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‘Where the Grandpa Meets the Granddaughter’

by Johnny D

July 11, 2019

By the time you read this the 2019 Saratoga meeting should be underway. Tickets kissed and cashed. Others torn to shreds. Accounts credited and debited. Ties broken--before the start of a new meeting everyone is first in the standings. 

You may have heard that there’s something special about Saratoga. Ask 10 people to name their favorite part of visiting the track with the red and white awnings and you’ll get 20 different responses. 

If, like this writer, you are privileged to visit the Spa each summer, then it’s 3/5 that you can’t wait to make the trip. Traditionally, my excursion occurs Travers week and, each year, I desperately want to look forward to it but must deny myself that privilege. You see, Travers is run in near summer’s end in late August and I hate to bid ‘farewell’ to my favorite time of year. 

If you’ve never been racing at Saratoga, I’m sorry. It really is a different place, in a good way. Nothing quite like it in the racing universe. 

Some will cry ‘foul’ and point to Keeneland or Del Mar and argue that they, too, present comparable ‘boutique’ meetings with racing either ‘As it Was Meant to Be’ or ‘Cool as Ever.’ The former track presents the sport with an eye toward Kentucky tradition and the latter welcomes a Pacific Ocean grandstand kiss. Bluegrass or shorts and flip flops. Take your pick. You can’t go wrong. As far as the complete experience goes, Keeneland and Del Mar are punching in Saratoga’s weight class. However, each of those tracks is so different from the other that, except for the magnificent horseflesh picking ‘em up and laying ‘em down, they don’t share a similar vibe other than fun. 

This season is a special one in which yours truly will visit both Del Mar and Saratoga. Like with cashing a juicy daily double, that doesn’t happen often, so, when it does, I get excited. This 2019 Del Mar visit will be different, however. Usual attractions like old friends, racing, sun, sand, golf and authentic Mexican food all will take a backseat. I’m traveling to Del Mar primarily for an introduction to my first and favorite grandchild! Born this year, on Mother’s Day, her parents will accompany her from their home in Hong Kong. Presumably, during the flight, her highness will be swaddled as the most precious carry-on luggage ever to inhabit the friendly skies. In Del Mar she will be presented to relatives gathered for the privilege from various locations between California and the United Kingdom. 

Even though I now live on the east coast where Saratoga is a more convenient summer racing fix, I’ve either visited or worked at Del Mar since the early 70s, when I was certain I had discovered paradise. Little has changed since to alter that opinion. This summer, when I visit Del Mar it will be even more magical. Instead of being the place ‘Where the Turf Meets the Surf,’ it will be ‘Where the Grandpa Meets the Granddaughter!’ 

Before we completely focus on grandchildren, Saratoga, Del Mar and Xpressbet’s $120,000 Fun in the Sun Tournament that begins Saturday, we ought to spend a moment or two closing the book on what happened at Belmont Park last Saturday during the Stars and Stripes Racing Festival. It was a fine racing afternoon that deserves reflection because both winners and also-rans are going to return for more down the road and we must be prepared. 

Code of Honor is back and appears better than he was earlier this year. He seems to have grown, filled out and matured mentally. During the Dwyer there was no hesitation in his stride. He knew his task and kept to it with an efficient and powerful stride. While there is some question about how much horsepower was behind him Saturday—non-stakes winners Final Jeopardy and Rowaton finished well back in second and third--it’s worth noting that the galloping winner did not require a hot early pace to set up his closing charge. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez apparently recognized early what he had under the hood. Just after the duo had made the lead at the eighth pole, Velazquez threw away the stick; he knew he didn’t need it. 

A one-turn mile appears to hit Code of Honor between the eyes. The mile and one-eighth Jim Dandy appears on the radar, followed by the mile and one-quarter Travers. He will be a short price in the ‘Dandy and, if successful, probably favored in the Travers. While he certainly could win going a mile and one-quarter at the Spa, it may not be his optimum distance. 

Belmont Oaks 
Concrete Rose certainly has developed nicely. She’s one performance away from being unbeaten in six career starts—five of them in graded stakes! That lone defeat came in the BC Juvenile Fillies when she broke from the rail in a 14-filly scramble over a yielding turf course that clearly favored outside paths. Concrete Rose gets extra credit for defeating representatives from two of the world’s top outfits—three runners for Chad Brown and a pair for Aiden O’Brien. 

Concrete Rose’s success shines in stark contrast to favored Newspaperofrecord—who finished last. The latter again pulled early as jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. unsuccessfully pleaded with her to relax. Finally, Ortiz gave up the fight and turned her head loose. She ran for a bit and then faded. She’s a huge disappointment to this fan who completely misjudged her ability. I thought she was ‘one of the ones.’ She’s not and may be a textbook example of a star filly not developing from age two to three. Yes, she’s been rank this season, but ‘rank’ didn’t matter last year when she mostly went to the front and kept going. This year, she’s being caught. 

John Nerud 
Before the race, on paper, it appeared as if Promises Fulfilled would win. A cozy outside draw seemed an added advantage to the fastest horse in the race. That Promises Fulfilled also caught a flier out of the gate while two other early-speed types broke slowly made the race a mismatch. Promises Fulfilled is a fast horse who is best when he can control the pace like he did Saturday. He won’t always be so fortunate. 

Derby Invitational 
Henley’s Joy finally had a trouble-free trip and that made all the difference. This time he used tactical speed to sit just off pace, moved clear in the lane and had plenty left late. It was his fourth turf win in 10 grass starts and he’s got three seconds, too. While not a dominating force in the division, ‘Joy often was there or thereabouts at the conclusion of some decent graded turf stakes. 

Players were understandably mesmerized by not one…not two…not three…but four Chad Brown-trained runners in the race. International training icon Aiden O’Brien also fired two Euro-based projectiles at the target as did Todd Pletcher. And yet the lukewarm starting favorite was none of those. Hall-of-Fame trainer Bill Mott’s Seismic Wave started as public choice at odds of nearly 5-1. He and jockey Joel Rosario rode the rail throughout, loomed a threat while inside into the stretch, was blocked and didn’t recover. Clearly, on paper and one the green the race was a turf grab-bag and Henley’s Joy the prize at 20-1 odds. 

When outsiders wag fingers at the sport and accuse owners and trainers of callousness toward horses, the case of Preservationist’s Suburban stands as evidence to the contrary. For starters, the Suburban was merely the 6-year-old horse’s eighth lifetime race. He made one start at three, one at four, two at five and four at six. Kudos to owner Centennial Farms and trainer Jimmy Jerkens for their patience. That’s a long time to pay bills without afternoon appearances. 

Also unusual about Preservationist is that over the last three years he gradually made his way through conditions—maiden, non-winners other than…, two other than… and three other than... The Grade II Suburban was his first stakes race at age six! 

Jerkens, finally able to settle Preservationist into a steady regime, worked him along old school lines, including breezes at a mile, seven-eighths and a half-mile blowout before the race. The horse responded by showing speed, rating and then kicking clear. His price dipped late as he went from 6-1 at loading to 7/2 at ‘off’ and the move attracted concern in social media circles. However, nothing’s out of line here. The market merely was corrected itself at the last minute. The latter always was the more appropriate price. 

Favored Catholic Boy didn’t help himself by being rank early. Jockey Javier Castellano attempted to wrangle him back but, finally, just let him go and he came up a bit empty. Pavel, who finished third, did his best but wasn’t quite good enough. 

Race On!