Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Bluegrass and Arkansas Derby Previews

--Brian DiDonato

   The complexion of Saturday’s GI Bluegrass, which will be run on Polytrack at Keeneland for the fifth time Saturday, has changed dramatically in recent years as it has become clear that turf horses excel over the surface. Half of this year’s field last raced on grass, and all but one entrant has tried the sod at least once in his career. The race has yielded quirky results, and giant pay-offs. The winner’s average odds over the last four years is 17.8-1. Two runners from Polytrack runnings of the Bluegrass have gone on to hit the board in the Derby. Street Sense, who was second in a three-way photo in 2007, obviously went on to win. He had serious dirt form, though, having taken the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile under the Twin Spires the previous fall. Paddy O’Prado was second last year before finishing third in the Derby, but his Derby performance was aided by the sloppy surface and he would go on to do his best work on the lawn.

Santiva gallops over the Poly (c) Wendy Wooley/EquiSport
   Favored Santiva seems to be the most versatile runner in the group. Second while still a maiden over this strip in the GI Breeders’ Futurity last term, he took the GII Kentucky Jockey Club in Louisville to end 2010 and was second in the GII Risen Star at Fair Grounds in his only other outing this year. Up until the Risen Star, the biggest knock on Santiva was his low Beyer Speed Figures, but the drastically improved 91 he earned in his sophomore debut stands out in this group. An impressive winning performance would probably make him a Derby contender. If you are inclined to wager on an event like this, however, it’s hard to take a short price--especially on a horse who has a propensity to run second (5:1-3-1 record) and in a race where the recent results have been head-scratchers.

   Brilliant Speed doesn’t look like much on paper, but further examination into his form yields some interesting findings. In his first start on firm turf at the end of 2010, the Live Oak homebred beat Extensive, who would later finish one slot behind Spiral winner Animal Kingdom in a Gulfstream allowance before taking a listed stake at Tampa last Saturday. Brilliant Speed was stepped right up into the Dania Beach on the turf at Gulfstream off his maiden win, and came just a nose short after getting stuck behind a wall of horses in the lane and having to alter course significantly to find racing room. Also-rans in that heat include Rushaway winner Swift Warrior and fellow Bluegrass competitor Twinspired. Brilliant Speed last appeared in the Hallandale Beach and finished third, beaten only a neck. Stablemate King Congie--also entered in the Bluegrass--came out significantly on Brilliant Speed in the lane, however, and was demoted from first to third. Once again, Brilliant Speed was best but didn’t make it into the winner’s circle. As a son of Dynaformer, Brilliant Speed should appreciate the added ground. He is out of an unraced Gone West mare who sold for $1.45M as a yearling and who herself is out of a GISP half-sister to Belmont and Haskell winner Touch Gold and Canadian champion 3-year-old and MGSW With Approval. Brilliant Speed’s form coming into this race also resembles that of stablemate Arthur’s Tale, who was a narrow second in last weekend’s Wood Memorial for Tom Albertrani.

Sensational Slam (outside) gets up in Capossela
(c) Jessie Holmes/EquiSport
   Team Valor’s Crimson China, already a winner over Polytrack last year at Wolverhampton, showed an impressive late kick in his first U.S. start over the Gulfstream sod at this distance in February and garnered the “TDN Rising Star” tag for that allowance win. He then overcame a significant pace disadvantage over a similar surface at Turfway in the Rushaway. Last early, Crimson China finished second in a race dominated by speed. He is very well-suited for this race, but might be at the mercy of a pace that doesn’t figure to be too hot. I’ve been on the Willcox Inn bandwagon almost as long as my savvy colleague Steve Sherack, but he’ll need to run much faster here to contend--not that he isn’t capable of it. His past foes--Animal Kingdom, Soldat, Santiva and Great Mills have all flattered him with subsequent efforts. Sensational Slam is a two-time stakes winner on Poly in Canada, and looked pretty good taking the Capossela at Aqueduct. In his only route attempt, however, he was ninth of 10 in the With Anticipation over the Saratoga lawn. With the added distance, his pedigree could go either way, but the chestnut appears to belong with these based solely on raw ability.

