By Mike Farrell
Handicappers sometimes feel lost in a fog. Saturday was one of those blurry days where horseplayers were dazed and confused by the two biggest events: the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1) and the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn.
We’ll try to unpack just what the heck happened.
It started early with the Saudi Cup, and the improbable victory by Emblem Road.
When a horse pays $229 to win, temptation looms to look back for an overlooked clue. I don’t think Sherlock Holmes could have solved this one.
The best you could deduce was that Emblem Road was the “house horse.” All previous eight starts were at his home track. He was 6-for-8 coming in against lesser rivals than he faced in this spot.
On paper, this Saudi Cup (first time run with a Group 1 designation) was loaded. The lineup included defending champion Mishriff, Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) winner Marche Lorraine, Mandaloun who earlier in the week was declared last year’s Kentucky Derby (G1) winner, Woodward (G1) winner Art Collector and Santa Anita Gold Cup (G1) winner Country Grammer.
What chance did Emblem Road have against that lineup?
Emerges It was the biggest win for jockey Wiggy Ramos, a journeyman rider who plied his trade in Florida and on the Mid-Atlantic circuit for many years before relocating to the Middle East. His last U.S. mount was at Calder in 1998. Frankly, he had fallen off the radar and most followers of the game assumed he had retired from the saddle.
Suddenly, there he was at 53, basking in the moment.
Ramos was best known before this weekend for winning the 1993 Florida Derby (G1) aboard Bull In the Heather. That upset score produced a $60.80 win payoff, a piddling pittance compared to the Saudi Cup result.
Saudi Cup a letdown for U.S. horses
While a popular local result, the Saudi Cup was a huge letdown for U.S. fans. Mandaloun faded to ninth and will return home to regroup with trainer Brad Cox. Art Collector ran 12th and is also U.S. bound.
Rebel stunner: Un Ojo at 75-1
Stunner No. 2 came that afternoon as the one-eyed wonder Un Ojo paid $152 to win the Rebel.
The 75-1 upset also earned the winner 50 qualifying points, more than enough to secure a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby. Un Ojo, with Ramon Vasquez aboard, rallied up the rail to nip Ethereal Road and Barber Road for his second career win.
Like Emblem Road, Un Ojo had handicapper’s scratching their heads. How could a horse whose prior claim to fame was a rallying second in the lightly-regarded Withers Stakes (G3) ship from New York to Arkansas and immediately jump into the Derby picture?
Perhaps we’re not evaluating the situation properly. What if the Withers, and race-winner Early Voting, are key factors in this Triple Crown pageant? Well Sherlock, what should we think?
It seems Baffert is no longer the Teflon Bob. Not only was Medina Spirit consigned to ignominy, joining Dancer’s Image (1968) as the only two Derby winners disqualified for post-race drug violations, but Baffert was also handed a 90-day suspension set to begin March 8, along with a $7,500 fine.
In the past, Baffert always skated away, suffering the light punishment of a fine, an act of contrition and a pledge to do better. The stewards, the racing commissions and the sport overall have finally grown tired of the repeated act.
Baffert’s request for a stay of the suspension, normally granted while an appeal is underway, was denied Friday by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Ouch!
Baffert still has additional appeals available, which his lawyers will undoubtedly seek.
Medina Spirit’s ashes to be interred at Old Friends
His final resting place will be alongside such notables as Charismatic, War Emblem and Alphabet Soup. Fans can pay their respects on April 5 from 12:30-2:30 p.m.
It’s a fitting final stop for a horse who never gave anything less than his best effort. He bears no fault for his name still being dragged through the mud.
Looking ahead as we always do, there is plenty of Triple Crown prep action on tap Saturday with a trio of stakes each awarding the winner 50 qualifying Kentucky Derby points: the Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct, the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream and the San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita.
Here’s hoping the fog has lifted when we sit down to handicap the weekend action.
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.