February 7, 2010

The Tale of Two Races

“It was the best of times, It was the worst of times…” I wonder if Charles Dickens was a fan of the horses. Yesterday’s wonderful day of racing had its ‘worst of times’ moments, with the cancellation of Santa Anita’s big card, and a broken bit that had the promising Eightyfiveinafifty looking more like a scared jackrabbit being chased by the wolves. Like a microcosm of life, with the bad came the good. The good, in this case, came in the form of two beautiful four-year-old colts named Quality Road and Musket Man. The two horses have a few things in common. Both colts won for the sixth time in their ninth lifetime start, and neither have ever finished out of the money. Both Musket Man and Quality Road winter in Florida and call the Northeast their home the rest of the year, and both colts fell just short of ultimate glory in the previous season. That is where the similarity ends.

Sticking with the Dickens theme, If Musket Man is the French peasant, than Quality Road is the English aristocrat. Greatness was expected for Quality Road from a young age. Since his smashing win in the shadow of New York City as a juvenile, this is a colt who all the experts have touted and spoke about in the most glowing terms. With his powerhouse victories at Gulfstream Park early last year, Quality Road steamed towards the Kentucky Derby as the likely favorite. Unfortunately, an ugly quarter crack kept the big, muscled son of Elusive Quality out of the Derby, and out of the entire Triple Crown for that matter. Meanwhile, no one paid much attention when a dark bay, sired by Yonaguska won his first three starts at Belmont, Philadelphia Park, and Tampa Bay Downs. Musket Man chugged along proudly wearing his blue collar and carrying his lunch pale to impressive victories in the Tampa Bay and Illinois Derbies. With Quality Road recuperating on the sidelines, Musket Man ran large, if not somewhat unlucky, races to finish 3rd in both the Derby and the Preakness. Still, Musket Man was far from a household name.

While Quality Road readied for a much anticipated return to the races, it was now Musket Man’s turn to succumb to soreness. A bone bruise would put him on the shelf for the remainder of the year. Quality Road finally returned with a blazing win in the Amsterdam Stakes at Saratoga, and the pundits dove on to his bandwagon. His mercurial rise back to the top of the division was stunted somewhat by two defeats at the hands of the champion, Summer Bird, in the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Those defeats were on messy tracks and to a horse with a great deal more bottom than the talented colt who was now trained by Todd Pletcher. His 2009 season, which was paved with both brilliance and setbacks, would have one final unusual turn. Set to contest America’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Quality Road balked at the starting gate. The refusal to enter the gate escalated into a scary situation and Quality Road was scratched, but avoided injury. The psychological damage from the incident was evident a few days later when Quality Road would not willingly enter the airplane ready to transport him home. Instead he hit the highway and was driven all the way across the nation back to New York. Through his struggles, Quality Road is now beloved, not only by fans of his immense talent, but also by those who feel for what he went through in November.

Unfinished business is a theme for both horses, as they passed on an early exit to the breeding shed, and returned for their third season of racing. The glamour boy, Quality Road ran an absolute monster race yesterday in winning the Grade 1 Donn Handicap. Every bit of his talent and strength was on display as he destroyed a full field of mediocre stakes horses. His winning margin was nearly 13 lengths as he broke his own track record set in last year’s Florida Derby. In just nine races, it was his third track record and preliminary reports of his Beyer number are set at a gaudy 122. Quality Road has not accomplished as much as the reigning Queens of racing, but he is unquestionably a member of the current racing aristocracy. A King in waiting. Not quite so regal, but in my opinion just as good a story, is the small town, Musket Man. Yesterday he ran a deceptively excellent race in the Super Stakes at Tampa. In his first race in nearly nine months, Musket Man showed everything you could have hoped for, as he stalked a fast pace from a wide position, and then battled with a 7 furlong specialist, who had mustered up a full head of steam, through most of the stretch. They left the rest of the field far behind, and it was a hard fought ½ length victory for the classy Musket Man. It was a perfect return race that should set him up nicely for the bigger things to come.

