Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: Questions and Answers; Winners and Losers

Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: Questions and Answers; Winners and Losers
Photo: Coglianese Photos
Curlin defeats Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Now, that was a super weekend of racing. Whether it was Turfway Park’s Polytrack, Santa Anita’s Cushion track, or the dirt track at Belmont, this was racing at its best. The races were thrilling, formful, and showcased a good number of the sport’s top stars, including most of the big names in the 3-year-old crop, which looks to be one the strongest and most exciting ever.

How good is this crop? For the first time in history, as many as five horses who ran in the Kentucky Derby have come back to win grade I stakes that year after the Triple Crown. In their four meetings against older horses, and we’re talking about the best older horses in the East and West, the 3-year-olds from the Derby won all four – Any Given Saturday in the Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II), Hard Spun and Street Sense one-two in the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II), Tiago in the Goodwood Handicap (gr. I), and Curlin in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I).

In those races, they defeated the winners of the grade I Whitney Handicap, Woodward Stakes, and Suburban Handicap and the grade II Strub Stakes, Washington Park Handicap, and San Fernando Stakes, as well as horses who have placed in 16 grade I stakes, including the runners-up in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, Metropolitan Handicap, and Whitney.

The hard part now is separating them in the Breeders’ Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. II). Each has his strengths and weaknesses. Warning, this is a bit long, but there was an awful lot to talk about.

Any Given Saturday’s main strength is having a brilliant victory under his belt in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) at Monmouth, so you know he loves the track. And he is riding a three-race winning streak and is a much improved horse than the one who ran in the Derby, which can be considered a throw-out race, considering he came out of it with a significant foot bruise. However, he is unproven at 1 1/4 miles, and his performance in his most recent start, the Brooklyn, was more workmanlike than his explosive victories in the Haskell and Dwyer (gr. II). After this past weekend’s three big stakes, he may be the forgotten horse come Breeders’ Cup day, and could wind up as the overlay in the race. He’s fast, he’s versatile, and he’s as handsome and classy looking a horse as you’ll see, The Brooklyn, which was an oddly run race that took him out of his comfort zone, was merely a prep race for him, and he’ll be the only one of the group not coming into the Classic off a grueling stretch battle. Again, we just don’t know how he’ll handle that extra eighth of a mile. There is no reason why he shouldn’t, but it remains a question mark.

Curlin will relish the 1 1/4 miles, but in his one appearance at Monmouth, in the Haskell, he turned in what would be considered for him a dull performance. With his big, sweeping stride, it appears that a track with bigger turns and a longer stretch would be more to his advantage. He did win at Pimlico, but those are bigger turns and the stretch is much longer than Monmouth’s. Remember that Curlin didn’t handle that turn very well, which is why Street Sense blew right by him, and then he was unable to switch leads until Albarado induced him to by yanking him to the inside. It was only then that he was able to get going, using that long stretch to run down Street Sense.

But none of that may matter with this horse. He has accomplished extraordinary things in his brief, but meteoric career, and definitely has superstar potential, if he’s not there already. He’ll just have to stay closer to the pace in the Classic. The theory here is that he simply crashed after the Belmont, having been on an adrenaline rush from February to June. No horse in memory had the kind of whirlwind start to his career that he had. The Haskell was a hot day, and he likely just came back flat after his abrupt layoff. He looked much brighter in the paddock at Belmont. Despite three gut-wrenching stretch battles in his last four races, he appears to be strong enough physically and mentally to keep moving forward. It also must be noted that his Gold Cup splits of :24 4/5, :23 3/5, :23 4/5, :24 1/5, and :24 4/5 are extremely impressive, especially on a track that was not playing as fast as normal on big days. Off that race, he should be ready to peak on Oct. 27.

Street Sense has won the two most important 1 1/4-mile races – the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Travers Stakes. He was at a huge disadvantage in the four-horse Kentucky Cup Classic, with Hard Spun the controlling speed. So, that defeat should not be held against him in any way. And in his two most impressive victories – the Kentucky Derby and Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) – he prepped for those races on Polytrack, and was beaten both times. So, this follows the same pattern. He is not as effective on Polytrack and he needs a big field and an honest pace, both of which he will get in the Classic. The question mark with him is whether he’s still as formidable as he was in the spring, having been subjected to four gut-wrenchers himself this year.

