May 27, 2011
Once the great Zenyatta left the racetrack, the search began for the stars who would take her place. The obvious choices were horses which had performed with distinction at Breeders' Cup. Yet somehow we've come through the first quarter of the year and those stars have yet to really surface. I thought we might have enjoyed a breakthrough when Paddy O'Prado finished with a flourish to win a stakes at Pimlico in his first race back. But, alas, he was injured and subsequently retired. Now it's time to resume our search for this year's stars.
Animal Kingdom nearly filled that bill nicely when he rallied to second in midstretch of the Preakness, only to flatten out and give us our second consecutive longshot winner in a Triple Crown race. Uncle Mo was supposed to be the colt who would dominate, but that hasn't occurred either. Likewise the fillies have been inconsistent. Those of us who saw Joyful Victory at Oaklawn thought she was the rising star to follow in the footsteps of Rachel Alexandra and Blind Luck. They were Fantasy winners which went on to greatness. But Joyful Victory bombed in the Kentucky Oaks and looked like just another horse.
In the last decade those of us following Oaklawn racing are used to seeing our horses move on to greatness. Once they raced over our track, they became "our horses". That allowed us to lay claim to the likes of Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Blind Luck, Azeri, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin and many others. This year we are desperately hanging onto Havre de Grace. Her win over archrival Blind Luck in the Azeri pretty much chased Blind Luck to other pastures. Havre de Grace then handled the likes of Switch, Miss Match, Absinthe Minded and the Chilean champion Belle Watling in the Apple Blossom.
We may have way underestimated Absinthe Minded. She won the Bayakoa at Oaklawn, set all the pace before succumbing to Havre de Grace and Blind Luck in the Azeri, then did the same in the Apple Blossom, fading at the end to finish third, only two lengths behind Havre de Grace and a length-and-a-quarter behind Switch. Most recently, in the Shuvee at Belmont, she led all the way and just faltered at the wire to the heavily odds-on favored Awesome Maria.
But what that tells us is that once again it's the fillies and mares who are the stars, much as they have been in the past two years with the likes of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. So many of our top males have been retired that the male division is a shambles and the fillies and mares are the standouts. Even this weekend at Churchill Downs, in the Louisville Handicap at a mile-and-a-half on the turf, the lone distaffer, Keertana, is accorded a great chance to top nine male rivals. She has the most earnings of any of the runners in the field and the most earnings over the turf at Churchill.
There was a time when racing top females versus top males was never done in this country. It was done on other continents, but not here. But those times have changed. For Oaklawn fans that is good news, since the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn has become the championship-level event in the first half of the year for fillies and mares. If the Apple Blossom winner also should win the Breeders' Cup, there's a good chance she will not only be an Eclipse Award winner, but she's in the running for Horse-of-the Year.
I seriously believe the major obstacle to Havre de Grace becoming both the champion filly or mare and Horse-of-the-Year is the great European mare, Goldikova. She recently won her first outing of the year and will be shooting for her fourth consecutive Breeders' Cup Mile win at Churchill Downs later this year as long as she remains sound. The six-year-old French mare will attempt to become the first of either sex to win four Breeders' Cup races in a row and, since she'll have to do it at Churchill Downs against the best the host country can put against her, that might be enough to give her the honors, even though she's a turf horse and Havre de Grace races strictly on dirt.
With the likes of Azeri, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta paving the way, this has become the decade of the filly and mare in our sport of thoroughbred racing and it appears to me that it is from that group that we'll find the stars to which we can hitch our wagons. The boys aren't doing it in this sport. They may dominate in baseball, basketball and football, but in racing it's the ladies who are stepping forward and providing magical moments for many of us.