The Brock Talk

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rivalry Wishes

Now that we don’t have a Triple Crown winner for the thirty-third consecutive year, what can we hope for from this much maligned crop of 3-year-old thoroughbreds?

One, we can hope for a rivalry to develop between Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness (gr. I) winner Shackleford. It would be wonderful to see both come back in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park June 4. It would be better if the two hooked up at the top of the Belmont stretch and had a good old fashioned ding-dong battle to the wire.

To take our wish a little further, think how special it would be for the two to race together throughout the summer in say the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) at Monmouth in July, then on to the Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga in August. While we’re in the wishing mood, let’s add to the list the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and full circle back to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

But there are many things that will likely prevent our wish list from happening, not the least of which is owners who may not share our hopes. Animal Kingdom is instead owned by Team Valor International while Michael Lauffer and Bill Cubberdge own Shackleford.

Team Valor International is a syndicate of some 20 owners involved in Animal Kingdom. Controlling that syndicate is the sometimes controversial Barry Irwin, the long time proprietor of Team Valor International. Regardless of how much the racing industry needs stars (i.e. Kentucky Derby winners) to stay in the sport, there will be the lure of further riches in breeding shed for Animal Kingdom. Although his Brazilian/German pedigree may keep him on the track longer than if he had more popular bloodlines, there will be a point of marginal financial return in which Irwin will have to strongly consider the colt’s retirement, regardless of his soundness and/or success on the track.

That decision would not be based solely on greed either. Regardless of Irwin’s perception or lack of popularity among racing fans, he must responsibly answer to the many Team Valor folks who own a piece of Animal Kingdom. Team Valor International has been one of the most accomplished thoroughbred ownership syndicates in the world for more than 20 years. Irwin didn’t build that success by making a bunch of decisions based on emotion and popularity.

Lauffeer and Cubbedge on the other hand, are only responsible to themselves in making decisions about Shackleford. Should they decide to keep the colt on the race track, only injury can derail that plan. But in many ways, the two partners face the same dilemma as Irwin, regardless if they have intentions to keep the colt racing or not.

While Shackleford has more domestic bloodlines, his sire Forestry has had limited success after a decade in the stallion shed. If he doesn’t prove himself as a sire early, Shackleford may have some lean years later in his stud career. Still, with his Preakness credentials and speed, there will be plenty of money to be made during his early years in the stud shed. Of course, like all stallions, if Shackleford is successful producing runners such as himself, those lean years will never come.

Another obvious road block to a rivalry is the racing schedule. The Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) is the New York prep race for the Travers and is run at the same time as the Haskell. One camp could go to the Jim Dandy while the other runs in the Haskell.

Less prestigious Summer and Fall races like the West Virginia Derby, Pennsylvania Derby, Indiana Derby and Louisiana’s Super Derby are sometimes options for Triple Crown race winners as well. Management teams at tracks that host these minor derbies often contrive bonuses at the last minute, specifically targeting Derby, Preakness and/or Belmont winners.

But if both colts stay healthy and the breeding industry can wait, then there is no reason why a rivalry could not be born. The East Coast/West Coast barrier that kept Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra apart during their racing careers does not exist between these two colts. Animal Kingdom trainer Graham Motion is stabled in Maryland during the summer while Dale Romans, trainer of Shackleford, is based at Churchill Downs giving both, easy access to the races in our dream schedule.

Now that we have come to the realization that there won’t be another Triple Crown winner in 2011, the best racing fans can hope for now from this crop of 3-year-olds is a rivalry. While neither Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom nor Preakness winner Shackleford have been confirmed for the Belmont Stakes, both camps have said the 1-1/2 mile Test of Champions is a possible next start for both.

Of course, like last year, a different horse could win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. That would not be optimal for rivalry wanting fans, but as long as Animal Kingdom and Shackleford are competitive, there is nothing wrong with a three-horse rivalry either. It’s just much more difficult keeping three horses on the same path for any extended period of time.

Schedules, injuries and the riches of the breeding shed can – and probably will – keep such a rivalry from developing. Or maybe the racing gods will bless the fans with such a wish. After all, they haven’t given us a Triple Crown winner since 1978. They kinda owe us a little something.

Monday, May 23, 2011

No More Debbie Downers for Shackleford

You have to give credit to trainer Dale Romans and owners Michael Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge. Yes, they deserve all the prestige and riches that come with winning an American sports classic like the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) with their Shackleford. But they should get some additional recognition for the tenacity and faith that they’ve shown through what has been a bumpy Winter and Spring campaign with Shackleford.

With each step leading up to the Triple Crown races, it seems that Romans, Lauffer and Cubbedge were plaqued by many in the racing media and gaming circles playing the role of 2000s Saturday Night Live character Debbie Downer. Rachel Dratch’s Debbie Downer was famous for adding negative comment to otherwise pleasant discussion, thus bringing down the mood of everyone. Of course her commentary was followed by the cartoonish muted trombone sound effect “wah! wa-a-a-a-ah.”

After Shackleford broke his maiden last November at Churchill Downs, Roman’s was giving hints of a potential horse the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands. Early this year, Shackleford was indeed listed on a few Kentucky Derby watch lists. But those were usually very long lists. The likes of Uncle Mo and To Honor and Serve were on the short lists. “wah! wa-a-a-a-ah.”

Shackleford started the year winning an entry level allowance race at Gulfstream Park in the first week of February. It was a solid win over a good field and it was around two turns at 1-1/8 miles. But it wasn’t like winning the grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park a week earlier. “wah! wa-a-a-a-ah.”

Shackleford’s next race was a bust as he finished fifth, some 23 lengths behind winner Soldat in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II). But Romans, Lauffer and Cubbedge stayed on plan with Shackleford and the Florida Derby (gr. I) would be next.

