Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Guest Post: Let's Take a Peek at Some Derby Players

--Brian Ludwick, WinStar Farm Bloodstock Analyst

April has finally arrived and that means Kentucky Derby 138 is less than five weeks away. As usual, there are plenty of opinions regarding which of the prospective cast of 3-year-olds have the best, or least, chance to claim the roses. Past experiences have taught me the prudent approach works best when attempting to assess the relative merits of these Churchill-bound youngsters. Sorting out contenders from pretenders prior to the final set of nine-furlong preps can sometimes be tougher than a guy trying to fold a freshly laundered contour sheet! With that in mind, we will simply have a look at what I believe are some of the strengths/weaknesses of a handful of the more seasoned players.

Dullahan (Even the Score) Trainer: Dale Romans - This has not been the smoothest of winters in South Florida for last year’s Breeders' Futurity winner. Dullahan battled a persistent cough upon arriving at Gulfstream which delayed his 2012 debut. When he did finally show up in the entries, he ran decently enough when second to Howe Great in the nine-furlong GIII Palm Beach S. Dullahan had been suspiciously absent from the work tab since that March 11 race, finally recording a five-furlong work on Apr. 1. 
   Now comes word that he had popped a splint (bone) shortly after the Palm Beach. Romans was quoted as saying he was confident Dullahan remains on schedule for a start in the Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland on Apr. 14. As the Blue Grass is contested on Keeneland’s Polytrack surface, the son of Even the Score will head to Churchill with only one meaningful dirt line with which to judge his ability on that surface. That effort, a closing 4th to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, was very similar to his previous run in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. In a tell-tale trial Feb. 25 at Gulfstream, Dullahan worked five furlongs in :59 1/5--fastest of 22 that morning. I for one am going to assume that this colt is every bit as comfortable on dirt as he is on synthetic or turf. Though he missed some time early on this winter, that might well be offset by his solid juvenile foundation which saw him run in four 1 1/16 races between mid-August and Breeders’ Cup day Nov. 5. The popped splint, however, comes at a very inopportune time and can’t be dismissed as a non-issue as this colt goes forward.

Daddy Nose Best (Scat Daddy) Trainer: Steve Asmussen - If Dullahan’s quad-route juvenile foundation was solid, this colt’s all-turf sextet of routes is unshakable! That foundation has no doubt helped his sophomore cause. DNB returned to the races with a narrow victory in Golden Gate’s GIII El Camino Real Derby, defeating fellow stretch-runner Lucky Chappy, who was unplaced this past Saturday in Dubai’s G2 U.A.E. Derby.
   Lured by the lucrative graded money up for grabs in the GIII Sunland Derby, Asmussen decided this was the right time to give the son of Scat Daddy his dirt mid-term exam. DNB passed the test, registering a 100 Beyer in his first dirt start since he was out-sprinted last July at Churchill. He got his final furlong in just over :12 1/5…that’s running!
   The Derby prep landscape is always changing as dates, purses and sometimes even stake upgrades are constantly changed and repositioned. Trainers nowadays must be conscious of graded stakes earnings. Most years, it will take better than $200,000 in graded earnings to safely earn a spot in the Derby starting gate. Prior to 2010, the ungraded Sunland Derby was nowhere on any serious Derby contender’s radar. Now with the Grade III designation and a fat $800,000 purse, handicappers can no longer simply ignore those results. 

