Heroes and Flip-Flopping

Although there were only a couple of so-called glamour races this past weekend, there were enough heroes that emerged to make me start having second thoughts about certain subjects I’ve been commenting on. So, in the spirit of the current presidential race I’m going to do some flip-flopping and go from cynical to optimistic regarding these topics.

Although I still despise the name Ladies Classic and have reservations about other aspects of the new-look Breeders’ Cup, I am going to keep a much more open mind concerning the plethora of new races.

Having always been in favor of promoting stamina and giving stayers an opportunity to shine in the national spotlight, I have to admit I got a bit choked up watching the old warrior Evening Attire demolish his field by 8 1/4 lengths in the 1 1/2-mile “win and you’re in” Greenwood Cup at Philly Park Saturday. Now, I know 1 1/2 miles is not really a marathon, and the name Breeders’ Cup Marathon likely will be scoffed at in Europe. But in the speed-crazy United States that’s probably about as far as you can ask horses to go and still come up with a competitive field. So, 1 1/2 miles is fine, at least for now.

Thanks to the efforts of the Breeders’ Cup and Philly Park, Evening Attire, at age 10, has found a new lease on life and is dashing around the track like a sprightly youngster, relishing every one of those 12 furlongs. The New York Racing Association must be commended as well for having the foresight and sense to move the transient and ever-changing Brooklyn Handicap to early June and making it a 1 1/2-mile race, providing our long-winded friends a chance to win a prestigious and historical grade II race. They also have carded a couple of 1 1/2-mile overnight stakes as well – the Wagon Limit and Fit to Fight.

The result of all these changes has been that Evening Attire, who had been crawling out of the gate with little interest the past few years and costing himself any shot of winning those nine-furlong races in which he was forced to compete, now can afford to lag far back and still have plenty of time to get those old legs rolling. As a result, he has won the Greenwood Cup, assuring himself a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Marathon, if his connections decide to go that route, and has strong second-place finishes in the Brooklyn and Fit to Fight.

Because his trainer Pat Kelly and owners Tommy Kelly and Joseph and Mary Grant have been able to provide Evening Attire with revitalizing R&R on the farm every winter and plenty of old-school tender loving care, the old boy has been able to stick around long enough to reap the rewards of the Breeders’ Cup’s decision to add a marathon race. For Evening Attire, the memories of 2002 don’t seem quite as long ago as they used to. His new-found enthusiasm brings back images of him drawing off from grade I winners Lido Palace and Harlan’s Holiday in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1:59 2/5 and trouncing his opposition by eight lengths in the 1 3/8-mile, off-the-turf Red Smith Handicap. He was transported back to the days when the 1 1/4-mile Saratoga Breeders’ Cup was his domain, where he dominated his opponents in 2002 and trounced Funny Cide by five lengths in 2004.

Whether Evening Attire makes the long trek to California is irrelevant. He’s been reborn at the age of 10 and seeing him scampering down the Philly Park stretch Saturday, leaving the likes of Barcola, third to Curlin in the Stephen Foster, far up the stretch was enough to warm the heart and make this weekend a memorable one.

So, Evening Attire, Breeders’ Cup, NYRA, and Philly Park all are heroes.

That brings us to Del Mar. Although I am still a dirt person and would rather racetracks push to improve the safety of dirt tracks first, I will approach the Breeders’ Cup, or I should say the next two Breeders’ Cups, with an open mind and try to remain positive (there’s no other choice) and wait to see how the races play out and how legitimate they are. I’m just not sure yet how I’m going to deal with synthetic track horses when it comes time to vote for the Eclipse Awards. Again, I will try to keep an open mind. I have altered my outlook mainly because of the performances of Well Armed and one of the most unheralded horses in the country, Surf Cat.

