Gary West.

West: Juvenile Stars Starting to Come Into Focus

By Gary West/Special to TVG

You might already have a pick for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) and the Distaff (G1). The Sprint (G1), too.  If not a pick, you probably have an idea, a collection of possibilities and options that tickle your imagination, and you probably have an opinion about who’s going to be the horse to beat. Two months remain in the championship season; for most horses that’s two races, including a Breeders’ Cup finale; and you already know who many of the players will be — the stars, the co-stars and the spear carriers. But do you have a pick for the Juvenile (G1) or Juvenile Fillies (G1)?

Most divisions are fairly clear. Essential Quality, for example, securely sits at the head of this class of 3-year-olds. He’s quickly becoming the most popular racehorse in the country. In his last two races, frankly, he reminded me somewhat of Alysheba, and that’s one of the highest compliments I can confer.

Except for his maiden victory, only once did Alysheba win by daylight, and yet he retired as the richest of racehorses, with a thick bankroll of $6.68 million. Winning not with flash but with volition, he was extraordinarily smart. He knew his job was to win races, and he did his job meticulously and reliably — by a half-length in the Classic (G1), a neck in the Meadowlands Cup (G1), a neck in the Woodward (G1), three-quarters of a length in the Iselin (G1), a nose in the San Bernardino (G2) and a half-length in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1). A lunch pail sort, Alysheba became so popular that his fans, not content with Horse of the Year, touted him for even higher office, displaying a gigantic banner that shouted, “Alysheba For President,” on the apron of the Churchill Downs grandstand during the 1988 Breeders’ Cup. Anyway, Essential Quality also wins with volition, with a determination to do his job, which he fully understands, and he has the potential to become vastly popular. Some people I’ve heard on the radio, where the stupid frequently congregate, say racehorses don’t know whether they win or lose. Nobody could hold such an opinion after watching Essential Quality win the Travers Stakes (G1) by a neck or the Jim Dandy (G2) by a half-length. He’s not a particularly attractive horse or graceful mover, but his desire to win is an overwhelming virtue.

Champion Essential Quality prior to his win in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 28, 2021. NYRA/Dom Napolitano Photo.

Yes, that division is clear. Essential Quality will be the champion, unless Medina Spirit wins the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) and the Classic, but even in that possibility there’s the comforting clarity of either-or. Even more clear is Malathaat’s superiority among 3-year-old fillies; that championship race is over: Prepare to pose, hand out the caps, polish the trophy. Similarly, Letruska has dominated her division all year. The Breeders’ Cup will raise many intriguing questions when the 3-year-olds challenge their elders and when a few dare to challenge history, but in many divisions the leaders are indisputable. 

Jackie’s Warrior and Gamine shine among the sprinters, but won’t it be exciting when he takes on the veterans and, even more, if she, having clinched an Eclipse for best female sprinter, runs outside her division against males in the Sprint? Knicks Go has been best among the older horses, but will his speed take him 1 1/4 miles if he’s challenged early at Del Mar? Maxfield, Tripoli, Max Player and Code of Honor seek an answer, along with Essential Quality, of course, in what promises to be the race of the year. Even the questions are clear. Clarity’s everywhere you look, except on the turf, where the situation often remains misty until the end; those divisions usually don’t become lucid until the Europeans show up in a long, precise procession for the Breeders’ Cup and let us know how good we really are, or aren’t.

And this past weekend, we finally got some clarity among the juveniles. Winning the Spinaway (G1) at Saratoga by four lengths, Echo Zulu put herself out front among the fillies. She had raced but once, winning her debut at 5 1/2 furlongs, and so the Spinaway represented a significant challenge, forcing her to step out in distance and up in the level of competition, but she handled the situation with aplomb. She led from the start, taking a talented field through an opening half-mile in :44.73 over the officially “good” surface and then drawing clear while a regardant Ricardo Santana, Jr., looked under his right arm for any threat, which never appeared, or rather appeared briefly before shrinking into the distance. The perfectly named Echo Zulu (EZ in the phonetic alphabet) stopped the clock at 1:22.51. The other races at the distance that day were run in 1:23.53 and 1:24.73.

“The big test for her was going from 5 1/2 (furlongs) to seven-eighths (of a mile),” said her trainer, Steve Asmussen. “She’s fast and quick. She’s very special.”

A lovely mover, Echo Zulu galloped out strongly beyond the wire at Saratoga, and Asmussen said he “feels good” about her ability to stretch out to a mile on Oct. 3 in the Frizette (G1) at Belmont Park.

The weekend also produced some clarity among the male juveniles, but not where you might have expected, or not only there. With their stakes wins, Gunite and Pinehurst proclaimed themselves to be players on the big stage. Gunite won the Hopeful (G1) at Saratoga by nearly six lengths, and Pinehurst the Del Mar Futurity (G1) in San Diego by more than four. But it was a maiden winner, Corniche, who made the most noise.

Another impressive youngster from the Asmussen barn, Gunite was 11-1 on the tote, but his trainer said he wasn’t surprised by the victory so much as the margin. Gunite won by nearly six lengths over the favored Wit. 

“He’s improved every race,” Asmussen said about the son of Gun Runner, who broke his maiden in his third start and then ran second in the Saratoga Special before winning the Hopeful. “He’s continuously gotten better and better, and so I had to think he had a shot in there, but I couldn’t have expected him to win like that.”

Gunite captures the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Sept. 6, 2021. NYRA/Susie Raisher Photo.

Gunite will make his next start Oct. 2 in the Champagne (G1) at Belmont Park. Asmussen has at least two more colts who could put themselves in the Breeders’ Cup picture, Stellar Tap and Guntown. A half-brother to the champion Untapable, who won the Kentucky Oaks (G1), Guntown scored his maiden win by more than four lengths at a mile at Ellis Park. Stellar Tap won his debut at Saratoga by more than five lengths. They’re both aimed at the Iroquois (G3) on Sept. 18 at Churchill Downs.

But it was Corniche, the maiden winner, who sounded like a brass band at a political convention. He won his debut by more than four lengths at Del Mar, completing the 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.01. To put that in perspective, there were five other races at that distance over the weekend at Del Mar, from Friday through Monday, and they were run in 1:04.88, 1:04.77, 1:04.96, 1:05.14 and 1:04.52. 

“I should have run him in the All-American Futurity,” his trainer, Bob Baffert joked, referring to the richest Quarter Horse race in the world, which was won Monday at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico by K J Desperado.

But it wasn’t just the final time that impressed. Corniche “flew out” of the gate, as Trevor Denman put it, and gradually but consistently increased his advantage, running the opening half-mile in :45.13 with jockey Mike Smith offering no encouragement. Near the wire, Denman gave Corniche the “could not have been more impressive” tag, his imprimatur of quality. And Corniche probably couldn’t have been more impressive without leaving the ground: A long striding, smooth-moving colt, he never felt the whip and galloped out strongly, looking very much like Baffert’s next star. The trainer said he’s leaning in the direction of the American Pharoah (G1) at Santa Anita for Corniche’s next start.

Some other juveniles to keep an eye on in the coming weeks as this division becomes increasingly clear include Jack Christopher, My Prankster, Classic Causeway, Electric Ride, Oviatt Class and American Xperiment.

Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.