by Jon White
January 9, 2019
And down the road we go!
The Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct on Jan. 1 and the Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita last Saturday were the first two 2019 races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby is a 35-race series that awards points to the Top 4 finishers in each race. The horses to accumulate the most points in those 35 races earn a starting berth in the 145th running of the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs on May 4.
The field for the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby has been limited to 20 starters since 1975. It was decided to cap the field at 20 after the 23-horse “demolition derby” in 1974, a race in which there were traffic problems galore. Little Current had a horrendous trip and finished fifth, then won the Preakness Stakes by seven lengths and the Belmont Stakes by the same margin.
The Jerome and Sham each offered 10 Kentucky Derby points for a win, 4 for second, 2 for third and 1 for fourth.
Mind Control took the Grade I Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga last Sept. 3 before finishing seventh in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 2. The Kentucky-bred Stay Thirsty colt then rebounded to register a 1 1/2-length victory as the 3-2 favorite in the one-mile Jerome. Mind Control, trained by Greg Sacco, was credited with an 88 Beyer Speed Figure for his Jerome triumph.
Gunmetal Gray, conditioned by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, rallied from last in a field of seven to win the one-mile Sham by one length at 7-2. The Kentucky-bred Exchange Rate colt was assigned a rather meek 82 Beyer.
Mind Control’s win in the Sham and Gunmetal Gray’s victory in the Sham both flatter Game Winner.
Game Winner beat Mind Control by 18 1/4 lengths in the BC Juvenile. Game Winner defeated Gunmetal Gray not once, but twice last year.
Gunmetal Gray finished second, 4 1/2 lengths behind Game Winner, in the Grade I American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita last Sept. 29. Gunmetal Gray then ended up fifth, 12 1/2 lengths behind Game Winner, in the BC Juvenile.
The big disappointment in the Sham was Coliseum. The Kentucky-bred Tapit colt, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, kicked off his racing career on Nov. 17 with a 6 3/4-length win in a seven-furlong maiden special weight race at Del Mar.
Off his sparkling maiden score, Coliseum was bet down to 3-5 favoritism in the Sham. But he did not break alertly to exit the gate last, became rank early, raced wide throughout and finished sixth. While Coliseum seems to have much talent, it looks like he also is very much a work in progress for Baffert.
Now that the initial two 2019 races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby have been decided, here is my first Kentucky Derby Top 10 list of the year:
1. GAME WINNER. I believe he deserves the top spot in that he is undefeated in four career starts, including three Grade I victories. The Kentucky-bred Candy Ride colt is odds-on to be voted a 2018 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. Game Winner is part of the extremely strong hand Baffert is holding at this time vis-a-vis the Kentucky Derby. Game Winner had his first recorded workout of the year Wednesday morning at Santa Anita, three furlongs in :35.20. Daily Racing Form’s Steve Andersen reported that Baffert timed Game Winner galloping out four furlongs in :47.20.
2. IMPROBABLE. Undefeated in three career starts, including an emphatic five-length win in the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity, he also resides in the powerful Baffert barn at Santa Anita. The sky appears to be the limit for the Kentucky-bred son of City Zip. I really like this colt and was very tempted to put him at No. 1. He worked three furlongs Wednesday at Santa Anita in :38.00.
3. INSTAGRAND. He is undefeated and untested in two career starts. The Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt, trained by Hollendorfer, won by 10 lengths when unveiled in a five-furlong maiden special weight race at Los Alamitos last June 29. He then won Del Mar’s Grade II Best Pal Stakes by 10 1/4 lengths at six furlongs on Aug. 11. After the Best Pal, the decision was made that he would not race again in 2018. How good is Instagrand? It appears the sky is the limit. Could this be Hollendorfer’s first Kentucky Derby winner? That would not surprise me. Instagrand has had a pair of three-furlong workouts (:38.80 on Dec. 30, :37.20 on Jan. 5) since returning to Hollendorfer’s Santa Anita barn. On Steve Byk’s radio program At the Races, Hollendorfer said Monday that Instagrand “has done beautifully in his first two workouts and now we have him scheduled to go his first half a mile coming back off the layoff.” Hollendorfer added that while Instagrand “gained weight when he was out, it wasn’t too much weight. I think he will come around pretty fast. So we’ll see where we land with Instagrand. I think he’s a really interesting colt.”
