My morning at Keeneland, starring American Pharoah and Golden Horn
It's not a bad morning's work when you can spy an American Triple Crown winner and an Epsom Derby (G1)/Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (G1) hero, and that about sums up Thursday's memorable training hours at Keeneland on the eve of the 2015 Breeders' Cup.
Arriving at the track while the moon was still up in the pitch-dark sky, I was most grateful for the saddle towels that helped to identify the Breeders' Cup horses striding through the pre-dawn mud. For the most part, it was a case of realizing who the horse was a little too late to enjoy them -- e.g., "Oh, there went Songbird." At least I caught her the next time she passed by.
Among those early birds I did grasp in time were Tonalist and Honor Code (partly thanks to their distinctive facial markings). Although Tonalist was happy with himself on the off track, Honor Code really took the eye as he barreled past with high energy.
After the sun began to come up and visibility became better, the Coolmore posse took to the main track and filed right past the outside rail, so close to us eager observers. Gleneagles had that exquisite presence about him, that tangible sense of class. I just saw Legatissimo as she walked by, but she seemed grand. I was delighted to recognize Found as she approached, and also glimpsed two-year-olds Hit It A Bomb, Shogun, and Alice Springs. While War Envoy and Waterloo Bridge were there too, I was distracted by the rest.
But rather than stay to watch them do half-speeds, I hurried over to the training track to make sure of seeing American Pharoah. I'd already missed some of the action over there -- notably Beholder and the Andre Fabre duo of Make Believe and Esoterique. Such are the perils of trying to absorb as much as possible when you're not able to bilocate.
One fringe benefit of venturing over to the training track at that time was seeing Lea. I was very pleased that his connections opted for Friday's Dirt Mile (G1) rather than try to come to grips with the Europeans in the Mile (G1) on less-than-firm turf. Lea apparently endorses that message. He was full of himself, pulling exercise rider Rodolphe Brisset's arms, and encouraging anyone willing to take a chance with him to beat heavily favored Liam's Map.
It wasn't long until American Pharoah arrived on the scene, escorted by assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes aboard Smokey, the social media celebrity pony. As soon as the Triple Crown champion launched into his gallop, you could see that he was very much on the muscle, into the bit, aggressive in a good (not counterproductive) sense. Exercise rider Jorge Alvarez had a strong hold of him throughout their circuits.
I got to see a few other hopefuls, chief among them the Carlos Laffon-Parias pair of Impassable and Bawina and Roger Varian's Talmada, an also-eligible in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1). Ironically, Talmada may get her chance because of the developing situation with Bawina: according to Racing Post, Bawina has bloodwork pending and may end up scratching. In light of that news, it now makes sense that Impassable had a more active training session, and appeared on good terms with herself in advance of the Mile.
[Thursday evening update: Bawina has in fact been withdrawn, allowing Talmada her Breeders' Cup chance.]
Britain's Secret Gesture and Illuminate also walked around the training track while I was there, but I had to make choices about where to go on an action-packed morning.
For Golden Horn was scheduled to stretch his legs soon on the turf course, and I wasn't about to miss the Derby and Arc winner. Galloping back from the training track to the main track, I made it in plenty of time before he arrived. I scanned the aqua-looking jacket and red cap from afar, wondering if I were looking at the right horse, and finally saw the 305 on the saddle towel. Yes! It wasn't as up close and personal as the others, but it still counts.
Also in his trio was Time Test, who I only noticed later in his gallop. If I remember correctly (full disclosure), I think he looked very good finishing up. And he, along with trainer Roger Charlton, walked right by me on the outside rail of the main track. When I later wandered around the back in hopes of catching up with Golden Horn, I crossed paths with Time Test again. An omen? Truth be told, I was half talking myself into picking him in the Mile last night, despite post 12, and this might have put me over the brink. Maybe.
By this time, I had to take the convenient Keeneland golf cart shuttle back to the grandstand and sprinted to the sales pavilion for the trainers' press conference.
Dale Romans held court on immigration policy (specifically, how much he appreciates the superb efforts of his stable staff, and deplores the unjust conditions in their Central and South American homelands) before discussing Keen Ice's chances in the Classic (G1). Among his salient points was emphasizing the mental part of the game, comparing it to golf's being "between the ears," and observing that "horses are a whole lot smarter than people give them credit for." The summary: Keen Ice has now figured things out.
Next up was Kiaran McLaughlin, issuing positive bulletins on Frosted (Classic), Wedding Toast (Distaff [G1]) and Cavorting (Filly & Mare Sprint [G1]).
Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey gave plenty of encouragement to fans of Honor Code, explaining that his third in the one-mile Kelso (G2) "has really jump-started him" for the Classic. The A.P. Indy blueblood has been training "the best I've seen," and the trainer's "not worried about the pace" scenario.
Finally, Hall of Famer Richard Mandella took his spot at the table. Although I first thought there would be some insight into Beholder, those hopes were dashed when it was announced that he had an update on her status. That could mean only one thing, and he reported her withdrawal from the Classic. On a very tough, disappointing occasion, Mandella was gracious to make the anncouncement in that fashion, and kept his good humor in trying circumstances.
"I guess I'm destined to just be in Breeders' Cups at Santa Anita," he said, alluding to the 2016 venue that Beholder may make now.
To cap my Keeneland excursion, I had a serendipitous encounter with Aidan O'Brien in the sales pavilion, and made bold to inquire after Turf (G1) contender Found. Noting she's had a busy fall campaign (the Turf will be her fifth race in the past two months), I offered the opinion that one race was a virtual workout (the Royal Whip [G3]), and she never really had a chance to run in the Arc. O'Brien agreed and expressed his delight with her condition, verifying that she's fresh and well (my words, not his).