Tuesday, December 29, 2009

4: Summer Bird Snags the Belmont

Summer Bird cements Birdstone as a superlative stud, and gives Desormeaux some Big Sandy consolation. Like many others I never saw the Birds coming, but what a great turn for racing; breeding for the bottom end is refreshing in a sport that has way too many cheap speed dashes.

Tim Ice notched this Classic victory in his first year as trainer, on his birthday no less. And Summer Bird followed this with a nice win over Quality Road in the Travers to cement or at least squish his name into Eclipse contention. He will likely win best Three Year Old.

All three legs of the Triple Crown were interesting this year, but watching the scopey, cobalt-splotched Dunkirk burst out of the gate in a losing but eye-popping tack to take the longest race on the front end was amazing. And he nearly pulled it off. Speed had been carrying all day, so the gambit made sense from the Pletcher brain trust, but jeez I just never knew D had it in him. And even though he fractured his condyular bone, he never threw in the towel. All this high breeding, talent and desire to win spell later success for this gray. And, Mine That Bird was rounding out his form in what was maybe not the best ride from Borel who rode nothing on the undercard on a track he was unfamiliar with. Borel will amaze with his brilliance and dunderheadedness. He's a lot of fun. But this day belonged to the Summer Bird who I hope recovers and returns to the oval after an injury in the island nation of Japan.

Friday, December 18, 2009

5: Musket Man Serves Notice in the Tampa Bay Derby

Sometimes you see a race that's more of an announcnement from a young horse that he's done fooling around and is ready to win, even when the conditions aren't favorable. It's a rare pleasure. When this doesn't go through the predictable channels, you get a refreshing perspective of the equine and human brillance, heart and tenacity it takes to mount a successful Triple Crown campaign. Musket Man is not regally bred, he doesn't come from a top barn, and Tampa Bay Downs is more an outpost for second stringers and afterthoughters than an oval for those with Louisville ambitions. Yet this is where Musket Man announced he was ready and willing to gut through the most arduous races the game presents -- and ended up hitting the board in the two Triple Crown races that he competed in. Mine That Bird, at his peak, was the only other horse to hit the board in more than one. And Derrick Ryan, one of my new favorite trainers repaid Musket Man with a nice long vacation.

Down to the can of Guinness he enjoys with his feed every morning, Musket Man is a horse of the people. But I've put this race in the five slot, not as class warfare, but for the reasons above. The Tampa track is deep and somewhat quirky, the stretch is pretty short, so races can be stolen on the front, and that's exactly what Join in the Dance was trying to pull off, until Musket Man decided to fire down the lane and nip him at the wire. Before this Musket Man had the reputation of being lazy, a reputation he'd leave behind like the rest of this field. He was ridden aggressively and had a rough trip, you can see the jock standing in the irons along the turn for home and muscling him into his correct lead in the stretch. It was a tough race, one that many horses would have let keep them from performing at their best. But Musket Man put in an amazing propulsive bid just when you thought it was over. He'd knock off hometown hero Giant Oak at Hawthorne -- another quirky track that the trainer did not fear and chose against the owner's wishes -- on his route to Louisville. And, yeah he had second all the way in the Derby.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

6: Goldikova Repeats in the Turf Mile

A bad post and prep race didn't stop Goldikova from repeating in the Turf Mile. She is a superstar with TNT in her feet. It's fun to watch her head-on in the French races posted on Youtube. She'll be bobbing with the rest of the vanguard then simply jets ahead, as if just realizing she has no business being near these other horses.

This year's Turf Mile might not have had the stellar line-up of previous contests, largely due to Goldikova's formidable presence. Even British star Mastercraftsman opted for the main track where he never found a hole. But the post and pace allowed us to see another dimension of the filly. She had to race from the back of the pack. She's always had nerves that have caused complicated gatings, including the use of blindfolds. And her recent loss in a pacesetting race, showed a vulnerability. Was it possible a speedball could burn her up? Not at the Breeders Cup. She sat chilly in back and made her move when the time was right, showing how silly it was of us for having any fears about her not tearing up the field. Again.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

7: Quality Road Takes Florida

Barbaro and Big Brown leant a lot of gravitas to the Florida Derby. Quality Road took it this year and established a new track record, though this oval was scraped for the event. It was lightning fast all day. Like I Want Revenge's Wood Memorial, the Florida Derby may have cemented Quality Road as one of the fastest three year olds, yet may have been the cause of his undoing. But this race was a fantastic one to watch. I really thought Dunkirk was gonna reel him in when they headed at the top of the stretch, he seemed to take QR's jockey by surprise, but QR would re-rally and hold off the high-priced gray. Dunkirk would make the Derby but get battered in the break. He made it back for the Belmont and nearly wired it in astonishing fashion. A check in that race would lead to a condyular fracture and he's been sidelined since, but will be back soon.

Quality Road came back at the Saratoga meet in the Amsterdam where he took on Capt. Candyman Can on a sealed track. He would notch yet another track record after a poor break that pressaged the gating problems that would keep him out of the Breeders Cup in a dramatic gate scratch, this writhing bay, blindfolded and scared luckily was kept under rein by one of the loaders at Santa Anita. The trauma/drama continued with him famously refusing to board a plane home. He's home now and the connections can hopefully get this ridiculously talented colt back on the right track.

8: Gio Ponti Charges Home to Win the Arlington Million

The Arlington Million came about in the tail end of the Golden Era of American racing. John Henry would catch longshot The Bart in a thrilling stretch battle in the inaugural Miilion of 1981. This moment is cast life-size in bronze in front of the paddock at Arlington. Four years later on the last day of July the track caught fire. Reconstruction focused on keeping what would become known as the Miracle Million in the Heights. The track won an Eclipse for the accomplishment (first time a track had won).

While this past year's iteration can't match that drama, it did show signs of rejuvenation. Einstien, Gio Ponti and Precious Passion came in for the event. Precious Passion didn't scratch even though the turf was yielding, which is a big credit to the connections. The only European to take lasix on one of the hottest days of the summer was Stotsfold, and he was the greatest threat to Gio Ponti who typically makes his move a little early for a grass horse. They battled and Just As Well jumped into the frame representing one of my favorite trainers: Jonathon Sheppard. It was a great Million and Gio Ponti took good advantage of the swooping turns of Arlington's internationally renown turf course. His connections donated part of the purse to the Disabled Jockeys Relief Fund, which added a touch of class and poignance. Christophe Clemente, long known for his work with turf fillies, officialy crossed the gender barrier and would later bring Gio Ponti to race in the Classic on ProRide, earning the distinction of being the only trainer in the Classic without a drug infraction on his record.