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Fleet: Moving swiftly; rapid or nimble.
While certainly meeting all of the traditional requirements for being fleet, it is for the ‘nimble‘ part of the definition that Afleet Alex’s Preakness Stakes will be remembered.
Coming around the final turn, jockey Jeremy Rose fired Afleet Alex into an emerging hole and rode a rocket out into the stretch. Gaining rapidly on Scrappy T, Afleet Alex was preparing to engage that horse on the outside. Engage is not strong enough. Afleet Alex was about to blow the doors off Scrappy T.
Jockey Ramon Dominguez, aboard Scrappy T, had just taken the lead in the race and could sense the finish line less than a quarter of a mile away. He could also sense his charge losing interest in the race after having attained the lead. Dominguez fired a sharp smack of the whip on Scrappy T’s left hip. Instead of the desired effect of spurring the horse on, Scrappy T reacted like he had just been stung by world’s largest bee. Seemingly turning around to look for what had just bitten him, Scrappy T veered sharply to the right just as Afleet Alex was about to come abreast.
That disaster was averted seems a miracle. Afleet Alex clipped heels with Scrappy T and stumbled badly. Both horses and their riders could have easily fallen at the top of the stretch with a dozen other horses and riders about to decend upon them. It could have been horrific.
But it wasn’t. Instead, it was amazing. We saw an incredible equine athlete running at peak velocity suddenly tripped and nearly knocked to his knees. His nose just inches from the ground, he pulled himself back to his feet and proceeded to take off running again like nothing had happened. Cutting now to the inside of Scrappy T, Afleet Alex cruised past him with ease and moved on to a nearly five length victory.
Not to be overlooked is the ride by Afleet Alex’s jockey Jeremy Rose. Breaking from post position 12, Rose made a quick left just after the start and moved Afleet Alex all the way to the two path, saving a ton of ground around the first turn. On the backstretch, Rose maneuvered to the rail to save even more ground around the second turn. Waiting patiently behind Greeley’s Galaxy on the far turn, Rose was briefly in danger of being trapped behind slowing horses when he saw an opening to the outside. He hit the gas and Afleet Alex responded. Moving quickly outside the slowing leaders, Rose had his sights set on Scrappy T. As he approached the leader, Scrappy T suddenly veered sharply to the right, under the nose of his horse. As amazing a feat as it was for the horse to keep from falling, it may be more impressive that the jockey was able to stay aboard. Jockeys don’t actually sit on the back of racehorses, they balance on the stirrups. All it takes is a quick change of direction or momentum for a jockey to be tossed to the ground. Grabbing on to the horse’s mane, Rose was not only able to stay aloft but to help Afleet Alex to quickly regain his stride and momentum.
Rose has been aboard Afleet Alex for all of his starts but one. JR Velazquez picked up the ride for the Rebel in March and might have kept the horse if he didn’t have other obligations on the day of the Arkansas Derby. Owners and trainers of top horses are always tempted to switch to a big name jockey. The connections of Afleet Alex should be very glad they stuck with Jeremy Rose. The horse could not have gotten a better ride.
After the Derby, I was very disappointed in Afleet Alex’s performance. He was in a perfect position to win that race but came up short in a very slow time. Clearly, he did not fire in Kentucky like he did in Maryland. Looking back, a third place finish in the Derby when he wasn’t at his best is not too bad. What is also clear now is that Afleet Alex is a very good horse. Track announcer Tom Durkin said it best as Afleet Alex crossed the finish line: “Afleet Alex…Awesome!” I couldn’t agree more.
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Two weeks after The Race Which Will Remain Nameless and it’s time to give it another try. This time things will be different. Hopefully, less different than last time. This time, let’s see if we can have a legitimate horse race. Something along the lines of reasonable speed up front, pressers getting a good position just off the speed, closers who actually close and more horses moving forward down the stretch than backwards! Wouldn’t that be nice?
There will still be some speed this time, but not the same sort of speed we saw in the Derby. There will be no reason for the good horses to chase this time. Hal’s Image, Galloping Grocer, High Limit and Going Wild can all be expected to break well and move to the lead. There is no reason to chase them. The horses with the best chance to win will be sitting in the next group: High Fly, Greeley’s Galaxy and Scrappy T. I expect two of the front four to disappear quickly and the remaining two, probably High Limit and Going Wild, to falter entering the far turn. At that point High Fly and Scrappy T should become the leaders, with Greeley’s Galaxy and Closing Argument not far behind, and I expect them to continue on in this order.
What of Afleet Alex and Giacomo?
I’m taking a position against Afleet Alex. If he was anywhere near as good as advertised he should have won the Derby. He was able to rate off the suicidal speed, found a path through the crowd without too much trouble and, mid-stretch, had the roses right in front of him for the taking. Instead of seizing the opportunity he staggered home third. To me, his performance was the most disappointing because the race was handed to him on a silver platter and he was not able to take advantage.
I don’t expect Giacomo to drop as far back this time. He should be able to settle midpack and be in a position to move forward coming into the stretch. This time, however, he will have to drive down the lane to catch anyone and I don’t see that happening. The leaders will not be coming back this time and Giacomo doesn’t posess the closing kick necessary to run down good horses that are still running.
The pick: High Fly
Exotics: Use High Fly 1st and 2nd with Scrappy T and Greeley’s Galaxy over Afleet Alex, Closing Argument and Giacomo.
