Photo by NYRA/Coglianese Photos
This is the second part of my massive Weekend Recap analyzing the results of the U.S. racing action during Thanksgiving weekend. Part one, which can be viewed here, recapped the racing action on November 25th and 26th, while Part 3 will details the results of the “Stars of Tomorrow” program at Churchill Downs and Part 4 will recap the eleven two-year-old races that were run on Saturday at Gulfstream Park West. Enjoy!
Without question, two of the most anticipated races of Thanksgiving weekend were the $500,000 Clark Handicap (gr. I) on Friday at Churchill Downs and the $670,000 Cigar Mile (gr. I) on Saturday at Aqueduct. As the last two grade I races of the year for older male horses racing on dirt–actually the last two races of that kind until the Donn Handicap in February–they serve as end-of-season targets for some of the best older males in the country, especially those seeking to enhance their Eclipse award résumés or end their season on a winning note.
Perhaps the two biggest names to be entered were Effinex, who started as the favorite in the Clark, and Tonalist, who went off as the second choice in the Cigar Mile. In an exciting development, both colts won in gritty fashion to put themselves in the mix for winning the champion older male title at the Eclipse awards.
The first to stake his claim was Effinex, who overcame a disastrous trip to win the Clark by a half-length over Hoppertunity, who is now bound for the 2016 Dubai World Cup. It wasn’t that Effinex stumbled at the start, or ran into traffic, or got bumped in the homestretch–from a visual perspective, he had no trouble at all. But he raced wide throughout the race, particularly on the far turn, and according to Trakus, he covered anywhere from 7 to 67 feet more than his seven rivals. For him to win in spite of this disadvantage is very impressive indeed, and proves conclusively that his runner-up effort in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) at 33-1 was far from a fluke.
Hoppertunity also ran very well, while getting a similarly wide trip, covering more ground than every rival except Effinex. He showed last year that he loves Churchill by winning the Clark in narrow fashion, and he looked poised to score a repeat win in the race when he rallied wide on the outside to challenge Effinex in the homestretch. But despite his best efforts, Hoppertunity couldn’t quite catch Effinex, falling three-quarters of a length short while edging 88-1 shot Looks to Spare by a neck for second. Still, Hoppertunity has been the picture of consistency dating back to last year–he hasn’t missed the superfecta in fourteen starts since breaking his maiden, and he’s held up remarkably well through a nine-race campaign this year. But he does tend to be the kind of horse that finishes second or third more often than not, and a glance at the races in which he has finished second–the Clark, the Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I), the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I), the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), the Hagyard Fayette Stakes (gr. II)–suggests that he is a very talented horse that doesn’t quite have what it takes to be successful against the very best runners in the country. But his grinding style could prove well-suited to a run in the Dubai World Cup over the somewhat tiring track at Meydan, and with the purse of that race being $10 million, even a second or third-place finish would garner a check worth much, much larger than Hoppertunity would receive from winning most grade I races in the United States.
I would also like to briefly mention Keen Ice, who closed from last to finish a close fourth in the Clark. He covered the least amount of ground of any horse in the race–67 feet less than Effinex–but the fairly modest pace and nine-furlong distance of the Clark did little to enhance his chances, and I think Keen Ice can still be a major force in grade I company next year. The 2016 Dubai World Cup is on his agenda, and he should relish the distance of that race, but after that, his racing schedule is open to question. The lack of major ten-furlong races on the East Coast suggests that California could beckon, considering that the prestigious Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I) and Pacific Classic (gr. I) are both held at ten furlongs.
Now, the Clark Handicap was a very exciting race, but the Cigar Mile was arguably even more so. Although the field was small with just six starters, the quality of those competitors was exceptionally strong. The favorite to win was Private Zone, winner of the Cigar Mile in 2014 and runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) last time out. An incredibly fast sprinter capable of carrying his speed for a mile, Private Zone had a bit of an unexpected trip on Saturday. After breaking on top and securing the early lead, jockey Martin Pedroza tried to slow down the pace, but Private Zone did not react well to his efforts, fighting hard to be given his head and even jumping a bit in the early stages of the race. Private Zone eventually settled while posting fractions of :24.15, :48.50, and 1:13.04, but instead of leaving him with more in the tank for the homestretch, it actually took away his greatest advantage–his remarkable early speed–and allowed the closers to stay closer to the pace and have more stamina for the final two furlongs. Private Zone fought on until the eighth pole, but faded late to finish fifth, beaten 4 1/4 lengths. Under the circumstances, I wouldn’t hold his poor showing against him at all, and I think we’ll see him rebound in a big way next time out if he is allowed to go faster earlier on.
But setting Private Zone aside, the star of the Cigar Mile was Tonalist, who turned in one of the most visually surprising victories that I have seen in a long time. Reserved in fifth place for much of the race, Tonalist was asked for run on the turn but lacked a response, and was actually losing ground as the field approached the quarter-pole–from all appearances he was fading badly, and he even dropped back to last place for a few brief moments. But as soon as the field straightened into the homestretch, Tonalist–perhaps appreciating that he was now running on a straight instead of a turn–started to re-rally as a thrilling battle between Matrooh, Mshawish, and Red Vine unfolded in front of him. Even still, it seemed impossible that Tonalist would rally to win, but with a burst of acceleration that was as surprising as it was spectacular, Tonalist roared past his rivals with giant strides to win by a neck. I have watched the replay a couple of times since then, and I still can’t quite believe that Tonalist was able to re-rally and win, especially when you consider that the final quarter-mile was timed in a rapid :24.10 seconds, during which Tonalist gained 4 1/2 lengths on the leaders.
