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Still time for Irish War Cry to make mark?

By Ron Flatter  ( 

Irish War Cry, shown winning last winter's Holy Bull Stakes, makes a push to be a 3-year-old horse of the year candidate when he races Saturday in the Pennsylvania Derby.
© Photo: Gulfstream Park

LAS VEGAS--It is what it is. The 3-year-old season of 2017 has been frustrating.


As frustrating as watching the Houston Texans play the Cincinnati Bengals. Frustrating for horsemen. Frustrating for viewers. Frustrating for bettors.


So is it too late for a game-changing Hail Mary from a horse that is still lacking that signature win despite being at odds shorter than 5-1 in every race this year? A horse that brought the two best Beyer Speed Figures into the Triple Crown? A horse that would have won the Belmont Stakes – if it were a furlong shorter?


In other words, after losing his last three races, could Irish War Cry still piece together a campaign that makes him the 3-year-old male horse of the year?


“A couple of people have asked me that,” trainer Graham Motion told VSiN. “I would hate to get on a bandwagon. He has not been consistent. I realize that none of these horses have. I feel like he’s got to step up and prove that to me and everyone else.”


That could happen starting this weekend. Irish War Cry (9-2) should be a value play when he tries to take down morning-line favorite West Coast (8-5), Irap (3-1) and seven other colts in the $1 million Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby. The nine-furlong race at Parx is scheduled for 5:45 p.m. EDT on Saturday.


Irish War Cry and Todd Pletcher’s late-blooming trainee Outplay will provide the early speed to challenge West Coast, which led the whole way last month at Saratoga to win trainer Bob Baffert his second straight Travers Stakes.


But the Travers lacked Irish War Cry. He is racing for the first time since he faded to a fourth-place finish in the Haskell Invitational on the Jersey Shore nearly two months ago. After giving him a brief break, Motion breezed Irish War Cry the last five Mondays, tightening him this week into a bullet, five-furlong work of 1:00 1/5.


“I feel really good about running him,” Motion said Thursday from his home base at the Fair Hill Training Center in northeastern Maryland. “He has had a really good couple of weeks. I like the way he has breezed since the Haskell.”


So what went wrong this spring? Sired by two-time horse of the year Curlin, Irish War Cry looked the part of a world beater during the winter when he won the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. Voted at the time the top 3-year-old in the country, he then suffered his first loss in the Fountain of Youth before bouncing back to win the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.


Bettors looked past a poor draw and made Irish War Cry a 9-2 second choice in the Kentucky Derby, but things went south right from the start. Ridden by his regular jockey Rajiv Maragh, he broke sharply inward and cut off three rivals. By the end of the race Irish War Cry was spent, finishing a career-worst 10th – never a threat to the winner Always Dreaming.


“Could it have been the bumping at the start? I don’t know,” Motion said. “The track was pretty sloppy that day. He handled it well in the morning, but I had forgotten about the commotion when he got to Churchill. He was one of the later horses to arrive, and he drew a bit of attention. That takes its toll. Every day he was kind of unraveling a little bit.”


Motion was buoyed by Irish War Cry’s runner-up finish to Tapwrit in the Belmont. But then came a fade to fourth in the Haskell, an unusual race in that two closers –Girvin and McCraken – finished one-two on a Monmouth track notorious for favoring front-end speed.


“I thought he had a very awkward trip that day,” he said. “The race set up awkwardly, especially being in the ‘1’ post. We somewhat had to commit to the lead. It was an oddly run race. I think I would give him a mulligan there.”


Coming off a two-month break, Irish War Cry gets a change of rider Saturday. Feargal Lynch, 38, an Irish-born jockey who re-established himself at mid-Atlantic tracks two years ago, is replacing Maragh. Lynch is not unfamiliar with Irish War Cry, having ridden him to victories in his first two races last year at Laurel Park.


“I didn’t take Rajiv off the horse,” Motion said. “He just wasn’t able to ride him in Florida. Feargal rides most of my horses locally. He has a pretty good rapport with (Irish War Cry). He rides a lot at Parx, which is a little bit of a peculiar track. It’s no knock on Rajiv, but he hasn’t won since April. I wanted to try something a little different. I’ll take every edge I can.”


For Irish War Cry to become a serious contender for a year-end Eclipse Award, he would not only have to win Saturday but also at the Breeders’ Cup. Still, that may be all it takes to separate him from his middling rivals. Of the nine Grade 1 dirt races this year for 3-year-olds, only Always Dreaming has won two – the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby – and he has not looked like the same horse since.


