Countdown to the Cup: Beyond the Sea...a Bird

Countdown to the Cup: Beyond the Sea...a Bird
Photo: Associated Press
Sea The Stars

If Sea the Stars does not make the trip to California, which seems more likely than not, and joins Rachel Alexandra on the absentee list, it will create a void never before seen in the Breeders’ Cup.

 

Assuming Sea the Stars does not run, it is safe to say that no two greater horses have ever eluded the World Championship event in a single year. That is a sad comment considering the sport’s desperate need to showcase its superstars. In this case, we’ve gone beyond superstars, as many feel Sea the Stars in Europe and Rachel Alexandra in the U.S. are the greatest male and female to grace the Turf in some 30 years.

 

What Sea the Stars has accomplished this year is extraordinary. Not even legendary horses such as Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard, Dancing Brave, and Shergar were able to put together a series of six consecutive group I victories that included the Two Thousand Guineas, English Derby, and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

 

Listening to the Longchamp crowd, half of which probably were made up of English and Irish racing fans, salute Sea the Stars with a resounding ovation, it was as if the deafening cheers for Rachel Alexandra at Saratoga and Monmouth had drifted across the Atlantic.

 

The term winning machine has been used so often it borders on being a cliché. But there is no better way to describe Sea the Stars. If he didn’t get beat in the Arc against 17 foes after getting warm, and pulling hard and getting bottled up in traffic early on, it is inconceivable to think he’s capable of getting beat. It doesn’t matter what distance the race is, where he is in the race, or who he’s running against. It’s as if he is oblivious to other horses and just goes out there and does whatever it takes to win, whether he’s running against three opponents or 17. In the Arc, he used an explosive turn of foot as if it were a secret weapon he was saving just for this occasion. As soon as he pulled the trigger, the others appeared to be so stunned they all slowed down to admire him. No matter what term you want to use, this is a winning machine.

 

Now, with that said, let’s reluctantly assume Sea the Stars does not run in the Breeders’ Cup. His trainer, John Oxx, and jockey, Mick Kinane, both said his coat has begun to turn, and Oxx added, “My gut instinct is that after the hard season the horse has had, with six races in six months, America is probably a step too far, but we haven't ruled it out.”

 

With no Sea the Stars and no Rachel Alexandra, one would think the BC Classic (gr. I) will be just a good competitive race that will be saddled with the stigma of “what might have been.”

 

As difficult as it is to believe, the Classic still will have one of the most contentious and fascinating fields ever assembled if all those mentioned as probable starters wind up running. But as compelling as the race may be, can anyone actually handicap such a mishmash of horseflesh? Pro-Ride, Polytrack, dirt, grass, Europe, America, 3-year-olds, older horses, males, milers, females. This year’s Classic is going to seem like one of those hamster races, in which the furry creatures are placed inside plastic spherical balls that are built into miniature racecars. Don’t laugh. British bookmakers actually take bets on hamster races. They’ll have a tougher time making odds for the Classic.

 

Just look at this year’s prospective field and try to come up with a winner: Zenyatta, Summer Bird, Mine That Bird, Einstein  , Gio Ponti  , Richard's Kid  , Rail Trip, Quality Road  , Rip Van Winkle, Mastercraftsman, Macho Again, Colonel John  , Awesome Gem, Parading  , Bullsbay  , Tiago  , and Gitano Hernando among others. Of course, we could have a mass exodus should Sea the Stars shock the racing world and show up. Included here are perhaps the two best grass horses in America, the two best male milers in Europe, a Kentucky Derby winner, a Belmont Stakes winner, two Travers winners, and winners of the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Stephen Foster, and Whitney, just to name a few. So, who do you like, the Syrian hamster, the dwarf hamster, the long-haired hamster, the short-haired hamster? You get the picture. Good luck figuring this one out.

 

The Classic is going to be a darn good race as it is, but it can be a super race if only we can get Mr. Spock to use the Vulcan mind meld on everyone and remove the memory of Rachel Alexandra and Sea the Stars.

 

That brings us to this past weekend’s stakes extravaganza, highlighted by another (here we go again) machine-like performance by Summer Bird.

 

There’s not much more to be said about Summer Bird that hasn’t already been said. So from clichés we go to metaphors.

 

He can strike like a falcon, he can swim like a duck, and he has the endurance of an Arctic tern. Yep, that Summer Bird is one special bird alright. It seems the only thing he can’t do is talk like a parrot, and even there you might get an argument from trainer Tim Ice, who truly believes there is nothing he can’t do. There certainly is some kind of communication going on between the two of them.

 

Summer Bird was a mere fledgling when he migrated up from Louisiana in early spring. He settled in the Northeast in the late spring and summer, and now, following his victory in the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) Oct. 3, his third grade I win in New York, he heads to California for the late fall. There is a good chance that from the nest he built at Belmont and Saratoga an Eclipse Award was hatched.

