Feb. 22, 2011
In the aftermath of the Southwest Stakes on Monday, which was supposed to separate the contenders from the pretenders, I think there are more questions unanswered than answered.
Did the best horse win? Who knows? The one thing I feel confident in saying is that the overwhelming majority of runners in the 11-horse field were properly to get six furlong in 1:12 in the one mile race. That's because there was just over two lengths separating the first eight heading off the turn and into the short stretch.
From my vantage point the horse which appeared to have the most momentum at that point was running eighth, Caleb's Posse. He had saved ground and seemed poised to outrun the competition to the wire. He's a respectable closer and was in perfect position. One problem, the opening never occurred and he didn't have Calvin Borel aboard to magically explode him up against the rail and storm to victory. No. He never even hit the board.
Meanwhile the field fanned seven-wide coming off the turn, which appeared 1) to make it look like a quarter horse race and 2) give it the look of a cavalry charge not seen in a stakes race at Oaklawn in many a moon.
Credit Jon Court and trainer "Jinks" Fires, who had Archarcharch in the right spot at the right time. Towards the outside and in the stalking sort of position which appears to be his best style, the dark bay colt did have some explosion and gain all the separation he needed in the short run to the sixteenth-pole finish line, used exclusively for the one mile races.
Meanwhile where do you suppose Calvin Borel was? On the far outside with the "trandy" horse, Elite Alex. What's with Calvin on the outside this year? We have seen very few of the classic Calvin Bo-Rail rides for which he is famous. All three of his Kentucky Derby wins came by hugging the rail. Many of his most memorable moments at Oaklawn were in the same spot. His valet has had to clean more paint off the outside of his left boot and pantsleg than anything else for years.
By the way, time was taken earlier in the afternoon to salute Borel for his win in the Meydan Masters International Jockey Challenge in Dubai earlier in the week. Calvin accomplished that success with one win in three races. That win saw him race down the middle of the track to score the victory
Now, on Monday, here was Calvin on the outside with Elite Alex and, although they had some momentum, they were beaten to the punch by Archarcharch and had to be contented with a trip down the middle of the track. J P's Gusto, also just behind horses coming to the stretch was beaten to the lead by Archarcharch and gave a game effort down the rail to catch the leader. Dominguez appeared to steady near the wire, but apparently didn't feel it would have been enough of a problem that he should claim a foul.
Longshot Picko's Pride, who, coming from the barn of trainer Mac Robertson, appeared to be the next coming of Win Willy, ran much better than his 79-1 odds would indicate. He, too, had nowhere to go when he was in full stride and had to settle for the fourth spot.
Add to those the oddysey of Caleb's Posse and the fact that Yankee Passion was wide much of the way and the "trip handicappers" must be having a field day today in assessing this race.
Clearly there are some really good horses in this bunch. But at this point they are not likely to scare away opposition for the $300,000 Rebel Stakes on March 19. The distance of that one will be a mile-and-a-sixteenth and there will be plenty of runners chasing the kind of money the race will offer. Without shippers this race might fill. Shippers, however, will be more than likely and that looms as one of the most significant days of the spring for horses pointing toward the Triple Crown races of the spring.
Earlier on the card Donnie K. Von Hemel, who saddled the unlucky Caleb's Posse in the Southwest, send his other star three-year-old, Pin Oak's Alternation, into a mile-and-a-sixteenth allowance affair against some fairly salty competition. That son of Distorted Humor had no problems dispatching of his six rivals in respectable time and earning himself a ticket into stakes competition for his next outing. The question is where will he pop up? Now Von Hemel has two to get ready and some decisions as to whether to split them up or race them against each other. These are the kinds of problems which face Todd Pletcher on a daily basis, but in the Von Hemel barn, this will require a bit of new thought. He does have a Dad and brother in the same business, so a family pow-wow, plus input from the owners, of course, might be in order.
There are other names which pop up, however, when we get this late in the Triple Crown game. Trainers who have multiple prospects are very likely to see the advantage of racing over the Oaklawn strip, so often compared favorably to the Churchill Downs surface. Trainers like Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, Nick Zito, Neil Howard and others have multiple eligibles on the Early Bird nominations list for the trio of Oaklawn stakes, the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby. Some of those will show, looking for the qualifying monies to get into the Kentucky Derby field and, as a result, lending all the more integrity to the Oaklawn path to the Triple Crown.
But right now, if you ask who is the best three-year-old on the grounds or the most likely favorite for the Rebel, the best answer is a question, "Who knows??