Reason No. 8,683,951 why a horse has been unable to sweep the Triple Crown in 37 years was offered Saturday in West Virginia, of all places.
The Charles Town Classic was supposed to be little more than a $1.5 million workout for Shared Belief, the practically perfect 4-year-old gelding who came into the race as the frontrunner in the race for 2015 Horse of the Year honors.
Then the unthinkable happened. After an unusually sluggish start that had Shared Belief lingering at the back of the field on the backstretch, he was out of view of those watching the track's video feed when announcer Jeff Cernik said the words that generated severe shock waves across the racing industry: "Pulling up, out of contention, is Shared Belief."
Sent off as an odds-on, 3-10 favorite, Shared Belief was pulled up by jockey Mike Smith, who sensed something was wrong after the Santa Anita Handicap winner stumbled a bit coming out of the gate and wisely opted to play it safe with such a beloved champion. "He just seemed to slip in behind and wasn't comfortable," said Smith, whose prudent and caring actions may have saved the horse from further injury. "The safe thing to do at that point was to get back in one piece."
The early prognosis was highly welcomed, yet the CT Classic and a Kentucky Derby development earlier in the day illustrate why so little can be taken for granted in horse racing.
With the Run for the Roses two weeks away, trainer Bob Baffert lost a Derby starter, though, thankfully for the sanity of the sport's most fervent supporters, it was not either of the race's two favorites in the Hall of Fame's stable. One Lucky Dane -- not American Pharoah or Dortmund -- suffered a condylar fracture that will prevent the Santa Anita Derby runner-up from running on May 2 at Churchill Downs in the world famous opening leg of the Triple Crown.
And so, in a span of about 12 hours, we were reminded of how fragile a Thoroughbred can be and how they can sometimes make the Bulls' Derrick Rose look like an iron man ala Cal Ripken Jr. or Lou Gehrig.
That's just one of the many reasons why no one has been able to pull off a sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes since Affirmed notched his hat trick in 1978. Just get getting to one of those of races is a challenge -- much less winning all three of them -- and Shared Belief, who did not run in any of last year's Triple Crown races, is a poster boy for that. It's a dynamic that explains why anyone with a Derby contender will be holding their breath until their horse walks onto the track at Churchill Downs and the band starts playing "My Old Kentucky Home."
Lest anyone forgets, a week before American Pharoah was supposed to breeze to an easy victory in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, an injury knocked him out of the race.
That surely paints a gloomy picture about the prospects of anyone ending an insufferable 37-year Triple Crown, but racing always seems to find a way to generate optimism.
As good as last year's crop of 3-year-olds turned out to be -- with Shared Belief, California Chrome and Bayern leading the way -- this year's class seems even more advanced and talented.
No less of an expert than Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed to Triple Crown glory in 1978, sees great potential in this year's group and wonders if it's finally time for a long-awaited sweep to happen.
"You know it's a really good year. I think a horse will win the Triple Crown [again] and this could be the year," Cauthen said earlier this week during a teleconference on behalf of Derby Experiences and the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. "American Pharaoh or Dortmund may turn out to be the horse that can do what we have been waiting for all these years. Looking at American Pharaoh he looks like he could be a freak; the way he won the Arkansas Derby was very impressive. At the same time, Dortmund is a really solid horse. I was impressed with the Santa Anita Derby victory. He actually looks like a horse that can continue to improve. It will be interesting. As a whole this is probably one of the best bunches for a long time."
Perhaps from all that talent and potential someone might emerge who can overcome the odds and make three trips to the winner's circle in five weeks. It won't be easy -- Saturday reminded us of that. Yet it has happened before and it will happen again. When is the operative word, especially with those 8,683,951 question marks attached to the end of it.
It's good to be Bob Baffert.
Last weekend, the Hall of Fame trainer served noticed that he just might have the favorite for the Kentucky Derby when he sent out Dortmund to post a decisive 4-1/4-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby.
Now, during this past Saturday's final slate of Derby preps, he showed the racing world that he'll probably have the top two choices in the Run for the Roses. This time, it was Baffert's reigning 2-year-old champ American Pharoah who romped to an even more impressive victory than Dortmund. Racing in second instead of his customary spot on the lead, American Pharoah cruised to the front on the final turn and then coasted to an eight-length victory in the $1 million Arkansas Derby under only the slightest of urging from jockey Victor Espinoza.
Dortmund or American Pharoah.
American Pharoah or Dortmund.
One of them will most likely be favored at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, and the other will be second choice. Maybe they'll be co-favorites.
Either way, this eagerly awaited showdown will be all Baffert.
Trainers have approached the Derby with larger hands than the 62-year-old three-time Derby winner.
Todd Pletcher (2007 and 2013), Nick Zito (2005) and D. Wayne Lukas (1996) each started five horses in a single Derby. But to arrive in Louisville with horses good enough to be the first and second choices?
American Pharoah and Dortmund, mind you, have done nothing but win this year and between them have 10 wins in 11 career starts.
Once a hurdle as imposing Secretariat is cleared, a historian in search of a duo as formidable as Dortmund and American Pharoah would most likely have to head back to 1948 when trainer Ben Jones sent out Calumet Farm's entry of Citation and Coaltown, who were dismissed as a 2-5 favored entry.
Citation won the Derby and went on to sweep the Triple Crown. The Hall of Famer retired as the sport's all-time leading money earner. Coaltown, the other half of the entry, finished second in the Derby and developed into a Horse of the Year and a Hall of Famer.
That's legendary company for any pair of stablemates, but to even be in a conversation with horses like that speaks volumes about the hand Baffert will be playing at Churchill Downs on May 2.
They were 1-2 in the latest ESPN 3-year-old power rankings, with Dortmund owning the top spot, and American Pharoah's jaw-dropping victory could lift the Eclipse Award winner into the No. 1 spot this week.
Perhaps there will be a dead-heat in the balloting.
The only tricky part is that unlike Citation and Coaltown, Dortmund and American Pharoah have different owners. Kaleem Shah owns Dortmund, while American Pharoah carries the silks of Ahmed Zayat's Zayat Stables.
