Updated August 13, 2021 - 9:53 am
Lots of horse racing news was made over the past week, so let me pour you some catch-up.
First, there’s a tremendous achievement to be acknowledged: Steve Asmussen breaking the all-time record for wins by a North American trainer.
Victory No. 9,446 occurred Saturday in the fifth race at Saratoga, snapping the record held by the late Dale Baird. As of Thursday, Asmussen, 55, had padded his total to 9,450.
Asmussen, a Hall of Fame trainer best known for his work with multiple Grade 1 winners Curlin, Rachel Alexandra and Gun Runner, is a fine example of pedigree handicapping. Born into a racing family, he began his career as a jockey at 16, then switched to training after growing too large — a bit over 6 feet, according to a Keeneland biography — to continue riding professionally.
After winning his first race with Victory’s Halo at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico in 1986, he slowly but steadily expanded his operation to become national in scope, primarily based in the Midwest.
Trainer enters guilty plea
In a different vein, the thoroughbred trainer known as the “juice man” pleaded guilty this week to a single federal charge of giving his horses illegal performance-enhancing drugs designed to avoid detection in post-race lab tests.
Jorge Navarro, 46, one of two high-profile trainers caught in a federal investigation into doping of racehorses, on Tuesday withdrew his not-guilty plea to one of multiple charges pending against him and instead pleaded guilty.
In doing so, he also implicated fellow trainer Jason Servis. Navarro said he provided Servis, the conditioner of Maximum Security and other high-profile horses, with an “imported, misbranded bronchodilator” intended to enhance horses’ performance. Maximum Security, you’ll recall, was posted as the winner of the 2019 Kentucky Derby before being disqualified for interference at the top of the stretch.
Navarro faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced Dec. 17.
It’s also the government’s opportunity to squeeze the “juice man.” As part of the plea deal, he agreed to pay $25.86 million in restitution to victims who have yet to be identified in court documents.
Baffert case awaits urine test results
On the subject of high-profile trainers in hot water, we got an update this week on Hall of Famer Bob Baffert’s legal challenge aimed at heading off the disqualification of Medina Spirit from his victory in this year’s Kentucky Derby due to a positive post-race test for the steroid betamethasone.
It seems the colt’s urine still is undergoing tests at a New York lab. Results are not expected for several more weeks at least.
The one takeaway from Monday’s hearing was that the judge in the case intends to send it back to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission once the urine testing is complete rather than rule immediately on the merits of the challenge by Baffert and Medina Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan.
Weekend stakes action
The $600,000 Mr. D. Stakes (formerly the Arlington Million) and the $400,000 Beverly D. Stakes, two of eight stakes races on the Saturday card at Arlington Park, and the $500,000 Fourstar Dave Handicap and $200,000 Saratoga Special at Saratoga, also on Saturday, highlight the weekend stakes action.
Del Mar has a relatively quiet weekend stakeswise, with the $80,000 CTT and TOC Stakes on Saturday and the $150,000 Solana Beach Stakes on Sunday.
Ellis Starr’s Mr. D. Stakes analysis
Armory (IRE) can add to the success European imports have had in Grade 1 races in the U.S. this summer, similar to Bolshoi Ballet winning the Belmont Derby and State of Rest winning the Saratoga Invitational Derby last weekend. Armory (IRE) has won five of 15 career starts, including one at this 10 furlong turf trip and one at the slightly longer distance of 1 5/16ths miles. After a runner-up effort in the Group 1 Cox Plate in Australia last October, Armory (IRE) took time off to mature and returned as a 4-year-old to win the Huxley Stakes in May, earning a then career-best 118 Equibase Speed Figure. Next, even when third in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes in June at Royal Ascot, Armory (IRE) ran fantastically well when checking in third behind sensational turf star Love, improving his career-best figure to 122. Most recently, Armory finished third in the York Stakes last month, behind another superstar in Bangkok, with a 115 figure effort. Jockey Ryan Moore, who rode the trainer’s Bolshoi Ballet to victory in the Belmont Derby earlier this year, comes in from Europe to ride and the only time he rode Armory (IRE) this year was to victory in the Huxley Stakes, which suggests Armory (IRE) is ready to win for the sixth time in his 16th career start and emerge victorious in the Mr. D. Stakes.
Domestic Spending (GB) is the strongest challenger in this race, having earned a 119 figure when winning the Manhattan Stakes on Belmont Stakes day in June in his most recent start. Now having won four stakes in a row starting with the 2020 Saratoga Derby, Domestic Spending (GB) has proven he loves firing big off short rests, such as when winning the Hollywood Derby last fall and when winning the Turf Classic Stakes in May. Jockey Flavien Prat has been aboard for his last two wins and knows exactly when to tell Domestic Spending (GB) to change gears, just as he did in the Manhattan when going from 11 lengths behind the leader in seventh after a mile, to second with an eighth of a mile to go, before drawing off to win by nearly three lengths. Now possessing a six for seven in his career, if Domestic Spending (GB) runs as expected the likely stretch battle between him and Armory (IRE) may be one for the ages.
Zulu Alpha leads the field with 12 career wins and $2.2 million in earnings. Although more known as a horse who loves to run a mile and one-half, the distance he won the Elkhorn Stakes (116 figure) last year, Zulu Alpha has won at this 10 furlong trip as well and he has won on the Arlington Park turf course as well, something neither Armory (IRE) or Domestic Spending (GB) can claim. Having been away from the races since last September, Zulu Alpha’s fifth-place finish in the Arlington Stakes last month can be viewed as a prep for this race. Having earned a career-best 123 figure in the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Stakes last year and a 116 figure in the Elkhorn, there can be little doubt Zulu Alpha can run well enough to win this race.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Another Mystery (113), Big Dreaming (106), Bizzee Channel (111), Glynn County (105), Space Traveller (GB) (112), Strong Tide (115) and Two Emmys (108).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.