BY DICK POWELL
The 2015 racing season is winding down and lots of good racing was offered over the Thanksgiving weekend. Before you think that it is the end of the quality racing season, don’t forget about the Grade 1 stakes at Los Alamitos and Santa Anita later in December.
Friday was the Clark Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs for older horses going nine furlongs on the main track. The betting public made EFFINEX (Minehshaft) the lukewarm 5-to-2 favorite, meaning they believed in his second-place finish behind AMERICAN PHAROAH (Pioneerof the Nile) in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). Travers Stakes (G1) winner KEEN ICE (Curlin) was sent off as the fourth choice at 4-to-1.
In a thrilling five-horse finish through the historic Churchill Downs’ stretch, Effinex prevailed by three-quarters of a length over defending champion HOPPERTUNITY (Any Given Saturday). Keen Ice finished fourth. A New York-bred son of Mineshaft, Effinex provided another Grade 1 victory for the New York breeding program and increased his earnings to more than $2.1 million. And there should be more on the way since it looks like Effinex will race next year.
Another horse that will be racing next year is TONALIST (Tapit), winner of Saturday’s Cigar Mile (G1) at Aqueduct. This was one of the strangest races I have seen with some curious events coming on and off the track.
PRIVATE ZONE (Macho Uno) won the Forego Handicap (G1) at Saratoga and was a terrific second from post 13 in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) going six furlongs last out. Last year, he bottomed out the field in the Cigar Mile, winning in dominant fashion, and without much speed to contend with this year, Private Zone had an excellent chance on paper to do so again.
For some reason, after the Breeders’ Cup, the ownership group of Private Zone replaced Jorge Navarro as his trainer and went with Brian Lynch. Believe me, there is nothing wrong with Brian Lynch but it made little sense after he ran so well this year with Navarro. It was not the first time there was a trainer change for Private Zone but one concern was no published workouts since the Breeders’ Cup.
One thing that did not change was Martin Pedroza was back in the saddle. He has ridden him through two other trainer changes so it looked like all would be back to normal even with a different trainer. If you had an over/under pool on how fast the first half-mile would be run, the high side would be 46 and change seconds. But no one could have predicted what happened.
Out of the gate, Private Zone took the lead from the outside but clearly, things were different. Instead of using his pace advantage, Pedroza was wrestling with Private Zone, who was resisting all efforts to settle down. Instead of letting him go, Pedroza pulled his head back and the battle was not between Private Zone and his rivals but Private Zone and his rider.
Pedroza won the battle, but lost the war, as Private Zone covered his first-half mile in 48.50 seconds. Unfortunately, the energy that Private Zone expended fighting Pedroza cost him dearly as he had nothing left in the stretch, finishing fifth of six. After the race, racing manager Rene Douglas was apologetic about running him and said that he came out of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint tired and only had four or five days of galloping going into the Cigar Mile, missing a scheduled work in the process.
In typical fashion, we, the bettors, found out about this AFTER the race, not BEFORE when it could have helped. Once again, in other countries, Private Zone’s connections would have been called into the stewards’ room and forced to explain what happened. Our industry leaders say we should be like the rest of the world but do nothing to achieve it.
While Private Zone was backing up through the field in the stretch, a quartet of horses were making their move. At one point, MATROOH (Distorted Humor) looked like he was going to pull off the upset and then turf runner MSHAWISH (Medaglia d’Oro) loomed boldly in the stretch.
RED VINE (Candy Ride) was crying out for room in the stretch drive, stuck down on the inside behind a tiring Private Zone and when he finally found room, he split horses and looked like a winner until Johnny Velazquez showed up in the final yards with stablemate Tonalist, who prevailed by a neck. It might not have been the fastest Cigar Mile, but it was one of the most exciting.
Tonalist was a disappointing fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) when he was rank down on the inside from post 1 and he even hit the rail on the far turn. The 2014 Belmont Stakes winner trained well since then and despite a reputation for running his best races on the Belmont Park main track, Tonalist took his game across town and captured a Grade 1 stakes race.
After the race, Christophe Clement said the top two finishers would stay in training next year. We can look forward to seeing Tonalist and Effinex resume their budding rivalry as 5YOs.