by Jon White
July 9, 2020
Breaking with alacrity to seize the lead at once, Vekoma dared his seven opponents to overtake him during last Saturday’s Grade I Met Mile at Belmont Park.
Not one of the seven ever could.
George Weaver trains Vekoma. As an assistant, Weaver in 1996 saddled Honour and Glory for trainer D. Wayne Lukas when the 3-year-old colt outran his elders to capture the Runhappy Met Mile.
Weaver was pleased last Saturday when Vekoma rolled along rather comfortably while leading early through fractions of :22.73 and :45.87. That’s a moderate tempo for a Met Mile.
But Weaver became concerned as the field turned for home when, for a brief time approaching the quarter pole, Vekoma looked like he was in jeopardy of being swallowed up by a multitude of rivals.
“At the quarter pole, it seemed like all comers were coming and I thought, ‘Man, does he have anything left in the tank or not?’ Weaver was quoted as saying in the Met Mile stakes quotes disseminated by Belmont Park. “When they got to the eighth pole and I saw him re-break and keep going, I got excited.”
Yes, Vekoma did still have plenty of gas in the tank for the final portion of the race. He kept running strongly all the way down the lane and reported home 1 1/4 lengths in front.
Vekoma’s final time was a splendid 1:32.88.
The Met Mile was first run in 1891. These are the five-fastest final times in its long history:
Time Winner (Year) Beyer Speed Figure
1:32.72 Frosted (2016)
1:32.75 Mitole (2019)
1:32.81 Honor and Glory (1996)
1:32.88 Vekoma (2020)
1:32.90 Tizway (2011)
Rather surprisingly, there is quite a range in terms of the accompanying Beyer Speed Figure for each of these five Met Mile winners, as noted below:
Beyer Winner (Year of Met Mile)
123 Frosted (2016)
113 Tizway (2011)
111 Honor and Glory (1996)
108 Mitole (2019)
104 Vekoma (104)
While Frosted’s final time of 1:32.72 and Vekoma’s 1:32.88 were not all that far apart, there is a considerable difference in their Beyers. This begs the question: Was the surface Frosted and Vekoma raced over really that different to justify a 19-point disparity in their Beyers when their times were just .16 of a second apart?
Below are the Beyers for the Met Mile winners going back to 1990 (the figures prior to 2020 are listed in the American Racing Manual, which is now digital only):
2020 Vekoma (104)
2019 Mitole (108)
2018 Bee Jersey (109)
2017 Mor Spirit (117)
2016 Frosted (123)
2015 Honor Code (112)
2014 Palace Malice (112)
2013 Sahara Sky (110)
2012 Shackleford (115)
2011 Tizway (113)
2010 Quality Road (112)
2009 Bribon (108)
2008 Divine Park (103)
2007 Corinthian (108)
2006 Silver Train (112)
2005 Ghostzapper (122)
2004 Pico Central (116)
2003 Aldebaran (110)
2002 Swept Overboard (122)
2001 Exciting Story (108)
2000 Yankee Victor (115)
1999 Sir Bear (114)
1998 Wild Rush (118)
1997 Langfuhr (112)
1996 Honor and Glory (111)
1995 You and I (114)
1994 Holy Bull (122)
1993 Ibero (113)
1992 Dixie Brass (111)
1991 In Excess (117)
1990 Criminal Type (117)
Frosted’s 2016 Met Mile win ranked No. 3 on my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States that year. No. 1 was Arrogate’s track-record breaking victory in the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga. No. 2 was Arrogate’s win against his elders, including the classy California Chrome, in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
On my list last week of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in this country during the first half of 2020, Vekoma’s 7 1/4-length win in Aqueduct’s Grade I Carter Handicap ranked No. 7. Gamine’s 18 3/4-length tour de force in the Grade I Acorn Stakes at Belmont on June 20 was No. 1.
Vekoma recorded a 110 Beyer Speed Figure in the Carter. But while his Beyer and margin of victory were bigger in the Carter, it is my view that his Met Mile was a better performance. He defeated a much stronger group in the Met Mile than in the Carter. The eight runners in this year’s Met Mile boasted a combined 20 graded stakes victories, led by multiple Grade I multimillionaires McKinzie and Code of Honor.
