Delaware Park: Eight stories that mattered in 2017
by Doug McCoy
Saturday’s program will mark the conclusion of the 2017 live thoroughbred racing season at Delaware Park as this storied race track completes its 80th year of bringing racing to the fans of the Delaware Valley and Mid-Atlantic Region.
There were plenty of intriguing, fun, and exciting stories during the meet. Here are eight that caught our eye:
1. THE COURAGE OF A CHAMPION – When it was announced that Songbird would start in the Grade I Delaware Handicap, the fans were thrilled, management was thrilled, and owner Rick Porter was thrilled. Fans would get a chance to see the two-time Eclipse Award winner, her presence would fill the stands, and Porter’s improving health permitted him to be on hand to watch his star race at his home track.
Just about everyone, from the bettors to the talking heads and experts, expected Songbird to have a cakewalk in the DelCap but in retrospect the comments of Mike Smith, Songbird’s regular rider, the week of the race gave a hint that things aren’t always as easy as they might appear.
“I think facing older rivals after turning four is a big challenge for a horse,” the veteran observed. “Going from a two year old to three means you’re still racing with horses the same age as you, but when you turn four you may be racing with rivals two, or even three years older. That’s a big difference.”
The epic battle between Songbird and Beholder in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (which Songbird lost by a nose) and a hard-fought victory over Belmont Park’s sandy surface in her 2017 took their toll on Songbird, something that didn’t come to light until later, but as the 2017 DelCap unfolded, it became obvious she was not the same horse that dominated her age group for two years. Leading from the start, Songbird still showed the way coming out of the final turn; Martini Glass was ranging up on her outside flank and it looked to many like that mare would collar Songbird.
But that’s what sets champions apart from the rest. When Mike Smith went to work left handed Songbird dug in and doggedly held on to her lead, battling through a long stretch duel and refusing to relinquish her lead before hitting the wire with a very well-earned one-length win. It should be noted Martini Glass went on to show her DelCap effort was no fluke. She finished second in a $200,000 stake at Thistledown and most recently was runner up in the Grade I Spinster at Keeneland.
It was to be the final win of a career that saw Songbird win 13 of 15 lifetime starts. She would start only one more time, finishing second in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga. Injuries that came to light after the DelCap would end Songbird’s racing career.
The lucky ones who witnessed the 2017 DelCap got a graphic illustration of what it takes to be a champion. Songbird may not have been at her peak physically that Saturday afternoon in Stanton but she was certainly at her most courageous.
2. PARITY – The nip-and-tuck battles for leading trainer and jockey have pointed out how evenly matched those colonies were this summer. With one day left at the meet past champions Jamie Ness and Scott Lake are deadlocked at the top of the standings with 22 wins while Anthony Pecoraro is just one win back and Larry Jones is two back with 20 victories.
On the rider’s side Scott Spieth, who has won more than 4600 races during a career that has spanned more than three decades, has a short lead over defending champion Carol Cedeno heading into the final day. Jomar Torres, who may be the hottest rider in the Mid-Atlantic the last two months, will wind up third as solid professionals like Daniel Centeno, Alex Cintron, Edwin Gonzalez, Brian Pedroza and Ricardo Chiappe also had good meetings. Jesus Bracho topped the local apprentices by a wide margin.
3. NEW STABLE MAKES ITS MARK – Biggest impact from a newcomer award goes to Michael Stidham. Stidham, a perennial power in the Midwest, brought a large string East, splitting his stock between Delaware Park and Fair Hill, and with a group that included a number of young runners, had a solid meet. Stidham won 14 races from 85 starters, and his runners were one-two-three close to 50 percent of the time. He’ll leave here with several promising youngsters, among them Moon Dash. Moon Dash broke her maiden at Delaware Park then was shipped to Santa Anita where she closed like a shot to miss by a nose in the $100,000 Surfer Girl Stakes at a mile on the turf. If Moon Dash is able to draw in, her next start will come in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.
4. THE JONES GANG – It’s true Larry Jones makes good use of Delaware Park, developing his young runners in the horse-friendly environment Willie Dupont designed many years ago. But he also runs his share, and it looks like the Jones stable will wind up fourth in the standings with 20 wins and second, or possibly first, in total purse earnings. All told, 49 of Jones’s 73 starters have finished on the board and his stable also earned $622,000 in purses which makes him leading money winning trainer among the locally based stables by a wide margin; Jerry Hollendorfer, who won both the Delaware Oaks and Delcap, earned $630,000. And, as he is always wont to do, Jones has another promising young horse in Kowboy Karma who finished fourth in the Grade I Champagne in his most recent start.
5. SPILL – The weather on September 13 was cloudy with intermittent drizzles. There were three races slated to be run on the turf that day and to the surprise of many, they weren’t moved to the main track. The riders rode the three races but did voice their concerns about the condition of the course and its suitability to race over the following day.
On September 14, the races remained on the turf and when Victor Carrasco and his mount, Really, moved into the second turn of the first turf race of the day, his horse’s legs slipped out from under her, throwing Carrasco and starting a five-horse chain reaction spill. Carrasco wound up with multiple fractures of the right leg and had to have a rod inserted, while Jose Ferrer suffered five broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung. Both riders are expected to be out of action for extended periods of time. Following the spill turf racing was cancelled for the remainder of that card as well as the following racing day, September 16. and when turf racing resumed the rail had been moved out to the 35-foot setting.
The track had also begun the meet with the turf rail set to 25 feet, later extending it to 35 before moving to the zero setting for Delaware Oaks and Handicap days in mid-July. While this certainly helped protect the turf course for the track’s two biggest days, it also creates a sharper angle into the turns and a shorter straightaway from the top of the stretch to the wire. This means horses who draw outside posts have a decided disadvantage. As a result, horses breaking from the four outer post positions were a combined 10-for-164 (6.1 percent). For dirt races, by comparison, the outer horses were 23-for-228, or 10.1 percent.
6 & 7.UP-AND-COMERS – It’s becoming tougher and tougher for new people to break into the business these days but two young trainers have given every indication this season they have bright futures in the business.
Darien Rodriguez came north from Tampa this spring with a small but useful group, and the horseman who was a one man crew for his outfit for several years compiled an impressive record, winning with nine of his 25 starters. His runners finished one-two-three in 13 of those starts. He made some shrewd claims and also displayed the ability to have a first time starter ready to win at first asking.
Erin Wilkinson had 29 starts with 7 winners and 13 of her runners finished in the money. She claimed Bistro for a bargain $5,000 and the former Tom Proctor runner has won three of four starts since moving to Wilkinson’s barn. Sonoma Crush, another Wilkinson claim, is entered in an optional claiming sprint at Keeneland on Saturday.
Both of these bright young talents got a chance to learn their craft and expand their horizons racing at Delaware Park, and horseplayers would do well to put them on their stable mail.
8. THE MOONEY INFLUENCE – Whether it’s driving the grader while maintaining the track or spending nights in distant motels after a day meeting and talking with horsepeople, Delaware Park’s executive director of racing John Mooney spends the bulk of his waking hours doing what he can to make racing better at DelPark. Despite facing stiff competition throughout the region, Mooney continues to find fresh blood in the training ranks each year, bringing new outfits and new trainers here for the first time while striving to give the trainers who race here regularly any help and guidance he can offer to make their racing experience here a satisfying one. Mooney is a third-generation horseman who has made enormous contributions to racing at Delaware Park.