03/18/2012 12:15PM

Havre de Grace, Musical Romance, and Other Thoughts


Some quick thoughts on Saturday’s stakes results:

If you are a 1-20 shot like Havre de Grace was in the New Orleans Ladies, you really can do only one of two things and get out with your reputation intact: You could win by a big double-digit lengths margin, or you could win eased up. Havre de Grace Saturday pretty much went with the latter option. She won well in hand over four game, but massively outclassed opponents. It was a fine comeback, just the kind you would like to see from a Horse of the Year.

About the only nitpick one could have with Havre de Grace’s 5-year-old debut is maybe she won too easily. The older female division is loaded this year. Royal Delta, last year’s champion 3-year-old filly, will be occupied for a while with the Dubai World Cup. But Awesome Maria, Awesome Feather, Zazu, It’s Tricky, and Plum Pretty are out there, and Havre de Grace figures to cross paths with some of them either in the near or long term. When she does, Havre de Grace will have to tap her resources, because those are serious race horses. And you could wonder if Saturday’s race did anything more to build up those resources than a stiff morning workout couldn’t have done.

Taking nothing away from the much improved winner Include Me Out, but the big question after the Santa Margarita is, what in the world happened to Ellafitz? Ellafitz was going for her fourth straight stakes victory, she was the lone speed on paper, and sure enough, she bounded out to an easy, uncontested lead. But Ellafitz, who survived challenges in waves in last month’s Santa Maria, crumbled early on the far turn under token pressure from Include Me Out, and wound up finishing last of four. Either Ellafitz proved unable to stand up on the sloppy, sealed going (which would be a surprise considering she’s by Tiznow out of a Dixieland Band mare), or something went wrong with her.

Watching last year’s champion female sprinter Musical Romance get back on track in the Inside Information Stakes, I couldn’t help but think of the 1988 Travers Stakes. Here’s why:

Ernie Munick, video blogger, musician, handicapper extraordinaire, and friend, was at the time of that Travers working for the New York Daily News as the on-track handicapper, and author of the daily recap column. Ernie took a big stand in that Travers with Forty Niner, which, believe it or not, was a gutsy move. Despite being the champion 2-year-old male the year before, and winning the Haskell, Fountain of Youth, and Lafayette, and finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, Florida Derby, Lexington, and Hutcheson at 3 prior to the Travers, Forty Niner at that time had fallen out of favor with the cognoscenti. Brian’s Time, who beat Forty Niner in the Florida Derby, and who finished in front of him when second in the Preakness, finished third in the Belmont and won the Jim Dandy. He was the “now” horse in that Travers, going off as the even money favorite. In addition, there was Seeking the Gold, who won the Dwyer, Peter Pan, and Swale, and also finished second in the Gotham and Wood Memorial. He was beaten just a nose in the Haskell by Forty Niner after a tougher trip, and was considered every bit as good as Forty Niner, if not better.

One thing you have to know about Ernie. As intense a handicapper as he was in those days – and he handicapped 15 hours a day; I witnessed it – he never spoke above a whisper in the press box. Except once. As Forty Niner held off Seeking the Gold narrowly in the run to the wire of that Travers (we will forget about the fact that Seeking the Gold was again the best horse that day), Ernie rose to his feet, raised both arms in the air, and exclaimed, “Champion! Champion!”

No, Ernie was not blowing his own horn for taking a big stand on the biggest race of the Saratoga meet and being right. He was, in his own way, teaching the rest of us a lesson, and that was to never, ever, underestimate a champion. Yes, the female sprint division Musical Romance was voted champion of last year was very shaky. She wasn’t as “solid” a champion as Forty Niner was. But she was a champion nonetheless, and I know I underestimated her Saturday. And I don’t know if Ernie bet the race, but I’m pretty sure if he did, he bet Musical Romance, and got $11.20 on a champion.

That was a strange, if successful performance from Secret Circle in the Rebel. He looked like he was floundering a bit late on the backstretch, but then did good work by refocusing and getting back into it between horses on the far turn. But when Secret Circle took dead aim on the distance suspect leader Scatman in the stretch, he started drifting and weaving. All of this strikes me as the hallmarks of a colt who was at the end of his rope distance-wise, and it should be noted that the distance of the Rebel was 1 1-16 miles. And how strong a race could the Rebel really have been when Optimizer finished like a freight train to be a rapidly gaining second? Optimizer hadn’t hit the board in four prior starts on dirt, and showed little, if any, run when beaten nearly seven and 13 lengths in the Smarty Jones and Risen Star in his two most recent starts.

Gemologist was originally scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the Rebel, but he got a much softer launching point in an allowance race Friday at Gulfstream. Gemologist didn’t beat anything, but you have to like the way he did it, which is easily, and by a lot. And what I found particularly encouraging was the big step forward he took Beyer-wise from his 2-year-old numbers. In fact, Gemologist should have run in the Rebel. He would have won, and banked $300,000 in graded earnings, which is no small consideration when it comes to the Kentucky Derby.

