By T. D. Thornton
With undefeated phenom Flightline (Tapit) and sophomore star Epicenter (Not This Time) headlining a respectably deep GI Breeders' Cup Classic, one oft-repeated quip is that 2022 is turning out to be “a tough year to have a good horse” aiming for a divisional championship.
Yet a few rungs farther down the class ladder–more than a few, in truth–a blue-collar starter-allowance stalwart is tweaking that phrase so it better suits his grind-it-out style, proving that '22 is actually “a good year to have a tough horse.”
Last week at Churchill Downs, Beverly Park (Munnings) won his 11th race of the season in start number 23 on the year. Both those numbers are tops in North America; his next closest rivals have eight wins and 20 starts, respectively.
Emblematic of his speed-centric, hard-charging nature, the 5-year-old broke running in a 6 1/2-furlong $20,000 starter-allowance Sept. 21, took pressure at the rail in a three-way speed duel, then repulsed a deep-stretch threat to eke out a 3/4-length score under Rafael Bejarano for owner/trainer Norman Lynn Cash, whose horses race under the name Built Wright Stables.
Eleven wins and it's only the first week of autumn. For perspective, no North American Thoroughbred has won more than 12 races in an entire calendar year since 2011, when Rapid Redux ran the table with a gaudy 19-for-19 record. More than three full months of racing are left in '22.
In fact, by the time you read this, Beverly Park could well already be on the cusp of being entered for his next race.
Colleague Bill Finley profiled Cash's “throwback” operation in mid-May, when Beverly Park had racked up his first six wins of the year. After having owned racehorses in partnership with his wife, Lola, for about a decade, Cash took out his trainer's license in April 2021. He now runs a 40-head stable (split between Laurel Park in Maryland and the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington, Kentucky) on the theory that as long as horses show they can thrive on frequent racing, they'll be in the entry box.
Cash claimed Beverly Park for $12,500 out of a NW3L win at Belterra Park on Aug. 5, 2021, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with a horse who had won his previous NW2L condition in his previous start at the $5,000 level by 15 lengths. That meant Beverly Park would be eligible for some lucrative starter-allowance spots. But because improved horses who once ran for low claiming tags generally scare away entrants for those restricted races, Beverly Park had to hit the road to extend his winning ways.
So far in '22, Beverly Park has raced at Oaklawn, Charles Town, Turfway, Laurel, Mahoning Valley, Keeneland, Monmouth, Belterra, Churchill, Thistledown, Delaware, Colonial and Timonium. In the 399-day span between Cash's claiming him and last week's win at Churchill, Beverly Park is 18-for-31 with $424,024 in purse earnings. His lifetime record stands at 21-for-40.
Finally a favorite
The $200,000 Parx Dirt Mile doesn't yet have the status of a graded race, but Mind Control (Stay Thirsty) has made it worth watching the past two years on the GI Pennsylvania Derby Day undercard.
A tenacious middle-distance horse who is often perceived as having something to prove, Mind Control is known for clawing back leads when he appears hopelessly beaten (like in the '21 Parx Dirt Mile), and winning races by thinly sliced margins (of his 11 lifetime victories, two were by noses, three by heads, and one by a neck).
Something of a fan favorite, the Red Oak Stable and Madaket Stables colorbearer for trainer Todd Pletcher has not been a pari-mutuel darling: Going into Saturday's Parx Dirt Mile defense, Mind Control had started in 15 consecutive stakes, dating all the way back to Mar. 7, 2020, without once being favored in the betting.
Although feats like this are difficult to pin down as actual “records” (help welcomed from anyone with a deep enough database), it's unlikely the sport has witnessed too many (if any) million-dollar-plus purse-earners competing strictly in stakes over a 2 1/2-year span without once going postward as the public's choice.
That changed Sept. 24, when Parx bettors installed Mind Control as the 3-5 choice for the Dirt Mile. The 6-year-old tracked the Pennsylvania-bred pacemaker Far Mo Power (Uncle Lino) every step of the trip before the dueling duo pulsed away from the pack on the far turn.
