by Jon White
July 5, 2017
Now that it is July, it’s time for this column’s ranking of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during the first half of the year.
A Thoroughbred’s performance can make my list for a variety of reasons, such as:
--A win by a big margin while showing brilliance.
--Recording a fast final time and/or speed figure.
--Being especially game in victory or defeat.
--Defeating a particularly strong group of opponents.
--Carrying more weight than usual and/or spotting considerable weight.
--Achieving something historic.
The importance of the race itself also plays a role in determining whether or not I believe a performance deserves to make the list.
Again, to make this list, it has to be a race run in the United States (hint: not Dubai). And now here is my list of the Top 10 performances from Jan. 1 through June 30:
10. UNIQUE BELLA in the Grade II Las Virgenes Stakes at one mile on dirt Feb. 5. (Owned by Don Alberto Stable; trained by Jerry Hollendorfer; ridden by Mike Smith.)
Hammered down to 1-10 favoritism and making her first start in a race around two turns, Unique Bella led by 2 1/2 lengths at the quarter pole. The Pennsylvania-bred Tapit filly then “drew off in the stretch without encouragement,” as accurately noted in the official Equibase chart. She won by 8 3/4 lengths.
Left in Unique Bella’s wake was Champagne Room, who was making her first start since winning the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita on Nov. 5. Champagne Room, the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old filly of 2016, was no match for Unique Bella in the 2017 Las Virgenes.
9. CUPID in the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita at 1 1/4 miles on dirt May 27. (Owned by Michael Tabor and Mrs. John Magnier; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Rafael Bejarano).
Cupid won decisively by 3 1/4 lengths for Hall of Fame trainer Baffert. It was particularly impressive that the 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Tapit colt succeeded in the 1 1/4-mile event at the Grade I level in his first start since Sept. 24.
Winning a big race with a horse coming off a long layoff was the sort of thing the late Charlie Whittingham used to do. Interestingly, at Santa Anita during Baffert’s early years as a Thoroughbred trainer in the 1990s, he was stabled next to none other than Whittingham during the final years of that Hall of Fame horseman’s career. Baffert has told me he learned a lot during those years from observing Whittingham, who no doubt would have appreciated what a terrific job Baffert did to have Cupid primed to win the Gold Cup in his initial 2017 start.
Cupid had been scheduled to make his 2017 debut in the Grade II Californian on April 22, but missed that race due to a freak mishap. He reportedly slipped and cut a hock while getting a bath about an hour before the race, a gash that required three stitches to close. Baffert won the Californian anyway with Collected.
8. CLOUD COMPUTING in Pimlico’s Grade I Preakness Stakes at 1 3/16 miles on dirt May 20. (Owned by Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence; trained by Chad Brown; ridden by Javier Castellano.)
Cloud Computing became just the fourth horse in the last 34 years to win the Preakness without having started in the Kentucky Derby. The others were Red Bullet in 2000, Bernardini in 2006 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009. Castellano has ridden two of the four. Bernardini had been Castellano’s only Preakness win prior to this year.
It says a lot about Cloud Computing’s quality that he won the Preakness in just his fourth career start. Even though the Kentucky-bred son of Maclean’s Music had accrued sufficient points to start in the Kentucky Derby, Brown skipped the Run for the Roses with the colt. Brown thought it would be best to have a fresh Cloud Computing in the Preakness running against such not-as-fresh Kentucky Derby contestants as Always Dreaming and Classic Empire.
Always Dreaming was sent away as the 6-5 Preakness favorite. Classic Empire was the 2-1 second choice. Cloud Computing did not receive much respect, going off at 13-1.
Cloud Computing lurked in third early while Always Dreaming and Classic Empire dueled for the lead though fractions of :23.16, :46.81 and 1:11.00 on a track listed as fast. The track had started out as muddy for the early races on the card before being upgraded to good for the seventh, ninth and 11th races. The track condition was changed again, this time to fast, for the 13th race, the Preakness.
When Always Dreaming and Classic Empire battled head-and-head for the lead around the far turn, it appeared they might do so all the way to the finish. But then, turning for home, Classic Empire edged clear. It became evident at that point that Always Dreaming was in deep water.
In upper stretch, while Always Dreaming was retreating toward the back of the pack, Classic Empire increased his advantage. With a furlong left to run, last year’s Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male sported a three-length lead. But shortly after Classic Empire passed the eighth pole, Cloud Computing emerged to loom a serious threat.
Cloud Computing resolutely kept to his task and got up in the final dramatic strides to prevail by a head. Classic Empire had to settle for second. Senior Investment ended up third, 4 3/4 lengths behind Classic Empire.
7. ABEL TASMAN in Churchill Downs’ Grade I Kentucky Oaks at 1 1/8 miles on a sloppy main track May 5. (Owned by China Horse Club International; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
In the April 8 Santa Anita Oaks, Abel Tasman finished second when no match for Paradise Woods, who won by 11 3/4 lengths. That was Abel Tasman’s first start for Baffert, who had taken over training duties from Simon Callaghan. Late last year, when conditioned by Callagahan, Abel Tasman won the Starlet Stakes at Los Alamitos to become a Grade I winner.
