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Watchmaker: Midseason awards and other notes
The Belmont Stakes has, for me, always been the demarcation line between the first and second half of the racing season. So with the Belmont Stakes still an object closer than it might appear in my rearview mirror, here are my totally unofficial, mid-season championships. As an aside, I’m surprised how many divisions really seem like total no brainers.
FEMALE SPRINTER – Groupie Doll was ridiculously awesome winning the Grade 3 Hurricane Bertie in her career finale early this year. And the fact that she was the Eclipse Award-winning female sprinter in 2012 and 2013 means she commands considerable leeway when it comes to this dubious honor. Still, Midnight Lucky’s romp in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on the Kentucky Derby undercard in her first start in more than 11 months was a truly brilliant performance. Winner – MIDNIGHT LUCKY
MALE SPRINTER – This is a division that, so far this year, really underscores the distinction between the differing award-voting philosophies of “the best” and “the most accomplished.” Many times, they are not the same thing. And even if you’re able to resolve that, this still is not an easy division to decide. Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Secret Circle had the toughest trip when a narrowly beaten second in the Grade 2 Palos Verdes in his only start this year but hasn’t won. Goldencents was a very game second in the Grade 1 Met Mile off a long layoff, but many don’t consider a one-turn mile a sprint, and he hasn’t won in 2014, either. Bayern couldn’t have been more impressive winning the Grade 2 Woody Stephens, but that was only over straight 3-year-olds. Big Macher has won two sprint stakes this year, including the Grade 2 Potrero Grande; Wild Dude won the Grade 2 Palos Verdes; Sahara Sky won the Grade 2 San Carlos but has tossed in some duds; and Central Banker won the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes. In my Watchmaker Watch, I try to ride a compromise between the best and most accomplished. But when I vote for championships, I tend to lean toward the one who I think is best, to the one who captures my imagination, although that is not an absolute. I do believe if you have a vote in these things, you should cast one and not abstain. So I have a vote here, albeit a shaky one. Winner – BAYERN
FEMALE TURF – It’s difficult being genuinely enthused about anyone we’ve seen in this division so far. And it’s easy to think that, until or unless one of our more established female turfers really gets cracking, one or two capable European fillies could come over here in late summer or fall and have their way with this group. That said, a filly who has risen out of relative obscurity to win a shaky Grade 2 race (the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile) and an even shakier Grade 1 race (the Just A Game) has accomplished more than anyone else, even if there is considerable doubt as to how good she really is. Winner – COFFEE CLIQUE
MALE TURF – From here on out, things get pretty simple. Winning Prize was very good winning the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile and the Grade 2 Arcadia. Obviously was terrific winning Saturday’s Shoemaker Mile and clearly is back to his best. And Real Solution finally shook his hanging habit decisively winning the Grade 1 Manhattan. But even if the now-sidelined Wise Dan wasn’t vintage Wise Dan winning the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and the Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile, he still added two Grade 1s this year to his resume, and that resume includes being champion turf male, champion older horse, and Horse of the Year in both 2012 and 2013. In other words, someone has to accomplish something remarkable to unseat him. Winner – WISE DAN
3-YEAR-OLD FILLY – Not much to say here. Although she barely hinted at it during her 2-year-old campaign, Untapable has been a total monster this year, and monster is about the highest compliment I can pay a racehorse. She won the Grade 3 Rachel Alexandra by 9 1/2 lengths, earning a 100 Beyer Figure. She took the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks by almost eight lengths, receiving a 106 Beyer. And she won the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks by 4 1/2 lengths, and got a 107 Beyer. This division, right now, is a walkover. Winner – UNTAPABLE
3-YEAR-OLD MALE – This is another easy selection. Despite his loss in the Belmont Stakes, California Chrome’s scores in the Grade 2 San Felipe, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, and the Grade 1 Preakness put him far ahead of his contemporaries. It would take a monumental second half by another 3-year-old to deny California Chrome year-end honors. But, fair or not, his loss in the Belmont did leave the door open, if just by a crack. Winner – CALIFORNIA CHROME
OLDER FEMALE – Before the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes on Belmont Stakes Day, you would have thought that Close Hatches, despite victories in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom and Grade 2 Azeri in her first two starts this year, had about third-best chance to win any sort of divisional honor behind Beholder and Princess of Sylmar. But then they ran the Phipps. Even though Beholder suffered a cut during her fourth-place Phipps finish and Princess of Sylmar only lost by a head, Close Hatches did win for the third time from as many starts this year. And extenuating circumstances or not, she beat the two she had to beat. You can’t ask any more from a mid-season titlist. Winner – CLOSE HATCHES
OLDER MALE – There is legitimate depth in this division. Lea was impressive winning his two starts on dirt at Gulfstream, including a decisive score over last year’s champion 3-year-old male, Will Take Charge, in the Grade 1 Donn. Game On Dude turned in one of his best races ever beating Will Take Charge in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap. And as noted, Wise Dan, two-time defending champion in this division, won two Grade 1s in his two starts this year. But Wise Dan and Lea have been sidelined, and Game On Dude lost last time out at 3-5 in the Charles Town Classic. There are, however, no qualifications so far this year to Palace Malice. He prevailed in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap in his first start this year, was an explosive winner of the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap in his second start as a 4-year-old, followed with another lopsided win in the Grade 3 Westchester, and overcame an uncomfortable trip to win the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap. And that Met Mile win gave Palace Malice a unique double of having won the 12 furlong Belmont Stakes at 3, and the 8 furlong Metropolitan at 4. You do not want to mess with Palace Malice right now. Winner – PALACE MALICE
HORSE OF THE HALF-YEAR – For me, this comes down to Palace Malice and California Chrome. And again, it’s a tough call because it involves differing philosophies. I have no doubt that at this moment in time at any distance, Palace Malice would beat California Chrome – cleanly. But I cannot ignore that California Chrome has, to this point in the year, accomplished more than Palace Malice has. Far more. As I said, I usually tend to lean to who I think is the best horse in these situations, but it’s not an absolute for me. You can’t be dogmatic about it. Winner – CALIFORNIA CHOME
The day after Will Take Charge won the Grade 1 Clark Handicap last fall to clinch the 3-year-old male championship, Moonshine Mullin was claimed for $40,000 at Remington Park. On Saturday night at Churchill Downs, Moonshine Mullin turned back Will Take Charge to win the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap. The Foster was the fifth straight victory for Moonshine Mullin and second straight graded stakes win at Churchill; he won the Grade 2 Alysheba on Kentucky Oaks Day thanks to an epic hang job by Golden Ticket. Quite a Cinderella story.
