One of the main hooks to the story of Diversify’s victory in Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont is that he is a New York-bred who won a highly prestigious Grade 1 event.
But I’m here to ask, should it be?
The New York breeding program has come a long way since Fio Rito shocked the world in the 1981 Whitney Handicap, becoming the first New York-bred to win a Grade 1 race. Ten years and 16 Grade 1 stakes victories later (including a Kentucky Oaks), Fourstars Allstar became the first New York-bred to win an international Group 1 when he landed the Irish 2000 Guineas, and one year after that, Thunder Rumble shook up the establishment when he became the first New York-bred to win the Travers.
In 2003, Funny Cide moved the New York breeding program exponentially forward when he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. And in 2014, Dayatthespa became the first New York-bred to win a Breeders’ Cup event when she won the Filly and Mare Turf.
Getting back to Diversify, he wasn’t even the first New York-bred to win the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. He was the third, following Funny Cide in 2004 and Haynesfield in 2010.
According to the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc., which posts this information on its website, Diversify became the 70th New York-bred Grade 1 stakes winner since Fio Rito 36 years ago. And what is even more noteworthy, 27 of those 70, or 39 percent, have occurred since 2010.
Maybe it’s time to judge New York-breds on their own merit and without the New York-bred qualifier. Maybe it’s time to protect them a little less in restricted races at the overnight level and ask them to face open competition a little more frequently, with enhanced incentives as a catalyst. These New York-breds seem to be demanding it.
* Irad Ortiz Jr. isn’t the most aggressive rider in the New York jockey colony, but his ride on Diversify was textbook perfect for a speed horse. Instead of taking hold of Diversify to go head-and-head early with other horses and essentially concede his pace advantage, Ortiz sent Diversify right to the front, established a clear early lead, and then backed the pace down as much as he could while still maintaining a clear advantage. And what Ortiz wound up with was Diversify on a daylight lead through a first quarter in a slow 24.17 seconds, which was crucial in his mount being able to resist late challenges from Keen Ice and Pavel.
* Diversify is now 7 for 10 in his career. He’s been good from the start. But his Gold Cup and his 11 1/2-length romp in the Evan Shipman at Saratoga in his prior start were a decided cut above anything he did before.
* Keen Ice’s second-place finish in the Gold Cup as the favorite extended trainer Todd Pletcher’s string of seconditis in this race and led to Pletcher issuing the line of the day: “No matter what they tell you, it’s really hard to finish second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup six times.”
Not quite five straight Belmont Stakes, but yes.
* Pavel finished third in the Gold Cup, less than two lengths behind Diversify and less than a length behind Keen Ice, in only the fourth start of his career. His fourth start! And Pavel made two strong runs in the race, the latter through the stretch while he was in tight between the top two and brushing with Keen Ice. Pavel has had a ton thrown at him in a very short time (he only made his debut in July), has improved dramatically despite it all, and has as bright a future as any 3-year-old out there.
* European shippers had been stymied this year in our best late-summer and fall turf stakes for males despite this division seeming ripe for European plunder. But you knew it couldn’t last forever, and Suedois finally got the Europeans on the board with his victory in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland.
Suedois, who ran down a dead game Heart to Heart, had spent almost his entire 31-race career sprinting, and at his best, he was somewhere between Group 1 and Group 2 level. Although he won a Group 2 mile in Ireland before coming to Keeneland, the Shadwell was only Suedois’s third attempt at going as far as one mile, and he’s never gone longer.
Maybe Suedois, at age 6, has found a new niche. Or maybe Suedois’s victory exposed the limitations of the Shadwell field and signaled that the European floodgates are about to open in the Breeders’ Cup. I’m inclined to think the latter.
* The Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont were a study in contrasts. The Breeders’ Futurity was won in a visually appealing performance by Free Drop Billy, the 3-2 favorite off second-place finishes in the Hopeful and Sanford, who swooped past his field to score going away. The Champagne, on the other hand, was not pretty from a visual standpoint. A large group of pace horses seemingly unsuited to a one-turn mile tied up in upper stretch, and Firenze Fire, and 11-1 shot who beat Free Drop Billy when he won the Sanford, picked up the crumbling pieces with an outside run.
However, these races told an entirely different story when measured against the clock. Free Drop Billy’s Breeders’ Futurity could have been timed with a sundial and resulted in a winning Beyer Speed Figure of only 79. The Champagne, despite visually falling apart late, got a 90 Beyer.
* Roy H had the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship coming to him because he was terribly unlucky when second in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby at Del Mar after being carried wide by the riderless Drefong. But Roy H, who really should be unbeaten this year, was very impressive in winning Saturday and is as good as any sprinter in the country.
* It was very surprising to see Hawksmoor fail to close the deal in Keeneland’s Grade 1 First Lady after getting completely loose through very easy fractions. Considering that Hawksmoor capitalized on just such trips to win the Beaugay and New York stakes, she had no business losing after that setup. But it was even more surprising to see erstwhile speedball Zipessa come from off the pace, catch Hawksmoor, and pull away.