After the Santa Anita Oaks, Baffert added blinkers to Abel Tasman’s equipment. Fourteenth early in the Kentucky Oaks, the Kentucky-bred daughter of Quality Road generated a powerful rally to win by 1 1/4 lengths at 9-1. Salty finished second, while Benner Island ran third. Paradise Woods came in eleventh as the 6-5 favorite when paying the price for getting embroiled in what turned out to be a suicidal pace duel with Miss Sky Warrior.
6. MASTERY in Santa Anita’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on dirt March 11. (Owned by Cheyenne Stables; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
This, to me, was the best performance by a 3-year-old male during the first half of the year. He won by 6 3/4 lengths as a 4-5 favorite while posting a 105 Beyer Speed Figure to remain undefeated in four career starts.
Master’s 105 Beyer was the highest figure recorded by a 3-year-old male during the first half of 2017.
Unfortunately, Mastery emerged from the San Felipe with a “complete displaced condylar fracture” in his left front ankle, according to the New York Times’ Joe Drape, an injury that knocked the colt out of the Triple Crown races. Mastery required surgery for the insertion of three screws, Drape reported.
Baffert won the Triple Crown in 2015 with American Pharoah. If not for Mastery’s injury, I think the talented colt could have taken a serious run at becoming another Triple Crown winner for Baffert. Instead, the Kentucky-bred son of Candy Ride has been retired from racing and will embark on a new career as a stallion at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.
5. GUN RUNNNER in Churchill Downs’ Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on dirt June 17. (Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm; trained by Steve Asmussen; ridden by Florent Geroux.)
After Gun Runner finished second in the Group I Dubai World Cup on March 25 when overtaken by superstar Arrogate in the stretch, the Kentucky-bred Candy Ride colt cruised to a seven-length victory as a 1-2 favorite when making his next start in the June 17 Stephen Foster.
Gun Runner’s task in the Foster became easier when he seized the advantage at once and nobody took him on early. Even though his rivals essentially handed him the race by permitting him to have it his own way while setting the pace, this still was a praiseworthy performance.
“I was loaded the entire trip around there,” Geroux told Churchill’s racing communications. “He was doing everything so easily. This horse is truly unbelievable. He’s one of the best horses I’ve ever ridden. To put forward this type of effort after running in Dubai is so impressive. I was a bit surprised to find myself on a lone lead, but I wasn’t complaining. What a horse.”
According to Asmussen, Gun Runner is getting better as he gets older.
“We always thought he would get better with age,” the Hall of Fame trainer said. “He’s proving that to us right now. This horse is incredibly special in so many ways.”
4. DISCO PARTNER in Belmont Park’s Grade III Jaipur Stakes at six furlongs on the turf June 10. (Owned by Patricia Generazio; trained by Christophe Clement; ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr.)
Eighth early, Disco Partner rocketed home to win by a half-length at 9-2. What made this performance special was the final time posted by the 5-year-old New York-bred son of Disco Rico.
“And look at that time – 1:05.67! Holy mackerel!” track announcer Larry Collmus exclaimed immediately after the race was over.
“No. 2 Disco Partner was first, No. 4 Green Mask was second, No. 5 Holding Gold was third, No. 3 Pure Sensation was fourth,” Collmus went on to say. “The final time is a new course record -- the fastest six furlongs I think I’ve ever seen, 1:05.67.”
Indeed, Disco Partner’s 1:05.67 clocking “established a course, North American, and world record time,” according to official Equibase chart.
3. MOR SPIRIT in Belmont Park’s Grade I Metropolitan Handicap at one mile on dirt June 10. (Owned by Michael Petersen; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
Mor Spirit “contended for command just about from the get-go,” as stated in the official Equibase chart. The 4-year-old Pennsylvania-bred son of Eskendereya vied for the early advantage with Sharp Azteca, then put that rival way after six furlongs. Mor Spirit drew out in the stretch to win by 6 1/4 lengths in a sparkling 1:33.71 as the 5-2 favorite.
Not only did Mor Spirit win with authority in splendid time, he defeated a strong group. Sharp Azteca held on well enough to finish second, followed in order by Tommy Macho, Awesome Slew, Economic Model, Rally Cry, Tom’s Ready, Solid Wager, Virtual Machine, Denman’s Call, Mohaymen and Inside Straight.
Mor Spirit recorded a career-best 117 Beyer Speed Figure for his Met Mile triumph.
2. PARADISE WOODS in the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks at 1 1/16 miles on dirt April 8. (Owned by Steven Sarkowsky and Pam and Marty Wygod; trained by Richard Mandella; ridden by Flavien Prat.)
Paradise Woods seized the lead at once and bowled along smoothly while setting the pace. She clicked off preliminary fractions of :23.46, :47.35, 1:11.48.
