Monday, April 4, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Florida Wrap-up

   R Heat Lightning was incredibly impressive again romping in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, and she will be a deserving favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. The 100 Beyer she received towers over the top figures that her main rivals have run (and what the colts ran Sunday), and she answered questions about distance while enduring a three-wide trip. As long as she transfers her form to Kentucky (she handled the track fine when second in the BC Juvenile Fillies last year), she will be difficult to beat. Todd Pletcher has been extremely successful at Gulfstream in recent memory (especially this past weekend), however, and many of his big time runners from past seasons have tailed off a bit after leaving Florida. According to DRF Formulator, Pletcher’s highest win rate over the past five years in graded stakes at the major tracks where he competes has occurred at Gulfstream (27%). He’s a 16% trainer in graded events at Churchill Downs in the spring (perhaps skewed by running a number of horses in most Derbies). Of the 11 Pletcher runners who took a graded stake in Hallandale Beach since 2007 and returned for Pletcher at a different track, only three improved on the Beyer Speed Figure they earned while winning at Gulfstream. R Heat Lightning deserves her place atop Oaks lists, but I do not expect her performance at Churchill to be quite as good as her two performances at Gulfstream. At this point, though, it seems that she won’t have to be as good to win.
R Heat Lightning                                       (c) Adam Coglianese
   Obviously, It’s Tricky didn’t run the way I was expecting her to. Her performance was so poor that it would be incorrect to conclude that she was simply overrated or dressed-up off her New York form. She never really got a chance to secure a close-up spot early from her outside draw, but It’s Tricky’s speed seemed so dulled that it’s doubtful she would have been able to be closer if she had broken from further inside. Neal McLaughlin, brother and assistant to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, said after the race, “It’s surprising. We thought she’d be on the lead or closer to the lead and she was just a little dull today in the race. Maybe the change in climate coming from New York to here might have been a factor.” Adding, “She looks fine. She was just quiet out of the gate.” It was 81º at Gulfstream on Saturday. It’s tough to have much confidence in her moving forward, but I would wait to see how she trains and performs in her next start before formulating a strong opinion of her one way or another. Saturday’s showing was simply too poor to be true.

   Island School has progressed nicely for the always patient Shug McGaughey. She should continue to improve and has a very good shot to hit the board in the Oaks, but she may need a pace collapse to take the top slot.

   Much has been made of the supposed speed bias at Gulfstream on Sunday, but there isn’t much conclusive evidence to support the claim. Of the eight dirt races on the card, only one was won by a horse who was directly on the lead. While that runner went off at 10-1, he was 5-1 on the morning line and making his first start off the claim for a trainer who does pretty well in that category. The Beyer figure he received was 10 points off his previous top, and certainly can’t be attributed to any bias. A number of winners and place and show horses came from off the pace, including 57-1 firster Malibu Glow, who closed from eighth to second in the fourth race.

   Dialed In's Florida Derby performance was solid and very reminiscent of Ice Box’s last year, but the pace set-up he enjoyed was extreme. The Moss pace figures put the race in the “very fast early” category, with the race slowing down progressively from middle to end. The winner didn’t exactly power home past speed horses who were still going strong--he ground out the win past horses who were tiring. It’s a bit incredible to believe, but Dialed In would have been on the lead at the half (:48.15 for him vs. :48.38 for Colizeo) if he was running in the Skip Away for older horses at 9 1/2 furlongs one race earlier. Shackleford would have led the Skip Away by 12 lengths at the half. The seven-furlong Swale (“Snail” might be a more fitting name considering the early fractions) even featured a slower half-mile pace than the Florida Derby. On the other hand, while Dialed In’s win in the Florida Derby came under beneficial circumstances, he projects to get the same sort of set-up in Kentucky. He’s a prototypical 10-furlong horse with the right running style to at least hit the board (or win with a total collapse), so even though Sunday’s win will be overrated, he can’t be dismissed come May 7.

Dialed In (outside) gets up                                   (c) EquiSport
   The race’s big surprise was Shackleford, who turned in the best performance of any Florida Derby contestant. To set the pace he did and hold on for a narrow second clearly shows that he is relatively talented and improving, but he does not seem well-suited for an added furlong at this time with other quality speed horses present. The hulking chestnut is a half to 1 1/4-mile GI Alabama winner Lady Joanne (Orientate), however, and would be an interesting runner for the Preakness, which tends to be less crowded up front, should he fail to get into the Derby. He’s number 19 on the graded earnings list right now with several of big preps yet to come. Shackleford is very reminiscent of last year’s Preakness runner-up First Dude, also trained by Dale Romans.

   To Honor and Serve’s Florida Derby run was not much, if any improvement on his 3-year-old return (it was a three-point Beyer regression), and it seems that he has not progressed from two to three. It was surprising to see him warmed up so vigorously in the post parade and that close to the hot pace--especially with off-the-pace specialist Garret Gomez aboard. He came under a ride sooner than he should have had to, even if the pace was strong, and only finished third because nobody else showed up. Hall of Famer Bill Mott had an ice-cold Gulfstream meet, and it’s possible that To Honor and Serve has been affected by his trainer’s rough patch, but he is going to have to make a complete turn around in training leading up to the Derby and learn to rate more if he has any hope to factor.

   Soldat’s fifth-place performance was mostly due to a drastically different pace scenario than he enjoyed when winning the Fountain of Youth. The 3-2 chalk actually ran faster early than he did when on the lead last time, but he was simply not fast enough to grab the pole position and coast along uncontested. For his first experience with getting dirt kicked in his face while going long, it was not a good indicator of Derby-winning potential. Flashpoint seemed like a lock to be on the lead coming off his win in the seven-furlong Hutcheson, but he was not quite quick enough to clear from his outside post. For having a wide trip at a distance that will prove beyond his best, Flashpoint ran well enough. He should be competitive in races like the Met Mile against older horses or the seven-furlong King’s Bishop at Saratoga. Stay Thirsty demonstrated again that he is a cut below the better runners of his generation.

Check back later this week for previews of the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Ashland.

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