By Frances J. Karon
In the midst of the pandemic that has, with a few exceptions shut down most horse racing all over the world, here in the U.S. we may be starting to feel a sense of normalcy now that our first 2yo races have been run. Normally that would have happened on opening day of the Keeneland spring meet, but with Keeneland cancelled, the 2yos were delayed until Gulfstream Park in Florida staged 4 1/2-furlong maiden special weights on April 16th (won by Arindel’s Quinoa Tifah, trained by Juan Alvarado) and April 17th (Gatsby, for the same connections).
(Worldwide, these were the third and fourth 2yo races of 2020: there was one at Naas on March 20th, won by Poetic Flare, before racing was shuttered in Ireland, and Midnight Cross broke her maiden at Monbetsu in Japan on April 15th.)
But even with the welcome sight of 2yo races trickling into condition books, we’re heading into uncharted territory. The lockdown will continue for an indeterminate period of time. We’re lucky to have Gulfstream, along with Fonner Park in Nebraska, Los Alamitos in California, Oaklawn in Arkansas, Remington Park (if Quarter Horse, Paint, and Appaloosa racing is your thing) and Will Rogers in Oklahoma, and Tampa Bay in Florida, but Gulfstream is the only one with any 2yo Thoroughbred races in a current condition book. And there are only four, if even that many — two maiden specials (May 7th and May 8th), plus two maiden claimers which are “substitute” race possibilities — offered between now and May 10th. So barring any changes, for better or worse, to the racing landscape, we’ll have had four maiden special weight races through the middle of May.
The shutdown will continue to place untold financial burdens on owners, trainers, breeders, stud farms, etc. — everyone, at every level, is affected, but the freshman sires stand to get hit pretty hard.
I’ve written before about the first-season sire phenomenon. It’s this subset of stallions that people get the most excited about every year as the 2yo races start to get rolling. From the farms that invest a lot of money to secure breeding rights, the first three years’ worth of breeders who commit their mares, the weanling-to-yearling pinhookers, the yearling end-user buyers, to the yearling-to-juvenile pinhookers, a lot of people have a lot riding on these stallions. By the time a horse’s first 2yos get to the track, three years will have been blindly invested into making him a success, and though the result of a sire’s first 2yo season is not necessarily an accurate gauge, it’s considered a very important litmus test. In an industry that’s quick to pass judgment, getting early winners in lucrative maiden special weights at the “big name” tracks is everything.
Last April at Keeneland, freshman sires Wicked Strong, Carpe Diem, Fast Anna, and Palace Malice were represented by their first winners, in $60,000 maiden special weight races. American Pharoah and Constitution, the leading North American freshmen at the end of the year, both had their first N.A. winners in $100,000 maidens at Aqueduct, American Pharoah on April 19th and Constitution on May 2nd. (That was American Pharoah’s second winner, after one in Ireland on April 13th.) Now, with the delayed opening of racing at Churchill Downs — another venue with early 2yo maiden races — there are more missed opportunities for precocious and ready juveniles. Last May 1st, The Big Beast had his first winner there, in a $100,000 race.
The loss of so many races obviously gives freshman sires fewer chances to get winners to impress with impressive year-end totals. Will racing secretaries at, say, Saratoga, Del Mar, and Monmouth write more maidens to compensate for what was lost this spring at Keeneland, Aqueduct, Belmont, Churchill, and Santa Anita? Even if racetracks were to card more 2yo maidens, there would still be less of them compared to previous years, and it stands to reason that these races will have fuller, more competitive fields, which may be good for racing but won’t necessarily be ideal for producing lots of individual winners by freshman sires.
The TDN first-crop sires list of 2019 showed Constitution with 29 individual winners — BloodHorse had him in a three-way tie at 27 with American Pharoah and Tapiture; I’ve written about this before, which you can read here — to lead North American stallions. (Irish-based Gutaifan, with 30, was the leader worldwide, following a general trend of European first-season sires to get more winners than their N.A. counterparts.) In 2018, 29 winners (Goldencents) was enough to head the N.A. table, with 32 (Violence) in 2017, 20 in 2016 (Hansen and Maclean’s Music), and 28 in 2015 (Uncle Mo). What will it take to top the list in 2020? I expect that that figure might be around 20 individual winners, if not less.
For one thing, I’ve feel like I’m constantly seeing peoples’ opinions that the early 2yo races almost exclusively produce cheap horses that we’ll never hear from again. While that may be true in some cases — meaning that now their connections are losing out on their best, if not only, chance to recoup their investment and stay in the game — it’s certainly not the absolute truth. Take, for example, Keeneland, which as my home track I keep a close eye on, and single out trainer Wesley Ward. Ward targets the April maidens at Keeneland with precision aim as a springboard to Royal Ascot. He’s won these 4 1/2-furlong maidens with: Judy the Beauty (champion, G1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at 5), Lady Aurelia (champion, G1 Prix Morny at 2, G1 King’s Stand at 3), Hootenanny (G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at 2), Con Te Partiro (G1 Coolmore Classic, G1 Coolmore Legacy at 6 — or 5 as she’s currently considered in Australia, where she runs for the training partnership of Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott), No Nay Never (G1 Prix Morny at 2), Undrafted (G1 Diamond Jubilee at 5), Gypsy Robin (G2 Beaumont, G2 Raven Run at 3), Happy Like a Fool (G3 Matron at 2, G3 Miss Preakness at 3), and Nootka Sound (G3 Soaring Softly at 3).
