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My Eleven Months of Union Rags


Remembering favorites from 2012. The toxins and the endorphins had to be released from my system…

While I was still sans-betting account, I would typically only watch a little bit of racing on TVG (when you live with four other people who are habitual TV mongers, it is a rare occurrence to be able to watch horse racing for an afternoon). It was August the 15th, a day after I turned 22, and I was tuning into the Saratoga races which is one of my favorite tracks. The track was soupy and the field was small for the historic Saratoga Special (II). I had scant knowledge of the competition, although obviously the Todd Pletcher trained son of Unbridled’s Song, Stat, was the favorite. Going over the field on Equibase, I immediately favored the horse with the Michael Matz connections named Union Rags because to me, if Michael thinks a young two-year-old is ready for a stakes, rain or shine, he’s going to be the one to beat regardless of the tote. I remembered Barbaro for an instance, and how slowly that star gained his power transitioning into a three-year-old. Rags was a respectable 3-1 at post time.

I was going against my aversion to rail horses in picking Union Rags for the win, and sight unseen, I was naturally pleased to see on TV that he was this big, hulking bay colt with a shock of white on his face. He went to challenge the lead and won big by 7 lengths, all despite the off track and a terrible case of swerving in the stretch. It was in that instant I knew I found my Derby horse for 2012.

Rags duplicated that awesome wide win margin in the Champagne Stakes (I), showing his ability on a fast track while coming from behind a wall of horses at the top of the stretch. If he wasn’t a favorite for the best juvenile already, his 5-length beat-up of Alpha sealed the deal.

The buildup to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (I) was slow and personally painful. Apart from the Classic and the Turf Mile, there was no greater anticipation mounting than that for the Juvenile race. Despite the non-graded status and rankness, the one I was watching out for was Hansen, another colt I was able to catch blitzing his challengers on TVG one afternoon. It felt too ironic to be true, being able to catch my two favorites on TVG without having heard or seen them before. Could Hansen keep that speed burning for another sixteenth? Between Union Rags and Hansen, I could scarcely pick which one I liked more. With Hansen, you had sheer brilliance and mythical beauty. With Union Rags, the build of a champion with the modesty typical of his Pennsylvania roots. Because of a freakish Halloween blizzard, my power was knocked out for the entire Breeders’ Cup week, but by far the Juvenile Colts had the most electrifying race. Rags swerved again and again, looking like a duck on dry land trying to catch Hansen. Failing at the wire, I was shocked soon again when Hansen won the Eclipse Award by a landslide. How? Why? Did no voter see the raw potential in Rags had he just had a better trip, or a longer distance? Had I been asked in January to rank my top three, it would have gone Union Rags, Hansen, Alpha in that order.

2012 reeked of redemption, and originally, I thought it was going to be all Union Rags to take back his top spot without dispute. Hansen endured a tough beginning to take second in the Holy Bull (II), setting up early doubt for Rags’ comeback in the Fountain of Youth (II). Between the long layoff, his infamous swerving, and an unexpected jockey change to Julien Leparoux, he would receive a brickload of scrutiny. Sure enough, he was sent off a relatively soft 6-5 at Gulfstream Park. With $20 of my own on his nose to win, favored Discreet Dancer folded early as Rags took his patented loop around the wall at the top of the stretch. Never asked, he won by 4 lengths and unofficially vindicated himself post-Eclipse awards.

After that winning ride, it seemed the patient Leparoux was perfect for Rags. An unhurried, top rider on the grass in Kentucky, he didn’t seem to feel too concerned about any of Rags’ opposition, taking to Twitter that the horse was incredible and that he would make everyone proud on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Seated in Stella Artois-sponsored pants, Leparoux would spoil Rags’ second chance at a $1 million first prize in the Florida Derby (I), getting caught immediately behind a wall of horses while making little to no effort from there to get away. Ex-rider Castellano pinned them inside the entire time in a move Leparoux should have anticipated— Castellano knew Rags and was on the second-choice El Padrino. Making up ground late, he was unable to catch front-runner Take Charge Indy and a modest stretch run from Reveron kept him in third. His reputation was soiled, and not a single person in the Rags trench loved Leparoux that day. It was a greenhorn incident that should have never happened.

Despite the loss and the rise of new stakes winners— Dullahan, Bodemeister, I’ll Have Another— Union Rags was named the second-choice betting favorite for the Kentucky Derby, just behind Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister. His conquerors in the field were sent off at surprisingly lesser odds; Hansen was 10-1 on the morning line while Take Charge Indy took in 15-1 odds. The reasoning behind the odds wasn’t just fan-inspired mania, for a Union Rags nod seemed to have its appeal to even the most discriminating gambler: He had never been passed in the stretch, had never shown his full measure, and physically looked the part of a Derby winner. The drawbacks, however, were just as obvious: he’s been too frequently plagued by bad luck and jockey error (while retaining Leparoux) and wasn’t fast enough at the break to be safe from the #3 post. The odds bounced around from a few dollars for a five to 6-1 on and off Derby day, settling on 5-1 at post time. I was uneasy the most at the sight of the #3 spot— no matter what the connections said at the time, I hated hated hated his chances that close to the inside despite being a leisurely runner at the break. Sure enough, Rags was shoved out of contention early at the break. It was difficult to watch the rest of the race, but impossible to dismiss the top 3 runners with winner I’ll Have Another biting down hard in the stretch once again to overpower Bodemeister. The California invader would do it again in the Preakness, and perhaps out of blind infatuation, I was unable to fully appreciate IHA because I was so distracted by Union Rags.

