The Triple Crown came and went yet again this year, the centerpiece events of the American flat racing calendar garnering plenty of attention inside and outside our game.
Everything started with a wet and soggy Kentucky Derby that became an even more muddied mess following the disqualification of Maximum Security and elevation of the now adjudged winner Country House. War Of Will rebounded from his troubled run in the Derby – courtesy of said Maximum Security – and won the Preakness before struggling home ninth of 10 in the Belmont Stakes. Saturday’s final jewel of the Triple Crown went to War Of Will’s stablemate Sir Winston in an upset after a masterful ride by Joel Rosario.
The season saw many more exciting races, none more than Saturday’s Grade 1 victories by Mitole in the Metropolitan Handicap and Guarana in the Acorn Stakes. We were on the scene for those races and This Is Horse Racing’s Tom Law, one of the only members of the media to cover each race of this year’s Triple Crown, wrote about them below.
Fastest of the fast
Bill Heiligbrodt keeps things simple when it comes to buying racehorses that he and his wife Corinne can campaign in their white and orange colors.
“All I want to do is buy a horse that’s fast and win the next race,” Heiligbrodt said Saturday at Belmont Park. “I always figured if I had a fast horse I could win somewhere.”
Heiligbrodt spotted a 2-year-old colt at the OBS April sale and figured he found one to fit the criteria. The son of Eskendereya looked fast showing at the barn and breezed fast – an eighth in :10 – on the racetrack. Bidding in the name of his East Hickman Bloodstock, Heiligbrodt bought the colt for $140,000.
Later named Mitole by Corinne Heiligbrodt, the colt proved he was fast to win races somewhere for the couple and trainer Steve Asmusen. He won four of six starts at 3, including the Bachelor Stakes at Oaklawn Park and Chick Lang Stakes at Pimlico. He won more races at Oaklawn and Churchill Downs this winter and spring before showing the world he could win anywhere against just about anything in Saturday’s Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park.
Mitole won the Met Mile by three quarters of a length over the troubled McKinzie with two-time Dubai World Cup winner Thunder Snow another neck back in third. Mitole, who won in 1:32.75 and just off Najran’s track record of 1:32.24, led five other Grade 1 winners to the finish of the race billed as the deepest and best on the Belmont Stakes Day card.
“Nobody in the world would have trained that horse, or could have, better than Steve Asmussen,” Bill Heiligbrodt said. “A horse that fast, it’s unbelievably hard to keep together.”
Mitole, away from the races for nearly 10 months after the Chick Lang until winning an optional claimer at Oaklawn in early March, won his seventh straight and back-to-back at the top level after a victory in the Grade 1 Churchill Downs on Derby Day.
“I felt like this horse could run at any distance,” Heiligbrodt said. “I’m not saying he has any kind of issues, he doesn’t, but horses that are really fast, when you’ve done it as long as I have, you have to keep them together to win. I didn’t want to stress him running him long but I think this horse could run any distance. You saw him today, he just keeps going.”
Mitole and jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. tracked the early pace set by Group 2 Godolphin Mile winner Coal Front through splits of :22.17 and :44.38 and ahead of Promises Fulfilled, Thunder Snow, Prince Lucky and Firenze Fire while 8-5 favorite McKinzie and Mike Smith lagged toward the back of the field.
Mitole took the lead approaching the quarter-pole and stuck his head in front past 6 furlongs in 1:08.24. He edged clear in the lane before drifting a bit while McKinzie, stopped trying to go between Thunder Snow and Promises Fulfilled, and Thunder Snow wound up. The late runs never seriously threatened the winner.
“Tremendous race from top to bottom and for him to sustain the pressure from Coal Front and Promised Fulfilled and then hold off McKinzie and Thunder Snow speaks for itself,” said Asmussen, who won last year’s Met Mile with Bee Jersey. “Winning back-to-back editions of the Met Mile, I can’t even put into words what this means. … We’re just so fortunate to be associated with this horse.”
Mitole’s victory, worth $650,000 to push his career bankroll to $1,642,910, gave Asmussen two Grade 1 scores on the day. He also won the Ogden Phipps with Midnight Bisou, who topped Come Dancing by 3 1/2 lengths for her fourth straight win.
Midnight Bisou and Mitole will return to Asmussen’s main base at Churchill Downs before going with his string to Saratoga Race Course for the summer.
“This being the first half of the year, I think we’ll regroup and map out a plan to get to the Breeders’ Cup,” Asmussen said.
Shades of Ghostzapper
Doug Cauthen leaned on the fence of the winner’s podium above the racetrack along the outer rail while Three Chimneys Farm owner Goncalo Boreges Torrealba and trainer Chad Brown finished up their interviews after Saturday’s Grade 1 Acorn Stakes.
