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Aug 08, 2003

Racing Today

By: John Piesen


Will he or won’t he?

 

And, of equal importance, does it matter?

          

In the wake of Funny Cide’s dismal performance in the Haskell last Sunday at

Monmouth Park, does he really have a chance to win the Travers? And, that’s in the event

if he goes. Right now, the odds clearly are against him making the Travers.

 

After all, the colt came out of the Haskell with a fever that spiked at 103, and with a closed

eye caused by getting hit with a clod of dirt.

         

Funny Cide supporters can look at that combination of circumstances, and point to them

as reasons for his poor effort. I prefer to believe that racing is a game of cycles, and, right now,

Funny Cide is clearly on a down cycle.

     

 I believe the connections of Funny Cide, especially trainer Barclay Tagg, agree with me,

and they really don’t want to see the colt embarrass himself before 65,000 customers and a

world-wide TV audience in the Travers.

 

“I don’t think there’s a chance Funny Cide will make the Travers,” a high-ranking NYRA official

told me on the Spa backside this morning. And I agree.

 

Lost in the excitement of Funny Cide Mania is an incredible statistic. As a 3-year-old, Funny Cide

is a mere 2-for-7! But he sure picked the right two, didn’t he?

 

And the other statistic that Tagg finds interesting is that, since 1985, only three Kentucky Derby

winners have actually made it to the Travers: Alysheba, Sea Hero and Thunder Gulch.

Interestingly, two of those three won, and Alysheba, the only one of the three who lost the

Travers, was victimized by a sloppy strip he couldn’t handle.

 

The probable defection of Funny Cide leaves Empire Maker, despite his second to Strong Hope

in

the Jim Dandy, odds-on in a small field (six to eight) in the Travers. The only other definites at

this writing are Ten Most Wanted, the Belmont Stakes runner-up; Strong Hope, and Sky Mesa,

the Haskell runner-up. The field will grow slightly as race day nears, but those four will form

the crux of the race.

         

I mentioned in this space last week that Bobby Frankel was sitting on a stakes hat trick last

weekend. As it developed he came within Empire Maker’s diminishing neck of pulling it off.

 

Frankel settled for two of three – Medaglia d’Oro in the Whitney, and Peace Rules in the

Haskell.

 

Obviously, he doesn’t want to run Peace Rules against Empire Maker, so he’s sending

Peace Rules to California for the Pacific Classic. You can’t blame him although if he ran

Peace Rules in the Travers, he would destroy Strong Hope on the front end, and make

Empire Maker’s task far easier.

         

That said, we are looking at the possibility of a repeat of 1981.

 

Willow Hour went wire to wire in the Jim Dandy that year, holding off the furious late charge

of the odds-on Pleasant Colony. No one gave Willow Hour a prayer in the longer Travers

three weeks later, yet Willow Hour again held off Pleasant Colony at 20-1.

        

I’m not going to say Strong Hope is the second coming of Willow Hour. But it is a

possibility. Especially in the light of the way trainer Todd Pletcher is tearing up

Saratoga 2003.

 

Back to Frankel.

 

I found his post-Jim Dandy quotes very disturbing.

 

While the bettors were tearing up their millions in tickets on Empire Maker, and the

railbirds were mercilessly booing jockey Jerry Bailey, Frankel was telling the media:

 

“I’m not disappointed at all with my horse’s race. You don’t often see a horse accelerate

like that at the finish of a long race. He showed me a lot in the race, and he’ll be very

tough in the Travers.

 

“And I’m very happy for Mr. Gann.”

 

In the space of six months last year, Gann made private purchases of Medaglia D’Oro

and Peace Rules. And a year later, the two horses win Grade Ones on successive days.

I wonder if there’s any precedent for that.

 

Medaglia d’Oro’s Whitney victory also keeps the folks down at Oaklawn Park alive

for a once-in-a-lifetime triple.

 

As it stands now, three horses who won stakes at Oaklawn last spring will be favorites

for Breeders’ Cup races: Azeri, Medaglia d’Oro and Beau’s Town!

 

I ran into Ken McPeek, the trainer of Wild and Wicked, this morning, and commiserated

on the poor showing of Wild and Wicked in the Haskell. After touting W&W as the second

coming of Seabiscuit, the colt ran fourth in basically a four-horse race at Monmouth.

 

I, for one, tore up some meaningful tickets on Wild and Wicked, who was formerly unbeaten.

 

“Hey, don’t feel bad for me,” he said. “I got a $60,000 check for fourth. That’s pretty good

for a guy who was happy to win $300 pots not long ago.”

 

McPeek said that he wants no part of the heavy hitters in the Travers. He plans to send

Wild and Wicked to the Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia Park on Labor Day. And I

wouldn’t be surprised to see a rider change that day.

 

Speaking of rider changes, trainer Phil Johnson, blaming Jose Santos for Volponi’s loss to

Medaglia d’Oro in the Whitney, yanked Jose off the horse, and will ride Bailey for the

colt’s next start in the Saratoga Cup. It will be a one-shot deal because Bailey will be riding

Medaglia d’Oro against Volponi down the road.

 

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of riders dumped from good horses, but I’ve never seen

a rider as devastated as Santos was Monday after getting the bad news. After all, it

was Volponi who turned Jose’s career around when they teamed up to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic last year.

 

Johnson’s move reminded me when the shoe was on the foot a quarter-century ago.

 

This was at a press luncheon at Belmont Park in the fall of 1978.

 

The connections of Seattle Slew had just fired jockey Jean Cruguet after earlier firing

trainer Billy Turner.

 

Said Johnson: “They fired the trainer. They fired the jock. What are they going to do next?

Fire the horse?”

 

 



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