There are actually two American champions who share the all-time top Timeform impost of 138 pounds for a North American-based runner. The first was Cigar; the second was American Pharoah.
Although we're still several weeks away from the meat of the Triple Crown prep season, some interesting appetizers have already popped up. Among them is Destin's performance in Saturday's Sam F. Davis Stakes (USA-III) at Tampa Bay Downs. The full brother to Grade I winner and 2012 Preakness Stakes (USA-I) third Creative Cause picked up his first stakes win on his second attempt at black type after running fourth in the Lecomte Stakes (USA-III) on January 16.
At first glance, this doesn't seem much to shout about. Even though Destin defeated four colts who already had stakes wins to their credit in this race, none had won a graded stakes and only one, eventual third-place finisher Morning Fire, had even placed in one. The fact that Gettysburg was the favorite off a win in a maiden special weight doesn't reflect much credit on the form of the rest of the field. Neither does a line drawn through Destin's previous race, though we'll probably have a better idea of how Lecomte winner Mo Tom and the rest of the colts at the Fair Grounds stack up after seeing how 2015 Eclipse finalist Airoforce fares against them in the Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes (USA-II) next weekend.
Still, there are reasons for Destin's connections to draw encouragement from this effort. A big, husky colt, Destin is still thoroughly green and not quite sure of what he's supposed to do. He also appears to be on a slower track to maturity than Creative Cause, more in line with the dam's side of his heritage---Dream of Summer did her best racing at ages 5 and 6, and her sire Siberian Summer scored his big win in the Charles H. Strub Stakes (USA-I) as a 4-year-old. What he has going for him the raw physical talent that he displayed in the stretch run, when he lengthened out into a strong, fluid stride that carried him home in time just shy of the stakes record. When a horse moves like that, there's reason to think that better days may be ahead.
The question at this point is how far in the future those better days lie. Since the Davis carried no points toward the Kentucky Derby---Presented by Yum! Brands (USA-I), Destin will have to try much tougher competition in his next outing if he's to have a chance to become eligible for the Derby starting gate. The easiest path may be for him to remain at Tampa, but even if he runs in and wins the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (USA-II) next out, he will probably have to have one race after that in one of the major Derby preps. That puts Destin on a tight schedule to make the Kentucky Derby, with little or no leeway for even minor illness or injury. Whether he's up to that challenge or not remains to be seen.
This champion holds the record as having received the highest rating ever issued by Timeform to a North American-based runner. Who is he, and what was his rating?
While several colts have tried the Dubai-to-Kentucky route for the Kentucky Derby (USA-I), we usually don't hear much about fillies taking a similar path. However, that may change depending on how Polar River comes out from her next race, the UAE Oaks (UAE-III) on March 3. The daughter of Kentucky sire Congrats made a public workout of the UAE One Thousand Guineas (UAE-L) on February 11, showing a brilliant turn of foot as she put away four overmatched rivals in a matter of a few strides with 600 meters to go. After that, Polar River simply coasted home under a hand ride to win by 13 lengths.
One may certainly question the quality of her opposition, but it's worth noting that the filly bettered the time of Market Ride's visually impressive score in the UAE Two Thousand Guineas (UAE-III) by a full second. She may have a chance to prove her superiority head-to-head, too, as her connections have not ruled out a tilt against the boys in the UAE Derby (UAE-II) if she wins the Oaks in similar style to yesterday's romp. Nor is an invasion of the United States out of the question, though Polar River would more likely go to the Longines Kentucky Oaks (USA-I) than the Kentucky Derby. A win in the UAE Oaks would give her 50 points toward a starting slot in the Kentucky Oaks, probably enough to guarantee her a berth.
According to the veteran form judges at Timeform, Polar River would still need substantial improvement to tackle American champion 2-year-old filly Songbird, who at this point in their respective careers is rated 8 pounds higher. As a maternal granddaughter of 2003 Belmont Stakes (USA-I) winner Empire Maker, however, Polar River is likely to continue improving with maturity and distance.
Polar River reverses the cross of Empire Maker over daughters and granddaughters of A.P. Indy which has resulted in multiple champion Royal Delta and Grade I winners Emollient and Bodemeister, and it will be interesting to see if this continues to provide success as sons and grandsons of A.P. Indy are bred to Empire Maker mares. In the meantime, Polar River has established her status as a filly to watch on the way to the Kentucky Oaks and its garland of "Lilies for the Fillies."
TJ's streak continues. Black Maria, a three-time American champion, shares her name with another Black Maria who gained fame for winning the Jockey Club Purse in 1832 at the old Union Course in New York. Slated as a "best of three" four-mile heat race, the race ended up going through five heats before Black Maria settled the issue by finally winning a second heat after 20 miles of racing. The feat earned her the nickname of "The Twenty-Mile Mare." A "Black Maria" was also police slang for a horse-drawn or motorized van used to transport prisoners.
This morning, the Fasig-Tipton sales company announced the addition of a no-guarantee season to Medaglia d'Oro to its offerings for its upcoming Kentucky winter mixed sale. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.
The Fasig-Tipton news release doesn't mention who provided the season, but whoever did so has certainly taken advantage of the moment to raise funds for a worthy cause. There isn't a hotter sire in North America right now than Medaglia d'Oro, who on Saturday had two major winners in Songbird, an effortless winner of the Las Virgenes Stakes (USA-II), and Mshawish, now a Grade I winner on both dirt and turf after taking the Donn Handicap (USA-I). For good measure, Medaglia d' Oro also supplied the Donn runner-up, Valid. The stallion also had an allowance winner at Gulfstream on Sunday, Seeking Alpha.