At the five-sixteenths pole midway on the far turn, Paradise Woods led by 1 1/2 lengths. They would not be able to get anywhere close to her after that. Paradise Woods drew off, with her advantage ballooning to 10 lengths at the eighth pole. That means Paradise Woods’ lead increased by 8 1/2 lengths in just the matter of three-sixteenths of a mile.
Paradise Woods received some left-handed encouragement during the stretch run, with Prat then taking his foot completely off the gas pedal toward the end. Completing her 1 1/16-mile journey in 1:42.53, Paradise Woods was all alone at the finish. She won by 11 1/4 lengths at 8-1 in the wagering.
“She looked like she was just cruising out there,” Mandella was quoted as saying after the race by Santa Anita publicity. “She took my breath away.”
Abel Tasman finished second as the 4-5 favorite. She would go on to win the Grade I Kentucky Oaks and Grade I Acorn Stakes.
Paradise Woods’ performance was all the more remarkable because she was taking a giant class leap to the Grade I level off a maiden victory. Not only that, the Kentucky-bred Union Rags filly was stretching out to 1 1/16 miles off a 5 1/2-furlong race.
According to Santa Anita publicity, Paradise Woods’ margin of victory was the biggest in the history of the Santa Anita Oaks. Paradise Woods broke the record of 10 1/2 lengths set by Silver Spoon in 1959. Silver Spoon then beat the boys to win the Santa Anita Derby by 2 1/2 lengths before finishing fifth in Tomy Lee’s Kentucky Derby. Royal Orbit, who finished second to Silver Spoon in the Santa Anita Derby, won the Preakness Stakes that year. Silver Spoon was inducted into the national Hall of Fame in 1978.
In 1988, Winning Colors won the Santa Anita Oaks by eight lengths before running away to a 7 1/2-length triumph in the Santa Anita Derby. Winning Colors then joined Regret (1915) and Genuine Risk (1980) as the only fillies to ever win the Kentucky Derby. Winning Colors was inducted into the national Hall of Fame in 2000.
Beyer Speed Figures for the Santa Anita Oaks go back to 1990. Paradise Woods recorded a 107 Beyer, highest in the history of the race. The previous top Beyer recorded by a Santa Anita Oaks winner was 106 by Serena’s Song in 1995. Serena’s Song was inducted into the national Hall of Fame in 2002.
Paradise Woods’ 107 Beyer ranked as the highest by a 3-year-old, male or female, during the first half of 2017.
1. ARROGATE in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup at 1 1/8 miles on dirt June 28. (Owned by Juddmonte Farms; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
The $16 million purse for the inaugural Pegasus World Cup made it the richest race in the history of the sport. Sweeping to the front on the far turn, Arrogate went on to win by 4 3/4 lengths as a 4-5 favorite. Gun Runner finished second, five lengths in front of third-place Neolithic. California Chrome, the 2014 and 2016 Horse of the Year, ran ninth at 6-5 in the final start of his career.
This was not just an outstanding performance by Arrogate. It was also a fantastic training job on the part of Hall of Famer Baffert, who had to get the Kentucky-bred Unbridled’s Song colt ready for this race during an extremely wet winter in Southern California.
Equibase originally listed Arrogate’s official final time as being 1:47.61. Many believed 1:47.61 was incorrect, that it actually was faster. Gulfstream through the years has had more timing problems than any other major track in the country.
Arrogate initially was assigned a 119 Beyer Speed Figure for his Pegasus performance. Three days after the race, Daily Racing Form’s Matt Hegarty reported that Andrew Beyer, the founder of Beyer Speed Figures, said the initial figure given to Arrogate “was changed from a 116 to a 119 after figure-makers, including Randy Moss, hand-timed the race at a time that was significantly faster than the official time of 1:47.61.”
No horse earned a Beyer higher than Arrogate’s 119 during the first half of 2017. (Send It In also was assigned a 119 Beyer Speed Figure for his half-length win in Aqueduct’s Grade III Excelsior Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on dirt April 8.)
Six days after the Pegasus World Cup, Equibase announced the final time for that race had been changed.
“A correction has been made to the official finish time for the 1 1/8-mile Pegasus World Cup (G1) run at Gulfstream Park on January 28, 2017,” an Equibase press release stated. “Upon subsequent detailed review of the race performance data, it has been determined that the winning horse ARROGATE (Unbridled’s Song) finished the race in 1:46.83. The finish time sets a Gulfstream Park track record for the 1 1/8-mile race run on the dirt surface (previous track record at this distance held by LEA at the 2014 Donn Hcp in 1:46.86).
“Gulfstream Park employs Trakus for its tracking and timing services…Trakus regrets the incorrect reporting of the finish time and apologizes for any inconvenience caused to our partner, Gulfstream Park, their fans and horsemen, and all industry stakeholders.”
Arrogate went on to win the Group I, $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 25 despite a wretched start. It was a performance for the ages.
I believe Arrogate’s victory in Dubai was even more impressive than his Pegasus triumph, but his Dubai World Cup performance is not eligible for this list because it did not occur in the United States. If Arrogate’s Dubai World Cup had been eligible, I would have ranked it as the best performance by a Thoroughbred during the first half of 2017.