Chris S. has it. Chieftain set a new track record of 1:21 for 7 furlongs at Arlington Park in 1965. The following year, his half brother Tom Rolfe tied that record.
After Mohaymen's professional dusting of five nice rivals in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (USA-G2), the stage is set for an early confontation between potential Triple Crown rivals of a kind perhaps not seen since Bold Ruler and Gen. Duke were knocking heads in Florida in 1957. Having firmly established himself as the "Beast of the East," Mohaymen awaits the arrival of Nyquist, who has every right to claim the title of "Best of the West" until something shows it can beat him.
The catalyst for the showdown is a US$1 million dollar bonus awaiting any Florida sales graduate that can win the Florida Derby. Nyquist, a graduate of the March 2015 Fasig-Tipton sale of 2-year-olds in training, qualifies as eligible, and the winner's share of a US$1 million race plus another million in bonus money is a pretty potent incentive to invade Mohaymen's turf.
Kiaran McLaughlin isn't blinking. He knows what he has in Mohaymen, who not only mastered a good field with the same smooth ease he has shown in his earlier starts this year but showed perfect composure as Zulu delayed loading with a display of temperament. That kind of mental maturity is priceless at Churchill Downs, where the crowd noise and the sheer press of humanity can send a temperamentally fragile animal into meltdown. Once the gates opened, Mohaymen showed the same professionalism in settling well early despite getting a bit of jostling during the early going and in going inside or outside horses as jockey Junior Alvadaro pleased.
Both colts could, of course, go elsewhere. Nyquist could stay home for the Santa Anita Derby (USA-G1), and Mohaymen could go to McLaughlin's New York base for the Wood Memorial (USA-G1). But at this point, neither trainer is backing down. Both have confidence in their unbeaten colts. Thus, it looks as if April 2 may give us the most dramatic Triple Crown prep since Secretariat and Sham were upset by Angle Light in the 1973 Wood Memorial (USA-G1). May the best horse win.
Today's 3-year-old filly races saw the continued development of a contender for the divisional leadership. They also revealed the relative weakness of the Northeastern filly contingent. While Cathryn Sophia took another major step forward to challenging Songbird's claim to the crown in the Davona Dale Stakes (USA-G2), Mo d'Amour had more the look of the best of a weak bunch in the Busher Stakes (USA-L).
In fairness to Mo d'Amour, she would have had to run as if her tail were on fire to come home in a decent time in the Busher after the first 6 furlongs went in a dawdling 1:14.05. She didn't even run as if it were smoking a little, taking about 33 seconds to negotiate the final 5/16 of a mile. Even over a track that clearly wasn't playing any too fast, that isn't reassuring regarding her ability to take on fillies who have proven they can run much faster without breaking a sweat. While her win today continues a nice run for her sire Uncle Mo, who now has four 2016 stakes winners and is well out in front in the second-crop sire standings, Mo d'Amour would have to make considerable progress to be a serious Longines Kentucky Oaks (USA-G1) contender.
Cathryn Sophia, on the other hand, is already there. She is coming along the old-fashioned way, stretching her distances out a little at a time, and so far she has answered every test with careless ease. Today's performance was so effortless that there are now calls for her to step up and take on the boys, just as for Songbird following her Las Virgenes Stakes romp (USA-G2).
For now, it appears that her connections will decline that challenge, just as Songbird's are doing. It may not be what all the fans want, but surely the prospect of seeing these two undefeated fillies collide in the Kentucky Oaks is mouthwatering enough---and challenging enough if they really are the best 3-year-olds of either sex in the country as some are claiming. If they're that good, they will undoubtedly get the chance to prove it further down the line. In the meantime, we can all sit back and enjoy the show.
In one of the more unusual "all in the family" acts in American racing, two half-brothers set track records for the same distance at the same track in consecutive years. Who were the half-brothers and what was the track and distance?
Sometimes all a young horse needs is a patience and an observant trainer. Venus Valentine got these from trainer Tom Amoss, and she repaid him well with a longshot victory in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (USA-G2) at the Fair Grounds last Saturday. Her personal valentine may have been a little late coming, but Amoss was undoubtedly happy to receive it anyway.
At this point, no one is going to mistake Venus Valentine for Songbird. The filly ticked off the 8.5 furlongs of the Rachel Alexandra in a slow 1:45.24, nowhere near the 1:43.94 Gun Runner posted for the Risen Star Stakes (USA-G2) later on the same card. Nonetheless, Venus Valentine may be a much better filly than her 74-1 odds going into the Rachel Alexandra indicated. Now that her issues with cramping and tying up during exertion have been resolved, she should be able to deliver on whatever talent she possesses more consistently.
