Sunday, March 10, 2013

Weekend Recap: The highs and lows of racing

This weekend recap will encompass two weekends. Last weekend was particularly noteworthy, but as Limerick's colic still besieged my thoughts, I was not yet up to writing a weekend recap at that time.

Here are my two favorite performances of last weekend. March 2 was overall an excellent day of racing.

Tom Fool (Gr. III)  "Best effort of 2013!" Unlike the Santa Anita Handicap, on this day the Tom Fool wasn't a race I was eagerly looking forward to. But it would become the most gutsy race I'd seen so far in 2013. A gelding of the 2008 foal crop, Comma to the Top is one of those consistent racehorses that you can't help but enjoy watching. He puts his share of work in, but is usually not one to dazzle. He broke his own mold on Saturday, March 2.

Making his second start in a week, he led the Tom Fool field through respectable fractions of :22.92 and :46.29. Halfway down the stretch, he was swarmed by a wall of horses from behind and appeared beaten. The gray Head Heart Hoof challenged for the lead and Comma to the Top stubbornly hung on. But then Saturday's Charm came flying down on the outside of Head Heart Hoof and for the second time in the race, I was certain Comma to the Top was beaten. After all, horses don't usually see outside late closers in a situation like this. Saturday's Charm seized the lead but Comma to the Top wasn't finished. With a few short strides to the wire, he battled back valiantly and, unbelievably, thrust his nose in front. The race left me breathless and I immediately texted my husband, who was at work, "Wow, you gotta see the Tom Fool replay. I've rarely seen a more gritty performance!" The 2013 Tom Fool is one of those races that you file away in the memory banks within easy reach, and reference time and time again as the years go by. Click here for a can't-miss race video.

Santa Anita Handicap (Gr. I)  Winner of the 'Big Cap' in 2011, Game On Dude skipped Santa Anita Park for Meydan Racecourse and a try in the Dubai World Cup last year. Ron the Greek, another favorite of mine, won the Big Cap instead and this year, both horses came together in an old fashioned East versus West duel for a second Santa Anita Handicap title.

But the race was won within the first furlong after Game on Dude made a decisive, strong move from the 9 post to the rail and took control of the pace. Game on Dude does his best work freewheeling in the lead and I knew he was very dangerous in this position. Ron the Greek has a strong closing kick, but would it be enough? When it became clear that Game on Dude was running fractions a hair under 12 seconds per furlong, I knew that barring horrid racing luck, he had his second Big Cap in the bag. Cruising away under a hand ride by Mike Smith, he coasted to a 7-plus length win.

It seems that the six-year-old Game on Dude is improved this year--whether it's due to the recent rider change (to Mike Smith from Smith's ex, Chantal Sutherland) or the blooming maturity that Game on Dude's sire, Awesome Again, seems to lend his get, I can't tell you. But he is certainly a horse to watch this year, and as a gelding he will be on the racetrack for as long as his soundness and competitive drive exist.

It's Me Mom at Saratoga before the 2012 Honorable Miss

On March 9, the first race of interest to me was the Lambholm Handicap, a six furlong sprint for fillies and mares at Tampa Bay Downs. It was the first race in six months for It's Me Mom.

It's Me Mom first caught my eye on the cover of the Friday, August 3, 2012 edition of the Daily Racing Form. "It's Me Mom Can Outrun Honrable Miss Field, Page 3" then "Speed of Speed" stated the text below her image. I had somehow never before heard of her, but she would become one of those horses that I couldn't resist following. Perhaps it was the odd nostalgia her name evoked. Maybe it was because we had visited the grave of the speediest of all fillies, Ruffian, the day before, and my mind couldn't help but make a connection. Whatever it was, I ended up taking many photos of her in the Saratoga paddock that sunny August afternoon.

That day, she finished next to last after leading the Honorable Miss field along in a blistering :21.14 and :43.78. She was dynamite. She also led the early furlongs in her next race, the Presque Isle Downs Masters Stakes, but was beaten by 2012 champion sprinter Groupie Doll and two others.

And in the Handicap race on Saturday--her first in six months--she finished last. The chart footnotes say it best: IT'S ME MOM was fractious in the gate prior to the start, broke slowly, rushed to the lead inside but was empty after five furlongs. The opening fractions, established by It's Me Mom, were :22.60 and :45.88. I now realize, after reading the charts of her 2012 races and watching the recent ones, that she is indeed dynamite, but her speed has a fickle fuse. She often wins if she can establish a comfortable, clear lead early with no interference, but that's not always do-able in a sprint race.

It's Me Mom at Saratoga

The Tampa Bay Derby (Gr. II) on March 9 was my top race interest for this past weekend. My preliminary Kentucky Derby pick, the undefeated Verrazano, had won impressively in an allowance race on February 3. The Tampa Bay Derby was his first stakes try. Over the unforgiving track, Verrazano stumbled at the start (it was later reported he cut himself then) but recovered rapidly and pulled jockey John Velazquez around the first turn. I groaned inwardly at this rank behavior and hoped his class could overcome it and the lousy start. He settled down nicely over the backstretch and went into cruise control before they hit the final turn. He lengthened his lead and won comfortably, with gas in the tank.

Verrazano will be pointed towards a 1-1/8 mile race next, possibly the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial. I am looking forward to it!

The Gulfstream Park Handicap (Gr. II) was to be the 2013 debut for 2012 Breeder's Cup Classic winner Fort Larned. Unfortunately, he stumbled badly at the start and lost his rider. But in an interesting turn, he didn't stop there. He bolted past eventual winner Discreet Dancer and the rest of the field and continued down the track, "winning" Secretariat-style by 1/16 of a mile. It was later reported that he grabbed a quarter during his dash around the track but was otherwise unharmed. Clearly, he would have won the race if he had kept his jockey!

A top-class horse losing his or her rider during a race is down there with some of the worst racing luck one can have. Fortunately, no one was harmed and Fort Larned may have benefited from this "workout". Time will tell.

The San Felipe Stakes (Gr. II) was hotly touted as a duel between bright Kentucky Derby prospects Flashback and Goldencents. And duel they did. They locked horns late in the first turn and remained this way until they were in the stretch. Flashback appeared the victor but was overtaken late by a bright chestnut Ghostzapper gelding named Hear the Ghost. Ghostzapper is a favorite stallion of both my husband and I, so we hope this guy continues down the Derby trail.

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