Justify, Accelerate, Horse of the Year, and Unfair Conundrums

A few days ago, top-notch turf writer and all-around good guy Jeremy Balan attempted to get a constructive dialogue going about Justify, Accelerate, and the voting for Horse of the Year. As most such attempts do, this went haywire quickly, with many respondents on Twitter unable to engage in basic discourse without resorting to tactics often seen during elementary school recess (seriously, folks, we’re better than this).

It’s no secret that I’m passionate about what I believe in when it comes to this issue. I respect Accelerate and what he accomplished this season, but I firmly believe an undefeated Triple Crown winner trumps anything any other thoroughbred could do in a single season. As such, when it comes time for me to submit my Eclipse Award ballot, Justify will earn my Horse of the Year vote.

I understand that others disagree with me on this, and I even get a few of the arguments. Justify didn’t run after the Belmont, and in the back half of the year, Accelerate captured three Grade 1 races (including the Breeders’ Cup Classic). Justify never raced against older horses, and this year’s crop of 3-year-olds (which looked promising at the start of the season) fizzled as the months went by.

However, I can’t help but feel like Justify is paying for something else. Let’s head to Peabody and Sherman’s WABAC Machine and travel all the way back to 2015.

mr-peabody-and-sherman

No horse had won racing’s Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and the sport had suffered through several agonizing close calls. Silver Charm never saw Touch Gold. Real Quiet was nosed by Victory Gallop (and may have been taken down had the photo gone the other way). Smarty Jones was several hundred pounds overweight, with half of the riders in the field ganging up on him before Birdstone picked up the pieces.

Out of the darkness came American Pharoah, a four-legged wrecking ball that had demolished two overmatched fields in Arkansas ahead of the Kentucky Derby. Despite being kept extremely wide on the first Saturday in May, he prevailed over Firing Line. A torrential downpour couldn’t stop him two weeks later in the Preakness, and the next month, he made the Belmont Park grandstand shake.

(Relevant tangent: I get a lot of arguments in favor of Accelerate, but the “we’re emphasizing the Triple Crown too much” argument needs to go the way of the dodo bird. In 2015, many of us were wistfully wondering if we’d ever see a Triple Crown winner again, and some in the industry openly wondered if the sequence needed to be changed to make it easier. We’ve gotten two since then, good for a mere 13 in a century, and suddenly it doesn’t matter as much? This is inconsistent at best and flat wrong at worst.)

American Pharoah was instantly revered as a legend. It didn’t matter what he did after that, or who he beat, or that he lost the Travers, or that Beholder scratched ahead of a highly-anticipated showdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Because he accomplished something no equine had in nearly four decades, the public was grateful for his presence and didn’t ask questions.

Justify got no such favorable treatment. It was only a three-year gap between Triple Crown winners, and the same guy who trained the last one got to do it again. Even considering Justify’s defiance of the Apollo Curse, his journey to racing’s pantheon seemed…almost ho-hum by comparison. As impressive as it was, there was a hint of, “we saw this movie three years ago, and that one was better.”

For purposes of this exercise, let’s assume American Pharoah either never existed or retired after the Arkansas Derby. In this alternate reality, Firing Line wins the Kentucky Derby, Tale of Verve wins the Preakness, and Frosted wins the Belmont. Racing continues to be without a Triple Crown winner until 2018, when Justify goes from an unraced maiden to the horse that snapped a 40-year drought in less than five months.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that such a scenario would make Justify one of the most beloved horses in history. He’s not seen this way because another Bob Baffert trainee won the same series of races while Justify was nursing.

I submit that such a conundrum is unfair to the horse’s legacy, and that this perception has altered the way some are approaching Horse of the Year balloting. If you’re more impressed by Accelerate’s resume given his year-long campaign and number of Grade 1 victories, I respect that (though I’ll exercise my right to amicably disagree). If you’re voting for Accelerate because of a distorted perception of the Triple Crown, its degree of difficulty, and what another horse did several years ago, I find that ridiculous.

CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: The Ballad of Big Brown

Even though I was there, I don’t remember much about the 2008 Belmont Stakes. My main memory of that day is picking out a spot on the third level of the Belmont Park grandstand an hour before the race. The crowd began packing everyone in like sardines, and in an effort to hold my position across from the sixteenth pole, I clutched a sign advertising the section below it for dear life. It wasn’t pretty, but after a few minutes of pushing, people got the idea that I wasn’t moving.

It’s taken me 10 years, but I’ve realized that’s a heck of a metaphor for the way racing fans hold on to certain beliefs. We hold on tight, with white-knuckled grips that signify either deeply held convictions or immense fears of being wrong, but either way, when such a topic arises in conversation, we’ll speak our respective pieces as loudly as we can.

I was a college student then. I’d just finished my sophomore year at Ithaca College, and much as I had for Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, I had successfully persuaded a parent (in this case, my father) to take me to the Belmont.

I watched with baited breath as Big Brown, the easiest of winners in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, strolled into the starting gate. The crowd’s buzz was audible, as it had been during my prior ventures to cancelled coronations in both 2003 and 2004.

The horses settled in the starting gate, among them the undefeated Big Brown, with Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux in the irons.

The race started.

And then, an instant later, it was over.

– – – – –

I got the inspiration to write this column from a brief discussion with Desormeaux on Twitter Wednesday morning. I’d just woken up, 45 minutes before the start of my work day, and I saw that he’d retweeted something saying he was online and answering questions.

Having heard several theories on what happened that muggy Long Island afternoon, and having not yet acquired the filter that comes with consciousness, I asked if any of the conspiracy theories about that afternoon held water. Desormeaux, predictably, was not amused.

There was, however, an ulterior motive to my line of questioning. If you ask a group of racing fans who the top horse of the mid to late-2000’s was, you’ll get a fair variety of responses. Many fans will say either Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra. Some will say fellow Hall of Famer Curlin, or even Rags to Riches (the filly who edged the two-time Horse of the Year in the 2007 Belmont). Barbaro will also be fondly remembered, if only for the memories of what might have been if not for his catastrophic injury in the Preakness. Big Brown’s name likely doesn’t come up in that conversation. For various reasons, the bay son of Boundary isn’t seen as one of the best of his generation, despite wins in every single race he finished.

Much of this is undoubtedly due to the horse’s connections, which seemed to be under an interminable cloud of controversy. Big Brown was owned by IEAH Stables, which operated as horse racing’s version of a hedge fund. They had achieved considerable success with horses like 2007 turf champion Kip Deville and eventual 2008 champion sprinter Benny the Bull, but something about the enterprise did not mesh well with the racing establishment.

As the excellent Deadspin article on IEAH cited, perhaps it was the “new money” aspect of the organization that rubbed some the wrong way. What did not help the public perception of the enterprise, though, was IEAH’s trainer of choice. Rick Dutrow was one of the most gifted horsemen on the NYRA circuit, one that many feel was railroaded when he was slapped with a 10-year suspension. He was also brash, opinionated, and never afraid of a microphone, especially when the topic of conversation was one of his fastest trainees. As gifted a conditioner as he was, Dutrow did himself no favors when it came to public relations.

Horses cannot choose their connections. Many of the four-legged immortals whose form we admire were so talented that their owners and trainers were, in some way, bystanders to their brilliance, just like the rest of us. Man o’ War was that way. So was Secretariat. A case could be made for Zenyatta as well, given her personality and tendency to prance around walking rings as if she owned them (with one exception, she may as well have).

Even if he had cruised to victory in the Belmont Stakes, Big Brown would have never had that luxury. His owners were not the “happy to be there” types, nor was his trainer. A sect of the racing industry would have viewed Big Brown as the black sheep of the Triple Crown winners, horse racing’s equivalent to the cousin or uncle that never gets invited over for Thanksgiving dinner. In no way is this the fault of a supremely talented racehorse that was on the verge of greatness, but such is the legacy of Team Big Brown.

For these reasons, Big Brown has been given the short end of the stick for a decade. In no way is this more evident than when you compare the 2008 standout to a horse of more recent vintage that hit a similar wall (or, more accurately, was hit by a similar hoof) when going a mile and a half in New York.