Although Venus Valentine sustained her winning drive well, she may actually be better suited to somewhat shorter distances. In the Rachel Alexandra, she was able to cut the corner inside for a dream trip on the way home, an opportunity she won't always get when stretching out. It's worth noting that her sire Congrats has an average winning distance for his progeny of 6.78 furlongs and an average maximum winning distance of 7.24 furlongs---not exactly stats associated with a dominant source of stamina---and the dam's side of Venus Valentine's pedigree also suggests more speed than stamina with Stormin Fever, Gilded Time and Bold Ruckus as the sires of her first three dams. Her dam Valentine Fever won around two turns but was better over sprint distances, and Venus Valentine may well show a similar pattern. That doesn't bode well for a crack at the Longines Kentucky Oaks (USA-G1), but there are plenty of other nice races around for a filly who may finally be coming into her own.
Duchess has just taken the hot seat as the new champ. Named for an unfinished opera by Franz Liszt, Sardanapale was a top-class 3-year-old in France in 1914 and went on to a successful stud career.
The Kentucky Derby--Presented by Yum! Brands (USA-G1) leader board has a new face on top this week thanks to Gun Runner, who picked up fifty points in a Risen Star Stakes (USA-G2) that was expected to be the coming-out party for 2015 Eclipse finalist Airoforce. While Airoforce floundered and ended up 10th after bumping with the winner and going wide into the first turn, Gun Runner enjoyed a near-perfect trip after the bumping incident and won by half a length over Forevamo.
Considering that second choice Mo Tom was beaten only a length and a half after having had to check sharply at the three-sixteenths pole (he came out of the race with a cut leg), Gun Runner may not have been the best horse in the race, at least not at this stage of his development. Nonetheless, he fits the profile of a colt making good progress at the right time of year, and his pedigree suggests we haven't seen the best of him yet. A son of the brilliant Candy Ride, a champion in Argentina at 3 and a Grade 1 winner in California at 4, he is out of 2011 Hill 'n' Dale Molly Pitcher Handicap (USA-G2) winner Quiet Giant, a Giant's Causeway half sister to 2005 American Horse of the Year Saint Liam and a member of the family of the great handicap mare Gallorette.
Gun Runner's pedigree is yet another example of the cross of Candy Ride to Storm Cat-line mares which has yielded four of the stallion's nine Grade 1 winners as well as two-time Peruvian champion miler Lolo Forever. The top example of this cross so far is the late Shared Belief, an Eclipse Award-winning champion at 2 and a five-time Grade 1 winner. In this case, the Storm Cat cross comes through Giant's Causeway, a top-class horse at up to 10 furlongs and a Grade 1 sire at distances up to 12 furlongs, so Gun Runner should not have the stamina limitations of Grade 1 winners Capt. Candyman Can or Evita Argentina, both of whom were out of mares by sprinting sons of Storm Cat.
According to trainer Tom Amoss, Mo Tom's injury was superficial, and the colt certainly showed that the form he displayed in winning the Lecomte Stakes (USA-G3) was no fluke; assuming that he's staying in Louisiana, he should be one of the favorites for the Louisiana Derby (USA-G2). As for Airoforce, his race was simply too bad to be true given the consistency he has previously shown and may indicate that his destiny lies on turf rather than dirt (or at least fast dirt).
Last year's Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (USA-G2) is in fact turning out to be a pretty nice source of promising sophomores in 2016. Even though Airoforce didn't live up to his billing in the Risen Star, Mo Tom and Gun Runner were third and fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club, and second-place Mor Spirit won the Los Alamitos Futurity (USA-G1) and Robert B. Lewis Stakes (USA-G3) in his next two starts.
Another line on the form of the Risen Star runners can be drawn through Destin, who exited a fourth-place finish in the Lecomte to take the Sam F. Davis Stakes (USA-G3) stakes at Tampa---ironically, a race that Airoforce was slated to run in but had to miss due to a minor illness. Right now, all of these colts would still have to improve considerably to be up to challenging Nyquist or Mohaymen, but at this point, this is looking like a solid group that should provide their owners with a lot of fun.
