Sunday, April 28, 2013

Star Power at Gulfstream

--Christina Bossinakis
   In my last blog, I mentioned I would jot something down about some of the horses I was lucky enough to see during my stint as the on-air host at Gulfstream Park this past winter. For those of you who know me, it goes without saying that I will start with Let’s Go Stable’s Verrazano. As it turned out, the New Year’s day card at Gulfstream was a pretty spectacular one. Things got cooking pretty quickly with the second race on the card. As was the case with every race, my co-host John DeSantis and I went on air the moment the horses entered the paddock and we had our moment in the spotlight to impart our thoughts on the race. Truth be told, I had heard chatter about a half-brother to El Padrino in the week leading up to the race (kind of a repeating theme throughout the meet with horses from the Todd Pletcher barn), but quite frankly, I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to witness. John and I were in the midst of our pre-race analysis when Verrazano walked by the set the first time, and almost involuntarily, I started gesticulating to the point that I almost jumped out of my seat. My behavior had to be seen to be appreciated. He was the epitome of what you’d want a top racehorse to look like--big, strong and masculine and with the fluidity of a cat. For those who have never seen him in the flesh, there is nothing course or ponderous about him. Needless to say, he won that day, and VERY impressively at that, and would come back and win his next three starts, including the GI Wood Memorial in New York. Funniest story that came out of my initial encounter with him was a story John later told one of his buddies. He was recounting the moment I first laid eyes on Verrazano, dramatically recreating how excited I became when I saw the horse. His comment: “I’ve been sitting next to this woman for a whole month, and I never saw that kind of reaction over a man, never mind a horse!” The best part of that was that he was 100% right, and in fact, we’d go through the rest of the meet without another such reaction--from either the equine or human variety. From that day on, my new name for Verrazano was ‘my boyfriend’ and my appreciation remains to this day.

Pletcher & my boyfriend
   Also running on that New Year’s day card was Kauai Katie--yet another stalwart from the Todd Pletcher barn--in the GIII Old Hat S. and Itsmyluckyday, competing in the Gulfstream Park Derby. Both of them looked like absolute beasts that day and not surprisingly, both went on to win very impressively. Honestly, after a month of hard work and trying to settle into my new role as an on-air host, seeing that caliber of horses strutting around the paddock made it all worth it.
   Another horse that had some pre-race hype swirling around racing circles heading into her career debut was Close Hatches, from the Bill Mott barn. From a very nice Juddmonte family, I chatted quite a lot about her young sire, First Defense, who was trained by Bobby Frankel and had as good a pedigree as you might find in the stud book. She was elegant and refined (quite like dad) and she looked like the real deal in the paddock prior to the race. She made short work of her rivals that day and went on to win her next two, including the Apr. 6 GII Gazelle S. at Aqueduct. Can you say Kentucky Oaks lock?
   Well, I don’t know about that (it’s a brutally tough field this year), largely due to another filly I saw over the winter. Dreaming of Julia (hold on, Pletcher has another good 3-year-old??) won her first three at in New York, including the GI Frizette before finishing third in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Understandably, she was favored for her sophomore bow. Also in the race that day was Mark Hennig’s Live Lively, sent off second choice behind the Stonestreet filly. Truthfully, ‘Julia’ looked good that day but ‘Lively’ looked awesome. My top paddock horse, she was all dappled out and was prancing around like a filly with a mission. John would often joke on how ‘it’s not a beauty contest,’ but all joking aside, when they feel really good, they generally look that way and Live Lively ran to the way she looked in the paddock. As for Julia, she was beaten that day, however, she became the very definition of the importance of looking at horses before the race and observing first hand the development and change in them from race to race. Julia, who I thought looked good prior to her 2013 debut (by the way, there is a different standard to which I held Todd’s horses throughout the meet, since you always expected them to look ‘good’, at least), looked like Pegasus (yes, more Greek mythology in my blogs) prior to her latest start in the GII Gulfstream Park Oaks on Mar. 30. So what was I saying about Close Hatches being a lock come Oaks day? Not so fast.

   I think if I had to pinpoint the most memorable day of the meet, it would be a toss up between the GI Gulfstream Park Turf H. on Feb. 9 (happy birthday to me) and the GI Florida Derby. Guys, if you’ve never made it down to Gulfstream Park, those are the kind of days you’d want to show up for. The electricity and excitement surrounding the GP Turf H., which was featuring Kentucky Derby hero Animal Kingdom and multiple Grade I winner Point of Entry, was positively amazing. The applause that erupted when Animal Kingdom, who was making his final start in the U.S. before heading abroad to race and stand stud, strode into the paddock was unbelievable. For all of those who gripe about how troubled our sport is and seem obsessed with constantly lamenting all that is wrong with the game, this was a glowing reminder of how grossly limited a view that is. Here were two champions who looked the part, ran like titans and gave fans a top class show. The fact that Animal Kingdom went on to take the G1 Dubai World Cup after running second behind Point of Entry is just the cherry on the top.

   The other race of the meet, without a doubt, was the marquee event, the Florida Derby. I had the pleasure of seeing all of the Derby horses run at Gulfstream earlier in the meet, but the truth was that the horse that had shown the most improvement over the course of the winter was Orb. The first time I saw Orb at Gulfstream was in an allowance on Jan. 26 and he looked very good--pretty much the way he looked prior to the Feb. 23 GII Fountain of Youth S. (maybe a little bigger and stronger on the latter occasion). But quite frankly, the way Orb looked to me while schooling in the days heading into the Derby, not to mention in the moments leading up to the big race itself, he appeared like he was one puff away from breathing fire. His regular rider and longtime Shug assistant Jennifer Patterson was absolutely scarlet in the face on both occasions as she led him around the paddock. And there were two of them! Shug commented how much the horse had grown and flourished in Florida over the course of the winter (it appeared I did too, but not in a good way!), and having seen Orb with my own eyes over a three-month period, I can certainly support that claim. If Orb looks the way he did in Florida come Kentucky Derby day, I would be hard pressed to bet against him.
   I couldn’t wrap up this trip down memory lane without a mention of the queen herself, Royal Delta. Her 2013 unveiling came courtesy of the Feb. 13 GIII Sabin S., a race she finished second in last year. I had the chance to see Royal Delta in New York previously, and without a doubt, she had matured into a much bigger and stronger looking animal than she had ever been before. It was that noticeable. Once again, the crowd embraced their two-time champion with the love and respect that was so rightly deserved. She entered the paddock engulfed by applause and exited exactly the same way, with her loyal subjects cheering her on. She did get beat when going over to Dubai for another shot at the World Cup, but quite frankly, who cares? She is a champion and, on the day I was fortunate enough to see her, she was a
veritable queen.

Royal Delta
    In all honesty, there were a plethora of cheaply run races and inexpensive horses running throughout the meet. In fact, those made up the vast majority of what I saw, day in day out. But when the races were good, they were really good, and on occasion, pretty great. And given the choice as to where I’d like to spend my winters, Gulfstream Park would win every time.

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