There is nothing like having another millionaire in the barn. But the way Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas came to have Come Dancing is like no other circumstance that he has seen in his 84 years.
If not for the coronavirus, the accomplished 6-year-old mare would still be with Carlos Martin in New York. Then the pandemic forced racing to be suspended there. So Blue Devil Racing Stable owner Marc Holliday shipped Come Dancing to Arkansas and assigned her to Lukas.
Talk about a gift horse.
“The way she moves out there and gets over the racetrack like she does,” Lukas said, “she is some kind of impressive filly.”
A four-time graded-stakes winner last year, Come Dancing (3-1) is the morning-line favorite and one of the out-of-staters that has deepened an impressive field of 14 for Saturday’s 55th running of the $600,000 Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap, an 8½-furlong race for older fillies and mares.
Seven other graded winners have been shipped to challenge the local likes of last year’s Cotillion winner Street Band (15-1) and Steve Asmussen-trained Lady Apple (15-1). In search of a race worthy of their own company, Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress (4-1) is in from Louisiana, Horologist (15-1) from Maryland and Cookie Dough (10-1), Point Of Honor (10-1) and Go Google Yourself (12-1) from Florida. In search of a race at all, Grade 1 winners Ce Ce (7-2) and Ollie’s Candy (12-1) shipped from California after competition was suspended at Santa Anita.
With a 30 percent chance of rain that the National Weather Service said is most likely in the morning, they all have a date in the starting gate Saturday at 6:16 p.m. EDT.
Since she arrived only last month at Lukas’s wintertime barn, Come Dancing’s preparation for the Apple Blossom has been a work in progress.
“I’ll play it by ear,” Lukas told the Oaklawn Park communications department last weekend. “I’ll just let her tell us.”
Lukas did put Come Dancing through the motions of timed workouts in the Oaklawn mud on consecutive Tuesday mornings, breezing 1:00.6 over five furlongs March 31 and 1:12.6 over six furlongs April 7. With Javier Castellano finishing his recovery from the coronavirus, Florent Geroux will ride her for the first time Saturday from post 4.
Of her $1,064,950 in lifetime earnings, Come Dancing got $808,250 of it last year, when she went 4-for-5 in New York graded stakes with Manny Franco riding two of the wins and Castellano the other two. Her victory last August in the Grade 1 Ballerina sprint at Saratoga looked like redemption after she was a beaten, odds-on favorite in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps on Belmont Stakes day. But that second-place finish does not look so bad in hindsight since the winner was the eventual older dirt female champion Midnight Bisou.
That defeat came at the same distance as the Apple Blossom, and that could be pivotal, especially since this will be her first time going two turns. It is not as if she is invincible at shorter distances either. In her most recent start Come Dancing was sixth last fall at Santa Anita in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, her only previous race outside New York. It continued a mostly downward arc in the Beyer Speed Figures from her last five starts, dropping from a career-high 114 a year ago to 82.
The Beyer trend has gone the opposite direction for Serengeti Empress. Trained by Tom Amoss and ridden by Joe Talamo, the front-running 4-year-old filly made her Oaklawn debut last month with a 6¼-length victory in the slop of the Grade 2 Azeri over the same course and distance as the Apple Blossom. That gate-to-wire performance snapped a five-race losing streak that started after her Kentucky Oaks victory. Despite that slump, her Beyers were consistent. Except for her sixth-place fizzle in the Cotillion last September at Parx, Serengeti Empress’s numbers gradually improved from 88 in the Oaks to 101 last month.
“There was no secret what the plan was going to be,” Amoss said after the Azeri victory. “We took it to them early, and she set such a blistering pace. It’s the kind of pace that a lot of people would not think she could withstand or a racehorse could withstand. But she’s a little different.”
Carrying top weight of 122 pounds Saturday is one thing. But lest anyone think that post 11 will also deter Serengeti Empress, don’t forget that she was stuck in post 13 before she led all nine furlongs in the Kentucky Oaks, setting fractions of 23.25, 46.65 and 1:11.26. Despite a higher track variant for the Azeri, she still went out in 23.33, 46.49 and 1:11.34.
What Serengeti Empress enjoyed in those bookend victories was a loose lead. That probably will not happen this weekend. Come Dancing could challenge her. So could Cookie Dough, the 4-year-old that won the Grade 3 Royal Delta two months ago at Gulfstream Park. That was her first race for her new trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who has saddled only one other horse at Oaklawn Park. (Math Wizard was eighth in February in the Razorback Handicap.)
If the early pace falls apart, Ce Ce may be there to pick up the pieces. Stuck in post 14, the 4-year-old carrying 121 pounds Saturday is coming off last month’s 3¼-length triumph at Santa Anita in the Grade 1 Beholder Mile. She was given a Beyer Speed Figure of 100, making her one of only three starters this weekend in triple digits.
Trainer Mike McCarthy will be hoping things go better than the last time he sent Ce Ce east. That was last June, when she finished a distant fourth to Guarana in the Grade 1 Acorn at Belmont Park.
“Unfortunately she got hurt after the Acorn, which made us take a step back and take some time off,” McCarthy said after the Beholder. “She has come back and hasn’t missed a beat.”