Come June, I was ready to admit that I’ll Have Another was a fine horse. He had won two classics over a very good horse in Bodemeister, all after having an excellent California campaign over tough competition. Considering how much I liked a similar underdog in Funny Cide after he defeated my favored Empire Maker, I’m still not sure why I didn’t replicate that love for I’ll Have Another, who always ran with his heart on his shoulder and his ears forward. Plans were made to go to the Belmont Stakes for the first time, and while I felt guilty about it, there was no question that I was going to be rooting for Union Rags, who once again, wore the unlucky #3.

Was he a blind favorite? Yes, considering my history. But was he was a valid favorite? I certainly thought so. He had the correct build of a distance-seeking Belmont horse and made his best moves late. Plus, he was getting one of the smartest jockeys around with John Velazquez. Dullahan was scary coming into the race fresh as well, and I admit now that I dismissed Paynter as a “too much, too soon” entry. I thought Street Life had a good chance as well… the rest of the field had something to prove. I swore if I’ll Have Another won, there would be no more senseless personal grudges. There would be no longshot winner this year, of that much I was certain.


Optimizer balked before jetting to what would become his new favorite spot in a race— the lead!— in the Belmont Stakes.

The surplus that was guaranteed to fill Belmont to the rafters vanished on Saturday, as I’ll Have Another was scratched two days prior to his magnum opus. A modest 85,000 came to the race, and those wise enough to bring rain gear were rewarded, as it drizzled on and off all day. My winners for the day were few and far between, and as the race drew near I began to get a little nervous. Am I going to jinx him by being here? Or worse yet, telling everyone that asks that he’s going to win? Unstoppable U was the wise guy pick, Dullahan the favorite alongside Union Rags. A family friend who frequently hit the Belmont trifecta every year was going with Paynter. How much nervous energy was I wasting on all this, possibly to pan out to disappointment? I hadn’t slept the night before, and was already exhausted from the elements, the excitement, and the arduous ride over the Throgs Neck to Long Island. I reminded myself again: Never passed in the stretch.

The post parade began after what felt like an eternity. Street Life, the apple of my eye for the latter half of the Triple Crown trail, was adorable in person, as was my dearest underdog of the trail, Atigun. Optimizer was being a brute and refused to go into the gate. Five Sixteen was docile under Rosie Napravnik. Guyana Star Dweej was placid and homely. Unstoppable U shined, his gray coat matching the overcast skies. Ravelo’s Boy was long in body and low to the ground. My Adonis, the smallish chestnut, was last to go in to his outside post. A breath later, they were off and the long wait began for the horses to come back around again.


Photo ops of Rags were few and far between in the post parade, but he looked ready!

Disheartened to see Street Life get away poorly, my attention shifted nervous to Union Rags who yet again was behind horses on the inside, but was optimistically farther up than usual. Paynter setting the pace… Optimizer’s up front? That’s weird… Dullahan is far back… Not a whole lot changed during the race, but as they approached the far turn, Rags began crawling closer to the leaders. I readied my camera as they moved towards the homestretch, taking my eyes off the monitor as I settled in for a good clean shot. As they came nearer, the crowd began to rumble and I zoomed in as far as my focal length would allow. Through my viewfinder, I could see the blue-and-yellow silks of Paynter… Atigun was trying hard to keep up on the outside… and THE BLAZE FACE OF UNION RAGS WAS COMING THROUGH ON THE INSIDE!

The excitement was too much of a rush to handle. It felt like the entire grandstand was standing behind me, shouting for one or the other to prevail, the vibration humming through the fabric of my clothes. Rags drew even with Paynter within leaps of the wire and I dropped the camera.


The moment I lost my mind when I saw that blaze pop through…


Aaaaaand there goes my camera…

So I didn’t get a very good, clear shot of Union Rags. But I did get to cash a win bet that day, and experience one of the most amazing moments ever as a fan. Getting to go to Belmont Park was an experience in itself, but I felt all my work and faith was validated that day. Using your heartstrings isn’t a viable betting strategy in the long term, but betting the horse with the most heart often is.

While there was no chance I was ever going to miss going to that race, the memento of it became doubly important after what happened next. In July, Union Rags was injured and off for the rest of the year, and then retired permanently shortly after that announcement was made. I can count on one hand the number of moments that caused me to need to take a day away from the sport, and that instance cost me a day of seclusion. I had only known him for 11 months though I got to see his final and greatest moment. The way it ended so abruptly all felt extremely unjust.

Unfortunately, like many sports, horse racing is a business and its athletes are exposed to serious injury even in the simplest of warmups. Just as I expected, the 2012 Triple Crown trail was memorable, though not in the same way I expected. I missed seeing Rags quite a bit for the rest of the year, but if I was to be honest with myself, I don’t think he could have won the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year. He went out on a high note, and I trust he will have a successful future as a sire. Not too many are going to be able to creep by Paynter at his best!

In the meantime, I’m still watching the Matz barn like a hawk.

Racing Beat: December 2

The worst part about not having a laptop for the whole week? Not being able to update the weekend’s Racing Beat as thoughts come to me. Or, well, at least it’s one of the many worst parts about not having a laptop/accessible Internet. /dies

Smart Bid's to be a New York stallion. Yay and nay at the same time… he IS a 6-year-old this year and has some nice wins to his credit.

