By Chris McGrath
Well, I guess in the week we lost Mrs. Chandler–that elegant bridge at the center of five generations (and counting) of Kentucky horse lore–nobody will need reminding to take the long view. Certainly not Shug McGaughey, who will perhaps be reminding the disappointed connections of Greatest Honour (Tapit) how things didn't turn out too badly for Coronado's Quest (Forty Niner) after he was likewise derailed from the Classic trail. Maybe Greatest Honour can now become Shug's fifth winner of the GI Travers S., a race with an even longer history than the one he was targeting on the first Saturday in May.
Even so, the heart goes out to Mr. Adam and his team at Courtlandt Farm. We learn perspective with the passing of years, but horses teach us forbearance every single day. (That's the idea, anyway: some of us remain stubbornly slow to absorb our lessons…) But there's no getting away from it. Greatest Honour's absence further weakens a GI Kentucky Derby already deprived of the charismatic Life Is Good (Into Mischief); and reiterates how ruthlessly the race secures its mystique. Because from the moment every single Thoroughbred colt slithers into the straw, his breeders will already know the date–set in stone, albeit three Mays hence–when he will need to be fit and firing if he is to fulfil their ultimate dream.
True, last year was an unprecedented exception, as will be bitterly remembered by those who presented Nadal (Blame) and Charlatan (Speightstown) in imperious condition on the first Saturday in May. Oaklawn stepped up to the plate that day, after Churchill had unilaterally subverted the whole calendar (making a gamble, of course, that didn't pay off anyway). Water under the bridge, by now, and anyway imperfection is a constant of our species–and especially pardonable, as such, in such bewildering times. Oaklawn themselves, after all, arguably diluted their service to the breed by dividing a race that might just as well have been extended, exceptionally, into a 10th furlong.
This time round we must settle for a field that depends pretty exorbitantly on one colt. After the defections already suffered, certainly, we don't want that blanket of roses to lose any more petals. Concert Tour (Street Sense) arrives with an immaculate record to date, and bids to emulate Sunny's Halo (Halo), Smarty Jones (Elusive Quality) and American Pharoah (Pioneerof The Nile) by adding the Arkansas and Kentucky Derbys to the GII Rebel S.
Bob Baffert permitted himself comparisons with American Pharoah himself in the ease and swagger of Concert Tour's Rebel performance and, given how most of these were strewn hopelessly in his wake that day, the most intriguing question this time is whether their trainer will now extend the similarities by seeking some evidence of versatility. If he Concert Tour can rate as readily as Pharoah, that will obviously open up options in the 20-runner stampede at Churchill. Such an experiment, moreover, may well result in a more meaningful test here, as Caddo River (Hard Spun) clearly did not respond well when denied a chance to throw down the gauntlet in the Rebel. It was almost like he was stamping his feet and hollering that everybody knows you don't give an uncontested lead to horses from that barn.
As we've noted in the past, it was in the 1993 Arkansas Derby that Ben Glass saddled Rockamundo (Key To The Mint) for a 108-1 success that introduced patrons Gary and Mary West to the next level in their adventure on Turf. A lot of their success since traces to the happy fact that they were able to persuade Glass to stay on as racing manager after he quit training a couple of years later, and the homebred Concert Tour has the wholesome two-turn pedigree central to this program.
The Wests also bred Life Is Good, selling him for $525,000 as a yearling, but were already amply versed in the kind of vicissitudes that can befall a Derby horse. Two years ago they discovered that there are zero guarantees even if you not only show up on the day to run the race of your life, but also beat 19 rivals to that winning post. Maybe Concert Tour is the colt to redress their experience with Maximum Security (New Year's Day); maybe not. Who can say? Because the way destiny operates, in selecting a single member of the crop for that place in the Derby annals, is entirely unreadable.
None of us, then, can determine our fulfilment with Thoroughbreds solely on a two-minute roll of the dice in a race for which the odds of being both eligible and fit are so enormous. You wouldn't, for instance, want Whitmore (Pleasantly Perfect) to stand or fall on his performance under the Twin Spires: he was stone last that day, but while the winner Nyquist (Uncle Mo) has meanwhile sired an Eclipse Award winner, Whitmore was himself honored at the same ceremony at the age of eight, having discovered his true metier in sprinting.
And, to be fair, he's the real star turn on this card. The old gelding makes his fifth appearance in the GIII Count Fleet H., in which race only another champion, Mitole (Eskendereya), has ever beaten him.
Currently tied with 1965 Arkansas Derby winner Swift Ruler (Sir Ruler) on seven stakes wins at Oaklawn, he stands on the brink of the outright record. Whatever happens, he is already a Hot Springs legend and a huge credit to Ron Moquett.
Let's not forget that in terms of their optimal maturity, all these sophomores we obsess about are barely adolescent. Unfortunately, we tend to permit Thoroughbreds their full racetrack potential only by removing their competence to recycle at stud the hardiness they can then explore. That's one of the reasons I hope that Whitmore's contemporary Tom's d'Etat excels at WinStar. Because sometimes the only way horses can teach us the long view is if we let them play a long game.