Horse racing fields are (sigh)zing smaller

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Las Vegas

 

Remember way back in May when racing looked downright great? When field sizes were stacked? When allowance races looked like Grade 3s, and Grade 3s looked like Grade 1s?

 

Those days are over.

 

Not to throw too much water on Saturday’s $500,000 Grade 1 Met Mile at Belmont Park or the $150,000 Grade 3 Los Alamitos Derby. But the two races that may be the most anticipated this weekend have a combined 13 horses.

 

There is no bounty of depth overseas, either. Barely a month after racing resumed in England, Sunday’s $312,500 Group 1 Eclipse Stakes drew only eight starters, including the great mare Enable.

 

It seems like only yesterday when we were hearing about horses that were going stir crazy in their barns. How they were craving something more than morning workouts after all those race cards were canceled early this spring by the coronavirus.

 

Races were overloaded for a while. But a couple months have passed since all that idled talent got to race again. The stakes schedules may still be jumbled, but the calendar is getting back to some semblance of normal as far as the horses are concerned. And that means big fields are back to becoming the exception.

 

So betting strategies must revert to the normal that we have all groused about for years. Note to self: Deal with it.

 

The Met Mile has become racing’s most anticipated answer to a catchweight fight. It should be a haven for milers. But instead it features route horses like McKinzie and Code Of Honor that are cutting back. And there are also sprinters like Vekoma that are stretching out.

 

The last time morning-line favorite McKinzie (2-1) went a mile was 13 months ago, when he was the 8-5 favorite in last year’s running of this race. That was when Mike Smith took him into traffic twice and lost by three-quarters of a length to Mitole. Conventional wisdom said that McKinzie was the best horse in the race, but the results did not reflect that.

 

McKinzie’s 2020 season began in the Middle East, where he was eased to an 11th-place finish in the $20 million Saudi Cup. He came back last month with Smith back in the saddle to win the Grade 2 Triple Bend at Santa Anita, a rare sprint start for the 5-year-old that finished second to Vino Rosso in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

 

“His comeback race was just perfect,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “If he brings his ‘A’ game, that’s what we’re looking for.”

 

With a closing style that thrives on longer races, Code Of Honor (3-1) has not raced a mile since he won the Grade 3 Dwyer a year ago, his first victory in three tries at that distance. The promoted runner-up in last year’s Kentucky Derby came back from a seven-month break to win the 8½-furlong Grade 3 Westchester four weeks ago in the Belmont mud.

 

“He just grew up physically in his body and in his mind,” said trainer Shug McGaughey, who will have regular jockey John Velázquez riding Code Of Honor again. “He was still figuring things out last year. Now he acts like he’s ready to run. He’s had plenty of time off over the winter, and it seems to have done him some good.”

 

Rather methodically, Vekoma (5-2) has returned from 11 months on the sideline since he was promoted from 13th to 12th in the Kentucky Derby. After he won his seven-furlong comeback in a $75,000 stakes race at Gulfstream Park, the Candy Ride colt ran off last month to win the Grade 1 Carter Handicap by 7¼ lengths in the Belmont slop. Likely to chase the pace from gate 2, the 4-year-old has five wins in his seven starts for trainer George Weaver.

 

If there is an accomplished one-turn miler in the field, it is Mr Freeze (8-1). He stalked the pace or set it in a pair of wins – last fall’s Grade 3 Ack Ack at Churchill Downs and last winter’s Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Mile, a race in which he drew post 9. This time he and jockey Manny Franco are in gate 7 for trainer Dale Romans, who brings the 5-year-old To Honor And Serve horse back from a third-place finish two months ago in the Grade 2 – should have been Grade 1 – Oaklawn Handicap.

 

That race also provided the likely pacesetter Saturday. While there is no shortage of early speed in the Met Mile, 4-year-old Warrior’s Charge (12-1) is likely to bolt to the lead. He comes back two months after a valiant, 1¾-length loss to By My Standards in that Oaklawn Handicap. Trainer Brad Cox cuts him back to a mile, a distance that he has not raced since he was still a maiden.

