The $350,000 Del Mar Futurity (G1) at Del Mar has been among the most productive early steppingstones toward the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and Kentucky Derby (G1).
Over the last ten years, American Pharoah, Nyquist, Lookin at Lucky and Game Winner have all used the Futurity as a springboard to major victories and championship titles.
Whether the 2019 Futurity produces a runner of similar caliber is open to debate. Anyone who watched the summer feature for 2-year-olds on Labor Day had to come away befuddled by its unusual result.
The race took a wild turn shortly after the gates opened, when overwhelming 1-2 favorite Eight Rings ducked in sharply and collided with Storm the Court. Both colts unseated their riders and proceeded to run unguided around the track (more on that in a moment), which left just six horses to compete in the seven-furlong sprint.
Compounding the issue was the way the race unfolded. After Garth, Fore Left and Nucky dueled hard for the lead through fast fractions of :21.89 and :44.90, the race fell apart around the turn and down the homestretch. The third quarter-mile elapsed in :26.19 and the final furlong in just :14.43, agonizingly slow fractions that can only partially be blamed on the tiring nature of the Del Mar main track.
Despite this staggering finish, none of the late runners were able to gain much ground. After he put away Garth and Fore Left, Nucky resiliently kicked on in the homestretch and widened his advantage from the eighth pole home to prevail by 2 3/4 lengths at odds of 35-1. Wrecking Crew and Defense Wins rallied from a few lengths back to finish second and third, though the more impressive deep closer was the riderless Eight Rings, who stayed focused on his task like a professional racehorse and overcame a deficit of 15 or 20 lengths to cross the wire third.
Nucky deserves credit for surviving the pace duel, but he was 35-1 for a reason. The Peter Miller-trained colt entered the Futurity with only a maiden claiming victory to his credit from four starts, and his slow finish produced an uninspiring 68 Beyer speed figure.
On the bright side Nucky has now won two races in a row, and as a son of Ghostzapper out of a Rock Hard Ten mare, he’s bred to improve with maturity. It’s possible Nucky has turned a corner, and although his task was made easier by the absence of Eight Rings, it’s not like Nucky defeated a poor field. Runner-up Wrecking Crew had previously finished second in the Best Pal Stakes (G2) with an 80 Beyer, while Fore Left—who faded to fifth after the duel with Nucky—had previously finished third in the Best Pal one start after he won Belmont Park’s Tremont Stakes.
One is left to wonder how the Futurity might have unfolded if not for the incident after the start. Would Eight Rings have lived up to expectations with another resounding victory? Would Storm the Court have produced a late rally? Would Nucky have battled on to win regardless?
The results of the Futurity were more inconclusive than anything else. We’ll have to wait for the September 27 American Pharoah Stakes (G1) and the November 2 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) to get a clearer picture of how California’s top 2-year-olds truly stack up against each other.