Wet Day Can’t Spoil Triple Crown

BY JIM WELLS

A frequent patron of the races stuck his head outside the front door early Saturday to encounter a heavy rain. “Well,” he responded, “Canterbury Park must have something big planned today.”

There has been no better forecast of the weather this spring/summer than the schedule at the Shakopee racetrack.

If a big race is on the card, put the picnic basket and fishing pole away. If a Triple Crown race is scheduled that day, get out the umbrella and rain gear. Sometimes, it’s the oppressive humidity that ruined the day.

Saturday was no exception. The card offered two $50,000 stake races, the Minnesota Turf Distaff and the Minnesota Turf.

Naturally, they were moved to the dirt. One look at the paddock greens could have told you that would happen. On one side of the pathway to the paddock saddling area the ground and grass resembled the everglades. Valets splashed their way through tack for their designated horses.

It stayed dry and clear at Elmont, N.Y. for the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes and Justify ran a superb race under Mike Smith to become racing’s newest Triple Crown champion.

Smith, of course, was the kid from New Mexico who took Canterbury Downs by storm its first season (1985), winning the track’s first riding title. He was second, three wins behind Sandy Hawley the next year when his ambition took him to larger racetracks. He rode locally only part of the season in 1987 before leaving entirely, and it was obvious then he had the talent to compete at higher levels.

MINNESOTA TURF DISTAFF

Pinup Girl is a big, strong looking filly who covers ground quickly, as she did Saturday in the stretch drive of this fifty grand race.

After stalking the leaders throughout, she went four horses wide on the far turn under Santiago Gonzalez to win her second consecutive stake race following her Lady Slipper win on May 19.

She caught Double Bee Sting in the final strides to finish a neck in front, with TaKala Warning in third, another 1 ¾ lengths back.

Somehow she made it look easy in the process.

“Si, muy facile,” said Gonzalez.

Trainer Sandra Sweere was pleased with the result, which confirmed her belief that this filly can run on dirt or grass.

“It doesn’t matter to her,” she said. “She can run on any surface.”

Next up?

Probably the Princess Elaine on July 3.

“We’ll see. It’s up to the owners,” Sweere said. That would be Gary and Brenda Bergsrud.

MINNESOTA TURF

Hot Shot Kid is just that again, as he clearly demonstrated in this race with a commanding victory over a field seven rivals.

Under Dean Butler, Hot Shot took charge coming out of the turn and finished 6 ¼ lengths in front of Plenty of Sun, who had a half length on Teddy Time.

Trained by Mac Robertson, Hot Shot got his first win of the year in four starts, following a three-year-old season when he won five of nine races and was on the board seven times.

Hot Shot Kid is owned by Warren Bush.

YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP

As the riders and horses came out of the turn for home in Saturday’s third race they had company on the racetrack.

Geese. A family of them

“There were four or five babies and three or four big ones,” said rider Ry Eikleberry. “They were headed from the outside rail to the inside.”

Undoubtedly for a swimming lesson in the infield pool.

In any event, the horses in the race saw them and took an interest, enough so that the racing stewards posted an inquiry to examine if the feathered creatures affected the outcome of the race. The decision was that they did not.

The riders are well aware of one particular goose who awaits them mornings at the gap during workouts. He made his way to his “perch” the other morning through a field but was spotted by jockey Dean Butler.

“It looked like he was coming from Cub (Foods),” Butler said.

The jockeys, who’ve named the goose “Chisholm”, said that the DNR has had representatives on hand to move the goose on a couple of occasions but they have been too late to spot him.

“We told them that he’s here in the mornings,” Butler added.

TEACHER’S PET

It’s funny the people you run into at the racetrack sometimes.

Star-Tribune handicapper Johnny Love was making his rounds on Saturday when he ran into an acquaintance: His son Julian’s former teacher at St. Mark’s grade school in St. Paul.

Accompanying Love in the paddock before the Turf Distaff was Katie Peterson, who taught Julian in the first, second and third grades, and her husband, Danny, along with a number of friends.

Love was delighted with Justify’s triple crown championship. “He’s better than American Pharoah,” he proclaimed. “He’s going up on my Mount Rushmore of horse racing.”

Key To Belmont Might Be A Fit, Rested Horse

BY JIM WELLS

You are Bob Baffert and your barns are well stocked with expensive horses, but there is one of them asked about almost exclusively in recent days.

The 3-year-old Chestnut colt under your care is attracting a lot of attention, questions about his health, his demeanor. Has anything changed since Pimlico ?

Baffert is well equipped to handle the intense glare and accompanying queries that are part and parcel of having a horse whose next race can make him a Triple Crown winner.

It is only three years ago, after all, that he saddled the first winner of that distinction since Affirmed –  American Pharoah.

One week from today, June 9, Baffert will send out Justify, that 3-year-old son of Scat Daddy and Stage Magic, with an opportunity to become the 13th Triple Crown winner in racing annals.

So, at this point what is essential, what is needed with a horse that has run two taxing races two weeks apart and is about to run a third, all within a five week period ?

“I’d be petting him a lot and watching him rest,” said trainer Vic Hanson.

Overstatement? Not in the least.

After races covering a mile and ¼ (for the first time at that distance) and then, two weeks later, a mile and 3/16,  there is no need to talk about conditioning.

“He’s fit. All of those horses are fit,” said trainer Francisco Bravo. “The easy thing to do is to work them. It’s very easy now to over-train a horse in that position.”

What seems agreed upon by trainers at this point is that a horse such as Justify, a horse that has won the first two legs of this three-race series, needs only some careful handling and certainly nothing rigorous or overly demanding.