Well Armed’s story is a remarkable one. His return from near death and a 19-month layoff, thanks to the perseverance and dedication of co-owner Bill Casner, who actually galloped the horse back to health, adds a great deal of color to the Breeders’ Cup picture. Whether his comeback would have been as successful on dirt no one knows. After last year’s sandbox racing at Del Mar, in which being a front-runner meant a long walk back to the barn, it was good to see Well Armed win on the lead every step of the way, setting strong fractions and coming home fast in a sharp 1:41 2/5 for the 1 1/16 miles. The Comeback Kid, who also has a win in the San Antonio, a second in the San Pasqual, and a third in the Dubai World Cup, is now one the sport’s leading stars and on his way to being a major force in the Classic.

Having been an admirer of Surf Cat since his 3-year-old campaign, I can’t help but marvel at his consistency. This horse never runs a bad race, whether it’s at six furlongs or 1 1/8 miles. From all appearances it doesn’t look as if he likes synthetic surfaces as much as he likes the dirt. He’s just not quite as brilliant or explosive, but that also could be due to an injury that kept him out for 14 months prior to his switch to synthetic. Whatever the reason, he still has won a couple of big stakes, and his fast-closing second in the San Diego was another strong performance. Because of various physical problems throughout his career he’s been strictly a homebody. But now that the big championship races finally have come to him, there are few horses who deserve to win a Breeders’ Cup race more than Surf Cat, whether it be the Dirt Mile or the Classic.

So, Well Armed, Surf Cat, and Bill Casner are all heroes.

Is that enough flip-flopping for one day? I’m beginning to think I’m getting too soft to make it in Blogsville.

Saturday’s racing also produced an exciting new star in Godolphin’s Music Note, who followed up her impressive Mother Goose score by destroying her field in the Coaching Club American Oaks, setting up an exciting rematch with Proud Spell in the Alabama Stakes. And we had a thrilling battle in the Virginia Derby between Gio Ponti, who with his nose victory is now four-for-four on firm turf, including three stakes wins, and Court Vision, who didn’t have the best of luck, and appears a much sharper horse on grass than on dirt.

Tiz is Now

Bear Now’s victory in Sunday’s listed Ontario Matron Stakes wouldn’t seem like that big a deal, but how many weekends have gone by over the past two months that her sire Tiznow did not have a horse win or place in a stakes? The answer is none.

The day before, Well Armed won the San Diego Handicap. On July 12, Tizdejavu won the American Derby and Colonel John finished third in the Swaps Stakes. On July 6, Tizbig ran 2nd in the Dwyer Stakes at 33-1. The day before, Tough Tiz’s Sis finished second, beaten only three-quarters of a length, by Zenyatta in the Vanity after getting blocked in the stretch. On June 27, Tiz Now Tiz Then won the Iowa Derby. On June 21, Bear Now won the listed Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms Stakes. On June 20, Merchant Marine won the Yankee Victor Stakes at Belmont. On June 14, Tizdejavu won the Jefferson Cup. On June 7, Da’ Tara won the Belmont Stakes.

Prior to that, Colonel John won the Santa Anita Derby and Sham Stakes; Well Armed, as mentioned earlier, won the San Antonio, was second in the San Pasqual, and third in the Dubai World Cup; Tizdejavu won the Crown Royal American Turf; Tough Tiz’s Sis won the Hawthorne and Harry Henson Handicaps; Da’ Tara was second in the Barbaro Stakes; Tiz to Dream was third in the La Troienne; and Bear now was second in the Whimsical Stakes and third in the Allaire DuPont Distaff. I’m sure there are others.

And it should continue. Colonel John, Da’ Tara, Tiz Now Tiz Then, and Tizbig could all wind up in the Travers, with the last three all probable for the Jim Dandy Stakes. Well Armed is heading for the Pacific Classic. Tizdejavu is on target for the Secretariat Stakes. Tough Tiz’s Sis is scheduled run in one of the major stakes at Del Mar.

*** Before leaving for Saratoga Thursday, I will post a blog about Secretariat in honor of his 35th anniversary and reprint a feature I wrote for the Blood-Horse in early 2002 that I hope everyone finds interesting.


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