Ce Ce’s two wins after her eight months off have been by a combined 7½ lengths with ever increasing speed ratings. With her regular rider Víctor Espinoza flying in from California, she will try two turns for the first time.
This will be the most competitive race that Ce Ce has started. She will be in the figurative, high-rent district going against millionaires Serengeti Empress, Street Band, Come Dancing and Lady Apple. But that is the lure of the Apple Blossom, the race that was pivotal in Midnight Bisou’s championship season last year.
The same should be the case in 2020. Considering the uncertainty of how the rest of the year will play out, the relative certainty of Saturday’s race could go a long way to determining the Eclipse Award-winning older dirt female.
Racing notes and opinions
In my never-ending search for value and my eternal avoidance of chalk, Point Of Honor is the horse that I will key in the Apple Blossom. She did not show a lot finishing a distant second last month as the odds-on favorite in a sprint handicap at Tampa Bay Downs. But that was her first race in nearly seven months, and my hope is that she will be more at home going two turns and getting a big run on an eroding early pace. That was precisely how she won last year’s Black-Eyed Susan after Cookie Dough and Brill went out in 47.02 and 1:10.81. Drawn into post 5 with Drayden Van Dyke taking over for Castellano, Point Of Honor will hopefully carry double-digit odds to the winner’s circle. I will box her with Ce Ce and, thanks to a certain tip below about a filly that is 5-for-6 on fast tracks at route distances and 3-for-4 at Oaklawn, Lady Apple.
More picks – as heard on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod.
* From South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews: Lady Apple over Serengeti Empress and Go Google Yourself in the Apple Blossom.
* From journalist and handicapper Kate Hunter in Japan: An exacta-trifecta box with Salios (3-1), Contrail (3-2), Satono Flag (3-1) and Crystal Black (12-1) in the $2.2 million Grade 1 Satsuki Shō, a 1¼-mile turf race for 3-year-olds on Sunday at 2:40 a.m. EDT at Nakayama.
Even though Maryland racing is still shut down, the Preakness Stakes could come before the Kentucky Derby is run Sept. 5. “That’s a possibility,” 1/ST racing CEO Craig Fravel told NBC Sports. The Preakness is run at Pimlico in Baltimore by 1/ST, the new name for The Stronach Group. The company already announced that the race would not be run as originally scheduled May 16. It has been 89 years since the Preakness came before the Derby. Meanwhile, the Belmont Stakes is up in the air. The New York Racing Association announced Thursday that it would postpone the opening of Belmont Park spring-summer meet, which was due to start next Friday. The announcement also said that no date has been set for the Belmont Stakes, which is still precariously scheduled for June 6.
Gov. Andy Beshear (D-Ky.) may have put out the strongest signal yet that the Kentucky Derby will be run without fans at Churchill Downs. Asked Tuesday about opening the gates for University of Kentucky football, Beshear said, “In the fall I think we ought to be hesitant to have 60,000 people together at something.” That size crowd is less than half what the Derby attracts. When the race was postponed a month ago from May 2 to Sept. 5, Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said, “We feel confident that we are going to run the Kentucky Derby, and we are going to run it with a crowd.” Stay tuned.
Also speaking Tuesday, a political rival called on Beshear to open Kentucky’s racetracks to competition even if he does not open them to fans. “We’ve got to get horse racing going again soon,” state Senate majority leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Why are other states managing to race without spectators, but Kentucky cannot? The Governor ought to back off a little bit and let our signature industry get back to business.” Turfway Park near Cincinnati was the only track operating in Kentucky when racing was suspended March 25. Churchill Downs was scheduled to open its stable area last month, but that has been pushed back to at least April 28. The start of Churchill’s spring meet was supposed to begin next Saturday, but it has been postponed indefinitely. Keeneland’s spring races, originally set for April 2-24, were canceled altogether.
Looking to have its suspension of racing lifted, Santa Anita Park executives hope to meet via teleconference Saturday with leaders from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, according to the Daily Racing Form. The position of the track is that it is at least as safe to race in the afternoon as it is to exercise horses in the morning, something that has not been stopped. Santa Anita has also reportedly tightened its restrictions and health standards even more than it had when it locked fans out last month. The health department suspended racing at Santa Anita three weeks ago, putting the remaining 2½ months of the spring-summer meet in limbo.
News that the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia is holding up the $10 million first-place payment to connections of Saudi Cup winner Maximum Security came as no surprise. It was a reaction to victorious trainer Jason Servis being foremost among the 27 defendants indicted last month in a federal case against illegal racing medication. What was more surprising was that the purse money still had not been paid 1½ months after the running of the race. Between that and the draconian, $210,000 fine and nine-day suspension handed to jockey Mike Smith for his crop use on second-place Midnight Bisou, one wonders why Americans would be ready to beat a path to Riyadh for the second running of the race next winter.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On the current episode, race caller and podcaster Jason Beem discusses the strategies and nuances of horseplaying, Chris Kotulak of Fonner Park and John Lies of Will Rogers Downs talk about bettors discovering their tracks during the pandemic, and there are previews of weekend races in Arkansas and Japan with Chris Andrews and Kate Hunter. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.