Subscribers to the “bounce theory” were keenly aware that Vekoma was a prime candidate to bounce, or regress, when coming back four weeks after running such a big race in the Carter to register a 110 Beyer Speed Figure.
Vekoma did bounce or regress inasmuch as he dropped from a 110 Beyer in the Carter to a 104 in the Met Mile. It just turned out that the 104 was plenty good enough to get the job done last Saturday.
McKinzie was sent off as the $1.85 to $1 Met Mile favorite. Vekoma was the second choice in the wagering at $1.95 to $1. Code of Honor was $3.60 to $1.
Network Effect did not receive much attention from the bettors, going off at 13-1. Though he did give a good account of himself, Network Effect had to settle for second. Code of Honor, last early, rallied wide into the lane and finished third. He was followed across the finish, in order, by Warrior’s Charge, McKinzie, Mr Freeze, Endorsed and Hog Creek Hustle.
With this victory, Vekoma gained revenge for his defeat in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes won by Code of Honor at Gulfstream Park early in 2019. Vekoma finished third in the Fountain of Youth.
As for McKinzie, this year’s Met Mile was just the third time in his 17-race career he did not finish first or second. He had a wide trip last Saturday while having to carry top weight of 125 pounds (two more than Vekoma). Additionally, according to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, McKinzie somehow managed to lose both a front and hind shoe.
McKinzie’s wide trip was perfectly understandable considering what had happened last year. McKinzie and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith experienced a nightmare trip in traffic when they finished second to Mitole in the 2019 Met Mile. Smith was not about to take any chances this time. He kept McKinzie in the clear, but it also meant a wide journey.
Hall of Famer Javier Castellano was aboard Vekoma for his Met Mile triumph. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Candy Ride colt does have a pretty funky manner of running in that he is what’s called a paddler. The main thing is he can run fast.
Vekoma now has won six of eight lifetime starts. He’s three for three this year. In his first 2020 start, he won the seven-furlong Sir Shackleton Stakes by 3 1/4 lengths at Gulfstream on May 28.
When racing around one turn, as he did in the Met Mile, Vekoma is a perfect five for five. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the plan is for his next start again to be around one turn in Saratoga’s Grade I Forego Stakes at seven furlongs on Aug. 29. Something else that makes the Forego attractive vis-a-vis Saratoga’s Grade I Whitney at 1 1/8 miles on Aug. 1 is it will give Vekoma more time between races.
For the June 22 NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll, I cast my first-place voted for Tiz the Law. At that time, Midnight Bisou had not yet won a race this year, while Tiz the Law was three for three in 2020, including Grade I victories in the Florida Derby and Belmont Stakes.
After Midnight Bisou won the Grade II Fleur de Lis Stakes by 8 1/4 lengths at Churchill on June 27, I cast my first-place vote for her in the June 29 NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll.
Following Vekoma’s victory in the July 4 Met Mile, I cast my first-place vote for him in this week’s July 6 poll. I was one of the only two to do so out of the 40 voters.
I must confess that I am puzzled by the one first-place vote cast this week for Code of Honor. The first-place vote for Code of Honor came from a person seemingly unaware of who won and who finished third in the Met Mile. That person either was perfectly willing to thumb their nose at what had happened last Saturday or, more understandably, did not know the result of the Met Mile due to being held hostage.
Here is this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 375 Midnight Bisou (24)
2. 333 Tom’s d’Etat (8)
3. 302 Vekoma (2)
4. 171 Mucho Gusto
5. 157 By My Standards
6. 130 Tiz the Law (2)
7. 123 Code of Honor (1)
8. 99 Zulu Alpha
9. 98 Maximum Security (3)
10. 65 Instilled Regard
BAFFERT WINS YET ANOTHER LOS AL DERBY
Uncle Chuck is two for two after he proved a punctual 2-5 favorite in last Saturday’s Grade III Los Alamitos Derby. He provided Baffert with his record 10th win in this race that formerly was known as the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park before it was moved to Los Alamitos in 2014.
