When handicapping, it can become too easy to dismiss runners who show one or two bad races off a layoff. In some cases, there is a physical problem with the horse, or perhaps old age caught up. But in most situations, horses need a start or two to get back into the flow of racing.
For example, Gerrymander came into the Grade 2 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont after a disappointing run off a 182-day layoff in the Eight Belles Stakes (G2) on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. After making a rail move on the turn, she ended up sixth and lost by 9 3/4 lengths to Matareya.
Because of that race, Gerrymander started in the Mother Goose at 6-1.
But in Gerrymander’s campaign as a 2-year-old filly, she had some credible efforts that seemed to be forgotten by the wagering public.
For example, last August at Saratoga, Gerrymander beat Distinctlypossible by half a length in a six-furlong maiden sprint. One start later, Distinctlypossible went on to finish second in the Alcibiades Stakes (G1).
About a month later, Gerrymander ran second in the Frizette Stakes (G1) at Belmont, although she lost to the hot Echo Zulu by 7 1/4 lengths after chasing her.
To end the season, Gerrymander led from gate to wire in the Tempted Stakes at Aqueduct to win by half a length over Magic Circle, with Nest coming in third.
Nest went on to a smashing 8 1/4-length victory off a layoff in the Ashland Stakes (G1) at Keeneland before finishing second to Secret Oath in the Kentucky Oaks and to Mo Donegal in the Belmont Stakes.
Gerrymander beat Nest, albeit at one mile. In retrospect, she probably deserved a little more respect than starting at 6-1 in the Mother Goose.
Now to discuss the trip. Gerrymander’s jockey Joel Rosario played an interesting chess game with the other three riders in the small field.
Out of the gate, Gerrymander secured the early lead. An eager Juju’s Map followed along in second, with Shahama and Venti Valentine nearby as well. But unexpectedly, Rosario tugged Gerrymander back and let Juju’s Map go. Shahama also passed Gerrymander for second as they rounded the turn.
Surprisingly, Juju’s Map started to struggle and Shahama slowly passed her. Shahama did not enjoy the lead, though, because Rosario tipped outside with Gerrymander and took the lead.
Under mild encouragement from Rosario, Gerrymander drew clear in mid-stretch. Shahama was in no danger of losing second at this point, as Juju’s Map continued to fade in third. Venti Valentine ran a clunker in fourth.
Gerrymander crossed the wire first by three lengths and covered the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:43.74. Daily Racing Form awarded Gerrymander a 95 Beyer Speed Figure. For what it's worth, there were no other dirt routes on the card, although a 1 1/16-mile race at Belmont is still one turn just like the Belmont dirt sprint races.
Given that Gerrymander beat three good fillies in Shahama, Juju’s Map and Venti Valentine, it is not an exaggeration to say she belongs in the top mix. Gerrymander beat Nest once before. If a hypothetical rematch came along with Secret Oath included, that would make for a great race.
Note that Gerrymander is an Into Mischief half-sister to Lone Rock. Lone Rock is an active horse and one of the best dirt marathon runners in training. With Lone Rock in mind, Gerrymander is supposed to stretch out.
Shahama gave a better performance here than in the Kentucky Oaks to earn the runner-up spot. Sometimes when horses get away from the chaos of the crowded Kentucky Derby or Oaks, they show their true form.
Although Shahama is not special, she certainly can contend in the big Saratoga races for 3-year-old fillies, such as the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) and Alabama Stakes (G1). Trainer Todd Pletcher has a nice filly on his hands.
What happened to Juju’s Map? After she took control of the lead from Gerrymander, she ran a half-mile in a fast 46.90 after the opening 24.09. Juju’s Map likely belongs in top races still, although it is not clear how far she can carry her speed. Her pedigree is not easy to analyze.
Venti Valentine finished last by 11 1/2 lengths and probably needs a break.
When trainer Chad Brown starts horses off the layoff, most of them are ready to fire big races. But maybe Gerrymander needed one race to dust off the cobwebs before she could show this kind of performance.
Secret Oath and Nest will have interesting company at Saratoga soon.