4. MAXIMUS MISCHIEF. He is undefeated in three career starts. After a pair of wins at Parx Racing by 8 3/4 and six lengths, he took Aqueduct’s Grade II Remsen Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths at 1 1/8 miles on Dec. 1 for trainer Butch Reid. Maximus Mischief has reminded some of Smarty Jones, who likewise began his career with a pair of impressive victories at Parx (then known as Philadelphia Park). Smarty Jones won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2004.
5. MUCHO. An eye-catching 9 3/4-length winner of a six-furlong maiden special weight race at Saratoga last Aug. 4, he then finished second as the favorite at a bit over even money in the Grade I Hopeful Stakes there on Sept. 3. The Kentucky-bred Blame colt has not raced since the Hopeful. Hall of Famer Bill Mott trains Mucho, who recorded his first 2019 workout last Sunday, three furlongs in :38.60 at Payson Park in Florida. The big maiden win at 2 + Mott = a potentially scary colt at 3.
6. VEKOMA. He’s undefeated in two career starts. When he won Aqueduct’s Grade III Nashua Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths at one mile last Nov. 4 as the 2-1 favorite, he posted a 97 Beyer Speed Figure. George Weaver trains the Kentucky-bred Candy Ride colt.
7. NETWORK EFFECT. He finished second to Vekoma in the Grade III Nashua and second to Maximus Mischief in the Grade II Remsen. Chad Brown conditions the Florida-bred Mark Valeski colt.
8. MUCHO GUSTO. Yet another good one for Baffert. The Kentucky-bred Mucho Macho Man colt won Del Mar’s Grade III Bob Hope Stakes on Nov. 17 before finishing second to Improbable in the Grade I Los Al Futurity.
9. SIGNALMAN. After finishing third in the Grade I BC Juvenile, he rallied on a sloppy track to win Churchill’s Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club by a neck at 1 1/16 miles on Nov. 24. Ken McPeek trains the Kentucky-bred General Quarters colt.
10. MIHOS. In his three career starts, his Beyer Speed Figures certainly are going in the right direction -- a 78, then an 80, then a 90. He finished third in a six-furlong maiden special weight race at Belmont Park last Sept. 23. The Kentucky-bred Cairo Prince colt subsequently won a six-furlong maiden special weight race at Aqueduct on Nov. 24. He then came from off the pace to win Gulfstream Park’s one-mile Mucho Macho Man Stakes by a neck last Saturday for trainer Jimmy Jerkens. The vanquished in the Mucho Macho Man included 4-5 favorite Code of Honor, who finished a well-beaten fourth.
ON THE BUBBLE (in alphabetical order): Code of Honor, Coliseum, Galilean, Gray Attempt, Gun It, Gunmetal Gray, King for a Day, Knicks Go, Limonite, Mind Control, Plus Que Parfait, Roadster, Trophy Chaser, War of Will.
The next race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby is the Grade III Lecomte Stakes, which is scheduled for one mile and 70 yards at the Fair Grounds on Jan. 19.
SHAM: UNLUCKY TO BE BORN IN 1970
The Sham Stakes at Santa Anita last Saturday was named in honor of the 1973 Santa Anita Derby winner.
Only three horses are considered to have run 1 1/4 miles under 2:00 in the Kentucky Derby. Secretariat and Monarchos ran that fast and won. Sham, despite running that fast, lost.
In 1973, Secretariat posted a final time of 1:59 2/5 to break Churchill Downs’ track record of 2:00 established by Northern Dancer in 1964.
