Patriot’s Day in New England and Marathon Monday in Boston brings us to a serious regrouping point with all the major Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks preps in the books and now less than three weeks’ time until the first Saturday in May.
The Arkansas Derby added the final three pieces to the puzzle that is the Kentucky Derby field and perhaps established Omaha Beach as the favorite for the 145th running of America’s most famous race. Already the winner of a division of the Grade 2 Rebel at Oaklawn Park, Omaha Beach won the $1 million Arkansas Derby by a length from a determined Improbable to lead a 1-2 finish for Californians.
The first two from the Arkansas Derby – who earned 100 and 40 points, respectively – and distant third Country House are firmly in the top 19 list of point earners that will determine this year’s field. The Derby field caps at 20 and one spot is reserved for a competitor from the Japan Road to the Derby series, that being Master Fencer this year.
The Japanese runner puts the maiden Florida Derby runner-up Bodexpress as the first one out of the field with Blue Grass Stakes third Signalman 22nd and Lexington Stakes second and third, Anothertwistafate and Sueno, respectively, needing multiple defections at 23rd and 24th.
Now that there’s a list of 20, prepare for the fun stuff. Workout reports will garner a lot of attention, who looks good, who looks bad, who is “visually impressive,” whatever that means. Jockeys are also coming close to decision time, particularly Mike Smith, who rode Omaha Beach and Roadster to victory in their final preps.
So, who’s in? Here’s the top 20 through the final preps – Tacitus, Omaha Beach, Vekoma, Plus Que Parfait, Roadster, By My Standards, Maximum Security, Game Winner, Code Of Honor, Haikal, Improbable, War Of Will, Long Range Toddy, Tax, Cutting Humor, Win Win Win, Country House, Gray Magician, Spinoff and Master Fencer. And the next 10 – Bodexpress, Signalman, Anothertwistafate, Sueno, Bourbon War, Instagrand, Mucho Gusto, Knicks Go, Owendale and Outshine.
Timber season opens
Proving that the races must be run before they can be counted, timber star Doc Cebu did not win Saturday’s May Lady’s Manor timber stakes – losing jockey Hadden Frost with a mistake at the second-last and leaving the door open for a hard-charging late run by Mystic Strike.
Owned by Upland Partners and trained by Todd McKenna, the winner moved into contention with a bit less than a mile to go, took a short breather while Doc Cebu, Witor and Lemony Bay battled toward the final turn and arrived late. Mark Beecher rode the winner, a 10-year-old son of Smart Strike, and said the stretch run was at least somewhat by design.
“You can’t wait out the back here because there’s so much turning and jumping,” he said. “I think the other two boys saw a race happening and they went on to Doc. I thought I’d get a breather into my horse. If they wanted to go and have a race that was fine. Sometimes it works out and sometimes you don’t look very smart.”
Smart Strike re-engaged off the turn, and went after the leaders. He won by 1 1/4 lengths over Witor with Lemony Bay third. Two-time defending timber champion Doc Cebu failed to finish for the first time in 11 starts over timber, but did not appear to be hurt.
Mystic Strike’s win erased a frustrating 2018 – where he placed in three stakes (including the Manor) – and confirmed a strong start to his timber career in 2017. The Florida-bred won four times on the flat (two for Phil Gleaves and once each for David Jacobson and Kieron Magee) before making the conversion. Mystic Strike won his first three over timber, lost four times last year and got back on the winning side to start 2019.
“I’ve always liked this horse,” Beecher said. “Last year he came here and we jumped off and he just ran at the first two and hit the second. Then I was out the back and popping around. His next two runs (at Winterthur and Radnor) got him to be a stakes horse. He learned to jump at speed. It’s a big step up to these kinds of races. Any time I went for a big one, he was on it. And if he had to steady-up, he did it on his own. It was a race. There was no let up.”
Trainer Jack Fisher collected two wins on the Manor card – taking maiden timber races Schoodic and Political Theatre – to take the lead in the standings (5-3 over Kathy Neilson). A former hurdle stakes horse, Schoodic got up in the final strides to win by a neck over Satish with Awesome Adrian third. Political Theatre, owned by Michael Lund Petersen (whose flat horses are with Bob Baffert), caught Renegade River in the stretch to win by a length with Some Reponse third. Frost rode both winners. Peter Jay’s Prime Prospector and Paul O’Neill won the finale for trainer Todd Wyatt. The son of Seeking The Gold won the open timber for amateur/apprentice riders by 1 1/2 lengths over Stand Down while Carrickboy was third.
The Manor races kicked off three weeks of Maryland timber racing. The Grand National meet is this Saturday, April 20, followed by the Maryland Hunt Cup April 27.
Tom Law, who claims to have never seen a timber race live, got back in the handicapping contest with two winners at the Manor – Schoodic and Political Theatre. Joe and Sean both tapped Schoodic, after the scratch of Enuff Alex. The thrilling season series stands at Joe and Sean Clancy tied for the lead with five winners while Tom is right there with four. We may have to tweak the points system to liven things up a bit.
Race of the Week
We’d be remiss to not mention the best race of the weekend; perhaps even the best race of the year in Sunday’s Grade 1 Apple Blossom.
The race looked like a showdown between Midnight Bisou and Elate and that’s how horseplayers pegged it with the former going to post at 9-10 and the latter at 6-5 in the field of six. At various early points of the race – not counting when Elate broke a step slow – it looked like that might materialize until it looked like Escape Clause might give the favorite all she could handle.
Escape Clause, a Manitoba-bred daughter of Going Commando who instantly became every wise guy and gal’s favorite horse, clung to a half-length lead in midstretch with Midnight Bisou and Mike Smith inching closer. They continued to slug it out inside the sixteenth pole before Midnight Bisou, giving the runner-up five pounds, won by a nose.
Words don’t do it total justice, so watch for yourself.