Over the weekend, three Curlin babies made their first starts off of sizable layoffs.
One of them fell off the Derby trail early, and finally started again for the first time in a year. Another had a fraught journey down the Oaks trail, tried turf once in August, and then spent six and a half months off the track. The third had a short two-year-old campaign, and returned to take his first step down the Derby trail since October.
They all finished fourth.
Top Billing (Parade Queen, by A. P. Indy) broke his maiden impressively at Laurel in December of 2013, and quickly gained top billing along the Derby trail. He finished second behind Commissioner in an allowance at Gulfstream, won an allowance on the Holy Bull undercard, and then finished a late-charging third between Wildcat Red and General a Rod in the Fountain of Youth. Two weeks later, Top Billing was off the Derby trail after breaking his right front cannon bone in a workout.
After recovering from surgery, he returned to training. He posted his first work on December 12, and had been moving steadily since then in anticipation of a start. That start came February 22, in an N2X at 1 1/16 miles on the Gulfstream dirt.
Seeing him near the back of the pack early hardly came as a surprise, as he had shown before his injury that he was a late-running type. Approaching the far turn, he started advancing, and pulled close to Tarpy’s Surprise for third. Then, he flattened out; that was as close as he got. Encryption made a commanding run to win easily over early pacesetter I’m Steppin It Up. Top Billing ran just off Tarpy’s Surprise the rest of the way, and finished a clear fourth. He finished half a length out of third, and 10 3/4 lengths behind the winner. It was another 10 1/2 lengths back to Ghareeb in fifth.
Though he did not show the strong, sustained rally for which he made himself known at two and three, it can be forgiven, as it was his first race in a long time. Though it would have been fun to see him make an electrifying run, I am not willing to give up on the idea of him finding the form he flashed before his injury. Will he definitely return to that form? No. Time will tell. However, one race off a year’s lay cannot answer that question for sure.
Please Explain (Lizzy’s Bluff, by Pine Bluff) ended up with a spot in the Kentucky Oaks starting gate last year, but not without some troubles along the way. After her dominating win in the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, she finished third beaten just a length in the Honeybee Stakes (GIII) at Oaklawn. She went off the favourite in the Fantasy (GIII) next out, but finished a baffling seventh. Shortly after that finish, she was disqualified from her third-place finish in the Honeybee due to a positive methylprednisolone test. She went to the Oaks anyway; though she had zero points, nothing stopped her from entering since there were not enough horses with points who entered to fill the gate. She went off at 52/1, the longest shot in the field, and finished a well-beaten tenth.
After a well-deserved break, she returned in an allowance at Arlington, trying turf for the first time. She finished fourth, with a little life at the end of the race, and I was curious to see what she would do next. She ended up going on another break.
Please Explain returned February 21 against N2X company, going a mile over the Tampa Bay grass. She looked a little distracted after the break, but settled in along the rail near the back of the pack. She went comfortably along, seven or eight lengths off My Sweet Dove’s early pace, saving ground along the rail. She seemed in no rush to make a run, and only started gaining perceptibly as the field went through the far turn. Please Explain got off the rail, passed a horse, and then ran into a bit of traffic. She angled out for running room outside in early stretch, and responded well on the outside. She never seriously challenged Donna’s Fly Girl, whose sharp late rally carried her to win by 1 3/4 lengths. However, her fourth-place finish was not a well-beaten one; she crossed the wire only 3/4 length behind sec0nd-place Ceisteach.
All told, this was a promising return for Please Explain. Her late run showed an energy that she did not have at Arlington over the summer, and had not shown since the Honeybee. Hopefully she stays healthy and builds off of this, and it will not be eight and a half months until Please Explain starts again.
Another try at Arlington this summer, though, will be perfectly welcome.
Bold Conquest (One for Jim, by Distorted Humor) debuted over the summer at Saratoga. Second behind wire-to-wire winner Blame Jim in a five and a half furlong debut race, he graduated there second out going six and a half panels. After that, it has been nothing but two turns, and nothing but graded company. He finished second beaten a neck by his re-rallying stablemate Lucky Player in the Iroquois (GIII), and then crossed the wire a distant yet late-running third behind Carpe Diem in the Breeders’ Futurity (GI).
After that, he took the fall off. He came back to the worktab in early January at Fair Grounds, starting out slow but firing two consecutive bullets in early February. He shipped out to Oaklawn for the Southwest (GIII), got a maintenance work before the original race day…but then had to delay his return for a week due to the weather. February 22, he returned in the Oaklawn slop.
The gates opened, and Bold Conquest did not rush to the lead. Around the clubhouse turn, he found a place about ten lengths off the lead, but made it in along the rail. He and Far Right chased along in tandem through the early part of the backstretch, though Far Right commenced his move first. The Truth Or Else passed him shortly thereafter.
About halfway through the far turn, with only the fading Bold Animaux and the lagging Majestico beaten, Bold Conquest finally kicked in. He angled out behind the field, swinging about six wide into the stretch. Passing the three-eighths pole he picked up the pace, and passed Phenomenal Phoenix, Bayerd, Private Prospect, and Majestico near the furlong pole with confidence. He took aim at the leading group passing the furlong pole, angled in, overtook Hillbilly Royalty in time to hit the superfecta, and finished full of run.
Though he never threatened Far Right, The Truth Or Else, or Mr. Z, Bold Conquest made a good showing in the Southwest. He closed well in the slop, and he fired strongly first off the lay. If he gets sharper second off the lay, watch out.