We didn’t get a new member for the Triple Crown club, but the three races delivered water-cooler level excitement in the first half of the racing season.
The second half of the year will climax with the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 2, in a wide-open year in which no 3-year-old has emerged, and the older division of horses is still a puzzle. The Haskell, Jim Dandy, Travers and Pennsylvania Derby will be races to watch as the 3-year-olds move forward.
In the handicap division, we’ve had multiple winners of the big races. Big Cap winner Gift Box, Gold Cup winner Vino Rosso and Stephen Foster winner Seeking the Soul, join Dubai World Cup victor Thunder Snow and the talented McKinzie in this tightly contested division. Each of these horses has a shot at boosting their resumes with triumphs in the upcoming summer and fall races.
Saratoga Race Course is the likely spot for many of the top stars at its upcoming meet, which starts on July 11, and is no longer just the August place to be.
The horse sitting atop the National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll at the midpoint of 2019 is Bricks and Mortar, a turf horse that has four wins this year, including the Pegasus World Cup Turf (Gulfstream), the Muniz Memorial (Fair Grounds), the Turf Classic (Churchill) and the Manhattan (Belmont).
Locally, the Queen’s Plate is heating up in Toronto and will kickoff the Canadian Triple Crown on Saturday at Woodbine Racetrack. A field of 14, including two from trainer Mark Casse, will square off in Canada’s Most Famous Race. The Prince of Wales Stakes, Fort Erie’s signature race and the middle jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, is set for Tuesday, July 23, at the border oval.
Let’s take a look at the midyear highs and lows in thoroughbred racing to date.
Wacky Triple Crown series generates widespread interest. Starting with the Derby DQ, continuing with the riderless Bodexpress in the Preakness and finishing with a big upset in the Belmont, this year’s classic series had the public talking horses well after the completion of each leg of the Triple Crown. The Maximum Security disqualification resulting in Country House’s placement as winner was the first in the 145-year history of the Kentucky Derby. Even if some of the discussions were negative, any publicity is good publicity.
City of Light rides off into the sunset with win in the Pegasus. The son of Quality Road upset the favored Accelerate in the final race of his career. The $4 million winner’s purse in the third annual Pegasus brought his career earnings to nearly $5.7 million. The win in the slop by five lengths over Seeking the Soul, which captured the Foster earlier this month at Churchill, was gate-to-wire in the first big race of 2019.
Mark Casse pulls off a classic double with two horses. Trainer Mark Casse, a 10-time Sovereign Award winner in Canada, War of Will’s 2019 Preakness win was his first in an American classic. Three weeks later, his second entry in the Belmont Stakes, Sir Winston, crossed the wire first, giving Casse back-to-back classics and likely a ticket into the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. After sweeping last year’s Canadian Triple Crown with Wonder Gadot and Neepawa, he has won five of the last six classics in North America. Only the Kentucky Derby has eluded him.
Royal Ascot continues to build momentum. NBC’s coverage of the royal meeting continues to build momentum in the United States as a “bucket list” trip to see the pageantry live. With six races a day for five straight days, the boutique meeting was a must-watch event. Betting on the color of the Queen’s hat was the highlight for many and seeing her Royal Highness in the royal procession before the races can give you goosebumps. A big fan and participant in racing and the bloodstock game, the Queen sells.
Horse deaths mount at Santa Anita. From Boxing Day through the end of the spring meeting on June 23, 30 horses died either during training hours or during live racing at Santa Anita Park. Racing was suspended for a period to determine whether the track was safe after it suffered through a torrid rainy period earlier in the year. With the national media barking for reform and PETA snapping at the heels of the thoroughbred racing industry, the fate of the future of racing in California is swinging in the wind. The second half of the year will be focused on how the Stronach Group leadership can reduce the intense mainstream media pressure by implementing safety measures necessary to protect the horses.
Steward transparency lacking after Derby DQ. While the Kentucky Derby stewards faced the press during a brief press conference after the disqualification ruling on Derby night, the fact they did not take questions from the press was inexcusable. Facing the questions that most of the media had would have gone eons in providing transparency. Discussing the overriding factors and rationale in coming to the historic decision to take down Maximum Security was warranted given the circumstances. Foreign jurisdictions have done a wonderful job opening up these decisions to the public and describing the reasons for a disqualification or dismissal of an objection. An opportunity was lost on Derby night.
With the American Triple Crown season in the books, the focus shifts north of the border and to Saratoga heading towards a culmination at the Breeders’ Cup in November.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.