Keen Ice, the Curlin Baby running on the biggest stage this weekend, had a tough go of it in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (GI – UAE). The pace was slow, Ryan Moore kept him as close as he could to the pace early, but he just did not kick on late. It was a disappointment, but hardly disastrous. We learned beyond any question that Keen Ice is a “take back and make one run” type, and he should have a friendlier setup for that when he sees California Chrome, Frosted, and Special Fighter at the end of this month.
However, a pair of Curlin babies stateside had a far better Saturday.
Air Squadron (Air France, by French Deputy) has not been the most consistent horse in the world, but when he is on form, he is sharp. He was surely bred to run. He is a Curlin half to Smooth Air: a current Louisiana stallion, and a winner of three graded stakes including the 2009 Gulfstream Park Handicap (GII). Air Squadron is also half to Overdriven, an easy winner of the 2011 Sanford Stakes (GII). For fellow lovers of Illinois-breds, Air France also produced Super Phoebe: a nine-time winner, in the money in 18 of 22 starts, and producer of a pair of winners in the breeding shed.
It took him nine starts to break his maiden, but after he won, it only took him three more starts to win again. He did so in high-priced N2L company, and then cleared his N1X allowance condition at Ellis next out. His next few starts were tough, but he found his form again. He found another spate of three wins in five starts, and then went on a dry spell again.
He suggested that he could be coming into form again in January, with an decent third on Gulfstream. Returning to the same open $6,250 level as that last start, he followed that up in solid style. On February 6, Air Squadron stalked the pace, took over, and prevailed by a comfortable length and three quarters. He returned to the races at that same class level on February 26, against a fellow Curlin baby, Inmyfather’simage. Though Inmyfather’simage faltered, Air Squadron proved his constitution. On the front early, Not Welcome took a speed duel to him, but Air Squadron put him away and won by a length.
Air Squadron returned on March 5, once again contesting a $6,250 dirt mile at Gulfstream. It was not easy, but Air Squadron was up to the task.
Air Squadron came out of the mile chute well, and pressed the early pace set by Saturday Special. Coming into the turn, that pair opened up daylight on the rest of the twelve-horse field. Into the turn, Air Squadron got his nose in front, but Saturday Special would not fold. Steve looked a possible threat, gaining some ground as he rallied from the rest of the pack, but the top two locked up in their own race.
Into the stretch, Steve remained a clear third, but did not close ground on Air Squadron and his foe. Saturday Special continued to fight, but Air Squadron had enough in the tank. In the final sixteenth, Air Squadron made it clear that he was winning the duel, and edged clear to win by half a length.
That three-win streak for Air Squadron came for trainer Oscar Gonzalez. Previously, he had come back to the old barn each time, but Saturday’s race played out a bit differently. After a few wins at the level, trainer Jamie Ness finally tossed a slip in the box, claiming him for Jagger, Inc, his and his wife’s ownership interest. When Air Squadron returns, expect it to be for Ness.
Later in the afternoon, Wabel (Rockintotherhythm, by Broad Brush) saw the starter. He started his career out west, and has always been quite popular with the bettors. Unfortunately, he has shared a certain tendency with fellow Curlin baby Dyker Beach. In seven starts leading into Saturday’s race, he had finished second five times, including his three most recent starts. Those three starts were his first for his current trainer Brad Cox, who had claimed him out of his maiden win. It came in $50,000 company at Churchill, and was the only time so far that Wabel had been up for a tag.
Saturday, Wabel returned to the same sort of race in which he had finished second last time out: a six-furlong N2L allowance at Oaklawn. Going in, even the familar second money may have seemed an ambition hope. Wabel required a shoe repair in the paddock.
Even so, Wabel was up to the challenge.
Ray’swarrior won the break and snagged the early lead, but Wabel was never far back. As the field strung out a bit going into the turn, Wabel remained affixed to the flank of Ray’swarrior, proving a dogged foe.
Turning for home, he proved even more than that. He drew even with the early leader, and found his next gear coming into the final furlong. He sped away from Ray’swarrior, and no one mounted a serious challenge. Wabel came home five and a quarter lengths clear of the pacesetter, who held on by a head for place over rallying favourite Alabama Tide.
After so many second-place finishes, it showed Wabel did actually belong in protected company. Whether it was the change to rider Jon Court, or just waking up on the right side of his pile of straw, Wabel found an emphatic way to break that pattern of “not quite” on Saturday.
Congratulations to Air Squadron and Wabel — and here’s hoping both will hold their form!