Cauthen kept his eyes fixed on the infield video board showing the replay of the 1-mile Acorn, won a few minutes before by Three Chimneys’ homebred Guarana in stakes-record time. He saw the daughter of Ghostzapper chase the torrid pace set by Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress before going on to a 6-length victory in 1:33.58.
“Unbelievable,” said Cauthen, Three Chimney’s vice chairman with a lifetime of experience in racing. “That’s about as fast a race as I’ve seen. … I was shocked.”
Turns out, Cauthen wasn’t alone in the disbelief.
Most of the 56,217 fans on hand for Belmont Stakes Day and millions more watching on television couldn’t believe it either. They let out audible gasps when announcer Larry Collmus called out the opening fractions - :21.89 for the quarter and :43.99 for the half – and cheered with authority as the favorite rolled through the lane under Jose Ortiz to win one of the 3-year-old filly division’s most important races.
Tom Amoss, who trains the pacesetting Serengeti Empress for Joel Politi, saw it unfold and didn’t want to believe it.
“It was apropos that every time they announced the quarter-mile for the first quarter and the first half, the whole crowd, that obviously knows racing here in the state of New York, led out this gasp,” Amoss said. “It was just too much. … Hats off the winner. She’s a great filly and you know what, so is my horse. I have a great filly as well.”
“The first (quarter) I started to get a little stomach pain. The second one I was like ‘where’s the nearest toilet?’ Look, I knew it was trouble. Come on. In horse racing that’s beyond racehorse time. That’s off the charts.”
Guarana, named for a plant found on the Amazon basin in Torrealba’s native Brazil, made the jump from a maiden race going 6 1/2 furlongs at Keeneland April 19 to a Grade 1 stakes.
She faced not only an Oaks winner but graded stakes winners Jeltrin and Fancy Dress Party, stakes winners Cookie Dough and Belle’s The One and the promising duo of Ce Ce and Queen Of Beas.
And she was asked to do it all at the demanding trip of 1 mile on the dirt.
“It was Goncalo’s idea to begin with and at first I was like, ‘it’s not my normal way to do things with a horse like this,’ ” Brown said. “Ultimately he left it up to me and said ‘just make sure you’re ready to run, see how she trains.’ She trained brilliantly.”
Guarana shipped to Brown’s Saratoga string shortly after her maiden victory and breezed once on the Oklahoma Training Track – an easy half May 11 – before going back downstate to Belmont. She breezed three times on the Belmont main track, the last a half in :48.75 June 1 that convinced Brown to run in the Acorn.
Brown earned further endorsement when Ortiz, who rode Serengeti Empress to victory five weeks’ prior in the Kentucky Oaks, stayed aboard Guarana for the Acorn. He rode her in her 14 3/4-length waltz at Keeneland and wasn’t about to come off, Oaks winner or not.
“Chad was kind of letting the filly tell him if she wanted to do this race,” Ortiz said. “The last time she worked, he said she worked unbelievably and wanted to try her in the Acorn. I said, ‘I have faith and I’ll stick with you because I really like the filly.’
“It was a hard decision to take off the Oaks winner, but I didn’t want to miss t his opportunity. Yes, I took off the Oaks winner for a maiden (winner).”
Guarana’s victory evoked memories of Ghostzapper for her connections, some like Brown with a direct tie to the 2004 Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer. Brown worked for Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel during Ghostzapper’s career and said the filly “reminds me a lot of her father.”
Ghostzapper started his career in mid-November of his 2-year-old season and didn’t make a stakes appearance until late August of his 3-year-old campaign, when third in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop at Saratoga. He wound up a Grade 1 winner a month later, a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner a little more than a year later and Met Mile winner (in 1:33.29) by the spring of his 5-year-old season.
Cauthen sees the similarities, too.
“She’s taken some time but all the Ghostzapper’s are like that,” he said. “He’s got one graded 2-year-old runner, which is McCraken, who was very impressive. They’re a little slower and take time but patience pays off.”
Guarana’s pedigree doesn’t feature Hall of Fame ties on the top. She’s out of the winning Distorted Humor mare Magical World, a daughter of runaway 2005 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Pleasant Home, who is out of a half sister to champion and Hall of Famer Sky Beauty.
“We bought the mare privately,” Cauthen said of Magical World, who raced for her owner and breeder Phipps Stable and trainer Shug McGaughey. “It’s obviously a great family. She would have been considered for the sales but wasn’t perfect on her x-rays. We thought she wasn’t going to bring what we thought for that family, so we kept her.
“They were really patient with her in Ocala. She didn’t go to the track until late summer and then Chad took even more time with her. He always said he liked her and stayed patient.”
