Hot Fun in the Summertime - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the July 28, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Last week’s start of the premier summer racing seasons provided a welcome respite from the otherwise heavy news that’s been permeating racing lately.

Del Mar’s opening day provided evidence, yet again, that a healthy appetite exists for quality racing. Give people the sun, sea, and a couple of loaded stakes on the grass and they turn out in droves. The seaside track set an opening day attendance record of 47,339. While the crowd ebbed in the following days, the ontrack handle remained brisk and was tracking 8% over 2011’s first five equivalent days.

Acclamation has been proving he’s lost nothing since taking a break back in October. The 6-year-old son of Unusual Heat rolled in wire-to-wire fashion in Del Mar’s first grade I stakes of the season—the Eddie Read Stakes on the grass. It was Acclamation’s second grade I victory of the season, having started 2012 by wiring the field in the June 9 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (gr. IT) at Betfair Hollywood Park. The Eddie Read was Acclamation’s sixth lifetime grade I victory. Plenty of good times lie ahead for owners Peter and Mary Hilvers and Bud and Judy Johnston, who bred the colt in the name of their Old English Rancho.

On the other side of the country, Saratoga didn’t set an opening day record, but more than 25,600 people spun through the gates for the start of the East Coast’s headline meet. It’s fair to say the season’s launch didn’t go as smoothly as planned with sporadic interruptions in the wireless Internet service, television and public address system. Wagering on the races, however,  was not affected an iota by the turmoil. The ontrack handle for the first 10-race card rose 14.8% and wagering overall was up 5.2% to more than $15.87 million.

Whatever grumbling was being exchanged midway through the card was likely forgotten following the fifth race when Stonestreet Stable’s Kauai Katie romped by 12 lengths in her first start, a 51/2-furlong maiden special weight. The daughter of Malibu Moon had some competition briefly coming through the turn, but she dispatched her challengers in short order. No sooner had she walked into the winner’s circle when comparisons were already being made to Stonestreet and George Bolton’s My Miss Aurelia, who broke her maiden at first asking on Saratoga’s opening day in 2011 and went on to win three graded stakes including the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) enroute to being named champion 2-year-old filly. Racing is always looking for its next star; let’s hope Kauai Katie gives us many more thrills in the coming months.

Though perhaps not bathed in as bright a spotlight as Del Mar or Saratoga, the Delaware Handicap (gr. II) again gave us one of the more exciting races of the weekend. Last year this race treated us to a stretch-run battle between grade I superstars Blind Luck and Havre de Grace. This year the anticipated showdown was between Royal Delta, winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (gr. I) and champion 3-year-old filly, and six-time graded stakes winner Awesome Maria. What we got was a heart-pumping duel between Royal Delta and tough grade III winner and longshot Tiz Miz Sue. A locally based daughter of Tiznow, Tiz Miz Sue gave Besilu Stables’ star all she could handle from the turn to the wire and only came up short by a neck. That’s good racing.

With so many top horses coming out for the Delaware Handicap, we wondered why this premier race for older fillies and mares hasn’t been bumped up to grade I status. As it turns out, the older fillies and mares division and the 3-year-old fillies division are loaded with graded stakes. Actually, the 3-year-old fillies division has more grade I stakes (10) than either grade IIs (8) or grade IIIs (9). In the older fillies and mares division there are 10 grade Is and 26 other stakes that are either grade II or grade III. What that means for the Delaware Handicap is the overall quality of the field is being watered down by horses that have won graded stakes, but the competition within many of those graded stakes hasn’t been terribly strong as judged by racing secretaries across the country, according to Andy Schweigardt, director of industry relations and development for the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and secretary for the American Graded Stakes Committee.

Delaware Park may have to wait until the AGSC right-sizes the number of graded stakes within these divisions before it earns grade I status for the Del ’Cap. In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy the great racing.

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