Although Super Saturday in New York and California had several twists that no one was expecting, it did help clarify the Breeders’ Cup picture to some extent, but also raised questions as well.
How ironic and strange is it that Victor Espinoza in the span of two weeks gets criticized for being on both ends of jockey gang-up tactics? First he gets criticized for allowing California Chrome to get trapped by not one, but two, horses in the Pennsylvania Derby. It has become pretty obvious by now that California Chrome would prefer not being on the inside of horses, and some felt Espinoza could have used the colt’s speed more to avoid getting boxed in by jockeys who were intent on doing so, even at the expense of their own horses. That is all a matter of opinion. It more likely was the simple luck of the draw that hurt California Chrome more than Espinoza, who had no desire to lock horns with Bayern and did try like heck to get the horse out in the clear.
So, what happens? The following weekend, Espinoza deliberately carries Shared Belief five to six wide on the first turn in the Awesome Again Stakes and keeps him parked five-wide all the way down the backstretch, forcing him to go wide around the second turn. According to Trakus, Shared Belief ran 66 feet farther than runner-up Fed Biz, which equates to about six or seven lengths.
What happens next is where it really gets interesting. NBC analyst Jerry Bailey, upset with Espinoza’s tactics, immediately referred to it as a “dirty trick.” That comment and the loaded post-race questions to Jerry Hollendorfer and Mike Smith on the NBC telecast apparently fueled the Santa Anita stewards’ decision to ban Espinoza seven days.
I have mixed feelings regarding the suspension, considering it seemed to come from left field, and we’ve seen riders go after huge favorites with targets on their back before, even at the ultimate expense of their own horses. Heck, we saw it in the Pennsylvania Derby. And, boy, did we see it in the 2004 Belmont Stakes when three jockeys, especially Bailey, all went after Smarty Jones in an attempt to rattle him early and get him rank. It worked, but all three of their horses, who happened to be the three leading contenders to upset Smarty Jones, finished out of the money, due in great part to forcing Smarty Jones into a brutal :22 4/5 third quarter. Birdstone, the one horse in the race who was being ridden with the hope of coming on late to pick up a second or third, benefited from the race scenario and was in perfect position to run down a leg weary Smarty Jones.
There is nothing wrong with targeting a favorite if your tactics are aimed at not only beating him, but winning the race yourself.
That brings us back to Espinoza’s suspension. Yes, you can call it race riding, which is acceptable. The problem with his tactics is that, by losing so much ground himself on that first turn, he did something detrimental to his own horse’s chances, which is not fair to that horse’s owners, considering the horse in question, Sky Kingdom, was a graded stakes winner with earnings of nearly $400,000 and had once finished third to Game On Dude in the grade I Hollywood Gold Cup. So, he at least had a shot to hit the board in the Awesome Again, Instead he stopped to a walk, finishing last, beaten more than 22 lengths. But was that any different than the 2004 Belmont or any other case of aggressive race riding or just more obvious?
What separates this incident from the others is, by using those tactics, Espinoza also aided his more highly regarded stablemate, Fed Biz, who nearly pulled off the upset. He actually could have also cost his stablemate, because by floating his horse so wide, he opened a gaping space for longshot Mystery Train to come through and put pressure on Fed Biz. And we’ve already seen Mystery Train’s kamikaze tactics in the Pacific Classic when he went for Game On Dude’s jugular right from the start, not only costing the favorite, but his own chances, as he faded badly to be beaten over 42 lengths. Yes, he showed speed in Argentina, but going head and head with Game On Dude in :45 3/5 in a 1 1/4-mile race certainly was not to his benefit.
Helping to bring down a favorite at the expense of your own horse has not resulted in a suspension that I can remember. But doing it to help a stablemate, and one with different ownership, is where you cross the line. It just doesn't look good and is not the same as one owner using a rabbit to help his closer. That does not affect the bettors because both horses are coupled in the wagering and the strategy is apparent from the outset. And on top of that, Shared Belief is California Chrome’s main rival for the 3-year-old Eclipse Award and possibly Horse of the Year, so that didn’t look good either.
While Espinoza’s tactics were pretty obvious, you still have to wonder if the stewards would have taken action against him if there wasn’t such a public outcry. You would hate to think their action was based on reaction, whether it is deserved or not, only because you don’t want to set a precedent where stewards have to draw the fine line between race riding and irresponsible riding.
Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention that Shared Belief won the race, despite everything he was up against. I am a firm believer that a great horse’s reputation is not only based on his record and the domination over his opponents, but how he performs in battle when he has to dig down deep and gut it out. Some great horses never have to encounter that, but most horses at one point in their career will be faced with adversity, and how they handle it helps define who they are and where they fit among great horses. Shared Belief still has not attained greatness, because he does not have the body of work yet in grade I company to catapult himself into that elite category. But he is on the threshold of it if he can reassert his superiority in the Classic and go on to accomplish other great things in his career.
Let’s also remember he was conceding six pounds on the scale to the rest of the field and did come home his final three-eighths in a respectable :37 2/5 despite losing so much ground.
There is still one more question, however, that needs to be asked. Did Shared Belief handle this new Santa Anita dirt track and does he handle dirt in general as well as he handles synthetics? Was the track equally to blame for his narrow victory? Would he have romped anyway if the race had been on Polytrack? Those are questions with no answers. Jerry Hollendorfer did say after the race, “He didn't seem to be getting hold of the track that well.” Just what does that mean in regard to the Breeders’ Cup Classic? That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement that he will be as effective in the Classic as he was in his first six races, one of which was on the dirt at Los Alamitos.