Baffert’s 10 winners of this race are listed below, with the Beyer Speed Figure in parentheses:
2020 Uncle Chuck (94)
2019 Game Winner (96)
2018 Once On Whiskey (86)
2017 West Coast (100)
2015 Gimme Da Lute (102)
2012 Blueskiesnrainbows (103)
2009 Misremembered (101)
2003 During (96)
2001 Congaree (106)
2000 Captain Steve (111)
Only four faced the starter in this year’s 1 1/8-mile Los Al Derby. Anneau d’Or was scratched because of an elevated temperature.
When unveiled in a one-mile maiden special weight race at Santa Anita on June 12, Uncle Chuck won by seven lengths as an even-money favorite with Mike Smith in the irons. Because Smith was in New York to ride shoe-losing McKinzie in Saturday’s Met Mile, Luis Saez was brought in to pilot Uncle Chuck.
Uncle Chuck, perfectly amenable to being rated, stalked the pacesetting Great Power in the early stages. Thousand Words, sent away as the 9-5 second favorite and also conditioned by Baffert, was the early trailer.
On the far turn, Uncle Chuck made a quick move, as noted by track announcer Michael Wrona during his call of the race.
“In the twinkling of an eye, he gets on terms,” Wrona said. “Three-eighths to go, coming around the far turn, and Uncle Chuck puts the nostrils in front of Great Power. Thousand Words latching onto the back of Uncle Chuck. And then comes Cosmo.”
In the upper part of the long Los Alamitos stretch, Uncle Chuck led by a length or so, while Thousand Words loomed a serious threat. Racing a bit greenly in the lane, Uncle Chuck drew clear to sport a two-length lead at the eighth pole.
Though Uncle Chuck switched to his left lead for the final sixteenth, he came home with zest to win by four lengths while his exceedingly long stride was on display. He also galloped out impressively after the finish. He widened the gap on his foes to be about 10 lengths in front by the time he started rounding the clubhouse turn.
Thousand Words finished second in by far his best race since he won Santa Anita’s Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 1. In his final start at 2, Thousand Words won the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity in his most significant win to date.
But Thousand Words’ two races between the Lewis and Los Al Derby were not pretty. Thousand Words lost Santa Anita’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes by 11 1/4 lengths on March 7 when he finished fourth. In the Oaklawn Stakes on a sloppy track April 11 at Oaklawn Park, he stumbled badly at the start and lost by nearly 30 lengths when he finished 11th in the field of 13.
In the Los Al Derby, Thousand Words was credited with an 89 Beyer Speed Figure. It matched the 89 he received for his win in the Lewis and was close to his career-best 91 he was credited with for his Los Al Futurity victory.
Speaking of Beyer Speed Figures, Uncle Chuck was credited with a 94 for his win last Saturday, down slightly from his debut figure,
Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman did a good job of putting what Uncle Chuck has done into perspective.
“It takes a pretty special horse to win going two turns in his debut with a Beyer Speed Figure of 95, then follow that up with a second-start victory in a graded stakes race going 1 1/8 miles with a Beyer Figure of similar value,” Privman wrote. “Uncle Chuck is special. Whether he’s special enough to go from an unstarted maiden in early June to a Kentucky Derby winner on Sept. 5 is the question he’ll be asked to answer in coming weeks, but he’s obviously shown he deserves the opportunity. He will have one more prep, and if he passes that test like he’s passed his tests so far, it’s on to Louisville.”
Uncle Chuck’s final time last Saturday stacks up well against the other Los Alamitos Derby winners at that track, as shown below when ranked from fastest down to slowest:
1:47.01 Shared Belief (2014)
1:47.09 Gimme Da Lute (2015)
1:47.65 Uncle Chuck (2020)
1:48.30 Game Winner (2019)
1:48.48 Accelerate (2016)
1:48.65 West Coast (2017)
KIN TO BLAZINGLY FAST MACLEAN’S MUSIC
Some have expressed concern about Uncle Chuck’s ability to do well when going long, mainly because he’s a half-brother to Maclean’s Music.
