06/16/2013 12:18PM

Weekend Stakes Thoughts


Fort Larned’s demolition of a small but very good Stephen Foster Handicap field Saturday night at Churchill Downs was, simply put, one of the best performances on this continent so far this year. It was as good, if not better, than Game On Dude’s romps in the Sam Antonio and Big Cap, and Dreaming of Julia’s explosive Gulfstream Park Oaks score.

What made Fort Larned’s Foster victory so impressive was only partially due to the fact that the five opponents he dismantled consisted of four Grade 1 stakes winners, and a Grade 2 winner who was disqualified from first in his only previous Grade 1 stakes start. What was particularly striking about Fort Larned Saturday was he won the way he did without any free passes. There were no cheaply earned leads for him. Fort Larned ran hard early, he ran hard late, and he drew away to score by 6 1-4 lengths. His performance left no room whatsoever for ambiguity when it came to its quality, which was obviously top-notch.

Fort Larned sped to the front, which is his best, but not only running style, and carved out fractions of 23.69, 46.96, and 1:10.48. This was substantially faster than the fractions of 24.67, 48.96, and 1:13.57 decent 3-year-olds posted in the Matt Winn Stakes the race before the Foster. Fort Larned’s pace was similar to the early pace of 23.30 and 46.83 the surprising Funny Proposition set in her front-running upset of two-time champion Royal Delta in the Fleur de Lis Handicap two races before the Foster. The big difference was, Funny Proposition already started slowing down in the third quarter, competing the three quarters in 1:11.62, the mile in 1:36.83, and the nine furlongs while drawing away from Royal Delta in 1:50.22. Fort Larned, meanwhile, completed his mile in 1:34.53, and his nine furlongs in 1:47.45. What a stark comparison that is.

Anyway you look at it, Fort Larned was tremendous Saturday night. And with New York soon to be his home until the Breeders’ Cup, he becomes the East’s top older male by a clear margin. Yes, I know reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan will soon be calling upstate New York his home, too. But given what was seen Saturday, Wise Dan might want to stick with his original plan and stay on the turf. With all due respect to Wise Dan, I doubt he wants any part of the Fort Larned we saw in the Foster, or, for that matter, the Fort Larned we saw in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic and Whitney.

Fort Larned capped an important weekend for the handicap division, a weekend that began inauspiciously for this group when Mucho Macho Man came up empty at odds-on in an overnight stakes Friday at Belmont Park in his return from a five month absence. Mucho Macho Man, who ran Fort Larned to a half length in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall, has performed like a shell of his old self in his two starts this year, and you have to wonder now if he has a rebound in him.

But a little more than three hours after Mucho Macho Man’s disappointing effort, Paynter added a new chapter to his incredible story. Everyone knows that after emerging as one of the best 3-year-olds last year, when he followed a narrowly beaten second in the Belmont Stakes with a dominating victory in the Haskell, Paynter fell ill with colitis, and then laminitis. It’s miracle he managed to survive those illnesses, let alone make it back to the races. But to make it back to action the way he did, well, what’s a stronger word for miracle?

As with Fort Larned, Paynter’s allowance victory Friday at Hollywood Park was excellent by every measure, even without his amazing back-story. I’m not sure what was more impressive: The fact that Paynter sped seven furlongs in 1:21.86 to crush his field, or that this colt, who came within a neck of winning a 12 furlong American classic event, showed the sprint speed to make all the running. Understandably, Paynter’s connections are eager to take him on the road for some of the division’s biggest races. I’m almost afraid to mention it for fear of jinxing it, but the prospect of a matchup between Fort Larned and Paynter in, say, the Whitney at Saratoga is very exciting.

While the handicap division is in good health at the moment, the older female division is in greater disarray than it has been in for quite some time thanks to Royal Delta’s meek performance in the Fleur de Lis. Unlike last year, when she won the Fleur de Lis with perhaps the best race of her career in her first start back after an unsuccessful attempt at the Dubai World Cup, Royal Delta never really looked good in the running first start back off another trip to Dubai. She didn’t have the early run to avoid getting caught three to four wide on the first turn, and you knew it was over for her in upper stretch when she drifted inside of Funny Proposition instead of continuing a challenging run outside of that opponent.

As others have speculated, the big question now concerning Royal Delta is, did she make one too many trips to Dubai? For me, the key will be what trainer Bill Mott does with her. If Mott goes on with Royal Delta, then I will take that as evidence that she still has more high-level performances to offer.

Update, Monday morning - Like everyone else, I hope whatever it was that caused Itsmyluckyday to be pulled up on the backstretch in Sunday’s Pegasus at Monmouth is minor, and something he will get over quickly. And of course, once Itsmyluckyday was out of the race, the Pegasus became little more than a paid public workout for Verrazano.

That said, the Pegasus was an outing that Verrazano can, and I believe will, build on in a big way. Verrazano is now 5 for 6, with his only bad race being his 14th in the Kentucky Derby. And in retrospect, maybe Verrazano’s Derby wasn’t that bad an effort since he was very involved in the fast early pace. Consider this:

Six horses who were part of or close to the Derby’s pace for the first half mile have started since. Three of those six horses won their next starts – Oxbow won the Preakness and followed with a very game second in the Belmont Stakes, Palace Malice won the Belmont Stakes, and Verrazano won the Pegasus – and a fourth, Itsmyluckyday, finished second in the Preakness.