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More questions than answers

10/2/2011

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Unanswered questions are the fuel that propels racing from one big day to the next and Super Saturday at Belmont Park at the end of a tremendous if muddy and yielding afternoon of sport left in its wake an ample supply of points to ponder in the month before the Breeders' Cup is run at Churchill Downs.

Can Havre de Grace's relentless assault on a Horse of the Year title be stopped?

What is the real significance of Flat Out's victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup?

Uncle Mo is back, but is he really a miler about to undertake a suicide mission?

Is there another win in the well-traveled Cape Blanco's considerable arsenal?

Just how good is the emerging female turf star Stacelita?

Who is Giant Ryan, anyway?

The 4-year-old filly Havre de Grave, no surprise, emerges as the star of Super Saturday, the most compelling story of the day and probably the most charismatic thoroughbred of 2011.

She put herself in the Horse of the Year race with a victory over males in the Woodward Stakes last month at Saratoga. Havre de Grace entrenched herself on Saturday with a crushing, take-no-prisoners triumph over four members of her own sex, finishing under wraps, 8 ¼ lengths in front of the highly regarded but overwhelmed Royal Delta in the $350,000, Grade 1 Beldame, running 8 furlongs in 1:49.39 in one of those efforts that move the most hard-bitten of New York horseplayers to a standing ovation.

She is, in the opinion of trainer Larry Jones, the complete racehorse a win away from the most important title a thoroughbred can win.

"I thought I would never ever run into what I would consider the perfect horse," Jones said. "We have had horses with a lot of speed and a lot of courage, but this is the first time I've had what I've thought was the total horse. This horse is a perfect specimen of a horse. She has a large heart, super large nostrils. She can tack weight. She confirmed what we always thought, that she is an outstanding animal."

Jones saw the race he had hoped to see from Havre de Grace in the Beldame, an effort not to taxing but enough to instill the confidence necessary to enter her against males again in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"We were trying to let her take us there," Jones said. "We felt she was going to need to run against the boys once [to gain consideration for Horse of the Year honors]. It wasn't so much the Breeders' Cup Classic we were looking for. Then, after the Woodward, it started looking like the Breeders' Cup Classic was a very real possibility."

Now, it is inevitable.

"It was very easy," her understated jockey, Ramon Dominguez, said. "She was in control the whole time, and turning for home I made sure I had her running. I got after her some and when I took a peek back inside three-sixteenths she was in front by many, and she did it pretty easy. She's a special horse. Being a filly, it's like she's the underdog, so to speak. She's as good as the males, to me. Physically, the way she handled herself and her power, she's really a racehorse. You never underestimate anybody, but I wouldn't trade places with anybody, either."

While Flat Out was a clear 2 ¼ lengths clear of Drosselmeyer at the end of 10 furlongs, the real winner of the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup may have been in a stall 200 miles to the north, in Saratoga Springs.

Tizway, winner of the Metropolitan and Whitney Handicaps this season, two of the most prestigious races run in New York, was declared from the Gold Cup after a missing a workout because of a brief illness. The 6-year-old, still the nation's leading older male, easily handled Flat Out in the Whitney and Havre de Grace easily defeated the Gold Cup winner in the Woodward. While absent, Tizway's Breeders' Cup Classic stock appreciated on Saturday.

Nevertheless, Flat Out, first or second in five of six starts this year, is a horse of substance and such horses are dismissed at great peril.

"We're going to be [at Churchill Downs] and try them," trainer Scooter Dickey said. "We'll go back to Monmouth tonight and ship to Kentucky the day after tomorrow."

The Classic plot had already thickened earlier in the day when One-time Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Mo, whose 3-year-old season, interrupted by illness and overshadowed by solidly founded speculation that early assessments of his ability were premature and overly enthusiastic, punished three opponents in the Grade 2, $200,000 Kelso Handicap, leading throughout a muddy mile run in 1:33.82 and finishing beneath John Velazquez three-lengths clear of Jackson Bend.
Clearly, the light-bodied Uncle Mo, who looked every bit the part of a 3-5 favorite, showed that he is a high-class miler in his first win since March. But he answered no other question in regard to his ability or limitations and will advance to the Breeders' Cup a quantity still unknown.

The Dirt Mile would be the likely destination in Louisville, but owner Mike Repole eschewed even perfunctory consideration of the obvious after the Kelso.

"I love the Classic." Repole said. "In my opinion, if you run Uncle Mo in the Sprint, he's the favorite. If you run Uncle Mo in the Dirt Mile, he's the favorite. If you run him in the Classic, he's probably going to be the favorite. I want to win the Classic. If Mo was in the Mile and won, and Stay Thirsty [third behind Flat Out in the Gold Cup] was in the Classic and finished third, it would be a decision I would regret for the rest of my life. Why not take two shots at a race everybody wants to win?"

