My 2019 Hall of Fame Ballot; PLUS: Oaklawn Park Analysis, Selections, and Tickets (3/16/19)

In something that undoubtedly does not sit well with some members of racing’s establishment, I have a ballot for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. It’s one of the great honors of my career, and it’s always a joy to analyze the finalists, fill out my ballot, and mail it back east.

Last year was the first voting cycle with a new election threshold of 50 percent, plus one vote. The 2018 class was also one of the smallest in recent memory, as voters elected just one thoroughbred (Heavenly Prize). Whether this was a one-off occurrence or an indication of a shift in voter behavior is something we’ll likely find out when the 2019 class is announced in late-April.

One year ago, I had three horses on my ballot (for an explanation on last year’s ballot, click here). Heavenly Prize was one. The other two were Blind Luck and Havre de Grace, who both show up again. Once again, they make my ballot. The former won 10 graded stakes races (six of the Grade 1 variety), while the latter won Horse of the Year honors in 2011, a season where she beat the boys in the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga.

Two horses showed up on the ballot for the first time. Like many others, I’m sure, I voted for Royal Delta, a two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic. By any measure, she’s one of the best female racehorses of the 21st century, and while her credentials may mean she doesn’t crack the top pantheon of Hall of Fame horses, she did more than enough to earn a plaque in Saratoga Springs. It’s a safe bet that she’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

That’s the extent of my ballot, and I’ll go down the list of horses, trainers, and jockeys. If you’re a longtime reader of the site, you probably know I’m no huge fan of Gio Ponti. At some point, to be a Hall of Fame horse, you have to beat really good horses, and in my estimation, he never did that. Meanwhile, Rags to Riches showed up on this year’s ballot, and she may be a sentimental choice for some voters. However, one tremendous moment does not a Hall of Fame career make. Yes, her win in the Belmont against males was memorable, but she raced just once after that and never beat older rivals. That’s not enough for me.

As far as the humans are concerned, I have tremendous respect for the careers of Mark Casse, Christophe Clement, Craig Perret, and David Whiteley. If any of them are enshrined this summer, I won’t be raising a stink about it. Having said that, none of them particularly hit me as people who need to be in.

Of the group, Casse and Clement are closest to earning my vote, and with both horsemen still active with large barns, my opinions may be swayed in the coming years. I don’t think Casse’s done quite enough in the U.S. as opposed to Canada (remember, it’s the NATIONAL Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame), and Clement’s lack of a Breeders’ Cup win is a big strike against him. Those aren’t easy races to win, as Clement trainee Gio Ponti’s seconds to Zenyatta and Goldikova prove, but when we get to this point, the goose egg matters.

One or two more big horses likely puts Casse in. A win on racing’s biggest stage probably puts Clement in. However, at this time, I couldn’t bring myself to check the box next to either name. I respect that others may feel differently, and if I’m outnumbered, I’ll tip my cap and eagerly tune in to the induction ceremony to hear their speeches.

– – – – –

Saturday’s card at Oaklawn Park is a really good one. An 11-race program is on tap, and it features two divisions of the Grade 2 Rebel. The card has drawn not just Bob Baffert trainees Game Winner and Improbable, but several of the best older fillies and mares in the country as well.

There are two Pick Four sequences on tap, and I think both are pretty attractive. Let’s get to it!

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #1

R1: 1,2
R2: 1,4,6,9,10
R3: 3,6,9,10
R4: 5

40 Bets, $20

Like many others, I’m sure, I’ve singled a heavy favorite in the payoff leg. However, the first three races all hit me as wide-open affairs, and given field sizes, we may be able to extract value from the sequence.

We kick things off with a maiden special weight event, and I’ve used the two inside runners. #1 BREAKING NEWS ran very well in his debut before regressing a bit last time out, but the recent work indicates he’s coming back to form. Additionally, #2 MY LEGACY showed a lot of speed in his unveiling at Fair Grounds before fading to fourth, and should improve for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.

The second race is one of a few races every season at Oaklawn that baffle me. It’s a 12-furlong starter allowance event, and, for obvious reasons, I felt the need to spread. If you’re looking for a bit of a price, #4 BIGSHOT LACEWELL showed speed in a similar event earlier in the meet, and this race seems very light on early zip. If he gets comfortable, he could make the 8-1 morning line price look like a real overlay.

