While trying not to supersede my esteemed colleague James Scully, who will have some important, must-read insight in his weekly “Five Takeaways” feature on Tuesday, there was a lot that caught my attention in the plethora of stakes action on Saturday. Here’s a few things we learned over the course of several hours.
Big Blue Kitten’s the “Great American Hope” — Very dry turf conditions and a solid pace for the distance helped Big Blue Kitten shatter the 1 1/2-mile Widener course record at Belmont by nearly a second as he took the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1). The previous record holder was 2001 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) winner Fantastic Light, who was preceded by the likes of Sky Classic and Secretariat. From this view, Big Blue Kitten established himself as the leading American hope for the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland on October 31. While the fatigue he showed late was understandable given what he he was doing, Big Blue Kitten also seems to be the type that likes to wait on rivals when out in front. Joe Bravo will have to time the seven-year-old’s bid perfectly in the Turf facing rivals with a more explosive closing kick.
This crop of older mares is pretty darn good — When Untapable failed to reproduce her best form during the spring and summer, it looked as if Beholder would be the only real star among the older dirt females. Thanks to her division-transcending romp in the Pacific Classic (G1), Beholder is still a virtual cinch to win championship honors. However, there’s no denying that the exploits of Wedding Toast and Sheer Drama over the summer and fall have added a lot of luster to the division. Even in Beholder’s absence, the three-year-old generation might have major difficulty topping their elders in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) at Keeneland.
Songbird could be special — Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who enjoyed great success with Blind Luck a few years ago, could have another tremendous filly in Songbird. (Ironically, she’s owned by Fox Hill Farm, who campaigned Blind Luck’s rival and occasional nemesis Havre de Grace). Songbird’s effort in the Chandelier (G1) put to shame both her rivals in that race and the display put on by males, including the undefeated Nyquist, in the FrontRunner (G1). While an expected showdown between Songbird and Rachel’s Valentina in the Juvenile Fillies (G1) is shaping up to be one of the highlights of Breeders’ Cup weekend, it’s kind of too bad the Juvenile (G1) is restricted to colts and geldings.
There may be chinks in Rock Fall’s armor — There were more than a few tense moments in the final quarter-mile of the Vosburgh (G1), but heavy favorite Rock Fall battled back to win for the seventh straight time while likely cementing favoritism for next month’s TwinSpires.com Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1). Despite post-race comments from jockey Javier Castellano, who more or less said it was easier than it looked, and from trainer Todd Pletcher, who suggested he didn’t have Rock Fall 100 percent cranked for the race, it was the second hard race in a row for the son of Speightstown. Depending on the outcome of more Sprint preps this coming weekend, Rock Fall might be a popular “stand against” favorite among bettors during Breeders’ Cup weekend.
The Onus is now on her connections — Days after the very disappointing news that Ironicus would miss the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) due to an injury, owner Stuart Janney III and trainer Shug McGaughey had cause to celebrate when the three-year-old filly Onus, a close relative of Ironicus, emphatically captured the Commonwealth Oaks (G3) at Laurel. Since a lackluster season debut at Keeneland in April, the daughter of Blame has reeled off three straight by a combined margin of 23 lengths. I know it’s only a two-week turnaround to the $500,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland, but can we hope an invitation will be extended to this lady and that her connections will readily accept it?
Some races are definitely better than others — The year-in, year-out quality of most major stakes everywhere can be cyclical in nature. Although hurt by attrition in the case of the older male dirt ranks and perhaps by the fact Santa Anita is not hosting the Breeders’ Cup this year, it was still a bit strange to see races as traditionally important as the Awesome Again (G1) and Rodeo Drive (G1) won by horses with limited past accomplishments. Smooth Roller won the Awesome Again in fantastic style, earning an early 116 BRIS Speed rating, but keep in mind the four-start “veteran” didn’t debut until three weeks after American Pharoah had won the Triple Crown and was unplaced in a non-graded event in his only other stakes appearance. The previous peak for Photo Call, who prevailed in the Rodeo Drive, was a short-margin score against four rivals in the Violet (G3) at Monmouth Park, hardly a proving ground for future champions. And neither horse was a huge longshot in the wagering (Smooth Roller was 5-1, Photo Call was 8-1). With a declining foal crop and vastly different training methods from just a generation ago, the sport still seems to be grappling with the problem of too many races chasing too few horses.
(Onus photo: Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club)