The first week of post-Triple Crown racing saw highs, lows and sweeping changes on the horizon.
Most notably the road to the Triple Crown is about to undergo a major conceptual overhaul, as Churchill Downs announced this week that a new point system will replace graded stakes earnings in determining who makes the Kentucky Derby field starting in 2013.
While conceived of as “more fan-friendly, cohesive and simplified”, the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” isn’t without its critics who question why some traditionally marginal races such as the Grade 2 UAE Derby, the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes and the Grade 3 Derby Trial are worth more points than major 2-year-old events, including the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Under the new scheme, Derby winner Mine That Bird (15 points) would have never made the starting gate, and possibly neither would Charismatic (34 points), Giacomo (36 points) or even Animal Kingdom (50 points). Shockingly, the Grade 3 Illinois Derby–which in recent years has provided us with dual classics winner War Emblem (0 points), as well as Kentucky Derby place-getter Musket Man and Preakness runner-up Sweetnorthernsaint–does not earn any points towards making the starting gate on the First Saturday in May. We’ll see what, if any, tweaks are made to this scheme as more fans and industry folks weigh in.
In the meantime, racing goes on–at least for some. Last Monday it was announced that Grade 2 Peter Pan winner Mark Valeski will undergo surgery to remove a bone chip in his left knee, thus sidelining him for the rest of the year. We also lost Grade 1-placed Yawanna Twist who was euthanized after fracturing his femur following routine ankle surgery, and Giant Ryan who developed laminitis before he could undergo a surgical fusion to his left front fetlock. Mr. Producer, an older half brother to Grade 1 Arkansas Derby third-place finisher Sabercat, broke down in Saturday’s 9th race at Churchill Downs and was later euthanized. His jockey John Velazquez suffered a broken collarbone that will necessitate surgery. What a week of highs and lows for Union Rags‘ Belmont-winning jockey!
Speaking of the fickleness of fortune, on Sunday trainer Kiaran McLaughlin sent out two colts, Le Bernardin and Unbridled’s Way (a full brother to Derby runner-up Eight Belles), to contest the Grade 3 Pegasus Stakes (chart) at Monmouth. The former won by a neck over the Hard Spun colt Easter Gift, while the latter was pulled up in the stretch and vanned off. No word yet as to his status.
After a disappointing spring jaunt to Dubai, Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic victress Royal Delta made a smashing return to the track, easily winning Saturday’s Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap (chart) at Churchill Downs by 8 lengths over Dale Romans-trained Afleeting Lady; last year’s Kentucky Oaks runner-up St. John’s River was another 4 1/4 lengths back in third. One race later, Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap winner Ron The Greek completed an all-graded stakes late double for trainer Bill Mott, springing a 9-1 upset in defeating odds-on favorite Wise Dan by a head to capture the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap (chart); gutsy Nate’s Mineshaft, with last-minute replacement rider Miguel Mena aboard, hung on for third. According to Mott, next for Royal Delta may be Grade 2 Delaware Handicap on July 21, while Ron The Greek is being pointed towards the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Also at Churchill on Saturday, in the Grade 3 Matt Winn (chart), the Flower Alley colt Neck ‘n Neck impressively drew off to win by 7 1/4 lengths, while recent maiden winner Centre Court validated her post-time favorite status by capturing the Grade 3 Regret Stakes (chart) over Colonial Flag, a three-quarter sister to Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner Shared Account.
Speaking of famous connections, the Grade 3 Hill Prince Stakes (chart) at Belmont surely thrilled equine paparazzi. After an ill-advised foray on dirt in the Grade 2 Peter Pan, Summer Front returned to his grassy roots and defeated Grade 3 Palm Beach Handicap victor Howe Great. A length back in third was Film Shot, son of two-time Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf runner-up Film Maker; just a head back in fourth-place was Margano, 3-year-old full brother to Derby winner Barbaro. Later that evening at Colonial Downs, another full brother to Barbaro, 5-year-old Lentenor, finished out of the money in the Da Hoss Stakes (chart).
Also at Colonial on Saturday, co-favorites Pachattack and French Group 3 runner-up La Pernelle took all the money, but finished out of the top four in the Grade 3 All Along Stakes (chart) on turf, as Snow Top Mountain squeezed up the rail late to win over lightly-regarded Clare Skies Ahead and Shimmering Moment. Maybe Pachattack should have stuck to dirt; she was scratched out of Saturday’s Grade 3 Obeah Handicap (chart) at Delaware, leaving that race with only 5 runners and front-running Love and Pride and post-time favorite Tiz Miz Sue were much the best.
The ungraded Colonial Turf Cup (chart) came up surprisingly strong, with last year’s Grade 2 Virginia Derby winner Air Support closing well late, but ultimately unable to catch front-running Turbo Compressor; last year’s winner Rahystrada finished third, just a head in front of last year’s runner-up Smart Bid.
In sprint action, 6-year-old Maryland legend Ben’s Cat set a new course record for 5 furlongs (54.96) in winning the Parx Dash (chart) on Sunday, while last year’s Grade 1 Test winner Turbulent Descent made her 2012 debut a victorious one, capturing the ungraded Desert Stormer Handicap (chart) at Hollywood Park.
The only graded stakes action on the West Coast was Saturday’s Grade 1 Vanity Handicap (chart), a race won three years in a row by the great Zenyatta and then last year by the equally-classy Blind Luck. This year’s favorite Include Me Out came in off a victory in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Invitational, and she looked an easy winner in the stretch under jockey Joe Talamo. That is, until Love Theway Youare performed her very best Zenyatta impression, coming from dead-last to power home to victory under Garrett Gomez, hands down the best jockey at getting a filly to “lift” late.
Much of the world’s attention will shift to Royal Ascot this week. Tuesday begins with undefeated Frankel looking much the best in the 1 mile Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes. One race later, Aussie mare Ortensia looks to not only replicate her Grade 1 Al Quoz Sprint victory in Dubai, but also live up to the performances of country-mates Takeover Target, Miss Andretti and Scenic Blast in capturing the 5-furlong Group 1 King’s Stand. Not until Saturday will the unbeaten superstar Black Caviar make her appearance in the 6-furlong Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes.
Next Sunday, it’s the 153rd running of the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine. For the past 4 years, fillies have finished well in this open company race, including last year’s winner Inglorious who also captured the Woodbine Oaks en route to being named champion 3-year-old filly in Canada and runner-up for Canadian Horse of the Year honors. This year’s post positions will be drawn on Thursday, with Woodbine Oaks winner Irish Mission and Grade 3 Selene Stakes winner Dixie Strike likely to be among the entries.
Keep up with all the commentary at Raceday 360 Wire.
Check probable starters at Horse Racing Nation’s Stakes Tracker
See you at the track!