#5: the fifth annual Twelve Days of Curlin Babies

Welcome back to the Twelve Days of Curlin Babies, where we celebrate the twelve most memorable races from Curlin’s progeny throughout 2018. Through all the hundreds of races in which they ran this year, these are the ones to which my mind keeps wandering back.

#12: Timeless Curls Marks Herself a Rising Star
#11: Secret Passage Comes Into His Own

#10: Legit Proves Aptly Named in His Gulfstream Unveiling
#9: Bishop’s Pond Proves She Is a Dirt Horse, After All
#8: Good Magic Reasserts His Class in the Blue Grass
#7: Dixie Moon Never Quits in the Carotene
#6: Amiral Rallies, Stuns, and Begins a Banner Day for His Sire

#5: Dabster Gives His All Against Battle of Midway

Though Dabster (On a Roll, by A. P. Indy) spent more of his three-year-old season on the bench than on the track, he had a full four-year-old season for trainer Bob Baffert and owner Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum. He became a stakes winner in the summer, winning the one-mile Harry F. Brubaker Stakes at Del Mar. He then showed his prowess going even longer with a comfortable score in the ten-furlong Los Alamitos Special, and then a gutsy second behind the nation’s top dirt stayer Rocketry in the Marathon Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs.

After that, it was intriguing, almost surprising, to see him cut back to a mile and an eighth for the Native Diver Stakes (G3) on November 25 at Del Mar, especially when he would have to face Battle of Midway. Battle of Midway, one of the best two-turn middle-distance dirt horses by the end of 2017, had needed a few races after a subfertile season at stud, but he was finally coming back into his better form. If Dabster was going to get his first graded stakes win, he was going to have to get by one tough horse.

Dabster makes Battle of Midway work for victory in the 2018 Native Diver Stakes.

In a field scratched down to three, Battle of Midway had the inside, and was pushed along to the lead. Breaking out of the outermost gate, Joe Talamo got Dabster settled just outside of the pacesetting favourite, ahead of the chasing Isotherm. Dabster took the first turn affixed to Battle of Midway’s outside rear hip, and edged closer to even terms into the backstretch.

At the five-eighths pole, Dabster put his head in front, and kept it there utnil the half-mile mark. At that point, Battle of Midway drew even again, and the fight was on.

Around the far turn, head next to head, neither gave an inch as they relegated Isotherm to spectator. Into the lane, Joe Talamo and Flavien Prat had their dueling horses under a drive, asking each for everything they could give.

With three sixteenths of a mile remaining, Battle of Midway pushed his nose in front. Past the furlong pole it became a head, a neck, a half length past Dabster.

Dabster wasn’t done.

Inside the final sixteenth the son of Curlin came back. Half a length became a neck again, then less. But, the wire came too soon. Battle of Midway held off the resurgent Dabster by a head.

Dabster faced Battle of Midway again on December 26 in the San Antonio (G2). Though many expected a renewal of the Native Diver, a new foe joined the fray. Though Battle of Midway got the best of Dabster in the lane once again, after Joe Talamo lost the whip in upper stretch, Gift Box swooped past both for top honours.

If the San Antonio is a harbinger for the west coast handicap division to come in 2019, then Dabster, Battle of Midway, and Gift Box should make for a thrilling season.

building Catholic Boy’s foundation

When I think of Catholic Boy, I think of the unheralded hard work that goes into building a great horse’s foundation.  I think of running in circles, measured circles, incessant circles.

In the week and a half leading up to the Breeders’ Cup last year, I spent the mornings trackside, radio clipped to my side, spotting Breeders’ Cup horses and calling their names and positions up to the camera nest.  Most of the horses wouldn’t spend much time out on the track.  They’d come out, jog a circuit or two, three at the most, then go back to the barn.

Not Catholic Boy.  He’d come out, we’d spot him, they’d show him on the camera for a while.  Then, a flurry of activity.  Horses would come in through the backstretch gap, there would be five or six other superstars of our sport to cut between.  Then, another lull.

“Anyone out here?”, the camera spotter’s voice on the radio would crackle.

