Deck of Top Horses Getting Shuffled for 2018

By T. D. Thornton

The Week in Review, by T.D. Thornton

We’re now approaching the 10-day mark to the Breeders’ Cup, but off-track news pertaining to 2018 plans for some of the sport’s top horses percolated to the top of the news cycle last week.

Always Dreaming (Bodemeister), this year’s winner of the GI Kentucky Derby, will be pointed to compete as a 4-year-old. The colt’s connections announced this game plan Oct. 16 along with the revelation that Always Dreaming has been treated for and has apparently overcome a bad case of stomach ulcers while being turned out at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Kentucky.

A Dec. 1 return to trainer Todd Pletcher’s outfit at Palm Beach Downs in Florida is the near-term plan for the Derby champ. The Jan. 27 GI Pegasus World Cup Invitational (PWC) at Gulfstream Park is not a realistic goal, but late spring/early summer Grade I targets could include the GI Metropolitan H. at Belmont Park or the GI Stephen Foster S. at Churchill Downs.

For the sport as a whole, there’s considerable cachet associated with having any Derby winner remaining in training, especially if he is competitive at the highest level.

The flashes of brilliance and raw talent Always Dreaming displayed while parlaying a GI Florida Derby dismantling of his peers into a stylish win on the first Saturday in May were followed by back-to-Earth, underwhelming efforts in the GI Preakness S., GII Jim Dandy S., and GI Travers S.

But now there is evident relief within the Always Dreaming camp in knowing that his poor performances likely were attributable to the ulcers, which were described by WinStar President and chief executive Elliott Walden as “a complete shock to all involved” because they weren’t a suspected problem.

Less than 48 hours after the Derby winner’s plans were announced, one of his arch rivals, Classic Empire (Pioneerof the Nile), the 2016 2-year-old male Eclipse Award-winner, was retired from racing to stand at Coolmore America’s Ashford Stud in 2018.

Classic Empire was the dominant force in his division as a juvenile, but he turned into quite a training enigma as he progressed into his sophomore season: He lost his first race back in 2017 at 1-2 odds, was discovered to have a foot abscess, then developed a mysterious back ailment that presumably made him not want to train.

Known to be a bit of a head case, Classic Empire was transferred to a less hectic Florida training center where he started to flourish, then he redeemed himself in the very last Triple Crown prep race by storming to an impressive victory in the GI Arkansas Derby. He was a gallant fourth in the Kentucky Derby behind Always Dreaming (despite a horror trip that left Classic Empire with abrasions on his right front leg and his right eye swollen shut from taking muddy kickback). He finished second in the Preakness (delivering what I thought was the best performance in that race despite the defeat), but could never get back into a training groove in time to make any of the late-season 3-year-old stakes or the Breeders’ Cup.

“Unfortunately we just ran out of time to get him to the [Nov. 4 GI] Breeders’ Cup Classic,” said trainer Mark Casse. “I could never get him completely over his foot abscess and it wasn’t possible to train him the way I needed in order to bring him back at the highest level, which is where he deserved to be. He’s an extremely talented horse that can do anything and he overcame a lot of adversity to achieve what he did. I still believe he was the most talented horse of his generation.”

It was also announced last week that another Grade I heavy hitter–Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg})–will straddle the narrow gap between competition and retirement, at least for the early part of 2018. A return to a full season of racing at age 5 is also an option.

Currently riding a three-race Grade I winning streak, Gun Runner is bracing for a highly anticipated rematch with Arrogate (Unbridled’s Song), this time in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He will have 2018 plans announced after that Nov. 4 race, but Gun Runner is expected to be pointed for the PWC at Gulfstream, according to a press briefing released by co-owners Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm.

The late-January placement on the calendar for the PWC was part of the allure of $1 million buy-in race when it debuted in 2017, because it potentially enabled horses of that caliber to fit in one last big-value race before starting stud duty the same season. It’s a new wrinkle in making plans for top-level stallions that didn’t exist prior to last year.

And although we’re not exactly taking about the same level of competition, another relatively new–and welcome–phenomenon within the sport are retirement announcements for lower-level racehorses who have become fan favorites because of longevity.

On Friday, the Santa Anita Park stable notes gave some well-deserved ink to Royal F J (Royal Academy), a popular 10-year-old gelding who was retired after making lifetime start No. 102 on Oct. 19, when he finished seventh in a $6,250 claimer.

“He was in bad form when I originally [re-claimed him in 2015], and when I did, I told myself if he ran better we would continue to race him, and as soon as he tells us he doesn’t want to run anymore, we’ll take care of him and find him a good home,” said trainer Jack Carava.

“He had a little trouble early in the race yesterday, but it was the first time he acted like he wasn’t happy running, so it’s time,” Carava continued. “He’s still very, very sound for a horse his age with that many races, and that’s probably the most amazing thing about him. He’s going to have a good life ahead and we’re going to find him a good spot. It’s yet to be determined where he’s going, but we’ve had tons of offers so we’re going to go through those and find him a good home, but he won’t run anymore.”

Early in his career, Royal F J ran third in the 2010 GII Del Mar Derby. But the bulk of his 9-19-18 record and $568,150 in earnings were earned against decidedly more blue-collar competition. He last raced for the partnership of Chris Curtis, Oakhart Racing, and Howard and Janet Siegel Racing LLC.

“I bought him as a yearling and he’s 10 now. He was out of the barn for about six months [after being claimed away], so we had him the better part of nine years,” Carava said.


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