By Anthony “The Big A” Stabile
To use an old cliché, there really was something for everyone this past weekend in the world of Thoroughbred racing. In California, a tarnishing, aging star tried to knock the rust off and start another run at a Breeders’ Cup victory while a new kid on the block tried to anoint himself the top dog as the division leader sits on the sidelines.
In Florida, a fabulous filly took what were supposed to be her final steps on the track as a racehorse before heading off to her new career as a mother just hours before the defending sophomore champ took his first strides towards a Horse of the Year title he fell just a nose short of last year. We’ll start in California.
This past Saturday, Santa Anita presented a card that, for the first time, made me forget that southern California racing lost one of its brightest jewels when Hollywood Park closed its doors for the final time less than two months earlier.
Trainer Bob Baffert, as he often does, held the hottest hand going into two of the more important races of the day, the San Antonio for older horses and the Robert Lewis for three-year-olds, a race that awarded 10 Derby points to the winner. Unfortunately for Baffert, his pair of aces got cracked, as we say in the poker world, in a big way.
Game on Dude was sent off at 1-5 in the San Antonio, his first start since a gut-wrenching defeat at the hooves at Will Take Charge in the Clark at Churchill. He ended last year with a whimper, as has become his want, but was back in familiar territory and appeared to have his six rivals over that proverbial barrel.
Rafael Bejarano and Blueskiesandrainbows, Game on Dude’s former rider and a former Baffert trainee, immediately gunned to the top, throwing Mike Smith, aboard Game On Dude, a bit off his game. Game On Dude was forced to chase and duel with his less heralded foe and offered little in the way of resistance when the cavalry came-a-callin’ at the top of the stretch.
Longshots Blingo and Imperative put on quite a show through the lane, with Blingo getting the money, but that really wasn’t the story. It was Game On Dude, who at the ripe old age of seven, faded to fifth and appears to have lost a step. In years past, Game On Dude would have tossed Blueskiesandrainbows aside and galloped home a winner but it appears, in my eyes anyway, that Father Time may finally be catching up to him.
Baffert didn’t have long to lick his wounds as the Lewis was approaching and he had to saddle the undefeated Midnight Hawk, who’d already earned 10 Derby points with his win in the Sham earlier this season at Santa Anita. Again, just six lined up to tackle the favorite and again Baffert was baffled and humbled.
Midnight Hawk broke a tad awkwardly from his three post, then appeared rank under Smith heading, and around, the first turn and acted that way until they straightened down the backside. Once settled, he immediately found himself in contention, racing clear of trouble on the outside.
But as the field turned for home, you could tell Midnight Hawk was empty. He was physically in contention through the latter stages but at no point did it appear to me that he was going to win, especially after Gary Stevens produced Candy Boy to the outside to run by them all in the last 100 yards to win by about a length.
It wasn’t the first time Midnight Hawk has appeared rank, as Baffert removed the blinkers he wore when breaking his maiden for the Sham, and I’m not even sure it’s what got him beat on Saturday. I do know he’ll have to take giant leaps forward if he’s to continue on the trail.
As for the winner, Candy Boy could not have sat a better trip under Stevens, tucked away on the rail behind a pack of three front runners early before tipping wide in the stretch, the quintessential Derby. I question what was behind him as Midnight Hawk’s effort obviously left me with a poor taste in my mouth while the other colt I was interested in, Cool Samurai didn’t run a step.
The result did flatter Eclipse champ Shared Belief, who ended his 2013 campaign with a 5 ¾ length victory in the CashCall Futurity over, among others, Candy Boy. It’s been reported the Shared Belief has resumed light training after battling some foot issues, namely a quarter crack, for the better part of the past month.
The San Felipe on March 8th and Santa Anita Derby on April 5th are the only other opportunities for Shared Belief, who doesn’t own a single Derby point to his name, to earn them on the SoCal circuit. Coming off of this type of injury, I’d be stunned if he makes the former and the latter would be an awfully tall task coming off of what would be a more than three month layoff.
