I apologize in advance to all Monomoy Girl fans, and I have the utmost respect for this 6-year-old mare, but this weekend’s Grade 1 Apple Blossom will be the toughest test of her career.
Ranked No. 2 right now in the Older Dirt Female division, this is a different Swiss Skydiver than the one Monomoy Girl faced in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Refreshed and rejuvenated, the 4-year-old daughter of Daredevil appears set to fire her best shot against the reigning queen of American racing.
Before I dig in to this fascinating and rare early season matchup between two heavyweights, let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.
Older dirt males
1. Mystic Guide. Solid win in Dubai and is 2-for-2 on the season, but the Dubai World Cup field he defeated was nowhere near what we have come to expect from Dubai World Cup fields. Certainly has done enough to move into the top spot, though I am not sure how long he will stay here. Back in the states now and should return in the early summer.
2. Charlatan. Back working now after that Saudi Cup runner-up finish in February. We will see him on Kentucky Derby weekend in the Churchill Downs (G1) at seven furlongs. If all goes well there, his connections have stated their intention to target the Met Mile (G1) on Belmont Day in early June.
3. Knicks Go. Back on the work tab, he will target a race in late May to early June. Don't be surprised to see him target the Met Mile as well. Despite his fourth place finish in the Saudi Cup, which halted a four-race winning streak, I still believe he is the goods.
4. Maxfield. Truth be told, he ran a fine race in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), considering the circumstances. First start beyond 8 1/2 furlongs, shipped across country and was beaten by just two lengths, finishing third to Idol and Express Train on their home track. The Alysheba (G2) at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby weekend would make sense as his next start.
5. Idol. Santa Anita Handicap (G1) winner is skipping the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) this weekend while the rival he edged by a half-length, Express Train, makes the trip and will run. His hold on this spot is tenuous at best, especially as Express Train takes care of business on Saturday. The 4-year-old colt will wait for the Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) on May 31. Don't look for him to leave his home base in 2021 with a $1 million bonus in play if he can win the Gold Cup at Santa Anita and Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August.
Next 5: Express Train, By My Standards, Rushie, Modernist, Jesus' Team.
Older dirt females
1. Monomoy Girl. Clearly, this will be the toughest test this gal will see in her career in this weekend's Apple Blossom showdown against Swiss Skydiver. If she was ever ripe to be defeated, this appears to be the spot. I am not convinced she is as good this year as she has been in the past. Should she win this much-hyped matchup, she takes another giant historical step in terms of where she will rank among the greats.
2. Swiss Skydiver. If she can't get the job done this weekend against Monomoy Girl, I'm not sure she ever will. Though the 8 1/2 furlongs favors her older rival, she is in top form, reinvigorated after her long campaign last year. Her much anticipated 4-year-old debut was better than anyone could have envisioned, shipping to California and an easy winner in the Beholder Mile (G1) over a strong field. As I have written before, she is a true throwback, shipping all across the country for what seems like every big event in her division.
3. Gamine. An easy win in her seasonal debut, the Las Flores (G3) at Santa Anita, should set her up nicely for her next start, the Derby City Distaff (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 1. It will be interesting to see who shows up to take her on – and if all goes well there, it will be even more interesting to see where she goes next. There is a certain Grade 1 one-turn mile at Belmont Park on Belmont Day that I know every fan would love to see her entered in, but will trainer Bob Baffert really run her against Charlatan? My guess is no.
4. Shedaresthedevil. The Kentucky Oaks winner from last season returned with a very impressive and gritty win in the Azeri (G2) at Oaklawn, where she held off the late run of the very good Letruska. She will skip the Apple Blossom and wait for the La Troienne (G1) at Churchill Downs on April 30.
5. Letruska. Don't count her out of this weekend's Apple Blossom, where she will take on the top two in this division. Was last seen in a game runner-up finish in the Azeri (G2) at Oaklawn. A fascinating story, this mare started her career in Mexico City and ran six times, all wins. Now 12-for-17 with three graded-stakes wins in this country, she is in the best form of her career and a real player in this division. When was the last time we saw this from a horse who made its first six starts in Mexico City?