“I think there’s been a couple of head scratchers,” Motion said. “Ian Wilkes’s horse (McCraken) and Gunnevera – those two horses are capable of stepping up on their day. There are some really good horses out there, but none of them have been able to put their races together.”


The same may be said of Irish War Cry. But trying to find a realistic place somewhere between hope and skepticism, Motion put it best when he said, “Ask me after Saturday.”


Bolt d’Oro is early favorite for the Derby


Still 32 weeks before the Run for the Roses, Del Mar Futurity winner Bolt d’Oro was bet down from 40-1 to a 30-1 favorite Thursday at Wynn Las Vegas on the first day of futures betting for Kentucky Derby 144.


“I was down at Del Mar to see Bolt d’Oro,” said Johnny Avello, director of the Wynn race and sports books. “He looked good.”


Bolt d’Oro opened a 40-1 co-favorite with last week’s Iroquois winner The Tabulator. Sporting Chance (45-1), winner of the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga for four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, was the third choice. Runaway Ghost (50-1), a Santa Anita-based colt sired by Ghostzapper, and St. Patrick’s Day (50-1), a Coolmore colt trained by Baffert, had the fourth-shortest odds.


“The favorite is usually a dead bet,” Avello said, “but three of the last four years, my opening Derby favorite has won it, which is insane.”


Avello’s streak that was built on California Chrome, American Pharoah and Nyquist was broken this year when Classic Empire lost.


“I’ve been making Derby futures for over 25 years, and I’ve had to change my Derby bookmaking a little,” he said. “These 2-year-olds don’t run a lot of races from September to the end of the year. As long as they are healthy and as long as they continue to go forward on that path, they make the race, and unfortunately for me, they’ve won it.”


With a posted limit of $20,000-$25,000 for a winning ticket depending on the math, Avello said “there were about four or five guys here (Thursday) morning when we opened up. They were ready to go. One guy made at least 10 plays, another six, another three or four.”


After studying 245 horses and posting win prices for each, Avello said the odds will get significant movement after the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 4 at Del Mar.


“Being at Del Mar, that’s why Bolt d’Oro is the favorite,” he said. “He will be the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup. He ran very well.”

Here is a link to the Wynn futures sheets.


Remembering Penny Chenery and Big Red


The simple, white, floral dress and a gleeful wave of the arms. That was the indelible image of Penny Chenery, who died Saturday at 95.


That image was the first reaction shot we saw on CBS on June 9, 1973, after Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. For this 14-year-old kid in Chico, Calif., it was like she was Secretariat’s mom. America’s mom.


“Look at Mrs. Tweedy,” race announcer Chic Anderson said. “She’s having the time of her life.”


She was Penny Tweedy back then, before an affair with Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Lauren led to a divorce that year and a return to her maiden name – the name of a family that was among racing’s bluebloods. Her father’s death left her with a big tax burden that she satisfied by syndicating Secretariat for a then-record $6.08 million.


Fast-forward 47 years to the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs. Chenery was there for a news conference to help promote the movie “Secretariat.” Actress Diane Lane, who played Chenery, was alongside.


Asked about her reaction to the movie version of her, Chenery got a roomful of laughs when she said, “Well, I’m younger and prettier.”


Meeting her that Kentucky Derby week in 2010, I became one of the zillion people who told her of my memories of Secretariat, a horse she called “Big Red.” Try as I might, I struggled to come up with some recollection that she had not heard before. I failed, but she responded warmly with an elegance that I had heard about from a good many people who knew her.


With Chenery’s passing, only jockey Ron Turcotte is left of the primary connections to Secretariat – a reminder of just how fleeting racing’s greatest era truly was, no matter how much we may cling to it.


Racing notes: Abel Tasman is Cotillion favorite

  • Baffert not only trains West Coast this weekend at Parx but also Abel Tasman (8-5), the morning-line favorite for the $1 million Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. The Kentucky Oaks winner has been victorious in her last three races and is being aimed at the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in November at Del Mar. Post time for the Cotillion is Saturday at 4:55 p.m. EDT.
  • With a Breeders’ Cup decision to be made, Haskell winner Girvin (7-2) drew the outside post in the field of eight for the $400,000 Grade 3 Oklahoma Derby on Sunday at 8:46 p.m. EDT. Trainer Joe Sharp said this nine-furlong race will determine whether Girvin races in the Dirt Mile or the Classic in November at Del Mar. Third in the Kentucky Derby and 10 places ahead of Girvin, morning-line favorite Battle Of Midway (2-1) drew gate 3 for Sunday’s race at Remington Park. He finished sixth to Girvin in the Haskell before coming back last month to win the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar.


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