It would be the understatement of the year to say that I was disappointed when I heard the news that Unique Bella was taken out of training for “at least 60 days”, as according to trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, and would subsequently miss the Oaks.
While I didn’t have a “soul searching” moment after the announcement, I was left extremely disheartened for the Oaks and Derby this year. With Mastery injured (and likely retired), Royal Mo not firing like I had hoped, and McCraken with his questionable feet, this year’s first Friday and Saturday in May look like they’re going to be a complete shot in the dark. So, the question looms: who is going to take up the reins as the favorites now?
When it comes to the Oaks, my gut tells me Abel Tasman will be the filly that takes over for Unique Bella. She has the distinguished honor of being one of the only horses to give the big grey a run for her money, even if it was a brief moment down the lane. However, as much as I like the filly, her majority owners are a different situation all together. China Horse Club, the 50% owners, moved Abel Tasman to the barn of Bob Baffert from trainer Simon Callaghan after the jockey (Joe Talamo) ended up putting on the wrong silks before the (Gr. III) Santa Ysabel Stakes. While the China Horse Club’s silks were available at Santa Anita, something track officials confirmed, they could not be found; the result was that Talamo rode in Clearsky silks instead for the race. He had to wear something and the mix up (I hope) was an honest one.
The CHC took drastic action as punishment (ignoring any apology that Callaghan gave for something beyond his control) and moved the filly to the Baffert barn. The result is understandably extremely upsetting for the previous trainer and his staff, as they all had worked very hard to get the filly to where she was and to help her find that inner talent. While I wish the horse all the best and a successful career, I am in no rush to cheer for the majority owners any time soon.
The Derby has less drama this year when we discuss the racers and their owners; the rankings are an entirely different scenario. Gunnevera, who charged just a little too late in the (Gr.I) Florida Derby, has taken my top choice by strength of his back story and McCraken could well be the favorite (despite my reservations about him) by just staying in the barn and not getting hurt anymore. The plucky racer Gunnevera, who was orphaned when his dam died from a sudden heart attack on the farm, has developed into a horse that his trainer describes as “running happy”. And why not with the results he’s been getting so far? He was a steal from the Keeneland sale as a yearling and he’s been proving the price tag wrong ever since then.
Another horse that I’m seriously hoping will find his feet again is Irish War Cry. He bounced pretty badly in the (Gr. II) Fountain of Youth when he finished seventh; a long way behind the winner, Gunnevera, who won by almost 6 lengths ahead of the second place finisher, Practical Joke.
Graham Motion, the trainer, didn’t have any excuse for why Irish War Cry finished the way he did, and that alone set social media on fire with some couch trainers suggestion that he never get another horse to train again. Personally, I’m under the opinion that said trash talkers should buy their own race horse and beat Motion at his own game before they run their mouths on twitter or decide his status as a trainer. Until then, when a Kentucky Derby winning trainer tells me that he has no excuse for the result, then I’m just going to put my faith in the fact that the horse just had a bad day; as all living animals are allowed to have every once in a while. Anyone that says otherwise is lying to themselves.
Regardless of how you feel about various owners or trainers, this year’s three year old division for both sexes is very muddled with no real stand-outs that aren’t injured or retired early.
This should be a wide open first weekend in May.