Because of those separate interests, it will be every horse for himself once the starting gates open on the first Saturday in May.
Teamwork? Forget about it.
The Arkansas Derby showed that American Pharoah, as speedy as he might be, does not have to be on the lead. Dortmund, a front-running winner of the Santa Anita Derby, has a similar style.
In a perfect world, both would allow someone else to set the pace while they stalk a few lengths behind. Yet once the starting gates open for a 20-horse cavalry charge, anything can, and usually does happen. Speedsters can wind up in a game of bumper cars and be knocked to the back of the pack, or they can become too keyed up and reel off brutal fractions.
Much can go wrong, but if all goes well, Martin Garcia on Dortmund and Espinoza on American Pharoah will be keeping an eye on each other, not wanting their stablemate to get the jump on them.
Their race within a race could pave the way for someone else to win the 141st Derby (perhaps Baffert's third possibility, Santa Anita Derby runner-up One Lucky Dane), or it could provide Baffert with a day like the one Ben Jones had in 1948 -- only Baffert will have to joyously hug one owner and then turn around, put a frown on his face, and say "sorry" to another.
It could get complicated. Yet now, with the Derby three weeks away, you can only envy the trainer. He has the two horses to beat in the Derby, and each of them is coming up to the race in picture-perfect fashion.
In the coming weeks, horses like Firing Line, who lost narrowly to Dortmund on two occasions, Carpe Diem, International Star, Materiality, Frosted, Upstart and even Dubai shipper Mubtaahij, will gather their fair share of attention as threats to win the race.
Yet in assessing their chances, they will have to be measured against not just one Baffert horse, but two of them. Not bad, eh? Not bad at all.
Yes, with Derby Day looming boldly on the horizon, it's good to be Bob Baffert.
NEW YORK -- Starting from scratch can be a risky proposition, especially when the Kentucky Derby is rapidly approaching on the horizon. Yet Kiaran McLaughlin had no choice.
The 54-year-old trainer simply was not used to the sight of a bona fide Kentucky Derby prospect turning for home in a major prep with a clear lead and then losing interest in running -- just as Frosted did in the Fountain of Youth.
On that frustrating February afternoon for McLaughlin, Frosted had forged to the front on the final turn and seemed to be comfortably cruising along in the Grade 2 stakes. Even track announcer Larry Collmus bought in, punctuating his call of the race with: "Frosted is looking good."
Appearances, however, proved to be quite deceiving as Frosted slowed in the stretch over a dull, tiring track, said "no mas" and faded to fourth.
"The last race really made us scratch our head over why he would go to the lead and then throw his head in the air and stop when we all thought he was going to win," McLaughlin said.
So McLaughlin, his assistant trainers, vets, grooms and everyone else associated with the colt went back to the drawing board. He switched riders, bringing in Joel Rosario to replace Irad Ortiz Jr. The Godolphin Racing colt underwent a minor throat operation because McLaughlin wondered if Frosted flipped his palate, restricting his breathing. Then, instead of running Frosted at Gulfstream in the Florida Derby, he gave the homebred son of Tapit an extra week of rest and shipped him to Aqueduct for Saturday's $1 million Wood Memorial.
"We did it all," McLaughlin said. "We changed everything that we thought could have gone wrong."
Then he held his breath, and let out a huge sigh of relief when Frosted ($6.40) returned to winning form and rallied from sixth in the field of seven to capture the Wood by two lengths and punch his ticket to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby.
Daredevil, the slight $2.00-to-1 favorite, was a well-beaten fourth.
"This has been a tough, special project for my team It all worked out and it's a special win for us and Godolphin," said McLaughlin, whose colt covered the mile-and-an-eighth in a moderate 1:50.31 on a windy day at the Big A. "He's a nice horse and I'm glad we all got to see it come together for him. It's a great feeling because he's such a neat horse.
"We got paid off for the hard work."
As part of that payoff, McLaughlin and the Dubai-based Godolphin have an intriguing Kentucky Derby candidate whose new-found ability to close could come in handy in the Run for Roses, which has no shortage of horses who want to be on or near the lead. "No problem, especially after he rated like he did today," McLaughlin said about the Derby's mile-and-a-quarter distance. "I don't think an extra furlong will be a problem." Nor will starting in the Run for the Roses pose a problem for any of the top three finishers in the Wood. Frosted received 100 points for his victory in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, which assured him of a spot in the field, while Tenecedur, who picked up 40 points, can also make travel plans, if his connections wish.
El Kabeir, who had already clinched his spot in the field with 75 points coming in, added 20 more to his total for good measure.
At Churchill Downs on May 2 they could meet up with two horses who were impressive winners of Saturday's other Grade 1 preps (Dortmund/Santa Anita Derby; Carpe Diem/Blue Grass) and perhaps reigning 2-year-old champ American Pharoah, and don't expect any of the New York horses to be among the favorites on the toteboard.
Yet if Frosted can continue to progress and improve off Saturday's effort, there could be some intriguing international implications. In Godolphin, Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum heads the world's most formidable stable and for decades he has coveted a victory in an American Triple Crown race.
"For anyone to win the Derby, it's a dream," McLaughlin said. "Godolphin only wants to win it when they have a chance and this gives us a big chance. That's why it's exciting. It would be great for them [to win the Derby] because they do so much for racing. They are so generous in supporting racing around the world."
To date, Godolphin's Dubai-based runners have been unable to create a stir on the first Saturday in May in Louisville, yet now a horse born, raised, trained and even tinkered with in America could be the vehicle of change for Sheikh Mohammed's luck at Churchill Downs.
Given how all of McLaughlin's changes have worked out with Frosted so far, it's hardly a far-fetched notion.
As another wild day on the Road to the Kentucky Derby came to a revealing end, an ages-old debate was rekindled.
It's one that's more than three times older than the gap between now and the last time a horse captured the Triple Crown.
Its age is a sequoia-like 133 years young and perhaps growing.
