Not much in sports compares to the tantalizing drama and genuine excitement of the NCAA basketball tournament, better known as March Madness. With all of the upsets of high seeds so early in this year’s tournament, chances are that many brackets are already busted. Don’t despair. There’s always horse racing.
The Sport of Kings has its own version of March Madness, its own brand of inspired commotion, anticipation, heartbreak and triumph. The only thing missing is the touching rendition of “One Shining Moment” while the newest national champions are cutting down the nets.
March is an important month in the development of 3-year-old horses. This is the time horses truly begin to sort themselves out on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, and the early favorites—customarily runners who were successful last year at age two—attempt to maintain their position atop the standings, or rankings more like, as the big dance fast approaches on The First Saturday in May.
As in the basketball tournament, division leaders in horse racing are faced with stern challenges from energetic upstarts with designs on cracking the leader board. Three-year-olds do a lot of growing and maturing both mentally and physically at this stage of their development and it pays to watch their progress closely as their form can improve dramatically from race to race.
Today, should you seek a diversion from the wall-to-wall basketball coverage, there are a few races around the country worth keeping an eye on that could possibly impact this year’s classic races. The first is the $75,000 Broad Brush Stakes at Aqueduct in New York.
Carded as the day’s second race, the Broad Brush brings together a promising group of seven runners that find themselves on the bubble at this juncture. In tourney terms, they are on the outside looking in as the bigger stakes races approach later this month and in April. They still have a lot to prove and must earn their way in at this point. A victory in the race today would likely vault the winner into one of the richer stakes engagements next month and possibly a berth in the Kentucky Derby down the road.
The 5-2 morning line favorite is Swag Daddy. The son of Scat Daddy has run well for owner Eric Fein in stakes races restricted to New York-bred runners. He tries open company today. Second-choice on the morning line at odds of 3-1 is Drawing Away Stable and trainer David Jacobson’s Copy My Swagger. The son of Easing Along owns the highest Beyer Speed Figure of any entrant in the race at sprint distances. He stretches out to 1 1/16 miles in this spot. Hard Facts (7-2), Street Life (4-1) and Festive Spirit (5-1) also figure to have a say in the outcome. Street Life is a son of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.
Next up is the ninth race at Laurel, the $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at one mile. This race is not really known for producing Kentucky Derby runners, but can provide an early look at a horse with its eyes on the Preakness Stakes (G1), the second jewel of the Triple Crown run in Maryland. Eugene Cahalan’s Dangerous Lad is the 5-2 morning line favorite in the race. Dogwood Stable’s Raconteur is the 3-1 second choice for trainer Todd Pletcher. Street Life is also cross-entered in this race and is listed at 10-1 by the Laurel morning-line maker.
Classic hopefuls also clash in the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. These are the higher seeded, more accomplished runners scheduled to compete today. Secret Circle, winner of a division of the Southwest Stakes last time out for trainer Bob Baffert, returns to Oaklawn from his California base for the next step on the road to the Arkansas Derby (G1) next month. His competition today includes the highly regarded Sabercat, winner of last year’s rich Delta Jackpot (G3) at Delta Downs in Louisiana. Country singer Toby Keith owns a horse in the race named Reckless Jerry. The son of Cactus Ridge finished third in a division of the Southwest Stakes last time out for trainer Kenny Smith. Other contenders include Scatman and Jake Mo.
So, take a break from the hoops action this afternoon and check out some March Madness on the racetrack. For the record, division leaders Union Rags, Hansen, last year’s 2-year-old champion, and El Padrino, appear to be the upper echelon of this year’s crop. But as Lehigh, Norfolk State and Ohio have taught us this week on the basketball court, inspiration and drive can engineer historic theater.