– – – – –

The year was 2014. A California-bred of humble beginnings had taken the horse racing world by storm, and was now one Big Sandy lap away from doing what Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and Big Brown could not.

California Chrome walked into the starting gate beneath Victor Espinoza, whose career the son of Lucky Pulpit almost singlehandedly revived. Once again, I was there. This time, I was on assignment for HRTV, and I was watching not from the grandstand, but from the Long Island Railroad platform near the top of the stretch, less than 100 yards from the HRTV trailer.

Chrome broke a bit awkwardly, but settled into what seemed like a fine trip. Turning for home, he looked like a winner, and Espinoza began pumping his arms. However, when the eventual Hall of Fame reinsman stepped on the gas pedal, he found that the tank was empty. California Chrome hung and settled for fourth behind Tonalist.

Within 24 hours, former HRTV and TVG colleague Scott Hazelton had unearthed a reason for Chrome’s flat performance. Matterhorn, a hopeless longshot in the race, had stepped on the Triple Crown hopeful out of the gate, causing a massive gash that took social media by storm. In the eyes of the racing world, California Chrome’s effort went from disappointing to borderline heroic, and followers eagerly waited to see when the fan favorite would return to the track.

He raced three more times that year. He was once again one-paced in the Pennsylvania Derby, which was unapologetically viewed by his connections as both a prep and a paid workout given the incentives offered by Parx. He then ran a strong third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race marred by Bayern’s antics out of the starting gate and a non-disqualification that’s even more indefensible now than it was at the time, before cruising home in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby on turf at Del Mar. Despite losing to Bayern twice, and despite failing to win a Grade 1 on dirt after the Preakness, California Chrome was voted the 2014 Horse of the Year.

All of this goes in stark contrast to what took place six years earlier. Big Brown was stepped on coming out of the gate by a horse named Guadalcanal, a horse for whom Joe Nevills’s “no times 17” haiku would’ve been appropriate. As Desormeaux said, ESPN followed the trail of blood all the way back to the barn. Big Brown bounced back to win twice more before being retired prior to a highly-anticipated Breeders’ Cup Classic showdown with Curlin…and yet could finish no better than third in Horse of the Year voting. Curlin had done enough to earn the trophy despite a fourth-place finish in the Classic, but the real shock was that Zenyatta, who hadn’t yet run against males, finished second. The four Grade 1 wins, two of which came in Triple Crown races, as well as a win over older horses on turf in a $500,000 race…earned Big Brown 13 first-place votes.

Why does history make Big Brown pay for the sins of his connections? Separate the horse from the humans around him, and you have one of the most brilliant horses since the turn of the millennium, one that may have been even better on turf than he was on dirt. Racing’s lineage is filled with imperfect characters of the human variety, whether any of us want to admit it or not. The way we perceive Big Brown, 10 years after his failed Triple Crown bid, reflects the ever-selective “character clause” that’s so popular in other sports. I’m of the belief that one can separate the horse from the people associated with it, and that this is the way we should approach the 2008 dual classic winner.

2018 Belmont Stakes: Analysis, Selections, Tickets, and Unpopular Opinions

Let’s get one crucifixion-inducing opinion out of the way right now: If Justify loses the Belmont Stakes, thus failing to win horse racing’s Triple Crown, there’s a chance I make a LOT of money.

In my heart, I want Justify to channel Secretariat and guzzle the field with the type of performance where he could stop at King Umberto’s for a slice and a Jay Privman handshake going around the first turn, chow down on the backstretch, burp a few times around the far turn, and win by 20. If I’ve said this once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Horse racing needs stars, and if Justify can go from an unraced maiden to a Triple Crown winner in less than four months, he’ll ascend to a level few equines of the past century have reached.

From a gambling standpoint, though, I think it’s worth trying to beat him (as I also explained following the Preakness). The old gambling adage says to never bet a horse, as the favorite, to do something it’s never done before. The Belmont will be Justify’s sixth start in less than four months, and it will be contested at the grueling distance of a mile and a half against a sizable field, some of whom are bred up and down for this trip (more on two of them later). His Preakness wasn’t atrocious, but it was certainly a step back from his prior efforts. If he brings his Kentucky Derby form with him Saturday, maybe the race is for second. If he brings his Preakness form, where he edged two longshots by less than a length (one of which he dusted two weeks prior), then the race is much more wide-open than the odds board will say it is.

