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To Honor and Serve: To the Dirt Mile or Classic

It’s no small secret that I’m a fan of To Honor and Serve. Other than Spare Change, who has been struggling in allowance company this year, he’s my only current Bernardini love since Alpha's credentials went south at the start of the new year. He's got a bright, expressive look on his face and some speed to burn. Not the most awesome horse I've seen, but seeing him and Brilliant Speed last year made me a fan of seeing those Live Oak polka dots.

This year will be his last year on the track, after which he will retire to a stud career at the illustrious Gainesway. While he’s been a little overrated on the betting odds way of things, he’s still a justified G1 winner— just with no strength in particular. With trainer Bill Mott still deciding which Breeders’ Cup to send him in— the Classic or the Dirt Mile— is one better than the other?

Most of THAS’s critics will vote to send him to the Dirt Mile. This is a good race with some excellent past winners already, and milers have been successful as sires afterwards for passing on much-needed speed. A miler with distance breeding would no doubt help this colt in his next career, and it seems he would be good at the distance with many of his works on dirt being breezy :47 and 1:00 moves. Paired with powerful hindquarters and size, he has all the trademarks of a willing miler.

Last year’s Classic at Churchill Downs was a weird mash-up, with Game On Dude nearly wiring the race and many anticipated entries hardly being involved. While he wasn’t my choice in the race, I barked that the colt could have finished much better than 7th. After being checked in the early stages, turning for home, the colt (orange #13) moves from fourth place about two lengths back to third, sitting 4-wide too early waiting for Uncle Mo to fold. He is only passed in the final sixteenth or so by the closing crew, which included winner Drosselmeyer, and lost by about 3 lengths altogether. Keep in mind this is a horse who really only ran to his form once during the year after being sidelined with an injury, when he won the Pennsylvania Derby (II) in stakes record time. He finished arguably well for a horse who was not totally sharp.

However, with that said, To Honor and Serve’s chances go down considerably if he is not paired with John Velazquez, who has piloted the colt to the winners’ circle 5 out of 7 tries since THAS’s debut and has shown great ability at reading a router’s best strengths. However, Johnny V will probably choose at least one or two horses ahead of him in the Classic possibles lineup: Wise Dan, if he elects to go (and he should!) instead of the Mile, and maybe Animal Kingdom if the horse is up to the challenge.

Prediction: if he wins or takes second decisively in the Kelso (II), we’ll see him in what is shaping up to be a tough Dirt Mile race. If not, a shot at the wonky Classic is apt to be in the cards. He is not the best 10 furlong horse (nor are most 9 furlong horses!), but he deserves a sideways glance.

Derby Watch: Battle of the Bernardinis

Weekend racing recently pitted two bright Bernardini [pictured] juveniles one against the other in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park. Algorithms, out of Cryptoclearance mare Ava Knowsthecode, and trained by Todd Pletcher, got the best of the Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Consortium, who is out of a Machiavellian daughter. Since this year did not bode well for the Bernardini Derby hopefuls, I was rightfully reserved about the prospect of any Bernardini progeny making it to the starting gate for next year’s Run for the Roses.

To Honor and Serve, no doubt my favorite three-year-old at the start of this year, did not show strength early on and needed more time to heal from a knee chip. Stay Thirsty had problems of his own, failing to properly get into serious gear until June’s Belmont Stakes where he ran second. Both colts won some nice Derby preps— the Remsen (II) and the Gotham (II)— but when it came time to head to Churchill, neither was properly prepared. Bernardini himself needed a little extra time, not launching his classic career until he won the Preakness Stakes.