At odds of 68-1, jockey Jesus Castanon put Shackledford on the lead right from the start of the Florida Derby. It would be a position maintained until last few yards of the 1-1/8 mile Florida Derby as Holy Bull winner Dialed In hit the wire, just a head in front of second-place Shackleford. It was a dynamite performance by the long shot Shackleford.

The Debbie Downers, however, were quick to point out the main track had been beneficial to front runner all that day at Gulfstream Park. Shackleford and mearily benefited from the bias while Dialed In, a closer, had overcome it. “wah! wa-a-a-a-ah.”

And Shackleford would never get such an easy lead in the Kentucky Derby, usually run in not a fast pace, but more frantic during the early and middle parts of the race. “wah! wa-a-a-a-ah.”

But Castanon would hear nothing of the Debbie Downer’s criticism and put Shackleford on the lead in the Kentucky Derby. But he also slowed Shackleford to a pedestrian pace – in fact the slowest 1/1 mile in the Derby since 1947. Shackleford did not win the Kentucky Derby, but certainly ran a credible race, hanging on for fourth.

But again the Debbie Downers would say that the slow pace in the Derby was an anomaly and would surely not happen again in the Preakness. “wah! wa-a-a-a-ah.”

As if all of that wasn’t enough, in the moments just before the start of the Preakness, it appeared Shackleford was anything but ready for the race. He had become very hot while warming up for the Preakness and looked on edge before entering the starting gate. One final “wah! wa-a-a-a-ah.”

In the end, Shackleford was able to silence his critics with the Preakness victory, if only for a while. But in the Pimlico winner’s circle and on the infield podium where the Woodlawn Vase was presented to the winners – Debbie Downer and her trumpet where neither seen nor heard.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Look For A Macho Preakness

If we have learned one thing from the 3-year-old Thoroughbred class of 2011, is that they are full of surprises. They might not be that talented compared to other classes of years past either. That's two things.

Therefore, it is difficult to interpret the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) victory by Animal Kingdom two weeks ago. Is Animal Kingdom a horse that has suddenly blossomed into a world-class race horse and is to dominate this mediocre class? Or is he the beneficiary of this year's trend - a horse peaking in a given grade 1 race only to regress and disappoint in their next start.

Certainly Animal Kingdom can be the former. He can win the Preakness, the Belmont and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. I’m just going to have to bet against it.

The Kentucky Derby was by far his best career race and that obviously sets up for a negative bounce in the Preakness. Even if he drops off only slightly in his Preakness performance, odds are that somebody else in the 14-horse field will step up and perhaps have their career best day. That, after all, does seem to be the pattern for this group.

So where does that leave us in terms of finding a winner? The connections behind Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro have passed on the Preakness in favor of a rest and relaxation for their well-traveled star in place of firing their best shot at the 1-1/2 mile Belmont Stakes (gr. I) in three weeks. But third-place finisher Mucho Macho Man and fourth-place speedster Shackleford will be a Pimlico Saturday to make another run at the Derby champion. Dialed In, eighth in the Derby as the favorite; and Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude (the 16th-place finisher in Kentucky are also making another run Animal Kingdom.

There weren’t many excuses for those who chased Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby. It was one of the cleanest run Kentucky Derbies in quite some time. But my top choice in the Preakness may have had a more subtle reason for not being at his best on the first Saturday in May.

Mucho Macho Man found himself in perfect stalking position in the early part of the Kentucky Derby as jockey Rajiv Maraj had him placed four to five lengths behind frontrunner Shackleford down the backside. The son of Macho Uno made what looked like a potentially winning move around the far turn, but was five wide and may have covered too much extra ground by the time he had a clear shot at the finish line. Instead of accelerating and passing Shackleford at the top of the stretch, he seemed to not have quite enough to close the victory. The six weeks between his previous start in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and Kentucky may have had something to do with that as well.

My second pick in the Preakness did not run in the Kentucky Derby, but that was not because of any decision by his owner or trainer. The connections behind Sway Away had every intention of running in the Run for the Roses but fell just short on eligibility. The top 20 Derby entrants in terms of earnings in graded stakes races get a slot in the Churchill Downs starting gate. Sway Away was ranked 21st among those wanting to run in Kentucky. But he qualified for the Preakness and may be a good bet with his 15-1 morning line odds.

Sway Away first caught my attention in February when he was a fast closing second behind the speedy The Factor in the seven furlong San Vincente Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita. The Factor, a speedster, had many advantages that day, not the least of which was the short distance. It seemed that Sway Away would benefit from the extra distance of races ahead on the Triple Crown trail.

The Jeff Bonde trained Sway Away would have that chance in his next start, 1-1/16th mile Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park. But Sway Away looked to have no interest in racing that day as he was fractious at the gate and just as uneasy in the early part of the race. He he finished sixth, nearly 10 lengths behind The Factor.

In his next race, new jockey Pat Valenzuela kept him much closer to the leaders in the Arkansas Derby (gr. 1) and it momentarily looked like the correct strategy. Sway Away took the lead at the top of the stretch would eventually finish fourth behind Archarcharch, Nehro and Dance City.

Two important things have happened since Arkansas Derby that makes Sway Away attractive in the Preakness. First, the Arkansas Derby has developed into perhaps the most significant race leading up to the Kentucky Derby making it a "key race" in handicapping parlance. Second-place finisher Nehro was also second in the Derby and fifth-place finisher Alternation just won the grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park, the major local prep for the grade 1 Belmont Stakes.

A rider change from the aggressive Pat Valenzuela in the Arkansas Derby to the more patient Garret Gomez in the Preakness should also benefit Sway Away in the Preakness. Laying further back in Baltimore should allow Sway Away to use his energy much more efficiently and perhaps have much more in the tank down the stretch and improve to an in-the-money performance if not better.

