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Friday evening, just before Saturday's three-ringer, I chuckled at the dispatch from Fox Valley Kate who, summarized, asked "Who are these horses?"
While Thoroughbred race horses don't get famous before winning anything famously, such as the Kentucky Derby, she succincted everything for anyone eyeballing the 2019 Road to the Roses. I talked her down, but she was right, which will be no wagering comfort on the first Saturday in May.
And Saturday was fairly formful. Whew.
You don't have the beauty of hindsight as you put the money on the horsey's nose, but we'll know soon enough the ramifications of yesterday's Three Major Preps. We already know it was a lot of fun, even half way into Svengoolie to the Santa Anita Handicap.
I was itching to say something at the time, but that's bad for luck, as I hit big on The Commonwealth, a seven-furlong rail quickie by Miguel Mena and Bobby's Wicked One at 13-1, backed by Jon Court and Warrior's Club at 10-1. Full disclosure, half the time or more, I win on my first wager of the day, but three for the first three, I was walking on Earth's Moon.
But, back to the first-course entree, weather great right coast to left, we had the Wood Memorial (Grade II, 1-1/8 miles/nine furlongs, $750,000) from scenic Ozone Park, New York. The race that punked the nervous nellies when Secretariat lost because of a mouth abscess.
For Kate's and my sake, form returned as Tacitus, Jose Ortiz up, the 5-2 favorite, won a greenly run race to take the lead in the Derby points tally. This son of Tapit also took a lot of pressure off barnmate Hidden Scroll, who's cooled off mightily after an early sizzle, which happens often on the Roses trail.
Tax (Junior Alvarado) and Haikal (Rajiv Maragh), odds leaders too at 5-1+ and just under 4-1, respectively, closed out the trifecta. Joevia, all over the track disruptive like an actor crafting a hoax, was DQ'd after a fairly quick inquiry. The others, who will go on to better things, will learn from the experience.
Derby-wise, these three are in.
From Keeneland, the beautiful bucket-list boutique course in Lexington, Kentucky that Disney substituted for Belmont Park in its failed Secretariat biopic we had the relevant-again Blue Grass Stakes, since 1911. I digress, but was Disney too cheap to rent Belmont for their movie? Or did Belmont tell Disney what to do with it's mouse?
Vekoma, son of Candy Ride, ridden by Jose Castellano and trained by George Weaver, made as strong a case a horse can make for Derby worthiness with a nearly four-length win in the Blue Grass Stakes (Grade II, nine furlongs, $1,000,000).
Very nicely out of the gate and under the very good care of Castellano, Vekoma contended throughout. His class - I really liked Candy Ride, who ran great but got bit by injuries - willed out as he couldn't help but take the lead in the backstretch and took control of the race. After a neat Gene Kelly, Vekoma stepped left to the rail for the money eighth and extended his lead with purpose, Castellano simply race riding. Please don't tell anyone, but this horse will be ready for Churchill Downs.
Blue Grass place horse Win Win Win, second groomsman in the Tampa Bay Derby, should be in in in, but it's on the points, not the wow.
Way out west, they called Roadster's win in the Santa Anita Derby an upset. Which is true if you mantra Game Winner, both of these trained by Bob Baffert, all week long. While 4-1, Game Winner still has a lot to prove, even though he'll be up with the favorites in the Derby.
While the TV wiseguys unwisely pin plaudits on the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, they famously don't win the Kentucky Derby, except for Nyquist in 2016 in my memory.
Hall of Famer Mike Smith knowing just what he had, Roadster came from way back, downshifted and Ferrari'd through the sixteenth pole to punch the wire with authority. Baffert said Game Winner never saw Roadster, which happens, but I don't care. I had Roadster, and Roadster has my eye.
Game Winner's odds judgement will come on the Derby tote board. Instagrand, an earlier tout hound, sits on the soap bubble, but a rethinking by trainer Jerry Hollendorfer seems appropriate.
Daily Racing Form national handicapper Mike Watchmaker still likes Game Winner as the Derby favorite, but his line "Game Winner ran a winning race in defeat" rings like the chumpdom of a horse you like but always beats you. Cut bait, Mike. He extols the deficiencies, but loves him anyway. Kool-Aid is bad for everyone, but let Game Winner take all the moneys, I'll dig that.
Jesus Mary and Joseph, Vino Rosso was the second favorite in the Grade I (seven furlongs, $400,000) Carter Handicap and how often are so many people going to let him beat them? He was in the mix, again, and faded. He's very consistent that way. He popped the Wood Memorial last year and won the $155,000 Stymie last out. Big whoop. He was done beating me a long time ago.
It was a big great day in racing, but wait, there's more.
* Bellafina was very impressive in the Santa Anita Oaks. Winner of the Las Virgenes and Santa Ynez last two, she's one of those fillies you enjoy watching. Her name means pretty and fine.
* In one of the closest photo finishes (I tried to find it) I've seen in a while, Gift Box, Joel Rosario up, prevailed over McKinzie in a thrilling Santa Anita Handicap, worth the wait at the end of a long racing day. Good for them both, that's why you don't leave before the final out.
* TVG's not cute lead-desker geek Todd Schrupp betrayed his Valley Girl when he phoneticized the horse Monongahela. He said Mah-noan-jeela. In the nice way women and mothers have, Caton Bredar gently corrected "That would also be Monongahela" properly pronounced. Then she said something like, "You have to be of a place to know that." Rightfully, Schrupp should buy her dinner, but not go with.
* Why did Eloy Jimenez stop on that fly ball down the left field line in the sixth inning Friday, which landed a free throw fair, when I could have taken a cab and caught it. I'm really tired of the gut-wrenching disappointment these baseball players inflict on the fans, every day. What does a million dollars smell like in the hell of unfulfilled results through bad effort?
* I should have never expected more, but when they asked supertrainer Bob Baffert about the horse deaths at Santa Anita, he responded in the manner of a trainer who knows only one way in training horses: drugs. He seemed affronted that any scintilla of doubting his success could exist. In many ways, like it or not, he is the face of American Thoroughbred horse racing. When he talks about racing, you listen. But what you hear, he disappoints. Know how moms are wise? My mother did not like Baffert. And children can only learn through experience.
* I don't know who he is, but NBC's Ahmed Fareed is a good racing coverage maestro. He seamlessly dishes the talking points, plays the straight man and throws it to the experts, in this case Randy Moss and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey. He seems energized by racing - who ain't? - but sitting on the clubhouse turn will do that to you.
* Moss was highly disappointing when the topic, up top, landed on the horse deaths at Santa Anita. It was a rerun of last week, except both Moss and Bailey repeated themselves with many words that said nothing.
Moss: "Obviously, we love the sport. But we're here to cover the Santa Anita Derby, we're not here to be cheerleaders or apologists for the sport, were not here to sugarcoat anything. There have been misconceptions, I've been asked why horses are dropping dead."
"These horses are suffering catastrophic injuries in part, because of a racing surface here that is engineered, it's designed for (beautiful, sunny) days just like this. For sunny Southern California weather where it's safe. Not designed to handle the torrential, record rainfall that it received in the months of December through March. They're planning to cancel races altogether on days of heavy rain."
Cut to the video of a guy checking a horse's lower leg.
Fareed, to his credit, then divulged that Belinda Stronach, daughter of patriarch Frank Stronach, originally agreed to an interview on NBC, but then cancelled. Bailey body-languaged full disgust.
When Fareed asked Moss about the vibe that these events might endanger horse racing's existence in California, Moss, and I agree, said "yes."
"This sport has to convince the public that it is putting the welfare of the horse first," Moss said.
I won't jump off the deep end here. But I know how to swim.
Moss seems reasonable, but he's connected. He makes the Beyer Speed figures for Fair Grounds in New Orleans. As Beyer did many years ago, Moss has sold his pace figures to The Daily Racing Form. He's done other sports commentary. I believe he likes the sport of horse racing. Good gig, right?
But as so many of these guys do, he's hooked his silks on the weather as the cause and blame for these horses going down.
My God, it's the drugs! My world as a racing mouth was rudely interrupted by these developments at one of America's iconic race courses. But you don't dismiss, forget or ignore. We try to find out. And because this was so visible, the reporting was quite revealing.
It's the drugs, to the point where I believe these horses are indoctrinated into a drug regimen as soon as possible and throughout their racing days.
Baffert knows no other way. Richard Dutrow, Jr. thought "EFF,'" everybody does it. His biggest problem, for which he is banned, was getting caught. Are Baffert or Pletcher any better?
Randy's mistake was getting upset about the perception. Instead of the problem.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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