At Santa Anita in 2011, Maclean’s Music dazzled when he won a six-furlong maiden race at first asking. As I once wrote, he ran so fast that he seemed to make the palm trees sway.
Favored at 7-5, Maclean’s Music dashed immediately to the front and set a scorching pace. He stepped the opening quarter in :21.24 and the half in an eye-popping :43.48.
Maclean’s Music led by three lengths with a furlong to go. His five-furlong clocking of :55.05 was extraordinary. How extraordinary? In the days before races were timed in hundredths, Chinook Pass completed five furlongs in :55 1/5 when, as a 3-year-old, he won the Owners’ Handicap by 6 1/2 lengths vs. older foes at Longacres in 1982. That remains the fastest final time ever posted in a five-furlong race on dirt.
Despite setting such a wicked pace in his career debut, Maclean’s Music increased his lead in the final furlong. He won by 7 1/4 lengths in 1:07.44.
Maclean’s Music recorded a 114 Beyer Speed Figure. That broke the record for the highest Beyer ever recorded by a first-time starter since Daily Racing Form began publishing the figures in its past performances in 1992.
The previous top Beyer Speed Figure by a first-time starter had been Formal Gold’s 112 when he won a six-furlong maiden race by 18 3/4 lengths in 1:09.20 at Monmouth Park on June 12, 1996.
Steve Asmussen trained Maclean’s Music for Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke’s Stonestreet Stables.
“For Mr. Jackson, it’s very important for him to breed, have, race and take care of this quality of horse,” Asmussen said following Maclean’s Music’s sensational career debut. “The patience that they showed in allowing us to let him have all this time to get to this level has paid off in the performance that he gave on Saturday. I think that it is just a sign of things to come. We’re very excited, and we want to manage him carefully because I don’t even think ‘special’ is a good enough description of him.”
However, after Maclean’s Music made such a big splash in his career debut, he never raced again. He broke a splint bone. When the splint bone was removed surgically, complications led to his retirement. He embarked on a stud career at John Sikura’s Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms in Kentucky.
I think the concern about Uncle Chuck’s ability to go long is misplaced. His first race and win came in a race at one mile around two turns. His second race and win came in a race at 1 1/8 miles around two turns. And both times, he was going strongly in the last part of the race.
Yes, his half-brother Maclean’s Music was blazingly fast. But keep in mind that Maclean’s Music has sired a winner of the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes in Cloud Computing.
Uncle Chuck “was coming away at the wire with a long, powerful stride perfectly suited for the distances he’ll be asked to negotiate in coming weeks,” wrote Privman. “He’s not as good as the likes of Tiz the Law and Honor A.P. just yet, but they’ve had a much bigger head start. Had the [Kentucky] Derby been in May, he never would have been in play, as he did not debut until June 12. Time may not be on his side regarding how far he has to come in such a short amount of time, but he never would have been in this position if not for the postponement of the Derby. Most important for him, the talent is there. He’s an exciting, late-developing prospect.”
I had Uncle Chuck ranked No. 5 on my Kentucky Derby last week prior to the Los Alamitos Derby. He remains in the same spot this week.
Here is my current Kentucky Derby Top 10:
1. Honor A.P.
2. Tiz the Law
4. Dr Post
5. Uncle Chuck
7. Max Player
8. Swiss Skydiver
9. Art Collector
Grade I Santa Anita Derby winner Honor A.P. makes his next start in Del Mar’s Shared Belief Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on Aug. 1.
Next for Tiz the Law is Saratoga’s Grade I Travers Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on Aug. 8. He has won a pair of Grade I races this year, the Florida Derby and Belmont Stakes.
Baffert will be running Grade II San Felipe Stakes winner and Santa Anita Derby runner-up Authentic in Monmouth Park’s Grade I Haskell Invitational. That 1 1/8-mile event will be contested on July 18.
Dr Post, who finished second to Tiz the Law in the Belmont, also probably will be running in the Haskell, according to trainer Todd Pletcher.
