Remsen has a proud tradition of signaling future stars
by Brian Bohl
The calendar will insist it is indeed fall when a seven-horse field of talented juveniles break from the gate in the 105th running of the Grade 2, $250,000 Remsen on Saturday as part of Cigar Mile Day at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Despite the colder temperatures and early sunsets that serve as hallmarks of racing at the Big A, the Remsen inspires the connections to dream of what could be when the weather warms, the horses mature, and the stakes, both literally and figuratively, are increased.
Since 2013, the Remsen has been part of the "Road to the Kentucky Derby," offering qualifying points to the Run for the Roses to the top-four finishers of the 1 1/8-mile contest at Aqueduct that offers 10 points to the winner, four for the runner up, two for third-place and one point for fourth.
As New York's last Kentucky Derby prep race for juveniles, and one of the last in the country - only the Los Alamitos Futurity on December 8 and the Springboard Mile at Remington Park on December 16 come later in the calendar in North America - the Remsen, which traces its history to 1904 and the defunct Jamaica Racetrack, has helped propel winners to graded stakes success, and in some cases glory in the Classics, in their 3-year-old campaigns.
"The first thing is that it's a graded stakes in New York, which is so important to any trainer and for any horse's resume," said Jonathan Thomas, who saddled last year's Remsen winner Catholic Boy. "Also, it ignites that flame for the Triple Crown and lets you dream a little bit about those races. Last year, we got some notoriety and could be dreaming big about the first Saturday in May, and the Remsen was the reason for it."
Catholic Boy did not end up entering in the "Run for the Roses" at Churchill Downs, but notched three consecutive graded stakes wins in 2018, including a four-length victory in the Grade 1 Runhappy Travers on August 25 at Saratoga Race Course that followed a win by a head in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby in July and a victory by a neck in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge in June that was also on Belmont's Big Sandy.
Last year's Remsen was notable for marking Catholic Boy's main track debut following his impressive start on turf that resulted in a one-length win in the Grade 3 With Anticipation and a close fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar one month before the Remsen.
"We knew he was going to like the distance the Remsen just offered up an opportunity to see if we had a horse we could have confidence in on dirt," Thomas said. "After winning the Travers, its easy to look back on the Remsen and see what a confidence boost it was to keep trying him on the dirt. It was a great platform to set up the tone of his 3-year-old year."
Between 1959-94, seven Remsen winners also earned a trip to the winner's circle in a Triple Crown Classic [Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes], including Hall of Famers Northern Dancer (1963) and Damascus (1966) as well as Carry Back, Go For Gin, Pine Bluff, Pleasant Colony and most recently Thunder Gulch, who won the 1995 Derby.
"The Remsen is also interesting the way it's situated on the calendar because you're getting the tried-and-true 2-year-olds who have good races under their belts and you get some who have just broke their maiden, so there's a mix of 2-year-olds who are experienced and just starting to get on the radar colliding," Thomas said.
Since Thunder Gulch, the closest a Remsen winner has come to a Classic win was Bluegrass Cat, who Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez piloted to a second-place finish behind Barbaro in the 2006 Derby. That marked the second of four Remsen winners for Velazquez, who is tied with fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Maple for the most Remsen wins all-time.
"It sets the tone for them going into the 3-year-old year and you hope they can perform and keep it going," said Velazquez, who also guided Saarland (2001), To Honor and Serve (2010) and Mo Town (2016) to Remsen wins. "You just hope it can lead to something good in the future. They are young horses but you try to get them to do the best they can. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't."
Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey's four Remsen wins is the most by a trainer, with each victory coming in a different decade, starting with Fast Play in 1988 and continuing with Coronado's Quest in 1997, Saarland and Honor Code in 2013.
"I've always liked the Remsen even when I first came to New York," McGaughey said. "It's a two-turn race and a mile and an eighth and this time of year, if you run good, you can get a lot of things behind you: one is the distance and one is the two turns. It gives you [momentum] going into the winter."
From the last 12 Remsen winners, nine went on to win at least one additional graded stakes in their careers, with seven earning a return trip to the winner's circle in a Grade 1. While Catholic Boy went from turf success to dirt, Court Vision, the 2007 Remsen winner, went the other way in his career, becoming a stalwart on the turf after a 13th-place finish in the 2008 Derby. The son of Gulch won that year's Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, the 2009 Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile and the 2010 Woodbine Mile before ending his career on a high note with his victory by a nose in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Mile.
McGaughey will not get a chance for a fifth Remsen win on Saturday, holding Code of Honor out after telling reporters he wasn't satisfied with his energy following a workout Monday at Belmont Park. But speaking generally, McGaughey said it's important to let a horse show if he is ready for racing's biggest spotlight and not get seduced by thinking about crowds in excess of 150,000 under the Twin Spires in May.
"As a trainer, everyone sort of looks towards the one race [Derby], but I've always been the type of guy who has to let the horse take me there," McGaughey said. "You just take it race-by-race, but this race can get you excited about what the future might hold."
Trainer Mark Hennig, looking for his first Remsen win, will enter Bourbon War on Saturday. He said the race's spot on the calendar, along with the distance, can be encouraging for a horse's prospects.
"It's only exciting if they run well," Hennig said with a laugh. "If they don't run well, it puts a damper on things. Any graded stakes for a 2-year-old this time of year, you look forward to a bright future with them. Obviously, the mile and an eighth in the Remsen is more indicative of [what they can do] with the Classic distances. A good effort in this race is always good news moving forward."
As the last graded 2-year-old race on the NYRA circuit calendar this year, the Remsen is also the first of five Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers contested at Aqueduct, which also includes the Jerome on New Year's Day, the Withers on February 2, the Gotham on March 9 [awarding 50 points to the winner] and the Wood Memorial on April 6, where the winner will earn 100 qualifying points.
"The historical significance of it and the horses who have won it really added to the allure of it," said Thomas, who served as an assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher before going out on his own. "Also, being in New York, which has been the most important jurisdiction in my career with the time I spent there with Todd, it means a lot for those reasons, because it's been my second home up there."