Friday, April 8, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Coast to Coast

--Brian DiDonato  

   I came into this season thinking that if some lightly raced, promising horses progressed, they could catch up to 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo. But injuries and just plain old clunkers by a number of Derby prospects I’ve been interested in lead me closer to believing that the first horse I ever made a “TDN Rising Star” (tough decision) is destined to wear the roses as a relatively heavy favorite. He certainly won’t be unseated Saturday in the Wood Memorial, as the Repole colorbearer has frightened off any sophomore with a legitimate shot to beat him. It won’t just be an upset if Uncle Mo somehow loses the Wood (it would take a trip worse than I Want Revenge’s two years ago)--it’ll be an upset if he wins by less than five lengths. The undefeated colt is simply too fast and too tactically gifted for any of his foes to challenge him early or catch up with him late. While some might cite Uncle Mo’s Beyer speed figure in the Timely Writer (89) as some sign that he has not progressed from two to three, keep in mind the sort of glacial pace that Mo set before drawing off. The final time, and figure that was calculated from that clocking, are the product of a pace that was drastically below par. Like in turf races where slow paces yield slow times and less relevant figures, Uncle Mo’s come home time is all that matters. He got his final quarter in :22.87--that’s fast. The champ also proved he could rate in his return simply by allowing John Velazquez to slow him down as much as he did early. He’s too fast not to be on the front end in the Wood, but if somehow he finds himself behind horses, he should settle fine. Toby’s Corner seems likely to complete the paltry exacta. He was impressive when beating next-out Miracle Wood winner and Bay Shore contestant J J’s Lucky Train in the Whirlaway and now adds blinkers after misbehaving a bit early in the Gotham before closing to be a dull third. Trainer Graham Motion sports a 30% win rate when adding the hood in dirt routes according to DRF Formulator.
Comma to the Top
(c) Benoit Photography
   The Santa Anita Derby is a much more wide-open affair with the unfortunate defection of expected favorite Premier Pegasus. Grade I winner Jaycito, who was 7 3/4 lengths back in second behind Premier Pegasus in the San Felipe, has inherited favoritism. He was last early in that heat, however, and may have benefitted from a pace that was as fast as the Timely Writer’s was slow. Comma to the Top ran deceptively well to survive the pace battle and hang on for fourth. The unsung warhorse pressed a pair of flashy maiden winners (who faded to last and second to last) while three wide through a half in :44.58 (off the charts even for Santa Anita’s new dirt track) and took a clear lead before being swallowed up by the eventual winner. Comma to the Top seemed like he would finish much farther back than he did after switching to the wrong lead in mid-stretch, but the Cash Call Futurity hero re-rallied and dug in to finish encouragingly. A softer pace this time--which seems likely but not guaranteed--could be all he needs to rediscover the winner’s circle. Mr. Commons is intriguing and, with only three prior starts, is the antithesis of Comma to the Top, who will make his 13th trip to the post Saturday. Mr. Commons graduated down the hill by 5 1/2 lengths over three next-out winners Jan. 15 before trying dirt for the first time in a Feb. 26 allowance. He was ridden like a horse who was supposed to win easily that day, as Mike Smith paid little attention to ground loss, keeping his mount three wide in an effort to avoid traffic trouble. Smith’s mount only won by a head in a close three-way bobber, but the 89 Beyer Mr. Commons earned puts him right in line with the more fancied runners in this event. Silver Medallion, second choice on the morning line, will make his first start on dirt. He is likely to prove a better grass/synthetic horse, however, as he is a half to Grade I-winning turfer Sweet Talker (Stormin Fever) and has been kept off the dirt by his connections so far. Trainer Steve Asmussen, who took over from Chad Brown two starts back, strongly prefers and excels on conventional main tracks, so it is a bit curious that he entered his charge in a grass stake and a race over Tapeta prior to the Santa Anita Derby.

   The Illinois Derby resembles something like a $300,000 maiden race, with a third of its runners having never won before. Only Tampa Bay Derby upsetter Watch Me Go would amass the graded earnings necessary with a win here to make it into the Kentucky Derby field, and he does not appear to have a legitimate shot under the Twin Spires. Sour is interesting due to his running lines and upside. After finishing second to subsequently somewhat disappointing Machen (who would be a heavy favorite here) and ahead of a fast next-out winner sprinting on debut at Fair Grounds in January, the Adele Dilschneider homebred broke through on the stretch out. He was second, beaten a length last time in an allowance by Left, also trained by Al Stall Jr. and co-owned by Dilschneider. His stablemate came back to run a decent seventh with an 85 Beyer figure in the Louisiana Derby, and would also go off as the chalk here. El Grayling has a noteworthy running line of his own, as he was third, beaten 2 1/4 lengths by Florida Derby runner-up Shackleford in a nine-furlong allowance two back Feb. 5. The 85 Beyer figure he earned for that effort is the field’s highest.

Kathmanblu Jogs at Keeneland
(c) Wendy Wooley/EquiSport
   On the Oaks front, well-regarded Kathmanblu will try Polytrack for the first time in the Ashland. Her turf races have been better than her dirt races--which is something to keep in mind for the Oaks--but that probably shouldn’t impact her chances here, and might even predict an affinity for the Keeneland surface. Still, I like Bouquet Booth to spring the upset. The Steve Margolis trainee took a liking to the Keeneland Polytrack when she graduated by 3 1/2 lengths sprinting here last October before reeling off back-to-back stakes wins on the conventional stuff in the Delta Downs Princess and the Silverbulletday. Bouquet Booth was very game to deny Daisy Devine in the Silverbulletday, and that foe returned to take the Fair Grounds Oaks a couple of weeks back. Rank and wide last time in the Rachel Alexandra when fourth behind Kathmanblu, Bouquet Booth should be sent right to the front this time--where she wants to be--from her inside draw, and should receive little resistance from her rivals. That tactical advantage will prove very useful unless the Polytrack is playing particularly unkindly to speed.

   Entries for Sunday’s Fantasy S. at Oaklawn were not drawn at the time of this writing, but the $300,000 event looks like it will come down to a match-up between Joyful Victory, who took the Honeybee last time over the strip by 8 3/4 lengths, and Arienza, the two-for-two daughter of Hall of Famer Azeri. While Joyful Victory’s Grade III romp was visually impressive, it came against a weak group and only earned her an 82 Beyer speed figure. Arienza, however, was assigned a 90 Beyer for her one-mile allowance score two weeks ago. She was never really challenged and had things her own way, but the ease with which she has toyed with her competition and the obvious room for added improvement she offers gives Arienza the edge over Joyful Victory.

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