Monday, March 26, 2012

Guest Post: Shack, Brown and Spun Speed

--Brian Ludwick, WinStar Farm Bloodstock Analyst 

   The Kentucky Derby is a race like no other, and yet, just like any other horse race, Kentucky Derbies are won with speed, by stalkers, middle-movers and one-run closers. All these running styles are somewhat dependent upon favorable pace scenarios which that particular running might provide. So, what about speed types? Which ones actually have a legitimate chance on the first Saturday in May? The answer to this puzzle is rarely an easy one and often still muddled in mid-March. But fear not, because all sorts of useful clues will reveal themselves as the day draws nearer and sometimes, even on Derby day itself.
   Any time you load 20 3-year-olds into a starting gate in the spring with all the hype and emotion surrounding this race, the potential exists for too fast a pace. Perhaps five or six years out of 10, the pace will in fact be too hot. This makes it extra tough for a speed type to employ his preferred style with much success. Yet, with proper preparation, a favorable racing surface and/or a reasonable race layout, speed types can and do win the Kentucky Derby.
   I thought Derby 137 presented the perfect opportunity for a certain horse to capitalize on the lack of quality speed signed on. As many times as I looked at the past performances for last year's Derby, I projected Shackleford as turning for home with a lead. I had seen him training Derby week at Churchill on two separate occasions. Both times he looked and acted very much like a horse sitting on his best form. I believed the hot pace he set in the Florida Derby (:23.1, :46.1, 1:10.3) would stand him in good stead come Derby day, and his trainer Dale Romans has always been a conditioner who understands the value of putting one on the lead.
   I did have a few reservations--primarily that he'd needed a slow :13.4 to cover the final sixteenth of that Florida Derby. To add to my concerns, he was beaten by a runner in Dialed In that I believed to be strictly a miler. Also, Shackleford was himself sired by the strong speed influence Forestry. Was I actually going to use a son of Forestry as my key in the 10-furlong Kentucky Derby? With the odds on Shackleford hovering around 25-1 at 10 minutes to post, the answer was a resounding “Yes!”
   Of course, we all know those stamina fears proved well-founded as the lanky chestnut squandered a two-length lead in mid-stretch to finish fourth. To add to my pain, the cast of characters with which I chose to use him with in exactas top and bottom were the first three under the wire--of course! Some tickets are tougher than others to pull out of your pocket and discard, and that particular stack wasn't surrendered to the Keeneland simulcast floor for a few minutes beyond the official sign and payoffs.
   Sorry, a well-conceived, but ill-fated gamble has gotten me off the subject here. Very few Derby pace scenarios will reveal themselves to be so speed impoverished as the 2011 version, but a horse with high quality speed doesn't always need all these factors in his favor to have an outstanding chance at taking home the roses.
   In 2008, notorious bad-boy trainer Rick Dutrow shipped a lightly raced parcel named Big Brown to Churchill Downs to win the Derby in only his 4th lifetime start! The lovely Boundary colt had two huge factors in his favor that year. Firstly, his ability to relax beautifully either when on the lead or when stalking/waiting was clearly on display in both his prep races in South Florida. Brown, as his trainer affectionately called him, had a second gun in his holsters because in both those Gulfstream races he had already encountered as fast a pace as he was likely to see at Churchill.
   Love him or hate him, Dutrow is an exceptional horseman. He believed that a single eight-furlong race would be all Brown needed to put him right for the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby. Both trainer and horse were right on the day as the IEAH colt took immediate control from the 12 post and galloped to a five-length win. His fractions were :22.3, :45.4, 1:10, 1:35 with a final clocking of 1:48. Those were Derby-like fractions and his final furlong was completed in an acceptable :13 flat while cruising. Pairing identical 106 Beyers, his Derby preparation was now truly complete.
   Five weeks later under the Twin Spires, with an opening half mile in :47, the pace was not at all unreasonable as the field straightened out down the backstretch in Derby 134. But Brown had drawn post 20 this day. Asking him to clear the 19 runners to his inside within the first quarter mile might not be impossible given his brilliant speed, but then asking Brown to throttle down after that effort might prove to be a bit tricky. And so the plan was to let the colt's cooperative nature allow jockey Kent Desormeaux to simply sit and wait until the time was right. Brown and 'meaux bided their time for the first six furlongs, then needed only to gobble up lengths into a moderate :25.2 fourth quarter to bust the race wide open coming to the quarter pole.
   In the fall of 2006, an imposing son from the second-to-last crop of the brilliant Danzig, was raising some eyebrows at Delaware Park with a couple of impressive juvenile efforts. The Pennsylvania-bred colt would close out his 2-year-old season with an easy victory in the prestigious seven-furlong Pennsylvania Nursery S. The what?
   OK, so Hard Spun was not on everybody's radar quite yet. Then again, neither was his former commercial farmer turned trainer Larry Jones...not yet! Those who knew of Larry Jones could reasonably assume that this colt would improve at three because his program was geared toward just that. After a powerful, front-running 6 1/2-length win in the GIII LeComte S. at Fair Grounds, everyone would take notice of both colt and trainer. In his final two preps, Jones would have jockey Mario Pino relax Hard Spun a few lengths off the lead, a tactic the leggy bay might have to employ at Churchill. Showing he would have no issues at all with this strategy, Hard Spun won the GII Lane’s End (Spiral) S. about as easily as a horse could win. The Jones trainee was heading to Louisville with a pretty strong hand-tractable speed, a :13 final furlong going 1 1/8 miles and having cracked the Beyer century mark with a 101 in the Lane's End.
   Adding a cherry to this already appealing 10-1 Danzig sundae was the fact there wasn't a terrible amount of quality speed in the field. The West Coast speed Stormello was in declining form and ditto for Teuflesberg, who looked very much a miler. Nobiz Like Shobiz was consistent enough, but had hovered around the same mid-to-high 90s Beyer number for six lifetime starts without any significant jump forward-never a good sign.
   The big worry was the strapping chestnut colt with only three lifetime starts, Curlin. Having drawn post two, however, jockey Robbie Albarado was either going to have to hustle his mount early to hold his position or ease back and hope for the best. As the savvy Asmussen camp had already made a concerted effort in Curlin's two previous starts to keep the talented colt off the lead, I felt confident they would choose the latter.
   Hard Spun did everything just as it was drawn out in the script. He broke alertly and immediately made the lead, got into a lovely high-cruising gear down the backstretch and came into upper stretch with a three-length cushion and some run still in his legs. And then came Calvin, and Street Sense... quickly, very quickly. The Churchill-loving juvenile champ ran by Hard Spun so conclusively that, well, he put a spin on Spun. The fact is Hard Spun had run his race, as the 107 Beyer would attest to and, as gamblers, that's all we can ask for or reasonably expect when we lay our money down. He simply couldn't hold off an exceptional team of Churchill legends in Street Sense and Calvin Borel.

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