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Get ready, everyone! An absolutely fantastic five days of racing wrapped up yesterday afternoon, and the number of intriguing stakes races and maiden races that we watched over those five days was nothing short of spectacular. The significance of these races in regard to everything from the Eclipse awards to the Triple Crown cannot be overstated, and to help sort through all the action, I have decided to extend this week’s “Weekend Recap” into a four-part series that will be posted over the next two or three days. This first part will recap the stakes races on Wednesday and Thursday, part two will recap the stakes action from Friday through Sunday, part three will recap the “Stars of Tomorrow” card of two-year-old races on Saturday at Churchill Downs, and part four will recap the great day of two-year-old races on Saturday at Calder. So without further ado, let’s get started!
The busy week opened on Wednesday, with the highlight being three stakes races at Penn National. The feature was the $200,000 Fabulous Strike Stakes at six furlongs on the main track, and as expected, the talented Favorite Tale–coming off of a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I)–won easily by two lengths in gate-to-wire fashion. It was a nice win for a very nice colt, but his final time of 1:11 flat–coupled with the fact that the second- and third-place finishers were 87-1 and 57-1–suggested that the race might earn a slow Beyer speed figure.
But perhaps the most surprising revelation was that the two-year-old filly Behrnik’s Bank–while running in the Blue Mountain Juvenile Stakes two races earlier on the card–posted a time of 1:10.22 while winning in easy fashion by an incredible thirteen lengths. That was a substantial 0.78 seconds faster than Favorite Tale ran in Fabulous Strike Stakes, which posed a tricky question for those calculating Beyer speed figures: Did the track get slower for the Fabulous Strike? Or did Behrnik’s Bank really run almost four-fifths of a second faster than a talented older sprinter? And if so, what kind of speed figure would Behrnik’s Bank earn?
It wasn’t as if wildly different pace scenarios had led to the differences in final time–Favorite Tale had actually gone faster than Behrnik’s Bank over the first two furlongs, which should have set him up for a faster time. And if you assumed that Favorite Tale had run his typical strong race and deserved his usual strong Beyer speed figure of about 100-105, then that would mean Behrnik’s Bank deserved an astronomical figure of around 111-116, suggesting that she was the second coming of Ruffian.
So what happened? Did the conditions of the track change subtlety over the course of two races, getting substantially slower for the Fabulous Strike? My theory is that perhaps the coming of nightfall had an effect on the speed of the track, although since I wasn’t at Penn National, I have no evidence to support this belief. However, the experts compiling the Beyer speed figures saw no reason to believe that the speed of the track had changed, and as a result, Behnrik’s Bank earned a Beyer speed figure that was a remarkable eleven points higher than Favorite Tale. The surprising part was the exact figures that each horse received: Behnrik’s Bank earned a 94, and Favorite Tale earned an 83.
In all honesty, I can’t recall the last time that a quality stakes like the Fabulous Strike–featuring a field of such talent, led by the third-place finisher from the Breeders’ Cup Sprint–received such a low figure. While it makes perfect sense from a mathematical perspective, I can’t help but wonder if some other factor–such as the track slowing down–was more responsible for Favorite Tale’s slow time. It just doesn’t seem possible that a horse as talented and generally consistent as Favorite Tale could come back 4 1/2 weeks after a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, win a $200,000 stakes race, and receive a Beyer of 83.
Again, the whole situation with the final times and Behrnik’s Bank running so much faster surely made it very tricky for accurate Beyer speed figures to be calculated. In any case, the 94 earned by Behnrik’s Bank stamps her as among the most promising two-year-old fillies in the country right now, and in my eye, the 94 marks the low end of what her Beyer speed figure might have been. Given how much faster she ran than Favorite Tale, it’s not out of the question that her Beyer might have really been closer to 100 or even slightly higher. Behnrik’s Bank definitely stole the show on Wednesday, and her future looks bright!
The third stakes race at Penn National was the 8.5-furlong Swatara Stakes for older horses, in which the incredibly consistent Page McKenney rallied to win by a half-length over Kid Cruz. The five-year-old gelding has finished first, second, or third in each of his last twenty-one races–an amazing accomplishment!–and has also been quietly earning some very strong Beyer speed figures, including a 103 for his win in the Swatara. Earlier this year, he ran third in the Charles Town Classic (gr. II) and second in the Pimlico Special (gr. III), proving that he can hold his own in graded stakes company, and he seems to be better than ever right now. If he holds his form, or even keeps improving, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see him in the winner’s circle after a graded stakes race.
Moving on, the racing action on Thanksgiving was exceptional, culminating with a strong renewal of the Hollywood Turf Cup (gr. II) at Del Mar. The Pizza Man was heavily favored despite entering off a fifth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. I), from which he emerged with a slight illness. In the Hollywood Turf Cup, The Pizza Man dropped far off the lead early on, racing in eleventh place as the leaders set very, very slow fractions of :25.05, :51.10, and 1:17.28, an absolutely dawdling pace that threatened to severely compromise The Pizza Man’s chances. With just two furlongs left to run, The Pizza Man was still in eleventh place, but when jockey Mike Smith asked him for run, The Pizza Man’s response was breathtaking, spectacular, and borderline unbelievable. Rallying as if he were in a different frame of reference than his rivals, The Pizza Man swallowed up the field with a freakish burst of acceleration, bursting clear inside the eighth pole to win by two lengths while running his final quarter-mile in about :23 flat.
Another race that could have big implications down the road was the $60,000 Thanksgiving Handicap at Fair Grounds, a six-furlong sprint that drew a surprisingly deep field given its purse. Graded stakes winner Clearly Now was favored in his first start for trainer Ron Faucheux, but the winner was Control Stake, who carved out fractions of :21.59 and :44.62 before drawing off to win by 1 1/4 lengths over the pace-tracking Officer Griffin. Clearly now could only rally mildly to finish third, and 2014 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Ride On Curlin did the same while finishing fifth in his first race since May 1st, but a strong track bias that favored front-runners surely had an impact on the outcome of the Thanksgiving Handicap, and I would look for Clearly Now and Ride On Curlin to improve a lot in subsequent races down the road.
And of course, no recap of the week’s racing action would be complete without a quick look at the notable names on the work tab! Wednesday saw a number of prominent horses turn in timed workouts, led by the brilliant Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) winner Runhappy, who blazed five furlongs in :57 flat at Keeneland. At Santa Anita, the Bob Baffert-trained pair of Midnight Hawk and Lord Nelson were noteworthy, with Midnight Hawk going a half-mile in a bullet :46 1/5 and Lord Nelson going the same distance in :47 4/5. Both have been on the sidelines since the first half of the year, but they have been training very well in recent weeks, and Midnight Hawk in particular seems to be very close to making his comeback. Keep an eye out for his name in the entries!
Lastly, Zenyatta’s second foal Ziconic went five furlongs in 1:01.87 at Belmont Park. The unraced son of Tapit has turned in a long series of workouts at Saratoga and Belmont this year, and judging from these workouts, his eagerly-anticipated debut could potentially come before the end of the year, or perhaps in early 2016.
My apologies for the length of this post, but there was plenty to recap! Stay tuned for Part 2 in the very near future!
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