Animal Kingdom should be credited with a few accomplishments in the Kentucky Derby that make him a legitimate Triple Crown threat. He came from off the pace and reeled in the front runners in a race run at tepid pace and advantageous to those who lead early in the classic contest. But Animal Kingdom still had enough acceleration to overcome the leaders and that is a valuable commodity to any race horse at this level. A duplication of that effort will probably not be defeated at Pimlico. He seems to be improving with every race – regardless of the surface having won on artificial and dirt and finishing second on turf in his last three races – and don’t underestimate his little win over 18 rivals on the first Saturday in May. Right now Animal Kingdom looks the best. But that has been the case for many this year that have disappointed in their next race.

Dialed In has taken the role of Preakness favorite away from Animal Kingdom in the early wagering despite his eighth-place finish in Kentucky. Trainer Nick Zito suffered the frustration of watching the slowest Kentucky Derby pace since 1947 as his come-from-behind Dialed In languished even further back than normal during the first six furlongs in the Derby. The Florida Derby winning Dialed In still managed to pass eleven horses before the finish line, but was unable to overcome the adversity of trying to catch the front runners who had managed to slow the early running to nearly a crawl. Dialed In should benefit from a faster pace in the Preakness but will again have plenty of horses to pass from his customary last place early running style.

The other long shot that may have some potential to make an impact is Mr. Commons. After finishing third in the Santa Anita Derby behind Midnight Interlude, the son of Artie Schiller was not considered for the Kentucky Derby because of a lack of earnings in graded stake races. Mr. Commons has plenty of tactical speed to allow jockey Victor Espinoza to lay close if necessary or just off the pace. Mr. Commons breaks from the far outside 14 post position, but will have plenty of time and room before the first turn forces him into an uncomfortable running position. Ultra-conservative trainer John Shirreffs of Zenyatta fame does not send horses across the country from his base at Hollywood Park unless he thinks he has a horse that can fire a major bullet.

The Brock Talk’s Preakness Picks
1- #9 Mucho Macho Man
2- #7 Sway Away
3- #11 Animal Kingdom
Longshot: #14 Mr. Commons.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Preakness Love

It is without doubt the least glamorous of the Triple Crown races. The Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) of course is the among America’s most classic sports events – the Run for the Roses – the most exciting two minutes in sports. The Belmont is the Test of Champions. All others things being equal, that moniker stands prominently, perhaps even more so than the Derby glamour, when championship ballots are cast at the end of the year. But the Preakness? Even its 1-13/16 miles distance is a bit non-conformist. The Preakness is... well... the Preakness is the second leg of the Triple Crown. And often misunderstood as not much more.

Yes the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland have plenty to offer Preakness fans. There is of course, the world class crab cakes and other blue crab delicacies, Fort McHenry, the chicken box, Orioles baseball, berger cookies and National Bohemian beer. But one has to leave all that and go to Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness. I’ve never been to Pimlico, but the reviews are not good. Nor have they been in quite some time. But the Preakness is bigger than it’s home and this is not about Pimlico or Magna Entertainment.

Quite the contrary in fact. Because this is what I love about the Preakness. Come on. It’s the middle child. Even though it is older than the Kentucky Derby by two years, let’s give the Preakness a little extra love.

I love the fact that the Preakness usually takes the great Kentucky Derby story and improves or solidifies them. The Preakness is the only race in the world after the Kentucky Derby that provides hopes for a Triple Crown winner. From Sir Barton in 1919 to Affirmed in ’78 and all nine Triple Crown winners in between, they all had to win the Preakness.

The Preakness can also be the first step in the healing process after suffering an upset loss in the Derby. It is kind of horse racing’s home to vindication. Bimelech at 2-5 odds, lost the 1940 Kentucky Derby to 35-1 long shot Gallahadian then cam back to win the Preakness and Belmont. Capot in 1949, Native Dancer (’53), Nashua (’55), Little Current (’74), Damascus (’77), Risen Star (’88), Tabasco Cat (’94) and Point Given in 2001 suffered the same paths of frustration to just short of history.

The Preakness can also be a part of an equally frustrating path for those who won the Derby and Preakness, but failed to take the Belmont Stakes. There have been twenty-one who have traveled that road with Burgoo King the first in 1932 and Big Brown the most recent in 2008. In those years, as well as in the eleven that produced Triple Crown winners, it is the Belmont Stakes that gets all the eventual attention. But it is the Preakness that makes the heads begin to turn. Somehow it seems, the middle jewel just doesn’t get the deserved credit again.

Also in the Preakness, rivalries sometimes get closer and the intensity rises. Affirmed defeated Alydar by a 1-1/2 lengths at Churchill Downs, but only by a neck two weeks later in the Preakness. Sunday Silence defeated Easy Goer by 2-1/2 in the Derby but only by a nose in the Preakness after a legendary stretch-long battle. (photo above left)

One of the best Preakness battles gets lost in history as the Derby tension between jockey Gary Stevens and Pat Day spilled over to the Preakness of 1988. Stevens had won the Derby, going wire-to-wire with the filly Winning Colors. But jockey Pat Day, who rode Derby second-place finisher Forty Niner, vowed that the filly would not get such an easy trip in the Preakness. Day succeeded in his plan as he raced Forty Niner to the lead in the Preakness and got inside position on Winning Colors and Stevens. Day carried Stevens wide in the first turn, wide down the backstretch and wide around the first turn. That’s when Day’s plan was exposed by jockey Eddie Delahoussaye on Risen Star, who turn the inside path and raced by the two leaders who had bumped each other more than once before then. Risen Star drew clear and won the Preakness ahead of a closing Brian’s Time in second. Winning Colors was third and Forty Niner and Pat Day were out of the money.

Then there is the 1981 Preakness when Angel Cordero aboard Codex, carried Derby winning filly Genuine Risk wide coming out of the final turn. Codex would cross the finish line first, but Genuine Risk jockey Jacinto Vasquez called foul. ABC Sports analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro told the national TV audience he felt Codex should be disqualified and placed second after the ABC replay of the race seemed to confirm that Cordero had even struck Genuine Risk with his whip.