For those reasons, I think it’s prudent to take a swing against Justify in the Belmont. If Justify wins, I’ll consider my $40 money well-spent to ensure racing’s pantheon of greats opens its doors to another one, and I’ll cheer right along with the racing public. However, if one of the two horses I’m using in the all-stakes Pick Four wins, I stand to make, to quote former TVG colleague Todd Schrupp, racks on racks on racks (hi, Todd!).

We’ll dive into that Pick Four later, but first, we’ll talk about the races that comprise the early Pick Five. I like that sequence, and it’s one where you may be rewarded handsomely even without the presence of big prices. Let’s take a look!

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 1,6
R2: 2,3,6,7
R3: 4,6
R4: 3,7
R5: 3,9

64 Bets, $32

I don’t have singles on my ticket, and that’s by design. I think many of these races can be whittled down to just two horses, with the second being the most wide-open of the bunch.

I couldn’t get past the two likely favorites in the opener, as #1 LA MONEDA and #6 WAR CANOE look like the ones to beat. The former comes back to turf after a race she probably needed off the long layoff, while the latter outran her 38-1 odds when third in a state-bred stakes race last month and gets class relief here.

The second race is the Easy Goer, which last year was won by eventual champion West Coast. I can’t see a horse in here getting that good by year’s end, but it’s a solid group. #2 MASK looks imposing if you can forgive his clunker in the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile, which was in a bog off of a four-month break. I’m using him, but I don’t think he’s any sort of a cinch. #3 RUGBYMAN graduated by a city block last time out, #6 BREAKING THE RULES is 2 for 2 and bred up and down for distance, and #7 DARK VADER comes in off a lifetime-best effort in a classy optional claimer (the third-place finisher came back to win a Cal-bred stakes race).

Race #3 is the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps for older fillies and mares. #6 ABEL TASMAN is a must-use. She’ll be favored and appears to be working with a purpose since her seasonal debut, where she ran fourth in the Grade 1 La Troienne. We know she can handle Belmont, and Bob Baffert may have her fully cranked. However, I also need to use #4 PACIFIC WIND. She’s 2 for 2 since coming to the Chad Brown barn, and one of those wins came in the Grade 2 Ruffian. If you toss out last year’s Grade 2 Bayakoa over a quirky Los Alamitos surface, she’s undefeated on dirt, and I think she could give last year’s Champion 3-Year-Old Filly all she can handle.

The fourth is the Grade 1 Acorn. #3 MONOMOY GIRL may be the shortest-priced favorite on the card, and that includes Justify in the Belmont. She’s emerged as the top 3-year-old filly in the country, but I have enough reservations here to where I cannot single her and move on. I think she’s a two-turn horse, and her lone one-turn race on dirt, while a win, came over a soft field. The other one I need to have on my ticket is #7 TALK VEUVE TO ME, who ran really well when second in the Grade 2 Eight Belles. She was nearly five lengths clear of the third-place finisher that day, and I don’t think this distance will be a problem. The outside post helps her, and she’ll certainly be a playable price.

The payoff leg is the Grade 2 Brooklyn for older horses going a mile and a half. #9 WAR STORY won this race last year and has done tremendous work when placed in the right spots (also known as steering clear of Gun Runner). He was very impressive in this race a season ago, and a repeat effort would make him tough. The only horse I could see beating him is #3 HARD STUDY, who is a perfect 6 for 6 over fast dirt tracks and exits a runaway win in the Flat Out, which serves as Belmont’s local prep for this event.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #8

R8: 1,3,4,5,7
R9: 2,4,10,11
R10: 1,10
R11: 4,8

80 Bets, $40

Yep, not only am I tossing Justify, but I’m also trying to beat Mind Your Biscuits in the Grade 1 Met Mile. I’ll talk a bit more about that when we get to that race.

