Big Race Day Features Five $75,000 Stakes Races
By Gary West, national Turf writer
Houston, Texas --- February 16, 2022 -- It’s easy to forget that many of horse racing’s greatest competitors were from Texas. Too easy, in fact. But some of the horses racing in this Saturday’s Texas Preview Day at Sam Houston, and some of the Thoroughbreds born this year, it’s hoped, could refresh some magical racing memories over the next several years in the Lone Star State. They could reboot the tradition, burnish the legacy. The comeback of the Texas-bred starts here.
The purses that horses race for in Texas have more than doubled since 2019. And they’re still rising, along with handle and attendance. On Jan. 31, the day of the Houston Racing Festival, Sam Houston set a record when $5,977,317 was bet on the 11-race program, an increase of more than 10 percent from the record set a year ago. Yes, over the last two years just about everything associated with horse racing has improved and increased in the state — everything except the breeding of racehorses.
The breeding industry is always a few years behind racing, for obvious reasons.
After two very difficult decades that saw an exodus of horsemen and breeders, the Texas breeding industry was moribund. The number of Thoroughbred mares being bred in the state dropped more than 80 percent. In 2019, only 121 Texas-breds raced, according to The Jockey Club. But that’s the bottom. With the dramatic purse increases in recent years, the comeback of the Texas-bred is now.
And it’s useful to recall that, again, some of the sport’s greatest competitors have come from Texas. We’re not talking here about Steve Asmussen, Bill Shoemaker, Todd Pletcher, and Jerry Bailey, or not just them; no, we’re talking about the horses.
The great Pan Zareta, for example, was bred by James Newman in Sweetwater. She went on to win 76 of 151 races, forcing her way into the sport’s Hall of Fame. Bara Lass was bred by Sam Stevens of Lamesa. Trained by D. Wayne Lukas, she began her career in 1981 at Sunland Park near El Paso and went on to win the Santa Monica and Las Flores Handicaps at Santa Anita, as well as the Rancho Bernardo Stakes at Del Mar. Jim’s Orbit, who was bred by Jim Cottrell of Dallas and trained by another Texan, Clearance Picou, won the 1988 Derby Trial, and after chasing Winning Colors home a week later, he won the Ohio Derby. The great Two Altazano, who was bred by Harold Goodman of Houston, won the inaugural Sam Houston Oaks in 1994, but that was just the beginning. She also won the Monmouth Oaks, the Fair Grounds Oaks, and one of the American classics, the Coaching Club American Oaks.
Two Texas-breds have won the Kentucky Derby, Assault in 1946 and Middleground in 1950. Assault, in fact, swept the Triple Crown. Taking over for jockey Warren Mehrtens in the Pimlico Special, the great Eddie Arcaro proclaimed Assault to be one of the greatest horses he ever rode, second perhaps only to Citation. Assault and Middleground were both bred by the famed King Ranch.
One of the fastest horses of the 1980s was Groovy, who was bred and raised by Mickey and Marshall Robinson on their farm outside Fort Worth. Racing for the Preston brothers of Houston — Jack, Art and J.R. — Groovy won the Vosburgh, the Tom Fool, and the True North Stakes with dominating speed on his way to being named the champion sprinter of 1987. Yes, some outstanding and great horses have come from Texas, and some will again.
Sunlit Song, the champion older Texas-bred of 2021 and a winner of $443,114 in his career, is one of the headliners for Saturday’s Texas Preview Day, which presents five stakes, each offering a purse of $75,000. Sunlit Song is the horse to beat in The Houston Turf Stakes. He finished second in this race last year to Moojab Jr., who returns for a rematch. But Sunlit Song defeated his rival in the $100,000 Richard King Stakes at Sam Houston and in the Texas Hall of Fame Stakes at Lone Star. Also among those entered is Singapore Flash, who ran second in last year’s Richard King but recently beat Sunlit Song in his seasonal debut by a half-length.
Sunlit Song winning the Richard King Turf Stakes at Sam Houston last year.
Texas-bred champions are determined by an objective system that awards points to horses for achievements in stakes races. Second to Sunlit Song last year by only two points was Mr. Money Bags, a former Texas champion who has won eight stakes in his career, half of them in open company, and earned $588,576. As a 3-year-old, he won the Jim’s Orbit Stakes at Sam Houston by more than 11 lengths and the Groovy Stakes by seven lengths. Mr. Money Bags has lost only once at Sam Houston, but that was in his most recent outing, when he was the runner-up to Greeley And Ben in the $75,000 Stonerside Sprint. Mr. Money Bags is clearly the one to beat in the H-Town Stakes, where Direct Dial, who was third in points last year with 17.5, will try to upset. Also a former Texas champion, Direct Dial has earned $543,771 in his career.
Mr. Money Bags
She’s Our Fastest, the champion Texas-bred mare of 2021, will try to return to the Sam Houston winner’s circle in the Miss Bluebonnet Turf Stakes. Although she’s a seven-time stakes winner of more than $482,000, She’s Our Fastest never has won on the grass, and Saturday she’ll be chasing the speedy and talented Boerne, at least during the early running. A winner of the Azalea Stakes in the mud at Gulfstream Park in 2020, Boerne last year won the Lane’s End Danny Shifflett Scholarship Stakes on the turf at Lone Star Park.
And in the Two Altazano Stakes, Eagle Express, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2021, will attempt to rebound from a loss last month. A daughter of Eagle who’s trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, Eagle Express won the Pan Zareta Stakes last year at Lone Star. But in her most recent outing, in the Texas Stallion Stakes at Sam Houston, she finished five lengths behind Texas Thunder, who returns for the rematch.
These races are billed as a preview, specifically for the Texas Champions Day on March 26, when seven stakes will offer $700,000 in purses. But in a larger sense, Saturday’s races are a preview for what’s coming next year and the years beyond. The comeback of the Texas-bred starts here.
First race post time for Saturday’s Texas Preview Day is 6:55 pm. For ticket information and reservations visit www.SHRP.com
Texan Gary West is a nationally-acclaimed turf writer, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures. He is a regular contributor to TVG’s Horse Racing Insider News.