 

All bird metaphors aside, this has been one magical year for Ice, Summer Bird, and Drs. Kalarikkal and Vilasini (Devi) Jayaraman, who own and bred the son of Birdstone – Hong Kong Squall, by Summer Squall. With his one-length victory over a game Quality Road, Summer Bird became the first 3-year-old since Easy Goer to sweep the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), Travers (gr. I), and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

 

“The elite group he just put himself in by winning these three races, with horses like Man o’War, Damascus, Arts and Letters, and Easy Goer, he’s got to be considered one of the best 3-year-olds that’s come along,” Ice said. “He showed us today he deserves to be the 3-year-old champion.”

 

Summer Bird, who took up residence in the same stall in Nick Zito’s barn he occupied for the Belmont Stakes, trained sharply after arriving from Saratoga, and Ice actually had to try to slow him down a bit. Although the colt had acted up in the detention barn before the Belmont Stakes, he was fine at Saratoga. But Ice still didn’t want to take any chances, so when he brought over his $10,000 claimer, Independence War, who was running in the first race, Summer Bird went with him, which meant the he had to spend over 11 hours in the detention barn.

 

“He went right in there, ate his breakfast, and then just mellowed out and fell asleep,” Ice said.

 

The Gold Cup drew a field of seven, and by the time the race was run, the track was a sea of slop due to the heavy rains that started just after the sixth race and continued on and off for about two hours.

 

Summer Bird, who won the Travers in the slop, was the 6-5 favorite, with Quality Road   and Macho again both at 5-2.

 

Longshot Tizway  , fourth in the Whitney, went for the lead, followed closely by Quality Road. Summer Bird was keen early and jockey Kent Desormeaux had to take a hold of him, settling him in fourth, 2 1/2 lengths off the pace.

 

Tizway and Quality Road continued to vie for the lead through slow fractions of :49.73 and 1:13.12 over the deep slop. Desormeaux, meanwhile, had taken Summer Bird off the rail and into the clear, right behind the two leaders. Nearing the half-mile pole, John Velazquez let out a notch on Quality Road, trying to sneak away from the others. Desormeaux knew that Quality Road was the horse to beat and didn’t want him to get comfortable on the lead, so he had Summer Bird close in and put pressure on him, knowing his colt had superior staying power. The pace had picked up noticeably, with a third quarter in a rapid :23 1/5.

 

Summer Bird sat off Quality Road’s flank around the far turn through another quick quarter in :24 2/5 and collared him at the top of the stretch. Tizway was hanging tough, and Macho Again, victimized by the slow three-quarters, was coming fast, but he was too far back and well out in the middle of the track, losing a lot of ground.

 

Summer Bird proved too strong for Quality Road and he powered past him inside the eighth pole. “When he went by Quality Road, he was idling, and he continued to idle the whole length of the stretch, doing just enough to tow him home,” said Desormeaux, who went to the whip several times before going to a series of crosses. “He’s just getting smart; he’s becoming a mature racehorse.”

 

Summer Bird continued to ease clear in the final furlong. Quality Road kept battling back, but Summer Bird was always in complete control, winning by a length, with Tizway staying on for third, another 4 1/2 lengths farther back. It was another 6 1/2 lengths back to Macho Again in fourth. With a final quarter in a strong :24 4/5, Summer Bird completed the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02 2/5, earning a lofty 111 Beyer figure.

 

Ice, who knew he was sitting on the proverbial keg of dynamite, was glad the waiting was over.

 

“It’s just been an incredible past five weeks,” Ice said. “He came out of the Travers super and went into this race probably better than any other race. It’s been a great feeling, and every week I was just wishing the race was this week."

 

Desormeaux had high praise for Summer Bird after the race. “He’s trying to be the best horse I’ve ever ridden,” he said. “He’s working very hard at it. He was awesome today.”

 

Ice said he’ll wait until Oct. 12 before shipping Summer Bird to California. “I love New York,” he said. “I don’t want to leave New York.”

 

And for good reason. Once again, he found himself in the Trustees Room drinking champagne and watching the replay of a Summer Bird victory. With his eyes fixed to the screen, he said, “I can watch his races all night long.”

 

The Jayaramans, as they’ve done for all of Summer Bird’s races, drove up from Ocala in their “lucky” Mercedes. Despite all the miles they’ve put on this year, they continue to use the Mercedes while their Jaguar sits at home.

 

“The Mercedes is our lucky car,” Devi said. “We haven’t booked our flight to California yet. Maybe we’ll drive there, too.”

 

Back at the barn, Summer Bird dragged his hotwalker around before inhaling about a dozen mints fed to him by “Dr. J” (Kalarikkal) and ripping into his hay rack.