But the track stewards upheld the order of finish and a national reaction ensued as the Pimilco switch board immediately flooded with calls and truck loads of mail from upset fans followed.

Because the Preakness only allows a maximum of 14 starters and many times feature eight to ten runners, the race is run more true to form – not to mention safer on equine and human alike. In fact, it has been six years since the Preakness featured a full gate of 14 starters. Because of that, there are fewer collisions, bumps and checks in the Preakness. It’s unlike the first 600 yards in the Derby where a wave of horse and human battle for the rail and good position going into the first turn. Field size alone allows a horse a greater chance to run to their potential in the Preakness.

The pace is more honest in the Preakness. Because the Kentucky Derby has such a large field, there are often an unusually large number of speed horses. With so many runners fighting for their comfort zone on the lead, the Derby pace is often out of control fast. Shackleford’s slow pace this year in the Derby was an anomaly of the greatest sorts.

Don’t forget about the Preakness trophy either. Valued at $1 million the 140-year-old Woodlawn Vase (photo above right) was made by Tiffany and Company and is the most valuable trophy in American Sports. Painting the colors on the winning owner on the weather vane immediately after the race is also a wonderful tradition.

Yes the Preakness does not have the glamour, prestige or championship credentials of the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont. Yes the Preakness does not come from the best home and it is even shorter than the other two. Forget the fact that the Preakness fouled up an apparent track record for Secretariat. It deserves more recognition than it sometimes gets. The winning owners, trainers and jockeys are elated to win the Preakness each year and probably appreciate the significance than most sports fans. But like other events, athletes and teams that go on over shadowed, there’s still plenty to love about the little race.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Animal Kingdom Gallops Into Preakness. Asmussen Not Sure On Nehro

Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Animal Kingdom will likely face a full field of challengers in the Preakness (gr. I) as it appears that at least 14 are pointing toward the second leg of the Triple Crown.

It will be the first time the Preakness starting gate will be filled with 14 starters since 2005 when 50-1 Giacomo won the Kentucky Derby. Prior to that, it was in 1992 when the Preakness last featured a full field. That year the Kentucky Derby was won by 16-1 shot Lil E. Tee with Casual Lies (29-1) second and Dance Floor (33-1). This year, Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby at 20-1 with 8-1 Nehro second and Mucho Macho Man (9-1) third.

The full 14-horse field does not concern Graham Motion, trainer of Animal Kingdom, who told the Preakness notes team that he is just hoping for a good post position.

Although the gate is expected to be full for the Preakness, the field has not yet been set in stone. Trainer Steve Asmussen and owner Ahmed Zayat have said they will make a decision Tuesday as to whether Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehor will go in the Preakness after watching him work a half-mile in :50-4/5 over a sloppy Churchill Downs track Monday the two

Nehro was second in his three previous races, the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) March 26, the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) April 16 and the May 7 Kentucky Derby so the Preakness would be the colt’s fourth start in just eight weeks. “He’s done a lot over a short period of time,” Asmussen said. “I think you’re trying to evaluate the runs, the races themselves and how he’s doing, while also trying to weigh the opportunity that is ahead of you.” Asmussen and Zayat are pondering whether to save Nehro and his come-from-behind running style for the 1-1/2 mile Belmont Stakes or go this week in the Preakness.

If Nehro is not entered into the Preakness, that would make way for Isn’t He Perfect, most recently fifth in the Jerome.

Amsussen also worked Astrology a half-mile Monday at Churchill Downs. Considered a definite for the Preakness, Astrology covered the work in :50.60. Like his stable mate Nehro, Astrology also has three seconds in his last three starts going back to the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) in November. After overcoming an illness this winter in Southern California, Astrology was also a runner-up in the Sunland Derby (gr. III) March 27 and the Jerome (gr. II) at Belmont Park April 23.

Kentucky Derby favorite Dialed In is also set the Preakness after finishing eighth in the Kentucky Derby. Dialed In encountered two problems during the Run for the Roses which give his supporters plenty of hope in the Preakness. After being pinched back at the start, Dialed In found himself unusually far back from pace setter Shackleford. Hence, Dialed In’s second problem. Shackleford was able to slow the pace of the Kentucky Derby to a pedestrian pace while setting the slowest half-mile fractional time (:48.63) since 1947 making it even more difficult for the come-from-behind running style of Dialed In. “You just can’t win in those situations, but he came with his run,” trainer Nick Zito said. “It was probably the best eighth-place finish in Kentucky Derby history.”

Should Dialed In win the Preakness, it will be a $6.1 million payday for him. Dialed In won the Florida Derby (gr. I) at sister track Gulfstream Park fulfilling the first part of the 5.5 Bonus set up by the Magna Corporation. Should Dialed In also win the Preakness, he would earn the $5.5 million bonus to be added to $600,000 winner’s share of the Preakness should the son of Mineshaft win.

Sway Away, who just missed becoming eligible for the Kentucky Derby with his 21st rank in graded earnings, is set for the Preakness and hoping to follow in the footsteps of some of his family. Sway Away is the son of 2005 Preakness winner Afleet Alex and his dam is a daughter of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and granddaughter of 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Historical Peter Pan Returns To Belmont Lore

The New York Racing Association has returned the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. 2) to their schedule of added-money events after a one year hiatus, and I for one, am happy about it. Long regarded as the local prep race for the Belmont Stakes (gr. 1), the 1-1/8 mile Peter Pan has a very interesting history and an 11-horse field Saturday trying to add to lore.

It has been some time since A.P. Indy (photo right) used the Peter Pan as a springboard to his 1992 Belmont Stakes and eventual Horse of the Year honors, but there were many great Peter Pan winners before and few good ones since.