Maidens will go two turns in the third race, and I also felt the need to spread a bit here. #3 PLUG AND PLAY almost certainly needed his debut, and he’s not bred to be a sprinter. He adds blinkers and stretches out to a two-turn route of ground he should love, and for that reason, he’s my top pick. However, if you’re going price-shopping, #6 KINETIC SWAGGER showed zip off the bench last time out in a race that doubled as his first outing since October. A logical step forward in his second start back puts him right there, and given the 15-1 morning line price, I need to have him on the ticket.

It could be a big day for trainer Bob Baffert, and it starts in the fourth race with #5 DESSMAN. He was last seen suffering a brutal beat in the Grade 2 San Vicente, when he was beaten a nose while earning a 94 Beyer Speed Figure. He does try two turns for the first time, but given that he’s a son of Belmont winner Union Rags, I don’t think that will be an issue. Anything close to either of his previous efforts likely puts him far clear of the rest of the field, and because of that, he’ll likely be a very short price (the 8/5 morning line actually seems a tad generous).

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

I’m going to do something a bit different. I think DRF Ticket Maker’s functions fit this all-stakes Pick Four sequence like a glove, so I used it to put together $14.50 worth of tickets.

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 11.56.06 PM

The sequence kicks off with the Grade 2 Azeri for older fillies and mares. The field is short on quantity, but long on quality, as it drew both #2 MIDNIGHT BISOU and #5 ELATE (among others). Unsurprisingly, I’m using them both, but I’m also going to lightly use a big price. For all of the talent in this race, there isn’t much early speed. Midnight Bisou is tactical, which will help, but I needed some coverage in case #1 TAPA TAPA TAPA is left alone on the lead. She’s certainly not as talented as the four Grade 1 winners in here, but if you subscribe to the notion that pace makes the race, she can’t be completely ignored.

The eighth race is the first division of the Rebel, and while I wish I could get cute, I don’t think #9 IMPROBABLE loses. To me, this is the weaker division of the race, and anything close to his last two races puts him in the winner’s circle. I am not a believer in #8 GALILEAN, who has beaten nothing in Cal-bred races and tries open company for the first time. If you’re looking for a price underneath, #2 LONG RANGE TODDY had a deceptively awful trip in the Grade 3 Southwest, where he was shuffled back along the rail multiple times yet still salvaged third money. I don’t think the rider change is a coincidence, and while I doubt he’s talented enough to challenge Improbable, I think he’s talented enough to merit inclusion on the bottom of exacta tickets.

The ninth race is the Essex Handicap. I’m using likely favorite #8 GIANT EXPECTATIONS, but I don’t think he’s anything close to a cinch. He’s not a great gate horse, which is problematic given that he likes to be on or near the lead, and even if he gets out well, he almost certainly won’t be alone going into the first turn. My top pick is #7 SNAPPER SINCLAIR, a hard-knocking sort with tactical speed that may be getting better as a 4-year-old. Additionally, I don’t think there’s ANY chance #9 RATED R SUPERSTAR is close to his 12-1 morning line price, given his solid third in the Grade 3 Razorback last month. He should get a favorable race flow, and I think he’ll be flying late. Finally, I’ll lightly use fellow closer #2 HENCE, who may need to step forward but has been working well and would also benefit from fast fractions.

The payoff leg is the second division of the Rebel, and it features Breeders’ Cup Juvenile hero #5 GAME WINNER, who makes his seasonal debut. I think he’ll be very tough, but I could at least see a scenario where a rival nips him. I really liked #7 OUR BRAINTRUST in the Grade 3 Withers, and he looked like a winner turning for home. However, he was soundly bumped multiple times by that day’s runner-up (I thought it was enough to merit a DQ, actually), and he hung as a result. He gets blinkers here for his second start around two turns, and I love that he’s taken steps forward with every race he’s run. Would another step forward be enough to beat Game Winner if that one is fully-cranked? Probably not. However, it’s not like that one has been working lights-out of late. If Game Winner needs a race, I’ll at least have a little bit of coverage with another runner in the field.

CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: The Hall of Fame Cases of Lady Eli and Shared Belief

This past week, I put together a four-way poll on my Twitter page. I’d felt a desire to do some historical legacy-type pieces, so I asked about horses you, the reader, whose Hall of Fame credentials you’d want analyzed.

Naturally, instead of having a clear-cut winner, we had a tie. Rather than wuss out and pick only one (or do a run-off and be subject to yet another tie and/or shenanigans akin to what happens in some countries’ presidential elections!), I’ve decided to combine both opinions in this column, one that I hope gets people thinking and/or talking.

