Spa La La La La

Yes, ‘tiz the season to be jolly. Saratoga is here again, and it seems to be getting earlier and earlier. The first half of the year has been a series of emotional ups and downs with issues so hot they burned up the pages of newspapers and network air waves, in good part to the detriment of the sport.

If there was a face of horse racing it would be posted on the “Ten Most Wanted” wall of the New York Times and several other publications and TV networks who normally have as much interest in racing as they do badminton, and just about the same knowledge.

Even though the New York Times refuses to let go of Doug O’Neill’s jugular, the emotion-filled days of spring and I’ll Have Another and milkshakes are for the most part over and we get to start anew. We have come to terms with the injuries to the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont winners, and our thoughts are now filled with Saratoga sunrises, strolls up Broadway, and soaking our troubles away at the Roosevelt or Washington Baths. And, of course, there are the horses, whether they’re emerging from the morning mist on the Oklahoma training track or charging down the stretch in front of a packed grandstand. As I await my 44th Saratoga, I can anticipate that electric and nostalgic feeling of getting off the Northway and the first glimpse of the barns and grandstand.

But no one is looking forward to Saratoga more than Ahmed Zayat, who will attempt to wash away the frustrating defeats of May and June.

Zayat has his pair of gifted colts, Bodemeister and Paynter, who suffered heartbreaking defeats in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness (Bodemeister) and Belmont Stakes (Paynter).

Now that the Triple Crown gods have called it a year after an eventful spring, in which they toyed with our emotions, it is now up to the racing gods to determine Zayat’s fate. The three Triple Crown races comprise a total of approximately 3.8 miles. Zayat’s two horses led for all but about 10 feet of those 3.8 miles and didn’t win any of the three races. But Zayat never complained and complimented the winners and expressed his pride in his own horses for their toughness and courage. He now anxiously awaits the second season with the enthusiasm of a father looking forward to watching his two sons play in the World Series. For this, no one deserves to be rewarded in the major stakes this summer and fall more than Zayat, especially having also lost his top older horse, Nehro, for the remainder of the year.

The start of Zayat’s second season didn’t exactly go as planned, with Bodemeister having to miss the Haskell Invitational with a fever. The son of Empire Maker was supposed to head to Monmouth, while Paynter set his sights on the Travers. Zayat and Baffert will have to decide whether Paynter will take Bodemeister’s place in the Haskell, a race Baffert has won five times. As of now, the son of Awesome Again is considered a probable starter, as is Hansen, who was originally scheduled to run in the West Virginia Derby. So, it looks as if we still have a bang-up Haskell, with those two brilliant colts and Dullahan.

If Zayat could have pulled off this double with Bodemeister and Paynter he would have become the first owner in history to win both the Haskell (or its predecessor the Monmouth Invitational) and Travers in the same year with different horses. But again, it wasn’t meant to be.

The Triple Crown over the past few years has been a double-edged sword for Zayat. He has to take great satisfaction seeing so many of his 3-year-olds turn in huge performances in all three legs of the Crown. But it has to be frustrating for him and his family to finish second in three of the last four runnings of the Kentucky Derby – once to a 50-1 shot who never won another race, another to a horse who had never run on dirt, and this year to a horse winning from the 19-post for the first time history. In the only year he didn’t finish second, he had the overwhelming favorite, Eskendereya, but had to withdraw him several days before the race due to a career-ending injury. So, in the last four years, he’s had three seconds in the Derby, seconds in the Preakness and Belmont, and a fourth in the Belmont.

Nehro, in addition to finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, was beaten a nose in the Pimlico Special this year and a neck in the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby last year. On this year’s Belmont Stakes card, Justin Phillip, named after Zayat’s son, was nipped in the closing strides in the True North Handicap.

In addition to Bodemeister and Paynter, Baffert also has Blueskiesnrainbows and Liaison, the one-three finishers of the recent Swaps Stakes. Baffert will have to do a lot of shuffling, keeping Blueskiesnrainbows, another speed horse, away from Bodemeister and Paynter. What makes Baffert’s year even more impressive is that he’s also had graded stakes-winning 3-year-olds Secret Circle, Castaway, and Drill, and stakes-placed Stirred Up and Brigand.

Saratoga also will be the scene of a free-for-all in the historic Whitney between the Stephen Foster and Suburban horses, which include Ron the Greek, Wise Dan, Mucho Macho Man, Hymn Book, Rogue Romance, Alternation, Trickmeister, Stay Thirsty, To Honor and Serve, and Mission Impazible, among others. The survivors of this slugfest eventually will take on Baffert’s pair of Game On Dude and Richard’s Kid, who look to be the dominant older horses in California.