 

Ice is well aware he’s been leading a charmed life the past six months. He also won the first race with Independence War and placed in two state-bred  stakes, including a hundred grander, at Louisiana Downs that same day.

 

Even with his wife Heather giving birth to their first child three weeks ago, Ice has not left Summer Bird’s side since returning from a brief visit home, missing the event by one day.

 

“We have a lot of hours together,” said Ice, who has only been training for about a year. “Six months ago, winning an allowance race was great. It’s now $2 million later and I have to thank Summer Bird for everything.”

 

More fantastic fillies

 

We all know what Music Note is capable of, and she no doubt is headed for a peak performance in the BC Ladies Classic (gr. I) after her authoritative victory in Saturday’s Beldame (gr. I), but do we have any idea how good Careless Jewel is and how much better she’ll get once she figures out what she’s doing? This brilliant 3-year-old filly did everything wrong in the Alabama Stakes (gr. I) and still won by 11 lengths. In Saturday’s Cotillion, she nearly blew the first turn, cut out blazing fractions of :45 3/5, 1:09 1/5, and 1:34 3/5, and looked like she had thoughts of blowing the second turn. In the stretch, she kept turning her head to the side and gawking at the grandstand, as she did in the Alabama, but quickly straightened herself out and cruised to a 3 1/2-length victory in 1:41 2/5 for the 1 1/16 miles. Not bad dropping back from a 1 1/4-mile race.

 

In other Breeders’ Cup news:

 

Let’s not forget the gutsy performance by Quality Road, who is crying out for a fast track. The best he can hope for in the Classic or the Mile is Pro-Ride, which he’s never set foot on. Despite that, it will be difficult for owner Edward Evans to pass up the opportunity. If Quality Road likes the surface he will be a major force to reckon with in either race. Kudos also to Tizway, who was under pressure the whole way while racing on the worst part of the track, but hung in there for third, finishing well clear of Macho Again in fourth. Macho Again, coming off that epic Woodward (gr. I) battle, was at a complete disadvantage in the Gold Cup, having to race far back through slow fractions and then rallying outside horses, all of which usually spells disaster at Belmont, especially on a sloppy track where the leaders come home fast.

 

Talk about a winning machine, Lookin at Lucky  , who has Bob Baffert on cloud nine, simply has a knack for getting to the wire first, no matter how he goes about it. In the Norfolk Stakes (gr. I), as in his other races, he appeared to be toying with the others, but unlike your typical brilliant, classy 2-year-old, he takes pity on his opponents and does what he has to without embarrassing them. If you like watching true professionals, this is your kind of horse. Think of him as having a 4-year-old’s mind in a 2-year-old’s body.

 

As anyone who’s read this column before knows, Awesome Gem has been on our radar for the Classic for quite a while. Now that he’s gotten some of his confidence back with a solid score in the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II), he heads to the Classic as an intriguing longshot, even if it’s in the exotics. All he needs is a clean trip, which he normally doesn’t get, but did at Hawthorne.

 

It looks as if the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT) for the first time will produce a live horse for the Classic. Gio Ponti  , a son of the speed-oriented Tale of the Cat  , had some question marks going a mile and a half for the first time, and over the bog-like condition of the Turf Classic it wasn’t a major shock when he became leg weary in the final furlong after making what appeared to be a premature move. He made the same kind of move in the Arlington Million (gr. IT), but that was at 1 1/4 miles and over a course nowhere near as soft as Belmont Park, and he was able to win anyway. Those actually looked more like dirt moves, and you have to remember that in his two starts over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride, Gio Ponti won the off-the-turf Sir Beaufort Stakes (gr. III) in 1:34 4/5 for the mile and was a rallying fifth, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths, in the Strub Stakes (gr. II) in a 13-horse field. He is another major piece in the Classic puzzle. For anyone interested in useless information, his green silks are very similar to last year’s Classic winner Raven’s Pass.

 

Asiatic Boy was discovered to have bled badly in the JC Gold Cup after taking up sharply down the backstretch and will be given some time off.

 

Travers runner-up Hold Me Back  , who finished up the track in the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II), came out of the race with a bad lung infection and will not run again this year.

 

You don't often see a maiden victory create the kind of buzz generated by Connemara in a one-mile event at Turfway Park. The half-brother to Haskell winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Lion Heart broke horribly, then made a spectacular last-to-first move around the far turn before drawing off to a five-length score. You don't often see a Todd Pletcher-trained colt by Giant's Casueway, owned by Coolmore, debuting at Turfway, but if this beautiful-striding colt can handle the dirt as he did the Polytrack, we could be looking at an exciting prospect for next year. His victory over the synthetic track suggests the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr.I) may not be totally out of the picture.

 

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