Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: A Road Less Traveled

Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: A Road Less Traveled
Photo: Barbara D. Livingston
Street Sense on track at Saratoga.

There was the rubber match between Street Sense and Curlin in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Didn’t Happen. There was the showdown between the two in the Travers Stakes (gr. I). Not going to happen. There was Rags to Riches headlining Lady’s Day at Belmont for the CCA Oaks (gr. I). Didn’t Happen. There was Rags in the Saratoga limelight for the Alabama. Not going to happen.

Welcome to racing in the 21st century. All the aforementioned races used to be major platforms on which racing’s stars would display their talents and inscribe their names in the pages of the sport’s championship events. Each race stood on its own and could single handedly make a horse’s career. Now, judging from the comments and actions by trainers Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, they are merely steps up the stairway to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.   

Winning these prestigious races no longer is incentive enough if there is even the slightest chance they will somehow prevent a horse from being at his or her peak on Breeders’ Cup day.

For Street Sense’s trainer, Carl Nafzger, the Belmont became a stumbling block for the Travers. For Asmussen, trainer of Curlin, the Travers became a stumbling block for the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), which will be the colt’s launch pad to the Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I). Could we actually see the two horses clash before the Breeders’ Cup? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Pletcher, trainer of Rags to Riches, had no choice but to skip the CCA Oaks when the filly wasn’t right a week before the race. And after pulling up in a workout and her unscheduled trip to New Bolton, it wasn’t worth the risk rushing her to make the Alabama. Pletcher, however, did elect to skip the Travers with his runaway Haskell Invitational (gr. I) winner Any Given Saturday, feeling that 20 days was insufficient time to bring the colt back, and that the Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II), four weeks after the Travers, was a better way to get him to the Classic.

This is the reality of Thoroughbred racing, like it or not. “Our goal is the Breeders’ Cup” has become the catch phrase from trainers. Another reality will be going into this year’s Breeders’ Cup knowing that Street Sense, Hard Spun, and now most likely Any Given Saturday are already heading off to stud next year, having been purchased by Darley, along with English Derby (Eng-I) winner Authorized. And who knows about Curlin and what his owners will do, especially considering the legal baggage that comes along with the colt.  Darley says Any Given Saturday's plans for next year are undecided, but we'll see.

So, as long as Darley keeps buying up all our best 3-year-olds and retiring them, we better start accepting the fact that our top older horses will be geldings and late-developers who were relative unknowns during the Triple Crown. Or we can resign ourselves to the fact that next year’s top 4-year-olds will be the likes of Tiago, Zanjero, Sightseeing, Delightful Kiss, Imawildandcrazyguy, Bwana Bull, and Dominican. They are all good horses, but with the top Triple Crown horses gone, they will have to re-invent themselves in order to capture the public’s imagination. Tiago can begin doing that this Sunday in the Pacific Classic (gr. I). He is owned, trained, and managed by some of the classiest people in the sport, and he looks to be racing’s best shot to have a major 4-year-old star next year, assuming Curlin is retired.

Getting back to the Travers, with the $1-million purse of the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. III) this year, many of the starters from the $750,000 West Virginia Derby, as well as a few from the Haskell, are likely to head to Philadelphia Park on Labor Day instead of the Midsummer Derby, leaving the race with basically the top three finishers in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) and several allowance horses trying to take advantage of the race’s lack of depth.

Spun to Sprint

With huge monetary incentives attached to Darley’s purchase of Hard Spun, the goal with the son of Danzig is to win a grade I stakes. Monetary incentives have become commonplace in breeding rights sales when they involve a horse who is not a grade I
winner. Hard Spun finished second, third, and fourth in the grade I Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, respectively, and followed up his Triple Crown campaign with a second in the grade I Haskell Invitational.

With only two grade I stakes strictly for 3-year-olds only remaining, Hard Spun’s connections had to make a decision whether to keep the colt around two turns in the 1 1/4-mile Travers or drop him back into a sprint in the seven-furlong King’s Bishop Stakes the same day. They chose the latter.

With big decisions usually comes second-guessing. And here is their dilemma. Hard Spun has not sprinted since last December and has never faced a quality field sprinting. Although he is undefeated in his three sprints, his speed figures were not particularly high. What he does have going for him is the fact that he is fast (remember that :57 3/5 work before the Derby) and would have a class edge on his opponents in the King’s Bishop, which often is not won by the fastest horse, but the classiest. But the fact remains, he will be dropping back off seven straight two-turn races to face some quality sprinters in what likely will be a big field.

On the other hand, although 10 furlongs probably isn’t his best distance, he would have won the Kentucky Derby on the front end had it not been for Street Sense’s incredibly lucky trip. He might have been right there in the Preakness had it not been for a premature move combined with a blistering pace. And, as it looks right now, the Travers is not exactly going to be inundated with speed horses and likely will have no more than six or seven horses. Tiz Wonderful has shown speed, but is coming off a dreadful performance in the Jim Dandy, in which he never got to the lead and was rank coming off a nine-month layoff. And Hard Spun is just as effective laying right off the pace.

The key to his success in distance races is to put several lengths between himself and the closers before he hits the quarter pole. It’s when he turns for home and changes leads that he’s vulnerable, because he’s not as smooth negotiating that final turn into the stretch. It was right at that time that Any Given Saturday pounced on him in the Haskell and quickly drew off. Once Hard Spun changes leads and levels off, he can run with anyone.

So, there is your dilemma. Hard Spun could conceivably control the Travers on the front end, but he still has Street Sense to contend with, and he needs to be ridden perfectly going that far. As mentioned, he has the speed and class to win the King’s Bishop, but likely will have to deal with a large field and several fast and classy sprinters and hope he doesn’t draw on the inside and gets stuck down on the rail.

With a great deal of money on the line, owner Rick Porter and trainer Larry Jones had a difficult decision to make, but they didn’t take long to make it, announcing immediately after the Haskell that Hard Spun would go to the King’s Bishop. It’s probably a wise decision, but if he gets beat, you can bet Porter and Jones will be watching the fractions and the pace scenario of the Travers with great interest.

Baffert’s Back

Bob Baffert’s familiar white mop was barely visible this summer, as the former Duke of Del Mar became mired in Polytrack, which to him was not much different than quicksand.

Well, Baffert is back and better than ever, cleansed by the mineral waters of Saratoga. Baffert has always loved playing in the dirt, and at the Spa he’s had the opportunity to put the “bullet” back in Bullet Bob.

Aided by his old friend, Vindication, Baffert has already won the grade II Adirondack Stakes with More Happy and saddled the meet’s most explosive 2-year-old maiden winner, Maimonides, both offspring of Baffert’s 2002 Besssemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner and 2-year-old champion.

Welcome back, Bob.

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