By Mike Farrell
Through mid-February, there have already been 24 cards canceled including the entire President’s Day weekend at Oaklawn.
Parx has already lost five cards this month.
In contrast, there were only 10 cancellations for all of February 2020. We’ve obviously blown right by that total, with half of the shortest month on the calendar still to come.
There is not much relief in sight heading into the new week. In addition to Oaklawn, Louisiana Downs and Delta Downs posted early cancellations of their Monday programs.
While everyone talks about the weather, there is not much one can do except bundle up and keep the horses in the barn when the winter rain, wind, snow, and bone-chilling temperatures settle in.
Looking ahead to hopefully clearer skies, the $20 million Saudi Cup is on the horizon Saturday. Barring a sandstorm of epic proportions, the world’s richest race will go as scheduled.
It could be a classic, featuring a showdown between Knicks Go, fresh from yet another front-running victory in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1), and Charlatan.
It’s also a duel between Bob Baffert, the long-time master of champions, who sends out Charlatan and Brad Cox, the rising heir-apparent, who has the horse to catch in Knicks Go.
Add in Champions Cup (G1) winner Chuwa Wizard, Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2) victor Military Law and G2 winners Tacitus and Sleepy Eyes Todd and you’ve got a top-flight dirt race in the making.
The lost weekend at Oaklawn forced the postponement of the Southwest Stakes (G3), delaying the season debut of Eclipse champion Essential Quality.
The race is now set for Sunday. Oaklawn first slotted the race for Saturday but reconsidered and added an extra day. The now-loaded Sunday card will also include the Razorback Handicap (G3) and the Bayakoa Stakes (G3).
The lost time should not be a factor for Essential Quality this far out from the Kentucky Derby (G1). We’re all eager to see the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner take that first step on the road to the Triple Crown for Cox. The additional time only stokes the anticipation.
The weekend wasn’t a washout for Cox as his Mandaloun, the 2-1 favorite, stepped up to win the Risen Star (G2) at the Fair Grounds, and bank 50 qualifying points, more than enough for a spot in the Derby.
It was a hard race to evaluate as the top three finishers from the Lecomte (G3) last month returned to dominate the proceedings. This time, they shuffled the order of finish. Mandaloun, freshly equipped with blinkers, improved on his third-place effort in the Lecomte to secure a first stakes victory. Proxy once again finished second while Midnight Bourbon slid from first to third in the rematch.
The top three were almost six lengths clear of the rest of the pack.
The trip could not have been easier for Mandaloun. He sat third as 31-1 shot Rightandjust and Midnight Bourbon dictated the pace and he readily took command in the upper stretch.
The biggest bust of the race was Senor Buscador, the Remington Park challenger, who could not sustain a rally as the 5-2 second choice. He checked in fifth after floating extremely wide in the lane.
Maxfield is finally developing into the horse his connections always hoped he could be.
If he can avoid injury, the sky is the limit.
He missed the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) with a bone chip in his ankle. Last year’s Kentucky Derby was lost to a condylar fracture.
Despite the infirmities, Maxfield is a perfect 5-for-5 after a last-to-first rally in the Mineshaft Stakes (G3) on the Risen Star undercard.
“I think he’s ready for bigger things,” winning jockey Florent Giroux said.
The 4-year-old trained by Brendan Walsh is fresh, fit and seemingly healthy for the first time in a long time. He’ll be a factor awaiting Go Knicks and Charlatan when they return from their international adventures.
Or he could take it to them in the Dubai World Cup (G1).
Either way, it should be a fun campaign … if Maxfield can finally go the distance.
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.