02/19/2012 1:42PM

Important Performances


The 2012 racing season has barely begun, and there is a long way between now and when championships are decided in the fall. Nevertheless, there were two noteworthy performances Saturday by horses who have already proven to be of championship caliber.

Animal Kingdom, last year’s Kentucky Derby winner and Eclipse Award winning 3-year-old male, made his first start since his eventful sixth in the Belmont Stakes in an overnight turf race at Gulfstream, and was a very impressive winner even when you consider the modest level of his opposition. On one hand, you could say Animal Kingdom wasn’t given the best of trips. On the other, you could say he was ridden like the tons-the-best horse he was. What Animal Kingdom did do was move into contention down the backstretch just as the pace was getting hot, maintained his position through the hottest part of the pace while being hung three wide on the far turn, and yet still kicked away with total authority to beat an opponent in Monument Hill who, while outclassed, was a razor sharp horse for course who got a much better trip.

There is no question that Animal Kingdom can be a major force in both the older male and male turf divisions this year. But now it is on to his goal of the Dubai World Cup, and I worry about that. Over the years, I have written repeatedly about how the majority of U.S. based horses who go to specifically the Dubai Cup are never the same afterward. Yes, there have been a few truly special American horses who have returned here and were able to perform at a career-best level, but most have not, and the numbers are irrefutable. I do, however, understand the attraction of the Dubai Cup as the richest thoroughbred race in the world and a premier international event. And I concede that international shipping always seems to be improving, and that the Dubai Cup might no longer be as draining a race as it used to be since it is run on a synthetic surface. Still, Animal Kingdom going to Dubai does introduce the distinct possibility that he might not be quite the force here later on this season that he could be if he wasn’t going.

Later on the Gulfstream card, Force Freeze dominated the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship in his first career attempt at a distance as far as seven furlongs after 21 starts in races going six furlongs or less. Force Freeze was less than a length away from being last year’s champion sprint male, for he was beaten only a half length when second in the Vosburgh, and lost by just a neck when second in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. And beyond missing narrowly in those races, Force Freeze ran huge in both for other reasons. He was the only pace player in the BC Sprint who was even remotely close at the finish, and he bowed to a front-running winner in the Vosburgh, which was run at a point in the card when I firmly believe the track was strongly speed-biased. So while a win in the Gulfstream Sprint Championship on its own would barely be noticed in the context of a divisional title discussion, a win in this race by a horse with the credentials of Force Freeze is meaningful.

Finally, a word about Ellafitz and her victory in Saturday’s Santa Maria at Santa Anita. Yes, the Santa Maria was not a tough race. And it is hard to shake the feeling that while Ellafitz has now won three straight stakes and is in career form, she will eventually come back to earth, and will be in for a rude awakening when she does. But Ellafitz was the picture of courage Saturday, because she was challenged in waves, and would not fold. She was run at early (by Spirit Seeker), she was run at in the middle stages (by Great Hot), and she was run at late (by Miss Mittagong), and Ellafitz not only turned back those challenges, she actually drew away late.