Horse Racing News & Views by Saratoga Slim presented by RacingDudes.com (Volume 1, Issue 2)
What’s “THE SKINNY”? A new column looking at a couple top stories in horse racing and then providing you a different, fun view of the game. We’ll mix in QUICK WITS with some light-hearted / funny perspectives on the game, COMEBACK TRAIL featuring horses making their return and THE FINISH LINE with a final thought.
The long wait is almost over. After Cathryn Sophia fired back-to-back Grade-2 wins in the Forward Gal and Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park to start 2016, a match-up with undefeated champion filly Songbird was on all horse racing fans’ wish lists.
Sometimes good things come to those who wait.
It’s been almost eight months since Cathryn Sophia’s Forward Gal win and Songbird’s Grade-2 Las Virgenes romp to start 2016. Many in early February thought Cathryn Sophia was the chosen one on the East Coast that could knock the champ off her throne after those early year wins.
A lot has happened since then and it would take a long digression to review, so let’s just say some still believe that Cathryn Sophia may be the one that can take it to the undefeated Songbird in this Saturday’s $1 million Grade-1 Cotillion at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.
There’s two sides to every story though, so let’s dive into the argument by first saying why Cathryn Sophia can challenge Songbird:
1. Cathryn Sophia will have a “home field” advantage at Parx where she broke her maiden last year impressively and recently scored in hand in the non-graded Princess of Sylmar Stakes on September 3, where she looked very relaxed and happy to sit mid-pack and blow away a suspect field easily.
2. Songbird may show some wear as she’ll be traveling back to the East Coast after flying back to California subsequent to her Grade-1 Alabama win at Saratoga on August 20. All the travel and the tough 1¼ mile Alabama may leave Songbird vulnerable according to this theory.
3. The 1 & 1/16 mile distance of the Cotillion may be a good distance for Cathryn Sophia to try to take it to Songbird early or rely on the super-fast Carina Mia to challenge the undefeated champ. Cathryn Sophia will get top jockey Javier Castellano in this spot, so she’s in good hands breaking from the two hole. With Carina Mia to her inside on the rail and Songbird stalking on the outside, the early pace scenario will be very intriguing. The short six filly field will be filled out by Land Over Sea, Disco Rose and Queen Esther.
On the other side, Cathryn Sophia has some major questions to answer including:
1. Why has trainer John Servis been reluctant to pit her against Songbird all year? Before Songbird spiked a fever going into the Grade-1 Kentucky Oaks, Servis was already talking that he would skip the Oaks to focus on the one-turn Grade-2 Eight Belles at Churchill. Things happen for a reason and after Songbird was forced to miss the Oaks, Cathryn Sophia scored her career highlight win in the Oaks. Servis also skipped taking a shot in the Grade-1 Coaching Club America Oaks or Alabama at Saratoga against Songbird this summer.
2. Based on her poor performance in the Grade-1 Ashland before the Oaks, Cathryn Sophia’s two-turn form still needs to be questioned against the top of the class, even though she won around two-turns in the Oaks.
3. It’s Songbird! No one has touched her in this female crop since she started racing as a two-year old. We may have still not seen “the bottom” of Songbird yet, too. Yes, Songbird looked a little leg-weary at the end of the 1¼ mile Alabama, but she won’t be asked to run that long distance here.
Weigh it all out and it just seems like Cathryn Sophia has enough questions to doubt the notions that we had at the beginning of the year that she’s the one to dethrone Songbird.
The Main Event
Cue the “Rocky” music…
There have been seven “Rocky” movies and fittingly, the Grade-2 Pennsylvania Derby on Saturday at Parx will be “Nyquist vs. Exaggerator VII.” (Yes, I know Rocky didn’t fight the same foe in all seven movies, but work with me here!)
The Kentucky Derby champ Nyquist holds a 4-to-2 win advantage over the Preakness/Haskell hero Exaggerator in the head-to-head competition overall.
The score this year is an even 2 wins for each in this heated rivalry. In a best of 5 divisional series (like baseball), this Game 5 match-up may decide who wins Three-Year Old Horse of the Year (granted Arrogate doesn’t romp in the Breeders’ Cup Classic).
This seventh meeting makes the Rocky theme fitting, but maybe it’s better to approach this discussion by changing the title of the famous Charles Dickens book to “A Tale of Two Surfaces.”
The Fast Surface: Remember Nyquist is still undefeated on a fast track. On the other side of this tale, Exaggerator hasn’t won on a fast track in over a year since his Grade-2 Saratoga Special win as a young two-year old. On fast tracks, Exaggerator has barely lifted a hoof in his last two races in the Belmont Stakes and Travers finishing eleventh in both major Grade-1 stakes.
The Sloppy Surface: The slop and fast paces have been the downfall of Nyquist in his last two races in the Preakness and Haskell and has played into Exaggerator’s strengths in both spots. Exaggerator has three Grade-1 wins in a row on sloppy tracks including his Santa Anita Derby win in April.
Weather watch for Bensalem, Pennsylvania will be on high alert. An early look at the forecast is clear for the rest of the week. This would favor Nyquist, but there are some questions surrounding him as he recently took off time as he was going through a growth spurt of two inches. His four straight mile workouts at the San Luis Rey training center for trainer Doug O’Neil should build up his stamina for this spot, though.
