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Mid-Season Report: Top Performances of 2019

by Jon White

July 3, 2019

Now that it is July, it’s time for my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during the first half of 2019.

A Thoroughbred’s performance can make this 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.
--Overcoming adversity.
--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.

And now here is my list of the Top 10 performances this year from Jan. 1 through June 30:

10. BREAK EVEN in Churchill Downs’ Grade II Eight Belles Stakes at seven furlongs on dirt when the track was sloppy May 3. (Owned by Klein Racing; trained by Brad Cox; ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan.)

Break Even was in total control of this race from the get-go. Dashing to a clear lead at once, she passed the three-eighths pole with a commanding five-length advantage. Still in front by four with a furlong to go, she won by 5 1/2 lengths in 1:22.13. The 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Country Day filly recorded a 94 Beyer Speed Figure.

The Eight Belles was her fourth daylight victory from her first four career starts, all this year. Prior to the Eight Belles, she had won a pair of races at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots by five and 4 1/4 lengths, followed by a 4 1/2-length win in the Purple Mountain Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

After Break Even drubbed her rivals in the Eight Belles, she won Belmont Park’s Jersey Girl Stakes by three-quarters of a length on June 9. Even though Break Even’s margin of victory in the Jersey Girl was by far her smallest, her effort in that June 9 race produced a career-best 98 Beyer.

9. WORLD OF TROUBLE in Belmont Park’s Grade I Jaipur Stakes at six furlongs on turf June 8. (Owned by Michael Dubb, Madaket Stables and Bethlehem Stables; trained by Jason Servis; ridden by Manny Franco.)

World of Trouble, hammered down to 2-5 favoritism, seized the lead immediately and sped along while clicking off fractions of :21.99, :43.85 and :54.80. The 4-year-old Florida-bred Kantharos colt won by 1 3/4 lengths in a swift 1:06.37. He received a 106 Beyer Speed Figure.

“Man, what a horse,” Servis said after the Jaipur.

In World of Trouble’s four starts during the first half of 2019, all sprints, he won on a sloppy track at Gulfstream, a fast track at Aqueduct and on the turf at Churchill and Belmont.

World of Trouble is one of those few Thoroughbreds to succeed at the Grade I level on both dirt (Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct on April 6) and turf (Jaipur).

Indeed, what a horse.

8. MAXIMUM SECURITY in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Xpressbet Florida Derby at 1 1/8 miles on dirt March 30. (Owned by Gary and Mary West; trained by Jason Servis; ridden by Luis Saez.)

This was Maximum Security’s first start going farther than seven furlongs. It was his first race around two turns. It was his first start in a stakes race and first in a graded stakes race.

After Maximum Security graduated from the maiden ranks by almost 10 lengths when unveiled at Gulfstream on Dec. 20, he won a pair of starter allowance/optional claiming races at that same venue by 6 1/4 and 18 1/4 lengths.

Yes, they let Maximum Security bowl along early in the Florida Derby while on an uncontested lead. One reason that happened was 9-5 favorite Hidden Scroll did not go for the early lead.

Many had criticized Joel Rosario for his ride on Hidden Scroll in Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 2. They felt that Rosario should have tried to rate Hidden Scroll early when he set a rapid pace and finished fourth.

But when Javier Castellano rated Hidden Scroll early in the Florida Derby, many knocked Castellano for doing that. Hidden Scroll did not seem to like it very much when he found himself boxed in through the early furlongs while getting dirt thrown back into his face. It appeared that rating Hidden Scroll and essentially taking away what probably is his best weapon -- his speed -- backfired.

But while it is true that Maximum Security enjoyed an easy time of it while leading early in the Florida Derby, the fact is he came home the final three furlongs in a very strong :35 and change. It takes a serious equine athlete to come home that fast.

Maximum Security completed his Florida Derby journey in 1:48.86. The Kentucky-bred New Year’s Day colt recorded a 101 Beyer Speed Figure.

