By Robert Boswell
This year the thoroughbred racing scene as a whole has lacked a bit of clarity and the male sprint division was no different. Just take a look back; there have been eight Grade 1 sprint races on the main track for 3-year-olds or older, producing eight different winners. Just when one sprinter looked like he would take the lead with an impressive victory, another would jump up and beat him next time out.
Early in the year Aikenite shot to the top with consecutive Grade 2 wins in the Commonwealth at Keeneland and the Churchill Downs Stakes on Derby Day, both at seven furlongs. The Todd Pletcher trainee has since had trouble finding the winners’ circle, most recently beaten a whisker by New Zealand import Hoofit in Grade 3 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix, a Win and You’re In race for the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Hoofit, trained by red-hot Graham Motion and undefeated in two starts since coming to the U.S., is not Breeders’ Cup nominated, so his connections would have to supplement him to the race for $200,000.
Also not Breeders’ Cup nominated is Giant Ryan, winner of six consecutive races going back to a state-bred optional claimer at Aqueduct. He is sired by Freud, a full brother to Giant’s Causeway, and trained by Bisnath Parboo, who could be this year’s Cinderella story. Until this year Parboo was barely making it as a trainer in New York, and didn’t have 20 wins to his name. Then up came Giant Ryan winning six in a row, all at the Breeders’ Cup Sprint distance of six furlongs with the last two being Win and You’re In events. Despite winning his fifth straight in the Grade 2 Smile Spring Handicap at Calder, he gained little respect, taking the star-studded Grade 1 Vosburgh at odds of 12-1 in wire-to-wire fashion last out. Parboo, who trains for his son Shivananda, says they have already agreed to pay the supplemental fee of $100,000 to enter the Breeders’ Cup.
The Vosburgh, though loaded with talent, was not contested without controversy, as jockey Rajiv Maragh was suspended a week for his ride aboard Calibrachoa. Right out of the gate Maragh came over on projected pace presence Apriority, which in turn shut off Bob Baffert’s Euroears, who was also expected to be near the front. They finished seventh and eighth respectively in the eight-horse field and Baffert was characteristically outspoken about the incident, saying via Twitter that he was “glad to hear that Belmont stewards are going to suspended Rajiv…” while also calling the seven day suspension “lite.” The Langfuhr seven year old was coming off an impressive win over Smiling Tiger in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby at Del Mar, and a solid second in the Grade 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen.
Another who showed promise earlier in the year is Trappe Shot. After winning his 2011 debut in an overnight stakes at Belmont, the Tapit colt splashed to one of the most impressive victories of the year in the Grade 2 True North Handicap on the Belmont undercard. Sean Avery beat him by a nose in the Grade 1 Alfred G Vanderbilt at Saratoga before he finished a disappointing fourth in the Vosburgh. Trappe Shot went off a solid favorite, due to Big Drama skipping the race with a fever.
By missing the Vosburgh, trainer David Fawkes allows Big Drama only two starts since he wired the field at 5-1 in last year’s edition of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. After winning the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector at Gulfstream in record-breaking fashion, Fawkes gave Big Drama a lengthy break before bringing him back in the Whippleton, an overnight stakes at Calder. He will train up to the Breeders’ Cup and Fawkes says the fever has not affected his training regimen.
Three time Grade 1 winner Smiling Tiger is expected to come from Jeff Bonde’s barn in California again this year to contend after a show finish as third choice a year ago. Following wins in two graded stakes in a row, he could only manage sixth behind impressive Aikenite in the Churchill Downs. Returning to California, the four year old took the Grade 1 Triple Bend at Hollywood, then was runner-up in the Bing Crosby and fourth in the Grade 1 Pat O’Brien at Del Mar. Also coming from California is Amazombie, winner of the Grade 1 Ancient Title at Santa Anita, a Win and You’re In race. The win comes following a three race streak of third place finishes.
Two three year olds are expected to go as well. The Factor, also trained by Baffert, has won the Grade 2 San Vicente, the Grade 2 Rebel, and the Pat O’Brien. Wesley Ward’s Flashpoint has reverted back to sprinting after being on the Triple Crown trail, and captured the Grade 3 Jersey Shore at Monmouth before folding in the Phoenix most recently.
Other possible starters include Hamazing Destiny, last year’s runner-up and recent third in the Phoenix; Camp Victory, second in both the Triple Bend and Pat O’Brien; three year old Justin Phillip, winner of a sloppy Grade 2 Woody Stephens on Belmont Day; Force Freeze, second in the Vosburgh, and Apriority.
You may like Big Drama or finally be on the Giant Ryan bandwagon, but for me the Breeders’ Cup Sprint is just a huge puzzle. While the purse has been lowered to $1.5 million, the competition is as tougher than ever.