I’m not totally sure why some people are appalled that horses get electroshock therapy. I’m sure these offended persons are the same folks who think it’s abusive when we vacuum one of our horses. (She really likes it)

I should have guessed that Toby’s Corner was done after an unremarkable comeback from his poorly-timed injury last year. Not the prettiest horse, but I had him in my WinStar fantasy Derby stable and oh man, was I rollin’ in it when he beat Uncle Mo in the $1 million Wood Memorial. Mwahahaha. We’ll miss ya, Tobes, have fun in Japan.

YAY GULFSTREAM MEET’S ON! It’s like a fast, New York god-tier track set up in Florida.

He’s still got it: Game On Dude comes on again to flick away Nonios twice in the same race!

Overdriven goes the way of Bodemeister and retires with a shoulder injury. Seriously I’m beginning to wonder if it’s really that bad or if they really think they can turn a profit on a horse that has only won as a juvenile. I dislike most of Repole’s horses by natural instinct, but even I would have given him a chance. He works super nice and has some nice distance pedigree.

Confession: I didn’t care for Dance Card over Questing [GB] until I found out she was gray. OHMAIGURSH!

Mark Valeski needs to return already. Teeth of the Dog, too. Don’t get me started on Graham Motion teasing me with photos of Went the Day Well on the training track. #sigh #4yearolds2013

Well that had to be the shortest reign ever, Solemia.

Hope Damon Thayer lives up to expectations in the Kentucky Senate /boringpoliticalmentions

So much for the Clark Handicap! I saw you racing in the grass-bound Hollywood Derby (I), Golden Ticket! What gives! What you doing there? You know you can’t catch Unbridled Command! (Whom I’m shocked got away with 7-1 odds! And my own favorite Lucky Chappy [IRE] at a whopping 15-1! Missed huge betting opportunity for sure…)

For once, I actually agree with someone on DRF. Of course it’s Mike Watchmaker.

I’m glad I got to see Rule before he retired to stud, also in New York at Vinery. Not the most amazing runner, but he was so darn cute.

Gulfstream’s giving away 50 opportunities to “Meet Little Mike" for donating a dollar to charity. Gosh you Californian peeps got him for free before his Breeders’ Cup win, now it’s gonna cost you…

Tweet o’ the Week: A worthy wager

I’m saying yes to a third win in a row for Teeth of the Dog in the Jim Dandy (II).

I’m saying yes to a third win in a row for Teeth of the Dog in the Jim Dandy (II).

Value Abound in Jim Dandy Stakes

Despite being seen as the lesser prep race for the Travers (I), the Jim Dandy (II) may be of a lesser grade than the Haskell (I), but in many ways it is the smart route to the big summertime prize for three-year-olds being at Saratoga. Street Sense won the Jim Dandy-Travers double in 2007, as did Bernardini in 2006, Flower Alley in 2005, and Stay Thirsty just this past year. This year features no one clear front-runner, but 3 Kentucky Derby contenders, a G1 winning shipper, and 2 Belmont runners.

A 50% chance of rain the day of the race may soak the track, but I’m optimistic it won’t take too much of a beating with the summertime drought that’s been trending in the northeast.

$200,000 Jim Dandy Stakes (II) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/8 miles on dirt at Saratoga Race Course. Post Time: Saturday, July 28 at 5:45pm EST.

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

1) Alpha - Ramon Dominguez, 119 lbs, Kieran McLaughlin - Both Bernardini and son Stay Thirsty won the Jim Dandy, so can a fresh Alpha get the job done off the rail? New York is his calling card, with his maiden break being at Saratoga at first asking along with two stakes wins leading up to a dry 12th in the Kentucky Derby. Impressive in his runner-up finish in the Wood (I), while Alpha will fighting a layoff and a rail spot, he seems mature for the task. Ace works at Saratoga affirm his fitness. With all the above said and the fact that leading rider Ramon chose Alpha over Hansen this weekend speaks volumes. 

2) Fast Falcon - Rosie Napravnik, 117 lbs, Nick Zito - A son of Awesome Again, Fast Falcon was fast, but not fast enough to outduel a very game Teeth of the Dog in the Dwyer (II) and the Easy Goer. Working steadily at Saratoga, the weight break could prove useful to this nice closer’s tactics as arguably the best lightweight here without a stakes win. Will need to improve a lot though if he wants to keep up.

3) Atigun - Julien Leparoux, 117 lbs, Ken McPeek - The Istan colt impressed in his modest attempt to catch Paynter in the Belmont (I) where he placed 3rd just behind the others. A nice sweeping closer, he’s been doing very well since moving to Saratoga, but his past stakes attempts have been of a concern with flat performances.

4) Neck ‘N Neck - Leandro Goncalves, 119 lbs, Ian Wilkes - The Flower Alley colt really switched gears since the start of the year, living up to his connections’ expectations while winning the Matt Winn (II) by 7 lengths along with an allowance before that by 6 1/2, both at 1 1/16 miles. He looks ready to roll for a big effort here and will likely sit mid-pack.

