As a horseplayer involved in the sport for more than 40 years, I have developed into a player who prefers maiden races, allowance routes and stakes much more than claiming races. I state this here because there will be many tracks during the coming months that will fit into my comfort zone.
Yet, a caution needs to be stated: There are many stakes races that are nothing more than glorified claiming races. For an example, this past Saturday at Gulfstream Park there were 11 stakes; but, all offered modest purses and were for horses that had spent most of their lives in the claiming ranks.
Not for me.
Yet, also on Saturday, two prominent tracks – the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and Laurel Park in suburban Baltimore – did offer multiple stakes races that deserved attention.
Unfortunately, the rainy, sleet driven weather was so bad in Maryland on Saturday, it was difficult to handicap, much less review the performances in Laurel’s six stakes worth nearly $1 million. These included a pair of 7 furlong Graded stakes, the $300K G-2 Barbara Fritchie for fillies and mares and G-3 $250K General George for 4-year-olds and up.
The way I handle such terrible racing conditions might surprise readers, but I keep my money in my pocket and throw out all the performances that occurred – until and unless – these horses face similar conditions down the road. Trust me, I’ve learned painful lessons dealing with these circumstances.
At the Fair Grounds, there were six stakes on the Saturday card but two were for sub-standard quality horses while the other four could have been proudly offered at any track in the country. The four that caught my attention included a pair $150K stakes for 4-year-olds and up – the 1-1/16 mile Mineshaft Handicap on the main track and the Grade-3 Fair Grounds Handicap at 1-1/8 miles on the infield turf course.
The other two were 1-1/16 mile Grade-2 events for 3-year-olds on the main track – the $200K Rachel Alexandra for sophomore fillies and the $400K Risen Star for colts and geldings. Frankly, my review of these four Fair Grounds stakes produced a handful of horses and one jockey I will follow as we move through the next few months.
Specifically, The Player, a 5-year-old with a Grade-2 stakes win in his resume, earned a career best 100 Beyer Speed Figure winning the Mineshaft with blinkers on as if the move by his trainer William Bradley will prove to be the key to bigger performances ahead.
This seems true because The Player’s Mineshaft score came after this horse was defeated at 1-10 odds without blinkers at Oaklawn Park, on Jan. 10. The win also was trainer Bradley’s first victory after he had endured more than two dozen losses without a win at the Fair Grounds this year. Could it be when Bradley put blinkers on his horse, the blinkers came off his trainer?
In another FG race I also was impressed by the way Monomoy Girl won The Rachel Alexandra with a 91 Beyer Figure in her first outing of 2018.
Beyond the quality of her performance, Monomoy Girl already has shown versatility few Thoroughbreds of either sex possess. Last year, she won her first two career starts on grass before winning a modest stakes on dirt. Then, to close out 2017, Momonoy Girl topped that performance with a sharp second in the 1-1/16 mile, Grade-2 Golden Rod on Churchill Downs’ main track.
Brought to full power by trainer Brad Cox for her 2018 return, I will watch Monomoy Girl as she heads toward the rich Kentucky Oaks at Churchill on May 4.
In the Risen Star, a legit prep race for potential Derby horses, the winner by a nose was Bravazo. There were a lot of things to like about his performance and by a few other things I saw in this race.
Trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, Bravazo showed considerable grit in his narrow win and I believe his jockey Miguel Mena helped quite a bit. I left this race realizing Mena is one of the best jockeys in the country despite his relative lack of national publicity.
Snapper Sinclair was the narrow loser and seems to be making a fine transition from turf to dirt after winning two of his three prior starts on the grass in 2017 before he finished a fair third in the local Le Comte stakes last month.
While Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair each earned 91 Beyer Speed Figures to move forward on the Derby trail, I actually was more impressed by third place finisher Noble Indy and my personal perspective matched the view of his terrific trainer Todd Pletcher.
Ridden carefully by Hall of Famer John Velazquez, Noble Indy raced as if he was being given an education for the longer races ahead.
“We’re not in these races to lose them,” Pletcher said. “But,” he continued, “we wanted Noble Indy to get comfortable racing behind horses. After we reviewed his race, we really loved what he did.” So did I.