One of the more interesting recent Peter Pan winners was Casino Drive in 2009. Purchased for $950,000 at the 2006 Keeneland September Yearling Sale by Hidetoshi Yamamoto, Casino Drive was then shipped to Japan where he would make his first start nearly two years later in an allowance race. He won the allowance race easily and because of Casino Drive’s family, Yamamoto returned him to the United States to prepare for the Belmont Stakes in the Peter Pan. Casino Drive was by 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, out of the mare Better Than Honour, making him a half-brother to 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil and a three-quarter brother to 2007 Belmont Stakes winner Rags to Riches.

He won the Peter Pan Stakes but unfortunately, Casino Drive was scratched from the Belmont days before the race. Casino Drive later won an allowance race in New York preparing for the Breeders’ Cup that year, but despite his undefeated record, Casino Drive would finish last in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1). He would end his career finishing sixth in the Japan Cup Dirt the next year in his only other race.

Before A.P. Indy, seven other Peter Pan winners went on to take the Belmont Stakes, including Danzig Connection (1986), Slew o’Gold (’83), Coastal (’79) and Caravan (’58) among them.

But the 1957 Peter Pan Stakes was a part of one of the more interesting stories in horse racing folklore. Considered by some to be the greatest crop of 3-year-olds ever, the sophomore thoroughbreds that year included 1957 Horse of the Year Bold Ruler; Round Table, later named the 1958 Horse of the Year; Kentucky Derby winner Iron Liege and Gallant Man.

In the Kentucky Derby that year, Iron Liege had the lead down the stretch, but Gallant Man was making up ground with every stride. As the two passed by the sixteenth pole, just as it appeared Gallant Man would take the lead and win the Kentucky Derby, jockey Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line and stood up on Gallant Man. Shoemaker quickly corrected his error and instantly resumed riding, but it was too late as Iron Liege and Bill Hartack won the Derby by a nose.

Shoemaker received a 15-day suspension for the mistake but John Nerud, the trainer of Gallant Man and a former jockey himself, never came to terms with the historical bungle by the young jockey. But whether by instruction from owner Ralph Lowe or a slow recovery from shock, Nerud again had Shoemaker aboard Gallant Man in his next race, the Peter Pan four weeks later.

Shoemaker and Gallant Man won the Peter Pan then two weeks later took the Belmont Stakes by eight lengths over Inside Track in second and Bold Ruler in third. Shoemaker and Gallant Man became quite a team after that, eventually winning seven of their next ten races including the 1957 Jockey Club Gold Cup and the 1958 Hollywood Gold Cup.

High Point in 1953 and Counterpoint in ’51 also won the Peter Pan before also winning the Belmont, but there are other memorable – perhaps not among the greats, but memorable nonetheless – Peter Peter Pan victors. The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Grand Slam in 1998 and Seeking the Gold from the famous Phipps Stable ten years earlier are notable Peter Pan winners along with Leo Castelli in 1987 and Ponder in ’49.

With a nice sized field of 11 set for the 2011 edition of the Peter Pan, there is every possibility that another star is among them. Whether or not that turns out to be case, is of little consequence to me. I’m just happy to have the Peter Pan back.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Preakness Pulling In Plenty Of Competition For Derby Winner Animal Kingdom

Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands winner Animal Kingdom has arrived at trainer Graham Motion’s base at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Maryland. There he will prepare for the Preakness Stakes (gr. 1) to be run at Pimlico Race Course in nearby Baltimore, May 21. Animal Kingdom jogged one mile Tuesday morning and Motion said he will likely jog for a few days before beginning a daily gallop routine leading up to the second leg of the Triple Crown. Motion has not said whether he plans to work Animal Kingdom before the Preakness.

As expected when a 20-1 shot wins the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness looks like it will feature a full gate of challengers. According to the Pimlico media department, the connections behind 20 horses are hoping to have one of the 14 available slots in the Preakness starting gate including Animal Kingdom and six others from the Kentucky Derby. There are also 12 newcomers to the Triple Crown trail whose connections have said they are planning to take on Animal Kingdom in the 1-3/16 mile Preakness – 110 yards shorter than the 1-1/4 mile Kentucky Derby.

Kentucky Derby starters planning on wheeling back into the Preakness include Animal Kingdom (1st), Nehro (2nd), Mucho Macho Man (3rd), Shackleford (4th), Santiva (6th) Dialed In (8th), and Midnight Interlude (16th).

While Dialed In was disappointing as the Kentucky Derby favorite, the late closing son of Mineshaft was handicapped by the incredibly slow pace in the Kentucky Derby as trainer Nick Zito explained Monday. “They ran the slowest first three-quarters in the Derby since 1947 and my horse ran the second fastest (final) half-mile (in :47.02),” Zito said. “Only Secretariat ran a faster final half (:46 2/5). He (Dialed In) was not a short horse. We are going to keep doing what we’ve been doing with him when he was in Florida.”

Credit jockey Julio Castanon for slowing down the Kentucky Derby pace with the speedy Shackleford and putting the Florida Derby runner-up in position to win at the top of the stretch. Before 1910, half-mile splits in :49-plus were commonplace. But in the 100 years since 1910, only Jet Pilot (1947), Clyde Van Dussen (29), Misstep in the 1928 Derby won by Reigh Count, Viva America in the 1918 Exterminator Derby and Worth in 1912 have been slower than Shackleford. Only six others ran the first half-mile in the Derby in :48s with Rockhill Native being the last. In the 1980 Derby won by Genuine Risk, he lead the field after a half-mile in :48 flat.

Dialed In will also be trying for the biggest payday in North American racing history with his 5.5 bonus made possible by winning the Florida Derby. Should he also win the Preakness, an additional $5 million will be paid to owner Robert LaPenta and $500,000 to Zito. With the $600,000 winner’s share of the Preakness, it would be a $6.1 million pay-day eclipsing the $5.8 million earned by Smarty Jones for winning the Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.

