The Brock Talk

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Florida Win Is No Requisite For Kentucky Fame

This Sunday, one of the premier prep races for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) will be run in the grade 1 Florida Derby. Not only does the $1 million purse provide plenty of incentive to those connections needing graded stakes money to qualify their colt for the Run for the Roses, but the 1-1/8 distance, calendar placement and tradition also adds to the races allure.

Run just five weeks before the Kentucky Derby, this Florida Derby looks to have one of the deepest fields the race has offered in some time. Probable starters Soldat, Dialed In, To Honor and Serve and Stay Thirsty are all among leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby with all appearing in Paulick Report’s Vinery LTD Derby Index, a top ten ranking of Kentucky Derby contenders as ranked by 28 turf writers and thoroughbred racing bloggers throughout North America. Soldat is ranked second behind leader Uncle Mo with Dialed In tallying the third most votes. To Honor and Serve and Stay Thirsty are ranked sixth and seventh respectively in the weekly poll.

Although Soldat, with his $510,000 in graded stakes earnings, is virtually guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby should he make it there, Stay Thirsty ($260,000), To Honor and Serve ($250,000) and Dialed In ($240,000) appear not to need more than a $50,000 fourth-place Florida Derby check that push them near the $300,000 mark believed to safely be enough to stamp a ticket to Louisville, Kentucky. But one can rest assured that the owners, trainers and jockeys in this race are thinking nothing short of the Gulfstream Park winner’s circle after the Florida Derby.

After all, since the Florida Derby was first run in 1953, ten winners have gone to take the Kentucky Derby including Big Brown (2008), Barbaro (’06), Monarchos (‘01), Thunder Gulch (1995), Unbridled (’90), Swale (’84), Spectacular Bid (’79), Forward Pass (’68), Northern Dancer (’64), Carry Back (’61) and Needles in 1956 (photo above). Of those, however, only Big Brown, Barbaro and Needles went directly from the Florida Derby to Kentucky.

Spectacular Bid, Forward Pass and Northern Dancer (photo left) all won the Bluegrass Stakes between their Florida and Kentucky victories and Tim Tam won the Derby Trial. Swale, Unbridled and Thunder Gulch also went to Lexington for the Blue Grass before the Derby, but finished second, third and fourth respectively in the Keeneland’s Bluegrass.

Monarchos, and Carry Back went to Aqueduct in New York to finish second in the Wood Memorial before going to Kentucky for their post race blanket of roses.

With the quality of the 2011 Florida Derby as high and deep as it is, one might also think a Florida Derby might be a must for Kentucky glory. However, nine Kentucky Derby winners ran in the Florida Derby but failed to win. Strike The Gold (’91), Cannonade (’74) and Venetian Way (’60) finished second in the Florida Derby before winning the big one in Kentucky. Foolish Pleasure (’75) and Iron Liege (’57) were third, while Go For Gin (’94) and Kaui King (’66) were both unplaced in Florida before their historical wins in Kentucky.

With five weeks remaining until the Kentucky Derby on May 7, the pressure is surely beginning to mount in the shed rows of those with aspirations of taking the coveted race so there is no need to heap on additional albatross of a must win in Florida Sunday. Florida Derby probables Bowman’s Causeway, Arch Traveler and perhaps Flashpoint need the $600,000 first-place check for the needed graded earnings for Derby consideration. But for Soldat, Dialed In, To Honor and Serve and Stay Thirsty, the additional burden of a must-win is unnecessary.

That is unlikely to make much difference for their connections, however. Urgency is not a necessary ingredient for determination. And few run horse races to finish second.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mucho Reasons To Like The Macho Man

For all intents and purposes, six horses qualified for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) by earning enough graded stakes money in the three stakes considered serious prep races this past weekend.