The current asking price for a season to Medaglia d'Oro is US$150,000 stands and nurses, and with good reason. The handsome son of El Prado currently has 74 Northern Hemisphere stakes winners according to The Jockey Club's database, including 14 Grade/Group I winners. One of those G1 winners, of course, is 2009 American Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. That and the chance to benefit a worthy cause seem like pretty good reasons to jump on this offering if one's purse permits. Mine doesn't, but I could wish it did.
The good news for Michael Peterson is that his Mor Spirit appears to be progressing nicely off his Los Alamitos Futurity (USA-I) win after a solid victory in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (USA-III). The bad news is that Songbird probably wouldn't have had any difficulty in beating him had she been entered, which doesn't bode well as to how he would fare against the top colts in his division.
In all fairness, Mor Spirit is still a work in progress. He has a monstrous stride that takes a little ground to get in gear but promises good things as the distances stretch out. Gary Stevens had to deliver a couple of reminder notices to get down to business after the colt straightened away in the homestretch, but once Mor Spirit leveled out, it was a pleasure to see the way those long, rhythmic strides covered ground. I suspect this colt will always be a little vulnerable to being bumped about, which may be a weak point in looking forward to May and the annual rodeo that is the first quarter of the Kentucky Derby (USA-I); long-striding horses usually have more difficulty recovering from being checked or knocked off stride than their more agile counterparts. But get Mor Spirit to the final turn in striking range and give him clear sailing ahead, and his ability to deliver a sustained drive will make him dangerous over longer routes.
So far as pedigrees go, Mor Spirit is depending mostly in his sire Eskendereya to supply the stamina needed for the Classics. How far Eskendereya would have gone isn't known, since he was injured before he could prove himself over distances longer than 9 furlongs, but he was certainly bred to go on. By Giant's Causeway out of a mare sired by Seattle Slew from an Alydar daughter, he traces back to modern foundation mare Almahmoud through the fine producer Queen Sucree (by Ribot), and his third dam is a Northern Dancer half sister to 1974 Kentucky Derby winner Cannonade. The distaff side of Mor Spirit's pedigree leans more toward quickness, giving him a nice balance between speed and stamina influences.
Mor Spirit's next target will probably be the Santa Anita Derby (USA-I), where he is almost certain to face stiffer competition that may include 2015 American champion juvenile male Nyquist, Nyquist's talented foil Swipe and the currently-unbeaten Smokey Image. How he fares there will give a clearer picture as to where he stands among his peers as all the prep paths converge on Louisville.
It isn't too often that 1-9 odds are an overlay, but that was clearly the case when Songbird faced off against five overmatched rivals in the Las Virgenes Stakes (USA-II) earlier today. None of the other fillies started at less than 10-1, and that was an overly generous assessment of their chances.
In fairness to Street Fancy, who started at those 10-1 odds, she clearly wasn't the same filly who showed a nice closing kick to win the Starlet Stakes (USA-I) back on December 12. But then again, Songbird wasn't the same filly who won the 14 Hands Winery Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (USA-I) in her last outing. The problem for her rivals was that the Songbird who showed up for the Las Virgenes was even better.
Granted, her final time of 1:36.84 wasn't particularly impressive unless you look at this race as a paid workout, which essentially it was. By the time Songbird crossed the wire, she was down to a mere hand gallop. The only interest in the race from a competitive standpoint was the contest for the minor awards, which Land Over Sea won.
The ease and visual impressiveness of Songbird's victory will doubtless raise some questions about Rick Porter's decision to keep his star filly in her own division this spring. That kind of clamor may be a bit premature; she hasn't faced anything in the apparent class of Nyquist or Mohaymen yet. On the other hand, her splits after the first quarter were all faster than those the colts posted in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (USA-III) one race earlier on the card, which certainly suggests she'd be competitive with the boys. For now, her fans will just have to be content with watching her do her thing against other fillies on the path to the Longines Kentucky Oaks (USA-I)---and barring accident or injury to Songbird, those other fillies will be running for second money wherever and whenever she shows up.
This champion of yesteryear shares her name with a 19th-century runner nicknamed "The Twenty-Mile Mare" and with the slang for a type of police vehicle. Name her.
As California Chrome continues progressing for his World Cup prep, word has come out via Bob Ehalt at Thoroughbred Racing Commentary about a change in the horse's ownership. According to Ehalt, Taylor Made Farm and majority owner Perry Martin have each given up a 10 percent interest in the horse in order to bring more breeders aboard. Ten unnamed breeders are now co-owners in Chrome, with each owning a two percent share of the horse. For each of the new co-owners, a share provides two lifetime breeding rights to Chrome as well as a percentage of the horse's earnings during the remainder of his career.
It's an interesting move as it allows both sides to hedge their bets. For Martin and Taylor Made, it provides some ready cash now and will soften the blow if the horse flops as a sire. It also guarantees that Chrome will get good early mare support, as a condition of the shares' sale was that each purchaser pledge to send the new stallion two or his or her best mares. Even if Martin and Taylor Made allow the remainder of the horse's book to be filled by mare owners buying individual seasons from them, Chrome should have enough quality in his harem to give him a fair chance to make it as a sire, especially if demand is strong enough that they can pick and choose among his potential mates.
For the new shareholders, the timing of the deal offers a chance to get some of their money back before Chrome ever sets a hoof in the breeding shed. Chrome's projected dance card includes the US$10 million Dubai World Cup and the US$5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, and if he can win both, the shareholders will recoup about $145,000 each less expenses.
Taylor Made is no stranger to marketing stallions, and between this initiative, the new silks the horse is sporting and the new California Chrome website (www.TheChampIsBack.com), it looks as though they are doing everything possible to keep Chrome in the public eye and promote him as a potential stallion. It's a gamble---new stallions always are---but if Chrome comes through on the racing front in 2016 with another championship season, it's a gamble that everyone involved will win.
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.