We're talking, of course, about racing's infamous Curse of Apollo.
Not since Apollo's victory in the 1882 Run for the Roses has a 3-year-old been able to reach the winner's circle on the first Saturday in May without the benefit of a race at two-years old. Some very good race horses have tried since then. All have failed.
The Curse popped up in Triple Crown discussions like flowers in spring time on Saturday when second choice Materiality ($5.60) registered an eye-opening length-and-a-half victory over even-money favorite Upstart in the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.
The newest member of trainer Todd Pletcher's herd of Triple Crown candidates, Materiality now stands a perfect 3-for-3 in a career that dates back to Jan. 11 at Gulfstream, when he won his career debut. Thanks to the 100 points he picked up in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series through his win in the Grade 1 stakes, Materiality now has a guaranteed spot in the starting gate for the mile-and-a-quarter opening leg of the Triple Crown. His ability to carve out the pace and then fend off a more seasoned rival like Upstart, who was No. 5 in the most recent ESPN Top 10 3-year-old poll, paints him as a serious threat at Churchill Downs.
The date of that first race, though, labels him as a fraud if you buy into The Curse.
Realistically, while it all revolves around the date of Jan. 1, at the heart of the issue there's nothing mystical about New Year's Day.
Consider the case of Verrazano in 2013. He was undefeated in four starts and one of the top contenders in the 139th edition of the Derby. He might have been favored, except that his first start came on Jan. 1 and the Curse of Apollo hovered over him like the Sword of Damocles.
Several factors revolve around the Jan. 1 date and give it such an imposing aura. For starters, talented horses do not debut at three by design. There's almost always a highly valid reason, such as a physical problem, that can pop up again when least expected and derail the Triple Crown hopes of horses like Pulpit in 1997 or Khozan this year. While Materiality's problems at two have been categorized as minor, their mere existence raises the possibility that even a small bump in the road can bring an abrupt end to his Derby hopes.
The lost time at two also comes back to haunt those horse who actually make to Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Derby is as much a test of endurance as it is of speed and heart, and for the last 133 years that lack of seasoning has humbled horses like Verrazano and so many others. While those who raced at two can blossom and develop in a measured progression, the Apollo wanna-be's have to play catch-up and usually peak too early or never at all.
As impressive as Materiality has looked -- especially on Saturday -- it seems foolhardy to believe that five weeks from now, he'll be able to slug it out with rivals like American Pharoah and Dortmund on the front end and have enough left in the tank to fend off a late bid in the last of the race's 10 furlongs.
The Curse of Apollo tells you that.
Yet even if Materiality had started on Dec. 31 or even Dec. 28, the challenge would be no different. To win the Derby in career start No. 4 will be a monumental task for Materiality because the race is so grueling. The pace will be quick, the distance longer than anything he has faced, and the horses running with him early and chasing him late will have more experience. They were also brought up to the race in a more patient manner that's more conducive to peaking at an incredibly opportune time.
Considering how Upstart ranged up to join Materiality at the half-mile pole and the two waged a fierce war until Pletcher's colt edged clear in the final furlong, the mile and an eighth Florida Derby had the look of a draining race for its top two finishers. Fortunately, the Kentucky Derby is five weeks away on May 2, leaving ample time for a battle-tested rival like Upstart, who was third in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and this year won the Holy Bull and was disqualified from first to second in the Fountain of Youth, to rest and move forward. For Materiality, who won his first two starts by 4 ¼ lengths and then 5 ¾ lengths, bouncing back from the rigors of being seriously tested for the first time presents a new and far more difficult challenge.
That's a somewhat lengthy explanation that can be condensed into the mere mention of a curse tied to Jan. 1.
Materiality can put an end to it, but it will not be easy.
With 133 years on its side, The Curse of Apollo has taken on a life of its own and has showed no signs of fading into the sunset.
In the end, more than American Pharoah or Dortmund or Carpe Diem or Firing Line or anyone else, it may also prove to be the one rival Materiality cannot outrun.
It would be easy to paint Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby as Round Two in a budding rivalry between Upstart and Itsaknockout.
They met for the first time in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth when Upstart crossed the wire first by 2 ¾ lengths over Itsaknockout in the Grade 2 stakes. But before the "official" sign was posted on the toteboard, the Gulfstream stewards disqualified the 4-5 favorite and placed him second for bumping with the on-coming Itsaknockout in the stretch of the Feb. 21 stakes.
Though Itsaknockout was declared the winner, there was no shortage of dissenting opinions, including one from Rick Violette, the trainer of Upstart.
"Bad call," Violette said after the race. "I really think it didn't alter the outcome. Just the stewards did."
On Saturday, Upstart and the Todd Pletcher-trained Itsaknockout will square off again at Gulfstream. Upstart was the heavy favorite the first time they clashed, but the Fountain of Youth opened the door for doubt to sneak in. Yes, Upstart reached the finish line first, but would Itsaknockout have prevailed without the incident in the stretch? It's food for thought and the match to light a lively debate, but Violette wants no part of bulletin board material. He knows the Grade 1 stakes is above all a highly important test for owner Ralph M. Evans' 3-year-old as opposed to another round in a grudge match.
"It's never personal for me," Violette said. "We have to get Upstart over there in the best possible condition, hope the rider gives him the best ride possible, and that we get there first. If Itsaknockout is second, fine. If he's fifth, fine. There are other horses out there you have to beat. It's rarely a two-horse race. It's not a vendetta and it's not a rivalry, yet. I could get cocky and say it's only a rivalry when he beats me on the up-and-up without the stewards, but I'm not doing that."
For Violette and other trainers with a top Kentucky Derby prospect, races like the Florida Derby are indeed much more than a measuring stick for a pair of rivals. As satisfying as it might be to defeat a formidable foe in one of them, they are indeed preps for the biggest prize of all, the Kentucky Derby. Yet they also carry a major significance in their own right, explaining why Violette is placing far more emphasis on the Florida Derby than the Fountain of Youth -- where Upstart was clocked in a slow but deceptive 1:46.28 for a mile-and-a-sixteenth over a slow, tiring surface.
