Like most states, New York divides its racing season into segments, spreading it to its three race tracks: Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct. And, it’s the forgotten track, Aqueduct, that is the most used of the three. With it’s winterized inner track, the Big A is the track that’s open when most people want to be inside. The Big A has a fall meet, winter meet and spring meet. The racing season at the Big A starts in late October and runs through April, that’s six months of action.
Belmont and Saratoga get the most press because they have the biggest races, often leaving the old Big A neglected. Even the Big A’s signature race, the Wood Memorial is just one of many big Kentucky Derby prep races.
Last Saturday, after the Thanksgiving feasts had been eaten and Black Friday shopping had passed, Aqueduct had it’s showcase day of its Fall Meet. Four big stakes races, highlighted by the $500,000 Cigar Mile, named after the legendary horse who passed away in October.
Two of the races were for the babies; the 2 year olds; with the Remsen for the boys and the Demoiselle for girls, and of the two, the most impressive performance went to the filly Condo Commando, who won the Demoiselle by 9 lengths in 1:50:40 for 1 1/8 miles. Ironically, Condo Commando was the winner in Tom Durkin’s last race call at Saratoga back in September, but history aside, this is a good looking filly who appears to have it all; ability to rate, stalk and finish. She got the 1 1/8 miles with ease and has to be considered one of the 3 year olds to watch in 2015.
Leave the Light On won a thrilling stretch duel to capture the Remsen in 1:51:06 for nine furlongs. The times were not impressive, but the Big A doesn’t always yield the fast times that it’s brother 8 miles away, Belmont, does. Further evidence of the slow times came in the Grade 3 Comely Stakes. The 1 1/8 race for 3 year old fillies saw a walk-the-dog pace and eventual winner Snowbell had her way, cutting easy fractions of 25, 50.97, 1:16.22 and 1:40.37 before winning comfortably in 1:52.59.
The only race that saw a relatively quick pace was the big one, the Cigar Mile. Originally the NYRA Mile, the race was named for the aforementioned Cigar and now holds its place firmly on the Saturday after Thanksgiving on the NYRA meet. In this edition, the pace was quick with a 22.18 opening quarter. Private Zone took the lead through a 44.18 half and then a 1:08.34 three-quarters before coasting home in 1:34.39. The five year old son of Macho Uno is a Canadian bred and he rebounded nicely from a 10th place finish in the Breeder’s Cup Sprint to push his earnings to $858,000 for the year and $1.5 million for his career. He’s a seasoned, venerable horse with two wins in four starts this year and in 25 career starts, he has 7 wins, 7 seconds and 2 thirds. A worthy Cigar Mile champion for sure.
The other big East Coast race of Thanksgiving weekend was the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs with Hoppertunity pulling away in the stretch to win in 1:49.88 over nine furlongs. The Bob Baffert trained colt was aiming for the Triple Crown but two days before the Kentucky Derby he was scratched because of a bruised foot and later, they found bone chips in his ankle.
The other race of note last weekend was the $300,000 Hollywood Derby at Del Mar, which featured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, California Chrome, making his turf. The 3 year old, who will race as a 4 year old looked very comfortable on the turf winning the nine furlong affair in 1:47.88. He stalked nicely through fractions of 23.56, 46.95 and 1:11.48 and easily defeated a very good filly, 2014 Queen’s Plate winner Lexie Lou in the process.
Horse racing is often unpredictable and there were many who thought after Chrome’s dull performance in the Pennsylvania Derby that his career may be coming to an end, but suddenly the colt has found good form again. He was more than solid with his third place finish in the Breeder’s Cup and his win in the Hollywood Derby was impressive as well. If you’re a fan of the sport, you have to be excited about him running as a 4 year old.
Lastly, no other racing body gives more stakes races than NYRA, which announced earlier in the week that they will finish 2014 $1.5 million in the black. Even today, the card at Aqueduct is highlighted by the $100,000 Garland of Roses, a 6 furlong affair. When most tracks are offering $18,000 claiming races, NYRA tries to keep things interesting and that’s to be commended.
Finger Lakes racing season concluded yesterday and even though it’s a New York track, it is not owned by NYRA, which some believe. Affectionately known as “The Thumb,” by Rochester area fans, the Finger Lakes season runs from mid-April to early December. We’ll recap the Finger Lakes racing season in my next column which will look back on the George Barker, New York Derby and some impressive performances by Clean Jean and a few other Finger Lakes “legends.” Unlike the bigger tracks, Finger Lakes is a bit more like a fraternity or sorority if you will. Many of the Finger Lakes based horses started their careers elsewhere and for many reasons, end up at stalled in Farmington. As some horses travel from track to track, the Finger Lakes horses, once they’re here, they usually stay here. The good part of this is that the local horse players get to know them and they became fan favorites. Clean Jean is one such horse. The 6 year old mare has won 11 times in her Finger Lakes career and with that record, why take her to another track? She is the favorite for Horse of the Year, but it is far from a lock. And, now, the long winter at Finger Lakes begins.
Until then, enjoy the races!