5) My Adonis - Javier Castellano, 117 lbs, Kelly Breen - The Pleasantly Perfect colt struggled to get it right all year and finally prevailed winning the ungraded Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth over 1 1/16 miles while setting the pace. No recent works (at least that I can see) are very concerning; coupled with the belief I think this one is just going to be a miler or 7-furlong horse, and he’s an easy one to leave out.

6) Teeth of the Dog - Joel Rosario, 121 lbs, Michael Matz - A deserving favorite, the Bluegrass Cat colt was simply awesome in his bone-chilling duel with Fast Falcon last out in the Dwyer (II) after he unwisely made an early bid for the front, becoming vulnerable to the closer’s late move. Still, lesson learned, I think, and the Dog should be anyone’s top 3 to watch. Relaxed works at Fair Hill are encouraging before an anticipated blowout here, and those speed figures keep going up.

7) Liaison - Martin Garcia, 119 lbs, Bob Baffert - The lone G1 winner in the field is this re-emerging son of Indian Charlie, who impressed leading trainer Baffert enough to ship west along with Garcia, also impressed with the colt as of late. He rallied hard to place 3rd in the Swaps (II) last out, fighting a tedious pace set by Blueskiesnrainbows, and just missed winning the Affirmed (III). If anything, I have to applaud Liaison’s fighting spirit this year. He’s been zipping along really nicely and if Baffert’s impressed, you should look at him.

8) Prospective - John Velazquez, 119 lbs, Mark Casse - The winner of the tiny Iowa Derby (III), the Malibu Moon colt looked like he had a nice public workout there and looks to be a promising shipper from Mark Casse’s barn at Woodbine. A horse with some smarts and a jockey boost to Johnny V, he has some class issues to work out but looks fit for an attempt.

Top Picks in Order:

1) Teeth of the Dog

2) Neck ‘N Neck

3) Fast Falcon

Alpha and Teeth of the Dog are the speediest horses here, but face a serious challenge from Liaison, who I still question as a top three-year-old. I’m expecting My Adonis to set an even pace with Teeth of the Dog sitting off it with Neck ‘N Neck, Liaison, and Alpha in reserve just behind those two. In the stretch, Adonis will tire, and from there on out it gets tricky. Alpha will probably show his rust, Liaison may or may not prove that he’s another Indian Charlie who can’t do 9 furlongs, the extra weight might put Dog at a disadvantage… what to do? I think Dog’s got enough in him for one more at 9 furlongs while Neck ‘N Neck will improve to be good for second (might still be too green to win). I still think highly of Fast Falcon for third.

Value Pick: Fast Falcon

The Top 10 Colts to Watch This Summer

Between January and today, we lost a ton of star power in the three-year-old dirt router division, the most prominent miss being Triple Crown leg winners I’ll Have Another and Union Rags, who suffered a suspensory injury and is now out for the year along with Went the Day Well, who has some ankle issues— all three would have likely been included in the top 5 otherwise. In devising the summer’s must-watch list, I had to leave out so many, blocking out any contenders who have not had a recorded work within the past 60 days.

Unfortunately, I am forced to leave out this year’s many excellent turf runners in favor of dirt routers in determining the best candidates to rack up points towards a big Eclipse prize.

10) Gemologist - I was going to leave this one out, but he’s been throwing bullets lately and it’s hard to knock a colt who was undefeated most of his career. However, he has a lot of questions hovering over him now that the fields are getting stronger than what he’s faced in the past, and it doesn’t help that trainer Todd Pletcher is in a slouch. Next move: Jim Dandy (II) or Haskell (I)

9) Neck ‘N Neck - The connections loved him despite his hard luck early on the Triple Crown trail, and he really blossomed when winning the Matt Winn (III) by a whopping 7 lengths. If he can continue to mature, I think we’ll see another special Flower Alley colt this year… Next move: Jim Dandy (II)

8) Alpha - Nearly left this guy off the list despite ranking him in my top three juvenile colts last year. By the looks of his three-year-old year, he has gotten over his gate quirks and has matured mentally quite a good deal. He dueled with Gemologist bravely in the Wood Memorial (I) before enduring a fuzzy trip in the Kentucky Derby. Issue-laced, I still feel it’s more possible for a Bernardini to blossom during the summertime (Stay Thirsty did as well as the sire himself!). Next move: Jim Dandy (II)

7) Prospective - A promising winner of the Tampa Bay Derby (II), I thought the colt had a good mind and a determined drive during the Triple Crown season, making him a live longshot for the Kentucky Derby. He didn’t do as well as I hoped, but made a nice run in the shrunken Ohio Derby (III) last out to show he still has what it takes. Next move: Haskell (I)

6) Blueskiesnrainbows - An English Channel who is actually good on dirt, the chestnut Baffert trainee made an amazing impression running third in the Santa Anita Derby (I), passed only toward the end by I’ll Have Another and Creative Cause. He won the Swaps Stakes (II), and while he was largely unchallenged in that race setting the pace, he’s another Baffert horse to watch as the distances grow. Next move: Nominated to Jim Dandy (II) as a possible

5) Street Life - The Street Sense colt has been an excellent runner all season, winning a few in New York and last finished a belated fourth in the Belmont Stakes (I). He should especially be watched because of all the speed present in this three-year-old crop, setting up quite perfectly for his closing move. Next move: Curlin Stakes