LADY ELI

Okay, here’s the first unpopular opinion of the column, and it centers around the fact that Lady Eli is one of the most popular horses of the past decade for reasons that have little to do with her talent on the racetrack. She stepped on a nail coming back from her scintillating performance in the 2015 Belmont Oaks and eventually contracted laminitis. Of course, she conquered that and came back to the races, where she would win four of her final eight starts (including three Grade 1 events at as many venues).

Get the pitchforks ready: When it comes to Hall of Fame consideration, I don’t care about anything except what a horse does within the confines of its arena. Yes, Lady Eli’s story is a phenomenal one, and credit must be given to the people around her (owner Sol Kumin, trainer Chad Brown, and Brown’s staff). With one exception (which carries a logical excuse), she showed up every single time, even after coming down with a condition that can be fatal. All of that is fantastic, but my Hall of Fame ballot has very little to do with emotion, and very much to do with what a horse accomplishes in its career on the track.

In using the oft-quoted Bill Parcells philosophy, “you are what your record says you are,” here’s what we’ve got as it pertains to Lady Eli.

Record: 14-10-3-0
Earnings: $2,959,800
Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Nine (Five)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): One (Three)

What we have here is a really strong resume, though one that is not without its flaws. First, the good: After breaking her maiden first time out, she raced exclusively in stakes company. She recorded Grade 1 wins in four different seasons, in an era where the most promising horses in the game sometimes struggle to finish a second year of competition. I put a pretty heavy emphasis on longevity and consistency when looking at the horses on the annual ballot, and she checks those boxes emphatically.

Her Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf win was electric, and she nearly added a second such victory when falling by a nose two years later in the Filly and Mare Turf. Her lone clunker came in her final career start, but a reason for the poor effort was evident right away, as she suffered an ugly (though far from life-threatening) injury in last year’s Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar.

Now, the bad points: Turf horses, by nature, are up against it when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration. There’s a long-held stigma that dirt horses are superior to turf horses, and because of that, some of the best turf horses we’ve seen have to wait a while before being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Lure, for instance, wasn’t enshrined until 20 years after completing a career that included two wins in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. For better or for worse, this hurts Lady Eli.

Additionally, her lack of a race against males is not ideal. Turf mares like Miesque, Goldikova, and even Tepin had multiple wins over the boys on big stages (Miesque and Goldikova are both Hall of Famers, while Tepin will likely get in at some point). None of Lady Eli’s 14 outings came against males, and while such a race isn’t necessary in determining her talent, it would’ve gone a long way at a point where voters are instructed, perhaps even encouraged, to nitpick. If she wins, say, the Grade 1 Fourstardave in 2017 instead of that summer’s Grade 2 Ballston Spa over fillies and mares, or even runs well in defeat in the former race, I don’t think there’s nearly as much question about her eventual Hall of Fame viability.

Ultimately, the question is this: If you take away the phenomenal, made-for-Hollywood story behind Lady Eli’s physical ailments and her recovery, is her on-track resume enough to enshrine her in Saratoga? There will undoubtedly be some that feel her credentials aren’t solid enough, or that she didn’t shine quite as brightly as Tepin (who Lady Eli somehow never ran against, in an oversight of epic proportions by racing offices with high-level, eight to nine-furlong turf races for older fillies and mares at their tracks!).

After minimizing the emotional element, perhaps she’s not a slam-dunk…but I think she did enough to merit induction. I simply cannot ignore a Breeders’ Cup winner that boasts four straight seasons with at least one Grade 1 victory, even if she may not have run against some of the top turf horses of her era.

THE VERDICT: HALL OF FAMER

SHARED BELIEF

Before we cannonball into the deep water, here’s a look at Shared Belief’s career, nutshelled in the same way Lady Eli’s was earlier in this column.

Record: 12-10-0-0
Earnings: $2,932,200
Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Eight (Five)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): None (One)

And now we get to the tough part. The discussion of Shared Belief’s career has to start with the antics that happened at the start of the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Shared Belief had skipped the Triple Crown due to setbacks at the start of the year, but the son of Candy Ride came back with a vengeance, reeling off four straight wins to come into the Classic undefeated.

