by Jon White
February 25, 2021
It looks like this year’s Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park is finally going to be run.
The Southwest originally had been scheduled for Feb. 15. But because of the unusual wintry weather at this time of the year in that region, the race was moved to Feb. 20, then to Feb. 21. And then it was moved yet again to this Saturday. All indications are it’s not going to be moved again.
Heading the field of seven in the Southwest is Essential Quality, the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male. The Kentucky-bred Tapit colt, who is three for three, will be making his first start since winning the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at odds of 7-2 last Nov. 6 at Keeneland. He also won last year’s Grade I Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland on Oct. 3.
Brad Cox trains Essential Quality, who breaks from the inside post Saturday.
Also making his 2021 debut in the Southwest is Jackie’s Warrior, who finished fourth as the 9-10 favorite in the BC Juvenile, his lone defeat in five lifetime starts. The Kentucky-bred Maclean’s Music colt was four for four prior to his setback at the Breeders’ Cup. He won last year’s Grade II Saratoga Special in August, Grade I Hopeful Stakes in September at Saratoga and Grade I Champagne Stakes in October at Belmont Park.
Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen conditions Jackie’s Warrior, who drew post 4 in the Southwest.
The first four finishers in the Southwest will earn 10-4-2-1 points toward the Kentucky Derby.
One horse I absolutely would have thrown out in the Southwest if he had been entered is Keepmeinmind. Winner of the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs in his most recent start, he would have had his work cut out for him vs. Essential Quality and Jackie’s Warrior under the best of circumstances.
But Keepmeinmind missed too much training due to Oaklawn’s track being closed to have had any legitimate shot to beat Essential Quality and Jackie’s Warrior in the Southwest. I honestly wonder if Man o’ War, Secretariat or Citation could have defeated Essential Quality or Jackie’s Warrior this Saturday if they had gone into the race having missed as much training as Keepmeinmind has for trainer Roberto Diodoro.
Considering the training Keepmeinmind has missed, his connections made the decision -- wisely, in my opinion -- to target Oaklawn’s Grade II Rebel Stakes on March 13. The Rebel will be contested at the same 1 1/16-mile distance as the Southwest.
For me, in terms of the Southwest, choosing between Essential Quality and Jackie’s Warrior is extremely difficult. Jackie’s Warrior probably is going right to the front and will be able to set a comfortable pace. This is in contrast to the BC Juvenile. Jackie’s Warrior chased a hot pace in the BC Juvenile, then paid the price and weakened in the final furlong.
On the other hand, ever since Essential Quality’s first race, I have thought he could be a special colt. When unveiled in a six-furlong maiden race at Churchill on Sept. 5, he had a troubled trip, yet overcame it and won by four emphatic lengths while giving every indication he would relish going farther.
Next, Essential Quality was a pace factor from the outset and won the 1 1/16-mile Breeders’ Futurity by 3 1/4 lengths. And then in the 1 1/16-mile BC Juvenile, he was eighth early and rallied to win by three-quarters of a length.
For Xpressbet.com, my BC Juvenile selections were: 1. Essential Quality, 2. Jackie’s Warrior, 3. Reinvestment Risk. Sittin On Go was my “nice-price danger.”
In terms of Saturday’s Southwest, I’m again picking Essential Quality to win. I do so even though I think this just might be an ideal situation in terms of pace for Jackie’s Warrior to avenge his BC Juvenile defeat. But I would feel like a traitor if I don’t stick with Essential Quality after he came through for me at the Breeders’ Cup and paid $9.20 to win.
My selections for the Southwest are below:
1. Essential Quality
2. Jackie’s Warrior
4. Saffa's Day
Coming off his decisive 5 3/4-length triumph in Gulfstream Park’s Grade III Holy Bull Stakes at odds of 5-2 on Jan. 30, Greatest Honour no doubt will be a strongly backed favorite in Saturday’s Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at that same track.
The Fountain of Youth, which has enticed a field of 10, will reward the first four finishers with 50-20-10-5 points toward a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby.
Trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, Greatest Honour lost his first three races, then won a 1 1/16-mile maiden contest at Gulfstream on Dec. 26. He went on to get his maiden diploma at Gulfstream on Dec. 26, followed by his Holy Bull victory in his stakes debut.
Considering the short price Greatest Honour is going to be this Saturday, I would love to pick against him. But I can’t, not off what I saw from the Kentucky-bred Tapit colt in the Holy Bull.
