The Brock Talk

Friday, March 11, 2011

Derby Hopefuls Begin to Face Kentucky Fried Pressure Cooker

Kentucky is famous, of course, for its namesake Derby, quality bourbon, limestone, caves and a certain fried chicken that carries the state’s namesake. Suggesting what KFC founder Kentucky Col. Harland David Sanders might have once said, “start breadin’ the chicken. The pressure cooker is heatin’ up.” That is exactly what begins to happen this time of year for those with aspirations of being in Louisville for the Derby – the pressure begins to build.

There are three big stakes this Saturday on the trail to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1), and each race has a recognizable star on this relatively young path to the run for the roses.

Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. 3) winner Brethren should go to the post as the favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. 2) at Tampa Bay Downs in Florida. Just across the state in Hallendale, Florida near Miami, last year’s Champion Two-Year-Old Male and current Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Mo (photo left), will make his 2011 debut in the $100,000 Timely Writer Stakes. While on the west coast, Norfolk Stakes (gr. 1) winner Jaycito makes his first start of the year in the grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.

While two of these stars have something to prove, another is under much less pressure. That is if you look at it a certain way.

Brethren, a half-brother to 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, must legitimize his easy victory in the Sam Davis in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. 2). In winning the Feb. 12 Sam Davis, Brethren handled the field with ease, winning by four lengths while under the wraps of jockey Ramon Dominguez. Despite the apparent easy victory, the son of Distorted Humor came under criticism after he recorded a time of 1:45.07 for the 1-1/16 miles. It was the slowest Sam Davis since Andromeda’s Hero came home in 1:46.73 after a bumpy trip in 2005. Brethren’s 84 Beyer from that day is the lowest “Best Beyer” of the 20 leading contenders for the Derby according to Daily Racing Form.

Brethren also has money concerns. He currently is tied with Sweet Ducky at number 20, (each with $120,000), on the graded stakes earnings list used to determine the 20 Kentucky Derby starters. Nobody knows exactly how much graded earnings it will take to get a starting spot in the Derby, but it is safe to say, that $120,000 is not going to cut it. It took $218,750 to get into the Derby last year. The $210,000 first-place check for the Tampa Bay Derby would certainly ease those concerns while boosting Brethren's graded earnings to $330,000. However, the $70,000 second-place payout in the Tampa Bay Derby would likely leave work to do for Brethren to get to Louisville on Derby Day.

Further west, Jaycito also has a few things to prove in order for him to punch his ticket to Kentucky in May. Although he is a grade 1 winner with $200,000 in graded earnings, there is likely some work to do. Jaycito supporters and trainer Bob Baffert (photo right) have other concerns based on his suddenly swerving to the outside rail coming out of the first turn of the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. 1) last Fall. After that erratic move, Jaycito would go on to finish a lackluster seventh in the Juvenile, nearly 20 lenghts behind winner Uncle Mo.

Jaycito has been working very well at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita coming into the San Felipe, but as Baffert told Daily Racing Form’s Steve Andersen, “So far, he’s minding his manners, but you don’t know what he’ll do in a race,” Baffert said. “It will be interesting. We’ll learn a lot about Jaycito [in the San Felipe].” Jaycito moved into Baffert’s barn following his 2-year-old campaign, taking over for trainer Mike Mitchell, so Baffert has never saddled Jaycito for a race.

Like Jaycito, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Uncle Mo lifts the lid on his much anticipated 2011 campaign. But unlike Jaycito and stablemate Brethren, Uncle Mo will start under little pressure. Of course there is the pressure of his high expectations after his sensational 2-year-old campaign. After he broke his maiden by 14 lengths at Saratoga in New York, he came back to win the grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. Uncle Mo ended his 2-year-old season by producing the most impressive Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victory since Arazi in 1991.

Sure, there is the pressure of being the Kentucky Derby favorite in March. But Uncle Mo leads the graded stakes earnings list with $1,260,000 so that reduces the stress for his connections to a point.

Uncle Mo should be able to outrun his five opponents in the Timely Writer wearing cowboy boots and tight Wrangler jeans, but this is horse racing and heavy favorites lose races (Rachel Alexandra say what?!). So as big a surprise as it may be, even a loss may not be a catastrophe for Uncle Mo.

Yes there will be many in horse racing bitterly disappointed. (Blame, Zenyatta say what?!). And the skeptics will come out of the woodwork as they should. But Uncle Mo won’t be the first 2-year-old super star to disappoint at three. In fact only Street Sense has pulled the Breeders’ Cup Juvey-Kentucky Derby double since the Breeders’ Cup was established in 1984.

But a loss in the Timely Writer leaves some time for the son of Indian Charlie. Uncle Mo will likely start next in the April 9 Wood Memorial (gr. 1) as New York owner Mike Repole has said for months. That means Uncle Mo will go into the Kentucky Derby off two starts (pending injury), and that is not something that should be of much concern to trainer Todd Pletcher and owners WinStar Farm. After all, the last four Kentucky Derby winners came into the classic off of two starts that year. The old handicapping angle of third start off of a lay-off seems to be a prudential formula for the Kentucky Derby in recent years for sure.

Regardless of the spin one might put on a Kentucky Derby hopeful in mid-March, it is without doubt that the pressure is beginning to build with every Derby prep race and crossed off date on the calendar. Some are under more pressure than others. But then again, pressure can be a relative term.

Nobody knows that more than the connections of Brethren, Jaycito and Uncle Mo this weekend.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think Brethren is underrated because of the somewhat weak competition he's been facing and because of his slow times. I hope he wins big.
Uncle Mo all the way, I can't wait to see him back in action!
Jaycito looks really good in the San Felipe but I hope Bench Points gets up for the win. I really like the look of that colt.