Many anticipated a showdown with dual classic winner (and future Hall of Famer) California Chrome. Unfortunately for racing fans, the 3-year-old Shared Belief had to worry about the most was Bayern, who took a hard left turn out of the gate and sent horses inside of him (including Shared Belief) pinballing into one another. When the dust settled, Bayern was left alone on the lead and held off Toast of New York and California Chrome, with Shared Belief left spinning his wheels in fourth.

Shared Belief rebounded from his first career defeat with three straight victories, each more impressive than the one before it. After a workmanlike win in the Grade 1 Malibu, he beat California Chrome on the square in the Grade 2 San Antonio before putting forth one of recent racing history’s most underappreciated brilliant performances in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap.

Think about all of the talent that was on the racetrack in early-2015. American Pharoah would win the Triple Crown. Beholder would destroy the boys in the Pacific Classic. California Chrome was headed to Dubai (followed by a planned start at Royal Ascot), and Bayern was still kicking around in Bob Baffert’s barn. Following the Santa Anita Handicap, though, you’d be hard-pressed to say that any of those horses, on their best days, would’ve been able to beat the Shared Belief that waltzed home in 2:00 and change and seemed capable of so much more.

Alas, fate intervened. In addition to star-crossed California Chrome getting sent to the sidelines, Shared Belief would race just once more. He did not finish the Charles Town Classic after suffering a minor injury that could’ve been much worse if not for the expert skills of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who pulled him up immediately. Shared Belief was sent to Washington for rehabilitation, and a return was planned, but he suffered an attack of colic in December and was euthanized.

What I’m about to say may seem like a weird tangent, but go with it. I’m a big fan of Bill Simmons’s magnum opus, “The Book of Basketball.” In it, he refers to a theory that applies to a number of players that bordered on greatness, but could’ve been even greater. It goes something like this: If we’d had the ability to simulate a career 10 times, what we got was the worst possible outcome. Athletes that could’ve been great were hampered by injuries, or bad situations, or by things completely outside their control, and if some celestial force were to come and offer a one-time “do-over” as it pertained to one such career, we’d take it without a second thought.

That theory can more than adequately be applied to the career of Shared Belief. He showed brilliance as a 2-year-old, but did not contest the Triple Crown. When he came back, he routed older horses in a pair of Grade 1 races before the Classic, where a series of events produced more outrage than just about any other imaginable scenario (try to think of one that would’ve made people angrier and doesn’t include the words “sniper on the roof;” don’t worry, I’ll wait). After the Classic, he won three times, but was injured in his final career start and never got a chance to come back.

There’s an alternate universe where Shared Belief and California Chrome race each other multiple times at ages three, four, and five. Shared Belief wins a few. California Chrome wins a few. Horse racing gets a rivalry the likes of which it hasn’t seen since the days of Skip Away, Formal Gold, and Wills Way, with longtime horsemen and friends Jerry Hollendorfer and Art Sherman at the forefront, playfully uttering one-liners at each other like, “Well, if I don’t win, I hope you don’t, either.” Add in a rotating cast that includes the likes of Beholder, and perhaps even Arrogate near the end, and how exciting do some Saturdays become?

Feel cheated by the racing gods yet? I know I do. The fact is that there’s absolutely no telling how good Shared Belief could have been. He could’ve been the dirt version of Wise Dan, running his competition into the ground for years due to his status as a gelding rather than a full horse. Instead, he was a comet streaking across the sky, imperfect but undeniably memorable in a way many very talented horses of recent years are not.

Is he a Hall of Famer? That’s about the toughest question the nominating committee will be faced with in a few years, and I’m pretty happy I don’t have to make the decision. At his peak, he may have been the best horse in the world. However, I don’t think he had the opportunity to do as much with his talent as he should have. This is not his fault, nor the fault of those around him. Circumstances conspired to give us the unluckiest possible outcomes with regard to Shared Belief, all the way down to his early passing.

Will I protest if Shared Belief is eventually enshrined in Saratoga? No. Horses without his immense ability have been voted in before, and they’ll be voted in in the future. However, based solely on what he achieved on the track as compared to similar horses from his era, he likely won’t be on my ballot.

THE VERDICT: NOT A HALL OF FAMER

Analyzing My 2018 Hall of Fame Ballot

A few years ago, I received one of the biggest honors in horse racing when given a ballot for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly, especially in the wake of new induction protocols that could see waves of new honorees in the next few summers.

I’ve mailed my ballot back to Saratoga Springs, and it’ll be interesting to see vote totals when they get announced next month. I saw none of the 10 finalists as surefire inductees, and I wound up checking three names on my ballot. Below are my explanations, starting with the one I had the most conviction about.

