SEVEN WEEKS TO THE DERBY

           

By Dick Jerardi

When the brackets appear for the NCAA Tournament, that can mean only one thing: it is less than 8 weeks until the May 7 Kentucky Derby.

This has been an especially bizarre prep season because Bob Baffert-trained horses are winning or running well in many of the preps, but none are technically Derby contenders. Baffert is in court trying to get a stay of his 90-day Kentucky suspension and trying to overturn a separate two-year ban from running horses at any Churchill Downs tracks. He is running out of time so I will just be focusing on the non-Baffert horses unless the courts rule in his favor twice.

Steve Asmussen has won every significant horse race in the world – except one. He is Dale Earnhardt without the Daytona 500. Perhaps, this is the year he finally wins the Kentucky Derby like Dale finally won Daytona.

Risen Star winner Epicenter is very talented and may finally be the one for Asmussen. We will know more after his final prep race.

In fact, that is true of all the contenders as we are just a few weeks from the final major preps – Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, Wood Memorial. Some horses that look like contenders now won’t make the final cut. Others may yet emerge. Pay close attention to everything.

In addition to Asmussen, there are several prominent trainers with serious contenders that have never won the Derby. Richard Mandella has the very talented San Felipe winner Forbidden Kingdom. Like a few of the other contenders, Forbidden Kingdom is all speed.

Kenny McPeek has won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, but not the Derby. In his 2022 debut, Smile Happy was a solid second to Epicenter in the Risen Star. This horse is very much a major contender if he gives a big effort in his final prep.

Trainer Chad Brown is known for his grass horses, but he is increasingly concentrating on 3-year-old dirt horses. So it’s just a question of when he wins his first Derby. Early Voting and Zandon need breakthrough preps to be major contenders, but each is getting better and could be ready for a top performance on the first Saturday in May.

The Florida prep winners, White Abarrio (Holy Bull) and Simplification (Fountain of Youth) ran fast and true. I make each of them very serious contenders at this stage. In Due Time, second in the Fountain of Youth, came with the kind of late run that suggests he is not far away from the best.

Mo Donegal certainly appears to have the ability to give Todd Pletcher his third Derby, but he missed the Fountain of Youth and is playing catch up, never a good thing at this time of year.

Hard to think of the Gotham as a serious Derby prep anymore, but Morello was so impressive and ran so fast winning it, you can’t dismiss the horse’s chances either.

Tampa Bay Derby winner Classic Causeway is yet another speed horse who wins his races up top. Which suggests there might be an interesting and perhaps quick Derby early pace. But keep in mind that what looks like a lot of speed often is not as jockeys have a tendency to ride more cautiously in the Derby. It’s an annual mistake, but it keeps happening. Regardless, don’t see Classic Causeway as a serious contender as the horse has not hit 90 on the Beyer scale yet. And if a horse has not gotten past that milestone by mid-March, it’s usually too late.

So that’s where we are, with the second round of preps in the rearview mirror and the final round coming up quickly on the road to the 2022 Kentucky Derby.

PARX MADNESS

By Dick Jerardi

It was the full week of March so what better time for “Parx Madness?’’

Seven $100,000 stakes Monday and Tuesday named after local landmarks, starter allowances honoring local colleges and with a number of prominent basketball coaches, players and graduates as trophy presenters on Wednesday.

Perfect weather Monday, a bit chilly on Tuesday, rainy and cold Wednesday.

The three stakes Monday went off perfectly. After a backstretch quarantine was announced, 17 of the 37 horses in the four Tuesday stakes were scratched because, once on the grounds, horses were not able to leave until the problems that caused the quarantine can be isolated. Good races Wednesday and a record $505,292.94 Philly Big 5 carryover jackpot that was sure to attract major play because of a mandatory distribution, attracted $2,527,400 in handle, making the three-day total handle just more than $12 million.

Parx Madness indeed.

The seven stakes were won by seven different trainers and seven different jockeys.

First up on Monday was The Washington Crossing for 4-year-olds and up going 1 mile and 70 yards.

It was kind of a bad deja vu for Smarty Jones fans when 8-5 favorite Dreams Untold, a son of Smarty owned by Pat Chapman and trained by John Servis, survived a speed duel, took the lead in the stretch and was run down by 5-2 Bird King, bred by Mary Lou Whitney who owned Birdstone the horse that caught Smarty Jones in the final yards of the 2004 Belmont Stakes.

“He was coming into the race real good,” Bird King’s trainer Michael Pino said. “He’s always a hard luck horse getting a check  in some tough races. We figured we’d try him in this race and he got a great trip. It all worked out in our favor.”

