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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.
yes I am an Orb fan...first race back, running inside where he obviously looked uncomfortable[look at his ears at the 1/4 pole, they are pinned back]...certainly take nothing away from Lukas runner...I have not jumped shop on Orb
Dank was an unforgettable performance for me She looked like a monster in the stretch. Had great stamina associated with a wicked turn of foot she was jumping toward the wire effort really was unique don't know if that's a knock on the competition or not ? But if there is better in Europe forget about It even with her didn't look like a fluke or any excuses for I thought descent contenders. WOW
I wished Cot Campbell would take Palace Malace away from Pletcher and give him to someone like Chad Brown. I feel like Pletcher compromised PM by instructing Mike Smith to take him back. Watch the replay! PM did not trip. Before the race Pletcher said he didn't want PM and Verrazano getting after each other early. He compromised PM plane and simple. If Smith had let him run PM would have won that race by open links. Never trust Pletcher. Now he wants to do the same thing in the JCGC. Cross Traffic is a nice horse but he is not the stayer PM is. And Verrazano is not that good. The only good horse he has beaten was lame(Oxbow). I don't think he ever will beat a quality horse. As far as 1 1/4 mile forget it. Pletcher has not handled PM very well. 1st blinkers on derby day, sat out the Preakness ( which I think after looking at his following workouts he might just have won), then wins the Belmont running close to way to fast a pace. PM is a true stayer. Like his sire Curlin the more he races the better he likes it. Please Mr. Campbell Don't trust Todd Pletcher. I miss Robert Frankel.
I believe Palace Malice is still the best 3yr old. He was basically taken out of the race and as Mike wrote was beaten just over a length for the whole ball of wax. As for Capo Bastone running 1.23 second faster than Sweet Lulu its apples to oranges. Sweet Lulu took heat from the start and never gave up. My Funny Face was not the best. The best horse won. Capo Bastone ran a final quarter. Thats all he did. The warrior of the race was Mentor Cane. He put away Let Him Shine and was still in front with a 1/16 to go.
Anyone else notice that Royal Delta has been off of Lasix in her last two races?
I rewatched all the dirt races. I do not see such a bias. Power World got uncontested lead, and the horses who broke 9th and 10th finished 2nd and 3rd. In the 2nd race the Favorite won with the 2nd choice running 2nd. With the winner who did press the leader and Tiz Chris coming just off the pace to run 2nd. In the fouth Do I amuse you should have never been 13-1, more like 6 or 7-1. The Favorite ran 2nd. Both horses were on the front end, but there were only 2 maybe three others with a shot. Was not the best field. My happy face in the 9th could have run had not she run a 1/2 furlong further than a logical winner. The Kings Bishop was run 3 hundreths of a second slower than the 1st race of the day. The first race was 3 and up, and were some pretty solid animals, and the stakes were 3yr old only, and not so superior to the horses in the first. Closer won that one. And as for Moreno holding on, did you happen to see his last two beyer speed figures? Verrazano is the only one in the field to have more triple digit speed figures. Moreno wasn't a big name but his latest races made him a contender. Will take charge was very logical. Just ask Steven Christ. There is only a bias when we have bad days. Saratoga is tough, the quality in the fields are better than the norm. Better luck next time my friends
Palace Malace's problem will be putting three good races in a row without an extended layoff. Look no further than Verrazano's poor showing finished before 6 furlongs in 113:3/5 that's bad man real bad.
There should be no weight given to the "extenuating factors" of Palace Malice. He broke slowly. Isn't leaving the gate a part of a horse's performance?
Does anyone know what happened to Declan's Warrior in the Kings Bishop? Without a doubt the most disappointing horse on Travers day.
Perhaps the better question is how two world class race tracks, Saratoga and Santa Anita, can allow their surfaces to get so out of whack on their biggest days? Ever hear of a hose?