"It's a balancing act. This is a Grade 1 for a million dollars we're approaching on Saturday. It's a serious race," Violette said. "It's a lot of money, and a bird in hand in the racing business is worth an awful lot. Tomorrow is promised to nobody. The best laid plans end with 'Boss, can you come see this?' So we're ready for this race and trying to have our cake and eat it too: getting him ready while not prepping him for his best race of all-time."
Third in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the New York State-bred began his 3-year-old campaign with a sensational effort, winning the Holy Bull at Gulfstream. Off such a powerful showing, Violette feared his horse might regress in his next start so he eased back on the ridgling's training.
"He ran well in the Holy Bull off a good work a week before the race and I intentionally did not do that in Fountain of Youth to save some juice in the lemon," Violette said. "I undertrained him for that race, figuring we were supposed to regress off that top effort in the Holy Bull and we accomplished what we set out to do. I thought we could regress and win the race, unfortunately there was a difference of opinion on that after the race."
This time, after the controversial turn of events in the Fountain of Youth and the added stakes in Saturday's race, Violette is leaving little to chance. Based on a solid 59.40 seconds workout on Saturday, Upstart appears to be coming into the mile and an eighth Florida Derby in sharp form -- with some room for continued growth between now and the May 2 Kentucky Derby.
"We've wound him up a little tighter this time," Violette said. "He galloped at a two-minute lick on Wednesday and then the breeze on Saturday. It was exactly what we wanted. He worked fast and finished fast on Saturday. The last eighth was in 11-4/5 [seconds] and he didn't look like he was going that fast. He did it easily. Hopefully we can move forward off the Fountain of Youth - maybe not to his best race ever but pretty close to it. This way we can move forward again heading to Kentucky."
In the Fountain of Youth, Upstart was fifth in the field of eight in the early stages and got first-run on Itsaknockout, who was fourth after the opening half-mile and made one sustained run turning for home.
In the Florida Derby, Upstart, ranked fourth in the latest ESPN Top 10 3-year-old poll, will tackle an undefeated duo in ninth-ranked Itsaknockout and his stablemate, Materiality, among others. At nine furlongs, it's a half-furlong longer than the Fountain of Youth, and Violette says there's no guarantee that Upstart will get first jump on Itsaknockout or anyone else. He says his horse is tractable enough to run either on the lead or at the back of the pack, a quality that could definitely come in handy down the road at Churchill Downs with top candidates like American Pharoah and Dortmund possessing plenty of early speed.
"I think he can do anything. He can be a one-run horse. He can give a long, half-mile run. He can be on the lead or he can be right behind the speed," Violette said. "It's valuable to have that ability, especially in races like the Kentucky Derby."
As part of the Championship phase of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, the Florida Derby is worth 100-40-20-10 points in descending order to the top four finishers and the first two across the finish line -- barring a disqualification -- will be virtually guaranteed of a spot in the starting gate for the Run for the Roses. With 36 points already, Upstart should be able to run in the Kentucky Derby regardless of how he fares on Saturday, but Violette says he has little interest in a grueling mile and a quarter test off a subpar effort in Florida.
"I don't want to run poorly in the Florida Derby and then cross my fingers that we'll rebound in the Kentucky Derby," Violette said. "It's not that you can't rebound. Horses have done it. But there are a lot of roads to Rome and there are different roads to Louisville as well."
There are also lucrative options beyond the Triple Crown that seem well-suited for a durable, consistent runner like Upstart.
"There's also racing after the Derby and historically it looks like the horses that have done well in the major summer and fall races are the horses who have run fairly regularly," Violette said. "The horses with one and two starts, with big gaps between starts, they do not seem to be able to take the intensity and the stress of the Triple Crown trail. That's why I wanted three starts after the Breeders' Cup and he seems to be thriving on it. He's a really happy horse and hopefully we made the right decision."
The Florida Derby could erase any doubts about that plan. Who knows? It might even create a lively rivalry between two leading Kentucky Derby candidates -- provided there's no interference on the racetrack or from the stewards' booth.
Only a special race horse can relegate the seasonal debut -- and stunning loss -- of an undisputed champion into an afterthought.
American Pharoah seemed to fit snuggly into that role on Saturday. On a wet afternoon at Oaklawn Park, three races after Untappable went down to defeat in the Azeri Stakes, American Pharoah made his eagerly awaited 3-year-old debut. He did not disappoint.
Though he was unraced since Sept. 27, there was little sign of rust as the son of Pioneerof the Nile did what was expected of him.
He did not just capture Oaklawn's $750,000 Rebel Stakes, Zayat Stables' Eclipse Award winner prevailed with consummate ease despite running with a loose shoe. After quickly rushing out to the early lead, the sport's rising star never looked back. He glided along on a clear lead over the sloppy track and then pulled away in the stretch to record a 6 ¼-length victory that was never in doubt. "He's an amazing horse," jockey Victor Espinoza said.
With the calendar positioned at mid-March, there was little reason to quibble with Espinoza's assessment. Yet for a gifted 3-year-old like American Pharoah, it's May, in particular the first Saturday of that month, which matters most.
If American Pharoah can live up to the lofty expectations crafted for him and win the Kentucky Derby, he will indeed be an "amazing horse." Until then, he remains like every other leading Run for the Roses candidate: a horse with vast potential that will either be realized or crumble in the face of the herculean challenge of a 10-furlong race against the best hoses of his generation.
After overcoming a stumbling start that dislodged the shoe, he quickly rushed out to the early lead and the sports rising star never looked back. He glided along on a clear lead over the sloppy track and then pulled away in the stretch to record a 6 ¼-length victory that was never in doubt.
As impressive as American Pharoah may have been in the Rebel, drawing any type of conclusion about his chances in the Run for the Roses off Saturday's romp can be hazardous to your wagering bankroll on Derby Day.
