Aug. 22, 2012
One of the first lessons I was taught in handicapping a horse race was that pace makes the race. As the late John Shea taught me, each race has a certain shape, which includes pacesetters, stalkers and closers. If you can draw that picture you have a chance to succeed as a handicapper.
This weekend I saw two very different scenarios produce wire-to-wire winners in major races and I wasn’t smart enough to see it coming. I’d better stick around long enough to figure that out.
First on the list was the brilliant front-running effort by Questing in the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga. The race was on dirt, but included a very competitive field trying to establish a real leader in the filly and mare division. Godolphin’s silks are often seen in European winner’s circles, but not as frequently here in the states. Questing is a British-bred filly, but ran the American-breds off their feet in a stunning mile-and-a-quarter on Saturday to pull away to an easy nine lengths victory. Her final running time of 2:01.1 was the fastest final time for this stakes in over 20 years. But final time doesn’t say the was this race was run. Questing took command from the outset, sped through :22.4, :46 and 1:09.3, which normally doesn’t allow for the front-runner to hold off the late challengers, particularly at Saratoga.
But it worked this time, even with nice runners like Grace Hall and Zo Impressive challenging early and In Lingerie moving up like a winner on the outside after six furlongs. It was jaw-dropping to watch Questing continue on her merry way and clearly the performance of a champion. I fully expect the more knowledgeable handicappers to utilize the “bounce” theory following that race, but it will never reduce the brilliance. Questing made her case for a title with that one effort.
One the other end of the spectrum came Little Mike’s win in the Arlington Million. Not surprising, the pace on turf races is rarely as fast as on dirt. Still he cruised through six furlongs in 1:15 on a firm course after a half mile in :49.4. I suppose the other riders were expecting him to come back to them, but they sadly underrated the courage of Little Mike. There was never a question about his pacesetting style going into the race and it appeared everyone else opted to take off the pace. Little Mike had never negotiated a major win at a mile-and-a-quarter. He didn’t have to. He had won at a mile-and-an-eighth and could have won at a mile-and-a-half if the others in the race let him have it all to himself. This was a paceless race and Little Mike cruised home easily in 2:02.2. Comparative times are poor ways to compare racehorses. Clearly Questing and Little Mike are not more than a second apart in their abilities. They run on different surfaces and against different competition. Questing’s race appeared like more of a champion’s effort than that of Little Mike. If the Arlington Million did not have such a lengthy history as a Grade 1 stakes, it might have better qualified as a Grade 2 or 3 with this field. I’m not trying to say Little Mike is not a Grade 1 horse, but he will have to handle better competition in order to win the championship.
One horse which I like a lot and was impressive in winning in a different way was Stephanie’s Kitten, who took the Lake Placid at Saratoga on Sunday. She appeared to possibly be stuck on the rail coming off the final turn, but exploded when asked by jockey John Velasquez when shot past tough rivals in Centre Court and Medolina, who had done all the running up to that point. I love to see a horse overcome some adversity and still prevail. Stephanie’s Kitten has had the look of a champion before and restored her image to me on Sunday. In the filly and mare distaff race at Breeders’ Cup, she is likely to be my single. Of course I will hold off until I see what International runner might be in the field, since I tend to favor that group, but I suspect the best of those will race on Champions Day in Great Britain in mid-October and not be around to face Stephanie’s Kitten. That’s okay with me. I like having a comfortable single on that tough day of handicapping in America and, at this point, she looks like the only confident one for me.
This Saturday the Travers will be raced at Saratoga. In many years it has been a critical race in determining my favorite for the Eclipse title. When it includes the Kentucky Derby winner, all the better. This year it will not, nor will it include either of the Baffert stars of the spring and summer Bodemeister and Paynter. This the race lacks the drama I’m used to for this key race at Saratoga. I will root for Atigun, since he raced at Oaklawn, had an awful trip in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga, and returns for this race in blinkers and off a very sharp training move. Add to that the fact that Atigun carries the silks of Arkansas Sports Hall of Famer, John Ed Anthony, and you have the makings of a great winning story. This would be the second Travers win for Anthony, having taken the stakes with Temperence Hill in 1980. Nor would it be the first score by an Arkansan. There have been three, starting with Annihilate ‘Em for the Blass family in 1973 and, more recently, for Drs. K.K. and Devi Jayaramann with Summer Bird in 2009.
Many of us remember what I think of as the best Travers win of all, in 2002, when Medaglia d’Oro, who broke his maiden earlier in the year at Oaklawn, finally got the attention of the nation with his win. He later sired the brilliant Rachel Alexandria, begging the question, “was he a better racehorse or stallion?” It doesn’t matter to me. I saw it all start here, like I had the opportunity to call Temperence Hill’s maiden win here at Oaklawn. Great horses go on from here to national stardom and we never know which ones in the Spring.
It was not lost on me that European invaders won two of the big three races at Arlington on Saturday or, perhaps, three of four, if you are inclined to include the new American St. Leger stakes into the mix. The fact is that the best turf horses are still generally running elsewhere in the world and the best thing for American horses is knowing that there are lots of other places for those horses to run, so that the purse money can still go to an American.
It’s hard to argue with anyone calling Frankel the best horse racing in the world these days and Camelot may be the next best. This is one year we are unlikely to see the best of the breed race in our country.
For the handicapper that might not matter. Pace still makes the race and the handicapper can still create a scenario which gives an edge. For the racing geek like me, I wish we could see the best run here in the good old U.S.A.