By Mike Farrell
There is an old quotation, often attributed to Damon Runyon, that best summarized the major developments in the racing world last Saturday.
“The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.”
The smart money cashed handsomely in a pair of $1 million races: the Whitney (G1) at Saratoga and Hambletonian at the Meadowlands.
Both Knicks Go at the Spa and Captain Corey were the swiftest of the swift in the early stages of their contests and were unquestionably the strongest finishers in their sparkling victories.
Early speed is a potent weapon sometimes underappreciated by handicappers fixated on pace scenarios and class projections. Handicapping can be as simple as picking the fastest horse. Closers do have their day, but the horse dictating the terms is the winner…until someone else finally goes by.
Neither Knicks Go nor Captain Corey let that happen.
The Whitney attracted a small but select field of five and much of the pre-race focus centered on Swiss Skydiver, the filly champion taking on the boys, and Maxfield who rarely ever skips a beat … and who is rarely ever beaten.
As expected, Knicks Go led the way by open lengths on a strong and steady gallop. There was a bit of “rope-a-dope” on the final turn as he let the pack creep back into the race, only to kick away in the lane for a 4 ½-length victory over Maxfield.
The Whitney was a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Classic (G1) at Del Mar on Nov. 6. Knicks Go, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winner, has been brilliant at distances up to the Whitney’s 1 1/8 miles. The Classic is a fresh challenge at 1 1/4 miles, 10 demanding furlongs against some of the world’s top handicap stars.
Trainer Brad Cox isn’t shying away from the task.
“We’ll let the dust settle, but my thoughts would be to give him a race five to six weeks out from the Classic,” Cox said. “I haven’t really dug into it yet; the biggest thing is how he came out of the race. It would be nice to get a race into him between now and then, but where that might be, I don’t know.”
Cox could be loaded for bear in the Classic as he also has the talented 3-year-old duo of Essential Quality and Mandaloun in the barn.
Speed was also the name of the game in the Hambletonian, the famed classic for 3-year-old trotters. And the “smart money” prevailed again as Captain Corey, the 13-10 favorite, fended off intense pressure to give 62-year-old trainer-driver Ake Svanstedt his second Hambletonian win.
This time, it was all okey-dokey for Ake. He was awarded his first Hambo win in 2017 when Perfect Spirit was elevated to the victory after What The Hill was disqualified for interference.
There will be no asterisk attached to this decisive victory.
“I just wanted to go to the front,” Svanstedt said. “I didn’t want to have a horse in front of me. I wanted to trust my horse and have no issue.”
The horse that controls the race leaves the “issues” to the trailers. It’s as true today as it was in Damon Runyon’s time.
Trainer Steve Asmussen is the new record-holder for wins in North America
On the topic of famous sports quotes, there’s another that came into play and it’s probably the oldest of all: records are made to be broken.
Dale Baird’s amazing record of 9,445 training wins was a mark I thought would stand the test of time. And it did, until Steve Asmussen edged past on Saturday.
Baird never attracted the national fame of Asmussen, and according to Mid-Atlantic lore, he preferred it that way. Baird seemingly won every single race at Waterford Park (now known as Mountaineer) as that track’s leading trainer every season from 1981-2000. Baird was the nation’s leading trainer by victories a stunning 15 times.
Baird was still racking up wins when killed in a 2007 van accident at the age of 72.
The mantle of all-time leader now passes to Asmussen who shows no signs of stopping, or even slowing down. Asmussen’s win record will be an even taller hill to climb for the next generation of trainers.
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.