My selections for the Fountain of Youth are below:
1. Greatest Honour
2. Fire At Will
3. Drain the Clock
4. Prime Factor
Greatest Honour takes an improving Beyer Speed Figure pattern into the Fountain of Youth. He recorded a 72 Beyer at first asking, then a 77, then a 79, then an 83, then an 89 in the Holy Bull.
I admit that, for me, Greatest Honour’s breeding does add to his appeal. He’s a son of the premier sire Tapit and the Street Cry mare Tiffany’s Honour. Tiffany’s Honour is a half-sister to Rags to Riches and Jazil.
Rags to Riches was voted a 2007 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly. She won the Grade I Belmont Stakes that year by defeating no less a foe than Curlin, who subsequently was twice voted Horse of the Year.
One would think that becoming the first filly to win the Belmont in 102 years would go a long way toward getting Rags to Riches into the Hall of Fame. But so far she has not received enough support to join that exclusive club. The biggest stumbling block seems to be that Rags to Riches made only seven career starts.
But despite making just seven career starts, Rags to Riches won more Grade I races (four) than Winning Colors (three) or Genuine Risk (two). Winning Colors, the 1988 Kentucky Derby winner, and Genuine Risk, the 1980 winner of the Run for the Roses, are both in the Hall of Fame, as they should be.
For those Hall of Fame voters who refuse to give a thumbs up to Rags to Riches, what about Justify? He made only six lifetime starts, yet I’d say it’s a slam-dunk that Justify will be elected to the Hall of Fame when he first becomes eligible in 2024. Mainly for his feat of sweeping the Triple Crown, Justify will deservedly go into the Hall of Fame.
And when Justify does get into the Hall of Fame off only six career starts, it will help point out just how ludicrous it is that Rags to Riches has been kept out of the Hall of Fame primarily because she made just seven career starts.
Fire At Will does intrigue me in the Fountain of Youth. He is another who has an improving Beyer Speed Figure pattern. The Kentucky-bred Declaration of War colt received a 63 Beyer in his first race, then a 75, then an 80, then a 90 when he won the Grade I BC Juvenile Turf by three lengths as a 30-1 outcast in the betting.
It was rather surprising to see Fire At Will sport such long odds at the Breeders’ Cup following his two-length win in the Grade II Pilgrim Stakes on turf Oct. 3 at Belmont.
Fire At Will does have experience racing on dirt. As a maiden, he won the off-the-turf With Anticipation Stakes on a sloppy Saratoga main track prior to the Pilgrim. Of course, he is facing a much tougher task on the dirt this time when going against such a tough opponent as Greatest Honour.
I am very interested to see if Fire At Will can give a good account of himself in a Grade II affair on dirt this Saturday. If he does, the Grade I Florida Derby on March 27 and quite possibly the Grade I Kentucky Derby on May 1 could be in the cards for him. If Fire At Will does not run well Saturday, look for him to go back to racing on turf.
Fountain of Youth entrant Drain the Clock is coming off a 6 1/4-length win in Gulfstream’s Grade III Swale Stakes at seven furlongs on Jan. 30. Victorious in four of five career starts, the Kentucky-bred Maclean’s Music colt most assuredly can be excused for his only defeat.
In the Jean Lafitte Stakes at Louisiana’s Delta Downs last Nov. 30, Drain the Clock raced close up early, then had a stirrup break and unseated jockey Heriberto Figueroa on the backstretch.
For some, that incident conjures up memories of the 1970 Longacres Mile, the biggest race in the Pacific Northwest. Turbulator was favored in that race at 6-5 when coming off a win in which he lowered the world record for 6 1/2 furlongs by two-fifths of a second. But his left stirrup broke leaving the starting gate. Miraculously, jockey Larry Pierce stayed on Turbulator, but it was far from easy. In spite of a broken stirrup and being boxed in for every step of the final three furlongs, Turbulator lost that race by only 2 1/2 lengths. Many consider it the finest performance in defeat in the history of racing in the Pacific Northwest.
By the way, Drain the Clock is owned by Slam Dunk Racing and Madaket Stables. Nick Cosato is the managing partner of Slam Dunk Racing. Cosato is the person who made a $500 wager at the Wynn Sports & Race Book in Las Vegas on Justify to win the 2018 Kentucky Derby at odds of 300-1. Cosato collected $150,000 when he cashed that ticket.
Prime Factor attempts to rebound in the Fountain of Youth after finishing a disappointing third as the 11-10 favorite in the Holy Bull. The Kentucky-bred Quality Road colt wound up 9 1/2 lengths behind Greatest Honour that afternoon.
