#8 – The Jockey Club Gold Cup

THE INTRIGUE

The somewhat universal belief, as the calendar turned to October, was that Summer Bird and Quality Road as 3YOs were better than their elders, specifically Stephen Foster winner Macho Again.  The three of them were to meet and settle it on the track and the spot was the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the mid-fall staple at Belmont Park that boasts among its winners Horses of the Year Curlin, Mineshaft, Cigar, Affirmed, Forego and many other champions. 

The other storyline in the Jockey Club Gold Cup was whether Summer Bird could become the first horse to win the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup in the same year since Easy Goer.  His ascent to the top of his division was rapid and a win in this spot would seal the Eclipse Award that his trainer felt he had already earned.

THE PLAYERS

Macho Again was a leading candidate for the Eclipse Award for Champion Older Horse as he scored in the New Orleans Handicap (G2) in March and the Stephen Foster (G1) in June.  He also finished second in the Whitney (G1) and the Woodward (G1) and was looking to earn a signature win against a couple of highly regarded 3YOs.  The biggest issue for Macho Again was going to be if he could run back to the gigantic effort he put forth when finishing second to Rachel Alexandra in the aforementioned Woodward.  There were also some concerns about whether the pace was going to be in his favor as his style was to lay well back and make one late run.

Quality Road, who has been mentioned in both #10 and #9 of this countdown, was coming into the Jockey Club Gold Cup off of a 2nd place finish in the Travers to Summer Bird.  The playing field was supposed to be leveled with a dry track at Belmont Park, but Mother Nature had other ideas.  A complete deluge took place throughout the Super Saturday program rendering Big Sandy a sea of slop.  It was clear prior to this event that Summer Bird relished a wet track but Quality Road appeared to handle it well enough in the Travers for him to be the co-2nd choice with Macho Again.

THE OUTCOME

After the opening half-mile was posted in nearly :50 there was only one thing that was clear.  Macho Again had no chance to win this race in a quagmire with such a slow early tempo.  He was never heard from but a battle between the two best 3YO males in the country was joined at the quarter pole and Summer Bird eventually proved best. 
Despite falling to Summer Bird once again, Quality Road’s jockey John Velazquez still seemed confident that his charge could turn the tables in the future.  He was quoted afterwards as saying: “He put in a good effort. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet. I’m not knocking (Summer Bird). The other horse ran a great race, too. I think my horse is better on a dry track. I would like to see both horses on a dry track to see which one is the best horse.”

Of course, the story afterwards was that Summer Bird did indeed become the first horse in 20 years to pull off quite a NY sweep of the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup.  His campaign was very impressive and he’s a deserving Eclipse Award winner.

THE AFTERMATH

Yesterday I mentioned the freakout session Quality Road had prior to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  Summer Bird maintained his composure at the same point in time and went on to a respectable 4th place finish to Zenyatta.  His effort becomes even stronger when you ponder that he was running on a synthetic surface for the first time and one that John Sadler had said specifically that he trained poorly over as a youngster.  After the Classic Summer Bird was injured in the Far East when preparing for the Japan Cup Dirt.  Surgery was successful and he’s due back in 2010.

THE RACE

Enjoy the 91st running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup:

I’ll see you back tomorrow as we recap the 7th best NY race of 2009!

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One Response to “#8 – The Jockey Club Gold Cup”

  1. Carole-Terese Naser Says:

    Nick,
    The countdown is great fun to follow. I write primarily, though, to add a more in-depth perspective of Quality Road’s gate incident at the BC, which I hope may be of interest to you and your readers. QR is a very easy horse to handle in general. He has loaded into the gate 5 times this year successfully before the BC. Though not always immediately, he does load. Therefore, the BC incident did not make sense to me, given this horse’s disposition and experience. Behavior, be it animal or human, is always in relation to stimuli. Using this fact as a foundation for inquiry, I analyzed this incident using the publicly available video footage, in the same way that I have analyzed other catastrophic incidents in my Extreme Environments work (shipwrecks, space travel, Arctic exploration, etc.). Though this is only a preliminary review, the brief analysis reveals that this incident was avoidable. The following breaks down the incident into 4 major layers, which escalated within 4 minutes into a very dangerous situation. It could have been avoided altogether:
    1. Helicopter proximity was a significant factor. The video footage includes an Aerial View taken from a helicopter, hovering too close overhead. The ground footage records excessively loud chopper noise. Zenyatta also struggled to load, on a track that she knew well. This emphasizes that additional stress was in place. Did the pilot know the copter was a factor? I say yes, as the aerial footage pans back dramatically as the incident escalates dangerously. The pilot knew to move the chopper higher, but too late. I also consider the possibility that they moved the helicopter in closer when Zenyatta was to be loaded, thereby creating her reticence to load. Since QR was the next horse to load, he may have had to endure that aircraft at particularly close proximity. Additional inquiry is needed here.

    2. Inability of the gate crew to consider other means for loading the horse. For instance, gate crew ignored the jockey’s advice. They did not attempt to back him in from the front, nor did they open the gate for him. Interestingly, they did open the gate for Zenyatta.

    3.The sustained use of a whip, which spooked this horse mightily. In relation to the whip handler, QR moves away from the whip throughout.

    4. The blindfold created the tipping point for the dangerous moment. Was the use on a blindfold in this case appropriate?

    After returning to NY from CA, Quality Road schooled in the gate very well for Bob Donovan. I suspected he would, unless he schooled with a helicopter hovering closely overhead, a whip used, and a blindfold – all at the same time. While we would like to blame the horse for the BC incident, the truth of why this horse fell apart is more complex. A helicopter hovering overhead while horses load is truly a bad and dangerous idea. The rest of the incident snowballed from the helicopter as the starting point, and the blindfold as the tipping point.

    We expose racehorses to too much hoopla at big races these days. A noisy crowd is hard enough to deal with. We attach microphones to everything and everyone. We don’t let winners cool down appropriately after…we are too concerned with getting an interview with the winning jockey. Do we expect horses to be machines? If we do, we should consider NASCAR instead. Horses are not machines. Watch this video several times: Watch the whip handling. Listen to the copter noise. Watch how QR walks away, visibly shaking over his entire body, after the blindfold is removed. This is not a delinquent horse. This is a terrified horse.

    I am also aware that it is popular these days to shoot the messenger. It is easier to simply scapegoat the horse. However, I write the above with a true concern for the future of racing, a sport I have followed since the days of the great Native Dancer. Racing is on a slippery slope, as we all know. Unlike a catastrophic breakdown such as that of Eight Belles, this particular incident was completely avoidable. It was a man-made disaster. I expect, if measures ate not taken to scale back unduly dangerous exposure such as helicopters, this sort of incident will happen again with increasing frequency. I am in hopes that we can bring racing back to a sensible place for horses, for the overall safety of jockeys, gate handlers, and indeed the horses themselves. Horses have limits, and Quality Road reminded us of those limits. Thank you.

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