The 12-1 longshot and the odds-on favorite raced in lockstep and close quarters through the length of the lane, exchanging heads on the lead and some brief brushing, with the innermost Far Mo Power under Parx journeyman Dexter Haddock twice shifting outward toward Mind Control and Hall-of-Famer John Velazquez.
Under the wire, Far Mo Power prevailed by a neck, but the objection and inquiry signs soon blinked to life on the tote board. When the numbers stopped flashing, Mind Control was elevated as the winner, with Far Mo Power and jockey Dexter Haddock placed second for interference.
“My horse is a fighter but, when [Far Mo Power initially] came out and touched him, I was okay,” said Velazquez. “[Mind Control] got a little intimidated, but my horse got head and head with him again…. At the sixteenth pole [Haddock] hit [his mount] left-handed and he touched [Mind Control], kind of got him off balance. That really got my horse intimidated and off balance and I couldn't get back on it.”
Regardless of the stewards' reasoning for the DQ, it's difficult not to view the takedown through the eyes of the demoted connections.
Far Mo Power's owner, Joseph Sutton, has only started 18 horses lifetime with a two-horse stable, according to Equibase. Trainer Louis Linder Jr., has been conditioning for a decade, and has never won a stakes at the graded level. Haddock, riding since 2017, has a lone Grade III victory atop his riding resume, earned only last month. A win in a $200,000 race over their home track would have been a big deal for everyone involved, yet Far Mo Power's people were diplomatic in the aftermath of the outcome.
“That's horse racing,” said Linder. “It hurts, but we'll live to fight another day. From the minute this horse has been in the barn I knew he was special.”
Added Haddock: “My horse tried hard. I am sad. I get on him in the morning every day. I am sad for me. I am sad for the trainer.”
As for Mind Control, his win-via-DQ earned a 100 Beyer Speed Figure. After running the vast majority of his races around one turn, he has now earned his only three triple-digit Beyers in his only three two-turn races at a flat mile.
Perhaps those figures will stand him in good stead in the November renewal of the GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland. A fever knocked Mind Control out of last year's Dirt Mile at Del Mar.
It's a little early to get the crystal ball fired up to see what changes might affect regional racing calendars in 2023, but three separate news items from last week hinted at some subtle shifting in the Midwest.
The pending $79-million sale of Ellis Park to the gaming company Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), was greenlighted by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Sept. 20. Although Ellis is scheduled to race essentially the same block of 24 dates next year over the same summer template, CDI will naturally want to put its own stamp on operations there. Considering the deal was in large part billed as a way to shore up year-round racing in Kentucky, you can bet that the new management will be making a sizable push to recruit and retain outfits that might have traditionally raced elsewhere.
Meanwhile, on Sept. 22, Hawthorne Race Course was granted a slate of '23 dates by the Illinois Racing Board that will return a summer Thoroughbred season to greater Chicago after a one-year absence in the aftermath of the sudden and permanent closure of Arlington International Racecourse. Hawthorne will race Saturdays and Sundays Mar. 4-June 3, then add Wednesdays through Sept. 4.
That schedule could put a downstate squeeze on the former Fairmount Park, which is now known as FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing. Those two Illinois tracks have some overlap at the lower end of the class hierarchy, and with FanDuel's Tuesdays/Saturdays schedule from Apr. 18-Nov. 18, there will be conflicting summer Saturdays within the state.
Another wild card in the Midwest mix is Canterbury Park up in Minnesota. Despite ending its 64-date season Sept. 17 with a reported record total handle rise to $97.6 million, Canterbury faces an uncertain future because a 10-year agreement between the track and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (that provides purse funding in exchange for the track and horsemen not pursuing additional forms of gambling) is set to expire Dec. 31.
Andrew Offerman, Canterbury's senior vice president of racing, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the day after the meet ended that the '23 schedule will depend on how much purse money is available. The Tribune reported that Canterbury paid $15.7 million in purses this season, with $7.28 million coming from the purse-enhancement agreement.
Less purse money likely would mean fewer racing days next summer, Offerman told the Tribune, adding that Canterbury might consider running three days per week instead of four.