Quality Road won the 2009 Fountain of Youth.
Todd Pletcher trains Prime Factor. Todd Pletcher is an absolute cinch to be voted into the Hall of Fame this year in his first year of eligibility. He trained Rags to Riches.
Pletcher and Rags to Riches are among the 10 finalists announced Wednesday for 2021 Hall of Fame induction. How wonderful would it be if both Pletcher and Rags to Riches were to get voted into the Hall of Fame in the same year? But my guess is that while Pletcher is going into the Hall of Fame this year, Rags to Riches probably once again will be denied membership.
The other Hall of Fame finalists this year are American Pharoah (first year of eligibility), Blind Luck, Game On Dude, Havre de Grace and Kona Gold, plus jockey Corey Nakatani and trainers Christophe Clemente and Doug O’Neill.
American Pharoah, who in 2015 became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, joins Pletcher as a foregone conclusion to be voted into the Hall of Fame this year.
The 2021 inductees will be announced on May 5.
An overflow field of 13, including one also eligible, is entered in the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park on Friday evening. The 1 1/16-mile race will be contested on a synthetic surface and offers Kentucky Derby points to the first four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 scale.
This race is named in honor of the late general manager of Latonia, which is now Turfway Park. John Battaglia’s son, of course, is Mike Battaglia, a longtime track announcer and morning-line maker who called a slew of Kentucky Derbies and still makes the morning-line odds for the 1 1/4-mile classic.
I once worked with a member of the Battaglia family. When I was a Daily Racing Form chart-caller at Louisiana Downs in 1976, my call-taker was John Battaglia Jr.
Mike Battaglia has said that his father first got involved in horse racing by providing selections to The Kentucky Post newspaper. John Battaglia told the editor of the paper that he could do a better job of picking winners than the guys who were doing it. Battaglia said that if he didn’t pick more winners, they didn’t have to pay him.
I have to think even John Battaglia would not have had an easy time trying to pick the winner of this year’s John Battaglia Memorial. It looks like it’s a wide-open race to me.
My John Battaglia Memorial selections are below:
1. Kinetic Sky
2. Gretzky the Great
4. Pico d’Oro
After picking the chalky Essential Quality to win the Southwest and the chalky Greatest Honour to win the Fountain of Youth, I’m shooting for a better price in the Battaglia Memorial. Kinetic Sky is 9-2 on the morning line.
Brad Cox trains Kinetic Sky. Cox seems to win just about everything these days (except the Saudi Cup with Knicks Go). A Kentucky-bred by the hot sire Runhappy, Kinetic Sky comes off a three-length maiden win in a Fair Grounds maiden race at one mile and 70 yards.
In Kinetic Sky’s only other start in New Orleans, he finished third behind Proxy and Afwan on Nov. 26. Proxy would go on to finish second in Fair Grounds’ Grade III Lecomte Stakes and Grade II Risen Star Stakes.
Gretzky the Great, the 3-1 morning-line favorite in the Battaglia Memorial, makes his first start since finishing sixth in the BC Juvenile Turf last Nov. 6. He won the Grade I Summer Stakes on turf before that at Woodbine.
Trained by Hall of Famer Mark Casse, Gretzky the Great is named for the legendary hockey player who also has owned a piece of a number of Thoroughbreds through the year. For example, Gretzky was involved in the ownership of Golden Pheasant, an Arlington Million and Japan Cup winner who happens to be the all-time favorite horse of Frank Mirahmadi, Santa Anita’s track announcer.
Who knows? Maybe two horses named for Gretzky will make their way into the starting gate for this year’s Kentucky Derby. The Great One, a 14-length maiden winner at Santa Anita on Jan. 23 after losing the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity by a nose to Spielberg, also is named for Gretzky. Doug O’Neill trains The Great One, who is scheduled to make his next start against Life Is Good and company in Santa Anita’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes on March 6.
Catman has lost three straight since winning the Laurel Futurity on turf last Oct. 3. Trained by Michael Maker, perhaps Catman can get into the superfecta at what should be a juicy price (15-1 morning line) in Friday’s Battaglia Memorial. I might have picked Catman higher than third if he had drawn a better post than 11.
Another superfecta candidate is Pico d’Oro (8-1 morning line). Billy Morey trains Pico d’Oro, who finished a close third in the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct on Jan. 31. The Kentucky-bred Curlin colt was victorious in his lone start at Turfway. That could bode well for him under the lights Friday.