I’d look up, see a familiar bay horse with a familiar maroon Bridlewood Farm saddle pad draped over a towel numbered 803.

Was it because he debuted at Gulfstream long after the geese, the cranes, and the best horses in the nation had returned north for the summer?  Was it because he skipped the traditional final round of preps, training straight from the With Anticipation in August all the way to November, around and around and away from the shouting throngs gathered along the rail on Saturday afternoons?  Was it because the name Jonathan Thomas didn’t roll off the tongue as easily, from years of repetition, as Aidan O’Brien or Chad Brown or Charlie Appleby or Graham Motion?

I’d push my button.  “Just Catholic Boy, coming past the seven furlong gap now.  Everyone else left.”

Picks and Ponderings: 2018 Pacific Classic Preview

Saturday will mark the 28th edition of the Pacific Classic, Del Mar’s marquee race for the handicap division.

The race has always been contested at a mile and a quarter over the Del Mar main: polytrack from 2007 through 2014, and dirt otherwise.  The race offers a $1,000,000 purse, as well as a Win and You’re In berth into the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the winner.  Thus far, no winner of the Pacific Classic has gone on to win the BC Classic in the same year.  Pleasantly Perfect (2004), however, had already won the BC Classic the year before.  Bertrando (1993) finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that same year, overtaken late by 133/1 longshot Arcangues.  Recent winners have, like Bertrando, come close in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  2016 winner California Chrome finished second behind Arrogate in that year’s Classic; the next year, Collected finished second behind Gun Runner in the same race.

Head over to Picks and Ponderings, read my preview of the Pacific Classic, and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Big Race Showdown: Bing Crosby, Haskell, and Clement Hirsch

Season Two of this year’s Big Race Showdown at America’s Best Racing continues this weekend: where I clash heads with six awesome handicappers (Emily GulliksonCandice HareDan TordjmanBrian ZipseEric Bialek, and Mark DiLorenzo) to see who can stay the hottest through Derby prep season.

We tackle a trio of Win and You’re In races this week: the Bing Crosby (G1), the Haskell (G1), and the Clement Hirsch (G1).  See who we like right here!

Picks and Ponderings: 2017 Breeders’ Cup Saturday Preview

Welcome to Day Two of the 2017 Breeders’ Cup!  Picks and Ponderings previewed Friday’s four Breeders’ Cup races in a separate piece.  Here, we look at Saturday’s nine Breeders’ Cup races, headlined by Arrogate’s attempt to join Tiznow among two-time winners of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The day features several links to the local circuit — many of which, to Arlington Million Day.  Arlington Million (G1) winner Beach Patrol will attempt to win a third straight Grade 1 race in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and Secretariat Stakes (G1) winner Oscar Performance joins him in that field.  Dacita’s victory in the Beverly D Stakes (G1) this summer earned her a bid in the Beverly D, and she will attempt to join Dank in the exclusive club of mares who have swept the Beverly D – Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf double.

Head over to Picks and Ponderings, read my preview of Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup races, and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Horseplayer Monthly: Breeders’ Cup Q&A!

Every year, Horseplayer Monthly does a Breeders’ Cup Q&A, a series in which they ask a host of smart and experienced handicappers some of the tough questions about handicapping the BC.  It’s always a great read — and this year, for the first time, I’m honoured to be a part of it!

My Q&A starts on page 28 — but make sure to read the entire issue, because it’s full of perspectives and race previews to make you a more informed Breeders’ Cup handicapper!

Picks and Ponderings: 2017 Breeders’ Cup Friday Preview

It’s that time of the year once more: the best horses in the world have descended on one place to settle their scores in the Breeders’ Cup.  For the first time, it takes place at beautiful Del Mar.  Also for the first time, Picks and Ponderings is there, so make sure to follow us on Twitter for photos, video, and observations!

Picks and Ponderings will have two separate Breeders’ Cup pieces: 0ne covering Friday, and one covering Saturday.  It will be a slightly different format than many of our recent big-race-day pieces.  Instead of doing an in-depth preview of a single race and then a picks spreadsheet for the rest, each piece will have shorter descriptions of rationale for each pick and longshot in each race.  Then, below, there will be a summary table with all selections and longshots.

