By Mike Farrell
Horses are getting in their final works before the Belmont Stakes (G1) this weekend. No horse is coming up to race any better than Essential Quality.
Those of us who needed him to hit the board in the Kentucky Derby (G1) sadly recall that Essential Quality was lacking that very essence at Churchill Downs, checking in a disappointing fourth as the 5-2 favorite.
It was the first career defeat for last season’s 2-year-old champion.
Trainer Brad Cox passed on the Preakness (G1) for Essential Quality, keeping him at Churchill Downs to prepare for the Belmont. He certainly looks ready, drilling 5 furlongs in 59 2/5 on Saturday, the fastest of 43 works at that distance.
“He’s doing fantastic,” Cox said. “We’re just trying to keep him honest going into the Belmont. He traveled really well.”
And he’s done it consistently since the Derby. It was the third straight Saturday morning the gray son of Tapit worked at Churchill Downs.
It should be an excellent Belmont with Essential Quality among the headliners in a lineup that includes Preakness winner Rombauer, Hot Rod Charlie, Rock Your World and Known Agenda.
Saturday will be the biggest day of the year at Belmont Park with eight Grade 1 stakes on the card, including the Metropolitan Handicap. It is New York racing’s biggest showcase aside from Saratoga. Let’s hope the weather is better than the soggy Memorial Day weekend.
The Monmouth Park meet kicked off Friday evening in a storm of controversy over the new whip rules.
The New Jersey Racing Commission instituted a set of regulations that all but ban the use of the crop. A jockey may use a whip only under emergency situations, to prevent an accident or to control an unruly horse. Other than that, the whip stays tucked away.
The New Jersey whip rules are the most restrictive in the country. In response, some riders, most prominently “Jersey Joe” Bravo, are boycotting the meet. Some bettors, based on reactions in various forums, will shun Monmouth.
The anti-whip rules generated considerable media coverage with even The Associated Press, which barely acknowledges the sport these days, taking notice with pre-meet coverage.
Racing has only itself to blame for prompting the regulators to step in. Whips have been modified in recent years to essentially do no harm. The old heavy-leather crops that left welts have been replaced with softer plastic models that are more noisemakers than punishers.
This is more about optics than whips. There have been too many high-profile breakdowns at major racetracks. Too many drug suspensions of top trainers. The game has an image problem.
That leads state racing commissions, and eventually the federal government starting next year, to step in to “fix things”.
That assumes legislators and regulators have a clue as to where to start. In New Jersey, the whips are the initial focus.
Ranked among the sport’s more glaring problems, whipping ranks somewhere in the vicinity of the price of hotdogs at the racetrack.
There is no evidence that whipping leads to breakdowns and animal cruelty. It’s all about the visuals for a casual observer. We’ve all seen examples of a rider needlessly whipping a horse with no shot at winning. It fuels the fire of radical animal-rights fanatics
The more reasonable solution: Ban excessive whipping. In New Jersey, they took it to the extreme.
The storm of pre-meet whip controversy was replaced by the one delivered by Mother Nature — a soaking rain on Friday and Saturday that dampened the holiday weekend. It was wet and cold both days, and off the turf.
Most riders responded to the new rules by leaving the whips in the jocks’ room. Here is the report, based on only two days — an admittedly small sample contested under less-than-ideal conditions:
Form held up remarkably well. Of the first 18 races of the season, favorites won 10 times and finished second in four others. Clearly, the new whip rules didn’t confound the bettors.
In terms of running style, 10 winners were on or just off the lead. Timing was everything for closers, who won their fair share. Riders needed to fine-tune rallies when coming from off the pace. You can’t depend on the whip to wake up the horse.
The jocks seemed to be riding a bit cautiously, not crowding in tight. That might be a response to the conditions, or a greater awareness of the need for safety.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Will top trainers and jockeys avoid races like the Haskell (G1) because of the absence of whips? Will no-whip regulations spread throughout the country?
As usual, it will be an interesting summer of racing on the Jersey Shore.
While Monmouth and the whip rule generated the headlines, a more meaningful set of regulations were implemented in Florida with the expansion of the “voided-claim” rules.
And nobody seemed to notice. Yet this is a move that directly benefits the sport by protecting the health and safety of horses.
All horses claimed will be examined by the track veterinarian after cooling out. The claim can be voided if the horse bleeds or is determined to be unsound.
This expands the existing rule that voided a claim if a horse suffered a breakdown in the race or was euthanized immediately after the contest.
The excellent rule prevents unscrupulous owners or trainers from attempting to dump lame horses onto other horsemen. Horses, like all athletes, suffer bumps, bruises and assorted aches and pains. There is a point beyond which they should not be pushed. This sets that standard at a much higher level.
The ultimate winners are the horses along with the honest owners and trainers. A safer game benefits everyone, including the horseplayers.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.