Union Rags (Dixie Union) Trainer: Michael Matz - Widely recognized as the Derby favorite heading into this past Saturday’s GI Florida Derby, the massive colt’s stock might just drop a notch with his length-and-a-neck defeat. Personally, I don’t believe his loss to Take Charge Indy and Reveron warrants it. He was, after all, hemmed in with nowhere to run at that crucial point from the five-eighths pole to well beyond the three-eighths pole. Though he took a while to get rolling once clear, Union Rags did run on well, and in fact ran his final sixteenth in a very good :12 2/5. On paper, the Florida Derby was very much a race lacking in speed. The race shape was never going to help a big, long-striding, middle-moving horse like Union Rags, especially with trainer Michael Matz’s main objective to further the colt’s education towards relaxing during the opening half-mile.
   It is worth noting that the two lengths Union Rags made up on the winner in the stretch were the only lengths gained by any runner in the entire field--further proof as to how speed-friendly this pace was. His trip-hampered Beyer number of 93 translates to more like a 96 or 97 when you consider the lack of running room he had and that number would be very much in line with what he’s been running. At the end of the day, the son of Dixie Union strongly suggests that the 10 furlongs of the Derby will not be an issue. There are good losses and there are bad losses…this was a good loss. Importantly, the colt looked outstanding from a physical standpoint and appeared to travel during the running like a very sound horse. For those folks lucky enough to get out to the Downs during training hours Derby week, you are going to see a number of Derby hopefuls who appear as though they’ve already been through a tough grind. Don’t look for Union Rags to be one of them.    

I’ll Have Another (Flower Alley) Trainer: Doug O’Neill - Despite a convincing tour de force in the GII Robert B. Lewis S. at Santa Anita, the chestnut is still flying well below the radar of most folks. Perhaps it’s the fact that he hasn’t competed since that Feb. 4 race where he was dismissed at a generous 43-1. It’s not often that a 43-1 runner looks like the winner past every pole, but that was certainly the case as the son of Flower Alley used his high cruising speed to stalk pacesetter Isn’t He Clever. Upon receiving his cue from little-known jockey Mario Gutierrez, I’ll Have Another promptly put daylight on his field, and just like that, the race was over. Asked to go a distance of ground for the first time off a five-month layoff is a tall order for any horse, yet this colt showed some lovely, tractable speed, and then finished up like a horse with considerable quality. The fractions and final time of the race stacked up very favorably with a pair of races for older runners that same day--the GII Strub S. and a very salty first-level allowance won by the proven stakes performer Setsuko.  
   I don’t know why connections have passed on the month of March with I'll Have Another. He looks like a big, rugged colt to me and judging from his work tab since the Lewis--a mile in 1:42.60, 7 furlongs (twice) in 1:26 and a splendid 6 furlongs in 1:10, he certainly isn’t being babied. He doesn’t have to win the Santa Anita Derby to be for real, but he does have to come back and run something very similar, perhaps even a bit better than his Lewis effort to convince me all is well in O’Neilland.

Creative Cause (Giant’s Causeway) Trainer: Mike Harrington - As a rule, juveniles that break their maidens at five furlongs first time out with a 98 Beyer don’t generally find their way into the Kentucky Derby. Yet Creative Cause, arguably the West Coast’s top 3-year-old at this stage has done exactly that. The colt is equally accomplished on dirt and synthetic and why wouldn’t he be? He is a a son of Giant’s Causeway, afterall. As a juvenile, Creative Cause made a seamless transition from sprinting to routing. He ended the season with a very useful third-place finish in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Though beaten only a length and a head, he was almost the forgotten horse amid the “Hansen or Union Rags” flap.
   In the most meaningful stretch run to date--as far as the Derby preps are concerned--Creative Cause outdueled the lightly raced and very brave Bodemeister to take home the winner’s share in the GII San Felipe S. (102 Beyer). Coming up with an accurate number can prove a difficult task when a given day fails to present any other races of comparable class/distance/surface. This was the case on Mar. 10 at Santa Anita, but the lads at Beyer central generally get things right, so we will trust they got this one right until proven otherwise. It certainly appeared to these eyes that those were a couple of quality colts coming down the Santa Anita stretch.
   Negatives, negatives…let’s see. He’s no spring chicken, but trainer Mike Harrington has had very limited experience handling Derby horses, though he certainly couldn’t be faulted for any chess pieces he’s moved to this point in the match.