Animal Kingdom, Pants on Fire and Twice the Appeal won the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. 3), Louisiana Derby (gr. 2) and Sunland Derby (gr. 3) respectively. Decisive Moment added $95,000 to his previous bankroll of $206,000 with his runner-up finish in the Spiral Stakes and now looks to have enough to enter the Kentucky Derby. In fact, Decisive Moment was the first Kentucky Derby contnender to arrive at Churchill Downs today. (photo) Mucho Macho Man likely had enough graded earnings before the Louisiana Derby but the $100,000 third-place check out of the Louisiana Derby pretty much solidifies his Kentucky qualifications. Similarly, Sunland Derby second-place finisher Astrology added enough to his existing earnings to likely get a spot in the starting gate in the Run for the Roses.

Although the Louisiana Derby has produced some Kentucky Derby starters that have gone to the gate at Churchill Downs among the favorites, the past winners of the Sunland Derby and Spiral Stakes are often among the less popular on the first Saturday in May, (If they make it to the Kentucky Derby at all.)

That is not to say that we did not see the future Kentucky Derby winner run this weekend. All three of these prep races have produced winners of the first leg of the Triple Crown. Horses that have won both the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby include Grindstone (1996) and Black Gold (1924) while Lil E. Tee won in Kentucky in 1992 after winning the Spiral Stakes that year. Two years ago, Mine That Bird won the Derby at odds of 50-1, coming to Kentucky from the 2009 Sunland Derby where he finished third.

Interestingly, among the starters this weekend, the horse with the best chance of attracting wagers at the Kentucky Derby, finished third this weekend. Mucho Macho Man looked as though we was set to challenge leader Pants on Fire at the top of the stretch in the Louisiana Derby, the eventual winner pulled away and held off late charging and eventual runner-up Nehro. At first glance, it appeared as if Mucho Macho Man had run the second disappointing race in his last three starts.

Following the race, however, it was discovered that Mucho Macho Man had lost a shoe at some point very near the start of the race. That completely changes how the Louisiana Derby performance of Mucho Macho Man is evaluated. Instead of looking at Mucho Macho Man with doubt as to if he belongs in the Kentucky Derby, he instead retains his place among those likely to have a chance to win.

The thrown shoe by Mucho Macho Man in Louisiana will also be something lost among a great many of those betting the Kentucky Derby. So should Mucho Macho Man make it to Kentucky, there is a good chance he will be a bit of a wagering overlay. That is to say his odds will be artificially higher than they perhaps they should be.

Mucho Macho Man may not be the fastest or most talented of this group of 3-year-olds in 2011, but he oozes with determination. The son of Macho Uno started the year as the favorite in the grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park but finished fourth behind eventual winner Dialed In. After the race, jockey Eibar Coa said he had a difficult time getting Mucho Macho Man to relax during the early part of the Holy Bull and therefore spent too much energy too early in the race.

But Mucho Macho Man came back strong to win the Risen Star Stakes (gr. 3) at Fairgrounds in his next start showing that he had the determination to win and the character to rebound from a loss. Trainer Kathy Ritvo also took the blinkers off of Mucho Macho Man, which may have allowed him to settle a little easier for jockey Rajiv Maragh. Despite any lack of talent or pedigree, determination and character can be extremely valuable in a race with 19 other horses at a distance of 1-1/4 miles. Having the ability to rate and settle behind the always fast fractions in the Kentucky Derby will also be an asset.

Of course the Mucho Macho Man story can tug at one’s heart in other ways as well. Three years ago Ritvo was hospitalized and in very serious condition as she lay waiting for a heart transplant that had no guarantee of arrival. The donated heart eventually arrived and Ritvo has not only recovered, but now has a Kentucky Derby contender in her stable.

What the stable is missing however is jockey Eibar Coa, the regular rider aboard Mucho Macho Man before breaking a vertebrae in a spill at Gulfstream Park in February. Although Maragh has taken over riding Mucho Macho Man, the ownership team of Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and Dream Team One Thoroughbred Racing have insisted the recovering Coa is still very much a part of the team. In fact majority owner Dan Reeves visited Coa in the hospital following the Risen Star victory and presented him a check for $18,000, equal to the compensation paid Maragh for the win.

