Monday, April 11, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Say It Ain't So, Mo!

--Brian DiDonato

   It's amazing--as soon as I hop back on the bandwagon, the wheels fall off. I spent all winter expecting Uncle Mo to fail to live up to his brilliance as a juvenile at three, but saw so many horses disappoint or fall victim to injury this season before him that I decided to reevaluate. He, like what seems like every other Derby prospect this year, however, has come up short. There's no realistic way to put a positive spin on Mo's performance Saturday. The 2-year-old version of him--with the grabbed quarter, lack of fitness, tiring surface and all--still would have crushed those horses. He had a loose lead through average splits and just came up empty when the real running started. Uncle Mo is beginning to look more and more like War Pass. Both were truly exceptional at two, but just weren't the same at three. War Pass, like Mo, came back in an easy race at a mile at Gulfstream, cruised, and gave the impression that he was back to his old ways. After a non-effort in the Tampa Bay Derby that can probably be attributed to not liking the quirky surface, War Pass was second in the Wood, but ran the same sort of dull racee that Mo did and earned a Beyer Speed Figure that didn't compare favorably to what he received at two. War Pass never raced again after the Wood due to a fracture, so here's to hoping that we see Uncle Mo again. There's certainly no reason not to go on to the Derby considering what's out there to contend with at this point, but it would be very surprising to see Uncle Mo return with a Derby-winning type effort over an added furlong in a month after what he showed Saturday.

Toby's Corner Gets Up                                    (c) Horsephotos
   Toby's Corner ran a good race and overcame significant traffic trouble. While in almost any other year he would not be considered a top Derby prospect, he obviously has to be in the discussion this year. He figures to run all day and seemed to appreciate the addition of blinkers, and fits the profile of a Derby winner. Arthur's Tale should also like 1 1/4 miles. His dam, Owsley (Harlan), was a graded winner at the distance over turf, and his sire (Bernardini) clearly had no trouble going long. Arthur's Tale gives the impression of a horse who will always run into somebody a little bit better than him, however, and might top out at a placing in the Derby.

Midnight Interlude (outside) Edges Comma to the Top
(c) Benoit Photography 
   Despite the unfortunate defections of Premier Pegasus and Jaycito, we were treated to a pleasant surprise in the Santa Anita Derby. Midnight Interlude was pretty impressive. Three-wide throughout, he showed good acceleration while displaying some greenness in the stretch. He covered much more ground than Comma to the Top, who set a more sensible pace this time than in the San Felipe, and was much the best. The 95 Beyer Midnight Interlude earned is slightly higher than what Dialed In ran in Florida and what Toby's Corner earned in New York, and he figures to have the most room for progression of that trio in what will only be his fifth start in the Derby. His lack of seasoning, however, is the Santa Anita Derby winner's biggest weakness. A racing foundation that began on January 29 may not be enough to secure the roses. Of Baffert's three previous Derby winners, Silver Charm won the Derby in start number seven in a career that began the previous August; Real Quiet was making his 13th start on the first Saturday in May and had first appeared in June of his two-year-old year; and War Emblem, who joined Baffert's barn right before the Derby, was making his eighth start after debuting in October. Distance probably shouldn't be an issue, however. Midnight Interlude is by Santa Anita Derby runner-up War Chant, who was best at a mile on the turf and tends to sire runners with similar preferences, but has plenty of stamina in his pedigree as a son of Danzig out of champion three-year-old filly Hollywood Wildcat (Kris S.) from the stout Roberto line. War Chant's 3/4-brother Ivan Denisovich (Ire) was MGISP over ten furlongs on grass. Midnight Interlude's dam, Midnight Kiss (NZ) (Groom Dancer), was a winner in her native land at 11 furlongs and finished third in the 1 1/2-mile G1 New Zealand Oaks. While Midnight Interlude's pedigree clearly favors grass, the fact that he has already been successful on dirt renders that concern irrelevant.

   Hard-knocking Comma to the Top ran well, but doesn't seem cut out for the Derby. His connections have, understandably, reconsidered their plans to bypass the event, but their runner should struggle with an added furlong up on what figures to be a hot pace. Mr. Commons had every chance to win, but did not display the turn of foot he did when breaking his maiden so impressively on the turf. He didn't secure the graded earnings necessary to get into the Derby either, and should return to the sod, where he has a bright future.

   Joe Vann won't go to the Derby, but his performance was much better than what anyone figured to run in the Illinois Derby. He could probably build a nice bankroll in some of the regional derbies.

Lilacs and Lace Kicks Clear                                        (c) Coady
   The rail at Keeneland was the place to be this past weekend--especially when on the lead--and Lilacs and Lace took advantage of the very strong bias in the Ashland. She finished up well, but essentially had a head start on her rivals. It's unclear whether or not she will like/prefer dirt, but she will have to in order to seriously contend with the likes of R Heat Lightning. According to DRF Formulator, trainer John Terranova has won with 31% of his runners going synthetic to dirt (5/16) over the past five years. That stat might be misleading, however, as two of those wins were tallied by the versatile Franny Freud and the only route success came in a maiden race. Terranova is close to a 40% synthetic trainer.

   Wyomia finished up well while running against the grain and already has a win over conventional dirt, so she may be one to watch out for in the Oaks. Kathmanblu was hung wide in the Ashland, and probably would have proven best in a more fairly run race. She still has the look of a better turf horse, however. My choice, Bouquet Booth, was not really hustled as much as she could have been coming out of the gate and then stumbled when vying for the early advantage, forcing her to concede early. She appeared to be out of gas in the lane, but hung on for fourth along the inside, probably further supporting the bias theory. Either way, it wasn't an encouraging effort.

Joyful Victory (outside) Blows by Arienza               (c) Coady
   Much will be made of Joyful Victory's seven-length romp in Sunday's Fantasy, but her margin of victory is of little importance considering the circumstances. Arienza, who was rushed coming into this race with only a two-week gap back to her last start, chased an overmatched pacesetter (who was beaten 28 1/2 lengths) through above-average splits while the eventual winner watched it all unfold from the perfect position. As the leader dropped out of it, Arienza was forced to move early, as was Joyful Victory. The fresher and (relatively) more seasoned Joyful Victory simply had more left in the tank, while blue-blooded Arienza understandably came up short considering her early exertions and limited prior experience. Joyful Victory only earned an 83 Beyer Speed Figure for her visually misleading win--about 10 lengths off of R Heat Lightning's best--and shouldn't be judged solely on the visually impressive nature of her two wins at Oaklawn. Arienza still has serious potential, but should probably be handled with a bit more patience going forward. 

Check back later this week for coverage of the Arkansas Derby and Bluegrass.


Smash said...

Well said, Brian...what sort of Beyer did the Wood get? My sense is, pretty low.

I do hope the Comma to the Top people stick to the original plan and forget the Derby. He was all class to hang on going 9f, and I don't see additional distance the answer here. There is a lot of money for all of the other 3yo races out there.

Brian said...

Thanks for the comment, Smash. Uncle Mo earned a 92 Beyer. It's an improvement on his first fig of the year, but doesn't compare well at all with his figs as a 2-year-old (102, 94, 108). I believe the general rule of thumb is that a horse should improve about 1-2 points per month between his 2-year-old figs and his 3-year-old ones. Mo was already running pretty fast, so it would be impossible to expect that level of improvement, but a regression is not a good sign. It's not like he was dressed up last year -he ran real races with legitimate (not tough, not easy) trips.