Among the Triple Crown rookies expected in the Preakness are Astrology, Dance City, Mr. Commons, Flashpoint, Sway Away and the locally based Norm Asbjornson.

Trained by Steve Asmussen Astrology was on the road to the Kentucky Derby before an illness slowed his winter progress. Second in both the Sunland Derby (gr. 3) in March and Jerome Handicap (gr. 2) in late April, Astrology worked six furlongs in 1:12.40 at Churchill Downs Monday morning preparing for the Preakness. Two days earlier, Shackleford ran the first six furlongs in the Kentucky Derby exactly one second slower than Astrology's work.

Dance City is a lightly raced Todd Pletcher trainee who last finished third behind Archarcharch and Nehro in the Arkansas Derby (gr. 1) in early April. The John Shirreffs-trained Mr. Commons also finished third in his last race, the grade 1 Santa Anita Derby behind winner Midnight Interlude and Comma to the Top in second. Sway Away was a late charging second behind The Factor in the San Vincente Stakes in Februay before finishing fourth in the Arkansas Derby in his last race.

Norman Asbjornson is based at Pimlico with trainer Chris Grove, has at least more credentials than most Maryland-based Preakness runners. In March, the son of 1998 Preakness winner Real Quiet finished second to Stay Thirsty in the Gotham Stakes (gr. 2), and was fourth, beaten only 4-1/2 lengths by Toby’s Corner in the New York Casino Wood Memorial (gr. 1) in April.

At one time trainer Bob Baffert had indicated that Rebel Stakes winner The Factor was possible for the Preakness but has now said that the Woody Stephens at Belmont Park will be his next race. In another Preakness note, jockey Robbie Albarado, who was taken off Animal Kingdom the day before the Kentucky Derby because the connections deemed his injuries to serious to ride, has picked up the Preakness mount on King Congie.

There have been 21 horses win both the Derby and the Preakness. Big Brown (2008), Smarty Jones (’04) and Funny Cide (’03) are the most recent. A victory by Animal Kingdom and he’s number 22. More important, a Preakness victory also means he will then have a chance at becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner. Even though Animal Kingdom has the Kentucky Derby victory on his resume, it appears he’s not scarring anybody out of the Preakness. Just more than ten days away from the second leg of the Triple Crown and 19 horses are considering the race. Dialed In has 6.1 million incentives while others have plenty with just the $600,000 and history.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Kentucky Derby Thoughts, Comments and Questions

A couple of rattlings before pondering the Preakness…

You won’t be alone if you don’t expect Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) winner Animal Kingdom to win the Preakness (gr. 1) and Belmont Stakes (gr. 1) and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1977. But is too much for horse racing to want to see a Kentucky Derby victor win a a race after the big win at Churchill Downs? Not since Big Brown won the Monmouth Stakes over Proudinsky in September of 2008, has a Kentucky Derby champion won race after the Kentucky Derby. Since then, Mine That Bird and Super Saver have been 0-12 during their post Kentucky Derby careers.

If you're not a big fan of Animal Kingdom, you’re not alone either. It is difficult to root for owner Team Valor’s manager Barry Irwin after he told NBC’s Bob Newmeier that he chose Graham Motion to train Animal Kingdom because he was “just tired of other trainers lying to me and I wanted a guy to tell me the truth.” When pressed by Newmeier as to how many trainers are liars, he responded “plenty.” Then a slick, “hey listen, I’ve gotta go”… Justified or not, replacing jockey Robbie Albarado at the last minute because of injury concerns to the jockey’s eye and broken nose, isn’t helping Irwin’s popularity either. There was no reason to make the jockey change the day before instead of waiting to see if Albarado could ride. Especially after Albarado won the grade 1 Humana Distaff earlier on the Derby card with Sassy Image.

Churchill always seems to fall a little short on the star power of the their Kentucky Derby day National Anthem singer. “Grammy-nominated, platinum selling artist,” Jordan Sparks did little to change that notion. But she got all the words right…

Calling the Kentucky Derby for the first time for NBC, Larry Collmus was flawless. In text book track announcer fashion, he described the action up front early while the field settled. He then went horse-by-horse through the entire field with out a stumble and was observant in picking up horses making their moves around the far turn. As Neho and Shackleford battled down the stretch, Collmus immediately picked up Animal Kingdom and his late rally from the middle of the pack. I give Collmus an Excellent, A+, top of the bell curve 10.

With Animal Kingdom paying $43.80 to win the Kentucky Derby, the trend continues. The average win pay-off in six grade 1 races this year for 3-year-olds is $28.71. That includes Dialed In winning the Florida Derby and paying $7.80 on the low end and Archarcharch paying $52.40 to win the Arkansas Derby on the top end of the long shot spectrum.

It was a very clean race by Kentucky Derby standards. My Kentucky Derby top choice, Mucho Macho Man, broke well from the 13 hole and only had to check once in the charge to the first turn when he was mildly brushed by Soldat. Winner Animal Kingdom probably had a similarly minor check at about the same time. There was some other bumping, but nobody was eliminated by the calvary charge that is usually the Kentucky Derby clubhouse turn.

Kentucky Derby television ratings dropped 6% from last year but still had a strong 9.7 overnight rating which translates to 9.7% of households in 56 urban markets according to USA Today. In comparison, the Los Angeles Lakers playoff loss to the Dallas Mavericks Sunday drew a 6.5 rating which was up 27% from last year. NBA playoffs were also up across the board over the weekend while NASCAAR, like the Kentucky Derby was also down compared to last year.

A finally a Kentucky Derby seperated at birth?

Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan and Parks and Recretation start Aziz Ansari

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Brock Talk Kentucky Derby Picks

Its time to step up to the plate and swing away at the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands. Here’s my picks.

