The Brock Talk

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For? Not So Much Perhaps.

Nearly half way through 2010, it is an interesting time to evaluate how the year is going for thoroughbred racing and the fans. The Triple Crown is now complete, Zenyatta (photo, right) and Rachel Alexandra have both raced multiple times as has 2009 stars Quality Road, Gio Ponti, Blink Luck, Lookin at Lucky, Goldikova among others.

While the stars and the sport have had some setbacks, it appears we are doing pretty well getting what we might have wished.

The two obvious drawbacks so far in 2010, are that we have not seen the Rachel Alexandra versus Zenyatta dream race we all have been wishing for. Nor did this crop of 3-year-olds provide much of a Triple Crown. I'm sure Rachel Alexandra's two losses to start the year had a damper on a wish list or two, but that will be addressed later.

With the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes and all the races leading up to the Triple Crown in the Spring, the 3-year-olds are the natural stars each year. Things were looking up for the group in late April when Eskendereya was coming into the Derby as the heavy favorite with eye-catching victories in the Fountain of Youth Stakes in Florida and Wood Memorial in New York. Meanwhile, 2009 Champion 2-Year-Old Looking at Lucky had lost some of his luster with a series of hard-luck performances, one of which resulted in a third place finish in the Santa Anita Derby just prior to going to Kentucky.

Eskendereya suffered a career ending injury before the Derby and Looking at Lucky again endured traffic problems in the Derby and finished sixth. Derby winner Super Saver came back to run a dull eighth in the Preakness behind a rebounding victory by Lookin at Lucky, but neither went on to the Belmont Stakes. Belmont favorite Ice Box threw a clunker in New York while the somewhat miscellaneous Drosselmeyer took the third leg of the Triple Crown.

Regarding Zenyatta, it is important to remember that at the end of last year, the Champion Older Female and Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. 1) winner was in the middle of a retirement tour. What we have instead from the undefeated mare is three more grade 1 wins in 2010 and a significant historical event in racing.

Her third win the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park last week, gave her 17 straight wins and moved Zenyatta past Citation, Cigar, and Mister Frisky for the most consecutive wins in modern times in races not restricted to state-breds.

If you had asked most in January if they would have rather have a Triple Crown winner or an undefeated Zenyatta with the record in hand in mid-June, I'm sure many would take Zenyatta and her last three races. There is an opportunity for a Triple Crown winner every year, however difficult the challenge may be. But a Zenyatta comes along once in a generation.

Rachel Alexandra, on the other hand, has not quite had the same year in terms of meeting expectations. The 2009 Horse of the Year lost her first two starts in 2010 at Fair Grounds in New Orleans and then again at Churchill Downs. Although she bounced back to win the Fleur de Lis (gr. 2) Saturday while showing signs of her old self, the two defeats against seemingly sub-par competition had fans speculating about her retirement and wishing she was the Rachel Alexandra of 2009.

TVG Network's The Finish Line however, produced an interesting graphic that shows a different take on her first few races of this year. When comparing her Beyer Speed Figures from 2010 to her first starts last year, they are almost identical. And a case can be made that her competition in the New Orleans Ladies and La Troienne (gr. 2) was much stiffer than what she faced last year in the first six months. And Rachel Alexandra was carrying three to four pounds more in her 2010 starts comparatively speaking.

So if you were wishing that Rachel Alexandra would have a similar year this year compared to last, you may be getting what you wished. In fact, the argument can be made that she may be on track for perhaps an even better year in 2010. The list of great race mares that stumbled at some point in their career only to go on to further greatness is a long one indeed.

Paseana finished second in her first two starts of 1993. Six graded wins would follow during her career. Heavenly Prize was second in the '94 Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. 1) and the '95 ungraded Oaklawn Park Breeders' Cup Handicap before rattling off four consecutive grade 1 wins. There are plenty of more dramatic losing streaks in the past performances of other great race mares - a sorority in which Rachel Alexandra already belongs.

Gio Ponti, the Champion Male Turf Horse of 2009, has been a bit of a disappointed this year, but he may be suffering effects of an aggressive effort to get him to and return from the taxing Dubai World Cup (gr. 1) in March. Gio Ponti began the year with a very disappointing second in the ungraded Tampa Bay Stakes then traveled halfway around the world to run in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in which he ran a credible fourth over an unfamiliar Tapeta racing surface.