Maximum Security’s final time of 1:48.86 in the Florida Derby was better than three previous winners in the 13 years who went on to capture the Kentucky Derby: Barbaro, Orb and Nyquist.

Since Gulfstream enlarged the main track to 1 1/8 miles for its 2005 season, these have been the Florida Derby times, from fastest down to slowest:

1:47.47 (2017) Always Dreaming*
1:47.72 (2009) Quality Road
1:48.16 (2008) Big Brown*
1:48.79 (2012) Take Charge Indy
1:48.86 (2019) Maximum Security
1:49.00 (2007) Scat Daddy
1:49.01 (2006) Barbaro*
1:49.11 (2016) Nyquist*
1:49.17 (2014) Constitution
1:49.19 (2010) Ice Box
1:49.43 (2005) High Fly
1:49.48 (2018) Audible
1:50.74 (2011) Dialed In
1:50.87 (2013) Orb*
1:52.30 (2015) Materiality

*Won the Kentucky Derby

For a time, it appeared that Maximum Security had won the 2019 Kentucky Derby. He crossed the finish line first, 1 3/4 lengths ahead of 65-1 longshot Country House. However, the stewards disqualified Maximum Security and placed him 17th for committing a race foul. Maximum Security veered out sharply approaching the five-sixteenth pole to cause interference to War of Will, Bodexpress and Long Range Toddy.

It was the first time in the 145-year history of the Kentucky Derby that a winner was disqualified for an incident during the running of the race.

7. COVFEFE in Pimlico’s Grade III Miss Preakness Stakes at six furlongs on dirt May 17. (Owned by LNJ Foxwoods; trained by Brad Cox; ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan.)

In quite a display of sheer speed, Covfefe completed six furlongs in a sizzling 1:07.70 to win by 8 1/2 lengths. Her final time obliterated the track record of 1:09.00 set by Northern Wolf back in 1990.

Covfefe, a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Into Mischief filly, recorded a 107 Beyer Speed Figure for her Miss Preakness triumph. Her 107 ranked as the highest Beyer by a 3-year-old male or female at any distance during the first half of 2019.

6. MIDNIGHT BISOU in Belmont Park’s Grade I Ogden Phipps Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on dirt June 8. (Owned by Bloom Racing Stable, Madaket Stables and Allen Racing; trained by Steve Asmussen; ridden by Mike Smith.)

Lurking in fourth early, Midnight Bisou prevailed by 3 1/2 lengths in a sharp 1:39.69 at 8-5. Coming Dancing finished second as the 4-5 favorite in the field of five.

Come Dancing’s odds-on favoritism stemmed from her two dominant victories in her two 2019 starts prior to the Phipps. She had won Aqueduct’s Grade III Distaff Handicap by almost eight lengths in April and Belmont’s Grade II Ruffian Stakes by nearly seven lengths on a sloppy strip in May.

But Come Dancing was no match for Midnight Bisou in the final furlong of the Phipps.

The official Equibase chart for the Phipps recounted Midnight Bisou’s journey to victory: “MIDNIGHT BISOU away in good order, responded when put to mild hand encouragement to inch up towards COME DANCING, loosely drafted behind that opponent before sliding over to the rail nearing the conclusion of the backstretch, sat patiently pocketed on the turn, was forced to wait behind the previously mentioned rival with a few jumps to spare before quarter pole, espied an escape route to the outside coming to the head of the stretch, eagerly angled to it and was fed her cue, responded almost instantaneously to take charge by the eighth pole, extended the winning margin, fed a steady diet of light stick work in the area of the right shoulder to stay on course.”

Midnight Bisou, a 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Midnight Lute filly, recorded a career-best 103 Beyer Speed Figure for her Phipps victory.

In my view, Midnight Bisou’s Phipps was the best performance by a female Thoroughbred in the United States during the first half of 2019.