Nyquist's sharp victory in last weekend's San Vicente Stakes (USA-G2) has already impacted plans for at least one other Triple Crown hopeful: his stablemate Frank Conversation. Blood-Horse Daily reports that trainer Doug O'Neill is pointing the son of Quality Road to Dubai's UAE Derby (UAE-G2), which is certainly about as far from Nyquist as he can get.
There are other motives, of course, not least of which is the UAE Derby's US$2 million purse. Another is that the UAE Derby is contested on dirt, a surface Frank Conversation still needs to prove he can handle well to be a viable Classics contender. And of course, he 's not going to run into Mohaymen there, either.
In spite of its advantages, this is still an audacious move. While the UAE Derby and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands are six weeks apart, it's still asking a lot of a young 3-year-old to travel halfway around the world, race, and then come back for one of the world's toughest tests of the Thoroughbred. There's also no telling just how good the potential competition in Dubai is; Frank Conversation could be headed for easy pickings or a tough fight.
Distance, at least, shouldn't be a problem. Frank Conversation's dam Rushen Heat earned her sole black type in the 2008 California Cup Distance Handicap and is a full sister to Unusual Suspect, a versatile horse who won stakes at distances from 6 to 12 furlongs and was a Grade 1 winner at the latter distance. Nonetheless, O'Neill's willingness to take such an unorthodox step with a promising young horse is, to at least some extent, a measure of just how good he thinks Nyquist is.
Named for an opera, this champion made sweet music on the race course and was touted as "the best horse in the world" by his proud owner at the end of his 3-year-old season. While owners are invariably biased, the estimation probably wasn't far off. Our subject horse never left his native land but had a substantial influence on breeding on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly through his daughters. Who was he?
He's consistent, he's got the right pedigree, and he's now a Grade 3 winner with 10 points toward a Kentucky Derby (USA-G1) starting berth. "He" is Suddenbreakingnews, and his strong last-to-first run in Sunday's Southwest Stakes (USA-G3)---his 2016 debut---carried him into the spotlight as the latest new face on the 2016 Triple Crown trail.
Prior to yesterday's race, Suddenbreakingnews' best moment had been a win in the listed Clever Trevor Stakes last year. He'd previously run second by a nose to Discreetness in the listed Remington Springboard Mile Stakes as well and had a juvenile record of 5-2-3-0, all at Remington Park.
A juvenile season spent racing in Oklahoma is not where one normally expects to find a potential Classic horse, but on paper, Suddenbreakingnews is the kind of horse that has every right to be improving. A son of 2003 American Horse of the Year Mineshaft, who won his honors as a 4-year-old, the gelding is a grandson of 1992 Belmont Stakes (USA-G1) winner and American Horse of the Year A.P. Indy and a great-grandson of 1977 American Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year Seattle Slew. Generally speaking, Mineshaft's progeny haven't been precocious and have been better at 3 and beyond, so Suddenbreakingnews is developing right on schedule as far as the sire's side of his pedigree goes.
If the dam's side of his pedigree means anything, Suddenbreakingnews should not only keep improving with age but should relish increased distance as well. He is the second named foal and second winner for his dam Uchitel, a daughter of 2005 Preakness (USA-G1) and Belmont winner Afleet Alex. Although Uchitel failed to win in three starts, she is a half sister to multiple Grade 1 winner Composure and 2008 West Virginia Derby Stakes (USA-G3) winner Ready Set, both by Touch Gold. Composure, in turn, is the dam of this year's Royal Delta Stakes (USA-G2) winner Penwith (by Bernardini).
Uchitel's dam, Party Cited, is by the great stayer and stamina sire Alleged, a two-time winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (FR-G1). She herself won the 1993 Yerba Buena Handicap (USA-G3) over 11 furlongs, so there is an abundance of stamina close up in Suddenbreakingnews' pedigree. In fact, it will be more of a surprise if he doesn't stay Classic distances than if he does.
Suddenbreakingnews' main vulnerability is also his great strength: a very long, efficient stride. As he prefers to come from well off the pace, he is dependent on finding clear sailing ahead so that he can keep his momentum going; few horses of his type recover well from having to check, and that's always a concern in the Kentucky Derby, where jockeying for position in a large field is a given. Nonetheless, if Suddenbreakingnews continues to mature and develop, he's going to be an exciting one to watch as the road to the Classics continues.
I'm Avalyn Hunter, an author, pedigree researcher and longtime racing fan with a particular interest in Thoroughbred mares and their contributions to the history of the breed.