The most anticipated juvenile starter of the summer didn’t disappoint in her first afternoon appearance. Rachel’s Valentina went to post as the 6-5 favorite in her debut race at Saratoga on Sunday and won the six-furlong maiden special weight by two lengths over Awesome Dame in a time of 1:10.39. “We knew she was fast but this was a tough race,” said owner Barbara Banke after. “I’m so glad it went well. She was awesome.” (All quotes via NYRA.)
Rachel Alexandra’s 2-year-old Bernardini filly was — as trainer Todd Pletcher said before she started — slow to get going. Jockey John Velazquez had her under a hard ride down the backstretch. She picked up the pace with a strong move on the outside as the field came into the turn and entered the stretch running wide. Once she hit the lead, she didn’t need Velazquez’s encouragement to draw away. “There were no issues saving any ground, going four wide,” said Velazquez. “She really runs.”
Pletcher, who called the race “everything you can hope for in a debut,” said a start in the September 5 Spinaway Stakes was a possibility.
Maybe this is sentiment, but seeing the Stonestreet silks on a bay filly rounding perfectly into the stretch, poised to win, gave me a Rachel Alexandra flashback — for a moment, I thought I was seeing Valentina’s mother. Whatever she does next, I’m glad to have felt that thrill again.
Rachel’s Valentina, the second foal of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, is set to make her debut in race two at Saratoga on Sunday. It’s a six-furlong maiden special weight, and the 2-year-old Bernardini filly is the 6-5 morning line favorite in a field of eight that includes Awesome Dame and Big World, the second- and third-place finishers of the July 2 maiden special at Belmont Park that was won by buzzy Tonasah. Big World came out of it as one to watch — the Tony Dutrow-trained filly recovered well from a poor break and a wide turn to round out the trifecta. Sixth-place finisher Fabulous Devotion is the only other starter from the July 2 Belmont race yet to return, and she finished third in a maiden special at Parx on Monday.
Trainer Todd Pletcher isn’t overselling his expectations for Rachel’s Valentina: “She’s trained very well and she’s as ready as we can have her,” he told the NYRA press office. “She’s not super quick away from the gate, [so] it’s probably not her ideal distance but it’s a good starting point to build on.”
Rachel Alexandra ran sixth at 27-1 in her 2008 debut, a 4 1/2 furlong maiden special on dirt at Churchill Downs. “No menace,” says the chart. She won her second start three weeks later, going five furlongs. In a nice bit of timing, her filly is debuting on Haskell day, exactly six years after Rachel Alexandra won the 2009 Haskell in peerless fashion:
Trainer Barclay Tagg also has an interesting first-time starter in Sunday’s race — Tale for Ruby. The Tale of Ekati filly had two bullet gate works in a row at Belmont Park on July 6 and 13; her sire’s 15% with debut winners. Tagg was quick to score at Saratoga, and one of his first two winners (from two starters) was the 11-1 firster Realm in last Saturday’s first juvenile race.
There were two more juvenile races at Saratoga on Thursday, both won by Pletcher. Race three went to Sudden Surprise, the first starter for New York sire Giant Surprise, who raced once, winning a 2011 juvenile maiden special at Saratoga (he came out of his debut injured). In race five the runner-up was an MTO entry for trainer Bill Mott — True Pleasure drew in when heavy rain forced the 5 1/2 furlong maiden special off turf and finished second in the slop at 12-1 to favored Island Saint, also an MTO entry. The takeaway — with two wins and two seconds from four starters, Mott first-time babies are still live.
8/1/15 Addendum: A little more from Pletcher on Valentina via David Grening (DRF+): “She’s shown enough quality and class and precocity to win first time out,” Pletcher said. “At the same time, she’s not super quick away from the gate, and the ones that are, you can get a pretty good handle on them winning first time out at short distances. Some of these other ones you know want more ground. It might take a race or two to get there. We’re hoping for a good start and clean trip and something to move her forward on to bigger and better things down the road.”
