Week of September 24, 2012
By Valerie Grash, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor

Autumn officially arrived this weekend, greeted by a light schedule of graded stakes races, as we enjoyed a bit of a breather before next weekend’s impressive array of Grade 1 events.

Slots-fueled Parx offered two $1 million races on Saturday, the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby (chart) and the newly-minted Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes (chart). Fresh off victories in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy and Grade 1 Travers Stakes, Godolphin’s Alpha went to post as the favorite in the Pennsylvania Derby, but it was unheralded Handsome Mike who strode to victory as the longest shot on the board, at 19-1. Grade 2 West Virginia Derby winner Macho Macho came on to finish second, a neck in front of Travers dead-heat winner Golden Ticket, with Shackleford’s half brother Stephanoatsee finishing fourth along the rail. After leading early, Alpha faded to sixth, just ahead of last-place Csaba. As the slowest edition ever run, this year’s Pennsylvania Derby will be long forgotten soon enough.

As for the Cotillion Stakes, the complete opposite is true, as this year’s edition ranks right up there with those of the recent past. In 2010, Havre de Grace and Blind Luck battled to the finish line, with the future Horse of the Year prevailing by a neck over the subsequent Eclipse champion 3-year-old filly. In 2011, Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks winner Plum Pretty crushed Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks winner It’s Tricky, winning by over seven lengths. Only four fillies contested this year’s Cotillion, but other than the outclassed (and overmatched) Moment in Dixie, it was a high quality field. Only once raced on dirt, Dixie Strike had captured the middle leg of Canada’s 3-year-old Triple Crown, the Prince of Wales Stakes, against males at Fort Erie back in July. After a prolonged absence from the track, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filly champion My Miss Aurelia had made her only previous start this year a winning one, while Questing entered off of consecutive dominating Grade 1 victories, in the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama Stakes. With such a small field, it was a tactically-run jockeys’ race, and when they entered the stretch, the dynamic Hard Spun filly and the unbeaten juvenile champion engaged in what best could be characterized as a smack down, bumping and grinding their way to the finish line, with the champ remaining undefeated, but the slighter-built Questing proudly living up to her sire’s gutsy legacy.

After suffering a tendon injury that kept her off the track for nearly a year, 2010 champion juvenile filly Awesome Feather remained a perfect nine for nine, winning the ungraded Nasty Storm Stakes (chart) at Belmont last Thursday. How good was her victory? Considering the filly she defeated, All Due Respect last ran third in the Grade 1 Ballerina – and Awesome Feather beat her by over 11 lengths in a sparkling 1:33.47 for the one-mile distance – I’d say it was pretty impressive. With My Miss Aurelia, Questing, Royal Delta, It’s Tricky, Include Me Out, In Lingerie, Amani, and now Awesome Feather likely entrants, the Ladies Classic is looking more and more like the dream Breeders’ Cup race.

Following an ill-advised Triple Crown campaign on dirt, the English Channel colt Optimizer is nicely settling into a career on the surface for which he was destined – turf. This weekend he dominated the 1-1/8 miles Grade 3 Kent Stakes (chart) at Delaware, setting a new track record and winning by 4-1/4 lengths over last year’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up Excaper. Trainer Jimmy Toner’s unlucky 39-1 longshot Two Months Rent came on well late to nudge out Todd Pletcher’s Star Channel for third. Recent Grade 2 Virginia Derby runner-up Lucky Chappy went to post as the favorite, but could only manage a seventh-place finish, while Dale Romans’ Grade 3 American Derby winner Cozzetti looked tired in the stretch, finishing eighth.

The week’s only Breeders’ Cup “Win-and-You’re-In” challenge race was the Grade 2 Gallant Bloom Handicap (chart) at Belmont, a prep for the Filly & Mare Sprint. At 5-1, last year’s BC winner Musical Romance (scheduled to be offered at the Fasig-Tipton November Sale) was only the third choice of horse players, just behind 3-year-old Grade 1 Prioress runner-up Judy The Beauty and post-time favorite Turbulent Descent. As it turned out, speedy Grade 1-placed Roman Treasure and graded stakes newcomer Dust and Diamonds (Vindication) vied for the early lead, with the lightly-regarded Vindication filly pulling off the upset over Judy The Beauty. Never really a threat, Musical Romance got up for third over Turbulent Descent, while Roman Treasure faded to fifth and last-out Prioress winner Emma’s Encore ended up a non-threatening sixth.

With so many good horses being retired after what can only be described as abbreviated careers, those hard-knocking warriors who battle on year after year (like Musical Romance) should be celebrated. Thus, let us bid a fond farewell to 9-year-old gelding Awesome Gem, officially retired on Friday by owners West Point Thoroughbreds. During a seven-year career that included 52 starts, Awesome Gem won or placed 33 times (22 of those being graded stakes) and earned $2,881,370. In the aftermath of George Washington‘s horrific breakdown, not many remember his third-place finish behind Curlin and Hard Spun in the sloppy 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth, but it capped a year that began with a hard-driving nose victory over future back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Sprint victor Midnight Lute in the Grade 2 San Fernando Breeders’ Cup Stakes, and included three straight narrow runner-up finishes – in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap, Grade 1 Pacific Classic, and Grade 1 Goodwood Stakes. It would be three years before Awesome Gem finally broke through with a Grade 1 victory, and what a race it was, defeating the likes of Rail Trip and Richard’s Kid in the 2010 Hollywood Gold Cup. Watching him proudly gallop back to the winner’s circle under his long-time jockey David Flores, prancing with his necked bowed and ears forward, is a beautiful thing. Happy retirement, boy.

Keep up with all the racing commentary and news at Raceday 360 Wire!

Last Week’s Races

2012 Nasty Storm Stakes Replay
Awesome Feather makes it a perfect 10-10, albeit in a very easy spot.

Video courtesy of NYRA

2012 Gallant Bloom Stakes Replay
Dust and Diamonds dusts the field.

Video courtesy of Breeders’ Cup

2012 Gallant Bob Stakes Replay
Well Spelled gets up in the final strides.

2012 Cotillion Stakes Replay
My Miss Aurelia and Questing battle to the bitter end.

2012 Pennsylvania Derby Replay
Handsome Mike is no longer just a pretty face!

Video courtesy of Breeders’ Cup

2010 Hollywood Gold Cup Replay
Old warrior Awesome Gem earning his Grade 1 win.

Courtesy of Hollywood Park

Upcoming Graded Stakes Races

Check probable starters at Horse Racing Nation’s Stakes Tracker

See you at the track!

Stay in the loop, subscribe to the Weekly Roundup

Charts and PPs provided by Brisnet