The runner-up in the Cigar Mile was Tonalist’s stablemate Red Vine, a horse that has flashed talent all year while placing in several major graded stakes races without winning. He seems to find trouble more often than not, stumbling at the start or getting awkward trips inside of horses, and the Cigar Mile was no exception–Red Vine had nowhere to go through much of the homestretch, and with a slightly cleaner trip, he probably would have gotten the jump on Tonalist and held him off to win. But regardless, Red Vine proved on Saturday that he has the talent to run with and defeat some of the best horses in the country, and I think we’ll hear a lot from him in 2016. The same goes for Matrooh, who held a narrow lead past the eighth pole before giving way slightly to finish third by a half-length, and Mshawish, who ran a huge race in his debut on dirt to take the lead before flattening out to finish a close fourth.
The question is, were the victories by Effinex and Tonalist enough to bolster their Eclipse award credentials? I think the answers are yes and no. Tonalist was probably the most consistent runner in his division this year, winning the Cigar Mile, Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), and Westchester Handicap (gr. III) while placing second in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) and Suburban Handicap (gr. II), and third in the Whitney Stakes (gr. I). But while this record might be good enough to garner the Eclipse award in some years, it’s hard to overlook Tonalist’s 0-for-3 record against Metropolitan Handicap and Whitney Stakes winner Honor Code, who finished ahead of Tonalist when third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I).
But while Honor Code might have the edge against Tonalist, Effinex is a different story. Effinex had his share of defeats this year, including distant losses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Woodward Stakes (gr. I), and Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II), but he beat Honor Code decisively in their only meeting (when Effinex was second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic), and Effinex also beat Tonalist head-to-head in the Suburban Handicap. Honor Code probably still has the slight edge given his wins in the Metropolitan Handicap and Whitney, but whereas Honor Code ended the season with a pair of defeats, Effinex ended his season with his biggest win of the year, and that could potentially have an impact on the voting.
One race that won’t have an impact on the Eclipse awards, but which could have a big impact in general, was the $200,000 Native Diver Stakes (gr. III) at Del Mar. Two scratched reduced the field for the nine-furlong race to just five starters, but one of those five was Dortmund, winner of the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) earlier this year. After finishing third in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness, Dortmund was given a lengthy rest before returning to win the Big Bear Stakes at Santa Anita on October 24th. That race served as a perfect prep for the Native Diver, in which Dortmund pressed fractions of :23.75, :47.61, and 1:11.36 before easily taking the lead and drawing off to win by 4 1/2 lengths over Imperative and Iron Fist, a pair of very talented runners. He might not be as famous as his stablemate American Pharoah, but with Pharoah retired, Dortmund could emerge from his shadow next year and become a force to reckon with on the road to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
In the aftermath of the Native Diver, trainer Bob Baffert mentioned that three races are possible targets for Dortmund’s next start, including the December 26th Malibu Stakes (gr. I) on opening day at Santa Anita, where Dortmund could face the spectacular Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) winner Runhappy. Another possible target is the San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) on January 9th, which is expected to mark the comeback of 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome. Either of these matchups would be incredibly exciting, while also giving us an idea of how Dortmund stacks up against some of the very best horses in the country.
It was also nice to see Commissioner go out a winner in the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) at Hawthorne. Making the final start of his career, Commissioner–whose excellent stamina is his biggest asset–relished the ten-furlong distance of the Hawthorne Gold Cup, and after tracking solid fractions, he took the lead and won by 2 1/2 lengths over Neck ‘n Neck, another talented long-distance runner, with the rest of the field strung out behind them. Commissioner will join Honor Code in 2016 as the last prominent sons of A.P. Indy to enter stud, and I hope to see him pass on his stamina to future generations of horses!
The last two grade I races of the weekend were the Hollywood Derby and the Matriarch Stakes, both held at Del Mar. The former race featured a full field of fourteen three-year-olds racing nine furlongs on turf, and Twilight Derby (gr. III) winner Om was heavily favored to win at odds of 9-10, with Closing Bell the distant second choice at 8-1. Closing Bell failed to factor while finishing seventh, and while Om put up a good fight to lead past the eighth pole, he was caught in the final furlong by Chiropractor, who drove clear to win by a head over the East Coast-shipper March, who edged Om for a half-length for second. Time will tell if these colts will be capable of competing in grade I company as older horses, but the solid closing fractions and respectable final time suggest that the overall quality of the Hollywood Derby field was very good. At the very least, Chiropractor, March, and Om could add a lot of depth to the major turf races in California, although since March is based on the East Coast, it’s more likely that we’ll see him there rather in California for the most part.
The Matriarch also drew fourteen runners, and much to the surprise of many, Stormy Lucy prevailed by a head at the massive odds of 65-1. She has long been a very consistent and talented filly, but had never previously won a grade I race and seemed better-suited to races at nine or ten furlongs. Perhaps it was for this reason that she went off at 65-1, but after settling in eighth place behind fast fractions, she produced a big finish in the final two furlongs to get up and nab Recepta for a narrow victory. The latter filly entered off a last-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. I) over wet turf, and obviously thriving on the firm turf at Del Mar, she opened up a decisive lead at the top of the stretch and seemed to be on her way to victory before Stormy Lucy reeled her in. It was a tough defeat, but it proved that she has what it takes to compete in grade I company, and I have the feeling that Recepta will be a major factor in races like the Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile (gr. II) and Just a Game Stakes (gr. I) next year.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of my weekend recap, which will feature analysis of the “Stars of Tomorrow” card at Churchill Downs, as well as the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct!
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