Next 5: As Time Goes By, Valiance, Vexatious, Dunbar Road, Paris Lights.
1. Essential Quality. Passed his Blue Grass (G2) test with flying colors. Looking ahead to the Kentucky Derby, that stretch dual should serve him well. Now 2-for2 on the season, he will take his unbeaten record to Louisville as the Kentucky Derby favorite.
2. Rock Your World. After his impressive Santa Anita Derby (G1) win and Concert Tour's recent loss, he is now the likely second betting choice for the Kentucky Derby. His Santa Anita Derby win was no fluke – 2-for-2 prior, both wins on the grass, he set a legitimate pace and drew off in the stretch. He sports a great pedigree and should run all day, and he doesn't need the lead to fire his best. A very intriguing horse.
3. Life Is Good. Joins a long list of horses from previous seasons that impressed on the Kentucky Derby trail only to be injured and forced to miss the Triple Crown events. Impressive winner of the San Felipe (G2) by eight lengths and unbeaten in three starts, he is now off the Kentucky Derby trail because of a hind-end injury. If we see him run again, it will not be until late summer or the fall at the earliest.
4. Hot Rod Charlie. Really handed it to the “house” horses at the Fair Grounds in the Louisiana Derby (G2), proving much the best in the 1 3/16-mile test. Ranked No. 6 before, he has shown me enough to be placed in the Top 5. Additionally, his win sends a strong message to the others: The California based 3-year-olds are heads and shoulders the best, outside of No. 1 Essential Quality.
5. Medina Spirit. I'm going to go ahead and move this guy back into the top five. Why? Because he has faced the best in his division and has run faster than the horses below him in multiple races. Plenty of Kentucky Derby winners exited their previous races with a loss or losses. My dark horse in the Run for the Roses.
Next 5: Known Agenda, Super Stock, Concert Tour, Greatest Honour, Highly Motivated.
1. Travel Column. Was much the best in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), beating the previous No. 1, Clairiere. These two have quite the rivalry going as they have faced one another in three straight races, trading wins and running one-two in all three. Next up? A date in the Kentucky Oaks on the last day of April.
2. Clairiere. Simply had too much to do in the stretch of the Fair Grounds Oaks but ran on well to finish a clear second to Travel Column. The nine furlongs of the Kentucky Oaks might be in her favor the next time these two meet.
3. Malathaat. I was very impressed with her win in the Ashland (G1) at Keeneland, so much so that I contemplated moving her to No. 1. Although she won by only a head, she gave the impression that she was always going to get there. And seeing how that was her first start this season, she should be much better for the Kentucky Oaks. Will relish going longer and might end up as the Oaks favorite.
4. Aunt Pearl. Finally back on the work tab, she is targeting a return on the April 30 Kentucky Oaks undercard in the Edgewood Stakes (G2). Her win last out in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf came at the expense of 13 others, five of whom were from overseas. Look for her to run overseas this season if she comes back at age 3 like she left off in her juvenile season.
5. Vequist. Will skip the Kentucky Oaks after an endoscopic examination revealed considerable congestion in her lungs following a dismal ninth-place finish in the Feb. 27 Davona Dale (G2) at Gulfstream Park, her lone start this season. I will keep her in the top five for now; she has earned one mulligan. Will point for the Acorn (G1) on Belmont Stakes day June 5.
Next 5: Wholebodemeister, Crazy Beautiful, Pass the Champagne, Search Results, Pauline's Pearl.
1. Colonel Liam. Certainly ran well in the recent Muniz Memorial Stakes (G2), where he scored a workmanlike win by two lengths. Moves to No. 1 after Channel Maker's loss, but I still question who he has beaten. The runner-up in the Muniz, Two Emmys, never had run in a stakes and was coming off of seven straight races in the optional claiming ranks.