“In a barn with the kind of help they have, you want to keep them busy so it’s real easy to just train,” Bravo added. “The hard thing is not to.”

Nothing more than carefully managed breezes and short works to keep a horse loose and tuned up, exactly what Baffert has been doing in recent days.

Justify got his first post-Preakness breeze earlier this week, a half mile work in a reportedly effortless 46.80, immediately prior to a five-furlong work in 59.60.

Baffert used a similar strategy with American Pharoah leading up to his Belmont Stakes.

Foremost for trainer Tony Rengstorf at this point is the  horse’s mental and physical state. “How sound is he and how much has the mental grind gotten to him,” he said.

Can he withstand not one but maybe two or three shots that will be leveled at him over the course of a mile and one-half ?

Which brings up another aspect to this race that has little to do with the horse itself. “They always say this is a rider’s race,” Rengstorf added.

Riding strategy, over the Belmont distance, can be the difference.

Hanson imagines that Baffert has been the subject of numerous conversations on the backside at Belmont Park this week, even though he has been in California and at Churchill Downs where Justify will remain stabled until mid-week.

“I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t want to see him win this one, too,” he said. “That entire field will be out to get him.”

Him, of course, is Justify.

EIKLEBERRY HAS A HOT HAND.

You know you’ve had a good night in the saddle when relatives text you for a ride home because they’ve been celebrating after your trips to the winner’s circle.

Say, five wins in a row.

Ry Eikleberry did that on Friday night, winning races three through seven to increase his lead in the rider standings.

“I’ve won five a few times on a card,” he said, “but I’m not sure about five races in a row. I can’t remember doing that.”

Did he anticipate such a successful evening?

“Well, you always think you’ll do well,” he said. “But sometimes when you think you’ll win five, you win one.  Then you might think you’ll win one and you win five.”

Eikleberry’s big night increased his lead in the rider standings to 19 wins, five more than Orlando Mojica, who rode two winners Friday.

 

ALL HATS OFF TO THE DERBY

By JIM WELLS

There are idioms galore in our language that explain the many uses of a hat, that item someone wears upon the head for effect, protocol or simply to keep the rain from drenching one’s skull.

You can keep something under one’s hat if you want to keep a secret. You might come hat in hand, looking for sympathy or in acknowledgement of wrong doing. You can take your hat off to someone in a salute to achievement. You can talk through your hat if you are trying to run for president or sell someone a car that doesn’t operate. You can throw your hat into the ring if you want to join a competition for, say, mayor of the town.

Or you can wear a hat because it is Kentucky Derby day, and the more outrageous the styling, the more apt you are to fit in. There were all sorts of examples on Saturday for the 144th running of the Derby, telecast at Canterbury Park as the part of the second day of live racing.

There were wide and narrow-brimmed hats of purple, black, white, blue, brown, grey and red, hats with large ribbons and small bows and small ribbons and large bows. There were women in hats, teenagers in hats and even small girls in hats. There was even a hat, worn in this instance by a man, that included a horse’s head on the front of the brim. One couple showed up, he in Kelly green suit, hat and tie and she in Kelly green dress, shoes and wide brimmed hat.

There are other sides to any argument, of course, or manner of reference, and one of those was pointed out by the baseball writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, LaVelle E. Neal III, when he asked if a winner had been determined for the finest “bonnet” of the day, taking a lot of steam out of use of the word “hat.”

Yet, a hat by any other name is just as recognizable, and tradition is still tradition when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, which drew a late-arriving crowd to Canterbury Park on Saturday.

A turnout of  19,326 watched heavy favorite Justify demonstrate that he might indeed be the next super horse; arguments have already been constructed portraying him as the next Triple Crown winner.

He not only lived up to the expectations of his backers, he did so over a sloppy track, taking command of the race under Mike Smith, who started his career at Canterbury Downs and is a member of the track’s Hall of Fame.

Saturday’s live card included two stakes races that attracted small fields and were reduced even further by scratches. The $50,000 guaranteed L’Etoile du Nord Stakes was carded as a five-horse race and was reduced to four runners after the Mac Robertson-trained Thoughtless reportedly bled during a morning gallop and was removed from the lineup.

Under Orlando Mojica, Fight to Glory went off the favorite at 3/2 and backed up that confidence with an easy win, galloping home easily in front, with four lengths on Hotshot Anna and 11 ¼ on Escape Clause.

The winner came home in a sizzling 1:09.46, the fastest six furlongs at Canterbury in two years.

Fight to Glory broke behind Escape Clause and went to the front quickly, widening an early advantage at every call.

“I just got position, tapped her a couple of times and looked back,” said Mojica. “We were two, three and four in front so I put away the stick and rode her home.”

The next stakes race on the card, the $50,000 Paul Bunyan Stakes, fared even worse after a six-horse field was reduced to three with three scratches. Jareth Loveberry, last year’s riding champion at Canterbury, brought home the winner in that one, Malibu Max, the 4/5 favorite and a two-length winner over Bourbon Cowboy.

The most significant aspect to that win, said Loveberry, was that he, trainer Mac Robertson and owner Joe Novogratz had just duplicated their first win of the Oaklawn Park meet as a trio by winning a stakes race at Canterbury too.

Now, Loveberry, Leandro Goncalves, Dean Butler and Ry Eikleberry, all champions at Canterbury,  will fight it out, first in the barns for mounts, and then aboard those horses on the racetrack, over the next 68 days of racing as they take on an exceptionally deep crop of riders.