5. BRICKS AND MORTAR in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf at 1 3/16 miles on a yielding turf course Jan. 26. (Owned by Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence; trained by Chad Brown; ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr.)

With a purse of $7 million, this was the richest grass event in the history of North American racing.

Bricks and Mortar, making his second start following a long layoff, rallied from eighth to win going away by 2 1/2 lengths in 1:54.59. His 107 Beyer in the Pegasus World Cup Turf was a career-best figure. The 107 achieved by the Kentucky-bred son of Giant’s Causeway also was the highest Beyer in a grass race longer than one mile during the first half of 2019.

Bricks and Mortar’s Pegasus World Cup Turf was, I believe, the best grass performance by a Thoroughbred in the United States this year from January through June.

During the first half of this year, Bricks and Mortar was four for four. After the Pegasus World Cup Turf, he won the Grade II Muniz Memorial Handicap at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in March, Grade I Turf Classic at Churchill in May and Grade I Manhattan at Belmont earlier this month.

Bricks and Mortar’s record was such during the first half of 2019 that he ranked No. 1 in the July 1 NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll. Here is that poll’s Top 10 on July 1:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 351 Bricks and Mortar (28)
2. 318 Mitole (6)
3. 243 Midnight Bisou (2)
4. 227 McKinzie
5. 189 World of Trouble
6. 122 Catholic Boy
7. 108 Seeking the Soul
8. 103 Rushing Fall
9. 69 Thunder Snow
10. 68 Vino Rosso

4. GUARANA in Belmont Park’s Grade I Acorn Stakes at one mile on dirt June 8. (Owned by Three Chimneys Farm; trained by Chad Brown; ridden by Jose Ortiz.)

Fourteen years after Ghostzapper’s resounding victory in the Grade I Met Mile, a daughter of his, Guarana, put on a show when she won the one-mile Acorn this year by six widening lengths in 1:33.58, an effort that produced a 99 Beyer Speed Figure. Guarana’s Acorn win occurred on the same day as this year’s Met Mile.

The late Bobby Frankel once told me that the best horse he ever trained was Ghostzapper, who was voted 2004 Horse of the Year after winning the Grade I BC Classic that season by three lengths at Lone Star Park.

How marvelous was Ghostzapper’s race when he won the 2004 BC Classic? I ranked it as the best performance by a Thoroughbred in the United States in 2004.

Ghostzapper recorded a 124 Beyer Speed Figure when he won the 2004 BC Classic. Through the 2018 Breeders’ Cup, only one horse has ever earned a higher Beyer than 124. Precisionist recorded a 125 when he won the 1985 BC Sprint at Aqueduct.

The only two other Breeders’ Cup winners to have earned a 124 are Sunday Silence in the 1989 Classic at Gulfstream and Artax in the 1999 Sprint also at Gulfstream.

Ghostzapper raced only once more after his 2004 BC Classic victory. He won the Grade I Met Mile by 6 1/2 lengths the following year. His final time was 1:33.29. His Beyer was 122.

Not only did Guarana win the Acorn by a sizable margin in 1:33 and change, what makes her performance all the more impressive is that it was just her second lifetime start. In her only previous appearance under silks, the Kentucky-bred filly won a 6 1/2-furlong maiden special weight race by 14 3/4 lengths on a sloppy track April 19 at Keeneland.

3. OMAHA BEACH in Oaklawn Park’s Grade I Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles on dirt when the track was sloppy April 13. (Owned Fox Hill Farms; trained by Richard Mandella; ridden by Mike Smith.)

Omaha Beach made an eye-catching move on the clubhouse turn, advancing quickly from fifth to take over soon after entering the backstretch. Once the Kentucky-bred War Front colt reached the front, he settled into a nice, comfortable rhythm rather than get headstrong or rank.

In Countdown to the Crown, Jeremy Plonk articulated how impressive Omaha Beach was to win the Arkansas Derby after making such a swift early move.