4) Hansen - A dynamite two-year-old, the Tapit phenom has had a very rocky three-year-old season thus far, sailing smooth to win the Gotham (III) but facing some questionable moves in the Kentucky Derby when strangled back to 10th and a rank 2nd to Algorithms in the Holy Bull (III). However, Hansen is still a classy horse, and should Mike Maker send the colt to the front, he’ll put up a serious fight to stay there. His Iowa Derby (III) prep looked real nice as well, automatically putting him at the head of the list of horses bound for the Travers. Next move: Likely West Virginia Derby (II)

3) Paynter - This horse has just been getting better and better with each start, much like his stablemate Bodemeister. I originally didn’t like him all that much even early on (I was an original Bode supporter of the Zayat string), but the way he constantly performs well despite getting the most bizarre things thrown at him— maiden, then a big G1, then shipping into mud, then 12 furlongs?! He still has some questions to answer, but looks like a horse who will get better as the months wear on. Next move: Haskell (I)

2) Teeth of the Dog - Michael Matz’s second-string to Union Rags may be pulling a Stay Thirsty this year by grabbing his ousted stablemates intended accolades instead. He showed tenacity while winning the Dwyer (II) and really hasn’t been out of the heat of the fight since the start of the year while finishing an improving third behind Gemologist and Alpha in the Wood Memorial (I). I’m waiting for this one to get better and better. Next move: Jim Dandy (II)

1) Bodemeister - The Empire Maker colt boasted huge figures winning the Arkansas Derby (I) and impressed more than the winner in the Kentucky Derby (I). I’m dismissing the Preakness (I) runner-up performance because of a boggy rail, and while my biggest concern will be post-fever fitness (the reason he is out of the Haskell), I have few doubts Bode won’t be able to handle the crowd. He isn’t a “need the lead” type, and with his pedigree, ought to do well. If a horse can outspeed Trinniberg and hold on to almost wire a classic with such little prep… I’m excited. Next move: Unknown prep for Travers

It would be awesome to see O’Prado Again, Algorithms, and or Fire on Ice come back in time, however unlikely that may be…

Weekend Stake Tip: It’s a Feelgood Sport

Handicapping was done lightly this weekend, but fruitful— much more so than last weekend where I finished in the red (losing money as opposed to the usual gain of $15-20 on average or at least breaking even). The handicapped race of the week nailed the exacta of Teeth of the Dog, Fast Falcon in what was a really thrilling rendition of the Dwyer (II), despite a LOT of handicappers out there insisting Unstoppable U was fresh for the test. I hope to see both of these colts try the Travers (I). Additional wagers were won on a runner-up Juddmonte Empire Maker colt named Input at 14-1 (usually I don’t wager on undercard races, but this one offered great value and was super strong in this race) over at Belmont, top pick Camp Victory at 10-1 in the Triple Bend (I), and Hansen in the Iowa Derby (III).

The highlight of the summer no doubt has to be the Saratoga meet, the star attraction being the Travers Stakes (I) held in late August. Michael Matz trainee Teeth of the Dog proved his mettle again on Saturday while winning the Dwyer (II) in a test that determined his talent as well as his fortitude. The biggest question that determined who I wound up picking, Teeth of the Dog or Fast Falcon for the win, was whether or not the Dog was really 5 pounds better than that sharp runner-up of the Easy Goer. People tend to discount weight imposts now that no one gets a 10 or 15 pound break like they did in the old days, but they’re still important in certain races. Rewatching the Easy Goer footage, Teeth of the Dog did not endure the best trip and was rolling in the stretch. I don’t think Fast Falcon would have caught him had he moved earlier. Thus, you can imagine my fright when the Dog went to the early speed and was charged by Fast Falcon in the stretch, with the win being settled by a dramatic duel. Oy! Teeth of the Dog has some class, all right. Watch replay below

Unless I’m feeling good about a particular horse, I usually stray away from the sprints. However, with word out about trainer Mike Mitchell’s brain tumor, I felt a major power play brewing in the wide-open Triple Bend (I). Mitchell’s daughter is engaged to jockey Julien Leparoux, and with regular Joe Talamo aboard a talented darkhorse in Camp Victory, it was a no-brainer pick at 10-1. The Factor would be a bold favorite with his flashy speed, but with so many inconsistencies to his record, he was a hard sell off his Dubai crumble. Smiling Tiger also failed to impress me racing on Belmont Stakes Day, so he was also out. For a while it looked like the rail-running The Factor would keep burning oil right to the wire but in came Camp Victory! With competitive speed numbers, the underdog from a recovering trainer put the pedal to the floor in the stretch and established one of the most memorable sprint wins I’ve seen so far this year. While the New England Patriots couldn’t pull off an emotion-based win in the Super Bowl, don’t count out racehorses and their jockeys. Watch replay here

Beware of the Dog in Dwyer Stakes

I automatically freakin’ love the Dwyer Stakes (II) when it rolls around despite its current status as a B-level three-year-old prep for bigger things… Man o’ War won it back in 1920 in his memorable duel with John P. Grier! History buffs unite!

Last year’s race was won by the speed-setting Dominus, who triumphed over my personal pick Adios Charlie who could not catch up to the Smart Strike colt. Can speed win it all again? The forecast looks better than last weekend’s crapshoot, with temps reaching up to 92*F and just a chance of an isolated storm on Friday. Let’s keep the track dry and fast, shall we?

$200,000 Dwyer Stakes (II) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/16 miles on dirt at Belmont Park. Post Time: Saturday, June 30 at 5:38pm EST.