It was not until 2001 that another horse took the Run for the Roses with a time under 2:00. Monarchos won the race in 1:59 4/5 (1:59.97 in hundredths).
Prior to the start of the 1973 renewal, Sham banged his head on the gate so hard that he reportedly knocked two teeth knocked out. Despite that, Sham finished second, 2 1/2 lengths behind Secretariat.
Going by the often-used formula that a fifth of a second equals a length, Sham is estimated to have run 1 1/4 miles in under 2:00 because he lost by less than three lengths.
Phil Dandrea, author of the book “Sham,” has estimated the gap between Secretariat and Sham at 0.348 seconds based on the CBS footage of the race in which Sham crosses the finish 10 frames behind Secretariat. At a rate of 29.97 frames per second, it translates into a gap of 0.34 seconds between the two horses at the finish. As Secretariat’s winning time of 1:59 2/5 in fifths is the equivalent to a time between 1:59.40 and 1:59.59 in hundredths, Sham’s time can be estimated between 1:59.74 and 1:59.93.
Any way you slice it, for Sham to run so fast and have to settle for second makes his Kentucky Derby one of the finest performances in defeat in American racing history.
Earlier in 1973, Sham and jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. had collaborated to win the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby by 2 1/2 lengths in 1:47 flat to equal the stakes record set by Lucky Debonair in 1965. Sham’s 1:47 clocking was just three-fifths off the track record.
In the Kentucky Derby, Sham took the lead turning for home after effortlessly going past early pacesetter Shecky Greene (who would go on to be voted a 1973 Eclipse Award as champion sprinter).
“I thought for sure I had it won at the head of the stretch,” Pincay later told me when I interviewed him for a 1982 article that I wrote that appeared in the Thoroughbred Record magazine. Sham “was really running. I mean, he was really running hard. I could feel the speed in the horse, and I thought, ‘I don’t care who’s coming. We’re not gonna get beat.’ ”
But Sham did get beat, even though he is calculated to have run his final quarter-mile in :23 3/5, one of the fastest in the history of the race.
Much to Pincay’s amazement, Secretariat motored right on by Sham in the stretch.
“When I saw Secretariat next to me, I couldn’t believe it,” Pincay said. “I couldn’t believe that he was going faster than we were going, because my horse was really trying.”
The problem for Sham was, despite his final quarter in :23 3/5, he happened to be born the same year as Secretariat, who ran the last quarter of the Kentucky Derby in an extraordinary :23.
Secretariat, ridden by Ron Turcotte and trained by Lucien Laurin, drew away from Sham in the final furlong. Our Native ended up third, eight lengths behind Sham. The huge gap back to third further illustrated what fantastic races both Secretariat and Sham ran. Finishing fourth was Forego, who would go on to be voted Horse of the Year in 1974, 1975 and 1976 as one of the greatest geldings of all time.
It is clear that Sham’s effort was good enough to win almost any other Kentucky Derby.
Many forget that Sham had outrun Secretariat before the Kentucky Derby when they clashed in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. No doubt one reason the Wood tends to be forgotten is that neither Secretariat nor Sham won it.
Angle Light, also trained by Laurin, was permitted to set a moderate pace (:24 3/5, :48 1/5, 1:12 1/5 and 1:36 4/5) and just held on to win the Wood by a head while completing 1 1/8 miles in 1:49 4/5. Sham gained in the final furlong, but he could not quite catch Angel Light. Secretariat finished third, four lengths behind Sham. As an indication of how far off form Secretariat was in the Wood, he would set a world record of 1:45 2/5 for 1 1/8 miles when he won the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park later that year.
Secretariat and Angle Light were coupled in the wagering in the Wood. That meant those who had bet on Secretariat to win were still able to cash when Angle Light prevailed. A $2 win ticket on Secretariat-Angle Light paid $2.60. Sham went off as the 5-2 second choice in the wagering.
