Past the Wire
By Jonathan Stettin
Drama on the Dirt
You can call it Super Saturday, Breeders’ Cup Preview Day, or just another day at the races. You can call it whatever you like, this past weekend was filled with both action and drama on the racetrack. The stakes at Belmont and Santa Anita were action packed, drama filled and also quite telling.
The past weekend’s action left nothing on the table and gave us a lot to discuss. We’ll start with the Jockey Club Gold Cup run at Belmont, one of the most prestigious races in the country and one loaded with a significant list of champion winners. First and foremost, as predicted right here, Tonalist redeemed himself as one of the top three year olds in the country with an assertive victory against an older and accomplished field. With blinkers removed for Saturday’s race, Joel Rosario took Tonalist back off the pace and the talented colt responded. His strong late kick carried him to victory despite steadying briefly at a crucial point in the stretch. Rosario and Tonalist saved all the ground rallying up the rail but that move caused a brief anxious moment when Joel had to steady while full of run and angle Tonalist out. Once out, however, the colt just took off and did his job. Impressive performance and one that casts Tonalist right in the conversation for best three year old. More importantly, however, is the fact Tonalist is just peaking now and will head to the Breeders’ Cup Classic in top form. While he may not like Santa Anita’s new dirt track as much as he relished Belmont, I can assure you he will like the new stuff better than he would have liked the old stuff.
The 96th running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup was not without incident and some drama on the dirt. I have never understood or been a fan of the starting point and gate position of 1 ¼ races on Belmont Park’s main track. The races begin right on the clubhouse turn and the gate is positioned angled away from the rail. This creates a noticeable disadvantage for the outside horses but also creates a unique scenario when the speed horses are drawn outside like they were this past Saturday. With a full 11 horse field after the late scratch of Prayer for Relief, who got loose in the paddock, the two speed horses – Moreno and Big Cazanova – were drawn in the two outside slots, 10 and 11. When this happens, it forces the speed horses to sprint clear and cross over the rest of the field to save any ground. Obviously, they have to run harder to do so. At a glorious venue like Belmont Park, that makes just no sense.
Both Moreno and Big Cazanova showed their speed and were forwardly placed down the backstretch with Big Cazanova actually on the lead, where most expected Moreno to be. Junior Alvarado aboard Moreno kept looking inside in an apparent attempt to judge when to get over and try to save some ground. Time was running out, however, as the far turn was coming up fast. Wicked Strong under Rajiv Maragh was bottled up between horses inside of Moreno. Junior decided to move inside making a left turn before the far turn came up and caused Wicked Strong to clip heels and stumble unseating Maragh who went down hard and appeared to get run over by some of the other runners. Wicked Strong continued rider less but fortunately stayed towards the outside and did not mar the race further. The fall did not appear to affect the outcome although we don’t really know what Wicked Strong would have done. Given how Tonalist finished it seems doubtful he would have beaten him. Rajiv Maragh suffered a broken arm requiring surgery and likely costing him his mounts in the upcoming Breeders’ Cup. Rajiv had what looked to be a strong lineup for the Cup with Main Sequence and Artemis Agrotera, both top contenders in their respective categories. Tough break for Rajiv who was having a very good year. Junior Alvarado is scheduled to meet with the NYRA stewards Wednesday. Moreno finished fourth but was placed last for the infraction.
Speaking of Main Sequence, he took care of business under Rajiv Maragh. He won his third Grade 1 in a row in the Turf Classic Invitational. He moved earlier than in his previous two U.S. starts, suggesting he is at the top of his game and has adapted nicely to racing in the states. One minute Rajiv is winning a Grade 1 on the big stage and less than an hour later he is in an ambulance. Tough game this horse racing. Our thoughts and prayers are with Rajiv.
While talking about riders how about a shout out to Private Zone and Martin Pedroza. Private Zone is owned by Good Friends, a partnership which includes Rene Douglas, a top jockey who was paralyzed as a result of a racing accident at Arlington Park. Private Zone and his connections won the prestigious Vosburgh for the second year in a row. Martin just like last year gave a heady ride convincing all watching he was beat at the eighth pole. Martin knows where the wire is, however, and came back again on the inside for the repeat. It was almost identical to last year. Pedroza is a tough and cagey rider who has broken just about every bone in his body at some point. He always gets up and always keeps coming. Did someone say this was a tough game?
The drama was not limited to the East Coast. Santa Anita had its stakes races, as well, and they didn’t take a back seat to any of the others run on Saturday.
First, let’s talk about American Pharoah. This Pioneer of the Nile colt looks to be the goods. Despite mysteriously missing half a tale, this Zayat Stables colt drew off in the stretch in his first start on conventional dirt and around two turns. He moved himself to the top of the class of two year olds and looked like he’d go all day when cruising down the Santa Anita stretch. Obviously a race horse only needs half a tale. The only other two year old that has impressed me as much as American Pharoah is El Kaiber, also owned by Zayat Stables. This classy outfit continues to come up with top classic contenders and will be hoisting a trophy soon. They deserve it.
Although we have more drama on the dirt to touch base on, we also had some drama on the turf. If you remember Past the Wire column “In the Blood,” we talked about Cambiacorsa and how she loved Santa Anita’s turf course, especially down the hill. Two of her offspring ran last Saturday. Alexis Tangier won the Unzip Me stakes, you guessed it down the hill. Earlier on the card another daughter of Cambiacorsa provided a scary moment. Moulin de Mougin ridden by Mike Smith looked to be making a winning type of move when she clipped heels with another runner and went down. Mike Smith who later on the card was scheduled to ride three year old and champion candidate Shared Belief in the Awesome Again stakes was pitched to the turf, rolled over, and looked to have been run over, as well. Mike got up, shook himself off, and after getting cleared continued riding the card.