The likely field for the Haskell is Competitive Edge, Keen Ice, Mr. Jordan, Tekton, Top Clearance, Upstart, and War Story. Competitive Edge and Upstart are cross-entered in the Jim Dandy; Tekton is another whose connections are hedging their bets. The decision may now be easier for them — Monmouth announced today that the Haskell purse has been raised to $1.75 million:
Monmouth Park Racetrack has announced a $750,000 purse increase to the William Hill Haskell Invitational, which is to be renewed for the 48th time this Sunday, Aug. 2.
“The Haskell has been called the fourth jewel of the Triple Crown,” said Bob Kulina, president of Darby Development LLC, operators of Monmouth Park Racetrack. “With the Derby purse at $2 million and the Preakness and Belmont going to $1.5 million, it’s only fitting that we join in that mix for our race, which has proven itself the next logical step for 3-year-olds following the Triple Crown.”
Four days down, 36 to go, and Bill Mott has emerged as the early leader in the race for this year’s trainer title. Hott Mott’s won six races from 13 starts so far and only one of his winners — My Friend Keith in Monday’s finale — was a favorite. His horses have finished second or third in four other races. DRF Formulator calculates his ROI at $7.79. That can’t last! Including the first days of Saratoga ’15, Mott’s win rate is 16% and his ROI $1.44 for all starters over the past five years. His elevated numbers opening weekend partially come from an unexpected source — Mott won with two juvenile first-time starters, both in 1 1/16 mile Maiden Special Weights on the turf. Saturday’s winner, Site Read, was 21-1. Sunday’s winner, Sage Hall, 12-1. Mott’s third debuting 2-year-old starter, Rebelle, finished second to Sage Hall, a $258 exacta.
Who else is winning, at least in the meet’s first few juvenile races? Trainer Todd Pletcher’s tied with Mott for two wins, thanks to the disqualification of Magna Light from first in the Sanford Stakes after he veered out in deep stretch when rider Jose Ortiz struck him on the left and then veered back in when struck on the right. Magna Light was bumped to third, runner-up Uncle Vinny to first, and Percolator moved to second. I’m a little sore about the DQ, so instead of ranting, I’ll point to David Grening’s quick (and paywalled) take:
In my opinion, this is a terrible call.
Magna Light was well clear of the rest of the field and while he acted dramatically from the whip of Ortiz he did not bother anybody or cost them the race. He did come back over and got next to Percolator but I don’t think he bothered him. Carmouche never stopped riding.
Kendrick Carmouche, the rider of #10 Percolator, lodged an objection against the winner, #4 Magna Light, for alleged interference in stretch. #4 Magna Light racing on the lead shifts out several paths after passing the 1/8 pole. #10 steadies briefly though #4 is clear when crossing. #4 then drifts back down toward the #10 in the final strides causing #4 to steady. #4 finishes third, beaten a half-length for second.
[SIC] on the final two instances in the above paragraph where the stewards mistype #4 for #10. “More significantly,” writes Tom Noonan:
… is that there is no explanation for their decision. Was it the first move by Magna Light that was the problem, or was it the second? Did it affect the outcome of the race, or was he being penalized for interference even though it did not affect the final result?
“There is a different set of standards in racing for Rudy Rodriguez,” Dubb … said standing next to his trainer outside the winner’s circle. “Maybe because he is Mexican. He is picked on. He is being held to a different set of standards in racing all together and is being treated unfairly. It’s not good, but it’s the world we live in.”
Steve Asmussen, Roderick Rodriguez, Barclay Tagg, and Rick Violette were the other trainers to win juvenile races during the first four days. Chad Brown finished second with both of his 2-year-old starters. If you’d like to dig more into the first eight juveniles races this meet, here’s a spreadsheet (XLS), which includes each starter and their trainer, jockey, sire, last race, etc.
Watch: Greenpointcrusader, second to Pletcher’s Saratoga Mischief in the fifth race on Saturday. It was the first start for this Dominick Schettino-trained Bernardini colt who’s a 1/2 to graded stakes winners Keyed Entry and Justin Phillip and a full brother to 2012 Holy Bull winner Algorithms. He seemed to figure out what he was being asked to do in the final sixteenth.