2. Channel Maker. He simply didn't run his best race in Dubai, where he finished eighth, beaten six lengths in the Sheema Classic (G1). Previously, he ran a gallant race to finish second in the Neom Turf Cup In Saudi Arabia. He drops to No. 2 and will head back to the states and be back racing in New York this summer.
3. Raging Bull. Certainly an impressive win in last week's Maker's Mark Mile (G1), his first start of 2021. Moves up to this spot for now, but I can't help but remember last season when he was impressive in first start of 2020 in Santa Anita's Shoemaker Mile, also a Grade 1 win. He then went winless for the remainder of the season. In other words, I am skeptical he can string together wins.
4. Hit the Road. Simply didn't have it in the stretch of the Maker's Mark, fading to fifth, beaten a little less than four lengths. Previously he scored in the Kilroe Mile (G1) at Santa Anita. Will point next to the Shoemaker Mile (G1) on May 31 at Santa Anita.
5. United. Won his 2021 debut with a solid win in the San Luis Rey (G3) at Santa Anita. Up next his connections will point the 6-year-old to the Charles Whittingham Stakes (G2) at 1 1/4 miles on May 29.
Next 5: Ivar, Mo Forza, Zulu Alpha, Domestic Spending, Laccario.
1. Mean Mary. Occupied this spot for a few weeks in 2020, she starts off 2021 at No. 1 based on her stellar campaign from last year. If she runs like she did in 2020, she is the favorite for the Eclipse in this division. On the work tab and nearing her 2021 debut.
2. Harvey's Lil Goil. She was third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf last season at age 3 and won the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland last fall. She is back in 2021 and will be a player in this division. Has been off the board only once in nine starts.
3. Viadera. Winner of her last three starts, which included the Matriarch (G1) at Del Mar in late November. Still hasn't worked and likely will drop soon, but she is expected to be back racing later this season.
4. Juliet Foxtrot. We finally saw a Grade 1 stakes for this division and this gal came out on top in last weekend's Jenny Wiley at Keeneland. She previously had placed in four Grade 1 events, but this was her first win at the top level. Last season she was 1-for-5 with her lone win coming in the Gallorette (G3) at Pimlico.
5. Charmaine's Mia. With her win in the Royal Heroine (G2) at Santa Anita, she ran her record to 3-for-3 on the year. All three of her wins have come in graded stakes, the most of any horse in her division thus far.
Next 5: Mucho Unusual, Civil Union, Got Stormy, Jolie Olimpica, Blowout.
1. C Z Rocket. Cemented his position here at the top with another win over Whitmore, this time in the Count Fleet Sprint (G3). He has quietly won seven of his last eight and is leading the Eclipse race as we enter the spring.
2. Whitmore. Again runner-up to C Z Rocket, he ran well again and was clearly best of the rest. Shows no signs of slowing down at the ripe old age of 8.
3. Mischevious Alex. Won his first Grade 1 race two weeks ago in the Carter (G1) at Aqueduct in impressive fashion. Previously he scored in the Grade 3 Gulfstream Park Sprint in impressive fashion. He is the real deal this year, and his speed figures are on par or better than the two ranked above him.
4. Wildman Jack. Was fourth last out in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), certainly not a bad effort. Previously, he easily won the Palos Verdes (G3). This resume is good enough to move him to No. 4 here for now, considering graded stakes sprint wins are few and far between this early in the season.
5. Brickyard Ride. His win in the San Carlos (G2) was scintillating, Now 2-for-2 on the season, he could move up more with a win in this weekend's Kona Gold (G3) at Santa Anita.
Next 5: Empire of Gold, Firenze Fire, Extravagant Kid, Flagstaff, Chateau.
1. Gamine. Dominant in the Las Flores (G3) over six furlongs at Santa Anita for her 2021 debut, she will go next in the Derby City Distaff (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 1. She may be the best sprinter, male or female, in the country, but she will be tested in her next start.
