Secretariat

Strong Group of Vox Populi Nominees

This year’s Secretariat Vox Populi Award nominees are the proverbial mixed bag of nuts…they are all totally different in size, shape, and taste, but good luck trying to pick out just one. With that admittedly offbeat analogy let’s open the bag and see what’s in there for 2023. ~ Steve Haskin

Strong Group of Vox Populi Nominees 

By Steve Haskin

 

We must preface this by asking is there anyone capable of preventing last year’s Secretariat Vox Populi Award winner Cody’s Wish from becoming the first back-to-back honoree, especially after his and his namesake’s story reached new heights this year, touching people around the world thanks to the 5-year old’s success throughout the year on the biggest stages?

Well, we have a brilliant bargain basement 3-year-old whose unknown trainer made history by bringing a woman into the Triple Crown spotlight and becoming the most sought after interview in racing. We have a gallant 7-year-old warrior who didn’t know what the word “quit” means and who gained popularity strictly on his longevity and perseverance. We have a striking near-white horse, who, after a declining career, joined his new trainer in mid-season, with the two becoming the most notable comeback team of the year, culminating with a victory in America’s richest race. And finally we have a bullet of a filly who not only was a major comeback story in her own right, but a former Vox Populi nominee who was able to retain her popularity two years later, especially battling back from a life-threatening injury right before what was to be her greatest moment.

Here in alphabetical order are this year’s Vox Populi nominees:

ARCANGELO – Right from the start this colt was an enigma. After all, how does a son of Arrogate, out of a Tapit mare, whose second dam is a half-sister to Belmont winner Rags to Riches, sell for only $35,000 at the megabucks Keeneland September yearling sale? And how does he wind up in the barn of the little known trainer Jena Antonucci, who grew up with show horses, worked as a veterinarian assistant, and then began rehabilitating horses, and whose only graded stakes victory as a trainer came in 2016 in a five-furlong stakes on grass at Parx?

Now here she was coming up to New York for the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes with a horse who had only three career starts and had broken his maiden at Gulfstream Park almost two months earlier. He would never lose again. Thanks to this steel-gray yearling who was shunned at the sale despite his impeccable breeding, Antonucci’s earnings skyrocketed from $195,000 in 2022 to over $2 million in 2023, as she became the first female ever to train a classic winner in America when Arcangelo won the Belmont Stakes and then became the first horse in 19 years to win the 1 ½-mile Belmont and the historic Travers Stakes without a race in between.

With a sure Horse of the Year title wrapped up had he closed out the year with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, for which he was favored, he suffered a minor injury the week of the race and was retired to stud, as have been so many lightly raced top 3-year-olds in recent years. But while he was around he made a star out of his trainer, helped rewrite the history books, and built up a strong fan base around the country.

CASA CREED – His trainer Bill Mott is one of the most popular and well-liked trainers in the country and there are few owners more popular than the always engaging Lee Einsidler. But with Casa Creed it is all about the horse. At a time when the older horse divisions on dirt and grass keep getting thinner due to early retirements, here is a complete horse who has just concluded his most successful campaign at the age of 7. It was a campaign that began back in February in Saudi Arabia with a heartbreaking head defeat in the 6 ½-furlong Sprint Cup. What made the defeat even tougher was having been beaten a neck in the same race last year by the Japanese champion Songline.

Back home, he finished third, beaten one length, in the six-furlong Jaipur Stakes in a blistering 1:07 4/5. Stretching out to his preferred distance of a mile he won the Grade 3 Kelso Stakes at Belmont before winning his second consecutive Grade 1 Fourstardave Stakes, having previously finished third in 2020 and 2021. By now he had become known as “The Mayor of Saratoga,” with his fan base growing to new heights.

He ended the year with a gutsy third in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, beaten only three-quarters of a length behind two Godolphin Group 1 winners from Europe. That race raised his bankroll to over $2.6 million dollars. But what made Casa Creed so popular and earn so much respect was how hard he tried race after race, year after year. He has always given 100 percent, as indicated by the fact that 17 of his defeats were by less than three lengths, with 10 of those less than two lengths.

Racing on the grass and being dependent on pace, he has been versatile enough to win at six furlongs, seven furlongs, 7 1/2 furlongs, and one mile. He even won at seven furlongs on dirt. It is near impossible to follow horseracing without being a fan of Casa Creed.

CODY’S WISH – As we all know there is no set formula in determining the popularity of a horse. In the case of Cody’s Wish, this looks like the perfect example of a horse who had all the qualities on and off the track to make him popular with the fans and the human interest story behind him to thrust both into the national spotlight.