Bird King is owned by Gregory Carlevale and was ridden perfectly by Angel Castillo in The Washington Crossing.

The 6 1/2-furlong Penn’s Landing (4 and up fillies and mares)  was dominated start to finish by 5-1 Hey Mamaluke. The mare took the lead under apprentice Andy Hernandez and was never in any danger of losing even when drifting out late. Jakarta, who won the $100,000 Mrs. Claus at Parx on Dec. 28 at 18-1, was 3-5 this time. She could not keep up with Hey Mamaluke early and came on very late to be second, running her career earnings over a half million.

“She got an easy lead, that was good, nobody was pressuring her,” Hey Mamaluke’s trainer Pat Farro said. “And she’s fast. She got out there in front and I knew she’d hang in there as long as she could.”

It was the first stakes winner for Hernandez.

“That was incredible for me,” he said. “That’s my first stake.”

Joseph Capriglione owns Hey Mamaluke who is closing on a half million in earnings herself.

Speed killed again in The Fishtown, run at 6 furlongs for 4 and up. Hollywood Jet blasted out of the gate at 7-5, made the lead, fought off multiple challenges and held on for jockey Luis Ocasio and owner/trainer Carlos Milian. It was the gelding’s fifth straight win.

“This horse is very honest, always tries his best,” Milian said.

The Main Line, run at a mile and 70 yards for 3-year-old fillies, was the first of the Tuesday stakes and looked like a one-filly race on paper. It played out exactly that way as 1-10 Butch-Reid trained Morning Matcha, sat behind her three rivals early, responded in an instant when jockey Frankie Pennington gave the signal, inhaled the field and won by 6 3/4 dominating lengths.

“She’s been a cash cow ever since we bought her,” Reid said. “We bought her relatively inexpensively, only $18,000. And she’s never been worse than third in her career and that’s her third win. She’s been a great find.”

Morning Matcha has already won more than $325,000. She’s been second in three other stakes. Her connections, Glenn Bennett’s LC Racing, Chuck Zacney’s Cash is King and Gary Barber, are going to try her in another stake soon and, only if she fits, perhaps consider a race like the Kentucky Oaks.

Instead of speed winning, a wild speed duel set up the winner of The Society Hill. Disco Ebo (4-5) and Starship Laoban (6-5) tore out of the gate and into each other in the 6-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies. They battled through fractions of :22.16 and :45.76. Disco Ebo gave way first, but Starship Laoban was still there in the final 100 yards.

But Dylan Davis had brought Kisses for Emily through on the rail before switching outside for the stretch run. When Starship Laoban finally started to tire, Kisses for Emily went right on by to win it for trainer Lou Linder and owners Branjam Stable and Dave Clark.

“Just a perfect trip for her with a lot of pace,” Linder said. “And Dylan knows her, goes to let her settle, she starts picking up and she got to them. With the hot pace, it paid off.”

Davis came in from New York for the ride and could not have timed it much better.

“There was a hot pace in front of me which I liked,” he said. “I just rode the rail as long as I could and then was able to tip out and she was able to keep her momentum all the way to the wire.”

Dance Code was the 2-1 favorite in The Rittenhouse Square for 3-year-olds going 6 furlongs. But he never really fired and had to settle for fourth.

Scaramouche, for trainer Lupe Preciado, got a great start under jockey Silvestre Gonzalez and won off by 5 ½ lengths. The gelding, owned by Nicholas Cammarano, Jr., won his previous start by 5 lengths and looks to have a very promising future.

“I rode him last time out to break his maiden,” Gonzalez said. “He broke very sharp and I just let him get comfortable on the lead and he gave me a kick down the stretch…I knew if we were in front, we could dictate the pace. He finished up great today.”

The final stakes race of the two days may have had only three horses, but it was by far the most exciting of the seven races.

Twisted Ride, under Ruben Silvera, quickly jumped to the lead in The City of Brotherly Love run at a mile and a sixteenth for 3-year-olds. But Smarten Up was always just to his inside, with 3-5 Courvoisier just in behind.

Twisted ride and Smarten Up hooked up on the far turn and ran as one from there to the finish line. The favorite could not keep up.

It was Smarten Up on the inside, trained by Freddy Velazquez and Twisted Ride on the outside, trained by Kate DeMasi, each Parx Hall of Famers. Twisted Ride was always slightly in front, but, at no time, was Smarten Up not in with a real chance. In the end, it was Twisted Ride, in just his third third career race, winning it by a nose. It was a wonderful race from two very talented horses.

