Recent racing history tells us there’s more than one way to the Triple Crown races. Preps are run all around the country and award points to the top finishers, but in recent seasons, the routes to the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont have featured “on ramps” that aren’t necessarily on the agendas of owners, trainers, and breeders when the journey starts.
The entrance point I’m speaking of is the seemingly-annual “loaded allowance” race, which usually draws 3-year-olds of varying intents and developments. In an odd twist, many trainers seem to opt for this race over graded stakes company on the basis of a softer field and a prep for later in the season, only to see major players from other big barns show up in the “softer” spot!
We may have seen such a race Sunday at Gulfstream Park. Mississippi scratched out of the Grade 2 Holy Bull after drawing the far outside post, and Navistar entered after he couldn’t make the trip to Oaklawn Park for the Smarty Jones two weeks ago. Both would have taken play in deeper waters had they run in those races, but neither of those horses won on Sunday in what was perceived to be an easier event. Storm Runner held off a furious rally from Mississippi despite racing greenly in the stretch, while Navistar bore out badly turning for home and beat just one runner to the wire.
Time will tell if this race joins some of the other “loaded allowance” affairs of the past few years, ones that ultimately produced multiple graded stakes-caliber horses. Last year’s event of this nature came on the west coast, when a field of eight 3-year-olds went postward on March 9th at Santa Anita. That day’s favorite was 6/5 shot Reach the World, who unfortunately never got to reach his full potential due to a fatal training accident later that year (his last start was a fourth-place finish behind Gormley in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby). On this day, Reach the World had to settle for second, a neck behind the victorious Battle of Midway.
The winner, of course, went on to take the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile later that season, but there were other runners of consequence in that race. Mr. Hinx ran fourth and emerged as a solid sprinter later in the year (running second behind eventual Eclipse Award winner Roy H in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship), fifth-place finisher Irish Freedom has run in several graded stakes races in the past few months, and sixth-place finisher Sharp Samurai found his true calling on turf, where he reeled off three straight graded stakes wins in the summer and fall.
It was pretty tough to find an example of this type of a race in 2016. Arrogate proved to be head and shoulders above his rivals in the second half of the year, and the top runners in Triple Crown races went more conventional routes. The closest I found was an optional claimer that took place on March 6th over the since-removed inner track at Aqueduct. My Man Sam would go on to run against some of the top horses of his crop, and he was sent off as the 7/5 choice. However, Matt King Coal opened up a clear lead going around the far turn and had just enough left to hold off that rival by a diminishing length.
Matt King Coal never really fulfilled the potential he hinted at, but he wound up with 11 top-three finishes in 13 starts (the most notable of which was a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic in 2017), plus career earnings of well over $600,000. Oddly enough, the horse with the most notable victory in this field was the one who ran last, beaten more than 15 lengths. That was Inside Straight, who pulled off a 19-1 shocker in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap last spring. That one’s still going strong, too, having started his 5-year-old season off with a win in a minor stakes race a few weeks ago.
I’m cheating a little bit with my 2015 selection. In my defense, this was American Pharoah’s year, and there’s not a lot to go off of. My selection is the overnight “stakes race” known as the Islamorada Handicap, which was run March 6th at Gulfstream Park. It offered a $60,000 purse, which is only a hair more than the standard allowance would offer, so I’m shoehorning it in. The race drew a field of six runners, and Todd Pletcher trainees finished 1-2 under the wire. Materiality bounded home clear by nearly six lengths, and he’d take the Grade 1 Florida Derby at next asking before chasing Pharoah in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont.
Pletcher’s other runner, though, had a more eventful trip. Stanford was disqualified from second and placed last, but thankfully, things would get better for him. He’d win four stakes races, including the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic and Grade 3 Harlan’s Holiday in 2016, and would quietly amass nearly $1.4 million in career earnings before being retired to stud.
I’ll finish with 2014, which, as luck would have it, may have featured the best example of a “loaded allowance” in recent racing history. On February 22nd of that year, three eventual Grade 1 winners ran 1-2-4 in the sixth at Gulfstream Park. Constitution went wire-to-wire that day before winning the Florida Derby, and he’d go on to win the Grade 1 Donn Handicap the next year as well.
That only scratches the surface of how strong that race was, though. Tonalist ran second a few starts before spoiling California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid in the Belmont, and he’d also win back-to-back renewals of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and one running of the Cigar Mile. Meanwhile, fourth-place finisher Wicked Strong won that year’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in his very next start. As if that wasn’t enough, that allowance’s third-place finisher, Mexikoma, was no slouch, either. He had his physical issues, but when he was right, he could run. He contested the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and he took the 2016 Sunshine Millions Classic before running third in that season’s Donn (which doubled as his career finale).
Think there’s a race I’m missing? Have one that stands out in your mind? Shoot me a message through the ‘contact’ function. I read everything that comes through, and I genuinely enjoy hearing from readers and racing fans.