2 with 4,5 with 4,5,7,12,13 = $8
4,5 with 2 with 4,5,7,12,13 = $8
Let’s hope for a return to sanity (and the cashier’s window).
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One thing became certain as Giacomo crossed the finish line to win the 131st Kentucky Derby. There will be a full field of 20 runners in the 132nd Kentucky Derby and for years to come.
Next spring, when owners and trainers are asked why they are running their seemingly hopelessly overmatched horse in the Derby, they will have a ready reply. “Well, just look at Giacomo in 2005. If he can win…” And do you know what? They’ll be right. This year’s Derby made it clear that the race can be a huge crapshoot. Twenty lightly raced three-year-olds running farther than they’ve ever raced before is a recipe for chaos. It may not be a case of ‘anyone can win’, but you would be hard-pressed to prove otherwise.
Most years, horseplayers can look at the Derby result and, in retrospect, find something they overlooked or undervalued in the winner. Smarty Jones was only a lukewarm favorite at 4-1 in 2004. Many horseplayers figured his Oaklawn wins were against weak competition and that his speed numbers were inflated. After the race, everyone knew his Oaklawn wins were truely representatative of his ability and Smarty had a full bandwagon for the Preakness.
In 2003 and 2002, both Funny Cide and War Emblem were hardly favorites. However, both had run very strong races in their last preps and earned excellent speed figures. Looking back, it was easy to kick yourself for not taking advantage of the generous prices.
What about this year? It’s a little harder to make a case for Giacomo, even with the benefit of hindsight. There are no flashy speed figures that were underappreciated. No big wins over supposedly weak fields. Just a well-bred horse with good connections who ran only decently in the poorly regarded West Coast prep races.
So, who is Giacomo and how did he win?
Giacomo had every right to be a good horse coming in to this year. A son of 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull, he finished his two-year-old season with an excellent second place finish to eventual Eclipse Award winner Declan’s Moon. A nose behind was 2004 Breeder’s Cup Juvenile winner Wilko. That’s pretty good company and expectations should have been high for his three-year-old season.
Unfortunately, Giacomo’s three-year-old campaign has been less than inspiring. Debuting as the favorite in the ungraded Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, Giacomo finished third behind Going Wild. Although he raced wide the whole race, he was only a couple of lengths off the lead and finished only a length and a quarter behind the winner. A week later, his odds in the Kentucky Derby Future Pool 1 were 25-1. Not bad. About middle of the pack.
His next race was the Grade 2 San Felipe. Giacomo again ran third most of the way, a couple of lengths off the leader, and ended up in second, six and half lengths behind Consolidator. Not bad, but nothing special.
His final prep was the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. This time Giacomo raced a little further off the pace before sweeping four-wide into the stretch to finish in fourth, just a couple of lengths behind two longshots and Wilko. Once again, nothing to get excited about.
So, how did he win?
What is interesting, in looking at these three races, is that Giacomo, unlike many of the more highly regarded contenders for the Kentucky Derby, was showing an ability to race off the pace. That may just be a nice way of saying he wasn’t fast enough to challenge for the lead in these races, but in any case this trait would be to his benefit in a Derby loaded with fast front runners.
What he wasn’t showing in these races, again unlike the Derby favorites, was the ability to win.
Flash forward to the 131st running of the Kentucky Derby. Breaking behind most of the field, Giacomo was content to spend the first half of the race at the back of the pack. Up front, the leaders were firing off quick fractions over the lightning fast track. Designated rabbit Spanish Chestnut was leading, but just over a length behind was a tightly pack group of runners consisting of Flower Alley, High Fly, Going Wild and the favorite, Bellamy Road. Fifteen lengths behind was Giacomo, still in 18th place. The first three quarters went in 22.28, 23.10 and 24.21, but things were about to change. The next quarter went in 26.29 as Bellamy Road and High Fly edged past the tiring Spanish Chestnut. Unfortunately for them, they were being hotly pressed by longshot Closing Argument, second favorite Afleet Alex and, seven-wide, another longshot, Santa Anita winner Buzzard’s Bay. By this point the leaders had little left themselves. Behind them, Giacomo had run the fourth quarter in 24.54, gaining nearly 9 lengths and had moved up to 11th, only six and a quarter lengths off the lead.
In a final quarter run in 26.87 seconds, first High Fly, then Bellamy Road, began to fade. By mid-stretch, Closing Argument held a half-length lead over Afleet Alex, with Giacomo another two lengths back in sixth. Giacomo, however, was running best of all and caught the leaders in the final sixteenth of a mile to prevail by half a length.
Giacomo’s win in the Derby seems to be a case of just being the last man standing as the race collapsed around him. The speed up front burnt out and the closers came up empty in the the stretch. Giacomo’s final quarter of 25.62 may have been enough to run down the leg-weary leaders, but the final time of 2:02.75 does not compare well with the last two Derby’s run on a fast track. (Smarty Jones won on a sloppy track last year). Both 2002 winner War Emblem and 2003 winner Funny Cide ran the mile and a quarter in 2:01, or about 8 or 9 lengths faster.
I could be wrong, but I’m thinking that Giacomo won’t need a very big bandwagon going on to the Preakness. I didn’t have any money on Giacomo, but I’d bet big money on his victory not getting much respect. Expect to see another big field in the Preakness and someone else in the Winner’s Circle.