Racing dares to look organized as more tracks open

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Las Vegas

In spite of its deserved reputation for dysfunction, horse racing is doing something that North America’s four major sports have only talked about for the past two months. It has gotten off its can and kept going throughout the coronavirus lockdown.

It is odd, isn’t it? The NBA and NHL continue to pepper their office floors with crumpled, poorly aimed ideas for resumption. Baseball’s labor and management are scorching their own earth with rhetoric that sounds, looks, feels, tastes and especially smells like a strike.

Yet the sport that is conveniently criticized when it cannot keep two tracks from starting races on top of one another is not only active, it is getting back to business as usual. All right, maybe not quite usual. But it is clearly headed in that direction.

Even though it is three weeks late, Churchill Downs will have its opening day Saturday, complete with the comeback of 2018 Eclipse Award winner Monomoy Girl from 1½ years off. Next week the heavily bet Kentucky Derby hope Maxfield makes his 3-year-old debut there, returning from November surgery to make what was once thought to be an unlikely bid to run for the roses.

With this week’s blessing from the Department of Public Health in Los Angeles County, Santa Anita resumes racing Friday for the first time in nearly eight weeks. This comes after Golden Gate Fields and Charles Town had horses back on the track Thursday afternoon.

Gulfstream Park continues apace. So do Tampa Bay Downs and those newly discovered, early-week stalwarts Fonner Park and Will Rogers Downs as they wind up their seasons this month. At some point around Memorial Day there may be a dozen or so active courses around North America.

Spectators still have to stay away, although some wags will snipe that that has been the norm at racetracks for 30 years. But horseplayers who are allowed to use advanced-deposit wagering – which is in pretty much any gambling state other than anachronistic Nevada – will feel like spring has truly sprung.

Even though there are no stakes on the opening-day card at Churchill Downs, bettors will be delighted to see that 124 horses were entered into the main draws of 11 races. That does not include the 40 horses that were designated as also eligible or for the main track only. It is just too bad that the National Weather Service has forecast a 60 percent chance of a wet Saturday.

Rain or shine, Monomoy Girl (4-5 morning line) reckons to be the most heavily bet favorite in the fourth race Saturday at 2:32 p.m. EDT. The one-turn mile that is part of two overlapping Pick 5s is the de facto feature despite being just an $85,000 allowance race for fillies and mares.

Colic surgery and a pulled gluteal muscle kept Monomoy Girl from racing since she won the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. That triumph, also at Churchill Downs, completed a 6-for-7 year during which the only blemish was a controversial demotion from a Cotillion Stakes victory.

“It’s been a long time coming, but we are thrilled for her to return to the races,” trainer Brad Cox told the Churchill Downs media team. “She’s been working great down at Keeneland since late March, and we’re looking forward to this first step back.”

The comments on the Brisnet past performances say that she “drops in class.” Gee, you think?

Once thought to be retired, 5-year-old Talk Veuve To Me (7-2) mounts part of the challenge. She makes her first start since being sold for $1.3 million last fall to Stonestreet Stables and transferred from trainer Rodolphe Brisset to Steve Asmussen. She did finish second two years ago at Belmont Park in the Grade 1 Acorn, losing by two lengths to, yes, Monomoy Girl.

Although she was a badly beaten favorite in a Gulfstream Park sprint two months ago, the 4-year-old filly Lady Kate (7-2) is 2-for-2 this year in allowance miles coming into Saturday. But this will be the first time that she has faced the likes of Monomoy Girl.

This has paid workout written all over it. With regular jockey Florent Geroux along for the ride, Monomoy Girl figures to move past $3 million in career earnings.

Cox will hope to see that she is the same horse that she was in 2018. That way he can aim the Tapizar filly toward what could be a special valedictory in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland. She could be the third repeat winner of the Distaff – and the first to do it in non-consecutive years. Or maybe, if Cox picks up his thoughts where he left them 1½ years ago, Monomoy Girl might race against the boys.

