Jeff Siegel: Five Takeaways | From the Week Concluding November 28, 2021

1 - You may have overlooked the opportunity to participate in the first of five pools for the 2022 Kentucky Derby Future Wager that closed on Sunday.  Twenty two individual horses were listed, but nowhere to be found were any runners from the Bob Baffert stable, meaning the undefeated Breeders’ Cup Juvenile S.-G1 winner and slam dunk Champion 2-year-old Corniche, undefeated and similarly promising Messier, recent Nashua S.-G3 winner Rockefeller, and Sunday’s sharp Del Mar maiden debut winner Newgrange could not be wagered as a separate entity.

Of course, you still could have backed them as part of the mutuel field (“all others”), as long as you were willing to accept the closing odds of 3/5.

Honestly, we’re not sure why the Baffert horses weren’t included. It’s a “future bet” and the gambler could easily have incorporated into the equation the much discussed arbitrary “banning” of his stock in the 2021 Derby. Do we think one or more of the Baffert-trained colts will actually run in the Triple Crown’s first jewel next spring?  Of course, we do.  For example, in a worst case scenario, they could have their final starts prior to the Derby (and then in the Derby itself) in another trainer’s name and then easily qualify if they run first or second in one of those final 100 point prep events. Risky, yes, but if they’re truly Derby-quality it’s doable.

Smile Happy, undefeated in two starts and the winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club S.-G2 at Churchill Downs last Saturday, closed at the 8-1 “favorite” among the listed runners after reportedly taking a $10,000 bet from Mattress Mack, , who clearly has confidence in the ability of the son of Runhappy to stay a mile and one-quarter and wants to earn $80,000 to prove it.  The currently injured and out-of-training Champagne S.-G1 winner Jack Christopher was next at 10-1.  Everybody else in 21-1 or higher.

For the record, the “field” has been the favorite in every Pool One listing since the wager was introduced in 1999.  The 2021 Derby winner, Medina Spirit, was part of the field that closed at 6/5 when it was offered at this time last year.  

2 - There is nothing sinister – at least nothing that we can determine - about the decision last week to send Corniche from Baffert’s home base at Santa Anita to WinStar farm in Kentucky for some freshening.  The stated plan is to return the soon-to-be-champion to California to prepare for the Triple Crown sometime during the winter, though the colt’s connections certainly reserve the right to go in a different direction when the time comes.  But as stated above, there are alternative ways for the colt to qualify for the Derby without forfeiting Baffert’s expertise, so we’re expecting a return trip to materialize.

3 -  Have to hand it to trainer Kenny McPeek.  In addition to winning the Kentucky Jockey Club with Smile Happy, he saddled a pair of first-time starting fillies on Stars of Tomorrow Day at Churchill Downs that must really have fooled the private clockers – assuming they actually exist there – when Park on the Nile (21-1) won her debut by more than seven widening lengths in the afternoon’s third race, and then 30 minutes later when Cocktail Moments (26-1) crushed a maiden sprint field by nine lengths after finding herself more than eight lengths off the leaders with just a quarter of a mile to go.

It's hard to say how much either one was beating but both were visually quite impressive and have every right to develop into stakes-quality 3-year-olds next winter.  Park of the Nile, a strong Cairo Prince filly with plenty of scope, was assigned a Beyer speed figure of 66, which won’t knock your socks off until you realize that this was a 2-year-old making her debut over a distance of ground on dirt. That ain’t easy, folks.  As for Cocktail Moments, her Beyer figure  was a very respectable 77.  She’s a first foal daughter of Uncle Mo and the Canadian champion sprinting mare River Maid.  The rolling daily double returned $523.90 for a measly one dollar; hopefully, some of the stable’s grooms and hot walkers got down for at least a buck.  

4 - There were a ton of good turf races over the weekend, including two that especially caught our eye. On Friday at Aqueduct, the Constitution colt Never Surprised pulverized a field of seven 3-year-olds when winning the listed Gio Ponti S. by more than six lengths as the controlling speed, doing so like a colt that one would expect to develop into a very good older horse.  Never worse than second in six career starts, the T. Pletcher-trained sophomore established the running and then lengthened through the lane to earn a career top 98 Beyer Speed figure.  However, we had to slice off a few points from his “Goose Bump Scale” rating because (1) he won as the controlling speed and that type of pristine journey won’t always be available and (2) he was unnecessarily whipped and driven hard from the furlong pole to the wire by jockey Kendrick Carmouche, who apparently was under the impression that extra purse money was available based on margin of victory.  

Much more visually impressive on Saturday on the West Coat was the Brendan Walsh-trained Santin despite the fact that he didn’t even win his race (the Hollywood Derby-G1) while being assigned a Beyer speed figure seven points less than what Never Surprised earned the previous day. The Godolphin homebred colt fell a neck short of catching “lone f” Beyond Brilliant in the nine furlong event at Del Mar after racing wide without cover every step of the way and then rallying into the race-flow (slow early, fast late) before just running out of room. This was only his third career start – “they” got 5-1 in his debut at Indiana Downs and then cashed at 4-1 in a subsequent first-level Keeneland allowance race – before this step up into Grade-1 company, and with any kind of normal pace his late kick surely would have resulted in victory.  Santin left at 17-1 in the Hollywood Derby and there was no other 3-year-old colt in either race that we’d rather own heading into the new year.  

5 - The announcement that 50-year-old jockey Johnny Velasquez will for the first time in his career winter at Santa Anita – as first reported by Jay Privman in DRF – is welcome news to California horsemen and horse players who have seen the local jockey colony dominated by Flavian Prat in recent years.  Not that Johnny V. will accept enough overnight mounts to challenge Prat in the standings, but he will provide a reasonable stakes race alternative for those seeking a Hall of Fame rider who has won the Kentucky Derby four times to go along with 18 Breeders’ Cup victories.  

He’ll almost assuredly be doing a ton of riding for trainer Bob Baffert, for whom he piloted Medina Spirit to a first place finish in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.  But he seems certain to be heavily pursued by several of the other big name barns, much more so in California than he would be at the crowded and competitive Gulfstream Park winter championship meeting, which begins on Friday.

What we’ve seen of Johnny V. this summer and fall during his excursions to California for various stakes assignments is a rider that very much “still has it.”  He’ll at least somewhat fill the void left by Joel Rosario, who has opted to campaign at Oaklawn Park on a regular basis this winter due in part to his relationship with trainers Steve Asmussen and Brad Cox, for whom he can ride just about anything horse he wants.  

Both jockeys are represented by agent Ron Anderson, who has far more influence (in a highly positive way) over this game than most people have ever realized or given him credit for.

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