Will Take Charge ran a lot better finishing second in the Foster than he did in his miserable Alysheba outing. But he still seems significantly below his excellent form of last fall or, for that matter, the form he showed in his first two starts this year.
As for some others in the Foster, Departing is a solid horse, but I don’t think he’s a true Grade 1 horse, on dirt, anyway. I would love to see this War Front gelding try turf. And Revolutionary, well, I’m not sure he’s a true Grade 1 horse, either. He seems to need ideal setups and/or questionable opposition to win.
Obviously was dynamite winning the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile. But really, Obviously showed he was all the way back when he won the American in his first start this year.
I liked Iotapa in the Vanity. But the Vanity was one of those races where you intuitively know that no one was as good or as bad as they appeared. Iotapa’s official win margin was 10 1/4 lengths, but you know she’s not really that much better than the rest of that field. And you know Let Faith Arise, who finished a distant fourth, isn’t really 13 3/4 lengths worse than Iotapa.
Why do you include Wise Dan in the Older Male section? He hasn't run a main track race in a year or more. You don't put Turf mares like The Fugue in the Older Female section, why is a turf runner in the Older Male section?
Mid season awards seem just about spot on. However, not to throw salt in a wound, I believe Tonalist is the best 3 year old. You or one of your colleagues eluded to him as such after The Belmont. I agrred that Tonalist, had he not become ill in Florida leading up to The Florida Derby and or Wood, may have been our Derby winner. Pure speculation at this point. But he's very big and careies his speed easily. His second to Constitution off his maiden victory opened my eyes. Time will tell.
Palace Malice really impressed me in the Met Mile. This horse will take a lot of beating. Right now, I don't see anybody out there capable of beating him.
Is anybody else looking forward to a west coast showdown between California Chrome and Shared Belief ?
I more or less agree with all of your choices though a couple are debatable. I also agree that California Chrome would be HOY if it were held decided right now, but I think it's going to be a task for him to retain that position by year's end, though I wouldn't mind at all if he did. Had he won the Belmont, HOY would be all over as no TC winner has never not been named the best Horse of the Year. Nevertheless, I agree with you that he will be hard to beat for three year old honors. I only see Tonalist and Shared Belief as possible threats and they are going to have to do a LOT more to overcome CC, especially Shared Belief.
I agree with all of your selections except for Bayern. Big Macher is my pick for sprinter, but there may be a new sheriff in the division and he name is Seeking The Sheriff. I doubt there is a turf miler in the world that can beat Obviously when he's fresh. He seems to wear down a bit towards the end of the year, so hopefully D'amatto keeps him fresh. He absolutely ran a terrific field off their feet.
You might want to add an award for the least fan sensitive track and award it to CDI's Churchill Downs. Not only did they raise the takeout, but last Saturday night's events were a big disappointment. Even though we are boycotting CD and wagered zero dollars the takedown in the filly turf race was questionable - and that is being generous to say the least. Hoping that our boycott is having an effect, but even if it isn't we feel better.
Chrome gave us something to cheer for. Now, it's time for the owners to do something they should've done: take the money, from anyone who wants to race CC. Value at stud will never be much.
California Chrome has also been ranked #4 in the World by the IHFA. He falls in line right behind Game on Dude at #3.
This Saturday's Vanity field was among the worst in the race's history. But even so, winning a grade 1 race by 10 lengths as Iotapa did is still quite a feat. As surprising as it was to me that any horse in the evenly matched field would win by open lengths, even more surprising was the identity of the horse that would do so. Beginning early last year, Iotapa had been teasing onlookers with the promise of unmistakable talent. She had been successful around one turn as a stalker that would grind her opposition into the ground in the stretch. However, when stretched out to two turns, these stalking tactics resulted in disappointing hang jobs in which she would loom boldly on the far turn only to lose ground in the stretch. The fact that her kick flattened out around two turns suggested that Iotapa had distance limitations. There had been one exception to Iotapa's experiences around two turns. Earlier this year, Iotapa had won the gr.2 Santa Maria when setting the pace. On the lead from the gate, Iotapa didn't get outgamed in the lane. Given Iotapa's previous failures around 2 turns as a stalker and her frontrunning win In the Santa Maria, the Vanity may serve as a true revelation. It would seem that around 2 turns Iotapa is considerably more effective as a front runner. This style seems to allow her to maximize talent that had thus far only been seen in flashes. While it is hard to know if Iotapa will ever be able to reproduce such an effort, particularly against better foes, the Vanity did show that when allowed to be on the lead, Iotapa has the ability to be competitive with the likes of Beholder, Closed Hatches, and Primcess of Sylmar.