The eighth is the Grade 1 Just a Game, and I don’t have a clue. I spread pretty deep in here, and if I could’ve afforded to buy the race, I would have done so. Chad Brown’s got a few strong runners in here, as both #3 OFF LIMITS and #7 A RAVING BEAUTY could win. Depending on how the turf course is playing, though, #4 LULL could be dangerous. She’s the main early speed in this race, and Belmont’s turf course tends to be very kind to horses that are forwardly-positioned. If she’s allowed to dictate terms, she could forget to stop, and if that happens, we’ll start this wager off with a mild upset.

The ninth is the Grade 1 Met Mile, and as mentioned, I’m against #1 MIND YOUR BISCUITS. Yes, he ran a colossal race in Dubai, when he rallied from well back on a track that had been favoring speed for weeks. Having said that, his record at this distance isn’t great. He was second in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile last year, and he ran OK that day, but he actually lost ground to Sharp Azteca late, which isn’t what you want to see from a closer. The rail draw also presents a problem, and it’s not like there’s much early speed signed on.

I’m going four-deep without using that one, and my top pick is a big price on the morning line. That’s #4 MCCRAKEN, who’s perfect at this distance, has been pointed to this race for months by his connections, and could be sitting on a big performance second off of the long layoff. #10 BEE JERSEY seems like the main speed, and #11 AWESOME SLEW never seems to run a bad race, so I had to use them both. Finally, I threw #2 BOLT D’ORO on my ticket as well. If you toss out the Kentucky Derby, where he was not persevered with late, he fits with this group, and he’s been working lights-out at Keeneland since that effort.

I couldn’t get past the two Chad Brown trainees in the 10th, the Grade 1 Manhattan. #1 ROBERT BRUCE and #10 BEACH PATROL look like the best horses in here, and while the former can certainly win, I prefer the latter. The Grade 1 Turf Classic at Churchill Downs was contested over one of the wettest turf courses we’ve seen over the past several years, and Beach Patrol ran a game second in a race that doubled as his first start in six months while going shorter than he probably wants to go. This trip should be more to his liking, and if he’s fully-cranked, I think he’ll be tough to beat.

This brings us to the Belmont Stakes. You already know that I’m taking a stand against Justify. Instead, I’ll rely on top pick #4 HOFBURG, who’s bred up and down for this trip and had a ton of trouble in the Kentucky Derby, and #8 VINO ROSSO, whose one-paced style and distance-oriented pedigree make him a natural fit for this race. Perhaps they need Justify to regress, but if that happens and this ticket hits, it’s entirely possible we’re looking at a massive score by my modest standards.

CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: Justify, The Triple Crown, And a Realist Hoping He’s Wrong

Few fans of this game want a Triple Crown more than I do. Four times between 2003 and 2014, I went to Belmont Park begging for a coronation, and four times, I left dejected.

Funny Cide left his race on the training track several days before the race and was no match for Empire Maker, a horse who may as well have been typed into the “Belmont winners” table on Wikipedia the moment Toussaud was bred to Unbridled. Smarty Jones was the victim of something that most closely resembled an ambush, one that makes this handicapper do a double-take whenever a certain jockey-turned-commentator criticizes a ride. California Chrome was stepped on coming out of the gate, but quietly ran a gigantic race in defeat. He looked like a winner up until mid-stretch, when the Cal-Bred That Could finally ran out of gas after taking the sport on the first of two wild rides he’d orchestrate. Big Brown…well, we’ll never really know what happened there, and that proved to be the first domino to fall in one of the most fascinating stories in horse racing history (this Deadspin article is required reading).

I say all of this as a preface to a statement I don’t want to make. It’s one that goes against every fiber of my being as a racing fan, which every turf writer and broadcaster still is at heart. If the below statement is wrong, I will gladly endure the mocking on Twitter that I openly spurn most of the time.

Here goes. Inhale…exhale…Justify will not win the Triple Crown.

(ducks to avoid an onslaught of tomatoes, detached chair legs, and anything else that isn’t nailed down)

Can I come up now and explain myself? OK, good.

What Justify has done to this point in his career is nothing short of phenomenal. It isn’t just that he defied the Curse of Apollo, and it’s not just that he went on to add the Preakness Stakes this past Saturday. In less than 100 days, Justify has gone from an unraced prospect to the biggest name in horse racing, winning five starts in an era where top-level horses often need that 100-day period between races for such cardinal sins as running second or third in a Grade 1.

