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The Week in Review: After a Breeders’ Cup-Esque Card, Who’s the Best Horse in the Sport?

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Bricks and Mortar after winning the Manhattan | Sarah Andrew

By Bill Finley

While the GI Belmont S. itself wasn’t exactly scintillating, the other nine stakes races on Saturday’s card were so outstanding, they not only saved the day, they may well have made this the most special day of racing you will see in a long time. With the exception of Breeders’ Cup Saturday, the Belmont Stakes Day card has turned into, year after year, the second best card of racing run in this country. It’s always a good day, and this one was off the charts.

All of which makes this question pertinent: After what we saw Saturday, who is the No. 1 horse in the sport?

It’s not poor Sir Winston (Awesome Again), the Belmont winner. Something tells me he’s going to have to accomplish a lot more before he starts to earn respect.

Number one right now? I’ll go with Bricks and Mortar (Giant’s Causeway), but only by a nose. That’s how good some of the other winners were on the card.

What more can you say about him than he’s a machine? He never blows anyone away, but the GI Manhattan S. was his fifth straight win and fourth this year. Thanks in large part to the $7-million GI Pegasus World Cup Turf S., he’s already earned over $4 million this year. You almost have to feel sorry for his stablemates, Robert Bruce (Chi) (Fast Company {Ire}) and Raging Bull (Fr) (Dark Angel {Ire}). They both ran the races of their lives to finish second and third, respectively, but just couldn’t find a way to beat Bricks and Mortar. Oh, and here’s something you probably never heard before: trainer Chad Brown finished 1-2-3 in a Grade I turf race.

As good as Bricks and Mortar was, and has been all year, I just have easily could have put Mitole (Eskendereya) in the top spot. As recently as Apr. 13, he was a sprinter who had never even started in a graded stakes race. Then he won the GIII Count Fleet Sprint H. at Oaklawn, but had still never raced beyond six furlongs. Then he won the seven-furlong GI Churchill Downs S. on Derby Day. Trainer Steve Asmussen took the kid gloves off and entered him in the GI Metropolitan H. at a mile, apparently not afraid that he was going up against what virtually everyone thought was the best field of the year. He found himself in a dogfight and runner-up McKinzie (Street Sense) didn’t have the greatest trip, but Mitole did it again. He not only won over one of the toughest fields assembled in a long time but he proved he can go a mile.

Asmussen knows his horses and if he believes that Mitole is a one-turn horse then who’s to doubt him? But wouldn’t you love to see this horse try two turns, a-mile-and-an-eighth? He has passed every test so far, so why not that one? And if he does, we may be talking Horse of the Year material.

Two career starts does not a superstar make, but would you really be that surprised if some day we are all talking about ‘TDN Rising Star’ Guarana (Ghostzapper) as one of the best 3-year-old fillies of her era. Sure, she broke her maiden by 14 3/4 lengths in her only career start prior to Saturday, but going straight from a maiden win into a Grade I is asking an awful lot of a horse. She didn’t just handle the task, she made it look ridiculously easy, winning by six lengths. Chad Brown (there’s that guy again) can now pick his spots from among the GI Mother Goose S., GI Coaching Club American Oaks and GI Alabama S. He might not go in all three, but you can already etch Guarana’s name on the trophies for whichever of those spots she shows up in.

Rushing Fall (hey, another Chad Brown-trainee) showed she’s the queen of her division when winning the GI Just A Game S. Midnight Bisou (Midnight Lute), another beast, proved she’s the best older dirt filly or mare in the country when winning the GI Ogden Phipps S. It will be fascinating to see what will happen when and if her 2018 nemesis Monomoy Girl (Tapizar) gets back to the races to take on her old rival again.

The turf sprinter division might be the least sexy in racing, but has anyone ever seen a better one than World of Trouble (Kantharos)? He won his fifth straight and seven of his last eight by beating Om (Munnings) in the GI Jaipiur Invitational S. (Om, by the way, is the answer to a great trivia question. He’s one of two horses in history to defeat American Pharoah {Pioneerof the Nile}, which he did in Pharoah’s debut way back in 2014. The other is Keen Ice {Curlin} in the 2015 GI Travers S.)

Much can change between now and Breeders’ Cup Day and we still really don’t know how good Maximum Security (New Year’s Day) is. But something tells me we saw the Horse of the Year perform on Saturday’s card and that their victory that day helped push them a long way toward that title.

Congratulations to all of the above mentioned horses and the other winners on the day. Congratulations as well to the entire NYRA team for putting on a great, great, great day and week of racing. Not only were the races outstanding, but not one horse was injured during the three-day Belmont Festival.

Okay, so it hasn’t been a stellar year for 3-year-old males, but maybe there’s a silver lining to that cloud. Any time a 3-year-old colt dominates his division or comes anywhere close to it, they’re done–off to stud. At this point the “four” Triple Crown winners have a lot more to prove until someone bowls their owners over with offers to stand them at stud. If they stay heathy, it’s very possible that Maximum Security, Country House (Lookin at Lucky), War of Will (War Front) and Sir Winston should all be back next year.

Who doesn’t love Jose Ortiz? He’s among the best young riders this sport has ever seen, but the Belmont was not his finest hour. While Joel Rosario on Sir Winston, did a great job saving ground, Ortiz never got anywhere close to the rail with Tacitus (Tapit). According to the Trakus data, Tacitus ran 65 feet further than Sir Winston did. Tacitus was the “fastest” horse in the race, traveling the distance at an average rate of 37.1 miles per hour, as compared to 36.9 for Sir Winston. Obviously, breaking from the 10 post didn’t help, but if he could have ever found a way to get closer to the rail on either turn, Tacitus would have won the race.

Not that it mattered since War of Will (War Front) just didn’t have it, but jockey Tyler Gaffalione was another who never got anywhere close to the fence. War of Will traveled 57 feet further than Sir Winston did. When a race is won by a length, which is roughly eight feet, don’t think these things don’t make a difference.

Adding to Tacitus’s problems, it appeared that the rail at Belmont was he best part of the racetrack. It wasn’t an overwhelming bias, but with the exception of the GI Woody Stephens S., won by Hog Creek Hustle (Overanalyze), virtually all of the dirt race winners were on or near the rail throughout most of the trip. That might explain how the seemingly overmatched Joevia (Shanghai Bobby) ran third in the Belmont, beaten only 1 3/4 lengths. Jockey Jose Lezcaneo stayed glued to the rail the whole time.

This didn’t get much attention, but it should have. Earlier in the week, the New York Gaming Commission announced that New York State Equine Medical Director, Dr. Scott E. Palmer, VMD, and the stewards would be available to address questions from the media regarding incidents, inquiries, objections or rulings that occur during racing in the Belmont Stakes Festival.

After the debacle when the Churchill stewards refused to take any questions from the media following the disqualification of Maximum Security and ducked for cover, The NY Gaming Commission and NYRA showed that they get it, that transparency is always important, especially when hundreds of millions of dollars in betting and purse monies are on the line.

Hopefully, someone at Churchill was paying attention.

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