But with all that said of 2011, 2012 could be a game changer for the uber-popular Bernardini. Not only have Algorithms and Consortium flashed some skill going head-to-head, but it’s been a given that all eyes should dart in the direction of Alpha, who ran eleventh in the packed Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (I) but was second in the Union Rags-led Champagne (I). While Alpha was not as good as other two-year-olds, it was obvious by his impressive allowance wins he will stay in the graded picture and will probably mature into a much better three-year-old. Also of importance is Casual Trick, a colt owned by Robert LaPenta and Nick Zito, whom together have harbored past top-notch Derby hopefuls such as Dialed In, Jackson Bend, and Ice Box. That colt will likely go off as a favorite in this weekend’s Gulfstream Park Derby.

The filly picture for Bernardini is also somewhat hopeful. While she hasn’t made as big a splash just yet as I would like, I’m still gunning for the gorgeous, near-black gal Spare Change.

With the industry always a buzz with Derby fever, it’s pretty important for Bernardini to establish himself as a Derby horse sire should he expect to reap more success in the long haul. With that mentioned, is it too soon to get excited for the unraced Eblouissante, Zenyatta’s half sister by Bernardini? Or how about the 2011 colt Prince Bernardini, whose dam is the great Princess Rooney? Probably a bit premature, but the great thing about Bernardini’s kids seems to be the excitement level they bring so consistently as young’uns. May 2012 be a strong year for Darley’s Dad of the Year.

Battle in the Sandbox

The yearly battle of the babies at Ol’ Sandy is finally here!

The titlist race of the three-year-old colts— more so, in my opinion, than the grueling, too-late-in-the-year Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (I)— is the Champagne Stakes (I) at Belmont Park, a race that has been predicting future champions for decades. Established in 1867, it’s the oldest grade I race for juvenile colts in the country, with winners like Seattle Slew, Buckpasser, and Easy Goer capped off their two-year-old seasons with the Champagne. Then we have the equivalent for juvenile fillies in the Frizette (I), won in the past by Devil May Care, Shuvee, and Flanders.

Who makes the gate this time, with a free pass at the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies to boot?

$300,000 Frizette Stakes (I) - 2-Year-Old Fillies. 1 mile on dirt at Belmont Park. Post Time: Saturday October 8 at 4:45pm EST.

[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]

1) My Miss Aurelia - Corey Nakatani, Steve Asmussen - For sure one of the most talented fillies in the field, she’s 2-for-2 in her career so far hoping to keep stretching out in distance as her pedigree would suggest. This is her first time with Nakatani and as a young, apparently green horse in a rail slot, I’m a bit wary. But as she has proved in her Adriondack (II) win, she’s all class and guts.

2) Miss Netta - Rajiv Maragh, Kieran McLaughlin - A Street Sense filly out of a Dynaformer mare, this gal has some speed and poses a big threat coming fresh from a single start into this G1 field. McLaughlin’s another trainer I trust, but I feel plenty wary about Maragh guiding her home. I’m excited to death about this one but my gut is saying she’s got too much work to do already.

3) Stopshoppingmaria - John Velazquez, Todd Pletcher - Regarded as one of the quickest two-year-olds of the year (she nailed a 103 Beyer speed figure, 1 higher than that of Uncle Mo at this age), she was third in her debut under My Miss Aurelia’s vapor trail then came back to win a maiden special weight by nearly ten lengths with just a wave of the whip in her face. A very, very sharp filly who seeks to exact revenge here on My Miss Aurelia. She’ll need to beat a better field here to do it, but definitely has the precociousness to get the job done. 

4) Holiday Soiree - Edgar Prado, John Terranova - Daughter of Harlan’s Holiday gets Edgar Prado first time out here and broke her maiden in her prior start after two tries. She looks to still be on the improving end and probably needs more time by the sounds of it and what her pedigree says.

5) Spare Change [pictured] - Javier Castellano, Claude McGaughey - Gorgeous near-black daughter of Bernardini, she was a winner at 7 furlongs and came in second in her debut, both maiden special weights at Saratoga. This is a champion’s pedigree: her dad, obviously, and her dam Finder’s Fee was a multiple G1 winner. With Castellano in the irons, I have reason to root this one home first: cantered home in her last start, rallies for home, great horse.