1) BLIND LUCK

Far from a visually impressive equine specimen, Blind Luck began her career in a maiden claiming event at Calder. After her debut victory, she was privately purchased and moved to the care of Hall of Fame horseman Jerry Hollendorfer, for whom she would reel off 10 graded stakes victories, including six Grade 1 triumphs. She earned an Eclipse Award as 2010’s top 3-year-old filly, and she finished in the money in all but one of her 22 career starts.

Personal story: I was in attendance for the 2010 Alabama, and got to go into the paddock before the race thanks to a friend who had connections (one I now work with at DRF; hi, Craig!). I’ve been watching horse racing for most of my life, and I can safely say that I have NEVER seen a horse look worse before a race than Blind Luck did that day. She was washed out, showed positively no interest in being there, and looked nothing like a horse that had already taken down a pair of Grade 1 races that season.

Then, she went and did this.

2) HAVRE DE GRACE

Of course, we can’t talk about Blind Luck without mentioning her main rival, Havre de Grace, who’s also on the ballot. Unlike Blind Luck, who won Grade 1 races in three consecutive seasons, Havre de Grace is best known for one shining campaign that earned her Horse of the Year honors.

Yes, there are asterisks here. Her trophy came in 2011, a year where there was no standout older male. She did beat boys in that year’s Grade 1 Woodward, but with the exception of upper-tier stalwart Flat Out, there wasn’t much else in the race, and she was fourth behind Drosselmeyer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic two starts later. Furthermore, her peak was fairly short compared to other Hall of Famers, and in an age where top horses race fewer and fewer times, longevity may very well matter more come voting season.

I understand the logic there, but I don’t necessarily agree with some of it. Unpopular opinion coming: If the Hall of Fame isn’t meant for a horse that had one sterling season, who wants to be the one to tell those at Stonestreet that Rachel Alexandra’s being kicked out? I voted for her, but if we’re going off of the “she didn’t beat much and her peak wasn’t long” angle, certainly it applies to Rachel, right? She beat nothing in her Woodward triumph, and with all due respect to Summer Bird, the crop of 3-year-old males she dusted multiple times was one of the worst of the past 15 years.

Maybe Havre de Grace came along at a time of transition for the handicap division, but her stirring rivalry with Blind Luck certainly helps, and her win over future Hall of Famer Royal Delta in the 2011 Beldame puts her over the top.

3) HEAVENLY PRIZE

I went back and forth on Heavenly Prize multiple times over the course of my deliberations. Admittedly, I wasn’t overly familiar with the distaff division of the early-1990’s, and the lack of a Breeders’ Cup victory doesn’t help her cause.

However, the more I looked, the more I became won over by this mare. She never finished out of the money in 18 career starts, and of her nine wins, eight were of the Grade 1 variety. She ran against the likes of Inside Information, Paseana, and Serena’s Song, all legitimate Hall of Famers, and she didn’t discredit herself in her lone start against males, when she ran third to the great Cigar in the 1996 Donn Handicap.

A Breeders’ Cup victory would’ve made her a much easier choice. She was third in the 1993 Juvenile Fillies (just her third career start) and second in the Distaff in both 1994 and 1995. The first Distaff lost stings, as it came by a neck to 47-1 shot One Dreamer, but the second one is understandable, as Inside Information turned in one of the most freakish performances in North American racing history. With billing like that, I HAVE to show it, right?

I wasn’t sold on Heavenly Prize when ballots went out. However, eight Grade 1 wins, in an era where top-class mares seemed to grow on trees, is one heck of a total, even if none of those victories came in the Breeders’ Cup. Ultimately, I felt she’d done enough to merit inclusion, so she was the final checkmark before I sealed the envelope and sent it back east.

– – – – –

As far as the others are concerned, there were no hard omissions for me. I’ve discussed Gio Ponti’s resume at length, and while he might get in given the new standards for induction (50.1%, no maximum number of honorees), I couldn’t bring myself to vote for him. None of the jockeys struck me as Hall of Fame-worthy, although Corey Nakatani could convince me with a few more strong years given his nine Breeders’ Cup victories, which matter more to me than Robby Albarado’s 5,000-plus wins.

As far as the trainers are concerned, Mark Casse will likely get in in a few years. I couldn’t vote for him this time around, though. It’s the NATIONAL Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and while his Canadian accomplishments are astounding, I just don’t think he’s done quite enough since coming to the U.S. One or two more big horses, though, will probably sway my vote.