In this era of racing, horses do not do what Justify has done over the past three-plus months. Gone are the days where 3-year-olds would run six to eight times at two, and then have four or five starts before the Triple Crown on top of that. Present-day horses are bred to be “brilliant,” often being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars based on “breezes” of one furlong long before they’ve fully matured.

Amidst this environment, Justify has won five races, three of the Grade 1 variety and two designated as American classics. That he has done so makes him an exceptional thoroughbred. That he has done so in slightly longer than it took Phileas Fogg to circumnavigate the globe in Jules Verne’s classic novel, “Around the World in Eighty Days,” puts him in different air than even the best horses we’ve seen in recent racing history.

That journey also makes him appear very vulnerable heading into the 2018 Belmont Stakes.

The obvious reason for not being high on Justify was his run in the Preakness, where he held off Bravazo and Tenfold to win by a rapidly-diminishing half-length. Yes, he had to match strides with the talented Good Magic early, but he did so through reasonable fractions over a very fast track. Those splits were significantly slower than the ones he endured two weeks earlier, and while the final time was sharp (a shade below 1:56 for the 1 3/16-mile distance), it’s worth pointing out, yet again, that the sloppy track consistently produced fast times all day long.

Justify earned a 97 Beyer Speed Figure Saturday, a significant regression from the 103 he earned in the Kentucky Derby (which, itself, was a slight decrease from the 107 number he was given for his win in the Santa Anita Derby). A 97 Beyer Speed Figure may not be enough in three weeks against a field that figures to include several horses freshened up since the Kentucky Derby. The likes of Hofburg, Vino Rosso, and fellow WinStar Farm charge Audible could all be waiting for another shot at Justify, and after Saturday’s step back, it’s tough to say there’s any reason for any of those colts not to try again. Bravazo and Tenfold are nice horses, but Bravazo was a distant sixth in the Kentucky Derby, and Tenfold didn’t even qualify to run in that event.

Furthermore, the Belmont Stakes will be Justify’s sixth race in less than four months. On its own, that’s daunting enough. Consider this, though: Justify will be running in that race, contested at the grueling distance of 1 1/2 miles, after barely holding on over second-tier 3-year-olds going five-sixteenths of a mile shorter, all with a picture-perfect trip. There are times where you can safely assume the Belmont distance won’t be a problem for a horse. This isn’t one of those instances.

One of my best friends in the game is Joe Nevills, and prior to the Kentucky Derby, he did a piece on the average winning distances of each Derby sire. Scat Daddy ranked eighth of 14 sires, with an AWD of just under seven furlongs. Meanwhile, Tapit, who has sired the last two Belmont winners and figures to be represented by Hofburg in this year’s renewal, was second on that list, and Curlin (the sire of Vino Rosso) checked in third. On its own, it’s not necessarily a damning statistic, but given what we saw Saturday and the trials and tribulations that come with running five times since mid-February, there are serious questions about whether this undefeated star can go 12 furlongs.

I would love nothing more than to be wrong about all of this. If Justify reveals himself as a superhorse and gallops home like fellow Bob Baffert trainee American Pharoah did three years ago, that’s just fine with me. Racing needs stars, and it needs them to run consistently over long periods of time. I say this next statement without a shred of hyperbole or exaggeration: If Justify was to pull off a sweep of the Triple Crown races after being an unraced maiden less than four months prior to the Belmont, it would be one of the greatest stories in the history of the game.

Unfortunately, what I saw Saturday at the end of the Preakness wasn’t a horse being eased to the wire like one with plenty in reserve. Mike Smith’s subtle easing of Justify as he came to the wire struck me as a move made to save a few drops of gas for another taxing race in three weeks, one where the competition figures to be considerably tougher (even with the likely absence of Good Magic in mind). As a fan, I crave a Secretariat-like performance, one that puts him in horse racing’s highest pantheon of four-legged immortals that boasts a gate opened just once in the past 40 years.

As a handicapper? I don’t think it’s happening.

A Recent History of the “Loaded Allowance”

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.