With all that out of the way, we can get to the drama. The Awesome Again stakes provided plenty of it. One of the days most anticipated races featured Shared Belief, the undefeated two year old champ who is back and leading the charge for three year old honors. A win would be his second against older horses this year, having already taken the Pacific Classic. Off at odds of 2-5, Shared Belief looked on paper to have this field over a barrel. Under resilient Mike Smith, Shared Belief went into the first turn positioned outside of Sky Kingdom who was under Victor Espinoza. Espinoza, as we know, is the regular rider of California Chrome, the main horse Shared Belief is trying to beat for three year old honors. A loss by Shared Belief would, in all likelihood, help California Chrome retain some of his lost luster. As the field ran into the clubhouse turn, Espinoza floated Sky Kingdom wide, taking Shared Belief extremely wide into no mans land. It was blatantly obvious and as soon as I saw it I remarked “what is he doing?”
Mike Smith, being the professional money rider he is, did not panic after finding himself not where he wanted or expected to be down the backside. He did not panic and do one of two things that many would have, which would’ve also have gotten him beat. He didn’t take a hold of his horse and drop back and move in to save ground. He didn’t press the button and accelerate ahead where he could also move in and save ground. No, he sat chilly. He kept his horse in a loose gallop and bided his time. Sky Kingdom is trained by Bob Baffert, as is Fed Biz who was rolling along on the lead. Many thought and openly speculated perhaps Espinoza was following instructions. I seriously doubt that. Mike Smith is “Money Mike” because he knew what to do and that was to make his one move, albeit wider than he would have liked, and let his horse use some of that talent to grind his way to a win. Ultimately, that’s exactly what happened. Shared Belief caught Fed Biz late and wound up getting a great set up race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Jerry Hollendorfer, the trainer of Shared Belief, was gracious when talking about what transpired, as was Bob Baffert who quickly dispelled the notion those were his instructions. Even Jerry Bailey, who was doing the television coverage for NBC, commented it was a dirty trick in an attempt to get Shared Belief beat.
There was a lot of aftermath following the race. Hollendorfer’s assistant Dan Ward was not as gracious as Hollendorfer was, and it was reported Mike Smith and Victor Espinoza had some hot words in the jocks room. Victor was handed a 7 day suspension by the Santa Anita stewards. Was Victor trying to help California Chrome a bit? Who knows, but for whatever reason he went too far.
To know whether the stewards made the right call here, you have to understand a few things. First, there is a difference between race riding and deliberately trying to cause another horse to lose. When race riding you are using competitive and, at times, aggressive tactics to help your horse win. Second, the primary role of a jockey is to put their horse in the best position to win. Espinoza, by floating Shared Belief so wide, was not only hurting Shared Belief’s chances but that of his own mount. That’s the difference and what makes it wrong and what I would call a cheap shot.
A lot of people jumped on Jerry Bailey and his comments. Of course, they cited his ride on Eddington in the 2004 Belmont Stakes when Smarty Jones failed to win the elusive Triple Crown. I will admit, I am a bit biased here and those who read the column or follow me know why (“get em Edgar”) but I don’t think the comparison is warranted. First off, I had an opportunity to have a conversation with Jerry about that race at Gulfstream some years back. He was trying to win the race and his horse felt live underneath him. He was aggressive not to get Smarty Jones beat but to give his horse its best chance to win. How much it hurt Smarty Jones is speculative and debatable but his ride differed from Victor’s significantly. Smarty Jones was pretty keyed up that day regardless of Jerry Bailey urging Eddington early.
Just when we thought all the drama was over, we were again reminded of how tough a game this can be and how in a second it can change. Hall of famer Kent Desormeaux, enjoying a resurgence in his career, was kicked hard in the paddock by She’s A Big Winner, a 2 year old he was scheduled to ride. Fortunately, he was not seriously injured.
When you think about how much these extraordinary equine and human athletes lay on the line for our enjoyment and livelihoods each day, you really have to tip your hat to them. They have no off days or off seasons like in other sports. They get a dark day or two to rejuvenate and most work horses on those days anyway. There are no holidays and when you go down like poor Rajiv there is no pay or guarantee you get those horses back. Often, you are replaced by name riders who, if they do well, are difficult to bump back off. It is as competitive a game as there is and if you don’t win you don’t get paid. If you can at all, I encourage you to support the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. Just look at this column, we spoke of Rene Douglas (paralyzed), Rajiv Maragh (broken arm), Martin Pedroza (more broken bones than we can count), Mike Smith (who already broke his back, goes down and gets up like nothing happened) and Kent Desormeaux (kicked). These guys have to be tough and deserve respect and support. The same for our horses. Supporting an organization like Old Friends or any similar one is really being part of the solution, as opposed to part of the problem. Do it if you can, anything helps.
Next week, watch for an exciting new announcement from Past the Wire!
Martin Pedroza for taking the Vosburgh back to back years with great rides. Following the Grade 1 win at Belmont Martin flew home to take the 1st and 3rd races at Santa Anita on Sunday’s card. A true professional.
Victor Espinoza. Come on, Victor. That’s not race riding.
Horse to Watch:
Prima Storm. This first time starter was behind horses down on the inside getting a nice education, was in traffic and bottled up and should improve off the race.
Jonathan Stettin is a professional handicapper and contributor to DanonymousRacing.com. He currently resides in Florida. He has several large Pick-6 scores to his name, including one for $540,000+ on August 10, 1994, at Saratoga. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanstettin.