IN TODD WE TRUST
By John Piesen
Bet against Todd Pletcher this weekend at Saratoga at your own risk.
There's nothing in the racing world the Toddster likes more than winning those Spa training titles. He's won nine of them, mostly by open lengths. But this year, he is facing a challenge from upstart Chad Brown, maybe half his age but just as talented.
With a threebagger on Thursday, the Chadster climbed to within one winner of Pletcher (23-22) with four days of racing left. Brown was odds-on to win the ninth to forge a tie, but ran out.
But Todd must have seen this coming. He's throwing everything in the barn at Brown to win the title, notably nine horses alone on Saturday, and the first two choices in the Spinaway on Sunday.
Obviously, most are live, and, obviously, he's going to win a bunch, and sew up the title. So Todd's World will be able to take a deep breath, and start preparing for Saratoga 2015, when, I doubt not even a new announcer will stop him.
Before we look at Saturday, let's go back to last weekend for a minute.
First the Travers.
Getting beat goes with the job. But getting beat by your pick's uncoupled 20-1 stablemate goes beyond the pale. As we all know, while the connections of V.E. Day were celebrating in the winner's circle, thousands, make that millions of tickets on uncoupled mate Wicked Strong were being torn to shreds.
Anyone who knows anything about my work knows that I abhor the policy of uncoupling entries. Such policy was instituted rather recently for the sole purpose of boosting the mutuel handle by adding betting interests.
So in another words it's all about the bottom line. The public be damned. Hey, I'll admit some folks are pleased. A racetrack friend of mine bet $5 on V.E. Day, and he was thrilled. He didn't care about the horse. In fact, he had never heard of the horse. He also bet $5 on Commanding Curve. He was just looking for a price in a race in which there were three standouts.
So the fellow made $90 on the race, and it made his day. But obviously he was in the vast minority.
While trainer Jerkens was celebrating in the winner's circle, he was kissing goodbye to any hopes he had for making Wicked Strong the Horse of the Year.
A win in the Travers, coming on the heels of victories in the Wood and Jim Dandy would have put Wicked Strong in the conversation for HOY. In fact, if Wicked Strong would go on to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic, he would be a cinch. I know there are some major ifs here, but it's possible. This is a nice horse, and in a year lacking top quality older horses, it's a safe assumption that a 3-year-old will get Horse of the Year.
The two leading candidates at this time both made news last weekend.
Shared Belief boosted his career mark to six-for-six when he crushed older horses in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, thus becoming only the fourth 2-year-old champion in history to beat older horses at 3 in a mile-and-a-quarter Grade One.
Normally a horse who likes the front end, Shared Belief raced in mid-pack down the backstretch as Game On Dude was looking like his old self cruising on the lead. For the longest time, it looked like Mike Smith made the wrong decision by choosing to ride the 3-year-old over the seven-year-old.
But Shared Belief took off like a rocket approaching the quarter-pole, passed Game On Dude like he was bolted to the track, and looked like a combination of Secretariat and Damascus pulling away.
No, make that Spectacular Bid. Not only do Shared Belief and Bid share the same initials, they share the same colors—black and blue.
If Shared Belief goes on to win the Awesome Again Stakes, and then the BC Classic, for which he looms a short price, he's three-year-old champion and Horse of the Year hands down.
In such case, Shared Belief would be thumbing his handsome nostrils at history.
The last 15 horses to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness went on to be voted three-year-old champion, and California Chrome sure was looking like he'd make it sweet 16 until Shared Belief came along. And he still might of course.
Chrome has been resting on his north California farm since his fourth in the Belmont Stakes, and last weekend it was announced that he would return in the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 20 at the Parx, nee Philly Park.
What was not announced was that the Crome's connections are being paid a $200,000 appearance fee, fueled by casino green, win or lose. Win seems much more likely since Crome will be 1-5 against a bunch of tomato cans.
