It’s been a great first half at Saratoga Race Course in 2014. Thus far, the crowds have been great and the racing, as usual has been of top quality. The highlight at the halfway point has to be Moreno’s upset in the Whitney Handicap. The four year old colt seems to like the Spa; he nearly won the Travers last year, and this year, he wired the field to win the 1 1/8 mile race in 1:48.05. His trainer, the colorful Eric Guillot says the Woodward, to be contested on August 30 may be next.
Palice Malice could only muster a fourth place finish in the Whitney, but to me, that wasn’t a surprise. He’s been the best horse in training in 2014, but he was due to have a flat race, and like last year, he picked Saratoga to do it at. He never got going in last year’s Travers, but PM will be back and it would surprise nobody if he won in his next start.
The Travers is shaping up to be…..the Travers. Let’s be honest, the Travers has lost some of its luster in recent years. There was a time where it was the fourth biggest race in the nation, behind only the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, but over time, other races, with equal or better purses, have rivaled the Midsummer Derby. The Breeder’s Cup is great for horse racing as we know, and because of it, it has knocked the Travers down just a bit. Still, this year’s race will be star studded. Belmont winner Tonalist should be joined by Jim Dandy and Wood Memorial winner, Wicked Strong; Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve; the ever improving Kid Cruz and the Bob Baffert trained Bayern. Bayern may be the wild card in the field. Most think of him as a seven furlonger or miler, but his easy romp in the 1 1/8 mile Haskell at Monmouth Park got people thinking two things. One, is Bayern that good, or two, was the track that day so speed favoring that Bayern did nothing more than steal the race. Hopefully, we’ll get the answer with Bayern in the starting gate on August 23.
NYRA also made news off the track as they named Larry Collmus to replace the retiring Tom Durkin as the chief race caller for NYRA. Collmus is very good and very smooth. Just last year, Collmus left Monmouth Park to take over at Churchill Downs, but now, he is headed back to the Northeast with NYRA. The good news is John Imbriale, the best “backup race caller in the country,” will get to call this year’s Belmont fall meet and will continue as the lead race caller at the Aqueduct Fall and Winter meets. Sure, it’s a bit confusing, but securing Collmus was a good score for NYRA. I would love to know how many were considered for the job and I was surprised that Collmus was willing to leave Churchill after only one year, but to me, NYRA has better racing and Collmus made a very good decision.
Durkin will be missed. Everybody has their reasons for liking and hating any announcer, but Durkin was as good as you can get. One thing I enjoyed was Durkin’s announcing of the fractions and moreover, his comments in describing them. It was fun to hear him say that they “ran the half in a tepid 48 and 2,” or a snappy 21 and 3 for the opening quarter. Collmus is very aware of race fractions, something that TVG isn’t. As they say, “pace makes the race,” and Durkin always made sure of informing the fans of just that.
I’ll save the memorable Durkin moments for the chat rooms and message boards, but to me, his call down the stretch in the 2004 Belmont Stakes remains a classic: “the whip is out on Smarty Jones, it’s been 26 years, it’s just one furlong to go, but Birdstone is an upset threat.” Those who watched Birdstone run down Smarty Jones down to win the 2004 Belmont remember that call well.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 2014 Prince of Wales Stakes, the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown which was held at Fort Erie Race Track on Tuesday, July 29 before nearly 9,000 fans. The Queen’s Plate winner, Lexie Lou, sat the race out and the race was won by Coltimus Prime, who wired the field, covering 1 3/16 miles in 1:54.58. Fort Erie Race Track continues to hang on and survive. Most thought 2013 would be the track’s final act, but not so. They have 37 dates and run on Tuesday and Sunday, and moving the Prince of Wales from Sunday to Tuesday has worked well. Saratoga and Delmar are dark and the crowds have been better since they made the move. The Tuesday post time is 4:15 and the crowd there has been younger and livelier, something the old track needs.
The Canadian Triple Crown is unique because there are three different surfaces that the horses run on: synthetic for the Plate, dirt for the Prince of Wales and turf for the Breeder’s Stakes. Like the United States editions, the distances are 1 ¼, 1 3/16 and 1 ½ miles respectively.
Lexie Lou, the filly who beat 14 boys in the 155th Queen’s Plate will run again this Sunday in the Wonder Where Stakes at Woodbine, going the same 1 ¼ miles, but this time on turf. She will be the heavy favorite as well as the crowd favorite.
Lastly, our yearly salute to harness racing as Trixton won the Hambletonian at the Meadowlands, covering the mile in 1:50.60. The trotting Triple Crown also includes the Yonkers Trot on August 29 and the Kentucky Futurity on October 5. And, to give fair play to pacers, the three races that make up their Triple Crown are the Cane Pace, the Little Brown Jug and the Messenger Stakes. We know that Standardbreds are not as fluid as their Thoroughbred cousins, but they certainly are more durable.
Until next time.