Growing up, my father had an expression when people did things he didn’t understand. He’d say, “God bless ‘em,” and shrug his shoulders. I immediately thought of dear old dad when I saw the nearly-full field of fillies who will line up and face champion Songbird in Saturday’s $100,000 Santa Ysabel Stakes (GIII) at Santa Anita.
“God bless ‘em,” I thought.
Some pretty smart people — a lot smarter than me — believe that Rick Porter’s filly is not only the best 3-year-old in training, but quite possibly the best horse currently in training overall. And it’d be hard to argue against that.
What’s not to be impressed about?
She’s got a lovely pedigree, being by solid sire Medaglia d’Oro and out of the mare Ivanavinalot, a Grade 2 winner who swept two legs of the rich Florida Stallion Stakes series at Calder Race Course in the early 2000s. And Songbird is undefeated, easily capturing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) and two other Grade 1s so far. Even better, nobody’s ever even had the chance to look her in the eye past the eighth pole, as she always wins her races drawing away.
Yes I know, it’s a bad idea to give a race away before it’s even been run, but every now and again — when we get the chance as just fans — it’s fun to bask in the idea that a super horse will, in fact, remain unbeaten. Handicappers always try to “take a stand” and beat the heavy favorite and, when it happens, the name “Onion” is frequently heard being mumbled as the bettors tear up their tickets (or head to the windows for a big cash). But the Santa Ysabel looks to be a racing fan’s perfect race, offering little to the horseplayer.
We all know already that Songbird won’t be in the gate in the biggest race on the first Saturday in May, but if she remains unscathed through the Kentucky Oaks (GI) there may be a chance her owner will send her to the Preakness, a la Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
One can hope, after all.
So, the brave connections of nine other really good fillies dropped names into the entry box for the Santa Ysabel, led by Paul Reddam’s Land Over Sea. The chestnut daughter of Bellamy Road has the distinction of finishing behind Songbird more times than any other, including each of her last four starts where she managed to earn two runner-up finishes and a third. She likes to sit off the pace early and close late, and likely will get a decent pace in front of her, so she’s a logical choice for any exotics. Mario Gutierrez will be back aboard for trainer Doug O’Neill.
Code Warrior is based in Northern California and is a Tapeta specialist, having won her first three starts over the all-weather track. Her first dirt start produced a solid second by a half-length to the nice filly Forever Darling (who shipped to Louisiana and was unplaced in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds in early February) in the Santa Ynez Stakes (GIII) over Santa Anita’s main track last out, but when she shipped back home and was stretched out, she ran a very even fourth, which makes us wonder if she’s a better navigating one turn.
Pageant Darling, a stablemate to the aforementioned Forever Darling, looked promising when she broke her maiden around two turns, but after her last start produced a dismal last-place finish in the grassy down-the-hill Sweet Life Stakes she’s back routing on the main track. In the return to a stretch-out, her connections are no doubt at the very least hoping she’ll get back to her previous form, which could earn her a decent check and a graded stakes placing.
The beautiful California weather is forecast to turn cooler by Saturday, with cloudy skies and highs in the mid-60s. Some light ran has been predicted for early in the day with, hopefully, the heavy El Nino storms holding off until later in the evening. Post time for the 1 1/16-mile Santa Ysabel Stakes, which has been carded as the afternoon’s 5th race, has been set for 5:30 p.m. EST.
Since the first running of the Gotham Stakes (GIII) at Aqueduct, a lot of really good horses have reached the winner’s circle, including Native Dancer, Jaipur, Dr. Fager, Gone West, Devil HIs Due and Lure. In 1973, Triple Crown winner Secretariat took the Gotham on his way to the wearing the garland of roses.
And each year, the Gotham is considered by many to be a main stop on the Triple Crown Trail despite the fact that in all the years it’s been contested it’s only produced one Derby winner and one other runner, Easy Goer, to have any impact on the celebrated series for 3-year-old colts whatsoever.
