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Gene Kershner’s Post Time: First half of year has had its ups and downs

Some stunning performances on the track highlighted the first half of 2016 and will serve as the lead in to a strong finish to the racing calendar.

While the Triple Crown season did not produce a repeat to American Pharoah’s campaign last year, it certainly set up a battle in the 3-year-old division during the remainder of the year, with three separate and distinct winners of this year’s classic races.

Several stars are poised to shine as we enter the summer of a racing season that will climax with the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 5.

Saratoga Race Course is the likely host of several of the top stars at its upcoming meet. In addition to the stellar racing that we’ll see at the Spa, one of the world’s top fillies will likely be racing to the north of us at Woodbine in mid-September in the Woodbine Mile.

Locally, the Queen’s Plate is heating up in Toronto and will highlight the coming holiday weekend. The first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown is slated for July 3 at Woodbine Racetrack with an anticipated large field of Ontario-bred 3-year-olds. The Prince of Wales Stakes, Fort Erie’s signature race and the middle jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, is set for July 26 at the border oval.

Let’s take a look at the mid-year highs and lows in thoroughbred racing to date.

Mid-Year Highs

• Nyquist becomes the first undefeated 2-year-old champion to win the Derby since Seattle Slew in 1977. The Kentucky Derby winner became the eighth undefeated colt to wear the roses. He was the second horse to capture the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Derby to match Street Sense’s accomplishment in 2007.

• California Chrome brings home the Dubai World Cup for the U.S. The 2014 Derby-Preakness winner struck gold in the world’s richest race, cashing a $6 million check in a dominant 3¾-length victory. He will be the big name draw for the Breeders’ Cup Classic should he stay healthy over the summer. A big matchup with the 5-year-old mare Beholder and this year’s three classic winners looms at Santa Anita.

• Tepin goes globetrotting and wins the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot. Last year’s female turf champion has rocketed into 2016 with five victories highlighted by her big win against a classy European field across the pond. She is slowly making a case for Horse of the Year with big wins at Tampa, Keeneland and Churchill Downs to pair with her win in the UK. She’s pointing toward the Woodbine Mile next on Sept. 17 at Woodbine, so mark that date on your calendar for a trip up the QEW. The final goal will be to repeat her Breeders’ Cup Mile win at Santa Anita.

• Frosted crushes the Met Mile, earns monster Beyer Speed Figure. The son of Tapit left the field in the dust at the quarter pole on the Belmont Stakes undercard, winning the Metropolitan Handicap, one of the biggest races of the year on the New York circuit. His closest competitor was 14¼ lengths in the rear view mirror, nearly double Conquistador Cielo’s 1982 record margin for the race. He finished the mile trek just split seconds over the race record in 1:32.73, with splits measuring 23.42, 22.53, 23.50, and 23.28. Frosted earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 123, the highest recorded number since 2007.

• Exaggerator slops home in the Preakness to finally beat the Derby winner. Just as his sire Curlin did in 2007, Exaggerator added the Woodlawn Vase to his mantelpiece, beating Nyquist for the first time in five tries. After a valiant second-place finish in the Derby, he utilized the wet-track skills he showed off in the Santa Anita Derby in April to capture the second jewel of the Triple Crown. He’s one of only two horses to compete in each leg of the Triple Crown, and we should see more of him at Saratoga after a well-deserved rest.

Honorable Mention: Creator’s come-from-behind win at the Belmont; Cathryn Sophia’s Kentucky Oaks victory, and Canterbury Park lowers takeout in approach to land new bettors.

Mid-Year Lows

• Songbird skips the Kentucky Oaks due to lost training time. Possibly the best horse in training wasn’t able to show her stuff on the big stage due to illness suffered weeks before the Oaks, causing her to miss valuable training time. She’s since recovered and won last weekend’s Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita, vaulting her back onto the 3-year-old filly scene. Last year’s 2-year-old filly Eclipse champion is pointing toward two races at Saratoga, including the Alabama on Aug. 20.

• Two deaths on the Preakness undercard lead to some mainstream hysteria. More than one article was crafted on the two unfortunate deaths on Preakness day within the mainstream media. Homeboykris, a 9-year-old, collapsed of an apparent heart attack on the way back to the barn after winning the day’s first race. The backstory is that he was claimed earlier in the year by reputable horsemen who planned to give him a solid home after his racing career ended, but delayed retirement because he was still showing signs of thriving on the racetrack.

The second death was eerily similar to circumstances encountered at the infamous 2006 Preakness. The same connections that owned the ill-fated Barbaro on that day ran a filly named Pramedya, who broke down on the turf after clipping heels and had to be euthanized. The filly, like Barbaro, broke through the gate before the race started and also wore the same No. 8 saddle cloth. Ironically, the death came on the 10th anniversary of the Derby winner’s injury at the start of the Preakness.

• Racing advocate John Hendrickson resigns his post as Governor Cuomo’s advisor to NYRA’s Board of Directors. In October 2012, Cuomo gave the NYRA Reorganization Board he put in place marching orders to return the association to private control by October 2015. More recently, the governor has proposed capping the money NYRA gets from Aqueduct’s casino and giving it to the state. This appears in violation of NYRA’s contract to run the three racetracks in New York (Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct). Hendrickson, hand-picked by Cuomo as his advisor, told the Saratogian “This governor has clearly demonstrated that he is anti-business, anti-racing and anti-Saratoga.” Stay tuned.

Honorable Mention: State Comptroller releases critical audit of NYRA finances on Belmont Stakes eve.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.