© Benoit Photo
Last Saturday was the kind of racing day that I always enjoy. Being that it was the first weekend of January, it wasn’t as if the racing action was particularly significant at the championship level–no grade I races were run, and no soon-to-be-crowned Eclipse champions returned to the races. But there were seven graded stakes races on the agenda, along with a large number of listed stakes races and notable maiden races, and the results were interesting, satisfying, exciting.
We’ll focus this week’s recap on the Kentucky Derby trail and the many promising three-year-olds that we saw in action, but I would be remiss if I failed to first mention some of the excellent races for older horses that were held last week. In terms of grade, the nine-furlong San Gabriel Stakes (gr. II) was the race of the week, and the favorite was the eight-year-old veteran Obviously, who has been competing in top-notch stakes races since 2012–that’s a long time! Making his first start since a disappointing effort over yielding turf in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. I), Obviously was attempting to stretch his speed beyond a mile and nearly did so, leading by 2 1/2 lengths past the eighth pole before tiring slightly in the final furlong to lose by a neck. You had to feel a little bad to see him fall just short of regaining his winning ways, but at the same time, you have to feel good for the victorious Flamboyant, who produced an impressive rally to win at 46-1. He was moving like a winner on the far turn while receiving a terrific ground-saving ride from Brice Blanc, and although catching Obviously looked like an impossible task, Flamboyant nevertheless kept chugging away to nail Obviously in the shadow of the wire.
Two other satisfying victories were achieved by San Onofre and Page McKenney. The former, a lightly-raced California-bred sprinter, ran only five times in 2012-2014 but showed a lot of promise while winning four of those races. Stepped up into stakes company in 2015, he lost all four of his starts, but three of those close defeats that came by the combined margin of 1 1/2 lengths. On Saturday, San Onofre returned from a six-month layoff in the Midnight Lute Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita and ran a huge race, chasing fast fractions before gamely holding off Salutos Amigos to win by a half-length and secure his first stakes win of any kind. Best of all, his final time was a quick 1:14.82 seconds, and with the veteran California-based sprinter Secret Circle having been retired, San Onofre looks poised to be a major factor in the California sprint division this year.
You also have to give some credit to Salutos Amigos, who has been remarkably consistent while racing very frequently over the last two years. It’s hard to believe that he hasn’t won a race since June, but he’s had some close defeats since then, and if makes his way back to Aqueduct this winter, the Carter Handicap (gr. I) looms as an opportunity for him to pick up his first grade I victory.
So all that said, let’s turn our attention to the Kentucky Derby trail! The first official Derby prep race of 2016 was the Jerome Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct, a one-mile and seventy-yard event that featured Flexibility as a heavy favorite. Coming off of consecutive runner-up efforts behind Mohaymen in the Nashua Stakes (gr. II) and Remsen Stakes (gr. II), Flexibility was fully expected to dominate the Jerome and more than lived up to expectations. True, he received a dream trip settling several lengths behind a three-horse duel for the lead, but when jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. asked Flexibility for run, the colt responded with an eye-catching burst of acceleration that carried him to a clear lead in early stretch. Ortiz kept riding him to the finish, and Flexibility responded by extending his advantage to 4 1/4 lengths at the wire, and according to Trakus, he ran his final two furlongs in :23.52 seconds, which is extremely impressive for a young three-year-old in a two-turn dirt race. Granted, Flexibility wasn’t facing the toughest field, but from a visual and time perspective, this was a very exciting performance from a promising colt, especially when you consider that he ran 33 feet farther than runner-up Vorticity.
The day before the Jerome, Aqueduct played host to the six-furlong Lost in the Fog Stakes, which was won by the maiden King Kranz. The son of Munnings had been cross-entered in the Jerome, which would have marked his two-turn debut, but scratched in favor of a run in the Lost in the Fog, which looked like a good decision after King Kranz scored an impressive victory. After placing in two previous stakes races, including a runner-up effort in the Futurity Stakes (gr. II), King Kranz finally broke through by tracking fractions of :23.13 and :46.77 and taking command to win by a length over Jan’s Reserve in 1:11.84 seconds. The latter colt, who had also been under consideration for a run in the Jerome, was reserved in last place through the first four furlongs before rallying strongly to finish second, three lengths in front of Sallisaw. Time will tell if King Kranz and Jan’s Reserve will be able to stretch out in distance, but at the very least, they look like two talented sprinters that will win their share of stakes races this year.
