Last October at Belmont Park, eight 2-year-olds lined up for what was probably the most significant maiden race of the season. One of the most astute observers of the sport I’ve ever known, the late Steve Davidowitz, perfected what he called the “key-race method” of handicapping many years ago.
The designation of a key race is based on the horses’ next start, and three of the eight youngsters in that Belmont maiden affair indeed won their next outing. But that only begins to tell the story, for in a larger context, as the months passed, the race became much more significant than it was key.
Four of those eight 2-year-olds became stakes winners at 3, and another, Miles D, finished third in the Travers Stakes (G1). Caddo River, the runner-up at Belmont Park 11 months ago, went on to win the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park by 10 lengths and then finish second in the Arkansas Derby (G1). Greatest Honour, who ran third at Belmont, won the Holy Bull (G3) and the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park; Miles D, who finished fourth, ran second in the Curlin Stakes before stepping forward in the Travers; Bourbonic, who ran sixth, won the Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct; and Original, who finished last of the eight 2-year-olds, won the Manila Stakes at Belmont.
So the eighth race on Oct. 11, 2020, at Belmont Park was a key race, and the 1927 Yankees were a key team the American League. Keys come in various sizes and colors; this one was big and golden. But what about the horse who actually won that maiden race in New York 11 months ago and did it so impressively, racing three-to-four wide and then angling further outside for the run through the stretch, where he rallied to finish nearly a length ahead of Caddo River? Whatever happened to Speaker’s Corner? Well, he’ll make his stakes debut Saturday at Parx, in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G1).
Back in May, this season’s 3-year-olds, as a group, looked rather ordinary. That was an impression rather than a conclusion — a first impression that crumbled like a saltine under the weight of subsequent races. After the Belmont Stakes (G1), the group looked very talented, if perhaps a little thin, with maybe four standouts. And it keeps getting better. Here comes Speaker’s Corner, still something of a mystery but an intriguingly talented one; Life Is Good takes on older horses Saturday in the Kelso Handicap (G2) at Belmont, where he’s 1-9 in the morning line and already causing traffic jams on the Bronx-Whitestone and Brooklyn Bridges: And suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly, the division has started taking on a thoroughly superlative tint. This is an outstanding group, and the Triple Crown, in an unusual turn, might have been only a prelude.
The Triple Crown typically defines the 3-year-olds, or at least defines the division. Only two champion 3-year-olds in the last 20 years did not participate in the famed series, West Coast in 2017 and Arrogate in 2016. Before that, you have to reach back to Tiznow in 2000 to find a champion that didn’t even run in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness (G1) or Belmont Stakes. West Coast, Arrogate and Tiznow all developed late for various reasons (West Coast was a late foal, for example, and Arrogate had his front teeth kicked in as a yearling); they didn’t race as 2-year-olds. And they all came along in a year when nobody shined with conspicuous brightness in the definitive series, the three gems in each case being divided among three different winners, as they were this year. And all three, as you’d expect, finished their championship campaigns with impressive momentum. West Coast won the Travers and the Pennsylvania Derby before finishing third in the finale, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). Making his stakes debut, Arrogate romped in the Travers by 13 1/2 lengths, setting a track record, and then won the Classic. And Tiznow supported his championship on an impressive tripod of victories: the Super Derby (G1), Goodwood (G2) and Classic.
This isn’t to suggest that in the final months of the season Speaker’s Corner or Life Is Good could snatch the championship away from Essential Quality — although a 13-length soliloquy combined with a track record would probably put somebody in the discussion — but these two colts could contribute dramatically to what’s looking like a historically strong group of 3-year-olds, and such contributions are unusual.
Back in March, when he won the San Felipe (G2) by eight lengths over the horse who would finish first in the roseate run at Churchill Downs, Life Is Good made a convincing argument for his being the most talented 3-year-old in the country. He was fast and flashy in a way that implied arrogant superiority, and as he stood in the winner’s circle beside his trainer, Bob Baffert, you had to think you had seen this story before. But injury took the unbeaten colt to the sidelines. Returning in August in the Allen Jerkens Stakes (G1) and making his first start for trainer Todd Pletcher, Life Is Good drifted out and then lost the lead in Saratoga’s deep stretch to Jackie’s Warrior. Still, it was an outstanding effort, putting him in the picture with a colt who might be the best sprinter in the country. That was at seven-eighths of a mile, and Saturday’s one-mile Kelso, where he’ll control the pace like it’s his pet turtle, should put him comfortably back in the winner’s circle and on his way to Del Mar and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), which Pletcher has indicated is the objective.
But Speaker’s Corner is the most intriguing performer Saturday because he’s the most dangerous thing at the racetrack: a very talented horse in the hands of a great horseman. His trainer, Bill Mott, expected to be at Saratoga in August with Speaker’s Corner. And there they were, but not for the Travers, as Mott had expected.
After winning the most significant maiden race of 2020, Speaker’s Corner didn’t get back to the races for 10 months. And so he was full of let’s-get-it-on eagerness when he returned in a seven-furlong allowance affair. He bobbled slightly at the break and was blocked behind the leaders. In the turn, Jose Ortiz eased him to the outside, made a respectful request and then enjoyed the ride. Speaker’s Corner ran the final three-eighths of a mile in :36.33 on his way to winning by more than five lengths, and then he galloped out powerfully beyond the wire.
And so he ascends the stairs, having to jump over one of the steps because it’s missing — or rather because it disappeared as he was preparing to return — to land here, quite purposefully, in a Grade 1 event, racing around two turns for the first time, against some of the best 3-year-olds in the country. How talented must this colt be for Mott to make such an uncharacteristic move?
“We’ve always felt we belong with this group,” the Hall of Fame trainer said in a Parx release, pointing out that he has looked forward — for some time, as it turns out — to sending Speaker’s Corner around two turns. “I think it’s going to be a proving ground.”
Also among those entered in the Pennsylvania Derby are Keepmeinmind, the Jim Dandy (G2) runner-up; Midnight Bourbon, the Travers runner-up; and Hot Rod Charlie, the Belmont runner-up. Yes, for the most part, they have raced between commas. While Essential Quality speaks in bold declarative sentences, they speak in subordinate clauses.
With Medina Spirit a defection from the Pennsylvania Derby, Hot Rod Charlie is the 8-5 morning-line favorite. And Speaker’s Corner is the most dangerous thing at the racetrack.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.