The Baffert-trained Cezanne is No. 6 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10. Cezanne, like Uncle Chuck, is two for two. A $3.65 auction purchase, Cezanne won a one-mile allowance/optional claming race by 1 3/4 lengths at Los Alamitos last Friday. The Kentucky-bred Curlin colt recorded an 85 Beyer Speed Figure, a drop from the 90 figure he received when he won a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race by 2 1/4 lengths at Santa Anita on June 6.
Swiss Skydiver debuts on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week at No. 8. She heads a field of 13 entered in Saturday’s Grade II Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. If Swiss Skydiver wins the 1 1/8-mile affair, she will become the first filly to win the Blue Grass since it was inaugurated in 1911.
Trained by Kenny McPeek, Swiss Skydiver takes a three-race winning streak into the Blue Grass. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Daredevil won the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks by 3 1/4 lengths on March 28, Grade III Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park by 2 1/2 lengths on May 1, then the Grade II Santa Anita Oaks by four lengths on June 6.
Keeneland oddsmaker Mike Battaglia has installed Swiss Skydiver as the Blue Grass morning-line favorite at 3-1. Rushie is the 5-1 second choice, while Art Collector is 6-1.
Art Collector, No. 9 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10, comes off a 6 1/2 length allowance/optional claiming win on June 13 at Churchill Downs. He completed 1 1/16 miles in a dandy 1:41.35. Art Collector, like Swiss Skydiver, has a three-race winning streak going into the Blue Grass.
Rushie is No. 10 on my Top 10. He finished third behind No. 1 Honor A.P. and No. 3 Authentic in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on June 6.
American-bred, Japan-based Cafe Pharoah exits my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week after he had his unblemished record spoiled when he finished seventh in Wednesday’s Japan Dirt Derby. It was the first defeat in four lifetime starts for the Kentucky-bred son of 2015 American Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
The Japan Dirt Derby, which was run on a muddy track, was won by an American Pharoah colt by the name of Danon Pharoah. This was Danon Pharoah’s third victory in eight career starts.
UNCLE CHUCK DEBUTS ON NTRA POLL’S TOP 10
While I had Uncle Chuck ranked No. 5 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 last week, he was absent from last week’s Top 10 in the NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll. But fter his win in the Los Alamitos Derby, Uncle Chuck rockets all the way up to No. 6 this week after being ranked No. 25 last week.
Here is this week’s NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 399 Tiz the Law (39)
2. 358 Honor A.P. (1)
3. 260 Authentic
4. 211 Dr Post
5. 188 King Guillermo
6. 135 Uncle Chuck
7. 134 Gamine
8. 82 Max Player
9. 81 Charlatan
10. 67 Swiss Skydiver
ENABLE UNABLE TO WIN 2020 DEBUT
A racing rarity occurred last Sunday in England when Enable made her first 2020 start and finished second to a razor-sharp Ghiyyath in the Group I Coral-Eclipse Stakes at Sandown.
For the first time in Enable’s remarkable career to date, she has lost two in a row.
Enable was kept in training last year at the age of 5 for the purpose of trying to become the first three-time winner of the prestigious Group I Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France. But she was thwarted in her bid to make history at Longchamp in her final 2019 start when running second to Waldgeist in the Arc. She has returned to competition this year at the age of 6 to again try to make history this fall by winning a third Arc for trainer John Gosden.
Ghaiyyath, trained by Charlie Appleby, won the 1 1/4-mile Coral-Eclipse by 2 1/4 lengths. The 5-year-old Irish-bred son of Dubawi made it eight wins in 11 career starts. He’s three for three this year.
For Enable, this was only her third loss in 16 lifetime starts. It appears that Enable and Ghaiyyath are on a collision course to clash again in the Arc.
Also in England, Serpentine won the 241st running of historic Group I Epsom Derby in unusual fashion. He showed the way early when two to three lengths in front while going along easily.
