Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Oaks/Derby Fallout

--Brian DiDonato

Even though the favorites in both the Oaks and Derby finished off the board, both events were pretty formful and there were no real surprises.

The speed figures held up in the Oaks as Plum Pretty, whose admittedly shaky 99 Beyer earned at Sunland Park towered over the field, scored at a fairly generous 6-1 (with a 95 this time). Overhyped Joyful Victory actually ran a new Beyer top (90) while finishing fourth, but she was exposed and had no trip excuses for her defeat. Longshot runner-up St. John's River had a very awkward beginning, but rider Rosie Napravnik did what appears on the surface to be an excellent job of damage control. In very Borel-esque fashion, she remained glued to the rail and only left it to go around a slower rival around the far turn and while making a final push late. The rail was clearly dead all weekend, however, and while it was a heady ride by Napravnik assuming a neutral track, the fact that her mount travelled on the worst part of the surface for much of the race may have been the difference. The top two finishers ran about equally well considering all the trip and pace dynamics, and asserted their superiority over the rest of the field. Future plans for both are up in the air at this point, as there is no automatic next spot for the fillies like there is for the colts. Plum Pretty would probably be well-suited to the one-turn mile of the Acorn on the Belmont undercard. St. John’s River should continue to improve, and I expect her to be a tough customer in the Alabama this summer if she’s pointed to it. Earlier on the Oaks card, Blame’s full-sister Might romped in a seven-furlong allowance by 4 3/4 lengths with a 90 Beyer. It was surprising to see her cut back to a sprint off a 1m70yd maiden race, but maybe her connections are thinking Acorn with her as well. She has a very bright future.

Plum Pretty (purple silks) holds off St. John's River
(c) EquiSport

The Derby was run very fairly and the best horse--at least on Saturday--won. While the general consensus is that the pace was glacial, it was probably more neutral--it just wasn’t as fast as most Derbies. The Moss Pace Figures rated it below par, but the fractions in route races throughout the weekend seemed a bit quirky and probably should not be taken at face value. Animal Kingdom was a deserving victor, but he did not turn in an overwhelmingly excellent performance. He took to the dirt--which was the big question for him--and got the distance better than anyone else. The 103 Beyer he received is the second-slowest behind Giacomo’s 100 since the figures have been published in the DRF. It was a solid, workman-like effort against a group that hasn’t been able to muster anything of that caliber so far over a route of ground. There's no reason he can't improve more next time, so maybe we haven't seen the best from him yet. As far as the Triple Crown goes, however, I'm dubious. While Animal Kingdom was best on Saturday, he was not so much the best that one would be surprised to see one of his Derby foes or a new shooter turn the tables in the Preakness or Belmont. He's also very lightly raced, which means he's fresh, but also might mean that he won't be capable of stringing together three winning races in such a short time span. I'd put Animal Kingdom's odds of winning both the Preakness and Belmont at somewhere around 8-1.

Animal Kingdom pulls clear late (c) EquiSport

Runner-up Nehro received a somewhat questionable ride. He was kept wide and without cover throughout while closer to the pace than expected, and was moved a bit prematurely turning for home. He didn't have the late burst he showed in the Arkansas Derby when attempting to put away Shackleford, but it may have been due to more than his trip. Three races in a short time period probably caught up with him, and he seemed to tire more than he should have despite hanging on for second. His connections will most likely regroup and wait for the Belmont, which is the correct course of action. I expect a fresh Nehro to deny Animal Kingdom's Triple Crown bid in New York if it gets that far. Mucho Macho Man ran his usual, solid race. He's a young, developing horse who is still growing into his oversized frame, but he gives the impression of a runner who will always find one or two better. It sounds as if he'll wait for the Belmont as well, which might make him another formidable obstacle for Animal Kingdom to overcome in June.

Shackleford ran a nice race as well--while the pace may have been slower than in previous years, he did all his running on the dead rail and dug in gamely in the lane. Classic distances are probably a bit beyond his best pedigree-wise, but he's obviously talented and could win at up to 10 furlongs under the right circumstances. Master of Hounds' late run was surprising considering the path he took into the Derby, but it will probably be a bit overrated going forward--he's the type who should have liked going that long, and may have simply outstayed some others. That's not to say he can't move forward, however, if he's given the proper preparation for a run in the Belmont. Favorite Dialed In is another whose Derby performance might be overrated by some. Yes, he began from hopelessly far back and covered his last quarter in a very speedy :23.79, but his run did not dispel the notion that he might be a closing miler--he didn't do enough early to offer up more clues. Dialed In ran a very similar race to his prior nine-furlong races from a speed and pace figure standpoint, and is yet to reproduce his exceptional Holy Bull performance. He'll be running for almost 10 times as much money as Animal Kingdom in the Preakness thanks to Magna's 5.5 Bonus, and he might get more pace in that affair, but I'm expecting another too little, too late-type run.

On a more general note, an interesting trend seems to be developing in Kentucky Derby betting. There has been a compression in odds of the highest priced runners in the past two years--I call it the "Mine That Bird Effect." Not a single runner in 2010 or 2011 went off at odds of 40-1 or higher, but there was an average of 5.6 runners at 40-1+ in Mine That Bird's Derby and the eight before it. This can probably be attributed to several factors. For one, Mine That Bird's Derby performance seemed to come so much from out of the blue (more than Giacomo's, which can be chalked up to a blistering pace) that bettors may be more hesitant to toss even the most outmatched-on-paper runners now. And, probably more so, the overall weakness and inseparability of members of this crop (and maybe to a lesser extent last year's crop) has caused tote support to be less concentrated. There's a perception that there aren't any standouts and that anybody can win. That's not true--and a number of the least likely horses went off at about half of the price that they should have. Not to mention the crazy action that Pants on Fire and Twice the Appeal took because of their riders--their actual win odds were each at least three times what the tote reflected.


LM said...

Still keeping faith in my boy Dialed In, but you'd have to think there needs to be a change in strategy for the Preakness--being that far back (and as far back as he was in the Florida Derby, too) will compromise him not only at Pimlico, but also for the rest of his career, really. Not everyone can be Zenyatta.

During the week had called Mucho Macho Man arguably the best-looking of the Derby horses, but Shackleford might well give him a run for his money. Brilliant-looking animal.

Good stuff, BD.

TDN Staff Blog said...

Thanks, Lucas. . . I think very highly of Dialed In--it's hard to really knock his Holy Bull. Just get the impression that he doesn't have the same late kick in the longer races. . .

- Brian