By T. D. Thornton
Last week started off with the not-entirely-unexpected news of the retirement of ‘TDN Rising Star’ and Triple Crown winner Justify (Scat Daddy). It ended with a pair of decisive, open-length stakes victories by heavily backed 3-year-olds who now head the top of the remaining sophomore crop and have an intriguing rivalry percolating for the Aug. 25 GI Travers S. and beyond.
Good Magic (Curlin), the three-length winner of Sunday’s GI Haskell Invitational at 1-2 in the Monmouth Park betting, and Hofburg (Tapit), who scored in Friday’s Curlin S. at Saratoga Race Course by five lengths at 1-4 odds, share commonalities in that they are both on an upward arc to peak in the second half of the season after snagging placings in the spring Classics behind Justify.
But the similarities pretty much end there. Good Magic is most comfortable and effective as an assertive pace-presser tracking a target from several lengths off the lead, while Hofburg is a stone-cold closer who drops far off the tailgate and winds up for a sustained, half-mile attack. Adding to the Travers drama will be the fact that these two rival colts are ridden by brother jockeys, with Good Magic regularly piloted by Jose Ortiz; Hofburg by Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Yet the biggest difference between the two has to do with expectations, public perception, and media hype.
Good Magic, a million-dollar KEESEP yearling, burst onto the scene by breaking his maiden in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November at 11-1 odds. Off the strength of that achievement (just one win from three lifetime tries), he was subsequently awarded champion 2-year-old male honors in a tight vote–which meant that the colt and trainer Chad Brown had to endure a winter’s worth of speculation and micro-analysis of every single gallop and workout leading up to the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
And because he only had two planned preps prior to the Derby–one a subpar effort, the other a redemptive comeback–Good Magic, through no fault of his own, always seemed to be playing a pressured form of catch-up to his own early precocity. His runner-up effort in the waterlogged Derby would have been good enough to win the Derby in almost any other year. Then dicey, lead-seeking tactics while pinned down on the rail by Justify in the early stages of the GI Preakness S. resulted in a disappointing fourth-place try (And yes, “disappointing” was the general sentiment even though Good Magic was only beaten one length by an eventually undefeated Triple Crowner).
Hofburg, on the other hand, is a Juddmonte Farms homebred who didn’t break his maiden until Mar. 3 at Gulfstream Park (on the undercard, ironically, of Good Magic’s loss off the layoff in the GII Fountain of Youth S.). When trainer Bill Mott ambitiously wheeled him right back four weeks later in the GI Florida Derby, there was no real pressure for the colt to turn in an outsized effort. But when Hofburg closed determinedly to nail second behind a well-meant favored winner, he earned a Derby berth in Louisville.
Still, much of the pre-Derby chatter about Hofburg remained firmly centered on how the Juddmonte/Mott tandem generally doesn’t rush colts into the Triple Crown frenzy, and how this one must have at least a glimmer of special talent if they were taking a shot. Based on 27-1 Derby odds, you could say the public’s expectations for Hofburg were “respectfully restrained.”
Yet his trip-troubled seventh in the slop rated as a much-better-than-it-looks effort, and when he sailed past every other horse on the gallop-out, Hofburg immediately became every wise guy’s pick for upsetting the Belmont S. After skipping the Preakness, he was a respectable third as the second favorite behind Justify–while still retaining the unpressured cachet of being a not-yet-fully-developed phenom.
Now, after their emphatic wins over the weekend, both Good Magic and Hofburg seem destined to clash in Saratoga’s Midsummer Classic, this time without Justify to command the spotlight. They’ll likely be joined as headliners by Tenfold (Curlin), who also won his Travers prep over the weekend. But Tenfold’s shifting-and-drifting stretch run in the GII Jim Dandy was not as polished or as emphatic as the other two’s victories were, leaving his ability to focus when it counts as an open question.
Good Magic and Hofburg strike me as being not too far apart, ability-wise. But the performance onus–and favoritism in the Travers–will fall squarely on the broad, chestnut shoulders of Good Magic. Because he’s already been crowned a champion once, Good Magic might not be able to outrun his lofty sophomore expectations unless he can parlay a win in the Haskell into an undefeated second half of the season, which likely means winning both the Travers and GI Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Sprint Division Solidifying
Imperial Hint (Imperialism) uncorked a ‘Wow!’ effort to win the GI Vanderbilt H. at Saratoga Saturday. His display of restrained power not only rated as the most impressive graded stakes victory of the weekend, but it also served notice that the 5-year-old is carving out a spot at the top of the totem pole in the sprint division.
True, he ranked on paper as the obvious odds-on favorite in the Vanderbilt field of seven. But the ease with which Imperial Hint shredded his foes belied his 4-5 odds. Javier Castellano had him patiently positioned behind a three-way go and lively splits, and when the tandem tipped out four wide to loop the group 2 1/2 furlongs out, Imperial Hint rocketed away chiefly under his own power, with Castellano only nudging him along for a few brief strides when straightening out into the lane.
The under-wraps final clocking of 1:08.98 for six furlong was .94 seconds off the six-furlong Saratoga track record set by Speightstown (Gone West) in the 2004 renewal of the Vanderbilt.
“I don’t know what he would’ve done if Javier had asked him the last eighth of a mile,” winning trainer Luis Carvajal Jr., told the Saratoga press notes team Sunday morning.
Imperial Hint’s 17-11-2-0 record and $1.2 million in earnings are impressive on their own, but a drilled-down look at just his last 10 races underscores how scary-good a sprinter he’s evolved into. Since Dec. 17, 2016, Imperial Hint has won eight of 10 races (five of them graded). His only two losses were a one-length defeat in the GI Breeders’ Cup Sprint last autumn, and a sixth-place finish (beaten only 4 1/4 lengths) in the GII Churchill Downs H., which was run under monsoon-like conditions on the Kentucky Derby undercard.
“He’s a little horse with a big, big heart,” Carvajal beamed.
The GIII De Francis Memorial Dash Sept. 15 at Laurel Park or the GI Vosburgh S. Sept. 29 at Belmont Park are being eyed for Imperial Hint’s next start.
“The Vosburgh would give me about four weeks before the Breeders’ Cup, and the one in Maryland would give me about seven weeks,” Carvajal said. “I like the time frame of running in Maryland, but the race in New York pulls me in a little bit because it’s a ‘Win and You’re In.'”
At Del Mar Thoroughbred Club on Saturday, Ransom the Moon (Malibu Moon) solidified his status as a top West Coast sprint threat with back-to-back annexations of the GI Bing Crosby S. For the second straight year, Roy H (More Than Ready) was the runner-up.
After last year’s Crosby, Roy H went on to win three straight graded sprint stakes, including the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Ransom the Moon, by contrast, went a full year (but just four races) without a win between his book-ended Bings.
An emerging sprint threat from the 3-year-old ranks is Promises Fulfilled (Shackleford), who showed a new and emboldened dimension by backing off his customary spot on the front end and rating just behind sizzling :21.28 and :43.92 splits to win Saturday’s 6 1/2-furlong GIII Amsterdam S. at the Spa.
Trainer Dale Romans reported post-race that Promises Fulfilled would continue to target 3-year-old company for the time being, aiming for the Aug. 25 GI H. Allen Jerkens Memorial S. over seven furlongs at Saratoga for his next start. An eventual tilt with older sprinters could be in the colt’s fall plans.