So there are plenty of reason to pull for Mucho Macho Man to win this year’s Kentucky Derby. Not the least of which is your knowledge of the lost shoe in New Orleans.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Spiral Stakes History Dotted With Popular Stars

Although the $500,000 Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes took a hit from the North American Graded Stakes Committee this year by being dropped a class down to grade 3, the marquee event for Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky has featured some significant stars preparing for the first Saturday in May.

Although the race had attracted several good horses since the first running in 1972, it wasn’t until D. Wayne Lukas brought Marfa to Turfway Park to win the 1983 Jim Beam Spiral Stakes when the race began to garner national attention. Marfa went on to finish fifth in the Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) that year behind winner Sunny’s Halo and fourth in the Preakness behind Deputed Testamony. A year later the race was given grade 3 status and was quickly becoming the new race on the block for those preparing for the Kentucky Derby.

Three years later Broad Brush was shipped to Turfway from his home base in Maryland to win the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes before finishing third in both the 1986 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

The Spiral Stakes then hit it’s golden years in the 1990s starting with 1990 winner Summer Squall and 1991 winner Hansel, both of which would go on to win the Preakness. Hansel also set the track record for a 1-1/8 miles, stopping the clock in 1:46.60. A year later the Spiral Stakes was won by Lil E. Tee and few weeks later the race had produced its first Kentucky Derby winner as Lil E. Tee won also won the 1992 Run for the Roses. The roll through the decade continued as 1993 winner Prairie Bayou would become the third future Preakness winner in four years to have gone through the Turfway Park winner’s circle.

In 1995, Serena’s Song (photo above) became the first filly to win the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes, and while she had little impact on the Triple Crown, the D. Wayne Lukas-trainee would defeat colts in the Haskell Invitational (gr. 1). The future Hall of Fame filly also won the grade 1 Beldame Stakes over older mares in New York that year and was eventually named the Champion 3-Year-Old Filly of 1995.

Jockey Pat Day has the record for the most Spiral Stakes victories with five, but trainer William E. Adams has the most impressive streak in the races history. From 1977-80, Adams trained seven consecutive winners of the Spiral Stakes as the race was split into two divisions in three of those four years.

The Spiral Stakes may have lost a bit of its luster over the last few years, but it has still produced some popular Derby contenders in Hard Spun and Perfect Drift.

Hard Spun won the 2007 Spiral (Then named the Lane’s End Stakes), before finishing in the money in all three Triple Crown races. He finished second in the Kentucky Derby behind Street Sense then finished third in the Preakness and fourth in the Belmont.

Perfect Drift was third in the Kentucky Derby behind winner War Emblem, but his 3-year-old year was just the start of a long career. He would go on to run at age seven and appeared in five consecutive Breeders’ Cup Classics (gr. ) from 2002-2006, finishing third in 2005 and fourth in 2004. Perhaps his best year was 2003 when Perfect Drift won the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. 1), the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. 2), the Kentucky Jockey Club Handicap (gr. 2), and the Washington Park Handicap (gr. 3). Two years later, he would win his second Washington Park Handicap in track record time and finish second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

While this year’s Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes does not an Uncle Mo, Dialed In or any of the other leading 3-year-olds this year, the field is again solid. And if history tells us anything, there’s probably a star somewhere in the field.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Race Within Derby Preps This Weekend

This weekend, 30 or so 3-year-olds will be running in three races, all with hopes of getting to the May 7 Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands. And the pressure is beginning to come from all directions. In order to take the next step to Kentucky, they must perform well on the track in order to establish respect among the sophomore group on the Derby trail. But no matter how good they look in winning or how good the excuse is in losing, nearly every horse needs to add to their graded earnings bankroll in order to make it into the available 20 starting gate slots in the Kentucky Derby.

The three major Derby prep races this weekend are the $1 million Louisiana Derby (gr. 2) at Fairgrounds in New Orleans and the $500,000 Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. 3) at Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky on Saturday and the $800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. 3) from Sunland Park, New Mexico on Sunday. The $100,000 Rushaway Stakes, also at Turfway on Saturday, could technically be a Derby prep, but with no grade on the one mile stake, the horses must follow the graded money and run elsewhere if Derby hopes exist.

