Jeff Siegel: Five Takeaways | Week Ending Oct. 24, 2021

1 - Two runaway maiden-breaking juveniles received plenty of buzz over the weekend, one at Santa Anita, the other at Gulfstream Park.  On the West Coast on Friday, Messier graduated by six and one-half lengths in a six-furlong sprint that was clocked in 1:10.26 and was assigned a Beyer speed figure of 82.  The following day in South Florida, Simplification annihilated his competition by 16 and three-quarter lengths in 1:09.81 and earning a Beyer number of 92.

Remarkably, both found a way to get themselves beat in their first career start, but they left nothing to the imagination in their second afternoon appearance, both winning like legitimate candidates for races leading up to and including next spring’s classics.  

To simply look at the charts of the two races, one could conclude that Simplification is the better prospect of the two.  He ran faster, got a better number, and produced a superior winning margin. However, nothing could be further than the truth.

Yes, Simplification might be a very nice colt.

Messier, well, he’s in a different stratosphere.

After racing greenly in his debut at Los Alamitos in June and finishing second at 50 cents on the dollar (“all my fault,” said trainer Bob Baffert), the son of Empire Maker was given almost four months off to mentally and physically grow up, and upon his return - this time as the 2/5 public choice - the $470,000 Fasig-Tipton Select sale yearling purchase did more than just perform to his press clippings.  

He mocked the competition.  He embarrassed them.  He taunted them.  Think Clay in the ring after his knockdown of Liston.

As for the actual race, Messier veered in a bit leaving the gate but quickly displayed Tesla-like acceleration to settle into a pace-stalking position and was content to idle in that spot until the field folded into the far turn.  At that point, jockey Flavian Prat lightened his grip ever so slightly and suddenly Baffert’s colt quickened instantaneously to open two lengths on the stunned early pacesetter Godsend within in a sixteenth of a mile.  Heading into the stretch, the race was over; the only the question was how much piling on Messier would be allowed to do.  

Realizing that the winner’s purse would be the same whether the margin of victory was six lengths or 16, Prat glanced over his shoulder, saw no danger if he saw anything at all, and then took another stout hold of the colt inside the furlong pole, only permitting his mount to trot home.  There was no gallop out; Messier could have stopped and turned around before reaching the clubhouse turn if he and his rider felt like showboating even more.  

Of course, handicappers who evaluate performance by doing nothing more than glancing at a result chart or a number on a graph may not have been impressed.  They’ll tell us that the difference between a victory accomplished while being ridden out to the wire and one in which the winner is eased up to a walk often is infinitesimal.  

Not this time.

Obviously, Messier could have run considerably faster, won by many more lengths, and earned a much higher speed figure if Prat had him allowed to do so.  The belief in what this colt can do, not just what the raw data says he did, is why Baffert appears to feel the same about Messier’s potential at a similar stage as he did in recent years with prospects such as Authentic, Charlatan, Nadal, Medina Spirit, and Life Is Good.  

American Pharoah and Justify?  Let’s not quite go there until Messier wins his first stakes race

That might be in his next start, perhaps during the fall Del Mar season in a race like the $100,000 7F Bob Hope S.-G3 over seven furlongs at Del Mar Nov. 14, though the more important end-of-the-year goal remains the $200,000 8.5F Los Alamitos Futurity-G2 Dec. 11, a race Baffert has won seven times in a row.  Next year is next year, and there will be various obstacles Baffert will need to deal with regarding Kentucky Derby points and eligibility.  But for now, the dreams that entice owners and trainers to participate at the sport’s highest level are alive and most certainly tangible.  

2 - On the first day in October, Simplification was 7-1 in an all-weather five and one-half furlong maiden special weight sprint for juveniles at Gulfstream Park.  The son of North America’s leading second-crop stallion Not This Time checked in fifth, beaten less than four lengths, in a debut that was decidedly underwhelming.  But as is quite common with two-year-old colts and fillies between their first and second starts, his light switch apparently came on, and in his next start the Antonio Sano-trained colt produced a massive forward move, just as the bettors, who had knocked him down to the 9/5 favorite, expected he would.