Yuwipi More than 1 year ago
New system DQ'd my comment yesterday. Thinking about the possible older F & M match ups later this year is exciting. It's a deep division. Wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Secret Circle, although I have to agree that the Optimizer close really puts a question mark next to the race. On another note, the Forty Niner/Ernie Munick story was a real treat. More of those anytime. They bring back a lot of memories for anyone who was following the game back then. I remember Mr. Munick at Harvey Pack's old Paddock Club, and even Pack used to marvel at how hard Ernie tried to come up with winners for the fans. One thing that I think deserves mentioning about Forty Niner and his not being the "now horse" before the Travers that year. I can vividly recall almost the entire racing print media, even the late Joe Hirsch, eviscerating Woody Stephens over his decision not to give the lead to Winning Colors in the Preakness. Even though I was on Seeking the Gold that day, I remember being thrilled that the Woodman got some pay back. He was a champion too.
Brian Russell More than 1 year ago
I agree with you on Musical Romance but I think the 9-2 odds were the result of her 5-0-0-0 record at Gulfstream going in.
Hal Lenox More than 1 year ago
You can't second guess Pletcher this year. He has really surprised me by his moves on preps for El Patrino, Thunder Moccasin, and Gemologist. Who knows?
Jordan More than 1 year ago
It's all speculation, but I don't think one can assume Gemologist would have won the Rebel just because he earned a higher Beyer. Gemologist earned his Beyer under absolutely optimal circumstances. I've found that horses tend to run faster when given optimal circumstances; when those horses then return and meet large fields, facing pressure from multiple horses at multiple points during the race, it's not uncommon for them to turn in slower performances. If Gemologist was in the Rebel, he's not able to coast on a relatively uncontested lead(from a horse that probably didn't want to be prompting things). Instead he's having to deal with a solid speed horse in Scatman as well as a couple of others. Then, if he's able to separate from Scatman, he is having to deal with the middle move of a quality horse in Secret Circle. That would have been a much more demanding effort, physically and mentally. Now, if the question is whether Gemologist should have been in the Rebel field, time will tell if they made the right decision coming back in a soft spot. The move basically puts everything on the final prep, both in terms of getting graded earnings as well as getting the necessary seasoning.
Steve Burton More than 1 year ago
I finished an inexpensive P3 and a small wps bet on MR on BC day. I would have been on Sassy's Image, but since MR battled with her at Calder, ran well in defeat at Keeneland(on a surface she probably doesn't prefer), I thought she had potential to do damage in a wide open F&M Spring. Thinking along the same line as Ernie(loved the story, by the way! The days when I first became a fan), I did not bet her Saturday, yet I was glad to see her prove that her BC win was no fluke. I'm not usually futures player, but I was I had $20 on Gemologist!
Don Passidomo More than 1 year ago
Just read that Pletcher is planning on entering "Gem" in Wood Memorial April 7 in NY. Obviously is consider fit and ready to run in three weeks again, he wasn't even asked in stretch and still came close to setting track record and equaled MMM stakes win two weeks prior. For those who harp on who has he beaten? Every horse he has raced against, "driving" and it doesn't really matter, just looked objectively at his performance, at top or near top of 3yr old field, he is just getting goin...enjoy the ride
OwenJ More than 1 year ago
It appears that Todd Pletcher wants to have an unbeaten horse (Gemologist) going to the Derby - even if he has to use 'soft' prep races. He has the distance pedigree but I think lacks the class of Creative Cause and Union Rags - an 'Uncle Mo type'. I would like to see Gemologist in the Wood or a prep race of a similar ilk before bringing him into my top ten Derby hopefuls.
Early Thompson More than 1 year ago
So, mind telling us what exactly Gemologist's Beyer was that is so encouraging? thanks
Ernie Munick More than 1 year ago
I did not have Musical Romance. I didn't think she liked Gulfstream, and I was actually hoping she'd get camouflaged by another off-the-board effort - so I could crush her somewhere else. Major props to Bill Kaplan and Juan Levya. Thanks for the recollection, Mike. Those days mean a lot to me, as does your friendship. e By the way, Hot Summer, 55-1! There was a long hot summer at Gulfstream Park 44 years ago, if you remember: http://tinyurl.com/84tmmzb
Don Passidomo More than 1 year ago
MW: Nice of you to mention "Gemologist" in a more auspicious and practical manner, although a small field, he did beat a Grade 1 winner at 2 who was a bit rusty in his comeback, unlike the winner....smart, yet late minute change in KD trail for him, hope it works out, if not, Preakness and Belmont are ahead as well, hopefully all three, I am high on him and would luv to see him make into KD, remain undeated, and let Union Rags, Creative Cause and "Gem" gut it out for top honors, as of now, if the playingfield unfolds thusly, there is my zen imagined KD trifecta! Thanks for your updated more objective view of him....he does deserve favor, just keep on watchin..Don
Nick Gunritz More than 1 year ago
You're right, that allowance field was just as good as what Union Rags beat in the FOY, but nobody mentions that.