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

1) Morgan’s Guerrilla - Corey Nakatani, 116 lbs, Mike Maker - The promising Ghostzapper colt faded badly as a favorite in the Lexington Stakes (III) to finish dead last on his first synthetic try, but has worked back up to near-form with a second in an allowance race over a mile on the dirt. He’s not amazing, hasn’t been amazing, and needs to be amazing on the rail to survive the class hike.

2) Fast Falcon - Rosie Napravnik, 116 lbs, Nick Zito - This one pleasantly surprised me on Belmont Day, running a fast-closing second to Teeth of the Dog in the Easy Goer Stakes. That race was wonky for him, and he’s clearly adept at Belmont and at this distance. Could the addition of Rosie be the kiss of success for this Awesome Again son?

3) Guyana Star Dweej - Jose Ortiz, 116 lbs, Doodnauth Shivmangal - *Deep sigh* The Eddington colt was eased early to finish last in his first stakes race, the Belmont (I), last out and takes an appropriate distance cut in his return where he should be stronger. However, his best often reflects a second place and a clearly second-best effort, being beaten by Unstoppable U in a mile test by more than 6 lengths. I don’t see this slow-grinder making a case.

4) Unstoppable U - Javier Castellano, 116 lbs, Ken McPeek - Exchange Rate’s boys are among my favorites, and while I did not favor Unstoppable U whatsoever in the Belmont (I), he flashed some promise holding back away from his usual pace-setting spot to finish 6th. He was best in two prior starts and looks keyed for a strong effort at this distance. Trustworthy McPeek entry is back to his comfort zone with a feather impost.

5) Zetterholm - Junior Alvarado, 118 lbs, Rick Dutrow - Off the board just once this year (a good 4th in his graded stakes debut in the Preakness!), the Silver Train colt did not like the gate in Baltimore and had a rough race. Still, he’s 3-for-5 this year and is obviously a real nice closer in the stretch. Dutrow has him working on that closing move by the looks of it, and he could break through here.

6) Teeth of the Dog - Joel Rosario, 121 lbs, Michael Matz - It’s rare that a Bluegrass Cat baby is not followed by me, and Teeth of the Dog is no exception. He ran one of the most impressive races on Belmont Day winning the Easy Goer, supporting the notion that he has finally landed in peak form. He’ll try the same distance again for graded cash, and I don’t see many reasons why he can’t repeat that kind of effort.

7) Monarchic - Jose Lezcano, 116 lbs, Eoin Harty - Enjoyed watching this Forestry colt at Gulfstream earlier this year, and it’s about time he made his stakes debut. He rallied as the favorite to win by 2 1/2 last out in an allowance on synthetic shortly after snapping his maiden on the turf. For a pacestalker, Monarchic will be a longshot sitting off Unstoppable U and holding off others.

Top Picks in Order:

1) Teeth of the Dog

2) Fast Falcon

3) Zetterholm

Overall, not a tough race to weed out. I’m leaving Unstoppable U out because of the potential for a Belmont bounce off his oats, not to mention he’s basically going to try to set the pace again which may wring him out further. Because of that reason, I’m wary of the pace itself, and Teeth of the Dog was clearly best from a visual standpoint in the Easy Goer despite traffic issues. I really do believe Matz has another classy horse with the Dog.

While he’s still fresh, I like Fast Falcon a lot trusting he will improve and get a better trip while Zetterholm can’t be left out as a horse who likes being in New York and placed pretty well in the Preakness.

Value Pick: Fast Falcon

There was no stopping Teeth of the Dog and Joel Rosario winning the Easy Goer Stakes in a romp! He took the distance cut-back well! Fast Falcon got up for second, Politicallycorrect third. (Photo by Dawna Wood/GallopingHatRack.com)

There was no stopping Teeth of the Dog and Joel Rosario winning the Easy Goer Stakes in a romp! He took the distance cut-back well! Fast Falcon got up for second, Politicallycorrect third. (Photo by Dawna Wood/GallopingHatRack.com)

Bodemeister Seeks Vengeance in Preakness

Eleven horses complete the fourteen available slots for the second leg of the Triple Crown, with many saving steam for the arduous Belmont Stakes (I) in June while others will try to upset Derby winner I’ll Have Another and his punchy rival, Bodemeister. The chestnut champ has the record and strategy to win, but many have considered blaze-faced Bode to be the best horse overall. Adding to the pile, Creative Cause ran arguably the best race in the Kentucky Derby and there’s little room to suggest Went the Day Well won’t be a threat.

It all boils down to who you like… Shackleford led throughout last year’s Preakness to defeat a closing outside horse in Animal Kingdom. Rachel Alexandra also set a furious pace to win in 2009. Will Team Bode have its day or can the Cookie Monster roll right by again?

$1 million Preakness Stakes (I) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 3/16 miles on dirt at Pimlico. Post Time: Saturday, May 18 at 6:18pm EST

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

1) Tiger Walk - Kent Desormeaux, Ignacio Correras - A horse with some “tinkering” problems this year, the Tale of the Cat colt managed to hit the board once in the Withers (III), and has had a bad habit of becoming distracted or just not properly engaged when it counts. He swaps riders with Dullahan out, picking up Desormeaux and the tricky rail slot. Works have been pleasing at Pimlico, and this horse is raring to go. Experience is a big dead weight against him.