Thursday’s Massachusetts Gaming Commission meeting should have started with a bit of good news for Thoroughbred racing in the Commonwealth: It had a vetted application from Suffolk Downs to run three days this year on its agenda. It had a recommendation from state racing director Alex Lightbown to approve that application. It had Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle in the room to answer any lingering questions about the proposed plan, which called for an organization helmed by racetrack executive Lou Raffeto to run live racing on August 8, September 5, and October 3 for up to $500,000 in daily purses, with at least three state-bred stakes carded.
Instead, after 75 minutes of sometimes contentious discussion and occasionally fantastical testimony from trainer Bill Lagorio that the Stronach Group was interested in leasing the track to run a full meet, the Commission voted 4-1 to delay a decision on the application for two weeks, in the vague hope of establishing that interest. “We would be interested in a bigger deal, if a bigger deal could be made,” said Commission chair Steven Crosby. “I would like to know if there is a viable option out there.”
Commissioner James McHugh was alone in pushing back, asking how two more weeks would clarify the situation. A letter of interest from the Stronach Group had been requested, he said, “and it didn’t materialize.”
Prediction: It won’t. The Stronach Group sent a rather tepid statement via email re: the discussions reported by Lagorio and confirmed by Tuttle:
The horsemen contacted The Stronach Group to see if there was any interest. We contacted the ownership of Suffolk Downs to see if there was any way to participate in the racing operation. We’re a racing company, we look at racing properties. Boston is a big market and we have a lot of racing content. There is absolutely nothing in place after a few calls were made.
Lagorio, the leader of a group of horsemen opposing the three-day plan on the grounds that it doesn’t adequately support Massachusetts racing, recounts more positively his conversations with Stronach COO Tim Ritvo in a July 20 letter to commissioner Gayle Cameron (page 27 in this PDF):
I also had major breakthrough with the Stronach Group, on Thursday afternoon I received a call from Tim Ritvo … he told me his company had reviewed everything I had presented to him … and that they would like to be … here in the Commonwealth … Stronach views the Boston market as being untapped with unlimited potential; they’re looking for an opening to make it possible … Tim wasn’t sure if he would be able to make on the 23rd but said he would email the commission to verify to you their interest in making Massachusetts part of their success story.
At one point in Thursday’s meeting, the trainer said that the Stronach Group was so sure of Massachusetts’ racing promise that Ritvo had said they “didn’t need” the Racehorse Development Fund, which is funded by a percentage of casino license fees and revenues. The money is split 75-25 with the state’s harness racing industry and is available to support purses and breeding.
“Anyone who says they don’t need the Racehorse Development Fund is crazy in my mind,” replied Crosby.
Tuttle told the Commission that Ritvo “expressed a polite level of interest.”
The opposition horsemen would like to run at least 50 days and believe the $1.7 million in Racehorse Development Fund money allocated for the proposed purses in the three-day plan is better banked for a longer meet. Lagorio stated in Thursday’s meeting that $1.7 million could support several weeks of racing at the level it was run at Suffolk Downs in 2014 — never mind that that’s hardly the kind of racing anyone wants to watch or bet, or the sort of meet a shrinking industry with too-few foals is capable of supporting.
Crosby became caught up enough in the possibility of Stronach interest that he tried exploring how the Commission could use their power over Suffolk Downs’ simulcasting license to compel negotiations. “What’s the incentive for Suffolk Downs to negotiate?,” the chair asked after McHugh noted that without control of the simulcast signal, the Stronach Group wouldn’t see value in a lease to run racing. The subject was dropped when Tuttle protested that there was no reason for the Commission to compel any talks with an application for racing that met all statutory requirements pending.
“I’m speechless at this point,” he said. “To allow the leader of the dissidents to get up and talk about a potential offer that realistically has no merit in the long run? They can talk about it all they want, but as soon as the Stronach people come and take one look at the balance sheet of Suffolk Downs, they’re going to run so far in the other direction, and the horsemen will be left hanging.
“There is no way in the world that any other entity can come in here and lease this track and make it viable. I’ve seen the balance sheet and that’s the fact.”
