By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
The showdown that racing fans have been anticipating for weeks came to fruition last Saturday, as 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome squared off against 2013 champion 2yo male Shared Belief in the San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO) at Santa Anita. Their lone previous meeting had come in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), a race in which California Chrome finished third by a neck while Shared Belief was bumped severely at the start—and again in the opening furlongs—before coming home fourth.
In a bit of a surprise, Shared Belief was sent off as a fairly decisive favorite at even-money in the San Antonio, with California Chrome going off at 7-5. The two favorites settled into third and second, respectively, as longshot Alfa Bird led through modest fractions of :23.65 and :47.87. Following three-quarters of a mile in 1:12.49, California Chrome took over the lead and the race was on. With Hoppertunity rallying under vigorous urging along the rail, and with Shared Belief looming a presence on the outside while also under urging, California Chrome seemed to be in control of the race as Victor Espinoza hand-rode his colt into the homestretch. But although California Chrome kicked away briefly at the top of the stretch, and led by a length passing the eighth pole, Shared Belief was gaining ground with powerful strides, grinding past California Chrome with surprising ease to win by 1 ½ lengths. Remarkably, the final three-eighths of a mile were timed in :35.96 seconds, and Shared Belief himself ran that fraction in about :35 4/5, a stellar time.
In the aftermath of the San Antonio, it’s fair to wonder what might have transpired in the Breeders’ Cup had Shared Belief received a better trip. Would we be talking about a three-time Eclipse award winner, with a perfect 10-for-10 record instead of a near-perfect 9-for-10? We’ll never know for certain, but while Shared Belief had California Chrome measured on Saturday—and his victory, although not by the widest of margins, was decisive—I fully believe that California Chrome can turn the tables down the road. It must be noted that California Chrome entered the race off a layoff of slightly more than two months, and as we have seen in the past, California Chrome is at his best with more frequent racing. The San Antonio should do a lot to sharpen him for future races, which is especially important since his next start will come in the $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on March 28th, a race that is bound to attract an excellent field of international competitors, as well as a strong contingent of U.S. runners. Notably, a victory in the Dubai World Cup would increase California Chrome’s earnings to $10,322,650, leaving him just $179,150 shy of Curlin’s all-time earnings record for a North American-based racehorse.
As for Shared Belief, he will target the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) on March 7th for his next start, a race he will be expected to win without trouble. After that, Shared Belief’s options in California will be somewhat limited for a couple months. But given Shared Belief’s versatility and Jerry Hollendorfer’s willingness to ship out-of-state for major stakes races, I think it’s possible that we could see Shared Belief cut back to a mile in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont Park. In my opinion, a victory in that race would be a remarkable achievement for Shared Belief, and further stamp him as a budding superstar and potential all-time great.
In Florida, Constitution brought his record at Gulfstream Park to a perfect 4-for-4 with a gate-to-wire victory in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO), a race in which he tenaciously held off defending Donn winner Lea to triumph by three-quarters of a length. The time of 1:49.51 was solid, and translated to a massive Beyer speed figure of 113, but I will be very curious to see if Constitution can repeat that effort away from Gulfstream Park, as he is 0-for-2 when on the road and seems to have a special affinity for the often speed-favoring main track at Gulfstream.
On the three-year-old front, Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) 1-2 finishers Dortmund and Firing Line engaged in another dramatic battle in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO), with Dortmund once again getting the better of his rival by the slimmest of margins. That Dortmund won was not a surprise—he was the odds-on favorite at 3-5—but I’m sure many racing fans were expecting an upset when Firing Line entered the homestretch well in command of the lead and the race. With Dortmund under heavy urging to keep up, and with jockey Gary Stevens barely asking Firing Line for effort, the latter colt seemed poised to draw clear and win decisively. But for whatever reason, Firing Line—who had opened up a one-length lead at the eighth pole—was unable to sustain his momentum and was passed right at the finish by Dortmund, who rallied courageously along the inside to keep his unbeaten record intact.
In my opinion, there are several ways to view the finish of this race. From one perspective, it seems that Firing Line may have revealed stamina limitations and was simply tiring at the finish, allowing Dortmund to come back and grab the victory. This is certainly possible, as Firing Line is a son of Line of David out of Sister Girl Blues, both of which were at their best going a mile or slightly longer, and Firing Line’s lone half-sibling to race was strictly a six-furlong sprinter.