Gulfstream grabbed the spotlight on Sunday, hosting three graded stakes, including the first two grade 1 races on the east coast this year. But the day started with the return, and supposed farewell, of Groupie Doll. The two –time defending Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and Eclipse award winner took on six runners in the Hurricane Bertie.
Groupie Doll didn’t break all that well under regular rider Rajiv Maragh and trailed the field by a considerable enough margin early but was on top of her rivals as the field turned for home. Under a calm and cool Maragh, Groupie Doll went five wide coming for home, rolled past the field seemingly in an instant and was geared down through the sun-splashed stretch of Gulfstream Park in what was a picture perfect ending to an outstanding career.
Of course, an effort like that makes you home her owner Mandy Pope changes her mind and postpones that date Groupie Doll has scheduled with Tapit. The main reason to run her was so that she could go out on a high note after she finished fourth in against the boys in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct after a tough trip last year in a race she lost by a nose in her 2012 season.
You got that win and be thankful. While she did almost set a track record for six and a half furlongs, it’ll only get tougher as the season progresses and as Game On Dude is starting to prove, the old “time waits for no man” adage applies to racehorses, too. I’m thankful for getting to see Groupie Doll, arguably the best female sprinter (she’d get my vote) in the past 25 or 30 years, for the past few seasons and the time for her to retire is perfect, if you ask me.
Last year, Point of Entry and Animal Kingdom treated us to a fantastic renewal of the Gulfstream Park Handicap and though it lacked that star power this season, six of the eight runners were stakes winners. When the dust settled, there was a seventh.
Lochte, the longest shot on the board at 35-1, parlayed a perfect, ground saving trip under Orlando Bocachica for trainer Marcus Vitali, into their first grade 1 score as he flew home to win the event by daylight. Purchased last fall in a sale at Saratoga from the powerful Darley racing operation, the upstart Lochte handled stakes veterans Imagining, Amira’s Prince and Summer Front with ease, in what would have easily been the most feel-good story of the day had it not been for Groupie Doll.
Gulfstream capped off a fantastic weekend of racing with the 59th running of the Donn which featured the return of Three-Year-Old Eclipse champ Will Take Charge. But instead of the champ picking up right where he left off, there was a sense of déjà vu down in Hallandale Beach, Florida.
Just about 19 years ago, Holy Bull was making his four-year-old debut in the Donn coming off a sophomore season in which he won numerous graded races, the Eclipse for Three-Year-Old as well as Horse of the Year despite not winning a Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup race. While we already talked about how Will Take Charge lost Horse of the Year by inches to Wise Dan, the other similarities are remarkable.
Those weren’t the only similarities this Donn had to offer. We all know that Holy Bull suffered a career ending injury in the Donn, a fate thankfully not suffered by Will Take Charge. But the winner of the Donn in 1995 was a newly minted, graded stakes winner on dirt who had done most of his prior running on the turf with mixed results trained by Bill Mott. That horse, of course, was the great Cigar and while no one is saying we have another one of those on our hands, we have a pretty nice horse in your 2014 Donn winner, Lea.
Under a patient, yet aggressive Joe Rosario, Lea was sent strongly out of the gate, trailing just longshot Uncaptured down the backside with Will Take Charge towards his inside in fourth, much closer to the front than usual. They stacked up five deep going down the backside before sorting themselves out approaching the turn. Bourbon Courage was the first to stop, followed by River Seven and Romansh.
It was at that point that Rosario said “go” and Lea responded, going by Uncaptured and opening up quickly, quickly enough that it left Will Take Charge and Luis Saez with far too much to do. The champ made a run through the lane but didn’t make dent through the final stages as Lea won by 1 ½ lengths and stopped the clock in a track record 1:46 4/5.
As impressive as Lea was in victory, I was equally impressed with the effort of Will Take Charge. Lea was coming off a win in the Hal’s Hope at Gulfstream while Will Take Charge, who never really missed a beat after an 11 race campaign in 2013, was making his first start over a course that historically does not suit his most effective running style.
Thankfully, this past weekend of racing was just what I needed after the NYRA announced what the new Belmont Stakes Day would look like this year. I don’t want to ruin the mood, so I’ll save that rant for next week. See you then!!!
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