2) Teeth of the Dog - Joe Bravo, Michael Matz - The Bluegrass Cat colt has been a focal point of mine lately, mustering a strong third in the Wood Memorial (I) at long odds. His owner insisted upon a ship to the Preakness over the Peter Pan Stakes (II) last weekend, and trainer Matz is lukewarm about his chances. While I dislike Matz’s opinion of his odds, this puppy has some bite behind his bark with improving speed figures every race and he is an ace at routing. Breezes have been good at Fair Hill and he’s never been off the board in 4 starts.

3) Pretension - Javier Santiago, Chris Grove - The hometown horse, the Bluegrass Cat colt beat a small field to win the Canonero II Stakes over 1 1/16 miles at Pimlico, but a field that included the talented My Adonis. It was his best race this year after some very jumbled finishes in the Gotham (III) and Illinois Derby (III). The track win is nice, but he’ll have some big class hurdles. Bodemeister will probably want to haggle with him setting the pace.

4) Zetterholm - Junior Alvarado, Rick Dutrow - Silver Train babies have been doing super lately (ahem, Silver Max!), and this colt is no exception since switching over to the Dutrow barn. Winner of 3 of 4 starts this year, he won the mile-long Patsyprospect Stakes easily enough and has been training to stretch out. I like Dutrow horses… in New York. I also like newcomers… but not in G1 classics.

5) Went the Day Well - John Velazquez, Graham Motion - The Proud Citizen colt won the Spiral (III) easily enough, and then suffered a bad trip in the Kentucky Derby (I) but still mustered enough in the stretch to finish a very promising 4th. Cool connections and a rapidly rising improving cycle put WTDW at the top of the list. Can he keep on improving and get a decent trip? Probably, but I like this horse at a farther distance…

6) Creative Cause - Joel Rosario, Mike Harrington - Trakus figures catapult the Giant’s Causeway colt to winning the Kentucky Derby last out, where he was a grinding 5th. He appears to have recovered well from that race, but will need proper positioning and a far superior trip to win. I’d also like him more if the blinkers went back on…

7) Bodemeister - Mike Smith, Bob Baffert - The superstar of the Kentucky Derby may have run 2nd, but he was 1st in many minds. The Empire Maker colt will likely try to contain his speed a bit once again, but seems fresh as ever at Pimlico where he should by all means have another decent shot at beating I’ll Have Another. You’d be foolish to leave him out of the mix with a :59 3/5 bullet, especially considering the best horses beaten in the Derby often spring back to win the Preakness!

8) Daddy Nose Best - Julien Leparoux, Steve Asmussen - The 10th place finisher in the Kentucky Derby and winner of the Sunland Derby (III) springs back for redemption, this time trading jocks for Union Rags rider Julien Leparoux. Slow, short-spurt works and word of mouth place DNB at the bottom of the pile; he’s just not ready to give his best and I would be shocked to see him finish up front should that trend continue through Saturday.

9) I’ll Have Another - Mario Gutierrez, Doug O’Neill - The Flower Alley colt will seek to extend his incredible win streak to 4. He was a strong and happy winner of the Kentucky Derby, but usually enjoys a long layoff between his races so this will be his first big test on such short notice. Pimlico has been kind to IHA’s residency while prepping for the race, so he’ll have everything tailored to fit. He’ll need to catch Bodemeister once again, and he’ll have to do it from that leering outer post that has troubled so many Preakness starters.

10) Optimizer - Corey Nakatani, D. Wayne Lukas - Trading jocks once again, the English Channel colt finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby and has really only fired impressively once this year in a close 2nd in the Rebel Stakes (II). Works have been decent enough, but this is a puzzling horse to say the least.

11) Cozzetti - Jose Lezcano, Dale Romans - The coquettish Cozzene colt has some of the best speed figs of the newcomers, and Dale Romans is confident that he will run a big one— Romans also suggested that before his slow rallying 4th in the Arkansas (I), but I will rest my case. A :58 4/5 bullet at Churchill makes this gray all the more appealing. The outside and class test (best start of the year was a 3rd in the paltry Tampa Bay) are his biggest foes.

Top Picks in Order:

1) Bodemeister

2) I’ll Have Another

3) Went the Day Well

4) Teeth of the Dog

Value Pick(s): Went the Day Well

Improving Hopefuls Set to Go in Peter Pan

The Peter Pan Stakes (II) at Belmont has been a springboard for developing horses such as last year’s winner Alternation, a now-four-year-old who has been unstoppable in this year’s handicaps. A nice full field should be showing up for this year’s rendition, with shipper and Derby dropout Mark Valeski ready to start taking names as he attacks a distance that should be to his liking. I’d like to comment in advance that this is a pretty nice field in comparison to other years, but what in the hay was the racing secretary on assigning some of these weights?!

$200,000 Peter Pan Stakes (II) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/8 miles on dirt at Belmont Park. Post Time: Saturday, May 12 at 5:06pm EST.

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

1) Right to Vote - Alex Solis, 116 lbs, Eoin Harty - A Political Force gelding I haven’t heard much from since he hit up New York as a juvenile, Right to Vote got back on his feet in his only start this year at Gulfstream, cruising just off the lead to nab the win by a head in a 6 1/2 furlong allowance. He was solid at Belmont last year, taking third in the Champagne (I) behind Union Rags and Alpha, but this one will need a little extra time at minimum.