6) Harbor Mist - Ryan Curatolo, Phillip Serpe - A precocious daughter of Rockport Harbor, this filly is 2-for-3 including one stakes. She upset a heavy Repole favorite in Victory Island in the Anne M. Clare Stakes, winning going away by nearly 3 lengths. However, I think she’s a bit too eager going after that lead to last a full mile with that kind of bravado.

$300,000 Champagne Stakes (I) - 2-Year-Olds. 1 mile on dirt at Belmont Park. Post Time: Saturday, October 6 at 5:18pm EST.

[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]

1) No Spin - Rajiv Maragh, Tim Ice - Battered back to fourth in his stakes debut, this Johannesburg colt has some talent, but has only managed to shine through once in his three starts when he won handily by 5 1/2 lengths. A rail spot in a big field worries me about a colt who doesn’t quite know what to do just yet. He was trapped on the rail before.

2) Speightscity - Corey Nakatani, Gary Contessa - A Speightstown out of a Quiet American mare, Speightscity proved to be the real deal and is a real threat here: he’s the only horse to have competed beyond the mile mark and he happened to win that race very easily. Castellano may have made an error leaping off this colt in favor of Union Rags, and he is seriously good enough for an upset. Watch your back— this one has some life to him!

3) Takes the Gold - John Velazquez, Rick Dutrow - Really nice Corinthian colt who has capped off his last Belmont start at a mile with a win. With Velazquez, Belmont experience, and that Corinthian speed, he has the tools here to launch a big upset. He’ll finish up front at worst.

4) Power World - Edgar Prado, Neil Howard - I like this Distorted Humor son enough to think he could have upset the Hopeful (I) where he came in fifth. He’s faced a lot of stiff competition so far and is looking for that big break, which I don’t think he’ll find here just yet.

5) Alpha - Alan Garcia, Kieran McLaughlin - One look at his maiden and you’ll realize why everyone is so high on this Bernardini colt. A homebred Godolphin entry, he broke his maiden on his first attempt and by 6 lengths over 7 furlongs. If anyone stands to outclass Union Rags, it’s Alpha. This colt’s got it and could very well win this just as handily as he did his maiden.

6) Union Rags - Javier Castellano, Michael Matz - Gorgeous Dixie Union colt who made a mockery of the Saratoga Special (II) to win by a mile (or so it seemed). Undefeated in 2 starts. Never deny a Matz two-year-old— you know they’re ready if he says they are, and this one showed it. He’s the one to beat here.

7) Right to Vote - Alex Solis, Eoin Harty - Managed to punch through his maiden on his second try over 6 furlongs at Belmont, and was second to Clip the Coupons in his debut at Saratoga. I love Eoin Harty’s training and this is an intriguing kind of horse to say the least. Could be a great horse next year when the juvenile stars fade out, but I’m not feeling him now. 

8) Invocation - David Cohen, John Kimmel - Nice dirt pedigree (Pulpit out of a Quiet American mare), but remains winless in two starts at Saratoga. He was well behind the sensational Alpha in a maiden special weight over 7 furlongs and came in third in his debut over 6 furlongs. I see him on the improving path at best; he adds blinkers to this race.

9) Laurie’s Rocket - Cornelio Velasquez, Dallas Stewart - A Bluegrass Cat colt, he struggled like the others in the Saratoga Special mud but managed a good fourth to stay strong. Broke his maiden his second try over 5 1/2 furlongs at Saratoga with a second place in his debut. Biggest longshot of the field, I don’t see him grabbing the added distance.

Going to the Thoroughbred races, keeping "track" of the memories. Obsessively providing a comprehensive and personal glance at the sport of kings through original photography, handicapping analysis, editorials, and much more.

Tracks visited: Calder, Saratoga, Belmont, Suffolk, Aqueduct.

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