#13 – Mucho Macho Man: Has been among the most consistent and competitive this year while technically racing at a young age. While all thoroughbreds birthday is officially January 1, Mucho Macho Man wasn’t born until June. Which means he may be just primed to blossom. He finished fourth behind Dialed In in January, then won the Risen Star (gr. 3) in February before losing a shoe in the Louisiana Derby (gr. 2) and finishing third behind Pants On Fire and Nehro. Six-week lay-off is a concern but he has the speed and post position to negotiate away from most traffic and into contention at the top of the stretch.
#8 – Dialed In: There is much to like about the Florida Derby (gr. 1) winner who also won the Holy Bull (gr. 3) over Mucho Macho Man in January. Seemed to have an undisclosed hiccup in his training in February, but was impressive in winning the Fla. Derby on a track favoring speed. Will have to negotiate traffic around the far turn with his late kick, but a relatively clean trip and he will be very dangerous. Three of last four Kentucky Derby winners have trained at Palm Meadows during the winter where trainer Nick Zito had trained Dialed In until last week.
#19 – Nehro: Don’t worry about the post position because this Steve Asmussen trainee is a closer as well. Second in the Louisiana Derby after traffic problems then a hard charging second, just missing to Archarcharch in Arkansas Derby (gr. 1). Sire Mineshaft won two grade 1 races at this distance, so the 1-1/4 miles should not be a problem. Like other closer Dialed In, traffic may be the problem late while trying to pass tired horses and catch others doing much better on the front. Another son of Mineshaft, so he should have plenty in the tank down the long Churchill Downs stretch.
#1 – Archarcharch: Arkansas Derby (gr. 1) winner took it on the chin drawing the #1 post, but then got a little lucky with the closest speed horses (Decisive Moment) breaking from post five. So he should have time and room to pull back and let the wave hit the rail in front of him in first 1/2 mile. With luck, he’ll also be at the back of the pack early, but a more forward than Dialed In and Nehro. Also won the Southwest Stakes (gr. 3) at Oaklawn, but was still let go at 25-1 in the Ark. Derby. Should be a good price Saturday in Kentucky as well.

Trifecta Ticket
60 Combinations, $1 Trifecta costs $60

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

In Pursuit of the Kentucky Derby Formula

Is there a formula for winning the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1)?

Certainly, there is no proven recipe for breeders to produce a Kentucky Derby winner. The last ten Kentucky Derby winners have been sired by nine different stallions. The Maria’s Mon is the only stallion during that span to have sired two winners having sired 2001 Derby winner Monarchos and last year’s winner Super Saver. That in itself put Maria’s Mon (photo right) on an elite list with only 18 other stallions that have produced more than one Kentucky Derby winner. Before Maria’s Mon, the most recent stallions with two Derby winners were Alydar (Alysheba, 1987, Strike The Gold, ’91) and Halo (Sunny’s Halo, ’83 and Sunday Silence, ’89). Falsetto, Virgil, Sir Gallahad III and Bull Lea all sired three Kentucky Derby winners with others stallions with two.

On the bottom side of the last ten Derby winnering pedigrees, only Dixieland Band is listed on as the dam’s sire on more than one. The former Lane’s End stallion sired Regal Band, the dam of Monarchos; and Street Sense's mother Bedazzle.

There is no Kentucky Derby winning map for owners either. Owners spent some $400 million on yearling’s at Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton Company public yearling auctions in 2008 in search of a 2010 Kentucky Derby winner. The next year they spent an addition $64 million on two-year-olds in training at three additional Fasig-Tipton Sales Florida, Maryland and Texas. Unfortunately for all of them, the eventual winner of the 2010 Kentucky Derby would be the home-bred Super Saver – bred and raised by his owners at their WinStar Farm in Versailles, Kentucky.

Since creating his Godolphin Stable in 1992, perhaps no one has invested more money in thoroughbred horse racing than Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He has been among the leading buyers at nearly every major thoroughbred auction in the world, spending hundreds of millions of dollars. Sheikh Mohammed also has major racing operations in Europe, North America, Japan and in his home of Dubai, UAE. His Darley has become a massive international breeding operation with farms in Kentucky, England, Dubai, Japan and Australia. Since 1992, Sheikh Mohammed has owned or was in partnership on nine Kentucky Derby starters. His best finish has be sixth with China Bowl in 2000. Money can't buy you love or a Kentucky Derby winner.

What about trainers then? Surely there must be a plan that works well for the conditioners. No, but there seems to at least be some clues. Since Lil E. Tee won the Kentucky Derby in 1992, every Derby winner has shared at least three criteria. They all raced as a two-year and had won their first race by January of their 3-year-old year. At times, the third principal is out of the trainer’s control. But every winner of those 19 Kentucky Derbies has a sharp race, (defined as finishing fourth or better and within five lengths or less lengths from the winner) in their start just previous to the Kentucky Derby.

There have been some other guidelines met by nearly all of the previous 19 Kentucky Derby winners, but not quite. Since 1992, only 1997 Derby winner Silver Charm did not run in a two-turn race by February of his 3-year-old year. Only Mine That Bird (2010) and War Emblem (2002) had not recorded at least a 90 Beyer Speed Figure before February and only Funny Cide (2003) and Sea Hero (1993) had not been first or second in a two-turn race by March.

Between Lil E. Tee in 1992 and Barbaro in 2006, every Kentucky Derby winner had at least three starts before the Derby during their three-year-old year. Since then, Street Sense (‘07), Big Brown (‘08), Mine That Bird and Super Saver, came to Churchill Downs in consecutive years with only two starts in their respective sophomore campaigns.

