02/05/2012 2:25PM

Choking on Chalk; 3yo Preps

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Saturday struck me as a highly unusual day of stakes racing. There were 16 stakes across the country with six figure purses, and nine of those races were won by prohibitive, if not heavy favorites. I know these results could be taken as another illustration of the weakening of the breed, or as evidence of serious thinning of quality at the top of the sport. But whatever the probable cause, or the expectation of odds-on favorites in a more general sense, when you look at the list of Saturday’s tiny priced stakes winners, it’s still stunning:

Alpha – Withers - $2.70

Star Guitar – Louisiana Premier Night Championship - $3.20

Calibrachoa – Toboggan - $2.90

Mr. Commons – Arcadia - $2.80

Zagora – Endeavor - $3.80

Dixie Strike – Florida Oaks - $3.60

Nicole H – Correction - $3.00

Speedacious – Louisiana Premier Night Matron - $3.40

Alternation – Essex - $4.20

And it should be pointed out that there were several other more heavily favored winners in Saturday’s lesser stakes races.

The funny thing about it is, the overriding theme Saturday was the Road to the Derby, as it will be most weekends for the next three months, and yet the day’s three 3-year-old preps were not buried in this blizzard of chalk. Yes, there was one Derby stepping stone that produced a paltry return, that being the Withers at Aqueduct won by Alpha. But the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs was won by a maiden. It’s true that Battle Hardened might have been a well regarded maiden for he was the 9-2 third choice in the betting, but he was a maiden going in, nonetheless. And Saturday’s best Derby prep on paper, the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita, produced the day’s biggest stakes upset with I’ll Have Another lighting up the board at $88.60.

It has been said that while I’ll Have Another deserved to be a longshot in the Lewis, it was a bit silly the way he blew all the way out to 43-1. He did win his debut last summer, followed with a second to Grade 1 stakes winner Creative Cause in the Best Pal, and caught a wet track when a distant sixth in the Hopeful in his only other start. But even if I’ll Have Another didn’t deserve to be the rank outsider he wound up being, I admit I couldn’t make him even after the race. Last year’s Hopeful was a painfully slow race that up until now had proved to be, if anything, a negative key race. And I’ll Have Another hadn’t started in the five months since, and was making his first start around two turns in his return. But give I’ll Have Another credit. He was close to the strong early pace, he never saved any ground, and he simply ran away from everyone else.

I would like to get excited about Lewis runner up Empire Way, but I can’t. Not just yet, anyway. Royal Delta’s little brother rallied up the inside to be easily second best, but I think he finished ahead of a group that included several horses who just failed to show up. Most notable among those were CashCall Futurity winner and strong favorite Liaison, who was going nowhere when he lost his rider in a squeeze play in mid stretch, and second choice Rousing Sermon, who was completely without his customary late kick.

Expectations were lower for the Sam Davis. The favorite, presumably because of his link to trainer Todd Pletcher, was Ecabroni, who was coming off an average maiden sprint win at Gulfstream. The only two graded stakes winners in the field were Prospective, whose Grade 3 score came on Polytrack, and State of Play, whose Grade 2 victory came on turf. But even with reduced expectations, it doesn’t speak highly of the beaten field that a maiden after three starts handled them decisively. But we should also keep in mind that, for obvious reasons, Battle Hardened at least has a license to move forward off of this win.

As for Alpha, he beat pretty much the same kind of field in the Withers as he did in last month’s Count Fleet, and he did it pretty much the same way, which is to say with complete authority. The good news is Alpha got another confidence builder while gaining valuable experience. But while his paper is looking increasingly flashy, he remains unproven against serious company, and the sense is he still must raise his game.

Deltalady More than 1 year ago
Have to smile a wee bit at the seeming consternation, or marveling, over favorites coming through this past weekend. I'm such a newbie, but, I watched things pretty closely last year when it seemed no favorites were showing up. I recall also that nearly everyone who was anybody inside racing bemoaned the weak 2011 sophomores, weakest in years, was one phrase that kept popping up. Faves lost right and left in their preps, or they simply were challenged hardly at all. The only horse on the Derby Trail that did what he was supposed to do last year in two out of his three preps was Dialed In, and he hardly distinguished himself in the Derby itself! I thought if horses that were favorites actually won races they were supposed to win was a good thing! Silly me! I'll keep reading and learning and maybe in a few years, I'll figure all this stuff out!! LOL
Doug More than 1 year ago
The Lewis was a good race for Empire Way but doesn't get any respect. He beat all the "big" horses and loses to a 43-1 upset winner who ran 2nd to Creative Cause in the Best Pal. Give credit where credit is due.
donnyess More than 1 year ago
"But even if I’ll Have Another didn’t deserve to be the rank outsider he wound up being, I admit I couldn’t make him even after the race." He ran 2nd in a gr-2 off 45/109.2 which is better than most of the field. Draw a line through the Hopeful, it was an off track. The other speed shipped from very fast surfaces at much lower class circuits. Should have been 6-1 given the 2-turns and layoff. The others were more or less properly priced.
meathead01 More than 1 year ago
mike I had Ill Have Another and if you look at his beyers he fit right in nicely with the others. What I saw was three long works in last three races with one being a bullet and the fact that he won first out played an important role in picking him to win.Another thing that stuck in my mind was that Oneill was bringing him back in a Gr.2 event after his layoff so I figured he had confidence in him to run good. All his works were very good mike also what worried me was gutierrez riding and there were no J/T stats to look at. MH01
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Hi Mike, Thanks for the Chalk Talk. I'm just glad that jockey Rafael Bejarano appears to be OK after being thrown from Liason the, err, favorite in the Lewis. He really hustled to get UNDER the rail. Thanks, as always.
Holybull More than 1 year ago
We'll find out more about Alpha in the Gotham. He also hasn't run fast yet, I'n looking forward to seeing Creative Cause and Union Rags run. I also think people should taje a good look at the Hutcheson this Saturday as a lot of trainers like to start their horses at 7F before takinng the junp to a mile and an 8th. Mike quick question where's the Derby Watch this year? (MW - Derby Watch begins this week in Friday's paper. Thanks for asking.)
yuwipi More than 1 year ago
Agree on your take of Alpha. One thing it seems his connections have made strides on is his going nuts at the gate. I was watching him pretty closely yesterday, and he looked A-ok loading and breaking. Talking about chalk, I don't even want to think what Aqueduct's late P4 would have paid Saturday without the $10 and change last race winner.