Zenyatta was officially retired this past week. Blame and Quality Road have already made their separate journeys to their new stud farms; Kentucky Derby winners Mine That Bird and Super Saver have run their last race. So, too, have Afleet Express, Proviso, Warrior’s Reward, Concord Point, A Little Warm, Vale of York, Not Bourbon, Careless Jewel, Forever Together, Hold Me Back, Munnings, Kiss the Kid, The Pamplemousse (remember him?), and now, it has been confirmed, Lookin at Lucky. Of course we already know the news of Rachel Alexandra’s retirement. The question is, who is left to root for? Perhaps our hopes lie between two races over the next week: the Delta Jackpot this Saturday at Delta Downs, and the Clark Handicap next Friday at Churchill Downs.
With just about all of our older horses shipping off to their new retirement homes, our hopes for 2011 are banking on a solid crop of 3-year-olds. And that would mean paying close attention to the Road for the Roses, as you never know what 2-year-old could blossom into a great older horse. The Delta Jackpot marks the first true Kentucky Derby prep race following the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. While there may not be the same level of talent in this field as the Juvenile, which produced a sizzling performance by Uncle Mo, the Jackpot’s $1-million dollar purse will guarantee the winner of this race a berth into the starting gates in the Derby. Breeders’ Cup Sprint victor Big Drama won the Delta Jackpot two years ago, so even if the top finishers of the 2010 edition want no part of 1 ¼-miles, hopefully they’ll be around long enough for us to root for in other races down the road.
Run at 1 1/16-miles, the Grade III Delta Jackpot has drawn a field of ten 2-year-olds; eight of these are already stakes winners. Of these, Sweet Ducky has an advantage, having already won going 2-turns in stakes races on the dirt (both at 1-mile at Monmouth Park). Gourmet Dinner came up just one place short of sweeping the Florida Stallion series at Calder, winning the first two legs of the series before finishing 2nd by 1 ½ lengths to Reprized Halo in the 1 1/16-mile In Reality Stakes. However, the high weight is Blue Laser, a winner of two races in a row at Woodbine, including the Grey Stakes at 1 1/16th-miles last time out over the Polytrack. But the best story in this race is that of Aces N Kings, the son of a teaser stallion who has won 5 of 6 starts, including three stakes races, before losing by a head in the Sunday Silence Stakes at Louisiana Downs. Though Aces N Kings has won at a mile, that victory came over the turf, and he has never run over 5 furlongs on the dirt. The little gelding that could has made a name all on his own, so it would be quite the story should this contender even run in the top three and have enough earnings to make a legitimate bid for the Kentucky Derby.
When it comes to the older horse division, there is still a silver lining on the horizon. Though we may never again see the likes of Rachel or Zenyatta in our lifetime, there is a chance we may see the break-out performance of a new star next Friday in the newly-minted Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. If history can predict the future, then watch out for Apart. In the 2009 edition, a late-blossoming 3-year-old by the name of Blame dug deep to defeat older horses for the first time, beating the veteran Einstein in his career bow. This year, the Al Stall trainee is named Apart, and he has been quietly reeling off victories in the shadow of his stablemate’s Grade I conquests. Apart will be entering the Clark off a 3-race win streak, including victories in the Super Derby and Ack Ack Handicap, the latter of which was won at Churchill on Breeders’ Cup Friday against a tested field. Apart will have to get past the runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Morning Line, who is also lightly-raced and looking for his first Grade I victory. A first-time stakes winner going into the BC Dirt Mile, Morning Line vaulted into top competition after winning an allowance race at Saratoga before going on to trump battle-tested stakes runners in the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby. Wheeled back in distance for the Dirt Mile, he looked to have the race won before Dakota Phone nailed him at the wire; his performance in the 1 1/8th-mile Penn Derby proved he has what it takes to run longer distances against top-caliber competition. Dakota Phone has been named as a possible starter; entries for the Clark will be drawn next week.
One contender definitely being pointed to the Clark with an entourage of support is Brass Hat, a 9-year-old warhorse coming off a celebrated victory in the Grade III Sycamore Stakes at Keeneland. Though that race was over the turf, and Brass Hat has not won on the dirt since his victory in the 2009 Massachusetts Handicap, Calvin Borel has been working the gelding in the mornings and thinks he’ll run well on Churchill’s dirt for the last Grade I race of the meet. It’s hard to argue with the King of Churchill, even if Brass Hat will have to whoop up on a field of tenacious whippersnappers to find Grade I glory under the twin spires. Other possible starters in the Clark include First Dude, Etched, Pleasant Prince, Redding Colliery, and Successful Dan.
Will we see some future Breeders’ Cup winners over the next week? Time will tell; until then, it’s good to become acquainted with racing’s new faces, because you never know where they will turn up next. Perhaps, even, at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
The Grade III $1 million Delta Jackpot Stakes will be broadcast live from Delta Downs on TVG and HRTV this Saturday. Post time is approximately 4:15 pm CT.
The Grade I Clark Handicap will be broadcast live from Churchill Downs Friday, November 26, on HRTV. Post time is approximately 5:00 pm ET.