Commentary

Calhoun fillies earn trip to Spa

The trainer will go to Saratoga with confidence because of his faith in two fillies

Updated: July 4, 2013, 4:19 PM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

Bret Calhoun has taken aim on the Saratoga season with a couple of fillies who, despite the disparity in their size, shouldn't be mistaken for Laverne and Shirley.

The emerging 2-year-olds, with all their promises and potentials displayed in a coruscating parade of possibilities, are, from this perspective, what's most compelling and intriguing about the sport this time of year.

One of the leading trainers in the Midwest for a decade, consistently ranking in the top 20 nationally, Calhoun has raced only a handful of horses at Saratoga over the years -- three or four, as he recalls, with a second and a third to show for the journey to Upstate New York. Out of respect for the preeminent quality of the racing there, Calhoun has traveled to Saratoga cautiously, he explained. This year, though, out of respect for the quality of two very different fillies, he'll go there confidently.

Calhoun said he plans to be there opening day, July 19, to send out Bahnah in the Schuylerville Stakes. And the Texan has Fiftyshadesofgold, winner of the recent Debutante at Churchill Downs, pointed at the Adirondack on Aug. 11.

Apart from the races for the Eclipse Awards, which begin to heat up as the Breeders' Cup approaches, the emerging 2-year-olds, with all their promises and potentials displayed in a coruscating parade of possibilities, are, from this perspective, what's most compelling and intriguing about the sport this time of year. Several of these promising youngsters will emerge and many spangled dreams will be born at Saratoga and Del Mar over the next two months. But a few youngsters already have sparkled, including Bahnah and Fiftyshadesofgold, who are marvels of polarity.

As Calhoun said, they're opposites -- Laverne and Shirley, Simon and Garfunkel. And yet, they've arrived at the same destination with the same goal, the winner's circle with a trip to Saratoga in the offing.

"Bahnah is very small and petite," Calhoun said, "and she's extremely quick. Fiftyshadesofgold is big and powerful. She looks like a 3-year-old colt."

Bahnah would look almost too small to be a racehorse -- she's about 15 hands tall, Calhoun estimates, somewhat generously perhaps, and probably weighs about 800 pounds -- if not for her balance. She looks, quite simply, like an athlete. And despite being tiny, she unfolds with each stride in a way that enables the filly to cover as much ground as larger horses.

In her debut last month at Churchill Downs, she left the gate sharply only to get shuffled back. Headstrong, she dragged jockey Corey Lanerie to the leaders as they raced three-wide in the turn, and then she came down the stretch like a wild wind; with the jockey sitting virtually motionless, she ran the final sixteenth of a mile in 5.87 seconds, winning by six lengths. Yes, that was at 4 ½ furlongs, where little is ever proven, but beyond the finish line, she continued to separate herself from her rivals and Lanerie struggled just to get her pulled up.

Fiftyshadesofgold is big and powerful. She looks like a 3-year-old colt.

-- Trainer Bret Calhoun
"That's what she does in the mornings, too," Calhoun said about the daughter of Elusive Quality. "We never get to the bottom of her. To look at her, you might not think she would go very far, but she has such a nice stride I'm not worried about her going three-quarters of a mile [the Schuylerville distance] or seven-eighths [the distance of the Spinaway on Sept. 1]."

Fiftyshadesofgold, who's bred and owned by Clarence Scharbauer Jr. of Alysheba fame, made her debut in May, winning by 10 lengths while in hand and instantly proclaiming herself to be the most promising youngster to come out of Texas since Robert Griffin III and the best 2-year-old to come out of Lone Star Park in years. The very next day, having made a perfunctory and somewhat obligatory debut in her home state, the Texas-bred filly was on a van traveling to Churchill Downs.

In the Debutante, she left the gate in the vanguard and then stalked the early leader. The daughter of My Golden Song pressed a hot half-mile racing three-wide. Moving clear strongly, by mid-stretch the big filly had left no doubt about the outcome. She won by eight lengths, completing the three-quarters of a mile in 1:10.63.

Calhoun said he was both surprised and concerned that she raced so close to the rapid pace and was right there with the leader after a half-mile in 45.14 seconds. Fiftyshadesofgold never had shown such quickness before. "But despite the pace she was still running at the wire," Calhoun said. "She didn't stagger home. She was very impressive."

And so Calhoun will keep the fillies apart while aiming both at Saratoga. They're "legitimate," he said, and deserve to race there. For the moment, among 2-year-olds fillies, they're leading that intriguing parade of possibilities.