2. Kimari. In her first graded stakes race on the dirt she didn't disappoint, edging away in the stretch for a 3/4 length win over Bell's the One in the Madison (G1) at Keeneland. Would love to see her in the Derby City Distaff next out against Gamine and others, but I doubt that happens.
3. Bell's the One. Somewhat of a disappointment when dead-heating for the runner-up spot in the Madison (G1), but it was her first start since last fall's Breeders' Cup. She will go next in what is shaping up as a stellar edition of the Derby City Distaff on Kentucky Derby weekend.
4. Edgeway. Defeated Frank's Rockette in the Carousel at Oaklawn last weekend and is 2-for-2 on the season. Connections are not sure where she will go next, but they have stated that her long-range goal is the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Del Mar, with her prep for that race coming in the Rancho Bernardo Handicap (G3) on Aug. 20.
5. Merneith. Won the Santa Monica (G2) last out and previously was third in the La Brea (G1) in December. Looks like she is finally realizing her potential for trainer Bob Baffert. In light training, she is not expected back until at least May.
Next 5: Frank's Rockette, Pacific Gale, Venetian Harbor, Speech, Estilo Talentoso.
Rarely have we seen two true heavyweights from the distaff side take on one another this early in the season, but this weekends’ Apple Blossom at Oaklawn offer’s us just that.
Monomoy Girl and Swiss Skydiver are not only heavyweights in their own division, but they are both future Hall of Famers. Looking back over the last few decades, I was hard pressed to find an early season matchup that could rival this one.
Remember 2010? The racing world clamored for the newly turned 4-year-old Rachel Alexandra to take on the older Zenyatta. Rachel was voted Horse of the Year the previous season at age 3, Zenyatta was still unbeaten and ended her previous season with a historic win over males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It was expected to happen in the Apple Blossom but never materialized as Rachel Alexandra wasn’t quite the same horse at age 4 after her exhausting campaign at age 3 that saw her defeat males three times, the last being a "leave it all on the track" win over older males in the Woodward at Saratoga.
Like Rachel, Swiss Skydiver also is a Preakness winner over the boys, but unlike Rachel, Swiss Skydiver showed in her 4-year-old debut that she has indeed come back as strong or stronger at age 4 with an impressive Grade 1 win in the Beholder Mile in California.
While it is true that Monomoy Girl defeated Swiss Skydiver in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff, it was pretty clear that Swiss Skydiver’s stumble at the start, combined with the toll that her epic Preakness battle over the eventual Horse of the Year Authentic had on her, were partially to blame. There will be no such excuses this weekend.
For Monomoy Girl, there is little left to prove against her own gender, and with each win she tacks onto her resume, her career gets more historic.
Should she defeat Swiss Skydiver this weekend, she will inch closer to the remarkable record Zenyatta put together. Zenyatta won 19 of 20 races. Monomoy Girl can run her record to 15 for 17 this weekend. Additionally, Monomoy Girl’s connections have stated their intention to try their mare against the boys later this season. This is something fans have clamored for and would love to see, and in some ways, facing the boys is necessary when determining her rightful place in history.
The fact is, right or wrong, we remember the all-time great females much more if they were able to defeat the males on the grandest of stages.
For the race at hand this weekend, I expect Swiss Skydiver to take care of business. She is clearly on her game and improved from last season and should be forwardly placed from her inside post No. 2, which will enable her to be in front of Monomoy Girl, who breaks from post No. 6. In short, if Swiss Skydiver can replicate her Beholder Mile win from a few weeks ago, she will win this race.
Monomoy Girl also won her seasonal debut a few weeks ago over this same Oaklawn track, and she has the advantage with the 8.5 furlong distance. However, I was not as impressed with her win as much as others were, and I feel she is ripe to be beaten in this spot by her rival.
Whatever happens, this year’s Apple Blossom surely will have historic implications for both of the champions that are entered.