Triple Crown Weekend Prep Report Card: Life Is Good, Not Great, So Far

As we moved into the first weekend of 2021 (anyone sorry to leave 2020 behind?), there were three races that can be looked upon as early-season preps for the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby that is scheduled to be run on May 1.

Only one of the three preps – Saturday’s Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita – was graded, and two of the races – the Sham and the Jerome at Aqueduct – received a total of 17 qualifying points for the Derby on a 10-4-2-1 basis for the top four finishers.

The third contest, the Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park, was neither graded nor an official points race, but it is the first leg of the South Florida track’s road to the G1 Florida Derby, which has become the major East Coast prep for the Kentucky Derby.

Here is my first report card on the major Triple Crown prep races of 2021, with grades ranging from A to F. Grades are entirely subjective and based on my personal “eyeball test,” Beyer Speed Figures, historical significance of the race, and perceived quality of the fields. Please keep this caveat in mind: I am not particularly easy on my “grading curve” and am not easily impressed.

Jan. 1: Jerome Stakes, one mile, Aqueduct

Capo Kane is a California-bred colt by Street Sense who handily defeated a pair of New York-bred stakes winners and two other maiden winners in a race that has had no historical impact on the Kentucky Derby since moving to early January at Aqueduct in 2011. Trained by Parx-based Harold Wyner, Capo Kane eased to the front shortly after the start under Dylan Davis, went quarter miles in :23.53, :24.30, and :24.79 for the first six furlongs in the one-turn mile before running his final quarter mile in :25.40 to win by 6 1/4 lengths. He was coming off a similar front-running score at Parx on Nov. 25 when he beat maidens by 4 1/2 lengths, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 73. He was given a Beyer of 84 in the Jerome.

Visually, Capo Kane looked OK, racing comfortably on the lead, but then drifted out in the stretch, probably more a matter of losing his focus more than anything else. He was the fourth betting choice in a five-horse field, with 7-5 favorite Swill chucking it in after prompting the early pace. Weak field in a historically weak race.

Grade: C-

Jan. 2: Mucho Macho Man Stakes, one mile, Gulfstream Park

Mutasaabeq was made the 11-10 favorite in this one-turn mile stakes at Gulfstream Park in his return to the dirt after two turf races, including an impressive last-to-first victory in the G2 Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland. He then finished 10th in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.

Trained by Todd Pletcher, the Into Mischief colt was purchased by Shadwell as a weanling for $425,000 at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale and won his debut on dirt at Saratoga Aug. 8 as a well-intentioned 4-5 favorite. Next out he was third of seven runners in the G1 Hopeful on dirt, then shifted to turf for his next two starts.

Nine horses broke from the gate in the Mucho Macho Man, including two other stakes winners: Pickin’ Time, winner of the G3 Nashua Nov. 8 at Aqueduct; and Big Thorn, who won a Florida-bred event at Gulfstream Nov. 22.

Unlike the Bourbon Stakes, where Mutasaabeq displayed a brilliant turn of foot from the three-eighths pole to the furlong marker to gain the advantage and draw off by 2 1/4 lengths, he was more of a grinder in the Mucho Macho Man.

Under Luis Saez, Mutasaabeq was kept in the clear to the outside of pacesetter Awesome Gerry in the long run down the backstretch. He engaged the leader on the turn for home under aggressive handling from Saez and was kept to his task down the stretch to win off by 1 1/2 lengths. Papetu, a 20-1  outsider who hadn’t raced since running fifth in the aforementioned Hopeful, kept Mutasaabeq honest down the lane, ultimately finishing 1 1/2 lengths back. Awesome Gerry, who had blinkers added for this race after a second-place finish in a Delta Downs Stakes on Nov. 30, held on to be third, beaten 2 3/4 lengths.

Final time was 1:35.98, with quarter-mile fractions of :23.70, :22.45, :23.81 and :26.02. The Beyer Speed Figure team gave Mutasaabeq an 87 for the effort, three points above his maiden-breaking effort at Saratoga last August.

Grade: C

Jan. 2: Sham Stakes, one mile, Santa Anita

There was a lot of hype here. The Sham Stakes has had some very good winners in the recent past (Colonel John, Tapizar, Goldencents, McKinzie), but Authentic put the race on the map in 2020 when he won by 7 3/4 lengths despite nearly going over the rail while goofing off down the stretch. The Into Mischief colt went on to win the G2 San Felipe, G1 Haskell, G1 Kentucky Derby, and G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic for trainer Bob Baffert and is the Horse of the Year favorite.

Authentic earned a 90 Beyer Speed Figure in the 2020 Sham off a maiden win sprinting at Del Mar.

Life Is Good, like Authentic a son of Spendthrift Farm‘s leading stallion Into Mischief, earned a 91 Beyer Speed Figure while breaking his maiden for Baffert in a Del Mar sprint on Nov. 22, drawing off by 9 1/2 lengths. Bred by Mary and Gary West Stable, Inc., he was purchased for $525,000 as a yearling at the Keeneland September Sale.

It’s not surprising for Baffert to have the favorite in a graded stakes for horses being pointed toward the Kentucky Derby, but the debut of Life Is Good had the buzz of a horse that was something special. He did not disappoint that day.

In the days leading up to the Swaps, Baffert downplayed Life Is Good’s superiority, saying you never know if a horse can stretch out from sprint distances to two turns until they try it. Nevertheless, he went off the 1-5 favorite in a five-horse field that didn’t include a single stakes winner. Second choice was Parnelli, a John Shirreffs-trained colt who needed four starts to break his maiden, earning a 79 Beyer for his win. Third choice was a second Baffert runner, Medina Spirit, a Florida-bred son of Protonico who sold for $1,000  as a yearling at the OBS winter sale and $35,000 at the OBS July Sale as a 2-year-old. He’d broken his maiden at Los Alamitos on Dec. 11 by three lengths, getting a 76 Beyer.

Under Mike Smith, Life Is Good broke from the outside No. 5 post and was in front into the first turn while four wide. Never challenged through the first six furlongs, he set fractions of :23.56, :23.11 and :23.99 while leading by three to four lengths, according to the Equibase chart.

With a furlong left and a four-length advantage, Life Is Good looked home free. But Abel Cedillo aboard Medina Spirit, who chased from second throughout, cut into that margin — gradually at first and then more dramatically in the final yards. As Medina Spirit gained on Life Is Good in the final sixteenth of a mile, Smith went to work  on his mount (much as he did when he thought Authentic was home free in the Haskell, leading by 2 1/2 lengths at furlong pole and then barely holding on against Ny Traffic to win by a nose).

Life Is Good drifted out several paths late, possibly intimidating Medina Spirit and Cedillo, who wasn’t able to give the most aggressive ride in deep stretch. The winning margin was three-quarters of a length and the final quarter mile was run in :25.97. This was not the performance most were expecting to see.

The Beyer team gave Life Is Good a 101 Speed Figure, by far the fastest of the three weekend Derby preps.

Grade: B-

The post Triple Crown Weekend Prep Report Card: Life Is Good, Not Great, So Far appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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