Regardless, 50 valuable Kentucky Derby points are on the line and, this year, a fairly evenly-matched field of what — up until this point — have been considered outsiders looking in, will race the 1 1/16 miles on Aqueduct’s inner dirt track this weekend. Only one stakes winner, Withers Stakes (GIII) hero Sunny Ridge, will head postward in the field of eight braving the chilly New York weather in the final prep for the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) in a month’s time.
The afternoon’s high is expected to peak in the mid-40s with no rain or snow expected. It will be cold, but the sun will be out. The real question is: Who will be post-time favorite?
The aforementioned Sunny Ridge, a stablemate of the talented Davona Dale Stakes (GIII) winner Cathryn Sophia, has only turned in one poor performance in his six-race career, finishing a rank seventh in last year’s Sanford Stakes (GIII) at Saratoga. In four starts since, he’s shown exceptional talent by winning the Sapling and the Withers and also finishing second in two others, including the Champagne Stakes (GI) all on vastly different surface conditions.
Sunny Ridge has braved the wicked winter in New York and trained well at Belmont for John Servis, who is no stranger in what it takes to prep a runner to win Triple Crown races, having expertly handled Smarty Jones to win the Derby and Preakness Stakes (GI) in 2004. The colt has a good, stalking-the-pace style that will serve him well in this race, which seems to have a fair number of early runners.
Shagaf, who will sport some familiar silks in the Gotham (the same as top Derby prospect Mohaymen), is getting a lot of attention off his two career victories in as many starts. His first race was on Aqueduct’s main track in November and it was close to spectacular. After shipping south for the winter, he followed that performance up with a pretty impressive allowance score at Gulfstream Park in January. Trainer Chad Brown makes the decisions for this son of Bernardini, who will be ridden again by top jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.
Trip handicappers seem to be all over Rally Cry in this race. He had a very, very troubled trip last out in the allowance race won by Shagaf in January, having to check and steady in the lane to be beaten 4 1/4 lengths. Though Todd Pletcher has only won the Kentucky Derby once (Super Saver, 2010) he’s tightened the girth on a solid group of runners — never mind the years he spent as top assistant to four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas. With a clean trip, a win from this handsome son of Holy Bull won’t be a huge upset by any means.
Pletcher also ships recent maiden winner Mo Power to the arctic North. A son of the hot young sire Uncle Mo, he’s done nothing wrong since breaking his maiden in December. And Pletcher’s go-to jock John Velazquez flies in for the mount.
Post time for the Gotham, the 9th on the day, is 4:50 p.m. EST on Saturday.
Seven go postcard in the $500,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (GII) at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. The day’s weather is expected to be a touch cooler with sunny skies and a high in the mid-70s. The race has been carded as the day’s 11th race.
Pletcher will send out four of the seven runners, including recent Fred Hooper (GIII) runner-up Stanford. Other notable names in the one-mile main track test include Itsaknockout, Blofeld and Donn Handicap (GI) runner-up Valid. The field for Gulfstream Park Handicap is set to leave the gate at 4:58 p.m. EST.
In the 5th race at the Hallandale oval, fillies and mares will race 1 3/16 miles in The Very One Stakes (GIIIT). The race was named for one of the top turf mares of the late 70s/early 80s, and this year a field of six will line up and face the starter. Post time has been set for 1:56 p.m. EST.
The 12th race on the Gulfstream Park card is the $200,000 Mac Diarmida Stakes (GIIT). Named for the 1970s turf star (pronounced Mac Der-mid-uh, not Dee-ar-mid-uh), a field of seven is expected to race the 1 3/8 miles over the Gulfstream lawn. Mike Maker, another graduate of the D. Wayne Lukas School of Training Thoroughbreds, will saddle former claimer and recent John B. Connally Turf Cup Stakes (GIIIT) winner Da Big Hoss. The son of Lemon Drop Kid has won half of his 12 career turf starts and appears to have a great chance to return to the winner’s circle.
The Mac Diarmida field will break from the gate at 5:30 p.m. EST.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters, Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.
After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager. She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several race horse retirement organizations, including CARMA.
Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1994 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull as her favorite horse of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, three Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.