Dortmund. Believe the hype. This big, husky son of Big Brown is the real deal. Dortmund has the same physical appearance and chestnut coat as last year’s 3-year old phenom, California Chrome. They two may appear to be the same in physicality and color, but the running styles are very different. In Cali Chrome’s 3-year old season, he hit the front and kept going and never had any real challengers until Bayern and Shared Belief were healthy. Dortmund, on the other hand, is a speed horse and a grinder. He has battled a worthy foe, Firing Line, in Los Alamitos Futurity. This will be a nice rivalry going forward. Dortmund was a perfect 3 for 3 going into the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday, after besting Firing Line by a head in the Los Alamitos Futurity. We can now make it a perfect 4 for 4, as Dortmund fought back and showed real grit to come back and beat Firing Line by a head (again) to gather up Derby points.
Dortmund handled the mile and sixteenth like a pro. He still seems to be growing into his legs, which is unnerving because he is already a really big 3-year old. When he was pinned on the rail, and Firing Line was rallying up his side, Dortmund gamely fought back. Firing Line, with the veteran Gary Stevens aboard, could easily have pinched Dortmund on the rail, but jockey Martin Garcia kept Dortmund straight and steady and this big horse re-rallied on the rail and caught Firing Line just before the wire by a bob. It was the best race of the day. Bob Baffert and Martin Garcia are a magical due in Southern California.
I still believe that the stable to watch in 2015 is Zayat Stables, and I feel even though El Kabeir was defeated in the Withers, he is still a valid Derby contender. Zayat has the “it” stable, and the Ramseys have the most thoroughbreds racing in the U.S., but owner Kaleem Shah, not only has two of the best horses in the West, but quite possibly two of the best in the country right now, Bayern and Dortmund.
With Dortmund’s impressive four wins, he has to be sitting at the top of the Derby contender list. California is producing Triple Crown potentials and the rest of the country is taking notice. During The Jockey Club Tour on Fox Sports 1 on Saturday, analyst Simon Bray posted his projected top Derby contenders and I agree with his list for the most part: American Pharaoh and Dortmund are the top two. I am anxious to see the return of American Pharaoh in March. I hope that all the contenders stay healthy. It’s a long road to Kentucky but in the next six weeks we should start to see the contender list take shape.
Santa Anita’s Saturday line-up showcased three stakes races, capping off the stakes races with the much-anticipated rematch of Shared Belief and California Chrome. With the start of a relatively uneventful race in Race 6, Victor Espinoza was about to have a very good day, much to the dismay of Mike Smith. In Race 6, Smith was on the heavy-favorite Logan’s Moon when literally from the back of the pack, Espinoza came flying on a 65-1 named Solid Wager (which apparently was a solid wager if you had him on your ticket), and caught Logan’s Moon at the wire. Apparently, the cut back in distance was definitely the advantage for Solid Wager.
Espinoza wasn’t finished there. In a “controversial” San Marcos Stakes, Diamond Bachelor was DQ’d from second to fourth, and rightfully so. Espinoza was on the post-time favorite Finnegans Wake, a horse that is familiar to the Santa Anita regulars. Finnigans Wake passed a pack of horses down the stretch that included the gate-to-wire frontrunner, Diamond Bachelor. As Finnegans came in the picture, a tiring Diamond Bachelor veered in and took the path of Power Foot, leading to the rightful DQ. I had the very disappointing Majestic Harbor on my ticket. This horse has raced against much better company than this field, and with Mike Smith aboard I was hoping for a better result than absolutely trotting across the finish line in last place.
I’m sure by the time the next race started, the $500,000 San Antonio Invitational, Mike Smith was a little tired of walking by Victor Espinoza in the Winner’s Circle. Shared Belief is a tested champion, make no mistake. I’m sure there’s nothing sweeter to start the campaign for 2015 Horse of the Year than by snatching the crown from the head of the newly-crowned 2014 Horse of Year in your first re-match. Shared Belief looked very good on the racetrack. This not the most powerful-looking horse, but he’s a speedy little guy. California Chrome was sticking to his usual style of running, sitting second or third out of the gate and then exploding towards home. Cali wanted to run, and you could see Victor pulling him back. At the time I was unsettled by this move and the placement of Cali Chrome in the field, but as the stretch run played out, it was a wise decision. The top three came around the turn with California Chrome ahead, followed closely by Shared Belief and Hoppertunity. As Trevor Denman said, “this is the race we’ve been waiting for.” I’ve watched Mike Smith race enough to recognize when he’s at ease on a horse and when he finds a horse he just loves to ride. He has found that horse in Shared Belief. Mike Smith was a steady, determined pilot on Shared Belief as he caught Cali Chrome and passed him late in the stretch, winning the San Antonio by more than a length. Hopportunity finished third, but was a long way back. Mike Smith is a master at this game. The stretch run was like poetry in motion. Mike Smith, belly-down and comfortable with the horse underneath him, and Shared Belief with his head down, each extended stride bringing him closer to the wire. Mike Smith is also a master of this game off the track. In his post-race interview, he said he was “in awe” of this horse and “without words.” He knew exactly what the game plan was and executed it brilliantly. He knew when California Chrome was on the lead coming out of the turn that he was going to grind him down to the finish line. Shared Belief overtook the big, chestnut title-holder with ease, and the hearts of thousands of Chromies sank.
Next up on the Road to Kentucky, is the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate, then the Southwest at Oaklawn Park. After that, the points total increase significantly in the Fountain of Youth and the Risen Star. With the Derby points jumping from 10 to 50 for the winner, be sure that the big-time contenders will emerge. Dortmund will need more than the 10 points earned in the Robert B. Lewis to get into the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. I’m hoping to see Dortmund, Firing Line, and American Pharaoh in the San Anita Derby on April 4, but we have to get through the month of March yet where the points jump from 50 to 100. It’s a game of strategy we are about to be witnesses to, and it’s so enticing.