Early hype for the 3-year-old Zandon began to fade after he kept finishing second or third in the races after his Blue Grass Stakes (G1) win at Keeneland in April.
But with the new season coming near, Zandon has a chance to re-establish himself as a major force in the dirt route division, starting with the Grade 1, $750,000 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Dec. 3. If Zandon could win the Cigar Mile, the idea of him as a closing horse who picks up only minor checks can go out the window, at least for now.
If Zandon loses, he could step closer to becoming a teaser. What does that mean in betting? Some horses bait bettors throughout their careers with good efforts without actually winning, and one must wonder whether Zandon is headed in that direction if he loses once again.
Who are teaser horses at the Grade 1 level?
One recent example is Midnight Bourbon, who constantly put up good efforts last year against top competition without winning. His only 2021 win came in January when he took the Lecomte Stakes (G3) at Fair Grounds. In six Grade 1 attempts later in the season, Midnight Bourbon ended up with three runner-up finishes and one third.
The only times Midnight Bourbon failed to make the top 3 in a Grade 1 last year came in the Kentucky Derby, when he closed for sixth after a bad trip, and the Haskell Stakes (G1) after unseating jockey Paco Lopez in the stretch run. Otherwise, he always fired a good race.
In 2004 and 2005, Perfect Drift became the ultimate underneath horse when he ran in the superfecta seven times in Grade 1s without ever winning one in that two-year time period. When discussing 2004 specifically, Perfect Drift could not win any race at all in nine starts.
To his credit, Perfect Drift did capture the 2003 Stephen Foster Handicap (G1). That same year, Perfect Drift also won the Washington Park Handicap (G2), Kentucky Classic Cup Handicap (G2) and Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap (G2) for three Grade 2 wins and one Grade 1.
Perfect Drift felt like a win threat in any race in 2003, but he suddenly became unreliable on top in 2004 and 2005.
When Zandon began his campaign this year, he closed for third in the Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds after hopping at the start and lagging in 10th through the opening quarter. Nevertheless, Zandon recovered from the start and missed second to Smile Happy by only half a length as Epicenter won by 2 3/4 lengths in a big effort.
Zandon then switched to Keeneland for his final Kentucky Derby prep in the Blue Grass Stakes (G1). After lagging in ninth in the opening quarter, 10th at the half-mile point and last through six furlongs, Zandon made a big inside move on the far turn.
With urging from jockey Flavien Prat, Zandon sustained the rally past Smile Happy in the stretch run to win by 2 1/2 lengths.
For the Blue Grass win, Zandon earned a 98 Beyer Speed Figure and 119 TimeformUS Speed Figure. His immediate future seemed bright.
In retrospect, when reviewing the Blue Grass results, Zandon beat a distance-challenged colt in Smile Happy, who offered no response to Zandon's outside rally. Also, Emmanuel faded to third after leading the field uncontested through moderate opening fractions of 24.04, 48.39 and 1:12.72. Emmanuel won a turf stakes in his next start.
Despite its Grade 1 status, the Blue Grass field seemed average beyond Zandon and Smile Happy.
At least Zandon entered the Kentucky Derby with momentum on his side after his lone prep win. His closing style would help him.
Zandon traveled in 11th and ninth through the opening Derby fractions, which ended up as a blessing because of the suicidal pace up front.
As the pace horses folded, Zandon worked his way to the front to join the leaders. On the far turn, Zandon switched out to go after the new leader Epicenter, who had only begun to take over the lead. Zandon could not get by Epicenter though, and Rich Strike passed them both.
Trainer Chad Brown gave Zandon a break after the third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. He came back in the Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) at Saratoga.
This time, Zandon tracked the pacesetter Early Voting in second through slow fractions of 24.22, 48.28 and 1:12.26. As Epicenter swept by his three opponents with complete ease on the outside, Zandon struggled to pick up second. Zandon had better position, but Epicenter dominated.
Zandon took a shot at the Travers Stakes (G1). He went back to his closing style and came with a move on the far turn along with Rich Strike. Unfortunately, Epicenter already began to open up on the field by the stretch run in an impressive performance. Cyberknife started to fade in mid-stretch, but somehow Zandon missed getting second by a nose.
Then in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) at Parx Racing, Zandon ran as a mid-pack closer and saved all the ground on the inside as the favorite Taiba went wide on the far turn. Zandon gave his best shot, but Taiba completely overpowered him in the stretch run even though Zandon had the advantage of saving ground on the turn with plenty of room.
At this point, Zandon feels like an unreliable betting option. Not only does he keep losing, he sometimes misses out on second with no excuse either, such as in the Kentucky Derby and Travers when Zandon had every chance to get second. Yet Zandon keeps running well enough to hit the board, which gives his supporters reason to keep playing him.
But again, the Cigar Mile next month could give Zandon a new start. He does not face Epicenter or Taiba in the race. Perhaps he can take a step forward as an almost 4-year-old colt, as most horses peak at 4 if they stay in training.
From a betting standpoint, the race needs to come up weak enough to trust him alone on top, as his losing streak and probable low odds make him a harder sell for value-oriented players. His name is too familiar to bettors who like Derby horses.
Plus, there is a chance he goes down the road of Midnight Bourbon or Perfect Drift and simply teases bettors with good efforts at the top level without winning.
In other words, Zandon has arrived a crossroads. He must prove to bettors he can win again and not just complete the exacta or trifecta in big races. Therefore, if Zandon can win the Cigar Mile, maybe he can feel more trustworthy on top and taking low odds on him to win in future races will feel more acceptable with that Grade 1 in tow.
If not, then it feels reasonable to doubt Zandon in future big races.