The Brock Talk

Friday, September 3, 2010

Quality Road, Mine That Bird Taking Different Strategies Into Woodward

One horse in Saturday’s grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga is hoping to continue his quest for Horse of the Year. Another is in pursuit of lost respect.

The former is Quality Road, winner of three of four races this year, including grade 1 wins in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park in February and the Metropolitan Mile Handicap at Belmont Park in late May.

The later is Mine That Bird, who is winless in seven starts since winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) presented by Yum! Brands some 16 months ago.

Carrying five pounds more than Blame under the handicap conditions of the Whitney (gr. 1) earlier in the Saratoga meeting, Quality Road suffered his only defeat of the year by a just a head. Blame is being pointed toward the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) at Belmont Park Oct. 2 to prepare for a probable rematch with Quality Road in the Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 6. That leaves Quality Road as the 1-4 morning line favorite in the Woodward against lesser competition that has recent optional claiming winner Convocation as the second choice at 6-1 odds. Mine That Bird is the third choice at 10-1.

While a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic may be necessary for either Blame, Quality Road or other candidates to clinch the golden Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year, trainer Todd Pletcher (photo above) seems to have as much confidence as the Saratoga line maker according to his quotes in Daily Racing Form. “That’s the way we’d like to see the race unfold, for someone to show enough initiative that we can put him in a situation where he can follow someone,” Pletcher told DRF. “I think that’s his best running style.”

The most likely to accommodate Pletcher is the speedy Arcodoro, a speedy victor against non-winners of two races allowance company at Saratoga in his last start.

A fast earlyt pace may be just what D. Wayne Lukas (photo left), trainer of Mine That Bird, has ordered for the Woodward as well. The come from behind gelding is has run two very marginal races this year, finishing eighth on grass at Churchill Downs in the Firecracker Handicap (gr. 2) and fifth again Quality Road and Blame in the Whitney. While Lukas will not be able control the pace in the Woodward, he has already made a significant change with Mine That Bird, firing jockey Calvin Borel and replacing him with Rajiv Maragh.

Lukas is also changing the pace strategy for Mine That Bird in the Whitney telling DRF that “We got to give him a chance at the top of the stretch to close. We could be five or six lengths [back] but we can’t be 16 or 17 lengths back and run down the top handicap horses.” Mine That Bird will also be running in blinkers for the first time in an effort to help him stay closer to the pace setters early.

Now the Mine That Bird bandwagon is about a crowded as a Death Valley tour bus in August, but he continues to be a charming sort for some racing fans. A Kentucky Derby winner always carries some degree of popularity - even if he accomplished the historical feat at 20-1 odds - but Mine That Bird’s smallish stature and reproductive status seem to add to his charm.

But charm doesn’t win grade 1 races at Saratoga. And based on his recent races, changes in strategy and jockeys may not be enough to help Mine That Bird get to the Woodward winner’s circle either. It doesn’t help that Lukas won his only Woodward 28 years ago with Island Whirl. But Saratoga is the “Graveyard of Favorites” so they have that go for them. Which is nice.

Ditto: Matt Carothers On Rachel Alexandra
I am completely on board with TVG host Matt Carothers and his editorial comment regarding the next start for 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. Like Carothers, and echoed on Friday's telecast of Blinkers Off by co-host Dan Illman of Daily Racing Form, wouldn't we all like to see Rachel Alexandra make her next start against Zenyatta in the Lady's Secret Stakes (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park during the Oak Tree meeting Oct. 2.

Of course, the race will never happen. Carothers, Illman and I recognize that. Jess Jackson, principal owner of Rachel Alexandra, has sworn he would never start Rachel Alexandra on a artificial surface. Hollywood Park has a Cushion Track main track. That makes the shipping across the country from New York to California almost inconsequential.

But the Lady's Secret does make sense on many other points as Carothers and Illman both pointed out. The Lady's Secret is 1-1/8 miles, right at Rachel's best distance and an 1/8th of a mile shorter than Zenyatta's distance.

Despite Jackson's convictions, nobody knows how Rachel Alexandra will respond to the artifical surface. And what better time to try than now, when Rachel Alexandra has so little to lose after losing to Persistently as the odds-on favorite in the Personal Ensign last week. But even with the three defeats this year, Rachel's Beyer Speed Figures compare favorably to Zenyatta. Rachel Alexandra may not be the great filly she was last year, but based on Beyer numbers alone, she appears, at the very least, in good enough form to muster a significant challenge if not an all out upset.

But the race would not need a Rachel upset to be one of the great races (if not in most demand) of our era. To see Rachel Alexandra on the lead down the stretch at Hollywood Park, with Zenyatta in methodical and determined pursuit is all we really want.

The problem is: realistically it may be just be too much to ask for.

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