September Stirs Thoughts of Spring

Dothraki Queen is perfect after two starts and leads the "Road to the Kentucky Oaks" standings after her win in the Pocohontas.

Dothraki Queen is perfect after two starts and leads the “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” standings after her win in the Pocohontas.

Perhaps the beautiful Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown run by American Pharoah has provided an emotional boost, but the early September days have been notable for a  stirring of emotions and a heightened anticipation of events not far down the road in the Spring of 2016.

Although the issue was never personally in doubt, American Pharoah’s Triple Crown proved that the dream of that rare and difficult sweep is not only possible, but achievable. In the case of this wonderful horse and others that will surely follow, many fans have discovered, or rediscovered, that the achievement is worth the wait.

While the experiences surrounding the Longines Kentucky Oaks (Grade I) and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) remain the most special events in ours sport, I’ve pondered over the past few days how special September has become.

One reason for the latter is the relatively recent development that the official start of the respective “Roads” to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, now entering their fourth year, begin during the month.   The points systems that will determine the fields that will run on Friday, May 6 for the Oaks and Saturday, May 7 for Kentucky Derby award their first points in September.

Cocked and Loaded is the early leader in "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points after a comfortable win in the Iroquois Presented by U.S. Bank.

Cocked and Loaded is the early leader in “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points after a comfortable win in the Iroquois Presented by U.S. Bank.

The process fittingly begins where those respective journeys will end: beneath the venerable Twin Spires with the $200,000 Pocahontas Stakes (GII) for 2-year-old fillies – the first stop on the “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” – and the $150,000 Iroquois Presented by U.S. Bank (GIII) for 2-year-olds, the opening opportunity for Kentucky Derby points.

The early leader in points on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” is Cocked and Loaded, who earned redemption after back-to-back losses with a 9-1 win the 34th running of the mile and a sixteenth Iroquois.  The Illinois-based Cocked and Loaded won for trainer Larry Rivelli and jockey Emmanuel Esquivel, who earned his first stakes victory at Churchill Downs just over 24 hours after his first career win over the track.

The victory guaranteed the colt a spot in field for the upcoming Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) on Oct. 31 at Keeneland.  The Iroquois is a “Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In” event for the Juvenile.

Whether Cocked and Loaded will evolve into a major contender next spring’s 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby will be revealed in the months to come.  But he’s the top dog in the Derby hunt after last Saturday’s race at Churchill Downs.

I’ll admit to being a little nervous that runner-up Rated R Superstar could emerge as star of his crop.  The name is not one I’d prefer to see among the previous 141 winners of the Derby that wind their way through the Churchill Downs’ grandstand the clubhouse.

But I am enchanted by the potential of third-place finisher Unbridled Outlaw, a Dale Romans-trained colt out of the next-to-last crop by top sire Unbridled’s Song who endured terrible traffic troubles during his third career start to finish a fast-closing third.

“That’s the most tenacity I’ve ever seen out of one of my horses,” said Romans of his hard-luck colt.  “He had all the right in the world to pull himself up and run last and he didn’t do it.”

That’s enough for me to put Unbridled Outlaw on Derby 142 watch list.

Dothraki Queen made trainer Ken McPeek and every “Game of Thrones” fan who happened to be watching happy with her narrow win in the Pocahontas.  The unbeaten daughter of Pure Prize now leads the “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” standings and earned a guaranteed run in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

The fun of watching those possible Derby and Oaks hopes perform on Saturday was followed Monday by a trip to Keeneland for the opening day of its September Yearling Sale.

The sale always provides a wonderful opportunity share time with friends in the industry and to witness some of horse racing’s most powerful people in action.

But in a sport and industry built on hopes and dreams, it is always a marvelous thing to see yearlings pass through the sales ring.  Their pedigrees are stuffed with accomplished names, each youngster is impeccably turned out for his or her time in the auction ring, and one can easily imagine many individuals in the September Sale catalogue wearing  roses or lilies across their withers a couple of springs down the road.

Prices were up for the 150 horses that passed through the sales ring on the sale’s opening day.  Hopes were soaring, too.

And to think it’s only September. VT

Photos by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs