August 12, 2022

Midnight Storm aims to defend Del Mar Mile crown from Bal a Bali

Bal a Bali and jockey Mike Smith win the Shoemaker Mile (G1) at Santa Anita Park on Saturday, June 3, 2017 (c) Benoit Photos

Sunday’s $200,000 Del Mar Mile H. (G2) isn’t part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge series, but the course-and-distance affair will help to sift the local players in the build-up to the November 4 Mile (G1).

Will Bal a Bali, the only older turf male with two Grade 1 victories in 2017, continue his resurgence? Or will Midnight Storm, back from a dirt campaign in the first half of the season, regain his winning form on the lawn? Can his stablemate Vyjack, Tepin’s half-brother, move forward enough second off the layoff? Or will Blackjackcat, who just upset Vyjack’s comeback, raise his profile to a higher level? When will Om snap his string of minor awards with an overdue win? Or might the wild card, Argentine champion Le Ken, be ready to topple this field in his U.S. debut?

As that summary reveals, the Del Mar Mile has no shortage of story lines despite a short six-horse field.

Bal a Bali’s biography begins with “Brazilian Horse of the Year and Triple Crown winner,” and for a while it appeared that “laminitis survivor” would be its most notable conclusion. But after plateauing in his 2015-2016 campaigns for Richard Mandella, he’s somehow hit the heights at the age of seven this season. It’s almost as if he knew that new owner Calumet Farm persevered with him on the racetrack instead of retiring him to stud. Bal a Bali notched his first U.S. Grade 1 in the March 11 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1), ran evenly in fifth in the 1 1/8-mile Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (G1) on Kentucky Derby Day, and bounced back to annex the June 3 Shoemaker Mile (G1), a “Win & You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Although those efforts earned him 125-pound highweight status here, he and Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith will be buoyed to see a genuine pace on tap.

Midnight Storm, always dangerous on the front end, has not raced on turf since his heroic third to Tourist and Tepin in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Mile. Trainer Phil D’Amato then switched him to the main track, and the son of Pioneerof the Nile wired the Native Diver (G3) and San Pasqual (G2), and nearly pulled off the same feat in the Santa Anita H. (G1). Midnight Storm wasn’t the same when tiring to third in a speed duel in the Oaklawn H. (G2), a similar scenario unfolded in his Gold Cup (G1) fourth at Santa Anita, and he took time to freshen up. Shortening up to a flat mile and returning to the grass, Midnight Storm will likely be master of his own destiny. Rafael Bejarano, who rations out his speed effectively, regains the mount for the first time since the Big ‘Cap.

Blackjackcat has the raw speed to vie with Midnight Storm if he insisted on it, but stalking tactics have worked better in his last pair, as evidenced by his new career high in the restricted Wickerr at this course and distance July 23. The Mark Glatt pupil had enough energy to hold off 6-5 favorite Vyjack, both clear of Calculator in third. The pace figures to be considerably faster with the presence of the high-class Midnight Storm, though, and Vyjack is eligible to be sharper for that tightener. Blackjackcat also loses Hall of Famer Gary Stevens to Om, but gains another in Kent Desormeaux.

Vyjack’s late-running style complements stablemate Midnight Storm, giving D’Amato a one-two punch. The Santa Anita course record-setter in the City of Hope Mile (G2) last October, he flopped in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), but missed by only a head back on turf here in the Seabiscuit (G2). His two losses over the Jimmy Durante turf have come by about three-quarters of a length combined, so he’s been knocking on the door. Jockey Flavien Prat has been his regular pilot ever since Vyjack came to this circuit last summer.

Om, a game second to Midnight Storm in the 2016 Del Mar Mile, hasn’t visited the winner’s circle since the Mathis Brothers Mile (G2) in late 2015. But he came agonizingly close when cutting back in trip for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1), his flying finish from last nearly getting to Obviously. That’s just the most compelling of Om’s placings over the past year, a list that includes the aforementioned City of Hope Mile and Seabiscuit as well as the July 4 American (G3) in his comeback. The Dan Hendricks trainee has found himself in a tactical no-man’s-land, needing to relax and not be headstrong early, but then unable to kick on enough as a stalker to gain the top spot. Another year older and wiser, Om may still perfect his optimal running style. Might connections opt to make more use of his early speed again, as in his early days, and see how far the five-year-old Om can take them? After all, he is drawn to the inside (post 2) of Midnight Storm (post 4).

Le Ken is a fascinating alternative to the usual crowd, especially since trainer Ignacio Correas IV has done well (18 percent strike rate) in the “first start with trainer” category (e.g. Dona Bruja). A dual Argentine champion, Le Ken reigned as the nation’s top two-year-old, and later added the miler’s crown when defeating older horses in the Gran Premio Joaquin de Anchorena (G1). In that turf debut, and swan song in his homeland, he was reserved a few lengths behind a torrid pace and delivered a powerful late kick. His final time of 1:33.73 for the metric mile implies he can mix it up in good company on this side of the equator. Le Ken has been training forwardly at Keeneland, firing a bullet :47 half from the gate August 12. Unlike Bal a Bali, Le Ken is not currently eligible for the Breeders’ Cup. Connections have time to make that decision, however, and he can put in a good word for himself Sunday. Drayden Van Dyke will guide Le Ken, tactically drawn in post 6.