Saturday was a "Champions Day" of sorts, as 2017 Eclipse Award winners Unique Bella and World Approval (who was also a finalist for Horse of the Year), made their 2018 debuts, and came away winners.
I realize it might sound silly gushing about Unique Bella because, as the 1-10 favorite in Santa Anita's Santa Maria Stakes, she was supposed to win, and win big. But that's the kind of special horse Unique Bella is, because even if she went out and did what she was supposed to do, she still makes you want to sing her praises.
Unique Bella crushed her four overmatched Santa Maria opponents by nine lengths, under a hold, and still earned a heady Beyer Figure of 109. She might have been voted last year's champion female sprinter, but she is now 3 for 3 around two turns, with her prior two route scores also being dominant. Most notably, Unique Bella confirmed again she is a major player in an older dirt female division that, for the moment at least, is especially strong and deep. In fact, with fellow champions Forever Unbridled and Abel Tasman, and such high-class performers as Vale Dori, Paradise Woods, and Elate, the division Unique Bella is such a key member of might be right now the best in the game.
World Approval, the champion turf male, was 1-5 in the Tampa Bay Stakes, so he, too, was expected to win. He did, but unlike Unique Bella, World Approval had to work to turn back the unheralded Forge, who managed to run back to that one race last summer when he finished second in Saratoga's Bernard Baruch to Heart to Heart, who a little earlier on Saturday parlayed an uncontested lead into a win in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf.
World Approval is certainly capable of running much better than he did in the Tampa Bay, as evidenced by his Grade 1 stakes-winning streak the second half of last year, capped by his victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile. One actually gets the strong feeling that World Approval was at his most vulnerable Saturday, and the level of horse he's been beating since last summer will now have a hard time getting to him for the foreseeable future.
* There were two Kentucky Derby preps Saturday -- the San Vicente at Santa Anita and the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay -- but their results shouldn't have caused a moment's worry to the connections of Bolt d'Oro, Good Magic, and McKinzie, et al.
Kanthaka capitalized on a total pace meltdown to win the San Vicente. It was his second straight victory from three career starts, and maybe he's okay. But you can make a case that runner-up Nero, who was coming off a nose maiden win, ran every bit as well considering he was right with the early pace that otherwise completely disintegrated. I need to see Kanthaka run well when circumstances aren't so strongly tilted in his favor.
Flameaway, whose previous two dirt stakes wins came in off-the-turf events, sprung a front-running upset of the Davis, turning back odds-on favorite Catholic Boy and the well-regarded Vino Rosso.
Catholic Boy, in his first start since running away with the Remsen in his first attempt on dirt, had every chance to get by Flameaway, and couldn't. Vino Rosso finished willingly after falling back in the middle stages in what was his first start against legitimate horses after beating questionable company in his first two starts.
To put this in context, however, Flameaway was the only member of the six-horse Davis who was not a first-stage Triple Crown nominee. Sure, if he stays healthy, he'll probably be made a late nominee. Now. But while you can spin it any way you want, it's never a good sign when a Derby prep is won by a horse who isn't even nominated to the Triple Crown for the paltry price of $600.
* Maybe we should just forget about scheduling post times since so few tracks seem to care about adhering to them. For example, the Tampa Bay Stakes went off 12 minutes past scheduled post time, and the Gulfstream Park turf went off 14 minutes late. Even the San Vicente went off three minutes past the updated Saturday Santa Anita scheduled post time of 2:44, Pacific, which was 14 minutes later than the originally scheduled post of 2:30. Why would any potential new fan fall in love with the game when the races don't go off anywhere near when they are supposed to?
* The news broke almost a week ago, but here are a few words about the official addition of the $1 million Juvenile Turf Sprint to the Breeders' Cup fold:
On one hand, there's no harm adding another stakes race to Breeders' Cup weekend. You and I don't have to put up the purse money, and if they don't prove to be completely impossible races to handicap, why should anyone complain about an additional betting opportunity?
But the thing is, the addition of this race to the Breeders' Cup stable seems totally unnecessary. Now, three of the five Breeders' Cup races for 2-year-olds are on turf, which counters the reality that in American stakes racing, dirt is still king, and by a wide margin.
And now, two of the 14 Breeders' Cup races, or a healthy 14 percent, are turf sprints. This is particularly tough to swallow. At one time in the not-too-distant past, turf sprints were an interesting novelty, and horseplayers responded in kind. But racetracks across the country went overboard with them, and it didn't take long for turf sprints to earn the primary function as the means by which many racing offices could get an overnight out before 5 pm.
No one breeds a horse with the intention of coming up with a big-time turf sprinter. No one. Who lays out real money at a yearling or 2-year-old in training sale with the intention of coming away with a turf sprinter? No one. Turf sprinters -- even the best of them -- are horses who failed at other things, such as racing on dirt, or going a distance of ground on grass. And this is underscored by a fact of which most serious handicappers are well aware: the spread of ability between the best turf sprinter and a turf sprinter claimer is much narrower than perhaps any other category.
Look at the fields the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint has drawn. Look at the winners of those races. With the solitary exception of Obviously, the Turf Sprint has been won by Grade 3 horses. It has been a Grade 3 race, because if it walks like a duck
As was the case with the mercifully discontinued Breeders' Cup Marathon, the Juvenile Turf Sprint can only dilute the Breeders' Cup brand, which should be disconcerting to every fan of the sport. After all, the term "Breeders' Cup" is supposed to be synonymous with excellence.
What is particularly strange about this is the "creation" of this new Breeders' Cup race is a "solution" to a problem that never was. A form of the Juvenile Turf Sprint already existed on Breeders' Cup undercards, just without the official Breeders' Cup label and the outsized purse of $1 million it now carries. They were interesting races to bet on, but they were never about greatness, and were never won by special horses, neighborhoods the Breeders' Cup doesn't belong in.