By T. D. Thornton
The annual Thanksgiving weekend “Stars of Tomorrow” card at Churchill Downs is designed to highlight aspiring 2-year-olds right before they launch into their sophomore seasons. An intriguing subplot to this year's edition, however, put the spotlight on several human rather than equine participants who could be on the cusp of bigger and better things.
Eighteen-year-old jockey Axel Concepcion just might be on his way to winning an Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice for 2023 despite not starting racing at American mainland tracks until Feb. 19 and also having to sit out back-to-back reckless riding suspensions imposed by the Delaware Park stewards that forced him to the sidelines between Oct. 6 and Nov. 22.
The Puerto Rican native was in the midst of a planned move from the mid-Atlantic circuit to Kentucky when he was penalized for twice causing Delaware spills, and when Concepcion resurfaced at Churchill on Thanksgiving Day, the asterisk next to his name designating “bugboy” status perhaps should have been replaced by an exclamation point.
Concepcion won with just his second mount at Churchill last Thursday, then scored in two races on the Friday card. He was no worse than fourth from six tries on the first two days of his Kentucky foray, and has been riding well-bet horses for well-stocked trainers like Brad Cox, Chris Hartman, and Philip Bauer.
He's represented by agent Bryson Cox, Brad's son, who told TDN back in early October that the plan would be just to get Concepcion noticed at the end of the Churchill meet before settling in for the four-month Turfway Park season that starts this Wednesday.
Milestone Win for Whit
Trainer Whit Beckman broke through with his first graded stakes victory when he saddled Honor Marie (Honor Code) to a last-to-first, two-length victory in Saturday's GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. at Churchill.
Although Beckman is a new-ish name in the program, he's no kid at age 41. And he's certainly no stranger to winner's circle celebrations at the highest levels of the game, having served as an assistant to several well-respected conditioners, including Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher, as well as spending a year as a head trainer in Saudi Arabia prior to launching a one-horse stable in 2021 that has since grown in size and stature.
A native of Louisville who is the son of an equine veterinarian, Beckman said post-win that getting his first graded stakes score at Churchill resonated with him, “especially just being here at home, from Louisville, and this is the first place I ever worked. [I feel] so many feelings that are just part of the process it's taken to get here. And, yeah, I'm just thrilled. I've been in a lot of spots like this before, but working for other people, [so] it's awesome to be here with my name of the program.”
Beckman plans to winter in New Orleans with Honor Marie (90 Beyer Speed Figure) and the rest of his outfit.
“Working for Todd and Chad I saw a lot of programs leading up to the Derby, and obviously, that is what the goal is with all of these horses,” Beckman said. “I've never gone to the Fair Grounds for the entire winter, so we're going to give it a shot.”
Frequent Philly Flyer
Mychel Sanchez, currently the leading jockey this year at Parx in both victories and purse earnings, has decided to give Tampa Bay Downs a go this winter. He won with his first mount of the meet there on Friday, but don't expect him to vanish from the entries at his home track in the Philadelphia area just yet.
The 27-year-old rider is currently in the midst of some whirlwind commuting. Last Monday, Nov. 20, he won with two of six mounts at Parx. Sanchez was blanked there on Tuesday and Wednesday, but after riding in the ninth race at Parx, he trekked 120 miles west for the night card at Penn National, where he won two Thanksgiving Eve stakes with his only two mounts there by a combined 16 lengths.
After taking the holiday off to travel south, Sanchez won with three of his first eight Tampa mounts. Now he's back up north at Parx to start the racing week anew, with 13 mounts booked this Monday-Wednesday prior to going back to Tampa, where racing will be conducted largely on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday schedule this season.
“It's a new experience for me, and it's good because I get to learn a little more every day,” Sanchez told the Tampa Bay Downs media department. “I really like it. I just want to keep doing better every day.”
He's still trying, we're still rooting…
Storm the Court (Court Vision), who upset the 2019 GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile at 45-1 odds but hasn't won a race since, came within a half-length of making his first return trip to a winner's circle in more than four years on Friday when he dead-heated for second at Tampa in an allowance/optional claimer over five furlongs on the grass.
Following his Breeders' Cup shocker, Storm the Court was blanked in five prep races for the GI Kentucky Derby during the pandemic-altered 2020 season that saw the Derby staged in September. He ran a credible sixth, beaten nine lengths in that Derby, then tried everything from graded-stakes turf routes to dirt sprints to 1 1/2-mile main-track marathons in multiple attempts to regain his winning ways.
Storm the Court was never badly beaten in terms of lengths, but only managed one second and one third in all of his post-Derby tries while padding his bankroll to just shy of $1.4 million during that time frame.
Now six and still owned by several of the principals who campaigned him in the Breeders' Cup (David Bernsen and Susanna Wilson), Storm the Court's ownership line also includes his initial conditioner, Peter Eurton, who trained him through 2022. Tom Amoss had trained Storm the Court for two starts earlier this year at Saratoga and Churchill before William Morey took over for an Oct. 4 start at Horseshoe Indianapolis and the Tampa try Nov. 24.