Hansen (Tapit) Trainer: Michael Maker - This colt looked like a horse of some quality early on, running off the screen in two impressive Turfway efforts. When he wired the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile field at Churchill, we then knew he could do it on dirt as well. Hansen has always been very much a free-running sort, so it was no surprise that he was extremely keen in the GIII Holy Bull S. off a nearly three-month absence. In an attempt to relax the speedy gray, blinkers were removed for the GIII Gotham S. at Aqueduct, where he sat off the hip of the leader before taking up the running at the three-eighths pole and cruising to a three-length win (95 Beyer). Fair enough.
   Having handled the Aqueduct surface so well in the Gotham, connections immediately announced that Hansen’s next start would be in the GI Wood Memorial over the same track. Not too long after, however, those same connections said Hansen had been rerouted to the Blue Grass because owner/breeder Kendall Hansen had always wanted to win an important race at that famed racetrack. Reading between the lines--as one must always do approaching the Derby--trainer Mike Maker was quoted as saying Hansen had a tough race in the Gotham and lost quite a bit of weight. The Blue Grass option gives the colt an extra week to put some meat back on his bones, and he need only ship a short distance to Churchill either from Keeneland or Maker’s base at the Churchill Downs Training Center.  Though I very much respect Hansen’s high-class speed, I’m beginning to get a bit of a negative vibe with news of him losing a chunk of weight in only his second start off a freshening. I also have serious doubts that he will stay nine or 10 furlongs and I question the strength of his pedigree towards that end. And finally, I wonder if he’ll be able to remain tractable if drawn towards the inside half of a thundering 20-runner Derby field.

Gemologist (Tiznow) Trainer: Todd Pletcher - With an unblemished four-for-four record to this point, Gemologist remains the only potential Derby starter with a chance to enter the starting gate unbeaten. Gemologist, of course, must first get through his next scheduled engagement, the Apr.7 Wood Memorial, where he must finish no worse than second in order to secure enough graded earnings to ensure himself a spot in the field. A very good, if not spectacular juvenile, Gemologist made it quite obvious he had wintered very well indeed at Palm Meadows in south Florida when unveiled in a one-mile, Gulfstream allowance. The son of Tiznow controlled things from the start and settled the issue well before the field turned into the stretch. His eight furlongs, covered in 1:35.4, translated to a 95 Beyer number, a full 10 points higher than his best last year, an 85 when winning the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. at Churchill.
   There are always holes to be poked in all these 3-year-olds, so we will address what I feel like could well pose a problem on Derby day. Gemologist has never had to contest any lively splits and has never been farther than 2 1/2 lengths off the lead at any call. On Derby day this can often prove a bad combination because many years the race unfolds at a much faster pace than most of these horses have previously seen.
   The position of the starting gate for Gulfstream’s one-mile races is literally a few feet from the starting pole. Because there is such a short “run-up” to the pole, the timer starts almost as soon as the gates open. This is the reason for the very slow opening quarters at that distance. Even by those standards, Gemologist got away with a very easy :24.4 opening quarter. It’s very difficult to make any ground up on a good horse when he’s given a free ride during the first quarter mile. Certainly Gemologist is a very good horse, and an even better horse under those circumstances. Horses as a rule don’t generally react very favorably to extreme positional or fractional changes in their racing diet, especially when they’re being asked to cover a distance greater than they have previously been asked to run. That is to say if a colt has been on the lead through fractions resembling :23.4, :47.4 in his last few preps and suddenly is faced with :22.4, :46.3 on Derby day, chances are that this scenario is not going to play out favorably. He may be ill-equipped to set the pace himself with those much faster splits. Moreover, he may well also resent the alternative--taking back six or seven lengths off the lead if that’s the route the rider chooses to take. These are issues that play out year after year in the Kentucky Derby. And more so in the prep races where many trainers/owners now plot out the easiest possible spots with enticingly short fields that often ensure a far slower pace than what the participants must encounter at Churchill.

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