The Factor                                             (c) Coady Photography
   The Arkansas Derby is clearly The Factor’s race to lose and, with Uncle Mo’s flop last week, he might be the last hope to see a truly fast Derby prep performance. He is a legitimate talent (not that Uncle Mo wasn’t), but he is not without question marks. The Factor was not tested on the front end last time in the Rebel--”unopposed” is how the chart caller put it. Four runners are adding blinkers and could show more early foot, and Dance City’s early speed, according to the Moss Pace Figures, is comparable to The Factor’s, so perhaps the chalk will get a sterner front-end test this time. Representatives of red-hot sprinter War Front’s first crop haven’t been fully tested yet at nine furlongs or more. Soldat took the Fountain of Youth with an advantageous trip before finishing off the board in the Florida Derby, and a son of War Front broke his maiden at 1 1/4 miles in France two weeks ago, but a larger sample size must be available before we can conclude how much stamina the War Fronts will generally possess. It’s entirely possible that The Factor will once again run his foes off their feet in this spot but, until he proves otherwise, he will continue to be somewhat vulnerable as the distances get longer and the pace gets more crowded.

Nehro (inside) can't squeeze by Pants on Fire (c) Hodges
   At this point, Nehro is number one on my list for the Kentucky Derby. I already praised his runner-up performance in the Louisiana Derby in the first Sophomore Spotlight entry (here), and see him as having three additional advantages in this spot. Firstly, Nehro is one of only three runners with previous experience at the distance (Elite Alex was fourth behind Nehro in Louisiana, and Dance City broke his maiden at nine furlongs in the slop at Gulfstream). Clearly he relished the added ground last time, as you’d expect with his pedigree. His half-brother Saint Marden (Saint Ballado) was twice a winner (once in the GIII Discovery H.) at this distance and earned a 112 Beyer for a 1 1/16-mile allowance win. Nehro also owns a win over the track--he broke his maiden in very impressive fashion with a quick, sweeping move to win going away. His third advantage comes from the change in tactics he employed in the Louisiana Derby. Nehro was much closer that day, and his ability to keep The Factor in his sights on Saturday should help minimize that one’s tactical advantage. If Nehro can stalk in the second flight while one or two other runners pester the Factor, he should be able to run him down.

   Alternation has been very consistent--taking his last three starts, all routing, but was scratched from the Rebel after flipping in the gate. In addition to an attitude adjustment, he needs a speed figure boost, but his consistency and two wins over the track are positives. He too should love nine furlongs. Alternation is by top sire Distorted Humor out of the MSW and MGSP router Alternate (Seattle Slew), who is a half to MGISW at this distance Peaks and Valleys (Mt. Livermore). Archarcharch has the stamina and consistency to hit the board here and/or in Kentucky, and Sway Away deserves another chance if he’s ridden more aggressively. With P-Val in the irons, that’s guaranteed.

Check back early next week for a wrap-up of the last two major preps for the Kentucky Derby.


Lucas M said...

Great insight on Brilliant Speed, pal. Hope you cashed. Was live in P3 to Twinspired, so that one hurt a bit.

TDN Staff Blog said...

Thanks, Lucas. Had the two PK3s he was in and the final PK4 (not the all stakes one - didn't realize that existed, and glad I didn't because I wasn't crazy about the Melnyk horse in the turf sprint) plus a small win. Sorry it had to come at your expense - Twinspired ran much better than I expected and I think the track hurt him a bit. He looked really good before the race. Nehro's narrow loss hurt me pretty bad, as I tried to parlay a significant chunk of my Brilliant Speed money with him. Had the exacta to dull the pain a bit, but would've had the tri if not for Dance City. . . --Brian

Smash said...

Good call on Brilliant Speed, but I didn't see that performance coming from Twinspired. It was nice to see that Nehro was no one-pump chump.

But the main thought from the weekend is that Terry Wallace needs to be retired. I honestly thought there was something wrong with the audio on both the TV and laptop!