Déjà Vu All Over Again?

March 6, 2012

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Watching Caleb’s Posse finish second in the Tom Fool Stakes at Aqueduct on Saturday, I was reminded of the most confounding issue facing voters for three-year-old of the year on the 2011 Eclipse ballot.  How do you make a champion when only one has won more than one graded race and that was a colt whose major wins were one-turn sprints?

As I see the Kentucky Derby Futures Pool rear its head again this spring, I am reminded that many of the Kentucky Derby winners recently have come virtually from out of the clouds. Names like Animal Kingdom and Mine That Bird were shocking winners. But just as shocking has been the inability of Kentucky Derby and other Grade 1 stakes winners to repeat Grade 1 wins in their sophomore campaign.

So here we go again. Names like Algorithms, Union Rags, Hansen and Secret Circle have won early races, none a Grade 1, yet, except for Algorithms who was injured and on the sidelines, those are the names of young runners we expect to see in the winner’s position on Grade 1 charts in the next few months.  But none of those has yet to win twice this year, forget about Grade 1, so the problems of coming up with a champion could be the same this time around.

What aggravates the problem is that so many of the riches are in so few hands.  Once you eliminate trainers Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher, you eliminate a high percentage of the horses which have the potential to be champions. Of course, should one of the trainees of that pair of trainers win two Grade 1 races, they automatically become champion material, since there will be so much press and media about those horses.  But the problem with Baffert and Pletcher having so many is that they hate to run one against another from the same barn.

The big reason is trying to please two owners should one win and the other lose. Oaklawn’s press and media saw that first hand in the 1985 Apple Blossom Handicap. Pat Day guided Sefa’s Beauty to an upset victory over her stablemate, Heatherten.  Mott knew that Heatherten’s owner, the late John Franks, would not be a happy man, so Mott literally ran back to the barn to avoid making any statements following the race. There was no sense rubbing Franks’ nose into the loss, especially since it was to a stablemate.  Mott would get his percentage either way, so any post-race interview could only muddy the waters.

I expect we may see some of the same happen in coming months with Baffert and Pletcher.  The math involved in running two horses from the same barn for one purse is not especially good.  That doesn’t bother the owners much, as long as they are not the losing owner.  I feel for Pletcher.  He has been confronted with many times when he had to put multiple horses into a race.  As a matter of fact, he saddled 24 horses in the Kentucky Derby until he won the 2010 edition with Arkansas Derby runnerup, Super Saver.  As an aside, do you remember who beat Super Saver in that year’s Arkansas Derby?  It was Line of David, the first of two Arkansas Derby winners in a row to be ridden by Jon Court.

The Kentucky Derby has been much kinder to Baffert who won with his very first runner, Silver Charm, then followed up with Real Quiet.  The latter suffered one of the unluckiest moments in racing history when he followed up his 1998 Kentucky Derby win with a win in the Preakness, then led every step but the last of the Belmont Stakes, falling to Arkansas Derby winner, Victory Gallop, and losing out on the Triple Crown title as a result.  Real Quiet did, by the way, come back to win two Grade 1 stakes as a four-year-old in 1999, the Pimlico Special and Hollywood Gold Cup.  He did receive the Eclipse Award as champion three-year-old in 1998, but the Horse-of-the-Year Award for that year went to Skip Away.  Had Victory Gallop been one stride later, Real Quiet would have won that award also.

So what lies ahead for us this year?  Up to this point, tracking the road to the Triple Crown the only multiple winner has been Alpha, racing at Aqueduct.  Yet this weekend’s win by Hansen in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct has made him easily the biggest name among Big Apple racing fans.  There seems to be a new, popular flavor every time another three-year-old race is run.  On March 17 the sophomore class will gather several hopefuls at Oaklawn for the $500,000 Rebel Stakes.   Among them will likely be the undefeated Gemologist in his seasonal debut from the Pletcher barn and one of a handful of possibles from the West Coast and trainer Baffert.  Whichever colt wins on that afternoon suddenly jumps up the ladder of pundits anxious to boast about tabbing the Kentucky Derby winner.

While the Rebel has not reached Grade 1 status, wouldn’t it be nice to have a clear-cut, multiple prep winner to root for in this year’s Triple Crown?  Horses like Smarty Jones and Big Brown are recent success stories which dominated the headlines.  That was positive for racing.  Racing could sure use more of that than the kind of scramble for a leader that goes on in the pro golfers tour since Tiger Woods fell off the charts.  Racing needs a great runner  and let’s hope we can find one in this crop.  Naturally, around here, we always hope that champion comes through Oaklawn Park.  That would sure be better than the 2011 experience of trying to choose a champion from such an ordinary crop. 

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