“I think this was more impressive [than his debut] because 4 ½ furlongs, sometimes horses run great and they never run back to it. The track record that he broke was broken the year before, and it’s always at a time of year when the rain stopped, the track is dry, everything’s fast and everyone’s running,” Gold said. “It’s hard to gauge with a 2-year-old but the way they do it is more important than when you look up there at the clock. He did it so effortlessly and came back and trained the same way and ran back to it.”
In the aftermath of the race, Gold announced that Awesome Banner would stick to sprinting for the time being, with the seven-furlong Swale Stakes (gr. II) on January 30th being the next target. After that, the 8.5-furlong Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) could be next, and Awesome Banner’s jockey Jose Caraballo believes the colt can handle the distance.
“This is a brilliant colt. I think he’s going to have a long career ahead of him,” Caraballo was quoted as saying. “He is very smart, a smart horse. Anything you ask him to do, he’ll do. I think he’ll go longer. He’s a fast horse, but he’s not a speed horse, a crazy horse. He’s very relaxed. The few times I’ve got on him he’s been very sensible, very smart. Nothing bothers him.”
Later on the card, Awesome Speed showed great determination and tenacity to win the one-mile Mucho Macho Man Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths. Attempting to stretch out his speed after two successful sprint races, Awesome Speed was bumped at the start and got off a bit slowly, but was guided to the outside by jockey Joel Rosario and soon settled into second place through fractions of :23.66 and :46.69. He took the lead through six furlongs in 1:10.69 and was then challenged by the late-running El Charro, who loomed a major contender at the top of the stretch and appeared to have the momentum to reel in Awesome Speed. But although Awesome Speed drifted out through the homestretch while under urging, he dug deep to hold off El Charro’s challenge and remain clear to the wire, which he reached in 1:35.97 seconds.
“He’ll stretch out to a mile and a sixteenth, but I don’t know if he’ll stretch out with good horses. We’ll see. I’ll be down there Monday and spend a week down there and I’ll talk to Jorge and we’ll lay out a plan for him,” Goldberg was quoted as saying on the Gulfstream Park website. “Before the race I was thinking we would pass the Holy Bull and just try for the Fountain of Youth but we’ll see.”
I’d also like to briefly mention the results of the Dania Beach Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream, which saw the Chad Brown-trained Life Imitates Art receive a great ground-saving trip under Joel Rosario to edge Isotherm for victory by a head. Both colts should be major players in Gulfstream’s turf stakes races this winter, and it will be interesting to see if they get a chance in a Kentucky Derby prep race. Isotherm failed to fire when giving dirt a try in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but Life Imitates Art has a pedigree that suggests success on dirt isn’t out of the question. The next few months should be interesting!
Lastly, no recap of the weekend would be complete without a mention of I Will Score, who scored a terrific win in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita on Sunday. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, who has been speaking highly of I Will Score since before the colt won his debut at Los Alamitos in September, I Will Score was heavily favored to win despite coming off an injury-induced layoff, and after hooking up with Rockin Bayou through unbelievable fractions of :21.01 and :43.23, yet despite the intensity of this speed duel, I Will Score and Rockin Bayou continued to battle to the wire, with I Will Score prevailing by a head under Mike Smith in the time of 1:15.15 seconds. Wow! Time will tell if I Will Score can stretch out in distance, but at this point, he looks like one of the most gifted runners on the West Coast and is among my Top 10 Kentucky Derby contenders at the moment.
As you can see, last weekend was a great one in horse racing! But as good as it was, this coming week promises to be even better thanks to the return of 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome in the San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita. I’m looking forward to it!
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