Forget about the $750,000 purse and the 50 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series that clinched a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs and the Rebel was no different than a spring training baseball game. It was simply a prep for something significantly more important in future months and what matters far more than the margin of victory is what American Pharoah gets out of the race. After missing so much time due to a foot injury, can he win the Derby off the conditioning gained from the Rebel and one more race, probably the Arkansas Derby?
To say no at this point is far too premature and cynical. Yet it's fair to wonder if the Rebel was more of a measured workout than a demanding race for a horse ranked third in the current ESPN 3-year-old power rankings.
Trainer Bob Baffert, for his part, liked what he saw.
"The track was very demanding. We learned a lot from this race because he handled it well. He handled the shipping and he handled the off track," Baffert said. "Once he got into the first turn and his groove, he was galloping. When he can run like that all the way around, it shows you how good he is."
The competition, though, was weak, as evidenced by the reigning 2-year-old champ's 2-5 odds after a layoff of nearly six months. There were no stakes winners among his six rivals. The second choice in the wagering - and runner-up across the finish line - was the Todd Pletcher-trained Madefromlucky, who was coming off allowance and maiden wins at Gulfstream Park.
There was also no one with enough speed to run with him in the early stages of the race. While he covered the final two and a half furlongs in an impressive 30.56 seconds, he basically galloped through the first six furlongs, leaving plenty of gas in the tank for the stretch run. His split for the initial three quarters of a mile was a dawdling 1:15.22, a clocking usually associated with cheap claimers as opposed to a Grade 1 stakes winners. To put that in perspective, a year ago, when Espinoza guided California Chrome to victory in the Kentucky Derby, they were less than a length off the lead as the pace-setting Uncle Sigh covered the first six furlongs in 1:11.80.
The way this year's Derby is falling into place, a front-runner like American Pharoah will have to be dead-fit to stand up though what promises to be demanding early fractions. Dortmund, who is No. 1 in the ESPN poll, also likes to run on or near the lead and the two Baffert-trained colts figure to be close to each other on the backstretch.
Carpe Diem, No. 2 in the ESPN poll, as well as Upstart and Firing Line, numbers four and five, respectively, also have running styles that should put them within four or five lengths or less of the early lead.
With horses like that pressing him and stalking him, American Pharoah will be pushed quite fiercely and will face the greatest challenge of his young career -- and he will have just two 2015 races to prepare for it.
One of those preps is in the books and more will be known about its value after American Pharoah's next race. These days two races are enough to prepare a horse for the Kentucky Derby, but because of American Pharoah's relatively late start at three there's no margin for error. Playing catch-up is no longer an option. The Rebel has to move him forward and the final prep has to fine tune him. Anything less and the stretch at Churchill Downs could become awfully long on the first Saturday in May.
At first glance, six furlongs in 1:15.22 against weak competition does not fit into equation. Yet special horses have a way of rendering conventional logic meaningless, like Affirmed did in 1978 when he beat arch-rival Alydar on three occasions to become the most recent Triple Crown winner.
On a March day, American Pharoah was surely special. If he can do it in May and June as well, special just might give away to words with even greater meaning -- perhaps even words unspoken for 37 years.
On the surface, El Kabeir might be as unlikely a Kentucky Derby prospect as you'll ever find.
His jockey is 54-years-old and has never ridden in the Run for the Roses. His next Grade1 win will be his first. He hasn't even won a Grade 2 stakes since 2009.
His trainer, John P. Terranova II, has started just one horse in the Kentucky Derby and that one -- Falling Sky -- finished 19th in the 2013 Derby.
The horse himself is not even his owner's most highly regarded 3-year-old. And yet, after winning Saturday's $400,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, El Kabeir re-positioned himself as a major contender to be at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
Last month, much of the luster fell off El Kabeir when he pressed the pace and finished a disappointing second in the Grade 3 Withers. But on the first Saturday in March, owner Ahmed Zayat's safety valve for 2-year-old champion American Pharoah surely looked like Kentucky Derby material at chilly Aqueduct. The grey son of Scat Daddy showed off a new dimension by lingering in ninth in a field of 10 and then launching a strong 4-wide rally under veteran jockey Chucky "CC" Lopez to win the Gotham going-away by 2 ¾ lengths over promising second-time starter Tiz Shea D.
"He got everything thrown at him today and he still managed to overcome it all," said Terranova, whose horse covered the mile and a sixteenth in 1:45.56 over Aqueduct's muddy inner-track as the 6-5 favorite ($4.60). "It was very impressive. The more you throw at him, the stronger he gets. If he continues to move forward off this, the sky's the limit."
American Pharoah may be the Zayat horse with the Eclipse trophy on the mantle, yet the division's reigning champ has yet to start at three and has not raced since September due to an injury suffered in the week leading up to the Breeders' Cup. His dazzling recent works indicate he may be as good as ever, yet with no real margin for error on his path to Churchill Downs, one small misstep in the coming weeks could be enough to knock him off the Triple Crown trail.
Meanwhile, all El Kabeir does is turn out one solid effort after another.
"It's fine with me," Terranova said about playing second fiddle to Zayat's Bob Baffert-trained American Pharoah. "Maybe we don't get as much pressure. We're doing our thing, I'm letting [American Pharoah] do his thing and hoping it all works out."
So far, so good for a horse whose name, with all due respect to Bruce Springsteen, means "The Boss."
"I actually thought it was a strong race," Terranova said. "Some of the speed figure services confirmed it."
Whether El Kabeir would be able to carry his speed over a demanding 10-furlong mountain like the Kentucky Derby had been a big question mark hovering over Zayat's "other" 3-year-old. Yet how the Gotham played out helped to erase at least some of those concerns. More will be known if all goes well and El Kabeir returns to the Big A on April 4 for the mile-and-an-eighth Wood Memorial on the oval's main track, but now the Gotham and his strong closing kick were steps in the right direction.
"He broke good but those horses broke better," Lopez said. "They had gas and he quickly got shuffled back. I tried not to panic. I was on the best horse in the race. When he changed leads turning for home, he exploded. So I'm not worried about the distance any more. Today he showed us everything we've tried to teach him in the mornings, sitting behind horses and getting that dirt in the face. He was much better to ride today than the last two times."