Think I messed up? Have a question about the way I did things? Drop me a line. I read everything that comes in through this site, and I’m happy to discuss this further.

Saratoga Race Course Analysis, Selections, and Bankroll: 8/4/17

BANKROLL

BANKROLL: $967.25

I had something witty cued up for this section before the fatal breakdown of Fall Colors in Thursday’s steeplechase race. No matter how long you’ve been in this game, there’s never a point where that stuff doesn’t affect you. My heart goes out to the connections of the fallen horse, who went through unimaginable pain yesterday.

One quick thing: If you think steeplechase racing is at fault for this, you’re wrong. Science has shown that most steeplechase falls are much, much safer than those that occur on the flat, and this part of the game gives many at-risk horses a second career. Being sad about the breakdown is rational, as is abstaining from betting steeplechase races because of the added jumps involved. Blaming the nature of those races for the breakdown we saw Thursday is not.

THURSDAY’S RESULTS: We were alive to some pretty nice doubles heading into the fifth, but the horses we used in that race did not include 15-1 shot Tarawa, who won going away. As such, we dropped $30.

FRIDAY’S PLAY: I’ll focus on the eighth race of a very difficult card. #4 PETROV was nearly my best bet of the day given his back class, and given the big field that will go postward, we may get his 3-1 morning line price. I’ll put $5 on him to win and place and key him in $2 exacta plays that use him above and below #7 POCKET SQUARE, #9 PORTFOLIO MANAGER, #10 DIVINE INTERVENTIO, and #11 LENSTAR.

TOTAL WAGERED: $26

ANALYSIS/SELECTIONS

Best Bet: Switzerland, Race 3
Longshot: Team Colors, Race 5

R1

Sand City
Corey Q
Lightworker

SAND CITY: Has run just one bad race on dirt, and that effort was followed by a six-month layoff, so it’s safe to assume something went wrong that day. This barn has quietly had a very strong start to the meet; COREY Q: Drops down in class and goes back to dirt for one of the top barns on the grounds. Her debut on dirt wasn’t bad, but demand value on this one before moving forward; LIGHTWORKER: Was a good second in her debut at Delaware against weaker foes. This is a class test for her, but she could improve at second asking and may be a bit of a price.

R2

Luna Rising
Bahnahno
Talkn Til Midnight

LUNA RISING: Showed interest early on in the meet against better before fading late. She was up close to a pretty fast pace that day, and she should sit an easier trip here; BAHNAHNO: Takes a huge class drop and may benefit from some speed having signed on. The rail isn’t ideal for her running style, but the faster they go early, the better this one figures to like it; TALKN TIL MIDNIGHT: Cuts back in distance, returns to dirt, and is another taking a big drop in class. This barn must be respected in spots like these.

R3

Switzerland
Fully Vested (MTO)
Sethary

SWITZERLAND: Completely missed the break last time out, and as such, you can draw a line through that effort. His dam was a strong turf runner, so he should take to the lawn just fine; SETHARY: Woke up in his turf debut, running a good second against maiden claimers. This is a tougher field, but he does figure to be the main speed; FACTORIAL: Probably needed his last race, which came off a layoff of nearly five months. The top three finishers from that event have all come back to win at next asking. DIRT SELECTIONS: SWITZERLAND, FULLY VESTED, UNCLE PANCHO.

R4

Pauseforthecause
Big Expense
My Roxy Girl

PAUSEFORTHECAUSE: Has worked well ahead of her unveiling. This barn isn’t the best with first-time starters, but this one was bred to be a real runner (her dam was Grade 1-placed); BIG EXPENSE: Is another who may need a race, but she’s flashed potential in several downstate drills. The ones that have run before don’t impress me much, so I’ll use this firster at a bit of a price; MY ROXY GIRL: Probably has the most potential to move up of all the runners who have race experience. The jockey switch to Castellano is huge, especially since he doesn’t ride for this barn much.

R5

Schivarelli (MTO)
Forge
Team Colors

FORGE: Broke through last time out at Churchill, earning a 100 Beyer Speed Figure. He’s flashed potential dating back to his time in Europe, and he may be reaching a high level; TEAM COLORS: Would be a tremendous value play at anywhere close to the morning line. He comes back to the turf, where he’s run a number of high-quality races, and he gets significant class relief; MONSTER BEA: Is another accomplished turf runner who drops in from graded stakes company. This barn got off to a cold start to the meet, but this gelding is a contender in this spot. DIRT SELECTIONS: SCHIVARELLI, TEAM COLORS, LINE JUDGE.