Howard’s Oaks winner
A bit of news lost in the hullabaloo of the Belmont Stakes and supporting festival came north of the border Saturday when Sam-Son Farms’ homebred Desert Ride upset the $500,800 Woodbine Oaks.
Tip of the cap to trainer Neil Howard, a longtime friend of The Saratoga Special and This Is Horse Racing, for the victory with the 3-year-old daughter of Candy Ride. Desert Ride won after hitting the gate at the start, dropping back to last of 10 and a wide run around the far turn under Steven Bahen. She won by a neck over Bold Script as the 8-1 fifth choice.
Desert Ride improved to 3-for-4 with the victory, which followed a score in a 1-mile turf allowance at Keeneland April 18 and a maiden win at the same distance on turf at Fair Grounds Jan. 17. Her lone defeat came Feb. 14 when second in a 1-mile turf optional in New Orleans.
The 2019 Triple Crown belongs to history and thankfully so too does the TIHR handicapper’s battle.
The performances on the six cards – Kentucky Oaks and Derby, Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness and Belmont Friday and Belmont Stakes – didn’t light it up but still produced a good finish until the final day.
John Shapazian, the perennial leading handicapper on The Saratoga’s Special Power Grid page, shared the 2019 crown with his touting adversary Tom Law. John and Tom finished with 15 winners apiece after correctly selecting five winners on the Belmont Day program. John added this year’s shared title with the overall crown last year, when he picked 19 winners.
John’s winners were Rushing Fall in the Just A Game, Midnight Bisou in the Ogden Phipps, World Of Trouble in the Jaipur, Guarana in the Acorn and Bricks And Mortar in the Manhattan. John also picked Sir Winston third in the Belmont behind Tacitus and Joevia, and he backed it up at the windows with a 50-cent trifecta box for a $622 payoff.
Tom also picked Rushing Fall, Midnight Bisou, World Of Trouble and Bricks And Mortar, along with Marconi in the Brooklyn to land the tie in the day’s final race.
Sean Clancy finished third with 13 wins after picking Rushing Fall, Midnight Bisou, World Of Trouble, Mitole in the Metropolitan Handicap and Bricks And Mortar.
Ben Gowans, who went into the final day with the lead, only picked Rushing Fall and limped home fourth with 12 wins. He did pick Sir Winston in the second spot in the Belmont Stakes, behind Tacitus, to trigger a would-be $2 exacta box payoff of $96.
John Cox picked four winners - Majid in the Easy Goer, Rushing Fall, World Of Trouble and Mitole – to end the season fifth with 11 winners.
Joe Clancy, in the midst of a busy high school graduation season, trailed with 10 winners after tabbing Rushing Fall, Midnight Bisou, World Of Trouble and Marconi.
Wondering what you’ll do now that the Triple Crown is over? Fear not, Saratoga is right around the corner and by our count Monday marks 31 days until Opening Day. But who’s counting?
The short span between the end of the Belmont and start of Saratoga means we’ll be fast and furious working on editorial plans for the meet – look for the returns of the ever popular Worth Repeating, The Chief, Fasig-Tipton Stable Tour, Sean Clancy’s Cup of Coffee and more.
We’re also putting together our roster of supporters and advertisers for the 34 issues we’ve planned for 2019. That’s right, 34, up from 29 a year ago. Got something to sell or promote to an engaged and enthusiastic audience? Take out an ad in The Special. Like Todd Pletcher says, “Everybody reads The Special.”
Click here to get all the information you’ll need about The Saratoga Special in 2019.
By the Numbers
$2.80: Smallest payoff for the 10 stakes Saturday, by Grade 1 Jaipur Invitational winner World Of Trouble.
3: Grade 1 victories Saturday for trainer Chad Brown - Rushing Fall in the Just A Game, Guarana in the Acorn and Bricks And Mortar in the Manhattan. Bricks And Mortar led a 1-2-3 finish in the $1 million turf stakes for Brown, along with Robert Bruce and Raging Bull.
8:25: Hours and minutes from the start of the card to post time of the Grade 2 Brooklyn Saturday.
$39.80: Highest payoff - for Hog Creek Hustle in the Grade 1 Woody Stephens - of the 10 stakes Saturday.
56,217: Attendance for Belmont Stakes Day, down from 90,327 last year when the Triple Crown was on the line and down 2.6 percent from the 57,729 that turned out in 2017.
$11,852,506: On-track handle for the 13-race Belmont Stakes Day card.
$53,237,527: All-sources handle on the 151st Belmont Stakes.
$102,163,280: All-sources handle for Belmont Day card, a NYRA record for a non-Triple Crown year. The figure also rose 9.1 percent from 2017, the last time no Triple Crown was on the line.
$131,858,886: All-sources handle for the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, down from $168,975,295 last year during Justify’s run toward the Triple Crown.