The Brock Talk

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Donn Can Sometimes Produce A Diamond

There is a funny phenomena in sports that has only to do with time. It is the perception of fans and media alike, that early season competition somehow has less significance than the games or races later in the year.

The Red Sox versus the Yankees in May just doesn't seem as important and that same series in September. The Cowboys playing the Redskins during the second week of the season just doesn't pack the punch of that same game during the last few weeks of the regular season.

The reason is obvious of course, in that early in the year, we just don't know what teams are good and what these games may mean come playoff time. We sometimes think we know what teams are good, but often we and every sports pundit on radio and television and in blogs and newspapers are very wrong.

I mention this because Saturday, Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla. presents their centerpiece event for older horses, the grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap.

It is the first major event each year for older horses and although Quality Road looks like a championship contender, there might be a New Orleans Saint in the bunch too.

That was never more evident than in the 1995 Donn Handicap. Holy Bull was the heavy favorite and brought national attention to the race as the Champion 3-Year-Old Colt the previous year with his victories including the Manhattan, Travers, Haskell Invitational, Woodward and Dwyer Stakes. He was also a local hero of sorts, having won the Hutcheson Stakes and Florida Derby at Gulfstream less than a year earlier as well.

Unfortunately Holy Bull never finished the Donn after being pulled up on the backstretch by jockey Mike Smith. Holy Bull's injury was career ending, but not life threatening, but nobody knew that at the time. Disappointment, shock and concern for Holy Bull dominated our attention as a relatively unknown Cigar won the Donn.

More recently and less dramatic, Saint Liam's story relative to the Donn Handicap is a bit of a diamond in the ruff tale as well. During the previous year, Saint Liam had won the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs and was a close second to Ghostzapper in the Woodward. It was a notable year, but certainly not enough to garner national attention.

Saint Liam won Donn over Roses in May, Eddington and Seek Gold then went on to win three more grade 1 races that year including the Breeders' Cup Classic. I don't know that I would consider the Donn a turning point for Saint Liam, but it again produced a champion.

Even going back to the 1974 Donn Handicap when it had just grade 3 status, the race has appeared to launch some notable careers. The previous year had been dominated by Secretariat and his historic run through the Triple Crown and beyond.

But the '74 Donn had a 4-year-old gelding who during the previous year had finished fourth, 11 lengths behind Secretariat in the Derby. Forego was his name and he won the grade 2 Roamer and grade 3 Discovery Handicaps in New York to finish his undistinguished sophomore campaign.

Forego won the Donn Handicap that year on his way to his seven eventual Eclipse Awards including three as Horse of the Year. It was also his first of eight wins in 1974, six of which came in grade 1 company.

Quality Road is the 7-5 morning line so it is difficult to attach the diamond in the ruff label to him. But Cigar was 4-1, Forego (photo) was odds-on and Saint Liam was no longshot. But the Donn Handicap has a history of sometimes acting as a catalyst for perhaps exposing greater potential.

And I can think of no horse currently in training that would fit this model more than Quality Road. If not for a quarter crack injury, he would have started in the Kentucky Derby and likely the Preakness and Belmont too. And one could certainly make the case for his potential before he pulled a Kanye West to Zenyatta's Breeders' Cup and dissed the gate crew on national television.

Now he's the heavy favorite in the Donn, but he also finds himself far below the attention of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta and perhaps even below Champion Older Horse Gio Ponti.

But no matter the winner of the Donn - longshot or favorite - they have often proven that early season wins can influence or even produce a championship too.

1 comment:

Celeste said...

Thanks, Brock. This puts an interesting perspective onto the race for me as I wasn't paying enough attention back in the Holy Bull/Cigar days, etc. I'm hoping Quality Road will show us he is the stuff of which legends are made as I think he does have that potential.