Promising Juveniles Make Fall Special

Trainer Steve Asmussen’s Stageplay looked like a major Kentucky Oaks hope in winning the Rags to Riches at Churchill Downs. Photos by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

Trainer Steve Asmussen’s Stageplay looked like a major Kentucky Oaks hope in winning the Rags to Riches at Churchill Downs. Photos by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

Even if you love Thoroughbred racing and awaken each morning with delightful images of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown and hopes similar moments in years to come, you might have missed a small racing world milestone on Monday.

On the morning of Monday, Nov. 9, the countdown toward Kentucky Derby Day 2016 on Saturday, May 7, 2016 stood at 180 days.  By day’s end (my calendar page turns not at midnight, but at 6:45 p.m. – close to post time these days for the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”), there were fewer than six months remaining by any reasonable count until the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.

Those that watched the marvelous renewal of the Breeders’ Cup Champions hosted by Keeneland a couple of weeks back know that the status of a couple of major contenders for the big race at Churchill Downs on the First Saturday in May was solidified in the two days of competition in Lexington.

Unbeaten Nyquist overcame an outside post to win the $2 million Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) to complete an unbeaten season and earn Eclipse Award honors as champion 2-year-old.  That won’t be official until the Eclipse votes are taken and tallied, but the title for Nyquist – raced by the team of Reddam Racing, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Guitierrez that brought you 2012 Derby winner I’ll Have Another – but the crown is, in racing terms, a sure thing.

Mo Tom outran stablemate Tom’s Ready to win the Street Sense on the Fall Meet’s opening day “Star of Tomrrow I” program. Photos by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

Mo Tom outran stablemate Tom’s Ready to win the Street Sense on the Fall Meet’s opening day “Star of Tomrrow I” program. Photos by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

Despite those accomplishments, Nyquist’s perfect season looks a little less spectacular than that of Fox Hill Farm’s Songbird, the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro that won the 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) by a 5 ½-length margin that was so easy it could have passed for a margin of 15 or more.

Songbird has the look of a filly that is a serious threat to become only the fourth of her gender, and the first since Winning Colors in 1988, to win a Kentucky Derby.  She represents the farm and stable of Rick Porter that has raced the likes of 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Round Pond and stars that include Hard Spun, Sprint champion Kodiak Kowboy, Jostle, Freisan Fire, Rockport Harbor and Old Fashioned.

But Fox Hill will always have a special place in the hearts of Kentucky Derby fans as the owner and breeder of Eight Belles, the marvelous 3-year-old filly who was runner-up to Big Brown in the 2008 Derby.  She suffered injuries just a short distance past the finish line in that Derby that took her life.  A Kentucky Derby Day race for 3-year-old fillies is named in honor of Eight Belles and is run annually in her honor.

Should Porter’s Songbird make it to the 2016 Derby, one would have to think that her considerable talent might be supported by some strong karma.  The Derby has a way of rewarding deserving owners, trainers and jockeys, and one could make a case that 2016 would be a fine year to see Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer to experience the otherworldly scent of the roses that are presented each year to the Kentucky Derby winner.

Hollendorfer’s luck in the Kentucky Derby has been mostly bad.  The horse that was arguably his best shot to win the roses, Golden Eagle Farm’s Event of the Year, was among the favorites for the 1998 Derby, but did not make it to the race.

The son of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew won Turfway Park’s Jim Beam Stakes by five lengths and then travelled to Churchill Downs for his final preparations for Derby.  But Event of the Year’s Kentucky Derby hopes ended when he suffered a knee injury while training at Churchill Downs prior to the big race.

Another Hollendorfer Derby hope, Globalize, missed the 2000 renewal when he suffered an injury in a training mishap only two days before the Derby.

So if the Derby seems to offer some kind of edge to those who seem to deserve a bit of magic on the first Saturday in May, Porter and Hollendorfer might have more than a wonderfully talented filly working towards the road to the roses in 2016.

While those horses are clear leaders toward next spring’s Kentucky Derby and Oaks, we have seen several eye-catching performances in the early days of Churchill Downs’ Fall Meet that have stirred thoughts of good things to come.

Mike Rutherford’s homebred Stageplay has the look of something special after the Steve Asmussen-trained filly won the Rags to Riches on opening day and now looks toward the Grade II Golden Rod on “Stars of Tomorrow II” day on the penultimate day of the meet.   Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready, owned by G M B Racing, ran 1-2 the same day in the Street Sense and are being pointed toward the Kentucky Jockey Club on the same day.

Also impressive on that day was Midwest Thoroughbreds’ Unexplained, who dazzled in last-to-firs run in a seven-furlong maiden event for trainer Chris Richard.

Last week saw a pair of first-time winners for trainer Ron Moquett in Whitmore, a gelding, and the filly Piracy.

Strong and promising 2-year-olds provide reason for anticipation on each day of the Fall Meet at Churchill Downs.  With the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks now less than six months away, the anticipation meter has been turned up a notch or two. VT