Head over to Picks and Ponderings, read my latest, and get excited about the first day of the Breeders’ Cup!

Picks and Ponderings: 2016 Pacific Classic Day Stakes Preview

This Saturday’s card at Del Mar features three graded stakes races.  I preview all three at Picks and Ponderings.

One is the Grade I Del Mar Oaks, which drew a contentious field of eleven to go a mile and an eighth.  The Del Mar Handicap is the one Grade II of the day, but its spoils include something quite valuable — a berth into the Breeders’ Cup Turf.  The day’s highlight is the Grade I Pacific Classic, featuring the long-awaited battle between Beholder, Dortmund, and California Chrome.  The winner — be it one of them, or any of their six rivals — not only gets the lion’s share of a million dollars, but also punches their ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  I preview all three stakes races in writing, and I also do a video preview of the Pacific Classic with Paul Mazur.

Head over to Picks and Ponderings, read (and watch!) our preview of Saturday’s stakes action at Del Mar, and get ready for an excellent day of racing!

a battle of champions

The ones who billed it as a battle between champions were technically correct.  To many, those words were just bluster, a weak attempt to inject drama where there was none.

Both Beholder and Stellar Wind were Eclipse Award winners, sure.  But Beholder had three such honours under her girth, and was a strong choice every single time.  Stellar Wind?  Yes, she was last year’s champion three-year-old, but the argument over who should have won that award will rage for years to come.

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good days, bad days, and the San Diego

I have never had such a hard time watching a race as I did Sunday’s showdown in the San Diego Handicap (GII) between Dortmund and California Chrome.

It had nothing to do with what happened during the race itself.  Though Dortmund could not get the best of California Chrome (this time around!), he tried his hardest, and they battled to the finish.  Though it was a long way back to Win the Space, Follow Me Crev, and Crittenden, all five starters crossed the wire safely.

Hindsight is 20/20, and right now we know the race was one to remember for all the most beautiful reasons.

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Annie’s Curls, wire to wire!

I hoped I would see Annie’s Curls (Keiko, by First Samurai) race at Arlington this summer.  The juvenile daughter of Curlin was on the worktab there, after all.  However, this summer’s Arlington meet did not end up being the best for followers of Curlin’s progeny.  Annie’s Curls never entered…and though two other Curlin babies entered and then scratched during the meet, not a single Curlin baby saw the starter at Arlington this year.

As for Annie’s Curls, she shipped out to California with trainer Michael Stidham’s “A” string.  On debut, she finished fourth beaten 7 3/4 lengths, but she was only a length and a quarter out of second.  The runaway winner of that race has turned out to be a pretty good racehorse: Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Songbird.  Even Treasuring, who edged Annie’s Curls for third that day, eventually broke her maiden, and then finished a gutsy second behind Lucky Folie in the Desi Arnaz last week.

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dispatches from Team Princess

I am team Princess of Sylmar.

Two years ago, I was just starting to gravitate closer to horse racing.  Through no real deliberation of my own, I landed on The Princess as my three-year-old filly of 2013.  Maybe her long odds in the Kentucky Oaks explained it.  Maybe her being Palace Malice’s stablemate explained it.  Maybe it stemmed from Chicago being a bit closer to New York and Pennsylvania than to California.  I cannot remember why I set upon following her, but I did.

This always made me look upon Beholder as the rival from out west.

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Picks and Ponderings: Pacific Classic Day

This Saturday, there are three Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In races on the Del Mar card.  The Pacific Classic (GI) attracts the handicap division (and one popular distaffer!), the turf routers convene for the Del Mar Handicap (GII), and the middle-distance types take their shot in the Pat O’Brien (GII).

Head on over to Picks and Ponderings, see where I landed in all three Breeders’ Cup preps, and let me know in the comments what you think!

Curlin’s monster weekend

Sires rarely have better weekends than Curlin just had.

Curlin had nine runners hit the board, six of whom won their races.  He had a pair of graded stakes winners: his first fourth-crop stakes winners, as well as his second multiple Grade I winner.  From the claiming ranks to the highest level, and everywhere in between, Curlin babies were running well.

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