Author: Michele MacDonald

Thunder Snow scratched due to fever, could return for Breeders’ Cup

In less than two minutes on a sultry Saratoga afternoon, American racing took a decided swing, albeit one cast from a familiar direction. With forecasts having shifted away from the popular Thunder Snow, who in a most unlucky twist was scratched from the prestigious $1 million Grade 1 Whitney Stakes due to a slight fever, Bob Baffert stepped into the spotlight yet again. After pulling the girth around McKinzie, Baffert sent the 4yo son of Street Sense out to an artistic Whitney victory that propelled him to the top of the continent’s older runners. The win marked McKinzie’s fourth in a Grade One race, yet it was perhaps his first in an event of such merit, a type of race Baffert referred to as ‘sexy’, meaning that it was significant enough to elevate him in the public’s view. For Baffert, however, McKinzie needed no boost in status.

The bay colt has long been rated highly by his trainer and indeed was his top prospect for the 2018 Kentucky Derby, at least until he incurred an injury and a red rocket of a stablemate named Justify launched his Triple Crown bid for immortality. But that was last year and Justify was whisked off to stud, retiring undefeated in six starts. Now is McKinzie’s time to rise, an opportunity that was temporarily stifled by his troubled second place finish in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap won by Mitole at Belmont Park in June while Thunder Snow, also hampered in the stretch run, finished third. “I’ve always thought he’s the best horse in the country,” Baffert declared of McKinzie in the Whitney winner’s circle. “That’s why I was a little frustrated with the Met Mile. I think he’s getting better and better, and as long as he’s getting better, that’s the main thing.”

Baffert had toyed with the idea of sending McKinzie for this year’s Dubai World Cup, but scrapped the notion, leaving Thunder Snow to record his second victory at Meydan and collect another gold trophy for Godolphin. Perhaps McKinzie’s main weakness is that at times the lanky colt has not been able to perform at his best after enduring challenging races and long distance shipping. The only poor effort of McKinzie’s career transpired last November when he finished far back in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, as Thunder Snow was third, after he had lost weight following his previous effort, a win in the Pennsylvania Derby. Now, however, McKinzie has proven in two cross country trips from his base in California to New York that he is more than up to the task. He was steadied twice in the Metropolitan and still finished only threequarters of a length behind Mitole, who burned though a mile in a blistering 1:32.75.

In the 1 1/8 mile Whitney, jockey Mike Smith urged McKinzie out of the starting gate to gain a favourable position early, stayed toward the middle of the track, and then charged home with a hand ride when others in the seven horse field looked like they might have a chance to catch him. McKinzie crossed the finish line 1 ¾ lengths in front of Yoshida, with Vino Rosso third. A sparkling time of 1:47.10 on the Saratoga dirt track rated fast earned McKinzie a career high winning Equibase speed figure of 118. “I’m glad that he had the right trip and Mike Smith said he has him figured out now. He rode him with a lot of confidence,” Baffert said. “McKinzie can be on or off the lead. When they came to him, I was a little bit nervous. I started thinking maybe he doesn’t want two go that far, but he’s always shown us in his works that he has more gears.”

Smith was full of praise: “That was incredible. He ran big. There were some good horses in there so he had to run, but he ran. “That’s the important thing. He had to work at it, but he was away from them and the best part of it was at the end of the race. That gives me confidence going a mile and a quarter down the road. Today, he felt better than he ever had.” The ‘mile and a quarter down the road’ that Smith referred to is the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which Baffert affirmed is the colt’s main goal. One prep for that target would be ideal, Baffert said, but he would not reveal if he has a possible race in mind as a launching pad, although he did indicate he would prefer to stay in California since Santa Anita Park is the site for this year’s Breeders’ Cup.

While McKinzie was an undeniably bright star of Whitney day, there were some poignant undertones. The colt is named for the late Los Alamitos Race Course executive Brad McKinzie, and both he and the recently deceased Marylou Whitney, who had long presented the trophy for the race, were fondly recalled. Baffert, his voice choking with emotion, noted that McKinzie the colt was named while Baffert and owners Karl Watson and Paul Weitman were attending Brad McKinzie’s funeral services. Baffert met Brad McKinzie while both were enrolled in the Racetrack Industry Program at the University of Arizona and he became like a member of Baffert’s family. “My mother thought of him as a son, and he was her favourite,” Baffert reflected when McKinzie the colt began to emerge as a top racehorse. Mike Pegram, who raced 2001 Dubai World Cup winner Captain Steve, also is a co-owner of McKinzie. Looking ahead, McKinzie and Thunder Snow may yet meet again, as trainer Saeed bin Suroor has wanted to try Godolphin’s star, the current earnings leader among active horses worldwide with $16,511,476, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic for a second time.

Bin Suroor said when Thunder Snow returned to the barn coughing after galloping on the morning of the Whitney and then was found to a have a slight temperature, it was ‘in the best interest of the horse’ not to compete. Jimmy Bell, who oversees Godolphin’s American racing and breeding interests, later indicated that Thunder Snow may return to New York for a Breeders’ Cup prep race prior to going to California. In Thunder Snow’s absence from the Whitney, McKinzie took full advantage to establish himself as the current pacesetter among older males on dirt. But the year is far from over, and the weather forecast may yet change again. Cooler weather is approaching and it’s not too late for a little more Thunder Snow.

Michele MacDonald
Award Winning International Journalist

Whitney Win Lifts McKinzie Ahead of Older Rivals on Dirt