A LEAP FORWARD
By Robert Geller
EL PASO, Texas (Feb. 9) – With over 250 horses already training on the track at Emerald Downs, some 172 free nominations to the $800,000 Sunland Derby (G3) and another epic Super Bowl ending courtesy of Eli Manning, February is off to an adrenaline-charged start. Fittingly, it is a springboard month to a leap further down the calendar.
By the time Emerald Downs opens its doors April 13th, much preparation will have gone in to ensuring its 81-day meet goes off without hitch, every effort made to bring the best possible product to its fans. The backbone of any racing circuit begins with the breeders and trainers who raise and nurture Thoroughbreds in the hope of a good result. Track-work is the time to spot the young ones going through their early paces in the education process. The Emerald meet always unveils promising 2-year-olds though clearly the more proven commodities will be out in force in early spring, some shipping in, others fresh from a restful winter. Kudos to those barns willing to get off to a strong early start, helping to ensure we have a balanced, ready-to-go product.
The industry is full of irony and purse structure is one fine example. Time and again Emerald Downs produces talented racehorses that far exceed their earnings tallies and are not given sufficient respect. It is no easy feat to dance every major dance on any circuit and those that do are inevitably Horse of The Year. It is a pity that neither Noosa Beach nor Awesome Gem, winners of the last two Longacres Miles, each now having been a runner-up in the race too, managed to get to the more recent Breeders’ Cup World Championships at either Santa Anita or Churchill Downs. Both horses had the form to reflect well on our flagship race.
The $200,000 Longacres Mile (G3) is a perfect example of a prize that is coveted by owners and trainers irrespective of its dollar figure. West Point Thoroughbreds had endured several close calls in the Northwest’s premier race before winning last season with Awesome Gem, bypassing more lucrative options in California to accomplish a long-held mission. It was a story reminiscent of that of owner Jeffrey Sengara who won the 1999 Mile with Budroyale that bounced back from an unplaced effort the previous season. For sure, August 19, 2012 should prove no exception with the chance for local or out-of-state connections to realize a personal dream.
It is almost the converse challenge for Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino and its $800,000 Sunland Derby (G3) at one mile and one-eighth. Management has had to fight tooth and nail with the industry to be taken as a serious player despite offering the third richest Kentucky Derby lead-up in the country. The very year that track owner Stan Fulton was ready to pull the plug on the Sunland Derby and redirect all the purse funds to New Mexico breed races was the year that Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby. The 50-to-1 upset shocked the racing world, forcing the hand of a previously reluctant Graded Stakes Committee to slap a Grade 3 label onto the race. Being graded ended the Catch-22 situation with earnings from the race able to be applied toward a potential Triple Crown start.
Tradition can be a double-edged sword and New Mexico racing is more aware than most of what it means to change the pecking order. When the long list of Sunland Derby nominations landed on my desk this time last year, who would have suspected that it contained the Belmont Stakes winner? Ruler on Ice did not escape my attention when an eye-catching, unlucky third in the 2011 Sunland Derby and fueled my wager on him at Belmont. His subsequent third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic confirmed his ability as more than merely a mudder. His success begs the question of just what may be laying dormant in the 2012 list of nominees to the Sunland Derby that may slowly but surely be debunking the perceptual illusion that 3-year-olds must pass through the more prestigious circuits in order to be a legitimate Triple Crown player.
Hall of Fame trainers have responded effusively to the March 25 race with 27 early nominations from Todd Pletcher, 20 each from Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen, and last season’s Kentucky Derby winning trainer, Graham Motion, a welcome addition to the list with seven nominations. As nice as it would be to lure one of the leading early Derby contenders like the undefeated Algorithms, sitting second in the alphabetical order, before you know it, the equation changes. Nominees tend to whittle away like foam on a latte, leaving everyone wondering about the strength of blend that remains, more often than not the public surprised to find that the Sunland Derby can have quite a kick to it.
If the early nomination list is any guide, the upcoming 10th edition is likely to have growing East Coast flavor, a trend that has continued to gather steam and would fit well with the national scene. In the mid-to-late ’90s, California horses seemed to have the edge in the Triple Crown with seesawing successes of trainers like Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas. In recent years, all the evidence points to East Coast dominance with California the poor relation. Time will tell as to whether this trend is cyclical or not.
It appears no different from the shift in power in the NFL from the AFC to the NFC, the latter having now produced the last three Super Bowl champions, even the much-respected New England Patriots unable to stem the tide this year. Seattle Seahawks fans can take some solace in the knowledge that their defense was one of only a few teams all season that managed to thwart a final drive comeback from Eli Manning, effectively knocking the majority of Emerald Downs’ staff out of its sudden death football contest, myself included.
Thoroughbreds and football players are similar in that each need a solid team behind them to bring out their best but once they hit stride there is no stopping them, blossoming from ugly duckling into gentle GIANT!
The only track announcer in Emerald Downs’ history, Robert Geller begins his 17th season on Friday, April 13