By Mike Farrell
Now the serious 3-year-old business starts.
Sure, we’ve had several prep races producing some very encouraging performances.
It’s time to shunt the minor players to the wings. The big boys are ready to take the stage. It gets very interesting from here to Kentucky Derby (G1) Day as the marquee stars move front and center.
There are none bigger than Essential Quality, who makes his season debut on President’s Day (Feb. 15) in the Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn Park.
It’s his first start since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), securing the Eclipse Award and earning the pro tem honor of long-range Derby favorite.
He is the brightest light in the division, making the Southwest a must-see event for racing fans.
He doesn’t have to win the comeback. That is not the prime objective. More importantly, we’ll be watching to see how Essential Quality handles the transition from 2 to 3. There is a long history of precocious juveniles who fail to carry that form into their sophomore seasons. The competition is tougher at each level as the rivals are bigger, stronger and quicker.
Likely opponents in the Southwest include Keepmeinmind, the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner and Jackie’s Warrior, a winner of 4 of 5 with the lone defeat a fourth-place effort in the BC Juvenile.
The prep races are all about accumulating points to qualify for the Derby. While the Southwest winner earns 10 points, the first major bushel of points on this Triple Crown quest are the 50 awaiting the winner of the Risen Star (G2) on Saturday at the Fair Grounds.
The lineup includes Midnight Bourbon, the winner locally of the Lecomte Stakes (G3) last month. Keepmeinmind was also entered here, giving trainer Robertino Diodoro the option to stay home in Arkansas or ship to New Orleans.
To keep the 3-year-old pot boiling, there are also stakes at Laurel (the Miracle Wood) and Golden Gate Fields (El Camino Real Derby).
Blowing hot and cold
The 3-year-old action last Saturday ranged from the Withers (G3) at chilly Aqueduct to the sun-splashed Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs.
Everyone was bundled up at Aqueduct with their COVID-19 masks providing both protection from the pandemic and a welcome added layer of warmth.
The winner was Risk Taking, a cool customer making his stakes debut.
Trainer Chad Brown has had the colt all over the map, starting him in a dirt sprint before stretching out on turf.
Going long on the main track was the winning formula as he scored the maiden win before stepping right up a graded-stakes victory.
Capo Kane, the decisive winner of the Big A’s Jerome on New Year’s Day, was the public’s choice in the early wagering before a flood of money knocked Risk Taking down to 19-10 favoritism.
The late money was the smart money.
Risk Taking cruised into contention on the second turn and angled out for the drive. He needed some rousing from Eric Cancel to finish the job, but the experience should move him forward.
It was T-shirt weather for the Davis on Florida’s west coast as the Bill Mott trained duo of Candy Man Rocket and Nova Rags ran 1-2.
Either one will have to show more against tougher company to have a serious impact in the Triple Crown chase.
Both Risk Taking and Candy Man Rocket earned 10 Derby qualifying points for their victories.
Gamine besmirched again
What’s a filly to do when the drug positives keep coming?
In what has been a too-familiar story, Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer and the sport’s most recognizable figure, suffered another disqualification for a medication positive.
The latest ruling from the stewards in Kentucky was a doozy. Gamine was disqualified from third in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) for the presence of a regulated corticosteroid.
It was the second DQ for Gamine in the same season. She lost an allowance victory at Oaklawn for a post-race positive.
Baffert waived his right to appeal the Kentucky decision and was fined $1,500.
Through it all, Gamine persevered, closing out her campaign with a decisive win in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) to be crowned the divisional champion.
She is in training with Baffert for the upcoming season. Here’s hoping a talented filly gets an opportunity this year to clear a now cloudy reputation.
Monmouth loses another legend
I can’t recall ever having a brief discussion with John Forbes.
The loquacious trainer passed away last week, and New Jersey racing lost a pillar of the community.
That Forbes had passion for the sport, and Monmouth Park in particular, was unmistakable. As the head of the horsemen’s association, Forbes was always on the frontline in the battles to keep New Jersey racing viable.
Perhaps his finest moment was the rescue of Monmouth when then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie threatened to close the track. The horsemen led by Forbes took over the track rather than let the doors slam shut.
A conversation with Forbes was often a lengthy process. He wanted to be sure that you understood the history and the context of the issue at hand and that, at the end of the discussion, you shared his concern and/or enthusiasm.
We’ve recently lost too many legends from the Monmouth backstretch: Willard Thompson, John Mazza and Forbes.
It now passes to the next generation to fight the fight to keep Monmouth alive and well.