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DRF Weekend: Belmont roundup
After a snake-bitten Saratoga with 28 second-place finishes, the four-time Eclipse Award winner was back atop the standings with six winners through the first 13 days at Belmont.
While Malibu Prayer dropped from three consecutive graded stakes placings to demolish her rivals in last week's Cat Chat overnight stakes with a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 99, it has been the 2-year-olds that have led the autumn onslaught:
* Second-time starter Whydah ($21.20) and third-time starter Exhi ($10.40) both won maiden races decisively when switched to turf - something Pletcher also did with another juvenile, Interactif ($33.60), in the Grade 3 With Anticipation at Saratoga in early September.
* Condemned ($5.90) showed vast improvement going wire to wire second time out.
* Female Drama ($5.70) led every step of her debut in the slop last Sunday.
* Additionally, Ibboyee and Proud Zoe, maiden winners at Saratoga, returned to capture out-of-town stakes: Ibboyee won the Aspirant at Finger Lakes by six lengths; Proud Zoe returned to win the $180,000 NATC Futurity at Monmouth Park.
* Among the top dozen trainers through Sept. 27, seven had lower average win mutuels than Pletcher's $8.30.
Of course, if you singled One Note Samba in last Sunday's B.F. Bongard, you're still smarting from his last-place finish at 9-5.
He's streaky - remember the last four days at Saratoga last year when he saddled seven winners in a row?
No such run was forthcoming upstate this year, but Mineralogist ($2.80) won Sunday's Joseph A. Gimma despite disliking the off going, to cap off Kimmel's 5-for-11 start to the meet.
Even factoring in Mineralogist at 2-5, Kimmel's $14.70 average payoff was tops on the leader board through the first three weeks. The key has been "firsts." Non Compete ($33.60) won first time out, while Khancord Kid ($10) and Rapid Mon ($23.40) won their first turf sprints.
A four-win afternoon last Sunday vaulted him to a tenuous lead, with 15 wins, in a free-for-all jockeys' race where six other riders also had at least 10 victories to begin Week 4.
Evidence of Maragh's expanding power base: The four-bagger came for Pletcher, Gary Contessa, Steve Asmussen, and Seth Benzel. Earlier in the week, he also brought in winners for Christophe Clement (2), Mike Maker, and John Terranova.
After a six-win Saratoga, he had already doubled that total through 13 racing days and was the leading percentage rider on dirt (31 percent) and turf (24 percent). Coa is moving his tack to Florida this weekend.
A dry main track played several ticks faster than par during a four-day stretch from Sept. 23 through Sept. 26 but was slowed considerably when it came up sloppy last Sunday.
Here is the track profile from Sept. 23 through Sept. 25 in a nutshell: It was best to be on or near the lead, except when it wasn't. To explain:
* The first four winners Sept. 23 led or were within a length at the pace call, but Royal Vessel ($18.40), the fifth and last dirt winner, came from eighth and erased a 10-length deficit.
* Four of five winners Sept. 24 led or were within a half-length, but Goldispretty ($6.70) was last of 10 down the backstretch and closed with a rush to win going away.
* Banker's Buy ($19.60) was next-to-last after a half-mile on Sept. 25, before outgaming favored Lemon Punch through a protracted stretch drive. The three remaining dirt races were all won on or near the lead.
Before Sunday's rain, the turf courses had firmed up considerably, so much so that Shug McGaughey's 3-year-old maiden winner Strong Commitment ($9.80) ran down Academy Run after seven furlongs on the Widener in 1:20.29, not far off the course record of 1:19.88 set in July 2000.
Closers like Strong Commitment had the best of it in the 10 Widener course races during Week 3, three of them at seven furlongs and seven at 1 1/16 miles. Eight winners were fifth or farther back at some point, and no one was able to go wire to wire.
Eight of the nine races run on the inner course were at six furlongs, and under these conditions, tactical speed was much more important: Of those eight sprints, the first seven were won by horses either setting the pace or within a length of the lead at the pace call. The streak was finally ended by Fiona Freud ($32.20), who got a ground-saving trip rallying from fifth in a field of 12 and ran down Meese Rocks in deep stretch. Meese Rocks cut a half-mile in 44.62 seconds - the fastest of the week at six furlongs on the inner - and came up a neck short at nearly 8-1.
