The Week in Review, by T.D. Thornton
When you think of the Fair Grounds and its series of GI Kentucky Derby preps, it's easy to conjure up images of stamina-centric closers who can stay all day.
The track's imposing 1,346-foot home stretch–for decades billed as the longest in North America, until the reconfigured Los Alamitos surpassed it by 34 feet in 2014–is the primary reason.
The other, which is new this year, is the elongated change in distance for the three races in the Fair Grounds' January-March prep series. Most notably, the GII Risen Star S. and GII Louisiana Derby have each been extended by an extra sixteenth of a mile, to nine furlongs and 1 3/16 miles, respectively.
When the overflow Risen Star got split into two divisions for Saturday's running, it was no surprise that the betting public installed the most accomplished deep closers in each heat as the favorites.
In division one, Silver State (Hard Spun) edged Enforceable (Tapit) by a fractional amount in the wagering to go off as the 3-1 choice. Both horses had run well late over the surface in the GIII Lecomte S. Anneau d'Or (Medaglia d'Oro) was solidly backed at even money in the second division, based on his resolute late runs in California that fell only a head and a neck shy of earning him the 2019 juvenile championship.
The collective pari-mutuel mindset was leaning heavily in the direction that the longer race distance coupled with that taxing Fair Grounds stretch would surely move up those late threats even more.
Those pre-race prognostications involving deep-closing dominance ended up going right out the window when both divisions of the Risen Star were won by forwardly-placed, mid-priced longshots vying for the lead.
The first division came up tougher on paper. Mr. Monomoy (Palace Malice) broke like a pro in the New Orleans twilight and asserted himself on the front end, settling in hand under decent pressure for the backstretch run. When confronted three eighths out, the 7-1 pacemaker authoritatively re-seized the lead, but the colt maintained his composure and didn't have to be roused with purpose until the field spun into that long stretch with the favorites hot on his heels. Mr. Monomoy not only held them at bay, but stylishly extended away from his pack of pursuers, crossing the wire 2 1/2 lengths in front of Enforceable, with Silver State another half-length back.
In division two, Modernist (Uncle Mo) broke alertly at the rail on a Fair Grounds track consumed by darkness and with its artificial lights now fully blazing. He too displayed composure under sustained intensity, attaining then conceding the lead on three distinct occasions down the backstretch and into the lane while never giving up position near the fence. And like Mr. Monomoy did 35 minutes earlier, Modernist repulsed a trio of late-firing closers (although Anneau d'Or was not one of them; he caved after creating a difficult trip for himself).
So which Risen Star divisional winner ran the better race? The early pace in both heats doesn't yield tangible clues. The opening quarter miles differed by only .16 of a second, and the halves were run in identical clockings of :48.57. How's that for divisional parity?
But three eighths from the wire is where the two performances show separation: Mr. Monomoy ran his final three furlongs in :37.58, and he did so while pulling away from onrushing favorites in the stronger division. His final time of 1:50.43 translated to a 92 Beyer Speed Figure.
Modernist required :38.66 to cover his final three-eighths. And he was staving off–not drawing away from–three horses that were not firing as visually impressively as the closers in the first division. His final time of 1:51.28 earned an 84 Beyer.
The distance elongation experiment with the Fair Grounds preps has largely been well received. As winning trainer Bill Mott quipped after Modernist's victory, “I think it's worked out well–they had 20 horses that wanted to run.”
It will be interesting to see what tweaks with Derby prep-race distances might be in the near-term future. Competing tracks might make some changes if horsemen indicate longer preps are what they want. And Churchill Downs, Inc. itself is likely to be adding some new wrinkles in 2021, because next year will be the first in which the corporation will control two winter/spring race meets (Fair Grounds and Turfway Park) that host Kentucky Derby preps.
When Churchill operates its first race meet at the refurbished Turfway next year (it acquired the track last autumn but didn't significantly alter operations for the 2020 meet), expect a version of the GIII Jeff Ruby S. to be more prominently emphasized in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points series. That stakes will likely have its own prep, and the corporation will surely dovetail the Turfway and Fair Grounds sophomore stakes so they don't conflict on the calendar.
Seeing double at Delta
The racing theme in the state of Louisiana last weekend was all about seeing double. The Fair Grounds split its feature stakes in two, while 230 miles west, Delta Downs had twin first-time starters debuting in a $20,000 maiden-claimer for Friday's opener.
Custom Pete and Halo Carlos are 3-year-old gelded sons of Custom for Carlos who both resulted from the same pregnancy of the mare Hide the Halo.
Coupled in the wagering, Halo Carlos broke running but faded by the turn of the five-furlong sprint. He finished last. Custom Pete lagged at the rear of the field for most of the race, then passed his twin brother late, running next-to-last.
News of the twins caused a mild buzz on social media before their debut, which likely contributed to the entry going off as the 2.6-1 second choice in the betting off of a 5-1 morning line.
Bettors who backed the 8-5 favorite, Jazzy G (Congrats), ended up getting two huge breaks: The first is that Jazzy G likely would have gone off at half of that 8-5 mutuel had not all that casual cash depressed the odds on the twins. The second is that the longest shot on the board–a shifting and drifting 27-1 shot–ended up crossing the finish line first. But because that long shot couldn't maintain a straight course, Jazzy G got elevated from second to the win via stewards' disqualification.
Proposed PA purse raid “begging for a lawsuit”
One of the major sticking points in Gov. Tom Wolf's proposal to help Pennsylvania's low- and middle-income students by diverting $204 million from the state's Race Horse Development Trust Fund (RHDTF) revolves around the fact that this isn't some simple budget tussle about reallocating money from the state's general fund.
In 2017, Wolf himself signed into law the Race Horse Industry Reform Act, which created a trust for the gaming revenue that funds purses, and it specifically states that money held in trust is “not funds of the Commonwealth” and that “the Commonwealth is not rightfully entitled” to it for other purposes.
So legislators would first have to undo that state statute before Wolf's budget idea could move forward.
Speaking at a Feb. 13 rally at West Chester University, the largest of Pennsylvania's 14 state colleges, Wolf acknowledged there is legislative opposition to his plan, but he said it would not affect his commitment to the proposal.
“It's a hill I'm happy to die on,” the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted the Democrat governor as saying. “My choice would be to support the tens of thousands of students” in the system.
Two days later, the Inquirer itself editorialized in favor of Wolf's plan to push ahead with his plan to allow the RHDTF to be gutted.
“Those supporting the industry claim that the money supports agricultural jobs which boosts the state economy, and by funding bigger purses, more people will bet. The reality doesn't back that up,” the Inquirer editorial stated. “With so many critical and human problems this state faces, the unquestioned propping up of an industry that has shown no promise of improving is outrageous.”
But a number of politicians–particularly those whose districts include the state's Thoroughbred and Standardbred tracks, plus the 15-venue county fair harness circuit–have already spoken out against repurposing the RHDTF.
An op-ed by Republican Senator Dave Arnold on the website of the Pennsylvania Senate Republicans stated that, “While I understand the need to address rising college tuition costs and increasing student loan debt, I cannot support a plan that could essentially eliminate an industry that provides $1.6 billion in economic benefits to this state and is vital to our area.”
Republican Senator Scott Martin told PennLive that based on what he knows about the 2017 law that protects the RHDTF from transfers like the one Wolf is proposing, the governor is “kind of begging for a lawsuit” by attempting to raid it.