But let’s not put the horse ahead of the card on Saturday. There is a whole summer to get through first. At least now it looks like it will be full of horse races. And that sure beats the noise coming out of Major League Baseball, which seems to be full of horse ... well, never mind.

Racing notes and opinions

An 11-1 fifth choice in the Kentucky Derby futures at William Hill, Maxfield is expected to be the heavy favorite next Saturday for the $150,000 Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes. Before he developed an ankle chip that was surgically removed last November, the Street Sense colt was 2-for-2, including a win in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. Based on three months of morning workouts, trainer Brendan Walsh said that the old Maxfield is back. “Since we’ve started him back training and working he hasn’t missed a beat,” Walsh told VSiN. “It was actually a pretty straightforward issue. The prognosis on a thing like that is about as good as you’re going to get on any kind of an injury.” Originally set to give 10 Derby qualifying points to the winner, the 8½-furlong Matt Winn will now carry a 50-point reward.

A $925,000 colt that has not raced in nearly two years gets back on the track for trainer Bob Baffert on re-opening day Friday at Santa Anita. Tale Of The Union was one of Baffert’s 20 winners from his first-time, 2-year-old starters in 2018. Sired by Union Rags out of a Tale Of The Cat mare, he finished first by eight lengths in his 5½-furlong debut two summers ago at Del Mar. That earned him a Beyer Speed Figure of 91 before he went to the shelf. On and off the work tab since, Tale Of the Union (8-5) is the morning-line favorite against eight others Friday in a 5½-furlong “n1x” allowance. It is the third race, and it is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. EDT. Friday’s entries include  94 horses plus three also-eligibles for nine races.

Off since March 18, racing in the U.K. will get going again Wednesday and Thursday, June 3 and 4, with cards at Ascot, Sandown and Kempton Park. The first major races will come the weekend of June 6 and 7 with the running of the 2,000 Guineas and 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket. The British Horseracing Authority said that Royal Ascot will fill its normally scheduled dates June 16-20, although the traditional order of the races may be changed. The Derby and Oaks will both be staged Saturday, July 4, at Epsom, meaning that 3-year-olds will be excluded from the otherwise open company of the Eclipse Stakes on Sunday, July 5, at Sandown.

In a move that has less to do with the coronavirus than with a decline in business, as many as 20 of New Zealand’s 52 racetracks are reportedly being closed permanently by the country’s Racing Industry Transition Agency. According to the New Zealand Herald, the shuttered tracks are expected to include the iconic Avondale Jockey Club and the Phar Lap Raceway, the Timaru course named for the all-time great racehorse. The prevailing theory is that the tracks will be sold as real estate to raise money for the racing industry. Leaders at some tracks, including Avondale, are expected to go to court to fight the shutdowns.

The pandemic may have no bigger impact on racing than in South Africa, where there is widespread fear that an ongoing, government-ordered shutdown may kill the sport. As the Cape Town-based Independent Online news service put it this week, “The national lockdown has placed South African horse racing under serious threat of closure, which would seal the fates of 60,000 jobs and see thousands of horses euthanized.” A proposal to race without spectators was rejected last week by the National Coronavirus Command Council, which forced comeback cards at two tracks to be canceled on short notice. The National Horseracing Authority said that it was told by the NCCC to check back late this month. All this leaves horsemen wondering what they will do with their animals. “We don’t know where to give the horses away,” eight-time champion trainer Mike De Kock said in an interview for a Drackenstein Stud video. “The second-home market has virtually died. The grim reality is euthanasia, and the grim reality is mass job reductions.” The last horse race run in South Africa was March 26.

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 of the RFRP, trainer Brendan Walsh discusses the comeback of Kentucky Derby contender Maxfield, Jude Feld of Horse Racing Radio Network looks forward to the sport’s reboot this weekend, and Johnny Avello of DraftKings Sportsbook and Kate Hunter in Japan handicap weekend races in the U.S. and Tokyo. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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The first morning workouts of the delayed spring season began Wednesday morning beneath the twin spires at Churchill Downs, where 124 main-draw horses fill 11 races on the opening-day card Saturday. (Churchill Downs photo)
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