However, in my opinion, Dortmund’s victory was earned on his own merit. The final five-sixteenths of a mile were timed in :31.50 seconds, a very respectable fraction given the early pace of the race and not a figure that suggests the race fell apart late. Furthermore, Dortmund is a very large horse that doesn’t seem to be able to accelerate on turns. When asked to run with Firing Line on the final turn, Dortmund had little response, but once in the homestretch, Dortmund leveled off and re-rallied to secure the victory. It must be remembered that the Santa Anita homestretch is just 900 feet in length, which translates to 1.36 furlongs. Therefore, when Firing Line was in front by a length at the eighth pole, the two horses had been in the homestretch—and thus, running straight—for less than a sixteenth of a mile, or perhaps 4.5 seconds, which is hardly enough time for Dortmund to reach top speed. Keeping this in mind, I believe Dortmund’s surge in the final furlong was more the result of him accelerating than Firing Line tiring, and that would make his effort very impressive indeed.
Across the country at Aqueduct, a similarly impressive effort was turned in by the Todd Pletcher-trained second-time starter Far From Over to win the Withers Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO). After stumbling badly at the start, Far From Over found himself in last place by a wide margin, and seemed to be out of the race. But as it turned out, the race was "far from over," and Far From Over unleashed a terrific rally in the final five-sixteenths to get up and win by 1 ¾ lengths over 1-2 favorite El Kabeir.
But again, there are multiple ways to view the outcome of this race. From a visual perspective, it really looked like the race fell apart in the final furlong, with Far From Over’s rally being more the result of the front-runners struggling to the finish than any serious stretch-running heroics. However, the clock strongly suggests otherwise. By hand-timing the race with a stopwatch, I discovered that Far From Over ran his final quarter-mile in about :24 3/5, a very solid fraction that was quicker than I would have guessed. Furthermore, the last sixteenth was run in a very respectable :06.37, and the final time of 1:43.93 was good enough to translate to a Beyer speed figure of 96. Taking all this together, and considering that Far From Over was making his first start around two turns, Far From Over appears to be a very exciting prospect for the major Triple Crown prep races, and assuming he runs back in the March 7th Gotham Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct, he should be fully capable of improving on this performance.
I should also mention Withers Stakes runner-up El Kabeir, who dueled for much of the race with Classy Class and did win that battle, beating his fellow pace-setter by a length while finishing second to Far From Over. Coming off an easy win in the Jerome Stakes (gr. III), I fully expected El Kabeir to win the Withers with ease, but the long duel with Classy Class—although not destructive in terms of early pace—might have left them both a bit leg-weary in the final furlong, and I’ll be curious to see if El Kabeir can rebound with an easier trip in the Gotham.
And finally, to wrap up this post, I’d like to very briefly mention a pair of maiden special weights for three-year-olds that were held on Saturday at Gulfstream Park. In the fourth race, a one-mile event on the main track (VIDEO), the Chad Brown-trained first-time starter Lieutenant Colonel won in solid fashion, leading through a half-mile in :46.74 and 1:11.73 before just hanging on to win by a head over the late-charging Great Stuff. Great Stuff’s effort is particularly noteworthy because in his last race, he was no match for the highly-regarded Khozan when finishing third by 7 ¼ lengths in a seven-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream.
The other race that really caught my eye was an 8.5-furlong turf race (VIDEO) that drew thirteen starters. Todd Pletcher’s Tapkee was the favorite and looked home free after sweeping into the lead at the top of the stretch, but then Tapkee was absolutely swallowed up in a freakish performance from the first-time starter Divisidero, who circled the field extremely wide and ran the final quarter-mile in about :22 4/5 to defeat Tapkee by a half-length, with a gap of four lengths back to the third-place finisher. This son of Kitten’s Joy looks like a future star for Buff Bradley, best known as the trainer of the brilliant sprinter Groupie Doll and remarkable turf star Brass Hat. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store!
In order to aid in keeping track of all the Kentucky Derby prep races and results, I will be posting links to the Kentucky Derby prep race schedule and the Kentucky Derby point standings at the bottom of each Unlocking Winners blog post from now until the Derby. Also, here is the link to the complete entries and current standings for our "Road to the Kentucky Derby" Handicapping Challenge. Enjoy the racing!