), which was seven one-hundredths of a second off the track record set earlier in the meet by Joey P. Also on the card, a 4-year-old maiden ran six furlongs in 1:08 3/5, $22,000 claimers went in 1:08 4/5, and allowance horses went in 1:09 flat, with four horses on the wire together. The slowest half-mile split of the day was :44 3/5, with the fastest being :44 flat.
The six-furlong track record also was set during this meet when Idiot Proof went in 1:07 2/5 on July 4. The turf course has produced fast times as well, with maidens going 1 1/16 miles in 1:40 4/5 Sunday and allowance horses going in 1:40 1/5 after three-quarters in 1:09 flat.
How the track will be playing come late October is anyone’s guess. But for now, speed (and blazing speed at that) is the name of the game.
Almost heaven, West Virginia
You can look at the $750,000 West Virginia Derby (gr. III) Aug. 4 two ways. The nine-furlong race provides an opportunity to 3-year-olds not quite ready to tackle the heavy hitters in the Haskell and Jim Dandy (gr. II), but it also dilutes the 3-year-old crop, producing smaller fields at a time when competition among 3-year-olds should be at its toughest.
The diluting of horses is something we should be used to by now, as more and more tracks schedule their stakes where they see fit, regardless of whether they conflict with other major events around the country. As a result, most of our once-prestigious stakes have been relegated to mainly Breeders’ Cup preps. To the owners and trainers, this is ideal, considering all the opportunities available to earn big bucks. But to the racetracks trying to attract top-quality and competitive fields, they must take whatever they can get. And the same can be said for the fans, who must be content watching no more than two or three top horses in any major race.
This year, with the lofty talent level in the Haskell and Jim Dandy, one can certainly appreciate a race like the West Virginia Derby, which could attract the likes of the vastly improved Delightful Kiss, as well as Chelokee, Zanjero, and possibly Xchanger, all of whom are talented horses, but would have a tough time right now knocking heads with horses like Curlin, Street Sense, Any Given Saturday, Hard Spun, and Nobiz Like Shobiz. And who knows what kind of monster Steve Asmussen is going to unleash in the Jim Dandy in the form of Tiz Wonderful?
So, it appears that this year there is enough talent to go around to justify having three graded stakes in a one-week period.