By Mike Farrell
We’re headed for a quiet week on the stakes front, a bit of calm before the Kentucky Derby (G1) storm.
Most of the action will center on solidifying the field of 20 for the Derby. It’s all about the qualifying points — who has them and who moves up and into the race with each higher-ranked defection.
Essential Quality remains front and center as the Derby favorite, solidly on course for the race while many of his expected rivals have dropped out.
Greatest Honour is resting, Concert Tour will skip the Derby and wait for the Preakness (G1) while Life Is Good is recovering from a chipped ankle.
It happens every year. The horse who wins the Derby must be both very good to beat 19 rivals, and very fortunate to avoid injury or illness.
On Sunday morning, Highly Motivated turned in a solid workout at Keeneland as he continues on the road to the Derby. The Chad Brown trainee zipped a half-mile in 47.20, the fastest clocking of 27 at the distance.
Highly Motivated took a big step forward in his last race, giving Essential Quality a stiff challenge before settling for second in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2). He will take the short van trip to Churchill Downs on Monday.
It’s not often that a horse that starts its career in Mexico and makes it to the top ranks of U.S. racing.
Letruska completed that rare journey by beating two champions Saturday in the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1). The stakes for fillies and mares carried a $1 million purse for the first time, an incentive dangled by Oaklawn Park to lure Monomoy Girl and Swiss Skydiver for a highly anticipated rematch.
They clashed in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) with Monomoy Girl getting the victory after Swiss Skydiver stumbled at the start. This was the showdown to settle that score, except Letruska busted up the party with a remarkably game effort. She fought back in deep stretch to beat Monomoy Girl by a nose with Swiss Skydiver a distant third.
It was the biggest career victory for the 5-year-old mare who started her career in Mexico City. It was also the biggest win for trainer Fausto Gutierrez and the St George Stable who are making inroads in the U.S. after dominating Mexican racing.
“For me, this is incredible because I come from a small racetrack in Mexico City,” Gutierrez said. “We had the confidence to send her here (United States) and she started to improve, improve and improve. She’s run at different tracks. She’s run at Houston, Saratoga, Gulfstream. A very tough horse, but this is the best result she’s had in her career.”
Gutierrez has set his sights on the Breeders’ Cup Distaff for Letruska’s long-range objective.
If all goes well, Monomoy Girl and Swiss Skydiver will also be there for another installment in an extremely compelling rivalry.
The only thing missing in Maryland racing is the plague of locusts.
It’s been one misfortune after another in the “Free State”. The latest catastrophe was the cancellation of racing at Laurel Park this past weekend due to track surface problems. Racing will shift to Pimlico on April 23, about two weeks earlier than the scheduled May 5 opener for the northern Baltimore track.
The latest shutdown came after horsemen complained the Laurel main track cushion needed urgent repair and renovation. Pimlico, the host of the Preakness on May 15, was pressed into early action to rescue a circuit that can’t gain traction.
Like every jurisdiction, Maryland has struggled to keep racing alive during the coronavirus pandemic. If that wasn’t a big enough challenge, Laurel was still recovering from an outbreak of equine herpesvirus in late March that suspended racing for two weeks.
Add in three weather-related cancellations in February, and you have a grim picture.
To their credit, the folks at the Maryland Jockey Club are hustling to complete the Laurel repairs. The heavy equipment was on the track Saturday, tearing up the old cushion.
The Mid-Atlantic depends on a vibrant Maryland circuit to be a lynchpin in the region. The entire racing industry needs a smoothly run Preakness in its quest to return to normalcy.
Maybe the odds will finally even out. Like a gambler on a tough losing streak, Maryland racing is way overdue for a smattering of good luck.
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.