In the book “Big Red of Meadow Stable: Secretariat, the Making of a Champion,” Bill Nack noted that many people had come out to Aqueduct for the Wood “expecting to witness the flight of a superhorse.”
However, when Secretariat lost, lots of folks at the Big A did not like what they had seen. Some in the crowd were so bitterly disappointed that Secretariat got beat they voiced their displeasure to Turcotte as he made his way back to the jockeys’ room.
“You bum, Turcotte. You got $6 million worth of horse and you rode him like manure.”
“Whatsah mattah, Ronnie, you fall asleep out there?”
“That’s the last time you’ll ever ride that horse.”
“Where are the stewards?” said another. “A 1-5 shot runs like he’s 50-1.”
Two weeks later, Turcotte and Secretariat redeemed themselves with a gigantic exclamation point when they won the Kentucky Derby in record time. Secretariat and Angle Light again were coupled in the wagering in the first leg of the Triple Crown, going off as a slight 3-2 favorite over Sham at 8-5.
Another two weeks later, Secretariat polished off his rivals in the Preakness while doing so in a rather unorthodox manner. Last early in the field of six, Secretariat “made a spectacular run to take command entering the backstretch,” as stated in the Daily Racing Form chart.
When Secretariat made such a powerful move so early in the race, Pincay was licking his chops. He thought an early move like that undoubtedly would take a toll on Secretariat late in the stretch.
“When Secretariat went to the front on the first turn, I thought Ronnie had moved too soon,” Pincay told me. “But he knew his horse. He knew what he was doing.”
Sham ran his heart out down the stretch, but could never close the gap on Secretariat, who prevailed by the same margin as in the Kentucky Derby, 2 1/2 lengths.
Pincay said he felt that Sham “ran a super race” in the Preakness “because I could tell he wasn’t going sound. And I didn’t want him to run in the Belmont, either. I told the assistant trainer that, to me, Sham wasn’t sound going into the [Belmont]. To tell the truth, I didn’t think he was going to run in the Belmont. But he did.”
SECRETRIAT ORGINALLY ROBBED OF PREAKNESS RECORD
Secretariat raced for Meadow Stable, owned by Penny Chenery, who at the time went by her then married name of Penny Tweedy. Due in large part to Chenery’s tireless efforts, Secretariat now holds the record for having run the fastest Preakness in history with a final time of 1:53 flat. But he would not get credit for this record until 2012.
The final time for the 1973 Preakness originally was posted as 1:55, but many people knew at once that was wrong. In fact, there had been an electric timer malfunction.
Daily Racing Form’s highly respected clocker, Gene “Frenchy” Schwartz, and another Racing Form clocker, Frank Robinson, told the Racing Form’s executive columnist, Joe Hirsch, that they had both timed Secretariat in 1:53 2/5, which would have broken Canonero II’s track record of 1:54.
In his book on Secretariat, Nack wrote this of the final time for the 1973 Preakness: “The discrepancy would never be resolved, though the proof would be overwhelming in favor of the faster clocking. Pimlico officials, conceding that the electric timer had malfunctioned, would later accept the time belatedly reported to them by the track’s official timer, E.T. McClean, who claimed he had timed Secretariat in 1:54 2/5. Later still, behind the impetus of handicapper Steve Davidowitz, the Maryland Racing Commission held a hearing on the matter and listened to testimony presented by CBS-TV, among others, that Secretariat had beaten Canonero’s track record…But despite the time reported by two veteran Racing Form clockers, and despite the evidence presented by CBS-TV, the racing commission would finally decide to keep McClean’s time as official.”
The Racing Form, for the only time in its history, decided to note for the record its disagreement with an official clocking in one of its race charts. In the Racing’s Form’s Preakness chart, under the official race time of 1:54, it states: “Daily Racing Form Time 1:53 2/5 New Track Record.”
