The Toughest Beat

by John Piesen

Like any and every horseplayer within my reading range, I’ve suffered my share of bad beats. But, barring any evidence to the contrary, and short memories, I’ll have to rank the 2010 Travers at the top of the list.

I had never been a particular fan of Fly Down, but it took me all of 30 seconds to make him my Travers pick after one look at the DRF past performances. Actually, I didn’t really need the PPs. Just a little eyeball handicapping did the trick.

In his last three starts, Fly Down 1) won the Dwyer by six over the eventual Belmont winner, and it could have been 16 if jockey Lezcano asked him; 2) in the Belmont, he got stopped cold on the first turn, then lost all the ground closing for second, beaten three-quarters of a length as much the best, and 3) went favored in the Jim Dandy, but was trapped making his stretch move, costing him a 1-2-3 finish.

Then when they drew the Travers, and the four of the five speeds drew inside (and the Derby winner drew the 11), I was convinced that Fly Down (8-1 on the morning line) would blow ‘em away with a Saratoga balcony trip. I even grew more confident after the first race, when Litigation Risk, who had beaten Fly Down in breaking his maiden last summer over the track, won handily.

Truthfully, I got a little anxious when the first five dirt winners Saturday cruised went wire to wire, but I’ve seen that happen many times on big-race days, only to see the closers dominate the route feature.

As for the Travers, I even had the wagering right. I knew that there was no way ML favorite A Little Warm would go favored, although I had no idea who would be. As it turned out, seven of the 11 horses went off between 7-2 and 7-1, and A Little Warm was the 9-2 second choice to Trappe Shot.

And I was right on target when I wrote Friday that Admiral Alex was an absolute throwout. At one point in the betting cycle, he was a shorter price than the Derby winner, but he finished dead last with no excuse…right behind the Derby winner.

We all saw what happened. The speed predictably collapsed after a mile. The pearly gates opened for Afleet Express, who had been bottled up on the turn, and Fly Down commenced an eight-wide rally that seemed certain to get him the victory…much to the delight of the good folks who followed my lead on John Piesen Racing.

But losing all the ground, while Afleet Express was getting through between Miner’s Reserve and First Dude on the inside, was all the difference between winning and losing. (The least jockey Dominguez on First Dude could have done was shut off Afleet Express).

But RD let Afleet Express through, and Afleet Express went on to beat Fly Down by the shortest nose you’ll ever see.

This brings me back to the bad beat. If I had a dollar for every nose I’ve been beat in my life, I’d be a very rich man. But this was worse. Much worse. Since Day One at Saratoga, I’ve picked and wagered upon at least 15 horses who were in the identical position turning for home as Afleet Express …and none of them got through.

In most cases, the jock would shoot for the rail, and the rail would close; then try to split horses, and that hole would close. Then he’d finally get to the outside, and finish fast for second and third. It was one B movie after another.

But Afleet Express got through. Did he ever?

I do have to give credit to Nick Zito, a fellow I’ve tangled with many times over the years. Saint Nick was gracious in defeat, much more so than I was, not that it matters.

After all, second money in a $1 million race ain’t bad, and, obviously, Fly Down showed again that he has superstar potential. Fact is I wouldn’t want to have to face him coming home in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Oh, yes. Not one of the 18 public handicappers in the two New York tabloids and DRF picked Afleet Express OR Fly Down.

Oh, well. As it turned out, the Jim Dandy proved to be the better Travers prep than the Haskell, and the 11-member Travers field is now a collective 3-for-30 in Grade Ones.

This wasn’t the best Travers field you’re going to see, but surely it will be one of the more memorable Travers of our lifetime.

But for all the wrong reasons.

This brings us to Sunday.

First of all, DRF blew it when it did not publish the PPs for Sunday’s Personal Ensign in its Saturday editions…much to the dismay of the thousands who were planning to bet the Travers-Personal Ensign daily double.

My guess is that if DRF had done so, Persistently, bred both sides for the mile and a quarter, would have been a lot shorter than she was in the DD.

I’m not red-boarding here. I didn’t pick the Personal Ensign for John Piesen Racing, nor did I wager on it. I felt that Rachel Alexandra would sit a stalking trip behind Life At Ten, hook her at some point, and likely go by.

But, along with the rest of the Free World, including Rachel’s connections, jockey Borel sent Rachel to the top. No way Johnny V. (on Life At Ten) was going to give Rachel an E-Z pass, and thus the speed duel developed, leading eventually to the demise of both mares.

Johnny V. was quoted later as saying: “Hey, I was trying to win the race…”

But the fact is that I’ve never believed Rachel to be a mile and a quarter filly, and this was her first time going 10 furlongs.

And, much more importantly, I believe that Rachel’s connections always had doubts about her ability to go long. After all, you’ll recall that last year, Rachel conveniently passed up the Belmont (12 furlongs), the Travers and the BC Classic, both at 10 furlongs.

Rachel is due all the credit for beating older males in the Woodward, but there’s no doubt in my mind that she would have had a much tougher time handling Summer Bird in the Travers. And, for what it’s worth, none of the older males Rachel beat in the Woodward have been worth a damn ever since.

So where does Rachel go from here?

My best guess is that she’ll be retired, in plenty of time to be bred next spring. After all, a 2-for-6 record as a 4-year-old would look a lot worse than 2-for-5.

And, as a huge Zenyatta fan, I’m more angry than ever that she lost ’09 Horse of the Year to Rachel. The voters made a bad choice. Period. Case closed.

If I’m wrong, and they do run Rachel one more time, I’d look for a new rider. After all, Calvin makes a convenient target. Jockey Albarado would be the likely choice, if he recovers from the injury that currently has him on the DL.

Looking ahead, Thursday becomes the red-letter day of the final week of the Saratoga meet because of the presence of Lisa’s Booby Trap in the second division of the grassy Riskaverse Stakes.

Lisa is the 5-2 morning-line favorite with jockey Desormeaux from post two.

In this case, the morning-line man is right.

Finally, special kudos to Team Jones for winning the $300,000 Molly Pitcher Sunday at Monmouth Park with Just Jenda, beating a 2-5 from Pletcher in the process.

Larry Jones announced after the race that the Pitcher was the last hurrah for Just Jenda. That is what I would call going out in style.


Today’s Hot Plays