If Lopez has any concerns about El Kabeir, it's being able to stick with him. As a horse climbs the ladder of the success, it's not unusual for a journeyman like Lopez to lose the mount to a rider with Hall of Fame credentials.
His association with El Kabeir started when Calvin Borel was unable to ride the 3-year-old in the Jerome back in January due to the death of his sister-in-law. Lopez was brought in as an emergency substitute and guided El Kabeir to a 4 ¾-length victory. That Terranova stuck with Lopez after the loss in the Withers was a sign of confidence, but Lopez is taking no chances and will not allow himself to daydream about riding in the Kentucky Derby. He has no interest in playing the role of the heart-broken high school kid who loses his prom date to the captain of the football team.
"I've been taking it race by race, figuring at some point they're going to want to take me off the horse," Lopez said. "I've been riding him like it's the last time I'll get on him. Hopefully I'll ride him in the Wood because I still look at it on a race-to-race basis because I don't want to get my heart broken.
"As I've said, it was nice to know I was still in demand to ride this type of horse. They could have chosen from a 100 different riders to ride him in the Jerome and they picked me. Whatever happens, that's a really good feeling."
In words that should comfort Lopez, Terranova has -- at the moment - no plans to make a switch.
Saturday, February 21 at Gulfstream Park was the kind of day that served as a billboard for what fans love best about the sport.
It was a warm, sunny Florida day, with temperatures in the 70's that raised the envy of the parka-clad folks in the Northeast and Midwest.
There were 12 races, seven of them with 10 or more horses, making for some grand wagering opportunities.
There were eight stakes races, seven of them graded.
Those stakes featured the 2015 debut of Horse of the Year runner-up Main Sequence and an important Kentucky Derby prep.
It also focused a spotlight on a source of controversy as old as the sport itself.
More than the implications on the Derby or this year's Horse of the Year race, what arose from such a wonderful day of racing was a loud outcry over the decisions of the stewards.
The there were three races in which the stewards posted the inquiry sign and one disqualification, which just so happened to take place in the biggest race of all, the $400,000 Fountain of Youth for 3-year-olds.
At the end of the day, there was a heated outcry over the stewards' body of work. In an era when Twitter has magnified the opinions of a handful so that some believe it's the will of the masses, there was talk of how wrong the stewards were, how much it damages the sport and how changes are desperately needed.
What's actually needed is a page of the Aaron Rodgers playbook, namely: R-E-L-A-X. If anyone believes there's a way to perfect the art of ruling on claims of foul in horse racing, they must be napping next to Rip Van Winkle. A horse race is not like a football or basketball player stepping on an out-of-bounds line or a tennis ball landing inside the service box, which can be seen in a high-definition freeze frame.
As much as films can show contact between horses, there's a need for someone to use their judgment in determining the severity of the incident. Was it harmless or incidental? Did a jockey overreact?
Any time you bring the human element into the equation, mistakes are going to happen. Wrong decisions will be made.
You certainly don't celebrate mistakes, but you can't over-react because there is no sure-fire solution.
Any time stewards make a decision, there's usually no shortage of critics - which is natural. When a ruling goes your way, you're usually too busy cashing tickets to launch into a Twitter war. You generally accept the fact that things went your way this time, knowing it may not be long before one of your horses get taken down.
Critics, or those who suffered a financial consequence, are going to scream. Yet think about it. Is there anyone who has agreed with your opinion on a disqualification 100 percent of the time? Of course not. Some incidents are not that clear-cut where the ruling is an absolute no-brainer. Having seen numerous press box debates over inquiries, you come to understand there's no way to apply an accurate batting average to stewards' decisions. Who can say what's right or wrong when there might be a 50-50 split in perception of what should happen. Over the years, when you see highly astute viewer of the sport like turf writers John Pricci and Paul Moran argue about an inquiry, you come to understand the challenges a steward faces and appreciate the no-win situation they often face.
Knowing that, if someone turns their back on racing because of a stewards' decision they probably were not going to stick around for long anyway. Unless they just popped out of a cave and it's their first fling with a sport, they should know this phenomenon happens in every sport and fans in football, baseball, basketball and even hot dog eating might grumble, but they deal with it.
The same goes for the belief that the stewards have an ulterior motive in their decisions. Some cynics claim they never take down a horse trained by the likes of current and future Hall of Famers like Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher. They make decisions based on a horse's odds.
There's no way of saying those things never happen, but for the most part they are claims no different than what you'll hear in other sports about a referee being biased or favoring a certain teams. In the NFL this past post-season, Detroit Lions fans felt the NFL and its referees were Dallas Cowboys fans. A week later, Cowboys fans felt the officials wore Cheeseheads and were in cahoots with Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers.
So for racing it's foolish to believe these claims are damaging to the sport and should never happen. Anytime a judgment is made, someone is going to launch a conspiracy theory. That's a fact of sporting life.
So for racing it's foolish to believe these claims are damaging to the sport and should never happen. Anytime a judgment is made, someone is going to launch a conspiracy theory. That's a fact of sporting life.
That doesn't mean stewards should not be placed under scrutiny. Ruling on a call that can go either way is one thing. Blowing obvious calls or applying inconsistent logic is another. A key part of the angry reaction to the Gulfstream stewards' decisions was that some people, in their own judgment, believed there was a 180-degree shift in logic in adjudicating the first two inquiries.
In my judgment, though, the stewards got it right.
The first claim of foul came in the day's fourth race, the $100,000 Rampart Stakes. At the top of the stretch, the race had boiled down to a three-horse race. House Rules, on the outside of the trio, held a short lead and was beginning to edge away from Sheer Drama, in the middle, and Wedding Toast, who was on the rail. Approaching the eighth pole, as House Rules was nearly a length clear of the other two, she drifted in, forcing jockey Joe Bravo on Sheer Drama to stand up in his irons and check his horse.
House Rules went on to win by a length and a half, but Bravo, to his credit, continued riding his filly and managed to beat Wedding Toast by a head for second.