There is no denying it was Cody Dorman’s inspirational story that helped make Cody’s Wish popular. But if the horse, who had the personality to connect immediately with the young boy, hadn’t turned into a winning machine with back-to-back dramatic victories in the Breeders’ Cup global spotlight and a stunning score in the Met Mile on Belmont Stakes day, who knows if the Cody Dorman story would have had such a long shelf life and continue to scale the emotional heights it has this year?

It doesn’t really matter because history played out the way it was meant to and now both Codys will be remembered for many years to come. It is important, however, that the horse also be remembered for all his courage, consistency, and overall achievement on the racetrack to go along with all the human interest and emotion that followed him throughout his career.

Now it is up to the voters to decide whether the initial impact of his story is just as strong as last year, or perhaps soared even higher this year, with a gut-wrenching ending that is the stuff of which movies are made.

ECHO ZULU – This filly’s popularity began in 2021 when she was just a 2-year-old and proved to be a whirlwind, blowing away her opposition in all four of her starts at four different distances by an average margin of 5 ¼ lengths. And she did it on both coasts. Whether it was at 5 ½ furlongs at Saratoga or 1 1/16 miles at Del Mar in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, her blazing speed proved too much for her opponents.

Much was expected of her as a 3-year-old in 2022, but she wound up running only four times and showed she really wasn’t a true two-turn horse, then failed to get to the lead early in the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint and had to settle for second behind Goodnight Olive.

Echo Zulu returned this year at 4, but had pretty much fallen off the radar screen. In her first three starts, however, she proved once again to be unbeatable. Following two wire-to-wire romps by 5 ¾ and 7 ¼ lengths in 1:08 4/5 and 1:08 3/5 in the Honorable Miss Stakes at Saratoga and Winning Colors Stakes at Churchill Downs, respectively. She then  got her revenge on Goodnight Olive winning the Grade 1 Ballerina Stakes at Saratoga by dashing to the lead and drawing off to win by 2 ½ lengths in a rapid 1:20 4/5 for the seven furlongs, establishing herself as the clear-cut favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprints.

However, while training at Santa Anita she fractured the sesamoids in her left front fetlock and underwent extensive surgery that has gone well so far, but it’s still a long road to recovery ahead. Fortunately she has been the ideal patient and has taken care of herself keeping weight off the leg. And when Goodnight Olive romped in the Breeders’ Cup it confirmed just how special Echo Zulu was. Her fan base has continued to grow as she progresses toward what is hoped will be a complete recovery.

WHITE ABARRIO – Will the popularity of the 4-year-old White Abarrio be determined by how people view his trainer Rick Dutrow? As we all know, Dutrow has always been a polarizing figure. He returned from a 10-year suspension this year and took over the training of White Abarrio, who then romped in the Whitney before winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Whether you are a fan of Dutrow’s or not there is no doubting his ability and his love for his horses, and it took a lot of work by him, his staff, and farrier/foot specialist Ian McKinlay to get White Abarrio back to his early 3-year-old form when he scored victories in the 2022 Holy Bull Stakes and Florida Derby. So we know the colt has always had ability and under Dutrow’s care he not only has demonstrated that ability once again with the help of glue-on shoes he has far surpassed it, having filled out and gotten much stronger during the current racing season.

White Abarrio’s former trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. had actually started the ball rolling in early March when he put the colt won a seven-furlong Gulfstream Park allowance race after pressing a :44 4/5 half and then drawing off to win by 4 ½ lengths in a sharp 1:22 flat following a dreadful performance in his previous race — the Pegasus World Cup. Recurring foot problems could very well have accounted for his inconsistency, but he finally was able to put together a series of big performances, including a strong third to Cody’s Wish in the Met Mile in his first start for Dutrow.

Prior to the Whitney, it had been decided by the owners to keep him around one turn and he was being pointed for the seven-furlong Forego Stakes, but when Dutrow was informed by NYRA that they only had three horses for the Whitney they changed plans, feeling it was worth a shot at the richer and more prestigious race. That decision would change the entire course of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and influence the Eclipse Award voting.

So this should now be mostly about White Abarrio and his dramatic surge to prominence. With his near-white color, his newly found consistent brilliance, and, yes, Dutrow’s remarkable comeback story, you can bet there are many racing fans who have flocked to White Abarrio and can appreciate the colt’s return to glory following a decline to mediocrity last year.

Photos courtesy of NYRA/Coglianese, Godolphin/Racefotos.com and Ryan Thompson

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to Secretariat.com since 2020.

 


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