Curlin is in the same position, but he’s been raced more sparingly and seems to be the fresher of the two. He’s also a physically stronger horse. What both these horses have going for them is their mental toughness. Street Sense walked around Turfway Park before the Kentucky Cup Classic like he owned the place. What makes him an enigma is that he has by far the most devastating move of any horse seen this year. You just don’t know what he’s going to do after he makes that move. He can blow you away, like he did in the Juvenile and the Derby (he does love that track), or he can actually get caught, as he did in the Preakness, Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I), and Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). He can even wind up in a stretch duel, as he did in the Travers (gr. I) and Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), winning both of them. Win or lose, you have to love this horse for his consistency and the excitement he provides race after race.

Hard Spun’s main strength is that he seems to be better now than he’s been all year, and he probably is even tougher mentally and physically than Curlin and Street Sense. He’s had to be. Since he made his career debut last Oct. 22, he’s raced at least once every month, except two, and in those cases, he raced twice the following month. So, he basically has run once a month for 12 straight months. Of his 12 races, 11 of them were stakes, the last six of which were grade I. He competed in all three Triple Crown races; he’s excelled at seven different distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles; he runs hard every step of the way, every race, at any distance; and he’s never finished worse than fourth. And that’s with his 200-pound trainer, Larry Jones, on his back most every morning. That certainly qualifies him for “iron horse” status in today’s world. How tough is Hard Spun? Many horses’ monthly vet bills range from $600 to $1,200. His vet bill at Delaware Park for the month of August was $88.

Perhaps it is Jones on his back that has made him as tough as he is. It likely was Jones’ training of this horse that got him to run the race he did in the Derby. The way he worked him before the race, going against the book on two occasions, was a textbook lesson in how to aggressively train a horse for the Kentucky Derby. It was a work of art, and he almost pulled it off.

The main question with him is the 1 1/4 miles, especially if there is a lot of pace pressure. He did, however, show in the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Cup Classic that he can be deadly when left alone on the lead. He is most vulnerable immediately after turning for home, because it often takes him a while to switch leads and get back in rhythm. But once he does change leads, he levels off, flicks his ears up, and re-accelerates, which accounts for the way he came back on First Defence in the King’s Bishop (gr. I) and Street Sense in the Kentucky Cup Classic.

Finally, there is Tiago, who may be improving more rapidly than any of them. For him to come off a 2 1/2-month layoff and defeat a classy, hard-knocking older horse like Awesome Gem in one of the most stirring stretch battles of the year was a good indication just how classy and mentally mature this half-brother to Giacomo has become. His experience in the Belmont Stakes, from a nightmarish stay in the detention barn to a horrible trip in the race, was enough to discourage any horse, but he ran a huge race to finish third. His race in the Swaps Stakes (gr. II) was all class the way he rallied and shot through a hole on the rail to win going away. And this latest victory in the Goodwood showed that he’s fast and he’s a fighter. His 1 1/8 miles in 1:46 4/5 and final eighth in :12 2/5 was sharp regardless of how fast the track was, and it was blazing fast. As far as the question marks, we really don’t know if he’s reached the top level of the 3-year-old division or if he’s been beating lesser-quality horses in California. He has the right style, and you always have to beware of horses improving dramatically this time of year.

Moving away from the 3-year-olds, we must turn our attention to Lawyer Ron, and there are several ways of looking at him, none of which are as simple as they might seem. Some will dismiss him off the Jockey Club Gold Cup, saying he’s not as dominant at 1 1/4 miles or away from Saratoga, and he still has a tendency of getting too keyed up early in a race. Others will feel he ran well enough coming off those two monster performances at the Spa and will be better suited at Monmouth. The latter seems more likely, although his early-race antics, which he’s been displaying on occasion since he was a 3-year-old, still are a bit of a concern. But, the belief here is that Lawyer Ron is not the kind of horse who is best suited to a one-turn, or even a 1 1/2-turn, race with a long run down the backstretch. He seems more comfortable, and settles better, in two-turn races, so that’s another reason why he should improve at Monmouth, where he actually was too far back in the Salvator Mile and just missed catching Gottcha Gold, who came back and romped in the Philip H. Iselin Handicap (gr. III) at Monmouth.

