Next Sunday is a significant day in American sports. We all know that it’s Super Bowl Sunday, but more importantly ,it is the end of the NFL season and the networks, which bend over backwards to show anything NFL related will have to actually turn their attention to other sports played across the great nation.
To horse racing fans, the first Saturday in May has an endearing quality, but the first Saturday in February means that only12 weeks remain before Kentucky Derby day. February will also see the prep race schedule heat up as the 10 point race become 50 point races, with the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial and Louisiana Derby lurking on the prep table. The first 50 point race is the February 22 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Thus far, there have been 14 preps that have had point values for the Derby; nine of those took place in 2013 for the then two year olds. Only 20 will qualify for the Kentucky Derby and right now, there are three horses tied atop the standings with Havana, Cairo Prince, and Honor Code with 14 points. In yesterday’s Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Cairo Prince destroyed an 11 horse field, covering the 1 1/16 miles in an impressive 1:42.
On paper, it looked like a great, competitive field, but once the gates opened, the son of Pioneer of the Nile outclassed the field. Is Cairo Prince the early favorite for the Derby? Right now, I say yes, but let’s wait and see. Many expect the Prince’s next start to be at Gulfstream in the Fountain of Youth, as many trainers use the Florida circuit to get to Churchill Downs which has the Florida Derby as its showcase race. The last colt to complete the Holy Bull-Florida Derby double was Barbaro and he went on to win the Kentucky Derby in 2006.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is pointing the colt to the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream on February 22 and says that his colt will probably run two more prep races meaning that if all goes well, the Florida Derby on March 29 will be on his schedule.
Next week is the Grade III Withers Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack, a 10 point race. Samraat is expected to be the early favorite and will be joined by Uncle Sigh. Also included are Classic Giacnroll and Scotland who were second and third in the Jerome on January 4, at Aqueduct. Last year, Revolutionary won the Withers, and ended up third in the Kentucky Derby. In 2006, Bernadini won the race and eventually captured the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.
In other news, Mucho Macho Man made his 2014 debut in the Sunshine Millions Classic last weekend at Gulfstream Park and showed that he had no rust from winning the Breeder’s Cup Classic as he routed the field to add $240,000 to his career earnings. He breezed to victory, taking the lead at the six furlong marker, which he passed in 1:10.52 before running an easy 1:48.76 for 1 1/8 miles. Next up could be the Dubai World Cup or the Santa Anita Handicap.
The Eclipse Awards were given out on January 18 and there were few, if any surprises. Wise Dan, despite some naysayers, easily repeated as Horse of the Year and of course, top older male. I thought he was the best horse and his 1:31.75 effort at Woodbine was his shining moment, and his determined, gritty effort at the Breeder’s Cup Mile warranted the award.
Royal Delta, who tired at the end of the year picked up the top older female award and is now happily retired. When she was on, nobody was better and she won many admirers along the way. Will Take Charge, who after the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown looked like an afterthought, roared back in the second half of the year to win three year old male honors and looks like he will next run in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park
Beholder won top three year old female over Princess of Sylmar in easy fashion, which puzzled me. Yes, she won the Breeder’s Cup Distaff, but Princess of Sylmar deserved more consideration. The Princess won four straight graded stakes including the coveted Kentucky Oaks then destroyed the classy Royal Delta in the Beldame at Belmont, but her year-end loss in the Distaff probably did her in. The good news is that she will run again in 2014.
Todd Pletcher and Javier Castellano won top trainer and jockey honors and barring something strange will be in play for these awards again in 2014. Pletcher is likely to have several colts ready to run in the Kentucky Derby and Castellano will get his share of mounts.
2014 saw the return of the ageless D.Wayne Lukas to prominence and let’s hope that Nick Zito can re-emerge in 2014. Has anybody seen the New Yorker lately? Once a fixture at Triple Crown races, Zito has been fairly quiet the past few years.
Enjoy the Super Bowl and get it out of your system because there are other sports in the offing and it’s time to pay attention.