Shortly after the horses crossed the wire, Bravo, Sheer Drama's trainer, David Fawkes, and everyone who wagered a nickel or more on the 22-1 shot demanded an inquiry. The stewards looked at the films and allowed the result to stand. Their reasoning was that the bumping between House Rules and Sheer Drama did not have a bearing on the order of finish. In their judgment, House Rules was drawing clear at the time of the incident and Sheer Drama was destined to finish no better than second. So why reward her for a foul that most likely did not cost her a placing?
Had Bravo wrapped up on Sheer Drama after the incident and checked in third, House Rules most likely would have been DQ'd to third. Yet as it turned out, each horse wound up where they belonged.
The next debate came after the featured Fountain of Youth Stakes when Upstart, the 4-5 favorite, was disqualified from first and placed second.
Frosted, on the inside, was on the lead but tiring as Upstart ranged up alongside him near the three-sixteenths pole. Outside of them Itsaknockout was gaining ground as well.
When Itsaknockout reached Upstart's rear flank, it appeared that Frosted drifted out, carrying Upstart into Itsaknockout. It was a slight bump and had the bumps stopped there, Upstart probably would have survived the inquiry. But a few strides later as Itsaknockout was still on Upstart's flank, Upstart came out and hit Itsaknockout again, jostling jockey Luis Saez as the New York State-bred drew off to a decisive 2 ¾-length victory over Itsaknockout.
Some believed that if House Rules was not disqualified, Upstart should have received the same treatment. Yet the two races were like apples and oranges. If the Rampart could have been stopped with a pause button a split second before House Rules took away Sheer Drama's path and the betting windows re-opened, House Rules would have been a 1-5 favorite. At the same point in the Fountain of Youth, Itsaknockout was gaining ground and it will never be known if he had enough late kick to surge past Upstart. The outcome was still undecided. The bumps ended all that, creating the grounds for the disqualification.
Two calls, and in my judgment, two correct calls, despite the outcry of "fix."
In the final race of the day, there was another inquiry and the stewards let the result stand.
This time, they should have disqualified the winner. Danish Dynaformer and favored Dreaming of Gold were battling to the wire and on two occasions it appeared as if Danish Dynaformer came out and bumped Dreaming of Gold. Javier Castellano on Dreaming of Gold never stopped riding, giving off the impression that the bumping had no impact on the runner-up, but that view of the race would seem to penalize Castellano for not checking his horse, which probably would have convinced the stewards to reverse the order of finish.
Perhaps the stewards felt both horses were guilty of bumping, but that's not how I saw it. They were correct in 2-of-3 races in my eyes, though there's surely plenty of people who will say they went 3-for-3 or 0-for-3.
That's what happens when human judgment comes into play.
In the end, like officials in any sport, stewards should be scrutinized and reviewed. But who should do it? Track management? They would probably be less inclined than the stewards to ruffle the feathers of a leading trainer because of the impact it could have on the track's bottom line. A state official? Please, let's keep the government out of this.
One answer might be to have a group like the National Thoroughbred Racing Association hire former jockeys, trainers and stewards to review a steward's body of work on an annual basis. This way people with no vested interest in the track's races, and who understand what truly happens in a race, can determine whether a steward is making an occasional mistake or is overmatched by the job.
Meanwhile, as the year unfolds, there will no doubt be more inquiries and louder cries that the stewards blew it. It's inevitable. It's a part of the sport -- and every other sport as well.
Those sports take note of the mistakes, strive to remedy them and move forward - just like racing should.
We're dealing with human judgments here and no one is going to please everyone every time. So let's put everything in perspective and understand that some controversies will never go away. Right, Aaron?
Each year at this time of, that long and winding road that Paul McCartney and the Beatles sang about back in 1970 should be offered up as a reminder to everyone scrutinizing every minuscule detail on the path to the Kentucky Derby.
The Run for the Roses is still more than two months away and to place too much emphasis on the result of races that are still penultimate preps may not be the wisest of ideas.
The stakes were raised Saturday when the points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series were elevated to 50-20-10-5 for the first four finishers in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and Risen Star at Fair Grounds, and the results certainly sparked a considerable share of debate.
The Fountain of Youth had the better field and generated the most controversy. Ralph M. Evans' Upstart was sent off as a 4-5 favorite off an impressive 5 ½-length romp for trainer Rick Violette in his 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull and in one regard he lived up to his reputation by crossing the wire first. How he managed to do that was the problem.
In the stretch run, as Upstart and jockey Jose Ortiz moved past the tiring Frosted to take the lead, there was some drifting. It may have been initiated by Frosted, but it resulted with Upstart bumping into the oncoming Itsaknockout. A few strides later, as Upstart continued to drift, he bumped into the Todd Pletcher-trained colt again as jockey Luis Saez stood up in his irons and checked Itsaknockout.
Upstart then drew off to win by 2 ¾ lengths over Itsaknockout, but the ridgling never made it to the winner's circle as the stewards called for an inquiry.
There were those on Twitter who postured that Saez sold the DQ and Itsaknockout was not going to pass Upstart. Pletcher called it a "jump ball" and Violette wanted a no-harm, no-foul call. The stewards had the final say and decided to disqualify Upstart to second and declare Itsaknockout the winner by a TKO of sorts.
"Bad call," Violette said. "I really think it didn't alter the outcome. Just the stewards did."
The victory impacted the bettors who lost on Upstart and collected on Itsaknockout, the 5-1 second choice, and it put the $240,560 winner's share of purse in Starlight Racing's bank account instead of second-place money of $77,600.
Yet in terms of earning points to start in the Kentucky Derby, the switch had only a marginal impact. It guaranteed Itsaknockout of a spot in the starting gate with 50 points, though 20 points might also work as it did in Year One of the format. Upstart now has 36 points and his connections can breathe easily. There will be a spot for him at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
Much more than the impact on the points race, the Fountain of Youth had a greater impact in turning Upstart into a digital dartboard. Though he was clear at the wire, the final time was just 1:46.28 and he ran the final furlong in a lackluster 7.20 seconds.
