There is a lot going on in the Sport of Kings lately and we will touch base on most of it but with the greatest two minutes in sports just a few weeks away, it is hard to keep our minds off the 2014 Kentucky Derby. We saw two major preps this weekend and the pretenders are being separated from the contenders one after another. We recently wrote about not believing the hype and never has that been more evident than with Social Inclusion. His hype was based more on fans desire to see the next superhorse other than what he had actually accomplished on the racetrack. After two biased wins under optimum conditions for him, he was hailed the next great horse. His owners reportedly turned down offers in the millions opting instead to run in the Wood Memorial, an odd choice of races I thought being he was two for two at Gulfstream Park.
Those of you who read the column or follow me on Twitter know I was not a believer in Social Inclusion as a 2014 Kentucky Derby contender from day one. You will also recall I speculated and again it was only pure speculation that possibly he did not pass the Vet checks that precede that type of private sale. That speculation was scoffed at before the Wood Memorial but subsequent to it there have been some rumblings. We may never know but what we do know; however, is we saw the real Social Inclusion at about the eighth pole of Aqueduct’s main track Saturday afternoon. He was not near good enough to overcome his lack of seasoning and wide draw and collapsed like a soup sandwich when the real running started. He managed a weak third against a less than stellar field. Sent off as the favorite, it was not exactly a great or superhorse performance. His private sale and stock price has dropped off the radar and as expected he will not be in the starting gate for the run for the roses come May. I hear he is being pointed for the Preakness. We’ll see.
The Wood winner Wicked Strong finally came back to his late two year old season form which saw him competitive to Cairo Prince and Honor Code when they were both at their best. He ran well for trainer Jimmy Jerkens and it looks like he just didn’t appreciate the Florida sunshine although I can’t imagine why. It’s possible he did not care for the speed biased Gulfstream strip but while running some wide and ground losing trips down south, he just never put in a strong effort. That changed Saturday.
By the end of the day Saturday all the hype on the east coast found its way out west and settled on a nice little Cal bred aptly named California Chrome. This is one nice and fast colt on a strong three race roll. The difference between the hype out west and what we saw back east is that the Chrome hype is based on performance and not hope. California Chrome dominated the Santa Anita Derby in the same manner he waltzed away with the San Felipe. While he may have assured himself favoritism in the Derby he didn’t win it yet. He is going to have to hold that form for another month and duplicate his last three performances outside of California over a track that plays more like east coast then west coast strips. This will not be an easy task. He is also not shipping to Churchill Downs until late April and will be doing the bulk of his training at Los Alamitos, yes Los Alamitos. I would ship in like tomorrow and get acclimated.
Candy Boy who I have been high on, ran a lackluster third which left him on the bubble getting into the 2014 Kentucky Derby field. If he gets in he can improve, and I hope he gets to go but we’ll just have to see what he has in the tank. I expected better Saturday. Hoppertunity who had already punched his ticket for a roses run with a salty performance in the Rebel at Oaklawn ran deceptively well. If you watch him close you will see Mike Smith continuing to educate this lightly raced colt for Bob Baffert and he will be much tighter come May.
I do not think the hype is completely over with just yet. We still have the Racing Festival of the South coming up which climaxes with the Arkansas Derby. I am excited to see the return of Bayern, who has as much if not more raw talent than anyone in this year’s class. He’ll be giving up some seasoning to the likes of Tapiture and some others but may simply be just too fast for them anyway a la Bodemeister. If he smokes that field he will bring his share of hype to Louisville.
Speaking of the Festival of the South, if you have never made your way to Hot Springs and Oaklawn you should really try. This is a very competitive meet with some great racing and horseman. The whole town breathes horse racing year round. I had the chance over the past few years to spend time in the VIP room in their new trackside casino and it was a great experience. I met some sharp handicappers with a handle on racing nationwide. The room is run by Jason Milligan who is the kind of racing executive the game needs more of. He understands the sport from the perspectives of players, horseman, and racing management, and is a great communicator. That is the type of leadership needed for our continued success and growth.
Before we close out on the 2014 Kentucky Derby, it is only fair to address this flawed new points system. Cairo Prince, the Derby favorite a few weeks ago may be in his stall because of a third place finish in the Florida Derby. He deserves to run. Untapable, the overwhelming Oaks favorite, has no chance to become the next Regret, Genuine Risk or Winning Colors. Why, because Churchill Downs didn’t think it through, didn’t make the adjustments they promised, and they want to control more than they should. And oh yeah, the Illinois Derby has no points. Any credibility this new system may have had was lost right there.
The weekend concluded with the usual excitement from Gulfstream Park where the Rainbow 6 massive 5 million dollar pool survived yet again. There were three live tickets for the whole pool in the finale Sunday. Two of the three cooked themselves through suicide fractions early and the third horse just didn’t fire.
Although they adamantly denied these rumors when they surfaced last year, Keeneland has announced they are returning to conventional dirt for their fall meet. This is no doubt a result of a desire to host a Breeders’ Cup and frustration the Blue Grass lost its status as a relevant Kentucky Derby prep. This was welcome news to most, as was the same announcement by Del Mar earlier this year. Handicapping and playing synthetics was a whole new ball game of intangibles still not mastered by most. Although pleased with the news at first, after reading Bill Casner’s comments in Jay Hovdey’s article in Sunday’s racing form I am not so sure. I for one would deal with the added difficulties of playing synthetic tracks if it was indeed better for the horses. I am just not sure it is. Regardless of whether we use dirt or synthetics we have a duty to the sport, ourselves and the horses to make the surfaces as safe as humanly possible. While Mr. Casner makes some compelling arguments which may in fact be accurate, I have heard arguments from the other side which also sound plausible. The problem may just be we do not have enough synthetic information and longevity to make an informed decision. I am not sure the abandonment of synthetics is best for the sport and the horse in the long run. Maybe a system where they trained on synthetics and raced on dirt is the answer albeit a costly one. Cost should not be the primary factor however when we are talking the safety of our horses and riders.