The strain the Dubai journey can put on a North American thoroughbred has been well documented, so his second in the grade 1 Manhattan at Belmont Park June 5 can easily be forgiven. Two seconds and a fourth do little to convince that Gio Ponti has no chance returning to some resemblance of his 2009 form.

Champion 2-Year-Old Filly She Be Wild was injured just before the Kentucky Oaks, but her nemesis, Blind Luck, continued to fly the banner for the strong class of fillies by winning the Oaks instead.

Champion 3-Year-old Male Summer Bird, Champion Sprinter Kodiak Kowboy and Champion Female Sprinter Indian Blessing are also in retirement. But the majority of last year’s class of champions and stars have returned and are still running six months into 2010.

Certainly Quality Road, Mine That Bird, Musket Man and Rachel Alexandra are carrying the torch of a sophomore class much criticized throughout last year. Quality Road just won the Metropolitan Mile (gr. 1) after a record-breaking performance the Donn Handicap (gr. I) in February at Gulfstream Park – a race in which he broke his own 1-1/8 mile track record that he set in the 2009 Florida Derby (gr. I).
While Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird has yet to start this year, he looks to be training well after being moved to the barn of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. After several impressive works at Churchill Downs, Lukas has modified his ambitions above an allowance race return for Mine That Bird and now says he is Whitney Handicap (gr. 1) bound in early August at Saratoga.

Despite our wishes and hopes as the year began, I'm not sure we could have expected much more out of the class of 2009 to return and impact racing more than they have this year. And, though the 2010 3-year-old male crop appears to be marginal at best, they did deliver some the best television ratings for horse racing in recent memory for the Kentucky Derby and solid numbers in the Preakness as well. They are a slow group, but they seem to have some charisma and their mediocrity appears to have produced at least a somewhat popular level of competition. Remember, the year is not even 50% complete. That leaves more than six months for a star to appear ala late 3-year-old bloomers and Breeders' Cup Classic winners Proud Truth, Concern or Tiznow.

And if not - I'd say we're still doing pretty good with our wish list.


Celeste said...

Well said, Brock. While we don't have *all* of the stars from last year, we do have more to look forward to with the return of I Want Revenge, so I like to think along those same lines you were going. What Zenyatta has accomplished is beyond compare even if none of the three year olds have really rocked our boats yet. Thank you for putting things in perspective!

Brock Sheridan said...

There are a few more horses that I wanted to expound upon, but just didn't have the time. I Want Revenge is one. Good point Celeste.

John said...

Thanks for another great article, Brock.

Hopefully the three-year-olds will round out as the year progresses. Lookin At Lucky is already on the verge of being a star. I still like First Dude, and perhaps Super Saver, off his dull Preakness effort, will regain some of his Derby form, although that win was in the mud.

The stats you provide on Rachel are gratifying and reassuring. I've felt that perhaps she had passed her prime a bit after the hard campaign she had last year; and that would be (or would have been) perfectly fine. I think another race against better competition will be a truer gauge of where she's really headed, although I can't dispute her clocking and BF. One comment I heard however was that between the Fleur de Lis and the Stephen Foster, the condition of the track changed. I guess it had deepened or something--don't remember the remark exactly--and thus was a bit slower perhaps? I'm guessing but maybe that explains the discrepency between Rachel's time and Blame's. Not to take anything away from Rachel, but Blame may have been running when the conditions were different and not as conducive to an especially fast time.

On Mine That Bird: could he be a horse who runs well fresh? He'd have to be because the Whitney, with Quality Road and Blame, seems like a heckuva way to make a return. But I really love this horse and wish him all the best.

On I Want Revenge: same argument. Here's a horse who hopefully runs well fresh, because he's been off for over a year and is now going into a grade 2, 9 furlong race. Not sure who's showing up for that one, but it will be good to see him back. Just hope he's not biting off more than he can chew right off the shelf.

Anonymous said...

Well said, it's too easy to concentrate on the negatives but we have quite a few very inspiring positives this year to really look forward to!

L.S. Heatherly, "Rachel Alexandra, Filly of Joy" said...

For those that want to belittle Rachel's comeback race, take note.

Watch the rerun of her race 2 times, focusing on the home stretch. When Borel looked back and saw he was 7 lengths clear; he geared down Rachel the last 100 yards-- she could have run 3-4 lengths faster. Her 108 Beyer would have been a 114 or 116. She is in another league above Flame.