In what could be considered a prelude to next week’s fantastic four days of racing from November 26-29th, an exciting and intriguing day of racing was held on November 21st, highlighted by eight stakes races at Delta Downs. The feature was the $1,000,000 Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III), an 8.5-furlong race for 2yos that serves as an early prep on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
The heavy favorite to win at odds of 9-10 was Exaggerator, a colt I have thought highly of since he broke his maiden at Del Mar this summer. Coming off of slightly troubled but admirable efforts in the Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), Exaggerator looked like the best horse on paper and ran to expectations. With Kent Desormeaux in the saddle, Exaggerator broke well from post nine but was restrained early on as 224-1 shot Iron Dome–breaking from post ten–flashed excellent speed and swept to the early lead. But then Desormeaux made what might have been a race-winning decision, for after conceding the advantage to Iron Dome, Desormeaux asked Exaggerator for run and allowed his colt to roar past the leaders and seize command of the lead entering the first turn. This bold move changed the complexion of the race and forced Exaggerator’s rivals to make early moves to challenge, including Champagne Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Sunny Ridge, who rallied from sixth to confront Exaggerator with five-sixteenths of a mile to go. Those two engaged in a prolonged and exciting battle down the homestretch, with Exaggerator proving as game as they come to hold off his rival and prevail by a neck. The final time over a muddy, sealed track that was playing slow all day was 1:46.48 seconds.
Exaggerator’s Beyer speed figure has yet to be announced, but based on the time, I would guess that it will be somewhere in the 86-90 range, a solid but not overly remarkable figure. But what speed figures can’t reflect is Exaggerator’s impressive versatility in running style and instant acceleration that allowed him to win the Delta Jackpot. Typically a pace-tracking/stretch-running type, Exaggerator changed his style dramatically to set the pace in the Jackpot, yet responded with perhaps his best performance of the season. The best part is that as a son of Curlin, there’s a strong chance that Exaggerator will improve as he gets older, making him a top prospect for the 2016 Kentucky Derby.
In addition to Exaggerator and Sunny Ridge, you might want to keep an eye on Harlan Punch, who made a sweeping move on the final turn before flattening out a bit to finish third, beaten 4 3/4 lengths by Sunny Ridge. Harlan Punch, in turn, finished 9 1/2 lengths in front of Found Money, who failed to show any of his usual early speed while rallying modestly to edge the pace-tracking Whitmore for fourth. Although these two colts were beaten by a wide margin, I would look for both to improve in their next starts–it’s possible that neither handled the muddy track, and Whitmore was making just the second start of his career after breaking his maiden sprinting six furlongs on November 6th.
The other stakes races on Saturday that could potentially have Kentucky Derby implications was the six-furlong Notebook Stakes at Aqueduct. The race featured a talent field of six New York-breds led by the once-beaten Sudden Surprise, who was favored at 3-10 and expected to win decisively. However, after setting solid fractions of :22.17 and :45.18 while dueling with Love That Jazz, Sudden Surprise had great difficulty leaving that rival behind and had to be urged for run in the homestretch to prevail by 1 3/4 lengths over the late-running Dr. Shane, who edged Love That Jazz for second by a neck. The final time of 1:11.27 was not very fast given the pace (it translated to a Beyer speed figure of 77), and the :26.09 final quarter-mile supported the visual impression that the top three finishers were tiring in the homestretch. There’s no doubt that Sudden Surprise is a talented colt, and with three stakes victories under his belt, he’s stamped himself as a very nice horse. But my gut feeling is that he’s better-suited to sprints and lower-level stakes races than the Kentucky Derby trail, at least for the time being.
On a different note, I’ve been a fan of Lochte for a long time, and I’ve been disappointed by his poor showings in stakes company throughout last spring and summer. But the five-year-old gelding has really enjoyed his return to Florida and has romped in his last three starts, including a win in the 8.5-furlong Tropical Turf Handicap (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park West. The race was run in an absolute downpour so thick that it was very hard to distinguish the horses on the simulcast, but after tracking slow fractions of :53.19 and 1:18.87 (obviously affected by the rain), Lochte absolutely burst clear of his rivals in the homestretch, powering away to win by four lengths in the time of 1:50.95 seconds. Now that he’s back in his best form, I expect we’ll see Lochte fare very well in the middle-distance turf races at Gulfstream this winter, with the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (gr. I)–a race Lochte won in 2014–looming as the probable goal.
Turning our attentions to the work tab, there were many big-name runners that turned in morning workouts on Saturday, led by 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome, who breezed a half-mile in :50 1/5 at Los Alamitos, the third workout of his comeback from cannon bone bruising. Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Dortmund, turning in his final workout before the November 27th Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, caught eyes with a five-furlong work in :59 4/5 at Santa Anita, and Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) runner-up Effinex–also prepping for the Clark–went five furlongs in 1:00.50 at Belmont. For Dortmund, the Clark is an opportunity to get his season back on track and pick up the third grade I win of his career, but for Effinex, the Clark is much more than that. By virtue of his strong effort in the Breeders’ Cup, as well as his wins in the Suburban Handicap (gr. II) and Excelsior Handicap (gr. III), Effinex could be in a position to steal the Eclipse award for champion older male if he wins the Clark. His main rival for the title is Honor Code, winner of the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), Whitney Stakes (gr. I), and Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II), but while Honor Code beat most of the top older males in training, he was unable to beat Effinex in their lone meeting, finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Should Effinex win the Clark, defeating the likes of Dortmund, Race Day, and Keen Ice, that could very well shift the advantage in his favor.
But perhaps the most exciting name on the Saturday work tab was the three-year-old Calculator, who hasn’t raced since winning the Sham Stakes (gr. III) in impressive fashion back in January. He was among the early Kentucky Derby favorites based off that performance, and his three-furlong workout in :38 1/5 at the San Luis Rey Training Center suggests that he’s on his way back for a 2016 campaign. I think will definitely be one to watch next year, and I wish his connections the best of luck!
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