Originally a $50,000 Keeneland November weanling purchase, Simplification wasn’t particularly quick leaving the gate but displayed enough early speed to be within a half-length of the leader along the rail entering the turn.  By the time the field hit the quarter pole, he had taken control by a length and one-half, and with nothing emerging from behind it was clear a decisive victory was inevitable.  Yes, the winning margin was significant, the number was strong, and the pedigree suggests that added distance won’t be a problem.  Also, the switch from Tapeta to dirt clearly made him happy.  All of that is good.

But here’s the difference between Messier and Simplification.  The former displayed a high degree of acceleration and athleticism in his victory.  He traveled like a top-class prospect and only had to burn a very small portion of his reserve energy in victory.

In contrast, Simplification was ridden hard to the wire while doing his absolute best.  He was clearly all out.  And he never changed leads.

Take the time to view the two races.  Maybe you’ll see things differently.  Or maybe not.  

3 - We were disappointed but certainly not surprised to read that Essential Quality will be retired to stud at the end of this year.  The Godolphin colt will make what we assume will be his final career start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic-G1 at Del Mar a week from Saturday.  If he wins that race (his first against older horses), the 3-year-old son of Tapit will leave with a significantly enhanced reputation of having won six of seven career starts (he was fourth in the Kentucky Derby-G1) and will be a unanimous (or close to it) winner in voting for Horse of the Year.

Honestly, we’re not quite sure how good Essential Quality is or was. Yes, on resume he appears top class. But up until this point, there seems to be a few things missing in his past performance chart, like a blazingly fast race, a monster speed figure, a blowout win, something, anything, to register more than just a blip on our proverbial goose bump scale.  It’s entirely possible we’re underestimating him.  But in handicapping the Classic, we’ll be picking against him.  

4 - When it comes to the Breeders’ Cup or any Triple Crown race, jockeys must look after number one (trainers do, too, for that matter).  Flavian Prat had to decide whether to “Fly United” for his main California guy Richard Mandella in the Breeders’ Cup Turf or retain the mount on the New York-based Domestic Spending, whose upside clearly is superior to the veteran West Coast stalwart.  The Chad Brown-trained gelding’s three recent outings include victories in two Grade 1’s and a narrow defeat in the Mr. D. Stakes-G1 (formerly the Arlington Million) last time out.  Prat was aboard in all three of those outings.

It probably took Prat and his agent all of five seconds to choose Domestic Spending even though the United/Prat combo dates back 17 consecutive races.  Of course, Prat would have liked to have ridden both horses in the BC Turf.  In our experience, only the loveable Angel Cordero, Jr. consistently was able to pull off that trick (ride two or more horses in the same race), but that’s an entirely different story.

5 - Here’s a colt worth wagering on next time.  Kawhi Me a River, a lightly raced son of Kantharos trained by John Terranova, broke his maiden with authority sprinting on grass at Belmont Park two runs back and was impressive enough in doing so to warrant a serious look right back in the Carle Place S. over seven furlongs on turf on Saturday.  There is no doubt this talented 3-year-old colt would have won if not for self-inflicted trouble. As it was, he still managed to finish fourth, beaten just a length and one-quarter, behind the pacesetting Rustler.  

For whatever reason, Kawhi Me a River swerved out badly while racing wide and in the clear as the field approached the far turn.  The colt fell back and while attempting to re-rally was fanned out widest from the top of the stretch.  But rather than flatten out, he was relentless in the final furlong, keeping to his task and closing the gap resolutely before simply running out of room.  This was just his fourth lifetime start and the Kentucky-bred 3-year-old surely can win a good race somewhere down the road, if not sooner.  He just needs to focus.  

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