 

Normally, the outside post that was drawn by Warrior’s Charge would look like a disadvantage. But with four furlongs to run before the only turn, he might set fractions of jockey Florent Geroux’s choosing. The fact that he has never raced at Belmont Park makes him a risk, but that should bring about a better reward. This Munnings colt carrying five fewer pounds than Code Of Honor and six less than McKinzie is the across-the-board play.

 

If only there were a couple more horses in the race. Then Warrior’s Charge might yield some true value. But as someone urged me to do 11 paragraphs ago, I will deal with it.

 

The National Weather Service forecast a 20 percent chance of morning showers at Elmont, N.Y. Then it should be clearing in time for the Met Mile, which is scheduled for Saturday at 5:47 p.m. EDT.

 

Racing notes and opinions

 

With a seven-length victory in his debut last month, Baffert’s late-blooming speed horse Uncle Chuck (6-5) is the morning-line favorite against only four other 3-year-olds Saturday at 6:28 p.m. EDT in the 1⅛-mile Los Alamitos Derby, the winner of which will get 20 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby. Another Baffert, the seemingly forgotten Thousand Words (9-5), returns to the track where he won the Los Al Futurity last December. Still only a maiden winner, Anneau d’Or (3-1) lost that race by a neck and has failed to finish in the money in three races this year. It is interesting that 2019-20 Santa Anita riding champion Flavien Prat chose Thousand Words, so that “other Baffert” may be the play – if his odds are longer than 2-1.

 

It was not overwhelming, but another lightly raced Baffert colt won his second start with relative ease Thursday at Los Al. Cézanne (1-9) coasted under the wire to beat four other horses by 1¾ lengths in a two-turn mile allowance that was clocked at 1:35.99. The colt bought for $3.65 million by the Irish racing giant Coolmore had his futures odds cut from 13-1 to 11½-1 (plus-1150) at Circa Sports to win the Kentucky Derby, making him the fourth choice behind Tiz The Law (plus-285), Honor A. P. (plus-565) and stable mate Authentic (plus-595). He held steady at 18-1 at William Hill Nevada. Cézanne closed at 19-1 in last weekend’s pari-mutuel Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

 

She has been out of action since her failed attempt to win an unprecedented third consecutive Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe last fall on a track too waterlogged for her own good. Conditions should be better for 2018 European champion Enable (10-11) on Sunday, when she is favored in her 6-year-old debut to win the 1¼-mile Eclipse Stakes at Sandown. While Enable was second in the Arc, the Godolphin horse Gaiyyath (9-4) finished up the track in 10th but has come back to win both his races as a 5-year-old, including last month’s 1¼-mile Group 1 Coronation Cup at Newmarket. Fourth in the Arc, Japan (7-2) disappointed as a sweaty, slow-starting favorite in the Group 1 Prince of Wales’s at Royal Ascot, finishing fourth there, too. A breeze should help dry the course from Saturday morning showers and leave it rated good for Sunday’s start at 10:35 a.m. EDT.

 

Following up last week’s column on racetracks that are unavailable to bettors via Las Vegas racebooks. The Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association only Thursday reached an agreement to make the Del Mar summer available to the state’s horseplayers. It represented the latest in a flurry of deals to try and save some face for casinos that have been unable to take bets on more than a dozen tracks, most notably Churchill Downs. The Del Mar meet begins next Friday.

 

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. The relationship between race and racing is the subject of the current episode. Equibase president Jason Wilson, Fox Sports’ Jonathon Kinchen, bloodstock executive Greg Harbut and publicist Alicia Hughes discuss the challenges faced by Black Americans in the sport. The RFRP is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

Belmont_Park_file
Full fields that had become the norm shortly after pandemic suspensions were lifted have been replaced by the more familiar site of fewer horses in the average race. (NYRA archive photo)
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