08/17/2014 10:23AM

Watchmaker: Turf divisions coming up weak


Saturday was a reminder that running big races doesn’t guarantee big-time performances or satisfying results.

Hardest Core’s victory in the Grade 1 Arlington Million was a heartwarming story in regard to his human connections and what the gelding overcame to simply still be alive. But when you get down to the nuts and bolts racing aspects of it – and everything that happens between the rails always has to come down to that – Hardest Core’s win served mainly to underscore how vacant our male turf division is. And that message was delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

I don’t want to knock Hardest Core because with a record of five wins and two seconds from 10 career starts going into the Million, he is clearly a horse who loves the game. You have to admire horses like that.

Still, Hardest Core’s major claim to fame before Saturday was a win in the $50,000 Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park. Yet despite his modest resume, Hardest Core, in the late stages, overwhelmed Magician, the defending Breeders’ Cup Turf winner. And it wasn’t necessarily due to a special performance on Hardest Core’s part because he basically was grinding it out like he always does. Much of it had to do with the fact that Magician’s resistance was so token in nature.

The run to the wire said a lot about this Arlington Million, but then again, so did the fact that a record low of only seven horses contested the event. It’s painfully obvious that once you get by Wise Dan, Obviously, and Seek Again, there is precious little in our male turf division. And those three essentially are milers, so it’s easy to see what the state of our male turf distance sub-division is.

On to the Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga, won by Stopchargingmaria, who was favored off her victory in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks earlier in the Saratoga meet. Some people seem to think Stopchargingmaria’s recent Grade 1 winning spree now makes her a viable challenger to Untapable’s heretofore dominance of the 3-year-old filly division. But I feel quite the opposite. I think Stopchargingmaria’s winning performance in the Alabama only reinforced just how far she and every other 3-year-old filly is behind Untapable.

Stopchargingmaria’s performance was enough to get the job done, but it wasn’t pretty. Yes, she had a wide trip throughout, but that was mitigated by the fact that the pace was very slow, meaning no one really had that demanding a trip. What struck me was, when Stopchargingmaria was in position in upper stretch to put this race away like she should have, she couldn’t, and she had to dig way down to prevail.

As everyone knows, the final time of the Alabama of 2:05.14 was amazingly slow, so slow that it resulted in a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of only 82. If that figure holds, that would make this Alabama the slowest in terms of Beyers since those figures on the race were first made publicly available in 1990. And it’s not just narrowly the slowest. This Alabama is the slowest by an astounding 14 Beyer points.

Other Saturday notes:

Sorry to say, but the outcome of the Grade 1 Beverly D. Stakes highlighted how the state of our female turf division isn’t so great, either. Euro Charlene, who had never been a step beyond a mile in six career starts in England and who was attempting to become the first 3-year-old to win the 8 1/2-furlong Beverly D., scored comfortably, and Just The Judge, one of only two other European shippers in the Beverly D., finished third. They were split by Stephanie’s Kitten. She continues to run well, but I see her total loss of whatever positional speed she once had as a potential sign of decline.

Much has been made about how severely Adelaide drifted out when he won the Grade 1 Secretariat, but in his case, I’m not sure it was such a bad thing. I thought Adelaide pulled himself up noticeably once he hit the front in the stretch in last month’s Belmont Derby and got running again, albeit too late, after Mr Speaker passed him. Sometimes horses with hanging tendencies won’t show them when they are kept well away from other horses they might otherwise just lope along with.

I’m not sure about the strategy employed on Secretariat runner up Tourist or why he had to extend his lead to five lengths in the second quarter-mile because he sure didn’t appear rank or headstrong. As a result, Tourist went his second quarter-mile in 23.96. For comparison, the second quarter of the Million was 24.45, and the second quarter of the Beverly D. was 25.46.

There was a lot of talk about the bad trip Xcellence had in her third-place finish to Crown Queen in the Grade 2 Lake Placid and how she didn’t like having to go up inside in the stretch, which was her only option. I think saying Xcellence was intimidated being inside is pure speculation. What I saw is Xcellence did finally get through inside and, in fact, had plenty of room on the rail in the late stages. If she was good enough, she would have won. She just wasn’t good enough.

As for Crown Queen, she’s a nice filly, but it’s too early to go overboard on her. I don’t think the Lake Placid was an especially strongly run race.

I’m kicking myself for shelving my skepticism and falling for My Conquestadory in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks. This time, she couldn’t make an uncontested lead in a paceless race stand up.