That fact is why an earlier proposal for the New England HBPA to lease the track and run a full meet this year had to be scrapped when it became apparent that — even with the Racehorse Development Fund and a legislative rejiggering of revenue splits — there was no way to run without still losing money. The national HBPA and New England HBPA support the three-day plan.
“I’ve learned to expect the unexpected with this commission,” he said. “We reached a deal with the horsemen and breeders, and we are going to do our best to honor that, within reason. If we get any additional delays, we’re going to have to look at some other options.”
Suffolk’s COO also pointed out that the Stronach Group has had plenty of time to make something of their interest, telling Snierson:
“The Stronach Group is a very reputable and respectable racetrack operator, but they have had 10 months to kick the tires and express any legitimate interest, and we have never seen a proposal from them.”
There’s one juvenile I’m looking forward to seeing at Saratoga above all the other well-bred babies who will debut between Friday and Labor Day and that’s Rachel’s Valentina, the second foal of Rachel Alexandra. The 2-year-old filly by Bernardini is in Todd Pletcher’s Oklahoma barn, and she’s been working steadily since late May. David Grening reports that the trainer says she’s “about two works away from running” (DRF+):
“She acts like a filly with quality that you would certainly expect to improve with distance,” Pletcher said. “When you get a horse like that, it’s exciting to get one with that type of pedigree. It goes without saying that everyone has high hopes. They still have to do it. We’ve been very pleased with the way she’s performed since coming in.”
Watch for stablemate Anna House in race six on opening day — the first-time starter breezed four furlongs from the gate with Rachel’s Valentina on July 11. Valentina posted a bullet :47.04, Anna House :47.05.
[Trainer Kiaran] McLaughlin said Jess’s Dream has suffered from “little issues” such as respiratory problems caused by allergies. “Really weird stuff but he’s doing well,” he said.
7/26/15 Update: Rachel’s Valentina worked again from the gate, going four furlongs in :48.55 with stablemate Preppy. “I thought she worked very well. She’s not super quick away from the gate but she makes up for it once she gets going,” Pletcher told the NYRA press office. “We’ll see how she comes out of it and look through the condition book and try and figure something out.”
So-called “mini-Breeders’ Cups” are a growing trend, but are they always a good thing? With the Saratoga meet extending over 40 days, does it make sense to cram nearly half the Grade 1s (6 of 15) into a three-hour period on a single one of those days? At a time when attendance has been in steady decline, wouldn’t it be better to keep the major attractions more evenly distributed, to give people — especially close followers of the sport — more of a reason to come to the track all seven weekends of the meet, not just four or five of them?
… many of them were not happy [California Chrome] spent most of this year overseas. I have read, heard or been contacted about everything from wanting to know if it is possible to sue majority owner Perry Martin for animal abuse since he had the horse leave the country, to people thinking no one in England has ever cared for a champion racehorse before and that is why Chrome’s season has ended in injury.
The short answer to all of this is: “No. Just no. Please stop.”
My goodness, sue? I’ll cop to doubts about the Royal Ascot plan for Chrome because I worried he wasn’t a top-notch turf runner who could keep up with his likely competition. But I also understood majority owner Perry Martin’s desire to show off his very good horse, and I like to think that I’ve grown more empathetic to the push-pull owners feel when they have a horse like Chrome — the impulse to be conservative and keep a horse doing what you know they’re capable of, versus the sporting urge to go anywhere in the world they can take you. Sometimes you follow the second and it just doesn’t work out.
… Pharoah’s performance in his recent resumption of training would seem to indicate that he remains at the top of his game. “The only time he’s ever come back to the barn blowing and tired was after the Derby,” says Baffert. That race, according to Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza, remains a marvel. “He was empty with a half mile left in the race,” says Baffert. “I mean empty.” Espinoza says, “I started riding him at the half-mile pole and I’m like ‘Holy s—! What’s happening here?” Says Baffert, “You got a horse that’s empty, and wins the Kentucky Derby, that’s a great horse. People told me, ‘You’ve got to run against older horses.’ Trust me, I’m not worried about older horses. Not with this guy.”
It’s begun — as the legend of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win grows, it’ll be the Kentucky Derby that increasingly stands out as his greatest challenge, the race that defines his accomplishment.