08/25/2013 1:19PM

Weekend Thoughts


There were no championships decided Saturday at Saratoga. As noted by Steve Crist, who took an admirable public position on Will Take Charge before the Travers and saw that colt deliver, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers, the races that almost always decide the 3-year-old male champion, have this year been won by five different horses. And that raises the unsatisfying possibility of this divisional championship turning on a clunk up third place finish against older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and/or Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Laughing demonstrated again just how improved she is this year with her victory in the Ballston Spa. Laughing is now 3 for 3 this season, and currently ranks as one of the best U.S.-based grass mares in the country. But it’s hard to forget how Dank showed in the Beverly D. that there is apparently an enormous gulf between our grass females and European race mares, and you know the Europeans will be coming this fall.

Being races that don’t necessarily make champions, it’s no surprise that the King’s Bishop and Test Stakes had little Eclipse Award impact. Even so, Capo Bastone’s victory in the King’s Bishop was one of the most implausible results of the Saratoga meeting, and that takes in a lot of territory. All you really need to know about him is he is trained by Todd Pletcher, and he still went off at 28-1. And California shipper Sweet Lulu showed a lot of heart to prevail in the Test and extend her unbeaten streak to four, but she needed 1.23 seconds more than Capo Bastone to get the job done going the same seven furlong distance.

Although Saturday’s Saratoga proceedings offered no Eclipse Award clarity, it was still a happening. And because it was such a big day, I wondered, what with the way the card unfolded, how much of a part, if any, handicapping nuances should have in Eclipse Award voting.

Here's what got me thinking about it: Despite the fact that Capo Bastone and Will Take Charge came from off the pace to win, I thought the main track at Saratoga Saturday was decidedly speed favoring. And I thought there was an even bigger bias on the turf courses. The temporary rails came down on the turf courses Saturday, and the inside paths that had been protected and not chewed up by constant use were by far the places to be. Laughing is much improved, but being on the better part of the course is why she and Pianist went around the track one-two in the Ballston Spa.

As for the main track, it was obvious after three straight dirt races run in procession-like fashion how tilted toward speed it was. I think the way the track played helped carry Sweet Lulu in the Test (that, and a heads up ride by Julien Leparoux, who put her in the game early). And I believe the way the track played is a big reason why Moreno fell just a nose short of winning the Travers at 31-1.

The way the track played also had me wondering what the deal was with My Happy Face in the Test and Palace Malice in the Travers. Both were ridden by Mike Smith, a great jockey who won’t use these performances on his highlight reel. There is no reason why My Happy Face had to be next-to-last early, not with her positional speed, and this miscalculation inevitably resulted in her getting spun seven wide into the stretch. My Happy Face wound up third, beaten a head and a neck, but was tons the best.

Palace Malice stumbled at the start, and that certainly wasn’t Smith’s fault. But instead of putting Palace Malice into prominent early position, Smith decided to, in his words, “ … sit back there, creep up, creep up, creep up, and see if I could get him there.” I respectfully submit this was the wrong choice, for the following reasons:

1 – The way the track was playing.

2 – That isn’t the way Palace Malice really prefers to run.

3 – The Travers pace was slow, so allowing Palace Malice to remain next-to-last early was probably more detrimental than expending some of his energy early to put him in a position he could actually win from.

4 – The way the track was playing.

Palace Malice finished fourth, beaten two noses and three-quarters of a length, and it isn’t hard to make a compelling case that he was best.

Anyway, the question was, should weight be given to the sort of extenuating factors that compromised Palace Malice Saturday when it comes to Eclipse Award consideration?

Historically, there hasn’t been. Just last year, four horses – Beholder, Royal Delta, Shanghai Bobby, and Trinniberg – each capitalized on the overt speed bias that prevailed on the main track at Santa Anita during the Breeders’ Cup to win Breeders’ Cup races. Those Breeders’ Cup wins, bias-aided as they were, cemented divisional championships for all four.

Perhaps it’s best that when it comes to championships, there is little connection between circumstantial factors we horseplayers consider numerous times on a daily basis, and basic accomplishment. Eclipse Awards are subjective enough without adding another wildly subjective component to them.

Update, Monday morning – In contrast to Saturday, there wasn’t a trace of ambiguity in Sunday’s two main events. Game On Dude and Royal Delta put on clinics on how you’re supposed to do it in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar and the Personal Ensign at Saratoga, demonstrating to all why they are currently the dominant figures in their respective divisions.

Going into the Pacific Classic, Game On Dude was widely considered the best horse in America, and he ran like it Sunday. Game On Dude discouraged early pressure from the razor sharp Delegation, and ran away to win from here to the beach. His effort, which improved his season mark to 5 for 5, was very much like his dominating display in the Big Cap last March, a performance that might have been the high water mark of a stellar career that has now seen Game On Dude win 15 races (seven of them Grade 1’s), and bank over $5.6 million in earnings.

More importantly, while Game On Dude’s loss in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic was a throw out because of a poor start and an oddly passive early approach by his jockey, the 2012 form that enabled him to be the 6-5 favorite against 11 opponents in that Classic actually seems inferior to the work he’s doing now.

As for Royal Delta, she was every bit as impressive in the Personal Ensign as Game On Dude was at Del Mar. And her jockey, Mike Smith, gained a good measure of redemption for his Saturday with his ride. Royal Delta was the odds-on favorite, and in a refreshing display that doesn’t happen as often as it seems it should, Smith rode her with complete confidence, like she was tons the best. Smith had no qualms wresting the early lead from On Fire Baby even if that meant fast early fractions, and it was absolutely the right thing to do because that is how Royal Delta runs best these days. Later in the running, especially around the far turn, Smith perfectly rode the very fine line between rating and fighting a pumped up Royal Delta, and that deft handling contributed to Royal Delta winning as authoritatively as she did.

Royal Delta has now won six Grade 1 races and has earned over $4.6 million. She is already a two-time champion, and she is as heavy a future book favorite as anyone to win another divisional Eclipse Award this year.