Ward’s Canadian champion 2yo Madman Diaries was second in his debut at Keeneland in April before winning a 4 1/2-furlong maiden at Woodbine in May, while another early debuter, Acapulco, ran third at Churchill in May and broke her maiden in the G2 Queen Mary at Royal Ascot in June.
Trainer Wayne Catalano’s champion 2yo fillies Dreaming of Anna and She Be Wild (in a $40,000 maiden claimer) both debuted in 4 1/2-furlong races at Arlington in May and culminated their seasons with wins in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
But while it’s clearly a fallacy that good horses can’t emerge from these spring races, how will the loss of spring and, potentially, summer racing affect the top of the division by year’s end? Though early debuting 2yos can carry off a championship campaign — as Dreaming of Anna and She Be Wild did — the answer is: as long as the horses are able to race, probably not much, because the good ones will sort themselves out.
Let’s look at the 2019 candidates for Eclipse honors in 2yo male and female categories, with the list of 17 colts and 14 fillies that were included in the Daily Racing Form voter’s packet. These 21 candidates, listed by their order of debut and showing the highest class of black-type they earned at 2 and the date and result of first start, are as follows; the three award finalists are in bold, with the champion asterisked and in all caps:
Colts (there were no geldings in this group):
∙Nucky-G1 (Ghostzapper): 5th at Churchill Downs on June 8th, 5 furlongs;
∙Basin-G1 (Liam’s Map): 2nd at Saratoga on June 14th, 5 1/2 furlongs;
∙Dennis’ Moment-G3 (Tiznow): DNF (clipped heels, lost rider) at Churchill on June 23rd, 5 furlongs;
∙Green Light Go-G2 (Hard Spun): 1st at Belmont on July 4th, 5 1/2 furlongs;
∙Silver Prospector-G2 (Declaration of War): 4th at Belmont on July 6th, 6 1/2 furlongs (T);
∙Decorated Invader-G1 (Declaration of War): 2nd at Saratoga on July 13th, 1 1/16 miles (T);
∙Collusion Illusion-G2sp (Twirling Candy): 1st at Del Mar on July 21st, 5 furlongs;
∙Eight Rings-G1 (Empire Maker): 1st at Del Mar on August 4th, 5 1/2 furlongs;
∙Tiz the Law-G1 (Constitution): 1st at Saratoga on August 8th, 6 1/2 furlongs;
∙*STORM THE COURT-G1 (Court Vision): 1st at Del Mar on August 10th, 5 1/2 furlongs;
∙Four Wheel Drive-G2 (American Pharoah): 1st stakes race at Colonial Downs on August 31st, 5 1/2 furlongs (T);
∙Structor-G1 (Palace Malice): 1st at Saratoga on August 31st, 1 1/16 miles (T);
∙Shotski-G2 (Blame): 10th at Kentucky Downs on September 5th, 6 1/2 furlongs (T);
∙Maxfield-G1 (Street Sense): 1st at Churchill Downs on September 14th, 8 furlongs;
∙Independence Hall-G3 (Constitution): 1st at Parx on September 21st, 7 furlongs;
∙Anneau d’Or-G1sp (Medaglia d’Oro): 1st at Golden Gate on September 29th, 8 furlongs (T);
∙Thousand Words-G2 (Pioneerof the Nile): 1st at Santa Anita on October 26th, 6 1/2 furlongs.
∙Kimari-SWx2 (Munnings): 1st at Keeneland on April 25th, 4 1/2 furlongs;
∙Perfect Alibi-G1 (Sky Mesa); 1st at Churchill on May 16th, 5 furlongs;
∙Daahyeh-G2 (Bated Breath): 1st at Newmarket on May 18th, 6 furlongs (T);
∙Amalfi Sunrise-G2 (Constitution): 1st at Santa Anita on June 23rd, 4 1/2 furlongs;
∙Finite-G2 (Munnings): 2nd at Saratoga on July 19th, 6 furlongs;
∙Abscond-G1 (Blame): 1st at Ellis Park on July 21st, 5 1/2 furlongs (T);
∙Sharing-G1 (Speightstown): 3rd at Saratoga on July 21st, 5 1/2 furlongs (T);
∙Lazy Daisy-G2 (Paynter); 1st at Del Mar on August 3rd, 6 furlongs;
∙Bast-G1x3 (Uncle Mo): 2nd at Del Mar on August 11th, 5 1/2 furlongs;
∙*BRITISH IDIOM-G1x2 (Flashback): 1st at Saratoga on August 15th, 6 furlongs;
∙Wicked Whisper-G1 (Liam’s Map): 1st at Saratoga on August 25th, 6 furlongs;
∙Alms-G3x2 (City Zip): 1st at Belmont on September 19th, 6 furlongs (T);
∙Donna Veloce-G1sp (Uncle Mo): 1st at Santa Anita on September 28th, 6 1/2 furlongs;
∙Lake Avenue-G2 (Tapit): 2nd at Belmont on October 6th, 6 furlongs.
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This is all just one more thing to think about in a year with more unknowns and questions than certainties and answers than usual.