They come from different sides of the track to be sure, and yesterday’s races may have looked disproportionately more impressive in favor of Quality Road, but both horses are pure quality in their own ways. Each colt has an ultimate goal of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and whether or not that is the venue, I hope they someday meet as two of the best handicap horses in the nation, and don’t be too surprised if the unheralded Musket Man gives the superstar Quality Road everything he wants.


LDP said...

QR should've looked better, he had a very good prep going into the Donn. QR looked the part of a rising star in that race. If he can show that he can duplicate that effort at the classic distance and at other track, watch out.

MM looked fantastic when considering it was his first race in nine months. Once he gets back into the swing of this he'll be making some noise.

Sharon Scarpello said...

It's great to see them back and in good form. And if they stay free from injury, hopefully we can enjoy more years of racing from them. It's good that their owners aren't sending them off to be bred right away - I can understand the financial incentive, but at least it keeps the interest in racing if talented horses aren't retired so early.

Brian Zipse said...

Great point Sharon. If our stars do not retire so quickly and come back and run, it creates so much more interest for the fans. This is the first year in a long time where that is clearly the trend, and the result could be a huge year for the fans of Thoroughbred horse racing.

ja.raymond said...

I think it's so cool that both horses have 9 starts, 6 wins and neither have finished out of the money!
I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they both stay sound thru-out the season; I'm excited to see where theyre gonna square off.
This is a nice one, Brian, I enjoyed the side by side comparisons.
And, btw, great shots, Marti!!!

Anonymous said...

I am glad that you tell it like it is and did not get too crazy with the quality road hype after yesterday zipse. musket man is a helluva horse, underestimate him at your own risk.

Go Saints!

C T Coleman said...

got an analogy for the two of these horses that is based on the film "Rounder’s" Quality Road is the brilliant flashy comes from a great background Mike McDermott a sharp and respected poker player on the underground New York circuit whose own brilliance seems to be his biggest handicap; is played by an equally brilliant and visually stunning Matt Damon (why he ever made stuck on you is a bigger mystery to me then Sasquatch). John Turturro plays Joey Knish the not as skillfully gifted poker player who defies the odds and somehow grinds out games and dose well enough. QR/Mike McD just ooze talent and the way they race/play makes it even more visually impressive. QR likes to be up front in control dictating to you your own tactics. Mike McD takes down big pots never backs down from hands it’s not that he’s a loose cannon bulldozing chips to the center, his all around game is good enough he can finesse one into a trap but more often than not he’s flexes his poker muscle and put the man to the preverbal test (do I call all in?). MM/Knish grinds at you both are called a horses/horse or a players/player they are like a wild anaconda as opposed to quickly killing you like a cobra/QR/Mike McD the anaconda circles his prey and squeezes the life out of the victim in a workman fashion. If I am allowed another comparison the “flashy” (QR/Mike McD) is like fighting Tyson (late 80s early 90s when he was on top of the world) this is going to be over quickly and the beating is going to look worse than it actually was. The grinding MM/Knish is that wrestler in High School and College that is undersized and written off before he hits the map. The grinding wrestler dosent win via pin often he points opponents to death escapes reversals are landing him points not takedowns and Riding Time ( if you watch college wrestling you know what that is) that are the trademark of the powerhouses of the sport.
Both are equally game and often fire each time they compete it’s just in a difference of style and flair that it’s done in.

Brian Zipse said...

Knish grinds harder than the sausage guy at Vienna Beef, love John Turturro though. I think Musket Man might have a little more talent than that, but I love the analogy. Bit surprised that you could not work in Teddy KGB...next time?

Heather said...

nice blog, Brian. i'm loving the fact that some of the really nice horses from last year are returning to run instead of going off to the breeding shed. love both QR and MM even more than i did last year!!

Brian Zipse said...

Thanks Heather, there is every reason to believe that Quality Road and Musket Man will be better than last year as more mature horses.