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TrackNotes: The Return Of America's Muscle Horse

If you think TrackNotes has been in hibernation, you'd be about right.

But real bears are never totally unaware of the goings-on around the den. So as Spring sprungs, we can declare that the new Thoroughbred horse racing season has just now taken on a personality of its own, with some interesting and even exciting races so far.

This is important because, like a grizzly who has eaten way too many fermented berries, it did take some time to sleep off the hangover of American Pharoah's campaign for the ages last year. No season carries over into the next in any sport, although Pharoah's might have if he'd have been running in 2016, but he's not, so no loitering, move it along.

Kentucky Derby speculation is rampant, of course, but we'll get to the Run for the Roses later.

First, Saturday is the biggest, or is it longest, day in racing. Fall in you jarheads at oh-six-thirty sharp, start the joe and speed handicap the first race from Dubai, the $1,000,000 Godolphin Mile, post time 7:20. Then we'll bivouac stateside after noon mess for the Louisiana Derby card, heavy on Louisiana-breds, from New Orleans' Fair Grounds.

At Dubai's Meydan Racecourse, it'll get interesting early when undefeated filly Polar River (by Congrats out of the Empire Maker mare Bayou Tortuga) takes on a bunch of boys in the $2,000,000 UAE Derby. She's 3-5 on the morning line. Frank Conversation, a Triple A+ runner from the Northern California circuit, will try to win his third straight. And look out for Argentinian (MAN, couldn't Obama have taken a couple of tango lessons?) Vale Dori, another filly who just suffered a tough beat to Polar River in the UAE Oaks.

But the race of the day will be the American-savory Dubai World Cup, 10 furlongs for a $10,000,000 purse.

You've got 'Pharoah foil Keen Ice, beneficiary of the Frosted-American Pharoah speed duel in last year's Travers Stakes. Mshawish, winner in 2016 already of Gulfstream's Hal's Hope and Donn Handicap in his last two. Mubtaahij (bred in Ireland but based in the U.S. last year), winner of last year's UAE Derby but nothing else in 2015. Frosted, a high stakes-level runner coming off a soap opera of a 2015 campaign. Hoppertunity, who's either hard luck or suffers from seconditis, although he beat quality Imperative and Donworth by a nose in the hard fought San Antonio in February. Candy Boy's probably too highly placed here, and the Empire Maker colt Teletext, bred in Kentucky, has been running in South Africa.

And then we come to the American muscle car, California Chrome, just short as 2014's Triple Crown darling. They say he's looking mighty good these days. Looking at that JPG, I have to agree.

After shipping in to Meydan less than a fortnight before last year's World Cup, our 'Chrome ran a tough, courageous second with a fairly wide trip from the nine post. Soon after the race, owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn took 'Chrome to England, all the while yappin' that he would ultimately be pointed to the ultra-prestigious Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

After pictures of 'Chrome in a gaunt, listless state began showing up, U.S. fans of America's Horse went into a tizzy, demanding that our boy be brought back for some good ol' home cookin'. Coburn was already in negotiations to sell his share of the horse. Mismanagement! we all cried.

Citing a foot bruise, 'Chrome never ran in Europe. But he did book first class on Horsey Air to none other than Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in what turned out to be a quixotic and failed attempt to prepare for and run in the Arlington Million. Never willing to abandon their claim of 'Chrome's affinity for the turf, his connections cited a turf win at Del Mar in the November 2014 Hollywood Derby. But a California turf course is like running on the 18th green at Cog Hill, nothing like the deep courses of Europe or Arlington.

'Chrome finally made it home for well-deserved R&R.

Mismanagement? From his late arrival at Meydan last year to so many strange surroundings, yes. Call Skilling if you want, but I remember lots of thunder and lightning, literally, in his days in Arlington Heights.

But after his Belmont Stakes loss and a gassed loss in the (money grab) Pennsylvania Derby, he burned a 113 Beyer Speed Figure in the '14 Breeders' Cup Classic finishing a tough third. Since then, he won the Hollywood Derby less than a month later and has won three of five. With 'Pharoah gone, 'Chrome has a chance to dazzle America, capture hearts at low prices all over again.

I'm going to say this horse has a ton of heart and talent, which could be enough. But we do need an angle, and mine is that 'Chrome has been in Dubai for weeks. Apparently it's been Midnight at the Oasis on the luxurious, cushiony Meydan oval but don't worry, crusty trainer Art Sherman has imbued the old adage "women weaken legs" into the big lug as he prepares for a potential $6 million payday.

And, he's already won the ungraded Trans Gulf Electromechanical Trophy (?) at Meydan to be ready for the Cup. Along those same lines, Frosted has been there even longer and won the Grade II Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 earlier in the festival.