“He was pricking his ears down the backside so I knew Ruben had plenty of horse,” DeMasi said. “This horse is really learning, but he showed me a lot of gumption today….I was so proud of his effort. He just kept digging in. I just loved what I saw today.”

On Wednesday, Big 5 Hall of Famers Mike Vreeswyk and Howie Evans (Temple), Speedy Morris (La Salle) and Harry Perretta (Villanova) were among the trophy presenters who attended a luncheon in the Cotillion Room, along with many PTHA board members. It was a wonderful time for all and a perfect ending to a terrific racing week, the first “Parx Madness” of what hopefully will be many more to follow.

THE MEDINA SPIRIT KENTUCKY DERBY DISQUALIFICATION

By Dick Jerardi

The Kentucky stewards Feb. 21 ruling was clinical. It read: “sample No. E427258, taken from Medina Spirit who finished first in the 12th race at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021, contained betamethasone in the blood (Class C drug) (fourth medication violation in 365 days in any racing jurisdiction.’’

That 12th race, of course, was the Kentucky Derby. So this was no ordinary positive test.

The stewards ruled that Medina Spirit’s trainer Bob Baffert be suspended for 90 days (March 9-June 5) and fined $7,500 and that Medina Spirit be disqualified and all purse money forfeited.

So there it was, nearly 300 days after Baffert himself announced that he had been notified of the positive test for an overage of the anti-inflammatory, Mandaloun is now being recognized by Churchill Downs as the official winner of the Kentucky Derby, with Hot Rod Charlie second and  Essential Quality third.

There is that and there is what happens next. All of this will be appealed and almost certainly will end up in court. While Baffert is appealing his suspension, he can still train and run horses, assuming he gets a stay which is typical in these cases. Medina Spirit’s owner will also appeal his horse’s DQ.

Not sure how long all this will take, but after Derby winner Dancer’s Image was DQ’d in 1968 for having then illegal (long since legal) Bute in his system, those legal appeals took four years until Forward Pass was, once and for all, declared the official Derby winner.

So, what do I think? Frankly, I am not sure what to think.

I understand the stewards’ decision. The rules in Kentucky state that no amount of betamethasone can be in a horse’s system on race day. (It is legal for a horse to have it in his system during training).

I also understand there is some nuance here, as Baffert’s attorney Clark Brewster pointed out in his statement after the ruling, saying that, in his opinion, the Kentucky rules only consider betamethasone illegal if it is administered into a horse’s joint, saying that Medina Spirit was treated with an ointment, not an injection.

That was Baffert’s argument in a hearing a week before the decision. The stewards’ obviously disagreed.

After initially saying Medina Spirit was never treated with betamethasone last May, Baffert then said he did not realize the drug was an ingredient in Otomax, an ointment they were using to treat a skin condition in the weeks leading up to the Derby.

Baffert’s attorneys eventually got a leftover sample from Medina Spirit and had it tested in New York. The result of those tests, they said, proved it was the ointment, not an injectable, that led to the positive test.

In his statement, Brewster said: “Median Spirit was treated with an ointment, not an injection. The trace amount of betamethasone could not have affected the horse in any way and the trace amount of betamethasone could not possibly have affected the outcome of the race.’’

What Brewster’s statement said there is obviously critical and is the ultimate question for me: did the presence of betamethasone help Medina Spirit win the race? To this point, I have not seen any evidence that it did.

Unlike many, I absolutely think Baffert has every right to due process here. If he thinks he has been wronged, he should be able to appeal. I also understand the people who are upset with him and are convinced he has been doing something illegal all along. I don’t see the proof of that, but I do understand the sentiment.

One obvious unanswered question: why was Medina Spirit treated with Otomax if one of its ingredients could not be in the horse’s system on race day?  Did the vet not think it would show up in a test? It would be interesting to hear the answer.

Regardless of how this plays out, it all makes the sport look bad. Do I think Baffert is Lance Armstrong? No, I do not. But, in our society these days, we don’t do nuance. The public just sees: Derby winner tests positive and that’s it.

So, here we are. Baffert’s record seventh Derby winner has been disqualified. Churchill Downs, Inc., separate from the official rulings, has banned Baffert from running horses at its tracks for two years.

Assuming he gets the stay and nothing has been decided by the third Saturday of May, Baffert will be able to run horses in the Preakness at Pimlico. The New York Racing Association is also trying to ban him from its tracks. That situation is unresolved so it’s unclear if Baffert will be able to run horses in the Belmont Stakes.  So, to review, Medina Spirit has been DQ’d from the Derby and Baffert has been suspended. Yet, this saga, nearly 10 months after it began, is nowhere near over.