During the last four years, Calvin Borel seems to have the jockey secret down. The rail-hugging Borel has now won three of the last four Kentucky Derbies with Street Sense, Mine That Bird and Super Saver. In the last 19 years, only Kent Desormeaux (photo left) has won the Derby three times winning with Real Quiet (1989) Fusaichi Pegasus (2001) and Big Brown. Gary Stevens won three Kentucky Derbies going back to his first aboard Winning Colors in 1988. Since, he won the Run for the Roses with Thunder Gulch (’95) and Silver Charm (’97).

Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack have the record for most Kentucky Derby wins with five each while Bill Shoemaker has four. Arcaro won with Lawrin, Whirlaway, Hoop Jr., Citation and Hill Gail between 1938 and 1952. Hartack won the Iron Liege, Venetian Way, Decidedly, Northern Dancer and Majestic Prince from 1957 through ’69. Shoemaker won with Swaps, Tomy Lee, Lucky Debonair and Ferdinand from 1955 through 1986.

There are no paths, plans or recipes that can guarantee a Kentucky Derby winner. Watching the gut wrenching decisions of owners and trainers to withdraw horses like Toby’s Corner, The Factor and To Honor and Serve to name a few, illustrates that getting to the Kentucky Derby is a monumental task. And if plans existed and were flawlessly executed, the pull of a bad pill at the post position draw or a second, third, or fourth bump in the first half-mile of the race can shatter all plans and flawless executions.

Perhaps that is what makes it the most exciting two minutes in sports.

Monday, May 2, 2011

History May Help Find A Kentucky Derby Winner

The group of 3-year-old colts contesting this year’s Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) is a puzzling one indeed and will present a tall task to those who will try to handicap them and find a winner. Dialed In and Archarcharch are the only two starters with more than one graded stakes victory this year. Dialed In won the Holy Bull (gr. 3) in February and the Florida Derby in (gr. 1) April 3 – both at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. Archarcharch won Oaklawn Park’s Southwest Stakes (gr. 3) in February and the Arkansas Derby (gr. 1) April 16.

Derby contenders Watch Me Go paid $89.40 in winning the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. 2); Twice the Appeal paid $53.20 to win the Sunland Derby (gr. 3) and Midnight Interlude returned $29.80 to his supporters in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1). Archarcharch paid $31.00 in the Southwest and $52.40 to win the Arkansas Derby.

The search for that extra bit of information that may be the breakthrough tidbit of handicapping insight is a difficult one indeed. If you believe history repeats itself, then perhaps a look back at where other Kentucky Derby winners came from will be of some aid.

Among all of the Kentucky Derby prep races, the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. 1) at Keeneland has produced the most winners of the Run for the Roses with 23. However, since Polytrack was installed on the main track at Keeneland in 2006, only Street Sense in 2007 had run in the Blue Grass,(finishing second to Dominican), before going on to win the Derby. Of the 23 horses that came out of the Blue Grass to win the Derby, only 11 were winners of the Blue Grass as well. The last to win both races was Strike the Gold in 1991.

The Blue Grass stats speak well for three potential starters in the Kentucky Derby this Saturday, May 7, including Blue Grass winner Brilliant Speed, runner-up Twinspired and Santiva, who as the 2-1 favorite finished ninth. Twinspired is hoping to follow in the footsteps of seven Blue Grass place finishers that would go on to win the Kentucky Derby. Don’t fret too much for Santiva either. Derby winners Sea Hero (1993) and Thunder Gulch (1995) were both unplaced in the Blue Grass before they hit the Churchill Downs winner's circle on the first Saturday in May.

The Florida Derby has produced the second-most Kentucky Derby winners with 21, including two of the last four and three during the oughts decade. Barabaro (photo) won the Florida-Kentucky Derby double in 2006 and Big Brown achieved the same in 2008. Nine years ago, Monarchos won both the Florida and Kentucky Derbies in 2001 but sqeezed in a second behind Congaree in the Wood Memorial between the two wins. A dozen of the 21 Kentucky Derby winners who had raced in the Florida Derby won both races including Thunder Gulch in 1995. Like Monarchos, after Florida, Thunder Gulch raced again before going to Churchill Downs – finishing fourth in the Blue Grass.

This year, Dialed In won the Florida Derby in a close finish over long shot Shackleford. Both are probable starters in the Kentucky Derby along with Soldat, who finished fifth in the Florida Derby as the 3-2 favorite.

New York’s main prep race has also produced its share of Kentucky Derby winners with 20 of them coming out of the Wood Memorial. The last two Derby winners to come out of the Aqueduct prep race were Funny Cide in 2003 and Monarchos. Like Monarchos, Funny Cide also finished second in the Wood Memorial, but that was the final prep race for the New York-bred gelding. The highly regarded Empire Make defeated Funny Cide on his way to becoming the favorite in Kentucky, but Funny Cide turned the tables in Kentucky, winning by 1-1/4 lengths ahead of Empire Maker in second.

The last six years, however, the road to the Kentucky Derby has been a rough one for winners of the Wood Memorial. Bellamy Road won the 2005 Wood by 14-1/2 lengths and was headed to favoritism in Kentucky before he was withdrawn from the Kentucky Derby due to injury. I Want Revenge (2009) and Eskendereya (2010) followed eerily similar paths after their Wood wins, also scratched due to injuries in the days before being the Kentucky Derby favorites.

Toby’s Corner, winner of the Wood Memorial this year, will not have to worry about that curse as he will not be the favorite in Kentucky. Uncle Mo, third in the Wood this year as the 1-10 favorite, is hoping to follow in the footsteps of the great Secretariat who got the show spot in the 1973 Wood before going on to Kentucky Derby, Triple Crown and fame beyond.

Next on the list of prep races producing the most Kentucky Derby winners are the Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) with 15 and the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. 2) with 12. The San Felipe Stakes (gr. 2) is the only other prep race to produce double digit Kentucky Derby winners with 11.

These races from the past logically have little to do with the 2006 Kentucky Derby and prep races thereof. But in attempting to find a winner among the Kentucky Derby cast of 2011, we need all the help we can get.