Euros beware

Not only did the Ballydoyle-trained Treasure Beach come up empty in Saturday’s Man o’ War Stakes, but America may have found the type of horse who can make life difficult for the Europeans in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Point of Entry, trained by Shug McGaughey and owned by the Phipps Stable, who also sent out Boisterous to a fast-closing narrow defeat in the Arlington Handicap Saturday, proved himself to be a top-class grass horse following his impressive score in the Man o’War Stakes, his third consecutive victory and second straight graded stakes win. An attractive colt with a beautiful head and fluid stride, Point of Entry has as potent and classy a female family as you’ll ever see.

Point of Entry is a half-brother to the ill-fated Pine Island, winner of the Alabama and Gazelle Stakes.

His dam, Matlacha Pass, is a full-sister to Pleasant Home, who romped by nine lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

His second dam, Our Country Place, is a half-sister to Triple Tiara winner and Hall of Famer Sky Beauty and also to Silence Beauty, dam of Wood Memorial and Cigar Mile winner Take of Ekati.

Third dam, Maplejinsky, like Sky Beauty and Pine Island, won the Alabama Stakes, as well as the Monmouth Oaks, and is a half-sister to the great sprinter Dayjur.

Fourth dam, Gold Beauty, was the champion sprinter in 1982, having won or placed in the Test, Vosburgh, Fall Highweight, True North, and Boojum.

Point of Entry’s sire is the recently deceased Dynaformer, one of the most influential stallions of the past decade and a major source of class and stamina. Point of Entry also is inbred 3x4 to His Majesty through Dynaformer’s dam, Andover Way, and the classic-winning Pleasant Colony (sire of Our Country Place). Point of Entry’s broodmare sire is the classic stallion Seeking the Gold, while third dam Maplejinsky is by English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky.

This family also traces to Round Table, Hail to Reason, Stymie, and Bull Lea.

Catchin’ more Z’s

Zayat isn’t the only “Z” to keep an eye on the rest of the year. Nick Zito has a pair of late-developing stretch runners named Fast Falcon and Easter Gift, who were beaten in photos in the Dwyer and Pegasus Stakes, respectively.

Both colts are intriguing, because they are lightly raced and we really don’t know yet how good they are. If they improve off their fast-closing second-place finishes in the Dwyer and Pegasus, they could have a major say in the outcome of the Haskell and Travers.

Fast Falcon is by Awesome Again, out of Pleasant Tap’s stakes-placed daughter, My Chickadee, a half-sister to Pool Land, winner of the grade I Ruffian Stakes and four other stakes.

Easter Gift’s pedigree is not quite as strong from a stamina standpoint. He is by Hard Spun, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, out of the Allen’s Prospect mare Angel Gift, who won two stakes and placed in six others, including the graded Clement Hirsch, Royal Heroine, and Paseana.

Easter Gift’s broodmare sire, Whiskey Road, a son of Nijinsky, out of the top-class Bowl of Flowers, was a stakes winner at 1 ½ miles in Ireland and sired the great international stakes horse Strawberry Road, as well as Melbourne Cup winner Just A Dash.

Home is where the Crown is

One final thought on the Triple Crown. Why is it that 11 horses have been able to do what horses since 1978 have been unable to do? Why are the horses of today capable of winning the first two legs impressively and incapable of getting that third leg. We wrote a column recently discussing how much more difficult it is to win the Belmont now because of the larger fields. But here is one other fact to ponder, whether it has any bearing on it or not.

Just look at the lifestyle of the Thoroughbred today, most of whom go through the yearlings sales or the rigors of the 2-year-old sales, where they are asked to breeze a quarter of a mile in :09 and change and :10 and change, which is considered “slow.”

Of the 11 Triple Crown winners, 10 of them were homebreds, growing up in a single environment without the stress of the sales. By the time they were sent to the track, the owner and trainer knew everything there was to know about them.

Of course, the only exception was Seattle Slew, a $17,500 yearling purchase, who was fortunate enough to find the perfect trainer in Billy Turner, whose steeplechasing background gave him the patience the precocious colt needed to stretch out to classic distances.

As we said, we have no idea if this fact has any bearing on anything, but it is worth noting just as a point of interest.

Zenyatta Foes Still Going Strong
It's hard to believe, but Zenyatta's victims are still running huge in major stakes two and three years later. Switch, second to Zenyatta in the 2010 Lady's Secret Stakes, captured the grade II A Gleam Handicap last weekend, and Richard's Kid and Twice Over, both beaten by Queen Z in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic, recently finished second in the grade I Hollywood Gold Cup and third in the group I Coral Eclipse Stakes at Sandown, respectively.

Six horses that Zenyatta beat in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic came back to win
grade or group I stakes -- Gio Ponti (Man o'War, Shadwell Mile), Twice Over
(Eclipse Stakes, Champion, Juddmonte International), Richard's Kid (Pacific
Classic, Goodwood), Awesome Gem (Hollywood Gold Cup), Rip Van Winkle (Juddmonte International), and Girolamo (Vosburgh).

Eight of the horses in that field had already won grade or group I stakes going into the race.

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