R6

Tizelle
Barrel of Dreams
Style Drift

TIZELLE: Came back running off the long layoff, winning an entry-level allowance downstate. She’s done very little wrong in three career starts, and we may not have seen the best of her yet; BARREL OF DREAMS: Loves Saratoga, having won here twice a year ago. Her last-out effort was an improvement, and her best race could win this; STYLE DRIFT: Hasn’t been seen in nearly two years, but did not run a bad race in four starts before the extended break, and the Chad Brown barn merits respect. DIRT SELECTIONS: YOUNG ANNA LEE, BARREL OF DREAMS, IRON MIZZ.

R7

Lifelong Dreamer
Curtis
Italian Syndicate

LIFELONG DREAMER: Probably lost all chance at the break last time out in his search for a third straight win. Gary Gullo does excellent work with new acquisitions, and top rider Jose Ortiz will be in the irons; CURTIS: Takes a big drop in class for aggressive connections after running against some tough 3-year-olds in each of his last two starts. The recent bullet drill could indicate he’s sitting on a nice race; ITALIAN SYNDICATE: Was a spectacular flop at 3/5 when last seen. He was claimed out of that race by a high-percentage barn, and if you draw a line through that race, he certainly fits.

R8

Petrov
Divine Interventio
Pocket Square

PETROV: Spent most of the spring on the Derby trail and has run against graded stakes foes in each of his last five starts. He was fourth behind likely Allen Jerkens favorite American Anthem at this distance two back, and a similar race wins this; DIVINE INTERVENTIO: Hasn’t run a bad race since cutting back to sprint distances last fall. He was third behind Coal Front in his last start and should be coming late; POCKET SQUARE: Went wire-to-wire in his first start off a long layoff. His July 22nd work was very sharp, and given his relative inexperience, we may get a price.

R9

Bricks and Mortar
Yoshida
Snap Decision

BRICKS AND MORTAR: Is a perfect 3-for-3 and beat several of these foes last time out in a stakes race downstate. He won going two turns in his debut and could be another top-class turf runner for this barn; YOSHIDA: May not have wanted the Belmont Derby distance, and the slow pace set in front of him didn’t help. He showed tons of talent in his stakes win two back and cannot be ignored; SNAP DECISION: Was second behind my top pick two back and most recently won a solid optional claimer. The runner-up has since come back to win, and this one could sit a perfect stalking trip here.

R10

Set Me Up
Calculated Risker
Captain Kidd

SET ME UP: Needs lots of luck to draw in but looks imposing on the drop in class if he does. His turf races last year against straight maidens were not bad, and these connections mean business; CALCULATED RISKER: Also drops in class off of a solid last-out effort going shorter. This barn hasn’t gotten off to a great start, but this seems like a logical spot for this morning-line favorite; CAPTAIN KIDD: Was handed no favors when rating off of a slow pace last time out, yet rallied to be beaten just a length. Two turns is a question mark, but this gelding seems to be in good form. DIRT SELECTIONS: ARTHUR AVENUE, MR. MASSENA, CALCULATED RISKER.

A Salute to Ben’s Cat, PLUS: An Idea to Honor Warhorses Like Him

In sports, certain athletes come along and have careers that will almost certainly never be replicated. It’s even better when you know that as one such career is unfolding, and it makes everything much easier to appreciate when that career comes to an end.

Beloved 11-year-old veteran Ben’s Cat was retired Tuesday following an off-the-board finish in Saturday’s Mister Diz Stakes at Laurel Park. It’s fitting that the race served as his finale, since he won it an incredible six straight years from 2010 through 2015. He was managed in impeccable fashion by Hall of Fame trainer King Leatherbury, and while nobody would ever say Ben’s Cat was an elite horse, he amassed a considerable following and did a lot of good in an age where positive stories aren’t easy to come by.

Ben’s Cat finishes with 32 wins in 63 starts and earnings of more than $2.6 million, and you could forgive anyone who set low expectations for him at the outset of his career. His sire, Parker’s Storm Cat, was just 1-for-4 lifetime and never tried stakes company. His dam, Twofox, was a three-time winner, but one who won just one of her final 11 starts.

