Belmont Park Race Report: Hold on Tight

Published in the June 30 issue of The Blood-Horse

By Robert Knolhoff Jr.
No matter which blueprint is chosen for the campaign of a top racehorse, the ever revolving variables in the life of a racehorse mandate one bit of steady advice. Pick a course and hold on tight.

With his heart set on the biggest prizes imaginable for 4-year-old Critical Eye and unwavering confidence in his versatile and long-winded homebred, trainer Scott Schwartz held firm, first throughout the long New York winter months and later through a series of shorter than ideal spring races. On June 23 in the Hempstead Handicap (gr. I), his own course was fulfilled. Under watchful handling by jockey Mike Luzzi, Herbert and Carol Schwartz' Critical Eye soared through a vintage Hempstead field to win her second career grade I by a neck from a valiant Jostle in 1:42.18. Beautiful Pleasure, champion older mare of 1999, tired to seventh in her 2001 debut.

"She ran really hard at the close of last year," said Schwartz. "So we knew our plans for the winter were to first rest her up and then set our sights on this season, with the ultimate goal being the Breeders' Cup at Belmont in October. She'll be at her best well before then, but you have to start somewhere."

His sentiments were not made in the hours immediately preceding the $250,000 Hempstead, or even the afternoon prior, when he saddled Critical Eye's half-brother Personable Pete to victory against New York-bred company. Rather, he shared his vision three months ago at Aqueduct, just before Critical Eye's seasonal debut in the Distaff Breeders' Cup (gr. II). She ran admirably at both seven furlongs and a mile in serious company to kick off the year, but after trailing through much of the one-mile Shuvee (gr. II) five weeks ago, Schwartz knew it was time to call an audible.

"I knew she didn't get anything out of the Shuvee Handicap, and the five weeks off until the Hempstead wouldn't serve her well," continued the winning trainer. "This is a filly who loves to run."

Schwartz entered Critical Eye in the 11-furlong Sheepshead Bay Handicap (gr. IIT) on June 2, stayed in when the handicap washed off the turf, put Mike Luzzi up for the first time, and watched his filly relish all the elbow room she craved with a confidence building victory.

With a little old-fashioned stamina foundation to boost her already formidable full extension, Critical Eye joined a field of seven for the Hempstead, headlined by Beautiful Pleasure. With the start of her broodmare career postponed for at least a year, the 6-year-old readied for her first try in more than seven months under the loving watch of Donna Ward, who revealed for the first time this week the mare's frightening episode with colic several weeks after winning last year's Hempstead.

One year removed from a stay at the Rood and Riddle veterinary clinic in Lexington which likely saved the life of her beloved morning companion, Ward stood beside Beautiful Pleasure in her stall days before her return to competition. She readily exposed the culprits behind the majestic racemare's full figure. "Bananas and Starlight peppermints," she revealed. "One race back, though, will tighten that girth up real good. She's had enough with all the practicing. It's time to race."

Conditioning was not the only hurdle for front-running Beautiful Pleasure to face in her Hempstead defense. Once again splendidly turned out by trainer John Servis, Jostle arrived at Belmont via her customary 4 a.m. van ride from Philadelphia Park. Beneath Jerry Bailey, she figured to press the issue up front, as did Apple of Kent, who visually blossomed further after her coming out party in the Shuvee. Late challenges were anticipated from Critical Eye, Serra Lake, or Darling My Darling, entered as a saver by John and Donna Ward.

The showdown commenced with Beautiful Pleasure assuming her customary positions, both in front and well to the outside beneath Jorge Chavez through an opening quarter in :23.37. Longshot Crescent Coast and Jostle turned up the heat to her inside with a second quarter in :22.79, with Apple of Kent rating in fourth and farther back and Luzzi cajoling Critical Eye into the bridle just enough to stay within shouting distance.

As Beautiful Pleasure began to drift out noticeably nearing the quarter pole, the race was on to secure a clear path to the towering mare's inside. Bailey did so first with Jostle, and then to her outside. Richard Migliore threw Apple of Kent's reins forward and that pair then raced on near even terms down the stretch.

In the same instant Jostle inched clear of Apple of Kent after a mile in 1:35.60, the agile, long-reaching strides of Critical Eye allowed Luzzi to thread his way between Beautiful Pleasure and Apple of Kent. They required nearly all of the 81*2-furlong route to surpass the hard-running Jostle, who met all challengers in an outstanding effort. Apple of Kent held well another three-quarters of a length behind.

"I think my filly is a little better going longer than this so I had to really get into her to make our move," said Luzzi, who was the recipient of the Mike Venezia Award last month.

Beautiful Pleasure appeared to return in good order from an effort in which she was in clear need. "She'll race into shape like any other older horse," said trainer John Ward. "She was a short horse today."
As for the victorious daughter of Dyna-former and the Dr. Blum mare Critical Crew, "a great breeding nick" offers her trainer, Critical Eye's exit from the winner's circle and meeting with a blast of cold water courtesy of a trackside hose revealed a fit and well tested athlete. Not surprisingly, Schwartz has her immediate itinerary mapped out.

"She loves it at Saratoga and I'd like to get her there as early as possible. She'll love the track and the distances will really help, too."

Sure sounds like a plan worth sticking to.

(Chart, Equibase)