By Derek Simon
With the Breeders’ Cup now in the rearview mirror, it’s time to start focusing on winter racing — and Gulfstream Park has put together a weekend card sure to warm the heart of any racing fan.
$800,000 will be up for grabs on Saturday’s Sunshine Millions Preview card, comprised of eight stakes races for Florida-breds, at Gulfstream Park.
In addition to East Hall, who is seeking to repeat in the $100,000 Millions Classic Preview and is looking for just his second win since then, Saturday’s card also features Brandy’s Girl, who was last seen breaking her maiden at Monmouth by 12 ¼ lengths (she goes in the Juvenile Filly Sprint), and the ultra-quick Flutterby, who finished second in the Grade II Princess Rooney — her only defeat since mid-April. Flutterby is scheduled to compete in the Millions Distaff Preview, a seven-furlong affair that drew a field of nine.
Of all the great races, though, I am most intrigued by the Turf Preview at 1 1/16 miles on — you’ll never guess — turf, which goes as the second race on the program.
First, I want to talk about Old Time Hockey, because he illustrates the importance of tactics and how they need to change as circumstances dictate.
If you read the book or saw the movie “Seabiscuit,” you’ll remember that trainer Tom Smith’s biggest fear prior to the famous match race with Triple Crown champion War Admiral was that Seabiscuit, the horse (of course, of course), would be left behind early — and the history of match races has not been kind to horses that trail.
To make matters worse, because War Admiral didn’t care for the starting gate, his owner, Sam Riddle (who also owned the legendary Man o’ War, War Admiral’s sire) insisted that the race be started with a bell only.
Advantage War Admiral, who had won his previous five races in wire-to-wire fashion.
Hence, Smith began training Seabiscuit — in the dead of the night, so nobody would catch wind of what he was doing — to break quickly every time an angel got its wings (a little “It’s a Wonderful Life” reference there).
Well, come race time, Seabiscuit broke like a shot and, with some vigorous urging by jockey George Wolf, actually led War Admiral going into the first turn. The rest, as they say, was history.
So why am I talking about a race from 77 years ago? Because if you look closely at the past performances of Old Time Hockey, you’ll see an amazing thing: in three of his last four starts, the son of Smarty Jones came from well off the pace and recorded early speed rations of +12, 0 and +6. Yet, in an off-the-turf affair last time, against just one opponent (i.e. a match race), he set off like Seabiscuit, recording a career-best -16 ESR.
This was a smart move by jockey Brian Pedroza, but it is not likely to be reproduced on Saturday — nor should it be if the race remains on turf.
Turf races favor a late burst of speed, as epitomized by Reporting Star in the Canadian International.
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Although he finished sixth and, in fact, lost ground and position from the first call to the finish, Reporting Star earned a 0 late speed ration (LSR) in that event — the best last-race figure in Saturday’s race.
And speaking of tactics, notice that the blinkers came off Reporting Star in the 12-furlong International and are back on for Saturday’s race—that’s a smart move considering the shorter distance and the relative lack of pace in the Millions Turf Preview.