2) The Lumber Guy - Michael Luzzi, 120 lbs, Michael Hushion - The dizzying winner of the Jerome Stakes (II) last out at Aqueduct, the 1 1/8 mile Wood Memorial (I) proved to be a bad showing for the front-running son of Grand Slam. He’s been breezing at his usual winning pace at Belmont, and looks like he could possibly get another furlong or two, but the Jerome wasn’t run against anyone too brilliant (at all) and he’ll be back to rubbing elbows with better horses.

3) Zetterholm - Junior Alvarado, 116 lbs, Rick Dutrow - With 3 wins in 4 starts this year including a 2-length win in the Patsyprospect Stakes at Aqueduct, Dutrow is stepping things up for the Silver Train colt who he would have preferred to start in the Preakness (I) should room be made. His works have been decent and he’s being stretched out from his one-mile stakes win as a closer who gets the job done in the stretch. The Lumber Guy and Mark Valeski should set up a hot pace for this one.

4) Le Bernardin - Eddie Castro, 116 lbs, Kiaran McLaughlin - A $325k yearling purchase, the Bernardini colt owned by Darley broke his maiden on his second try and followed it up with a nearly 2-length allowance win at a mile over older horses, with all starts at neighboring Aqueduct. With no brilliant works and no juvenile racing foundation, combined with the Bernardini expectations I’ll throw this one in the “won’t improve significantly until summer at best” pile.

5) Mark Valeski - Rosie Napravnik, 116 lbs, Larry Jones - Perhaps one of the most underrated three-year-olds on the Derby trail, the Proud Citizen colt scared favorite El Padrino in the Risen Star (II) when second by a dueling nose and was runner-up again to Hero of Order during an “off day” in the Louisiana Derby (II) as the favorite. Originally meant for the Kentucky Derby (I), Jones decided to shelve him after some brilliant works at Churchill with the sentiment he wasn’t 110% fired up to give it his all for another week or two. I loved Mark Valeski’s works at Churchill, and the look of him gave me confidence despite not liking him that much during the prep season. With Napravnik and 116 lbs, I’m ready to see a breakthrough stakes win for this colt.

6) Good Morning Diva - Julien Leparoux, 120 lbs, Timothy Hills - 5th in the Swale (III), the Lion Heart colt bounced back to win the Calder Derby last out stretching out to 1 1/16 miles, battling Big Screen all alone up front to win by a neck as the favorite. His works have been steady ones aimed to stretch out, but I have some concerns for his confidence. He doesn’t seem to do too well when he’s outkicked at the start, and there are some very fast horses here who will push him out of his comfort zone.

7) Hakama - John Velazquez, 116 lbs, Michael Trombetta - The First Samurai colt was a victim of racing luck in the Illinois Derby (III), traveling 7-wide after a bumpy trip to take third. Before that, he was beaten a head by Raconteur in the Private Term Stakes. Works at Fair Hill have been very good and barring trouble, Hakama should have a shot to get up there… if he’s good for the distance, might be another story entirely.

8) Big Screen - Rajiv Maragh, 116 lbs, Thomas Albertrani - The pedigree of this Speightstown reads “speed demon,” though he has yet to have a win this year out of 3 starts, his best being 2 seconds to Good Morning Diva in the Calder Derby and Heavy Breathing in an allowance where he was rank early on. He has matured slowly and picks up a new jockey and trainer, but has yet to showcase the kind of works I would expect from him at this point. Put him on the wait-and-see list.

9) Master Rick - Corey Nakatani, 120 lbs, Steve Asmussen - A Master Command who finally found his running gear, Master Rick snapped his maiden only in March, but did so by more than 5 lengths over 1 1/16 miles and followed that win up with an upset over G1 winner Drill in the mile-long, ungraded Northern Spur Stakes. Breezing his usual steady works, I like the look and feel of this rising star who is ready to peak for the class and slight distance bump here.

10) Teeth of the Dog - Joe Bravo, 116 lbs, Michael Matz - Toteboard finishes line this late-blooming Bluegrass Cat colt’s record this year, marked by a longshot show performance in the Wood Memorial (I) behind Gemologist and Alpha gaining ground late. He should be given ample credit for the wide, late Wood trip seeing as he only broke his maiden in February. The distance will be to his liking and judging by his drills he’s ready for a good performance.

11) Summer Front - Ramon Dominguez, 120 lbs, Chris Clement - The War Front colt just made his first start of the year recently when finishing a sharp second in the Lexington Stakes (III), and will be hitting the dirt for the first time here. He doesn’t strike me as a horse who should be a typical threat in this scenario, but I do like Clement’s style and this colt in particular impressed me a lot on the grass last year. Considering he should keep improving off that runner-up in the Lexington, there’s legroom for upset.

12) Street Life - Jose Lezcano, 116 lbs, Chad Brown - The late-rushing winner of the Broad Brush Stakes, the Street Sense colt broke poorly in the Wood Memorial (I) and flattened out to finish 6th. He’ll be donning blinkers for the first time. He’s been breezing at Belmont for some time preparing for this race, but with the funny outside post, this likely won’t be his comeback day.

Top Picks in Order:

1) Mark Valeski

2) Teeth of the Dog

3) Master Rick

4) Summer Front

Value Pick(s): Good Morning Diva, Master Rick

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