Each marked a regression from his times in the Holy Bull (1:43.61, 6.55), yet before anyone rips up a future wager on the New York State-bred, remember the Beatles tune. Gulfstream's main track may have been turned into a slow, tiring treadmill due to a gap of about an hour and a half between dirt races. There's also one more prep for Upstart, be it the Florida Derby or the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, and a solid effort will put Saturday's race squarely in the rearview mirror.
The last three years have helped to obscure the notion that prep races are not akin to rounds in a tournament. California Chrome , Orb and I'll Have Another may have come into the Derby with perfect 3-year-old records, but in the 22 editions prior to that only four winners of the Run for the Roses did not lose a race at 3-years-old.
Horses can indeed stumble, bump or register a slower than expected time and still win the Kentucky Derby. It's happened before and can surely happen again. So hang on to those future wager tickets for a while, especially if you took Upstart at 53-1 in the first pool.
Itsaknockout ran huge, regardless of whether he's considered the official winner or the second horse across the wire. In just his third career start, he faced an acid test and handled it well in giving Pletcher yet another Derby option. How much the bumping cost him is debatable now, but more will be known in his next start, which figures to be the Florida Derby over a racetrack where he's 3-for-3.
He raced at two, so that 133-year jinx will not come into play, but he'll need another strong effort before he can be considered as a top-rung Run for the Roses candidate along the same lines of a seasoned, battle tested rival like Upstart, who raced in Grade 1 events like the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Champagne at two.
Frosted provided the biggest disappointment. He was second to Upstart in the Holy Bull and at the top of the stretch of the Fountain of Youth, the 7-2 second choice appeared to be cruising on the lead. Yet no sooner did track announcer Larry Collmus proclaim, "Frosted is looking good" than Frosted hit a wall. First Upstart and then Itsaknockout went past as he faded to fourth, nearly five lengths behind Upstart.
"We'll have to go back to the drawing board, because he looked like a winner," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said.
A better understanding of what happened in the Fountain of Youth could come from Frammento. He was beaten 18 ¾ lengths by Upstart in the Holy Bull, explaining why he was sent off at 63-1 odds in the Fountain of Youth. Yet on Saturday, he was closing best of all at the end and wound up third, just 4 ½ lengths behind.
He could be a colt who is developing at the right time for two-time Derby winning trainer Nick Zito, or he could be a reflection of how Upstart is tailing off. It could also be a fluky effort on a funky track. Time will tell.
The Risen Star proved to be a replay of Fair Grounds' LeComte as the 1-2 finishers in that race - International Star and War Story - crossed the finish line in the same order. The only change was that International Star's margin of victory was sliced from 2 ½ lengths to one.
The Risen Star also featured a claim of foul against the winner by the runner-up, but this time a New York State-bred was not taken down.
The back-to-back stakes wins skyrocketed International Star to the top of the points chase with 71 points and punched the son of Fusaichi Pegasus' ticket Louisville for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey. War Story jumped to 24 points.
What remains to be seen is how they stack up against the best horses from the East and West.
A measuring sick might be Keen Ice, who gained ground late to finish third in the Risen Star, 2 ¾ lengths behind. In his previous race, Keen Ice lost by 10 ½ lengths to Upstart in the Holy Bull. Doing the math, that could mean the Fair Grounds horses are about eight lengths behind the Florida contingent.
Of course, it's never that easy, especially on the road to the Kentucky Derby. As McCartney would say, "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah."
There was a prep race on Saturday that provided its winner with 10 valuable points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby points chase.
That alone gives that fortunate 3-year-old a 50-50 chance of starting in the Run for the Roses. Two years ago, in the initial season of the format, 10 points were golden and were enough to secure a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Last year, double that figure was the cutoff for Derby starters.
In all likelihood, though, Metaboss' victory in Saturday's $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields will be little more than an afterthought on May 2 when the opening leg of the Triple Crown is contested on a natural, dirt track at Churchill Downs. You see, apples are not oranges.
Golden Gate is one of a handful of tracks in the United States that still conducts racing over a synthetic surface and as much as Metaboss relished the mile-and-an-eighth distance of the El Camino Real Derby, form on a synthetic track usually does not translate into a similar effort on dirt.
Expecting a horse to race at a high level on both a dirt and synthetic surface typically leads to disappointment. While 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense raced on Polytrack in his final Kentucky Derby prep, he finished his career 0-for-3 on synthetics. Only Animal Kingdom, the winner of the 2011 Kentucky Derby, possessed the astonishing amount of versatility that enabled him to win a Triple Crown race and notch a graded stakes victory on a synthetic surface.
Perhaps a young and developing horse like Metaboss can follow in those footsteps, but don't bet on it. In his four races prior to Saturday, Metaboss raced three times on grass and once on dirt. Grass racing is considered to be akin to running over a synthetic track, making it little surprise that he was never worse than third on turf and was beaten by 3-1/4 lengths or less in his two losses. He was fourth, beaten 8-3/4 lengths, in his lone dirt race.
Apples and oranges.
At least this year, the El Camino Real is one of only two 2015 stakes on a synthetic surface that are included in the 25 Road the Kentucky Derby races. The other is the Spiral at Turfway Park on March 21, the same race that was Animal Kingdom's springboard to Derby fame and fortune in 2011.
The situation was far different from 2008 through 2010 when the major 3-year-old preps in California were contested on a synthetic surface. Not surprisingly, after switching back to dirt, in 2012 I'll Have Another gave the Santa Anita Derby its first Kentucky Derby winner since Giacomo in 2005.
In April, Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes will be contested on dirt for the first time since 2006 and will merit more consideration as a meaningful Derby prep than it has in recent years when it was captured by a string of horses better suited for turf than a dirt race.
And for handicappers there is a bright side to that. The Kentucky Derby has traditionally been a perplexing challenge because of inexperience at the distance and horses from different parts of the country meeting for the first time.
At least this year there will not be many oranges among the apples.
Be thankful for small favors.