The Week in Review: The Old Man and the Sprint

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Whitmore in the Vanderbilt post parade this summer | Sarah Andrew

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The final chapters have yet to be penned in Whitmore (Pleasantly Perfect)’s book, but it’s safe to say the 7-year-old sprinter is in the autumn of his career. He’s a closer who has excelled in a division where out-and-out front-end speed often dominates, he’s run in three consecutive GI Breeders’ Cup Sprints that have each drawn as “loaded” affairs won by the eventual Eclipse Award champ, and he’ll seek his first Breeders’ Cup win in start number four over a host track (Keeneland) whose main-track profile has been tilted toward forwardly placed runners during both of its 2020 meets.

Nevertheless, trainer Ron Moquett wouldn’t trade horses or places with anyone leading up to the Nov. 7 Sprint. On Sunday morning at Churchill Downs, Whitmore bulleted a half mile in :46.80 (1/76) in his final serious breeze before the Breeders’ Cup.

“He’s just a cool dude. He’s very consistent, and I’m expecting good things out of him,” Moquett said in a post-workout video interview posted by the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “We’ve always got a lot of pressure when Whitmore runs because a lot of people love him and follow him, and we’re kind of into that. So we want to put on a good show, and we want it more for Whitmore than we do for anything.”

Whitmore carries the colors of a partnership between Robert LaPenta, Head of Plains Partners, LLC, and Moquett. But he also shoulders the appreciative interest of admirers who like a good “throwback” campaigner–a reliable, road-tripping stalwart good for six to eight starts annually who hits the board more often than not (14-11-3 from 37 lifetime starts) while bankrolling $3.2 million in purse earnings.

If Whitmore finally breaks through and wins the Sprint (he’s been third, second, and eighth in his previous attempts), the victory would come five years and one day after he broke his maiden at first asking at Churchill, winning by a gaudy 7 1/4 lengths at 15-1 odds.

Whitmore doesn’t often crack double digits on the tote board these days. The only other times he’s gone off at that high a price were in the 2015 GI Kentucky Derby (30-1) and in his 2017 and 2019 Breeders’ Cup Sprints (20-1 and 19-1). And outside of his beginning-career route attempts on the Triple Crown trail and the one-turn 2019 GI Cigar Mile, Moquett has kept Whitmore at his sweet spot between six and seven furlongs.

Moquett believes part of Whitmore’s staying power is attributable to his running style. Closing sprinters, he said, “come from off the pace, and they’re not as fatigued at the end of a race where a lot of injuries can occur.”

Whitmore began his 7-year-old season with a second and two wins at Oaklawn Park. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a layoff until July 25 at Saratoga, where he ran into an absolute buzz saw of a winner named Volatile (Violence), who has since been retired with a hairline fracture. In that six-furlong GI Vanderbilt H., Volatile was allowed to get away with an unpressured first opening quarter mile in :23.46, but then ripped home through a final quarter in :22.94, the fastest in the race’s history. In a four-horse field while conceding two pounds to the winner, Whitmore was disadvantaged by the way the race unfolded, yet he still closed well enough to earn second, 1 1/4 lengths behind Volatile.

“That’s the slowest first quarter for a Grade I [sprint] I’ve ever seen, and he still made up ground and ran a really good race,” Moquett said.

Next up was a seventh-place try in the Saratoga slop over seven furlongs in the Aug. 29 GI Forego S. That race was run in a pelting rainstorm that made it a throwout for a number of competitors. Whitmore then took aim at the GII Phoenix Oct. 2 at Keeneland, in which he uncorked a six-wide bid off the turn against the grain of a speed-conducive track and lost a head bob for show, checking in fourth.

“It’s hard to win at Keeneland [with a closing sprinter],” Moquett said. “I was a little disappointed with the race. I wasn’t disappointed with him. I thought a lot of his races this year have been where if the pace was good enough, he could come get ’em. But being a closing sprinter, we are always concerned [with] pace scenarios.

“I thought that that was how the track was playing, that weekend especially,” Moquett continued. “It was just kind of an odd deal, but my horse came back happy and I know that if the right [pace] scenario comes up, he can beat those kind of horses with ease. If the wrong scenario comes up, he can be a victim of the pace.”

Whitmore’s fourth Sprint bid isn’t a Breeders’ Cup record. Another venerable gelding, Kona Gold, ran in five of them between 1998 and 2002, winning the 2000 edition. Four other horses (Perfect Drift, Better Talk Now, California Flag, and Obviously) also competed in five Breeders’ Cup events each.

“There is no correct recipe for a Sprint winner. I’ve seen 3-year-olds win it. I’ve seen 8-year-olds win it,” Moquett said, adding that for Whitmore, “it’s always about who he’s run against. He’s pretty much the same.

“When we ran against Roy H [{More Than Ready}, in 2017 and ’18] we were running against a two-time [Sprint] winner and the world’s fastest horse at the time. And [Whitmore] ran his eyeballs out,” Moquett continued. “Then we came back and ran against Mitole [{Eskendereya}, in 2019], and in my mind, he definitely was one of the best we’ve seen in awhile. So it’s almost like, ‘What are the caliber of the horses we’re going to be chasing on [Breeders’ Cup] day, and are there a couple of the good ones who can go fast enough for us to come get them?'”

If not, there’s always the prospect of another campaign for Whitmore at age eight.

“With him, he gets to write his own book,” Moquett said. “If he comes [out of the Sprint] and says he wants to go out and run and play and have fun, then I’m going to let him. If he ever acts like he’s not interested or shows a sign of wear and tear, then he’ll get to go and live happily ever after. He owes us nothing, so we only want what he wants.”

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