There are no changes to my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week. Of course, that is highly unlikely to be the case again next week. In all likelihood, what happens in this Saturday’s Southwest and Fountain of Youth will have an impact on next week’s Top 10.
My Kentucky Derby Top 10 for this week is below:
1. Essential Quality
2. Life Is Good
3. Caddo River
4. Greatest Honour
6. Concert Tour
7. Medina Spirit
8. Hot Rod Charlie
10. Roman Centurian
Last Sunday morning at Santa Anita, Life Is Good once again was poetry in motion when he effortlessly worked five furlongs in 1:00.80 for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. The workout was listed as breezing rather than handily by the official clockers.
At Southern California tracks, a workout rarely is listed as breezing, which is to indicate that the horse worked considerably easier without any urging at all than a horse whose workout is termed handily.
This was the sixth consecutive workout by Life Is Good that has been listed as breezing.
As someone who has covered racing at Southern California tracks in one capacity or another since 1981, I do not recall another horse having such a string of breezing works.
What’s also noteworthy is two of Life Is Good’s breezing works have been bullet drills. When a horse goes so easily to get a rare breezing designation, it’s even rarer for the work to be the fastest of the day at the distance.
On Feb. 8, Life Is Good’s six-furlong work in 1:12.00 breezing was the fastest of nine works at the distance that morning. Last Sunday, his five-furlong drill in :59.60 was the fastest of 54.
Life Is Good now has had 18 recorded SoCal works. None were listed as breezing prior to his current streak of six straight. To put what Life is Good has been doing into some context, consider how it compares to some of the other elite horses trained by Baffert, such as 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify.
American Pharoah had 27 recorded workouts prior to the Kentucky Derby. None were listed as breezing. During American Phoroah’s entire racing career, only two of his 42 SoCal works were listed as breezing.
Justify had 17 SoCal works before the Kentucky Derby. Again, none was listed as breezing.
What about 2020 Horse of the Year Authentic? Due to COVID-19, the Kentucky Derby was moved from May 2 to Sept. 5. Only one of Authentic’s 56 SoCal works prior to the Kentucky Derby was listed as breezing.
Arrogate did not run in the 2016 Kentucky Derby. He blossomed during the second half of the year and smashed Saratoga’s 1 1/4-mile track record when he won the Grade I Travers by 13 lengths. Arrogate would go on to capture the Grade I BC Classic, Pegasus World Cup and Group I Dubai World Cup.
During Arrogate’s 11-race career, of his 65 SoCal works, just three were listed as breezing.
What about going back to Baffert’s first two Kentucky Derby winners, Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998?
Of Silver Charm’s 36 SoCal works before the Kentucky Derby, only one was listed as breezing.
Of Real Quiet’s 28 SoCal works prior to the Kentucky Derby, three were listed as breezing.
John Gosden, who trained Eclipse Award winners Bates Motel and Royal Heroine in the first half of the 1980s when a SoCal conditioner, now is widely recognized as one of the best horsemen in the world, perhaps even the best.
I did not pick the winner of last Saturday’s $20 million Saudi Cup, the richest horse race on the planet. My choice, Knicks Go, finished fourth. The horse I picked second, Charlatan, did finish second in what was a fine effort in defeat.
The horse I picked third, Mishriff, did win the Saudi Cup. This was what I wrote: “Watch out for Mishriff. He’s got class (winner of the Group I French Derby on turf last year), a great trainer (John Gosden) and has run well on dirt at King Abdulaziz Racecourse (second in last year’s Saudi Derby).”
Watch out, indeed. Mischriff won at odds of 19-1.
I also wrote this last week: “Depending on what happens this Saturday, Knicks Go’s reign at the top of the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll could be short-lived. If Knicks Go gets beat in the Saudi Cup, he no doubt will drop out of the No. 1 spot in next week’s poll.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Saudi Cup runner-up Charlatan moved to the top of the Top Thoroughbred Poll this week.
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 353 Charlatan (25)
2. 288 Knicks Go (1)
3. 265 Maxfield (5)
4. 264 Monomoy Girl (6)
5. 160 Swiss Skydiver
5. 156 Colonel Liam
7. 93 Gamine
8. 92 Jesus’ Team
9. 73 Channel Maker
9. 55 Whitmore
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 345 Essential Quality (26)
2. 295 Life Is Good (5)
3. 238 Mandaloun (4)
3. 225 Greatest Honour (1)
5. 188 Medina Spirit
6. 165 Caddo River (1)
7. 101 Concert Tour
8. 81 Keepmeinmind
9. 70 Jackie’s Warrior
10 65 Risk Taking