Consider what that modest pedigree resulted in. It led to a horse who won 26 stakes races and amassed more outings than American Pharoah, California Chrome, and Zenyatta combined. He won at least one race at historic Pimlico Race Course in seven consecutive years, which is a record that may go untouched (similar to Fourstardave’s eight-year run at Saratoga). He was at his best on turf, but was far from a slouch on dirt, having won three straight renewals of the rich Fabulous Strike Handicap at Penn National.

Was Ben’s Cat a top-echelon horse? No. He never tried Grade 1 company, let alone a Breeders’ Cup race. That said…does it matter?

We live in an age where thoroughbreds “breeze” a furlong at 2-year-old sales, sell for obscene amounts of money, and leave those connections shocked when infirmities show up that often cause early retirements (though not shocked enough to stop seeking and overpaying for prodigious speed at 2-year-old sales the next year). By comparison, Ben’s Cat retired sound at age 11 after a career that made him one of the most beloved horses in the country. You could offer me 100 of those impressive-looking 2-year-olds. I’ll take one Ben’s Cat replica instead.

Much has been made lately about ways the sport of horse racing can grow. What the game needs are horses the average fan can get behind, ones that people will come to the track to see run once a month. In any sport, stars create business and interest, and it’s no different in horse racing. We don’t need impressive 2-year-old maiden winners who run a few times and retire prematurely. We need warhorses, ones who are reliable, hard-knocking, and sound. That’s what Ben’s Cat was for so long. He was a stalwart in an age where stalwarts are hard to come by, and even at age 11, when it was clear he lost a step physically, he had the mind and competitiveness of a stakes-quality horse.

As some of you know, I have a vote for horse racing’s Hall of Fame. It’s safe to assume that based on current criteria, Ben’s Cat won’t get inducted. He likely won’t even make a ballot. The same can be said for Fourstardave, whose Saratoga record may be the most unbreakable mark in all of thoroughbred racing. Ditto for the likes of Rapid Redux, Pepper’s Pride, and Hallowed Dreams, all horses who reeled off extensive winning streaks at small circuits around the country far away from the bright lights of New York, Kentucky, and California.

For this reason, I’ve hashed out an idea to honor the hard-knocking veterans of the sport. These horses may not have had Secretariat’s abilities, Forego’s closing kick, or the pure speed of Dr. Fager, but what they did was equally as valuable to the game we love. They engaged fans, they always showed up, and when their careers were over, everyone who saw them run sincerely appreciated their efforts and contributions.

I propose a Warhorse Wing of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Every year, a committee would have an option to induct a horse that fulfilled pre-existing criteria. I’m open to any constructive criticism, but my initial criteria is that a horse must meet at least one of the below requirements for consideration.

1) Run for a minimum of five seasons.
2) Achieve a minimum of 50 career starts.
3) Win 10 or more races consecutively.

I’m aware of plenty of rational viewpoints against this idea. Yes, this would open the doors for horses of lesser ability into the Hall of Fame, and yes, this would add an induction to classes that are already growing in size due to a backlog of worthy candidates. Those are valid criticisms, and if you fall into one of those camps, I won’t argue too strenuously with you (side note: boy, I’d make an awful politician).

Having said that, horses that meet the above criteria have done an immeasurable amount of good for the game. It’s my belief that they deserve the highest possible level of recognition, especially in an era where long, productive careers aren’t necessarily the norm.

I don’t have a snappy, witty closing line to finish things off with, so I’ll end with a story. Last year, the day before the Preakness, I was working at TVG headquarters. Ben’s Cat was a 10-year-old, and signs of his decline were beginning to show. I watched the race with racing cynic/PhotoShop wizard Danny Kovoloff, and we saw 4/5 favorite Rocket Heat spurt clear at the top of the stretch while Ben’s Cat looked pinned in along the rail. With a furlong to go, it looked like the veteran was bound for a minor award; a solid showing, for sure, but a certain step down from some of his prior efforts.

Then, with a sixteenth of a mile to go, Ben’s Cat angled off the rail. He somehow found space between Rocket Heat and longshot Spring to the Sky, and Danny and I (two people whose curmudgeonly behavior far outweighs our relative youth) began screaming at the television.

“COME ON, BEN! COME ON, BEN!”

Ben’s Cat hit the wire clear by a head in what would turn out to be the last winning performance of his career. A TVG executive heard the noise, stepped out of his office, and remarked, “…that was awesome.”

We agreed.