By J. Keeler Johnson, "Keelerman"
The horses are ready. The stages are set. Saratoga and Del Mar, hosts of the
two most prestigious summer meets of the year, are about to play host to
something even bigger: the King and the Queen of horse racing.
On the east coast there is Saratoga, almost two weeks into its 142nd meet.
Devil May Care, Forever Together, Proviso, A Little Warm, Afleet Express, and
Fly Down are just a few of the quality horses that have run there this
year. But that means little when you have the reigning king, Quality Road,
getting set to enlarge his kingdom. The warrior made determined efforts to
dethrone Summer Bird from champion three year old colt honors last year, but
was twice unable to match strides with the Belmont Stakes winner. This year,
Quality Road has come into his own, winning the Hal's Hope Stakes, the Donn
Handicap, and the Met Mile in impressive fashion. But he faces his stiffest
test of the year this Saturday. Can he continue his dominance of the older
males and snatch a fourth grade I win?
On the west coast there is Del Mar, which drew an opening day crowd of 45,000.
Just as Saratoga has drawn some fine horses, Del Mar has already played host to
Twirling Candy, The Usual Q T, Victor's Cry, Evening Jewel, Richard's Kid,
Dakota Phone, Battle of Hastings, E Z's Gentleman, and Cost of Freedom. But
they'll have the best of all when the reigning queen, Zenyatta, returns with
hopes of winning the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes for the third time. The amazing
mare has won all of her seventeen starts, including a win over the best the
world had to offer in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Can she extend her streak to
eighteen and take another step toward defending her Classic title?
It's difficult to say who has the tougher task. Quality Road faces tougher
opposition. Lined up to face the king are Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird,
Stephen Foster and Clark Handicap winner Blame, Suburban Handicap winner
Haynesfield, Illinois Derby winner Musket Man, and allowance runner-up Jardim.
On the other hand, Quality Road will be running at arguably his best distance
and at Saratoga, where he set a 6 ½-furlong track record last year.
Zenyatta, although she faces lesser competition, will be running on her least
favorite racetrack at a distance which may prove a bit too short for her.
Will they both come away victorious, one step closer to a meeting in the
Breeders' Cup? Or will one or both be dethroned? A great weekend of racing is
shaping up; let's see who is running!
It's hard to see past Quality Road, especially if the
track is fast. But if it does rain, you can't forget about Mine That Bird. This
will be the gelding's first start on dirt since the West Virginia Derby last
August, and we should see a different horse. It's hard not to like him, because
he always tries his best, and he's due for another win.
should also come running late and will likely get a better trip than the one he
got in the Stephen Foster. He's relentless in the stretch and with a five pound
break in the weights, who knows what might happen?
Musket Man will make his first two-turn start since last year's Preakness,
where he finished third, beaten less than two lengths. He was closing in on
Quality Road in the Met Mile and perhaps this time around he can make up that
last little bit.
Haynesfield was very impressive in winning the Suburban Handicap over two very
nice horses, but the Whitney will be a big step up in class. He also likes to
run near the lead, like Quality Road, which could be bad if he tries to take on
the king early. But he has a lot of upside.
My pick is Mine That Bird. With Haynesfield ensuring a fast pace, I see a
brilliant rail ride by Calvin Borel to lead Mine That Bird to victory,
especially if the track turns up sloppy. Quality Road will be right there at
L. HIRSCH STAKES
Just as it is hard not to pick Quality Road in the
Whitney, it is hard not to pick Zenyatta in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes. Yes,
the distance is not her best, and yes, Del Mar isn't her favorite track, but
she has found a way to win all seventeen of her starts and should do the same
this Saturday. Every time I start to doubt her, I just think of her closing
four lengths in the final eighth of a mile in this race last year. Add that to
the fact that she has been training beautifully and you have a horse that is
just about unbeatable here.
If someone is to hand Zenyatta her first defeat, it will likely be Made for
Magic. She does have a win over the Del Mar polytrack, albeit a claiming race,
and she is the only other graded stakes winner in the field, having won the
grade I Vanity Handicap back in May. However, she has run poorly in her two
starts since then, including a last-of-five finish against Rachel Alexandra in
the Fleur de Lis Handicap.
Princess Taylor is another obvious contender. Making her third start in the
United States, she comes off of a determined second in the grade III Beverly
Hills Stakes after setting the pace. She closed fast there, and if she gets
away with a slow pace on Saturday, she could prove impossible to catch.
Dance to my Tune is the only horse here, however, who can claim to have nearly
upset Zenyatta previously. The mare had a three-length lead on the champion at
the eighth pole of the Santa Margarita, but fell a length and a quarter short
of pulling what would have been an astonishing 52-1 upset. Can she succeed this
time at a shorter distance?
My pick is, without a doubt, Zenyatta. Yes, she'll have to really run to win,
but there seems to be enough speed here to set up her late run. Dance to my
Tune, Princess Taylor, and Rinterval, who comes off of a second to Informed
Decision last time out, have all run their best races on the lead.
pick Princess Taylor to finish second.
Franny Freud! Pica Slew! Champagne d'Oro!
Buckleupbuttercup! So many fine fillies, but there can only be one winner.
Although Franny Freud has a win over Champagne d'Oro, I'll pick the latter
here. She didn't get the best of trips in the Prioress and should rebound
nicely here with a little more distance. Belle of the Hall should come running
late if the pace is fast.
It's going to be exciting. So many great horses running on the same day! Will
the king and the queen continue their dominance? Or will one or both fall to
defeat? What do you think?
Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") is a racing enthusiast and blogs at www.triplecrowncountdown.blogspot.com