Omaha Beach “motored around the clubhouse turn like Secretariat’s 1973 Preakness when [jockey] Ron Turcotte took a gamble blowing past Ecole Etage,” Plonk wrote.

Plonk observed that it would have been understandable to think that perhaps Omaha Beach had moved too soon. But Plonk pointed out how strongly Omaha Beach still ran his final three furlongs, comparing it to three other prominent Arkansas Derby winners:

Final 3F Winner (Year)

:37.20 Curlin (2007)
:37.35 Bodemeister (2012)
:37.45 Omaha Beach (2019)
:37.78 American Pharoah (2015)

Plonk noted that after they had won the Arkansas Derby, Curlin finished third in the Kentucky Derby, Bodemeister ran second in the Kentucky Derby and American Pharoah won the Triple Crown.

Omaha Beach’s final three furlongs in the Arkansas Derby had to be as robust as it was in order to hold off Improbable that whole time. Omaha Beach was in front by a length at the three-eighths pole, a length in front at the eighth pole and a length in front at the finish. Improbable was second at each of those points. That is what you call successfully fending off an opponent.

2. MITOLE in Belmont Park’s Grade I Metropolitan Handicap at one mile on dirt June 8. (Owned by William and Corinne Heiligbrodt; trained by Steve Asmussen; ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr.)

This year’s Met Mile attracted a stellar field of nine. Most observers considered it to be the strongest group for any race run in this country during the first half of the year.

Mitole attended the early pace and rose to the challenge when the real test came to prevail by three-quarters of a length at 7-2. McKinzie, the 8-5 favorite, had a troubled trip and finished second. Thunder Snow came in third, followed in order by Promises Fulfilled, Firenze Fire, Pavel, Coal Front, Tale of Silence and Prince Lucky.

Many thought McKinzie would have won if not for his traffic woes. Nevertheless, Mitole merits praise for running one mile in a splendid 1:32.75, not far off the track record of 1:32.24 set by Najran in 2003.

Mitole recorded a 108 Beyer Speed Figure for his Met Mile triumph to tie his career-best figure. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Eskendereya colt also was credited with a 108 Beyer when he won Oaklawn’s Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap by 2 3/4 lengths at six furlongs on a sloppy track this year on April 13.

The Met Mile was Mitole’s fourth win from four 2019 starts.

1. CITY OF LIGHT in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup at 1 1/8 miles on a sloppy main track Jan. 26. (Owned by Mr. and Mrs. William Warren Jr.; trained by Michael McCarthy; ridden by Javier Castellano.)

City of Light put an exclamation point on his racing career that concluded with this brilliant performance.

A pace factor from the outset, City of Light splashed away from his opponents in the stretch and won this $9 million event by 5 3/4 lengths at 9-5 in the wagering. Seeking the Soul, who was sent away at 34-1, ran second. Accelerate, the 3-2 favorite in the field of 12, finished third.

City of Light and Accelerate were both coming off a Breeders’ Cup victory at Churchill on Nov. 3. City of Light won the Grade I BC Dirt Mile. Accelerate captured the Grade I BC Classic, after which he was voted a 2018 Eclipse Award as champion older male.

After the Pegasus, City of Light and Accelerate both headed off to stud at Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky.

McCarthy was proud that City of Light had performed so admirably in the Pegasus. But the trainer, who did a terrific job from day one with the Kentucky-bred Quality Road colt, also was understandably disappointed that City of Light’s racing career had come to an end.

“He’s the horse of a lifetime,” McCarthy told Gulfstream publicity the day after the Pegasus. “I don’t know what else I can say.”

In the opinion of many, City of Light’s Pegasus was the finest race he ran during a career in which he posted six wins, four seconds and a third from 11 starts. He was credited with a career-best 112 Beyer Speed Figure. City of Light’s previous top Beyer had been his 110 in the BC Dirt Mile.

City of Light’s 112 had the distinction of being the best Beyer Speed Figure recorded during the first half of 2019.