The three highest-quality racing days of the New York season are Belmont Stakes Day, Travers Day, and Jockey Club Gold Cup Day - and you can make the argument that Gold Cup Day, with five Grade 1 races and a $500,000-guaranteed pick four anchored by the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and the Gold Cup, is the best of the best.
Consider that three of the top-ranked horses on the Watchmaker Watch - Summer Bird, Gio Ponti, and Fabulous Strike - are the morning-line favorites in the Gold Cup, Turf Classic, and Vosburgh, respectively. What's more, any or all of them could make a serious case for divisional
honors by winning Saturday, irrespective of
whatever takes place in the Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita five weeks from now.
There's also the Beldame, featuring Music Note, who looms the shortest price of the afternoon; and the Flower Bowl, which Dynaforce will attempt to win for the second straight year.
Dynaforce is best with some cut in the ground as evidenced by her four-length win in last year's yielding-to-soft Flower Bowl and her return to form in the Beverly D. over good-to-yielding footing; a showery forecast is in her favor.
Wet weather also would be just fine for Summer Bird, winner of a sloppy Travers, and Icon Project, who won the off-the-turf New York and the Personal Ensign on wet tracks by more than a baker's dozen.
THOUGHT OF THE WEEK
It's neither here nor there, because Mesa Sunrise was scratched out of last Sunday's $65,000 Commemorate overnight stakes when the track came up a sea of slop, but I just wonder about the textbook notions of class, speed, and pace and how they're all supposed to be intermingled and what we think we know.
Here's what I mean: Mesa Sunrise ran in the eighth race on the last Saturday at Saratoga and led at every call through fractions of 21.75 seconds, 44.17, 1:08.40, and 1:15.03 to win a first-level allowance at 6 1/2 furlongs.
In the very next race, the Grade 1 Forego, the
fractions were slower - 22.48, 45.24, 1:09.02, and 1:21.48 - and yet the pace, supposedly being set by much better horses, collapsed. The horses running 1-2-3 at the first call wound up 11-5-6; and the first three finishers were 11-9-12 at the first call, 11-8-12 at the half, and 6-7-5 at the stretch call.
This defies all that is holy. The races took place at 4:43 and 5:15 p.m., barely a half-hour apart, under identical clear-and-fast conditions. Isn't the faster-paced entry-level allowance race supposed to break down as opposed to the slower-paced Grade 1 race?
Evidently, not enough horses in either race have read enough handicapping books to know better.
HORSES TO WATCH
Trainer: Mike Maker
Last race: Sept. 25, 4th
Finish: 1st by 3/4
In her first route attempt, this Kitten's Joy filly was at a tactical disadvantage in the P.G. Johnson Stakes as the eventual winner set a measured pace. Dropped back to maiden company, she again had a slow pace in front of her but finished with a powerful rush into a fast final sixteenth in 5.78 seconds to win going away.
Trainer: Phil Serpe
Last race: Sept. 23, 4th
Finish: 2nd by neck
After starting off in two shorter sprints at Saratoga, this Flying Zee Stable homebred improved off a stretch to seven furlongs, quite possibly due to a stamina-building breeze of one mile upon his return to Belmont; and also quite possibly because Mineshaft's youngsters generally get better as they gain experience at longer distances.
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Last race: Sept. 27, 5th
Finish: 2nd by 3
Sent off at 15-1, this juvenile filly by Tapit apparently wasn't expected to show much first out. After lagging well off the pace, as the eventual winner shook loose around the turn, she angled toward the inside and finished determinedly to go clear for the runner-up spot.
Trainer: Bill Badgett Jr.
Last race: Sept. 23, 6th
Finish: 2nd by 1 1/4
She faced a tough assignment first time out, chasing 4-5 winner Amiga Del Sol, but never gave up and remained clear to complete the exacta at nearly 15-1. She is a half-sister to One Tough Belle, a multiple allowance sprint winner of $246K, who was originally developed by these same connections.