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Andy Serling has been playing the horses for almost his entire life, and is currently the co-host of NYRA Live. To follow Andy on Twitter, click here.

Eternally Hopeful

Saturday, May 12, 2012

For some reason, I feel like it always rains on closing day at Saratoga. While I know this isn't true, perhaps because I'm always so depressed to see the greatest place on Earth close for 10 1/2 months that it always feels like a dreary day. However, there is little doubt that September 5th, 2011 was a washout, at least from a precipitation standpoint. On the track, as always, it was a different story. As has been the case for many of my 38 Summers at the Spa, the Hopeful has closed the meet, and it was there that I have seen more than a few stars strut their stuff. It started in 1974, when the day after I saw the immortal Ruffian blow away Laughing Bridge, a substantial talent in her own right, Foolish Pleasure, the eventual 1975 Kentucky Derby winner, won the 70th Hopeful on his way to a 2YO Championship. But, it's hard to believe the twists in the road that led to 2012's Kentucky Derby winner emerging from the 2011 Hopeful.
As the field turned for home, an unlikely 68:1 shot named Trinniberg led the field, with the 9:5 favorite Currency Swap hot on his heels. The others were far behind. While the eventual winner Currency Swap would not race again in 2011, and did not win in his first two 2012 starts ( as I write this he is entered on Saturday May 12th at Belmont ), the runner-up Trinniberg eventually established himself as one of his division's top Sprinters with easy wins in the Swale at Gulfstream and Bay Shore at Aqueduct as a 3YO. Going against common wisdom, his connections chose to run him beyond seven furlongs for the first time in the 2012 Kentucky Derby. While he finished 17th, his participation in the race may very well have had a very positive influence on the ultimate performance of another somewhat improbable member of that strung out Hopeful field.
Top California trainer Doug O'Neill is an infrequent visitor to the NYRA circuit. He has made just 13 starts here, with 10 horses, over the last five years. Six of these ran at Saratoga. One of these was Maryfield, who ( thankfully ) won a desperate head bob in the 2007 Grade 1 Ballerina, her penultimate career start before annexing the inaugural BC Filly&Mare Sprint. Another appeared in the 2011 Hopeful. I'll Have Another, despite a maiden win and a 2nd in the Grade 2 Best Pal at Del Mar, garnered little attention or mutual support, going off at just under 12:1. And that dismissal appeared justified when I'll Have Another's cross country trip went for naught when he finished 6th, 19 lengths behind the winner. In fact, few of us remembered him at all until he upset the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita, in his next start after the Hopeful, at 43:1 in early February. But even after winning the Santa Anita Derby, over the highly regarded Creative Cause, in his subsequent start, few of us thought we saw another Derby winner that had prepped in the prior year's Hopeful. But, perhaps partly in thanks to Hopeful runner-up Trinniberg, just four weeks later I'll Have Another would become the first Hopeful winner since Affirmed to win the Kentucky Derby.
Many handicappers, myself included, felt that Bodemeister was the most talented entrant in this year's Kentucky Derby. However, somewhat because of the presence of Hansen, but more because of the presence of the speedball Trinniberg, Bodemeister appeared very vulnerable to an unsustainable pace battle. While Bodemeister outran Trinniberg in the kind of pace that in past Derbies has led the leader to finish 16th ( or worse ), as the field turned for home, many thought Bodemeister would accomplish the improbable when he opened up five lengths on his closest opposition. But the extreme pace eventually took its toll, and Bodemeister could barely crack 27 seconds for his final quarter mile, which enabled the talented I'll Have Another, under a flawless ride by Mario Gutierrez, to roll by on his way to victory and a place in history. It is hardly unreasonable, however, to think that had Trinniberg stayed in the barn, Bodemeister would have been able to go at least a little slower early in the race, which would have been enough for him to become the first Kentucky Derby winner to have made his first start as a 3YO.
The 2011 BC Juvenile was an unusually potent race, with not only the top three finishers heading into the Derby with major prep wins, the fourth finisher Dullahan won the Blue Grass Stakes, fifth finisher Take Charge Indy won the Florida Derby, and the 11th, 12th, and 13th finishers all won Derby preps on their way to Kentucky Derby participation. In fact, nine of the 13 in that BC Juvenile entered the gate for this year's Kentucky Derby. However, after the dust had settled, oddly enough it was a Grade 1 race, run in the slop, on a dreary closing day of the 2011 Saratoga meet, that may have portended the outcome of the year's biggest race. One thing's for sure, Saratoga can make for the strangest bedfellows, and no matter what the weather, you never want to miss a day...or even a race.


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