With that said, his JC Gold Cup splits of :24 1/5, :23 3/5, :23 4/5, :24 3/5, and :25 were solid enough over a track that is far from his favorite. As mentioned earlier, Monmouth should play out differently, and the smaller turns and shorter stretch will be right up his alley. With the Gold Cup under his belt, and any possible “bounces” off his Saratoga races out of the way, he should have plenty of bottom to go 10 furlongs again in four weeks. It’s all a question of whether he goes back to relaxing early. If he does, he is the horse to beat.

The Gold Cup was a jockey’s race down the stretch. As they turned for home, John Velazquez had Lawyer Ron out several paths off the rail, with Robby Albarado, on Curlin, directly behind him. When Albarado swung out for his challenge, Velazquez steered Lawyer Ron to the inside, away from his attacker, while hitting him right-handed. As they hooked up down the stretch, Curlin was at least four paths outside of Lawyer Ron, and for a brief moment it looked as if Lawyer Ron was holding him off. With Velazquez still hitting Lawyer Ron right-handed, the colt shied ever so slightly from the whip, and Velazquez switched to his left hand to straighten him out.

Albarado, meanwhile, was looking for a bit more out of Curlin and felt he’d have a better chance of getting it if Curlin was able to look Lawyer Ron in the eye. So he angled him in several paths until he was right alongside Lawyer Ron. Once Curlin eyeballed his opponent, he gave a final surge that carried him to a neck victory.

There are a couple of other older horses who ran over the weekend that should be mentioned. Student Council showed his Pacific Classic victory over that crazy Del Mar Polytrack was no fluke, as he traveled to Hawthorne and won the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. I) on dirt. The time for this race was 2:05, compared to his 2:07 1/5 at Del Mar, so we know he likes slow tracks. If you’re looking for a real bomb in the Classic, at least as a trifecta or superfecta play, watch out for Awesome Gem, who’s been a tough-luck horse, losing some heartbreaking close finishes. But he runs on any kind of surface and is an improving older horse who will love the stretch-out back to 1 1/4 miles. He’s finished first or second on conventional dirt, Del Mar Polytrack, Hollywood Cushion Track, Santa Anita Cushion track, and on turf courses at Santa Anita and Del Mar. He still has to show he can win the close ones, but he’s in top form and almost always gives you that big run.

Winners and losers

It sounds odd, but one of the big winners of the weekend was Oaklawn Park, with the last two runaway winners of the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) – Curlin and Lawyer Ron – putting on quite a show in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The other big winner, according to historian Richard Sowers, was the stallion Smart Strike, who became the first sire ever to have three Grade I winners at the same track on the same day. Even more impressive, they came on dirt (Curlin & Fabulous Strike) and grass (English Channel).

Who is the best horse in the country that no one talks about? It has to be Nashoba’s Key, a winning machine who knows where the wire is and how to get there first, regardless of whether it’s on grass or synthetic surfaces. For her to wear down a loose on the lead Citronnade with the grit and determination she displayed, one cannot help but admire her. Kudos to trainer Carla Gaines for doing everything right with this remarkable filly. The Emirates Arline Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) will be a step up the ladder, but the way she wins race after race, perhaps it’s the others who will have to step up.

Among the other big winners over the weekend was Danzon, who absolutely blew her opposition away with a devastating move at the quarter pole in the Kentucky Cup Distaff (gr. III) in her first non-grass race.

It was a big weekend for jockey Richard Migliore, who won both graded stakes at Hawthorne on Saturday, and then returned to California to win the grade I Norfolk Stakes (gr. I) on the Dick Mandella-trained Dixie Chatter the following day.