Questions around Exaggerator being able to perform on a fast track will swirl all week. Additionally, he came out of the Travers with a throat scope that showed mucus, so that is never a good sign, even though he recently worked well at Churchill Downs prepping for this spot for trainer Keith Desormeaux.
There’s reason to believe that another horse will step up here as a group of ten other rivals look to take this big Grade-2 score including:
· The always true Gun Runner will look to advance off a strong third in the Travers.
· Cupid has always been a dangerous horse for Bob Baffert and gets a deserved shot against the top of the class.
· Summer Revolution was the “now” horse coming into the Grade-1 King’s Bishop and can bring the heat early here, too.
· Connect was the “right now” horse coming into the Travers and faltered, but gets a chance for redemption here for the Chad Brown barn.
All four will be pace presences for Nyquist to deal with. Nyquist has drawn to the outside of these four, so jockey Mario Gutierrez will need to rate his Derby champ here and not get “cooked” early like he did in the Preakness and Haskell.
Others may come out of nowhere to compete including New York bred Hit It Once More, who’s been dominating against his state-bred rivals. Awesome Slew has been running well lately including his recent Grade-3 Smarty Jones win over the Parx oval. Sunny Ridge and Wild About Deb have shown promise at times in their careers, too. My Man Sam is always a danger to be flying late if the pace gets hot early.
On the surface this looks like an Exaggerator vs. Nyquist showdown, but once you scratch that surface the Pennsylvania Derby gets much deeper.
(DISCLAIMER: This part of THE SKINNY is not meant to offend anyone in anyway, but hopefully gets you to smile a bit about the game.)
· How many days ago did the Desormeaux brothers add Bensalem, PA to their weather apps to start hoping for rain for the Pennsylvania Derby?
· Nyquist’s growth spurt is the equivalent to the kid in middle school that grew over the summer and comes back and whips you in 1-on-1 basketball.
· What costs more: a new 4-bedroom house in Saratoga or a Tapit grey yearling?
· Churchill Downs will try to ride the wave of “Lani Mania” that overtook horse racing fandom this Kentucky Derby season by running qualifying races in Japan this year with one spot in the Derby starting gate up for grabs. When Lani heard the news, he immediately started to forge his birth certificate.
· Untapped, full sister to champion Untapable, ran third in her debut on Friday at Churchill. At least this isn’t as confusing as trying to remember the difference between Forever Unbridled and Unbridled Forever.
· With all the Gator Kitten coverage of Woodbine on Twitter this weekend, I think Todd Pletcher’s assistant trainer Capone should get recognition as one of the coolest dogs at the Oklahoma Training Track. I’ve seen him clocking morning workouts and keeping the barn in good order with Pletcher’s main assistant Tristan Barry all summer!
On that note, there’s lots of big races this weekend and you may be asking, “Where’s the Pletchers?”
Well, three players in the older male division are getting back to work for trainer Todd Pletcher and can be dangerous this fall into the winter including:
· Keen Ice – the 2015 Travers victor has switched barns from trainer Dale Romans and has put in six workouts for Pletcher in Saratoga and Belmont Park. Unraced since his return from an eighth-place finish in the Dubai World Cup, there are no plans for his next race and a report in the Daily Racing Form from Dave Grenig says he will not be rushed back for the Breeders’ Cup.
· Tommy Macho – started the year looking like he could step up to the top of the class after winning the Grade-3 Fred Hooper at Gulfstream in impressive fashion. Tommy Macho needed knee surgery to remove a chip after that and has also put in six workouts all at Belmont prepping for a return.
· Protonico – hadn’t run since his sixth place finish in the Grade-1 Clark Handicap in November 2015, but recently returned a winner in a “salty” allowance at Belmont on September 9. He may be ramping up for an appearance in the Grade-1 Jockey Club Gold Cup on October 8 off that win.
You can never count Pletcher out and he will be loaded with these three possibly leading the charge going into the winter months.
THE FINISH LINE
With the recent rash of jockey injuries in the past few weeks, it serves as a reminder that our game is not possible with these brave men and women that decide to climb aboard 1,200 pound animals running 40 miles per hour.
Jockey Laurent Beaucamp was badly injured in a riding accident at Monmouth Park on September 5. He has needed hours upon hours of surgery to help repair his three broken vertebrae, broken left arm, fractured rib and punctured lung. A GoFundMe page has been posted to try to help Beaucamp (a 41 year-old father of two) with the expenses and can be found here.
Life changing accidents can happen at any time and jockey Edwin Maldonado sustained a collapsed lung and broken ribs in a training accident at Del Mar on September 4 and was just released from the hospital last week.
Additionally, jockey Jon Court, who is six wins away from a 4,000th career victory, suffered three broken vertebrae and two broken ribs after being unseated from his mount on the backstretch in Friday’s Churchill Downs finale. Earlier on the same card, jockey Joe Rocco, Jr. suffered a fractured left wrist during the eighth race after his mount clipped heels with another horse at the top of the stretch.
Our game is such a dangerous one and as fans of this sport of kings, we owe so much to our jockeys, including the exercise riders that help train our horses in the mornings.
Think about taking some time from your busy day to support the GoFundMe page above and charities like the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund (pdjf.org) and give a little to help a lot.
Follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim for my thoughts on the horse racing game.