Serpentine’s lead expanded to about 12 lengths with three furlongs to go. At that point, many no doubt wondered if the Irish-bred Galileo colt had built up too large of a lead with so much of the race remaining. Surely he was going to get caught, right? Wrong.
When Serpentine still sported about a 10-length lead with two furlongs to go and clearly was not wilting, it became evident that he probably was on his way to an upset triumph. Though his advantage did decrease in the final two furlongs, he reached the winning post 5 1/2 lengths in front at 25-1 odds in England.
Emmet McNamara, 30, rode a brilliant race on Serpentine. While this was McNamara’s first Epsom Derby victory, it was the eighth for Aidan O’Brien, the most of any trainer in history. Galileo now has sired five Epsom Derby winners, the most of any stallion in history.
McNamara’s derring-do aboard Serpentine in the Epsom Derby, which was first run in 1780, brought to mind the similarly bold ride by Seamus Heffernan on Highland Reel in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Turf at 1 1/2 miles in 2016.
Highland Reel, also a Galileo colt trained by O’Brien, zoomed to the front before going a quarter-mile when coming down Santa Anita’s popular hill.
“He then opened a commanding lead of about eight lengths approaching the far turn when Heffernan threw caution to the wind, going for broke to open a big advantage while there still was so much of the race to be run,” I wrote in my Breeders’ Cup recap for Xpressbet.com. “Nearing the top of the stretch for the run home, Highland Reel’s lead had shrunk to about six lengths. At this point, I could not help but wonder how much gas Highland Reel was going to have left in his tank for the final stretch run.
“At the eighth pole, it looked like the only one who had a legit shot of catching Highland Reel was 9-5 favorite Flintshire. Flintshire tried his best and did gain steadily in the final furlong, but he could never get to Highland Reel, who prevailed by 1 1/4 lengths in 2:23.00.”
The performance last weekend that I absolutely loved was Love’s scintillating eight-length victory in the 242nd running of the Group I, 1 1/2-mile Epsom Oaks. Ryan Moore rode Love, who now is two for two in 2020. In her first start this year, she won the Group I One Thousand Guineas by 4 1/4 lengths. The Galileo filly has improved dramatically this year after winning three of seven starts in 2019.
Superstars Ouija Board and Enable also inscribed their names on the extremely long list of Epsom Oaks winners. Ouija Board won the 2004 edition by seven lengths. Enable prevailed by five lengths in 2017.
“It was an eighth Oaks winner for O’Brien -- and his fifth in the last nine years -- but his enthusiasm overflowed like rarely before for Love,” Racing Post’s Martin Stevens wrote.
Stevens quoted O’Brien as saying of Love: “She’s very special. It’s hard to say that you would ever have a filly better than that. We saw what she did in the Guineas and she doubled it today, and it’s only her second run of the year. It’s amazing, really.”
A LONGACRES MILE REMATCH?
Law Abidin Citizen won last year’s Grade III Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs by a head at 6-1. Anyportinastorm ran too good to lose and finished second as the 3-5 favorite.
They might be headed for a rematch in this year’s 85th running of the Longacres Mile on Sept. 13.
The Longacres Mile is the most important race in the Pacific Northwest.
In Law Abidin Citizen’s most recent start, he won a 6 1/2-furlong allowance/optional claiming contest by 1 3/4 lengths at Santa Anita on June 14. Mark Glatt trains the 6-year-old Kentucky-bred Twirling Candy gelding.
Last Saturday, Anyportinastorm won the six-furlong Oak Tree Sprint Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths at Pleasanton. Blaine Wright conditions the 6-year-old Florida-bred son of City Zip.
Restrainedvengence, trained by Val Brinkerhoff, came close to a big upset in last year’s Longacres Mile. Dismissed at 26-1, he lost by only a neck when he finished third. A stakes winner this year at Sunland Park and Golden Gate Fields, the 5-year-old Kentucky-bred Hold Me Back gelding ran fourth as the 8-5 favorite in the Grade III San Francisco Mile on the turf June 14 at Golden Gate.
Who knows? Perhaps the one-two-three finishers in last year’s Longacres Mile all will show up to face each other again in this year’s renewal.