Guess the price of china has gone up. Wasn't long ago that Bob Baffert was paid 50K by Monmouth Park to run the likes of Point Given and War Emblem in the Haskell. But that came out of pocket. No casino money in the mix.
Speaking of Parx, they put on the worst stake race in history just last Saturday—a 75K for three-and-up going two turns.
A sloppy racetrack forced a switch from grass to the main track, costing six of the scheduled eight runners to scratch.
As a result, we got a match race. One horse was 1-5, the other 9-5. Can you take the excitement.
Well, that was just the beginning.
The bell rung, the gates opened, and the 1-5 shot went to his knees, spotting the 9-5 shot 20 lengths. Race over. Never did see the chart. Do they still have charts? But the winning margin must have been 30 lengths.
Maybe they can show the tape on Pennsylvania Derby Day.
After all, I make the over-under on Crome's winning margin 20 lengths against the manes and tails they'll get to run against him.
The uncoupled entry. The match race. What else happened last week?
Oh, yes. The jump-up race Monday at Saratoga.
Not just any jump-up race. But the 250K New York Turf Writers, the twice-postponed jump-up highlight of the meet. Run as the first race so as to spare the gimmicks.
The favorite, leading and seemingly home free, stumbles over the last fence, breaks down, and is euthanized—right in front of the stands so that 20,000 folks watched in horror.
The NYRA suits quickly made the decision not to show the race on its website. At first, not knowing what happened, I didn't know why. The reason became obvious.
I have such mixed emotions. I've always enjoyed the sport of steeplechasing, going back to the days of Shipboard, Ancestor and King Commander, a sport that has produced the likes of Long Jon Sheppard, Billy Turner, Paddy Smithwick and Willard Thompson.
But for every great moment the jump-up sport has produced, there was the last jump in the first race last Monday at Saratoga.
It's a tough call.
That said, this is the final weekend of racing at Saratoga, and racing seems to be taking a backseat to Tom Durkin's retirement. We join the racing public in saluting Tom's great announcing career, and wish him luck in whatever path or paths he chooses to take. A good man…and a credit to the game.
Just too bad there is no New York racing media left to acknowledge his farewell.
Plenty of heavy chalk on this final weekend.
On Saturday for instance, there is two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan in the Bernard Baruch, Moreno in the Woodward, and Clearly Now in the Forego. My best guess is that, although all three will be odds-on, not all three will win. After all, there is a reason they call the place the Graveyard of Favorites.
For more information, you are invited to check out my selections online at www.johnpiesen.com and on the John Piesen Hot Line 1-888-612-2283.
Moreno will be short in the Woodward coming off his front-end victory at 10-1 in the Whitney. But curiously Moreno is a mere 3-for-20, and this will be the first time ever that he has gone favored.
Since Godolphin is running a rabbit named Long River in the race, that may produce some problems for Moreno. And Itsmyluckyday,a closing second to Moreno in the Whitney, gets a four-pound pull for the Woodward. And, again, Paco gives up his usual five-winner Monmouth day to ride "Lucky."
Javier Castellano makes an unusual choice for the race. He chooses to ride longshot Norumbega for the Shugster rather than Micromanage, an eight-length stakes-winner over the track, for the Toddster.
Zivo, who beat Moreno by three in the Suburban downstate, obviously is a major player from Zito/Lezcano.
Clearly Now looked like a champ snapping a four-race losing streak in the Belmont Sprint at the same seven-furlong distance as the Forego, and looks tough to beat with Lezcano.
But the 30K bargain adds eight pounds (to 124) for the Forego, and he has never raced nor trained over the tricky Spa strip.
Edgar Prado, riding one horse a day at the meet, and only one winner, gets a rare live mount in Falling Sky from George Weaver, who's having a great meet.
Palace was no match for Clearly Now at Belmont, but the change of venue might help his chances here.
P.S.: We lost a good man this week in colleague Ron Rippey. May he rest in peace.
Thanks for tuning in. Have a great holiday, keep my selections at the ready, go Buccos, and see you back here next Friday as racing returns to Belmont.