The others? Maybe Special Fighter (Ireland), but he's on the downside of the up-and-down angle. Mshawish looks to have the ammo of momentum and Beyers and a short freshening. I'll take 8-1 on him. Keen Ice? If the foreigners control the pace, he'll never be able to run into a crawl-slow-faster-pour on the coals scenario, and he's been many lengths the worse since the Travers.

But I'll be all ISO on California Chrome. Noon post, sometimes they run late. TVG for sure, but you may have to search for a stream.

* * * * *

The Louisiana Derby is the plantation set's 1.5-prep-cycles-out points opportunity for Kentucky.

I don't know much about these, that's why we watch.

The morning line has the Uncle Mo colt Mo Tom favored at 5-2, but I wonder if his many recent Beyers in the mid- to upper-80s signals that he's plateaued. Gun Runner is right behind at 3-1 with Greenpointcrusader at 7-2.

I don't know if Tom's Ready is ready, Tom, but he's a Fair Grounds veteran who will need a breakthrough race. I'm diggin' on Uncle Walter, who gets the blinkers and Fair Grounds-savvy Robbie Albarado; and another Uncle Mo colt Forevamo, who has shown nothing but steady Beyer growth.

* * * * *

There are many Kentucky Derby lists out there, from the matter-of-fact to the poetically waxed.

I'll just mention what I've seen, Bloodhorse videos a small scroll down and behind the green buttons.

  • Current favorite Mohaymen (Number 6) looked professional and scary without even kicking in the turbo in an impressive win in the Fountain of Youth in late February.
  • Bob Baffert's Cupid (Number 4) was nearly left behind at the start of last week's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, but he rushed up in the first steps in a brilliant move and took the lead on the rail into the clubhouse turn. Controlling the race from there, Cupid then had to contend with a charging Whitmore. Luckily Cupid saw him, they came eye-to-eye on the dance floor and Cupid roared away for the win, a 96 Beyer in the scrapbook.
  • West Cost wiseguy Mor Spirit, another Baffert trainee, got schooled by Danzing Candy in the March 12 San Felipe at Santa Anita (Number 3) and learned what happens if you're not sharp when the doors open. Seeming to pout on the backstretch, he got caught behind others. Finally passing the slow pokes, he was a distant third in the stretch, but woke up and pumped up for second. It was a loss, but he showed a great closing flash.
  • On the other hand, if Danzing Candy gets a good Derby trip . . .

  • Always a good sign, Destin threw a triple-digit 100 Beyer that same day in the Tampa Bay Derby (Number 7) in a gutty win. Rating in third most of the way, he slowly took command on the turn and smoothly outworked Outwork by two. JJ Castellano was reining Destin in, so maybe he has more.
  • She took my breath away a couple, three weeks ago. But the marvelous filly Songbird, arguably the best horse in the country, probably won't run in the Derby. They say she's pointed to the Kentucky Oaks. All you have to do is watch the six horse in the March 5 Santa Ysabel. Carefully conserving energy while controlling the race, she takes charge into the turn with Mike Smith stone-still in the irons. Easy-as-you-please, Songbird glides through the wire, galloping out another quarter in the fashion of the goddess she is. Even her return to the winners circle was impressive! I'll remember that race for a long time.

* * * * *

There is much sadness in the racing world with news that Jeff Lukas, 58, passed away this week in his adopted hometown of Atoka, Oklahoma.

The Antigo, Wisconsin native Lukas was the son of legendary, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

One of the backbones of his father's training organization, Lukas was primarily responsible for the development of the great Lady's Secret, winner of the 1986 Breeders' Cup Distaff and so many other stakes races.

In 1988, he trained Winning Colors to victory in the Santa Anita Oaks, Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby.

In late 1993, two-year-old Tabasco Cat, aptly named considering the bitter, salty vinegar that stuff is, got loose on the shedrow and began steamrolling down the path, full speed. Hoping he could calm the horse, Lukas stepped in front. Realizing it was hopeless, he stepped aside. Instead of going the other way, Tabasco Cat ran right into him, throwing him into the air. The resultant fall and banging of his head critically injured the young Lukas.

Tabasco Cat was one of those just plain mean horses, much like Man o' War and War Admiral. "He was a badass horse, a dangerous horse, man. You couldn't manhandle him, you couldn't play around with him. I was putting blinkers on him once and he threw his head and knocked me flat on my ass. And he did it on purpose. Two people had to be around him at all times," said trainer Dallas Stewart, one of the many of today's top trainers to apprentice in the Lukas barn. Tabasco Cat went on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1994.

Jeff attempted to come back to training but it was determined unsafe for him. He ended up working in a bank owned by longtime associate David Burrage.

By all accounts Jeff Lukas was on the edge of superstardom as a trainer. All the great trainers Lukas turned out, Stewart, Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Mark Henning. Jeff Lukas would have been one of them.


See also: Tim Layden's longform report on Jeff Lukas for Sports Illustrated, Out of the Darkness.


Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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