07/03/2016 10:12AM

Watchmaker: Off the Tracks emerging star in 3-year-old filly division

Barbara D. Livingston
Off the Tracks delivered a powerful performance defeating some quality opponents in the Mother Goose.

We are going to take a circuitous route to get to a point I want to make, but bear with me. In this instance, the long way home is the interesting way home.

Let’s go back for a moment to Kentucky Oaks Day. Remember how Carina Mia had to run in the Eight Belles Stakes on the undercard because she didn’t have enough points to get into the oversubscribed Oaks, not for performance reasons, but because of other circumstances beyond her control (the quarantine at Payson Park, Carina Mia’s winter quarters)? And remember how Carina Mia was so impressive winning the Eight Belles as miles the best that more than a few people opined the fillies in the Oaks were quite fortunate they didn’t have to face Carina Mia that day?

Okay, now let’s flash back to Belmont Stakes Day, to specifically the Acorn Stakes on that tremendous undercard. The Acorn is a prestigious race; it’s not the Oaks, but it’s a terrific event, and it was Carina Mia’s opportunity to extract revenge on the circumstances that prevented her from competing in the Oaks, not to mention two major Oaks figures – the winner, Cathryn Sophia, and Go Maggie Go, second-best in the Oaks after finishing a tough-trip fourth, and winner of the subsequent Black-Eyed Susan. And Carina Mia did gain a measure of revenge, winning the Acorn as clearly the best, beating both Cathryn Sophia and Go Maggie Go.

Somewhat lost in that intriguing Carina Mia-Kentucky Oaks storyline was the performance of the runner up in the Acorn, Off the Tracks. Off the Tracks showed a lot of potential winning both of her starts last year, including a strong score in the Schuylerville Stakes. She romped in the Margate in her first start this year despite being announced as being nowhere near completely fit. She was then switched over to trainer Todd Pletcher, and followed with what was her only unsatisfying outing, a third as the 4-5 favorite to Go Maggie Go in the Gulfstream Park Oaks.

But as flat as Off the Tracks was in the Gulfstream Oaks was as good as she was in defeat in the Acorn. Off the Tracks was held up in traffic from late on the far turn to nearly midstretch in the Acorn, costing her momentum, while Carina Mia got the jump on her with a clear, unobstructed run on the outside. I’m not suggesting that Off the Tracks would have beaten Carina Mia in the Acorn with a clean trip. No one knows that. But what we do know is, Off the Tracks finished strongly once clear, was beaten only a little more than a length, and, notably, finished ahead of both Cathryn Sophia and Go Maggie Go.

That was the setup to Off the Tracks’s start in Saturday’s Mother Goose at Belmont Park, another race that, among other things, put the form of the Kentucky Oaks to the test, and other race that threw shade on the Oaks form.

Off the Tracks faced three opponents in the Mother Goose who ran in the Kentucky Oaks – Lewis Bay, who finished a good third; Mo d’Amour, who finished fifth; and Rachel’s Valentina, the daughter of the heralded Rachel Alexandra who was widely expected to rebound off a sixth in the Oaks as the favorite. And Off the Tracks was simply much, much better than all of them.

Off the Tracks set the Mother Goose pace under pressure, and while Belmont’s main track was quite fast on Saturday, her fractions of 22.79 seconds, 45.53, and 1:09.62 were very strong for a race for 3-year-old fillies going 1 1/16 miles. That’s why when Lewis Bay, who did stumble at the start, but who also sat a beautiful inside trip off the pace, tipped out at the top of the stretch with dead aim on Off the Tracks, she looked 2-5 to inhale Off the Tracks and win decisively. Instead, Off the Tracks turned back and ran away from Lewis Bay like she wasn’t even there. This was powerful stuff.

As for Mo d’Amour, she clunked along to finish a non-threatening fourth. And in Rachel’s Valentina’s defense, she also stumbled at the start. But still, she really gave it up in the stretch after holding sweet early outside stalking position and finished fifth, again as the favorite.

It’s funny. When a division has a leader as dominant as Songbird is in this year’s 3-year-old filly division, the rest of the division is, far more often than not, weak and uninspiring. Not so with this year’s 3-year-old filly division, though. It’s stunning how there are so many legitimately good ones, even in the face of Songbird.

Lucky us.

Quick Saturday notes:

* She is a Grade 1 winner and twice Grade 1 stakes placed, so she’s set for life. Nevertheless, I honestly feel bad for Rachel’s Valentina. Given that her mom is Rachel Alexandra, how can she ever live up to expectations?

* I like early-season 2-year-old racing. It’s good for the game, and it’s good for 2-year-olds. That said, I usually don’t put much stock in early-season 2-year-old stakes results, which is why 2-year-old rankings don’t appear in my Watchmaker Watch until mid-August. However, if the resurgence in early 2-year-old racing that seems to have taken place over the last couple of years continues, I might reassess.

But my skepticism of early 2-year-old stakes is being put to the test by the Bashford Manor Stakes at Churchill Downs. I thought the Bashford Manor was, in relative terms, a very strongly run race. The final time of 1:09.39 for six furlongs is impressive compared with the 1:11.01 fillies needed to complete the Debutante Stakes just 34 minutes later. Classic Empire came from inside, outside, and inside, and from well off the pace to catch the very speedy Recruiting Ready, with the rest of the Bashford Manor field a city block up the track. I think both a very nice prospects.

* It’s anyone’s guess if he will improve for the experience, or if he will return to his free, front-running style, but Danzing Candy clearly did not like being rated early in the Affirmed Stakes at Santa Anita, and could only finish second at 1-5. It wouldn’t matter so much if Danzing Candy weren’t so talented. But he is very talented, as he showed when he won the San Felipe over Mor Spirit and Preakness winner Exaggerator.