With this race under him, is Shared Belief now sitting on a big effort in the Classic? Will the dirt be an issue? Having worked all year over the Tapeta surface at Golden Gate, it would be helpful to see how he works over the dirt at Santa Anita between now and the Breeders’ Cup.
The bottom line is, Shared Belief no longer strikes terror in the minds of rival trainers, but that doesn’t mean he still won’t be as formidable as ever on Breeders’ Cup day. He just won’t have as big a target on his back, which won’t bother Hollendorfer and Smith. And we know he’s a fighter, which is important. We just have no way of knowing what he’s capable of on the Santa Anita dirt and where he is right now in his cycle – upward or downward or has he leveled off? We can only guess and speculate, which should keep the opinions coming in fast and furious.
Gold Cup follies
If you want to know all there is to know about the Jockey Club Gold Cup, just look at the Equibase chart comments on each horse – Tonalist (steadied 1/2 pole, split horses), Zivo (steadied 1/2 mile pole), Long River (steadied 9/16th pole), Moreno (clipped behind 9/16 pole), Stephanoatsee (stumbled start, checked), V.E. Day ( bumped start, steadied 1/2-mile pole), Last Gunfighter (steadied 1/2-mile pole), Micromanage (bobble start, checked, eased), wicked Strong (impeded, clipped heels 1/2-mile pole).
Oh, yes, let’s not forget to mention Wicked Strong throwing his rider, Rajiv Maragh, after clipping Moreno’s heels and stumbling badly, an incident that resulted in Moreno being disqualified from fourth and placed last.
Between this circus of a race and the Awesome Again and Pennsylvania Derby controversies, what a way to sort out the Breeders’ Cup Classic picture.
Ironically, two of the horses who were bothered the most by the Wicked Strong incident – Tonalist and Zivo – finished first and second after having to come from the back of the pack. To add to the complexity of this race, many feel that Wicked Strong was running better than anyone at the time of the incident and feel he was on his way to victory, especially the way he had just moved up into contention and how much horse Maragh appeared to have under him.
But that is not to take anything away from Tonalist, who actually had to steady on two or three occasions and showed an entire new dimension with blinkers off by coming from some 13 lengths back and having only one horse beat early in the 11-horse field. That is quite a dramatic change for a horse who had never been more than three lengths off the pace in the five races since breaking his maiden. His final quarters in :24 flat and :24 3/5 were very impressive considering what he had to do to finally get a clear run at the three-sixteenths pole.
In addition to the victory, what made trainer Christophe Clement happy and proud was the fact that Tonalist was only one of two horses in the field, along with Wicked Strong, to have a clean medication list going into the race.
“I went on the New York State Racing and Wagering Board website to see what every trainer was treating their horses with leading up to the race,” Clement said. “The good news is that you can still win a race with no medication. And this horse is proof of it. He had his Lasix shot today, and that was the only medication he had. I hope all my colleagues can see that.”
Although Jimmy Jerkens said Wicked Strong likely is through for the year, the feeling here is that with five weeks to the Classic there is ample time to have him as sharp and fit as he was for the Gold Cup. It all depends on how he trains in the next few weeks. He’s proven he’s a pretty resilient horse. Yes, it’s been a long hard campaign, but who knows how the colt will bounce out of this debacle. If you believe he was going to win the Gold Cup then you have to put him right up there with the top 3-year-olds, who have total dominance over the depleted group of older horses. One thing is for sure, Jerkens and Centennial Farms will do what they feel is right for the horse. I’m just not sure at this point what the right thing is.
So, could it be that, after losing just about every top older horse in the country, the division’s leading hope for the Classic is a horse who at this time last year was competing in New York-bred allowance/optional claiming races? Since then, Zivo has won six straight races, including the Suburban Handicap, before finishing a fast-closing fourth in the Woodward and a fast-closing second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup following a troubled trip. I sure can’t think of a better mile and a quarter older horse at this time.
And guess who is sneaking their way into the Classic picture from out of nowhere? Did anyone notice that Godolphin finished third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup with 52-1 shot Long River and third in the Awesome Again with 34-1 shot Footbridge? Long River is by A.P. Indy out of Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Round Pond, while Footbridge, who is improving with every race, is by the recently deceased Street Cry, out of a mare by Sheikh Mohammed’s pride and joy Dubai Millennium. Both had been training exceptionally well and should improve going 1 1/4 miles.
And finally, let’s not forget Bill Mott’s comeback kid, Cigar Street, who in his second start off a 17-month layoff, drew off to an impressive victory in the Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs. The son of Street Sense looked like any kind when he broke his maiden by nearly 14 lengths at Fair Grounds in 2012 and then overcame an eventful trip to finish fourth, beaten only two lengths, in the Louisiana Derby. Out eight months after that race, he was given to Mott and came back with three straight impressive wins at Gulfstream, including the grade III Skip Away Stakes before being sidelined again for a year and a half. He was narrowly beaten in his return in the mud at Saratoga in a gutsy effort before scoring in the Homecoming Classic over 6-5 favorite Departing.
In future columns we’ll discuss the feel-good story of Vosburgh winner Private Zone, the comeback of Vyack, and the emergence of the talented, but quirky, Main Sequence as the leading grass horse in America, as well as budding 2-year-old star American Pharoah, a speedy colt with a big, gorgeous stride who trainer Bob Baffert believes is a freak.