Canonero II’s time of 1:54 in 1971 stood as the Preakness record until Gate Dancer’s 1:53 3/5 clocking in 1984. And then, in 1985, Tank’s Prospect posted a record Preakness time of 1:53 2/5, a clocking matched by Louis Quatorze in 1996 and Curlin in 2007.
Tank’s Prospect, Louis Quatorze and Curlin shared the 1:53 2/5 record for the fastest Preakness in history until the outcome of a special hearing held by the Maryland Racing Commission on June 19, 2012. Chenery and Tom Chuckas, the president of Pimlico, had asked for the meeting in order to present evidence using modern technology in conjunction with videotape of the race that they felt proved that Secretariat’s final time was faster than 1:54 2/5.
The evidence was so compelling that the commissioners deliberated for only about 10 minutes before announcing the vote had been 7-0 to change Secretariat’s official Preakness time to 1:53, a stakes record. Thus, a longstanding injustice in Thoroughbred racing finally was rectified.
When the Maryland Racing Commission announced its decision to change Secretariat’s time to a Preakness record 1:53, Chenery, 90 at the time, could not contain her delight with the decision. She let out a cheer.
A BELMONT PERFORMANCE FOR THE AGES
Round four between Secretariat and Sham occurred in the 1973 Belmont Stakes on June 9. I still have my copy of the Los Angeles edition of the Racing Form for that race. When I pulled it out this week to look at its yellowed pages, I was struck by what Frank “Pancho” Martin had predicted to Joe Hirsch.
“Martin predicts an exceptionally fast renewal of the Belmont, the winner possibly equaling or surpassing Gallant Man’s track record of 2:26 3/5, established in the Belmont of 1957,” Hirsch wrote.
Hirsch quoted Martin as saying, “The track has been fast here this meeting. Ordinary horses are running fast, and Secretariat and Sham are no ordinary horses. If the pace is real, a record may be set.”
Talk about prescient.
Five started in the 1973 Belmont. Secretariat and Sham dueled for the early lead through fractions of :23 3/5, :46 1/5 and 1:09 4/5, a scorching pace for a 1 1/2-mile race. After six furlongs, Sham cracked. Secretariat went on to win by a ridiculous 31 lengths in what many consider the greatest performance by a Thoroughbred in the history of the sport in this country.
What many do not realize is it was McClean’s gaffe in timing the Preakness that is a major reason why Secretariat won the Belmont by such a humongous margin. If Secretariat had been recognized with setting a track record in the Preakness, as he should have been, there is a very good chance that Turcotte would have taken him in hand during the last part of the Belmont. Secretariat would have coasted home to win by a much smaller margin than he did. McClean’s blunder was a key reason why Secretariat won the Belmont not by something like 15 or maybe 20 lengths instead of by 31.
Years ago, when I talked to Turcotte about the 1973 Belmont Stakes, he admitted that he did not ease up on Secretariat during part of the Belmont because he felt Secretariat had been cheated out of a track record in the Preakness. Turcotte said he did not want to take any chances of that happening again.
“Were you looking at the timer in the infield during the final furlong of the Belmont?” I asked Turcotte.
“Oh, I was,” he replied. “I was definitely looking at the timer. I was looking at the teletimer because I was not racing against any horse. All I was racing against was the clock at that point.”
Secretariat’s final time of 2:24 obliterated Gallant Man’s track record set in 1957 by 2 3/5 seconds. Secretariat’s 2:24 not only is a Belmont Park track record that likely will never be broken, it remains the fastest 1 1/2 miles ever run by a horse on dirt.
Sham finished last in the Belmont, 45 1/4 lengths behind Secretariat. Sham never raced again.
As a result of the 2012 decision to change Secretariat’s official final Preakness time to 1:53 flat, he currently is credited as having run the fastest Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in history, a magnificent accomplishment.
As for Sham, one can only wonder what might have happened if he had been born in some other year.