With National Football League training camps at full swing, many around the country have their attention on grown men trying to prove themselves to their coaches, teammates and fans. It just so happens that at the prestigious upstate New York racing haven known as Saratoga, we have nearly the same thing in the $750,000 Whitney Handicap - older horses trying to prove themselves as big league performers.
The grade 1 race at 1-1/8 miles on the main track at Saratoga features arguably three of the top five older horses in North America in Quality Road, Blame and Musket Man plus 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird as well as rising stars Haynesfield and Jardim.
The leader of the pack is without doubt Quality Road, who has been blazing through 2010 like he has some kind of equine chip on his horse shoulder. He has won all three of his starts this year – all in graded races - all impressively. In fact, during those three races, he has only been headed by another horse for about the first half-mile in the Donn Handicap (gr. 1) at Gulfstream Park in February. He went on to win that race by nearly 13 lengths while running the second fastest Donn in history achieving an eye-popping 121 Beyer Speed Figure.
That race was sandwiched between wire-wire victories in the grade 3 Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park in January and the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. 1) at Belmont Park in May.
After a 3-year-old year in which he was scratched from the Triple Crown trail just days before the Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) presented by Yum! Brands as the potential favorite, Quality Road came back to the races last year at Saratoga with a vengeance to win the grade 2 Amsterdam at Saratoga in track record time. But in his next two races, he was never able to pass Belmont winner Summer Bird in the Travers Stakes (gr. 1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) in New York.
However, his connections thought enough of him to send him to the West coast for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1). But Quality Road got into a pre-race bout with the Santa Anita gate crew before taking on the starting gate itself, delaying the race and eventually being scratched. So irate about the incident was Quality Road, that he refused to board his flight home to New York days later. Instead trainer Todd Pletcher returned Quality Road to his barn at Aqueduct in a van where he promptly placed him in a camp for wayward starting gate horses.
During most of the winter, while every other horse in the barn was enjoying their mid-morning Timothy hay, Quality Road was doing time with former NYRA starter Bob Duncan at starting gate school at Aqueduct.
Unlike the Oscar winning prison rebel Cool Hand Luke however, with Quality Road it seems there was no “FAIL-yah to communicate.”
While still on probation, as exemplified by the post training hour schooling Quality Road still receives at Saratoga, it seems he is reformed and out to prove himself.
Two rookies to the national older horse league this year are Blame and Haynesfield, both undefeated in their last four starts, including two this year.
Blame brings to Saratoga the most credentials having won the grade 1 Stephen F. Foster Handicap at Chuchill Downs June 12. In fact, this 4-year-old trained by Al Stall Jr. has been turning heads since winning the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga last year. He then traveled to Louisiana Downs for the Super Derby (gr. 2) to run a very good second to a sharp Regal Ransom. Since then Blame has rattled off wins in the grade 2 Fayette at Keeneland, the grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill and the grade 3 William Donald Schaefer Stakes at Pimlico before taking the Foster.
Winning the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga is akin to playing on special teams in the NFL. It’s a big deal, but you just get lost in the shuffle with all the graded stakes winners at the Spa. This year, Blame has something to prove.
Haynesfield is the Rodney Dangerfield of this group from the perspective of this blogger at the very least. In blogging about his recent win over the heralded I Want Revenge in the Suburban Handicap (gr. 2) July 3, I referred to him as “Haynesworth.”
Haynesfield also has the grade 3 Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct in November in his four-race streak but the ungraded Empire Classic and an optional claiming race at Belmont are in the make up as well. He has a tendency to like to be near the lead so he’ll have to do battle with the speedy Quality Road early in the long race to make his point.
Then we have the veterans of the national wars trying to prove they can still play at this level – Mine That Bird and Musket Man. Of the two, the Derby winner has much more to prove than Musket Man.
First, Musket Man has a post Triple Crown win in the Super Stakes at Tampa Bay in February. Mine That Bird has lost six straight since taking the run for the roses including a very weak 8th place finish on the turf in the grade 2 Firecracker on the grass at Churchill July 4.
Longshot Kentucky Derby winners Giacomo (2005) and Gato Del Sol (1982) have both long been castigated for their careers after winning the run for the roses, but neither went 0-for-6 post Derby. Giacomo won his fifth race after the Derby in the San Diego Handicap but wound 1-for-7 during his career after Kentucky. Gato Del Sol won an allowance race in New York in his third start after the Derby, but had only one stakes win in the Cabrillo Handicap at Hollywood Park in 13 races after winning at Churchill on the first Saturday of May.
Mine That Bird, under the direction of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas this year, needs to start winning to avoid the one hit wonder label.
In terms of records and labels, perhaps Tom Petty best exemplies Musket Man in his 1989 tune "I Won't Back Down."
And I’ll keep this world from draggin me down.
And I’ll stand my ground, and I won’t back down
Since winning the Illinois Derby (gr. 2) some 15 months ago, Musket Man has taken on the best his class has to offer at the grade 1 level in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Carter Handicap, Metropolitan Handicap as well as the grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes and his win in the minor Super Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. He seems to have a propensity to raise to the level of competition, but the winners’ circle has so far eluded him at that level. The words “so far” may be the operative.
Remember nobody knew Brett Favre until his second season at Green Bay.
But unlike Mr.Favre, who is staying at home during training camp this year, this group of older horses is in attendance and ready to go in August.