By Mike Farrell
Save me a seat on the ever-expanding Greatest Honour bandwagon. I am a believer, after his convincing victory Saturday in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park.
The latest win confirmed what we saw last month when he captured the Holy Bull Stakes (G3). This is a colt moving in the right direction under the very capable guidance of Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey.
It looked briefly during the Fountain of Youth that Greatest Honour was in trouble. When 18-1 longshot Papetu surged into contention, Greatest Honor did not immediately take up the chase. He needed some encouragement from Jose Ortiz to pick up his game.
Once he did, it was over in a hurry. Greatest Honour surged through the lane, finishing the race wrapped up, head up, ears pricked forward. He aced this test on the road to the Kentucky Derby(G1), earning 50 qualifying points in the process to clinch a starting berth.
“I know there’s a lot of time left and anything can happen,” Ortiz said of the journey ahead. “We just pray for the best and to stay healthy.”
The next target: the Florida Derby (G1) on March 27.
Drain the Clock was a clear-cut second after setting the pace. He also took an important step forward in his first try around two turns.
“The winner has way more experience than him going two turns and for his first time going two turns, I think he ran a great race,” said jockey Edgard Zayas. “I think he should try it again, and he’ll probably get better.”
Papetu settled for third after his bold bid, demonstrating he also has a solid upside.
The champ is back
Essential Quality made his weather-delayed season debut a winning one in the Southwest Stakes (G3) in the slop at Oaklawn Park.
Like Greatest Honour, Essential Quality came off the pace with a strong move on the second turn to secure the win as the odds-on favorite.
The Eclipse Award champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner is now undefeated in four starts, two of those being Grade 1 stakes.
It was a useful, but unspectacular return. The field wasn’t as strong as Greatest Honour faced in the Fountain of Youth. Jackie’s Warrior, the 6-5 second choice in the Southwest, is a speedy colt with distance limitations. He is effective in sprint distances up to a mile. These two-turn route races are not his game.
Trainer Steve Asmussen indicated Jackie’s Warrior will now drop off the Triple Crown trail and aim for the Pat Day Mile (G2) on the Kentucky Derby undercard.
Luis Saez knew he had this field at his mercy and rode Essential Quality accordingly. They traveled four-wide around both turns despite breaking from the rail. The message: we can take this bunch anytime we want.
And so, they did.
Spielberg, a junior member of the Bob Baffert Triple Crown brigade, got second after a stumbling start while Jackie’s Warrior was third, 8 ½ lengths behind the winner.
3 Derby preps on tap this weekend
There are three races Saturday on the 3-year-old schedule, all offering 50 Derby qualifying points to the winner: the Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct; the Tampa Bay Derby (G2); and the San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita where Baffert will unleash a dynamic duo of Life Is Good and Medina Spirit.
Life is Good, 2-for-2 following his win in the Sham Stakes (G3) has been the 1-5 favorite in both races. He figures to again be a short price with Mike Smith aboard.
Medina Spirit held on by a neck in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) to improve to 2-for-3. John Velazquez picks up the riding assignment.
Other contenders in the San Felipe include Roman Centurian and The Great One.
At the Big A, Highly Motivated, winner of the Nyquist Stakes last November at Keeneland, looks like the headliner against a field slated to include Freedom Fighter from the Baffert barn, Capo Kane, winner of the Jerome Stakes on New Year’s Day and Wipe the Slate.
On Florida’s west coast, the Tampa Bay Derby should be a cozy return spot for Candy Man Rocket following his win in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3).
On to Hall of Fame glory
Trainer Todd Pletcher and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah top the list of finalists on this year’s ballot for the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, New York.
This is the first year of eligibility for Pletcher and American Pharoah and both should easily gain admission when the inductees are announced on May 5.
Will either be a unanimous selection by the Hall of Fame voting panel? It’s hard to imagine any voter leaving either one off their ballot.
Both set standards of excellence that exemplify the best of the sport.
American Pharoah, trained by Baffert, ended the 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015. The colt who loved to be around people was a wonderful good-will ambassador for the game and is extending his championship credentials as a prominent sire.
Pletcher led the nation in stable earnings 10 times and has trained 11 Eclipse Award winning horses.
Equally important, he supervises a vast stable that largely steers clear of controversy and medication violations.
“I’m proud that American Pharoah will get in and it’s good to see Todd Pletcher get in,” Baffert said of the expected selections. “He certainly deserves it and should have been in a long time ago.”