Todd Pletcher, despite having three beaten odds-on favorites, still won or placed in nine stakes over the weekend, including two grade I victories, earning nearly $1.2 million. He finished one-two in the Beldame (gr. I), with Unbridled Belle demonstrating just what an improved filly she is. It took a lot of determination to run down Indian Vale in a one-turn race, which is the runner-up’s specialty. She, like Lawyer Ron, should be even better around two turns. One of Pletcher’s beaten horses who is worth watching is Kentucky Cup Sprint (gr. II) runner-up Base Commander, who raced very greenly turning for home, and then came flying late to just miss by a nose in 1:09 flat.

Perhaps the best losing effort of the weekend was turned in by After Market, who had to come from the clouds in the Kelso Handicap (gr. IIT), while shortening up from 1 3/8 miles to a mile. Racing wide the whole way and having to circle the entire field, some six or seven wide, he came charging down the middle of the stretch, but couldn’t catch Trippi’s Storm, falling a half-length short.

And then there was Discreet Cat, who for the second time in two races this year was placed at a tremendous disadvantage. He raced in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), despite missing his prep with an illness, and came out of the race with a mass in his throat that obstructed his breathing. Out for six months, he returned in the toughest sprint of the year, and at six furlongs, which is far from his best distance. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, to see him come up short for the race. Although his connections said he was in top shape and ready for a big effort, he wasn’t quite ready, coming off only five breezes.

What must be taken out of his performance is the way he fought back at the end to snatch third in a four-horse photo after appearing to be backing out of the race at the three-sixteenths pole. It’s just too bad there wasn’t another race for him, because this was not a good spot or the right distance for his return. If he makes the normal improvement expected out of this race, it is going to take a sensational performance to beat him in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (and 70 Yards). Even then, he probably won’t be 100% for the race, with only one six-furlong race and stretching out to a mile and 70 yards, but he’s such a gifted horse, he shouldn’t have any problem.

It certainly looked as if we found a major star in the sprint division in Fabulous Strike, who just bounded away from the field after dueling on the front end through a half in :44 2/5. The TVG Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) finally has a legitimate favorite. First Defence, who finished seventh as the 5-2 second choice, came out of the race in good shape, according to trainer Bobby Frankel, who said they experimented by taking him back off the pace and it didn’t work.

What in the world has happened to the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT) the last two years? The mile and a half turf horses in America are an incredibly thin group, and NYRA had to extend its invitation list in order to find horses to run in the Turf Classic. Imagine a showdown between English Channel, After Market, and Shakespeare. However, the connections of the last two have opted to shorten them up for the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT), leaving English Channel as an overwhelming favorite for the second year in a row. As easy as this race looked on paper, the plucky English Channel found himself trapped on the rail and had to squeeze through a miniscule opening before drawing off with complete authority to win in hand. Not many horses would have gone through that spot, but this little guy is like a pit bull when his blood is up. Who knows what more he could have accomplished in his career if he didn’t run like a wild horse, throwing his head around, early in the race and again nearing the top of the stretch? Now it’s time for the big one, which has escaped him the past two years. You can bet the Europeans will not be scared off after seeing the Turf Classic field, but if they knew how much English Channel loves the Monmouth turf course, they might not be quite as confident as they no doubt are right now.

Whoever watched the Jockey Club Gold Cup on TV, I hope you were watching on TVG rather than ESPN. Only then would you have seen the race normally instead of having to put up with the almost maniacal camerawork on ESPN, which saw 11 camera cuts, from every conceivable angle. And then, when the camera should have zoomed in on Lawyer Ron and Curlin in the upper stretch and in the final furlong, it went so far in the other direction, you not only could see the entire field, but both turf courses; that’s how far back the camera came. That took a good deal of excitement out of the pulsating battle on the front end. The horses were simply too small.

If that was ESPN’s prep for the Breeders’ Cup, viewers are in for a frustrating afternoon. The moving ground level camera they used earlier from the infield was effective. There’s nothing wrong with new camera angles to enhance the action, but we should take a lesson on how to use them from the Europeans and from whoever handles the races in Dubai. They get it right. Watch the Arc de Triomphe Sunday if you can and you’ll see how to televise a race.

We’ll get into the 2-year-olds more next week, recapping the stakes at Belmont and Keeneland, as well as the ones this week at Santa Anita and Turfway Park.

 

 

 

 

 

Most Popular Stories