Were the call his, trainer Todd Pletcher may not choose a quarter-mile stretchout for a horse who has not yet won a race longer than 1 1/16 miles, but he is nevertheless optimistic. "I would have trouble thinking he could run any better than he did today," Pletcher said. "It was a sensational effort. I'm happy for the horse that he was able to get back to where he was last year. That was Uncle Mo at his best again. I think there's more to come, I really do."

The question that Cape Blanco must answer on the return leg of his third trans-Atlantic flight in less than four months is this: Did the inevitable champion 4-year-old winner of the Man o' War Handicap and Arlington Million leave too much at Belmont this time? The long-bodied, frequent-flying chestnut's third American Grade 1 victory of the season probably clinched the 2011 male turf championship but will perhaps cost of the Breeders' Cup Turf engagement to which he is deservedly entitled.

Cape Blanco, perhaps the ultimate road warrior, left no doubt that he is the best turf runner seen this year in North America when provided with a gut check by Dean's Kitten in the final 100 yards of the $500,000 Joe Hirsh Turf Classic Invitational. Provided by rider Jamie Spencer with several excuses -- most notably a premature and unnecessary move to the lead at midpoint of the stretch turn and a trip that required a long, sustained drive while running 12 furlongs over yielding ground in 2:36.61, Cape Blanco, a 3-5 favorite, overcame both his rider and the would-be spoiler to win by a nose in a breathless finish. But he will be a tired horse on the return trip to trainer Aidan O'Brien's yard in Ballydoyle, Ireland and yet another long journey to Kentucky may not be in Cape Blanco's favor. Whether he makes the long flight a fourth time is a question unlikely to be soon answered.

"Very thrilling," said Charlie, O'Connor, of Ashford Stud, who represented owners Derrick Smith, Michael Tabor and Mrs. John Magnier. "I was a little bit nervous for a while. The ground was very soft, and it will just show you what a tough horse he is that he was still able to battle on and win. It was his third Grade 1 win over here, and it's fantastic. They'll bring him home and Aidan will see how he comes out of the race. Aidan will decide. He's done just another wonderful training job."

The Chad Brown-trained Stacelita could have been handled with no more confidence than that with which Dominguez rode the 5-year-old French mare, who underscored her mid-August victory in the Beverly D at Arlington with a facile triumph over five fillies and mares in the 10-furlong, $500,000 Flower Bowl Invitational.

"She felt like she was playing with those fillies,' Dominguez said. "She was just really in control. Once she got to the backside and I tucked behind, I felt like she would have a pretty good kick, and she did."

While favored by the both the bettors and the yielding ground, Stacelita overcame a slow pace and less than perfect trip during which she was pushed five-wide into the first turn and lost ground throughout, she simply outclassed this field, finishing two lengths clear of Distorted Legacy, who is clearly less than top-class. While there was a clear mismatch of talent between Stacelita and her opponents in the Flower Bowl, the effort, a very slow running time notwithstanding, stamps the mare, now a multiple Grade 1 winner in the U.S. and a Group 1 winner at age four in France, as a potential force in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Among those not expected to emerge from the mud at Belmont with Breeders' Cup plans intact was the surprise winner of the Vosburgh Invitational, but Giant Ryan will have a long stretch of preparation in Louisville at the end of a season that is no longer low profile.

With defending champion sprinter Big Drama ill and scratched on the eve of the Vosburgh, Euroears wiped out at the start and heavily favored Trappe Shot clearly off his game, the mud-loving Giant Ryan probably guaranteed his eventual selection as the season's champion New York-bred sprinter and state-bred of the year with a frontrunning, Grade 1 upset, but his participation in the Breeders' Cup Sprint will nevertheless require a $100,000 supplemental fee despite his second victory in a win-and-you're-in race, chump change after the check clears for this share of a $350,000 purse.

Despite five consecutive wins including the Smile Sprint Handicap and Calder in July and a perfect record in two previous starts in the mud, the 5-year-old Giant Ryan was dismissed at 12-1 in the Vosburgh, a massive error in judgment according to trainer Bisnath Parboo. "He not only was two-for-two on the wet track. He is two-for-two in 2011 at Belmont," Parboo said before stepping back a letting his wife, Shivananda, who owns Giant Ryan, do the talking.

"This is his home track," she said. "He loves Belmont Park. I will keep him here for a week or two and then he will ship directly to Churchill Downs. He will leave three weeks before the Breeders' Cup. This was to see if he could compete with the best horses."

That was, for all the participants yesterday, the ultimate question answered in the affirmative by relatively few. Now begins the search for the answers to questions left even by the winners.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.