Currently the cut-off for qualifying for the Kentucky Derby sits with Sweet Ducky with $120,000 in graded earnings. Last year, it took $218,750 in graded earnings for Make Mine For Me to qualify for the Derby. Assuming it will take at least $215,000 to again qualify for the Run for the Roses, the horses that are currently on the Derby bubble, are found further up the current rankings. San Felipe Stakes (gr. 2) winner Premier Pegasus sits just above that level ranked 12th with $228,000 on the current list.

The only two horses scheduled to start this weekend with graded earnings above that $215k mark are both Louisiana Derby contenders. Mucho Macho Man (photo above) is the seventh leading earner of graded earnings among 3-year-olds with $270,000. Among the horses running this weekend, Spiral Stakes probable Decisive Moment has $206,000, ranking him 13th on the current list.

The only other 3-year-old set to start this weekend with six figure graded earnings is Sunland Derby favorite Astrology with $105,893. Louisiana Derby entrant Wilkinson has $66,000 in graded earning while seven others have $25,000 or less in graded earnings.

Of the big three Derby preps this weekend, the Louisiana Derby with its $1 million purse appears primed to have the most influence on Derby qualifications. The $600,000 first prize in the Louisiana Derby assures the winner enough graded earnings to make it to Churchill. But only Mucho Macho Man and Wilkinson have a chance of earning enough to qualify without hitting the winner’s circle in New Orleans and starting again in graded company before May 7.

The $100,000 Louisiana Derby third-place check would push Mucho Macho Man to $370,000, very likely to be enough to qualify. A $200,000 second-place check would push Wilkinson to $266,000 in graded earnings and Elite Alex to $225,000 which looks to be bubble territory for now.

In the Spiral Stakes, only Decisive Moment has enough graded earnings to qualify for the Derby Saturday without winning. A Spiral Stakes runner-up earns $100,000, which would push Decisive Moment above the $300,000 which should at least be at the very top of the Derby bubble. Every other Spiral starter needs to earn the $300,000 first-place check to give them a chance of qualifying with the pressure of another race before the Derby.

The story is much the same with the Sunland Derby, but the $800,000 purse helps. Astrology is the favorite in New Mexico with just more than $105,000 in graded earnings. A Sunland second-place check of $160,000 might qualify him for the Derby, but the $480,000 first prize would be much more comforting in terms of getting into the Run for the Roses – for Astrology or any other Sunland Derby starter.

Again, everybody can come back and try again in the final grade 1 races before the Derby, but the competition will be considerably stiffer, making it more difficult to earn those last second dollars. Practically speaking, most connections are looking for wins this weekend with most of their 3-year-olds in order to deflate the added pressure of having to run in those later Derby preps to qualify for the Derby.

Twelve probable competitors this weekend have graded earnings. Mucho Macho Man may have enough to be Derby bound already with his $270k bankroll, but even that is an estimate. It may take as much as $300,000 to punch a ticket to Churchill. That puts a lot of pressure on and uncertainty around the thirty or so others set for graded competition this weekend on the Derby trail.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Rebel Grads: The Champions and the Infamous

Although the Rebel Stakes (gr. 3) has produced two Kentucky Derby winners in Smarty Jones (photo) in 2004 and Sunny’s Halo in 1983, it has also produced other memorable winners of Triple Crown races and several champion 3-year-olds.

Last year trainer Bob Baffert brought champion 2-year-old Lookin at Lucky to Oaklawn Park for the 1-1/16 Rebel. Although he was not undefeated, having run a close second to Vale of York after a miserable trip in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. 1) in his only loss, he was at the time, the star of the 3-year-old class. Lookin at Lucky had also won the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park since the Breeders’ Cup, so he came into Hot Springs, Ark., as the winter-book choice for the Kentucky Derby.

After being significantly cut-off nearing the far turn by Dublin and jockey Corey Nakatani as the even money favorite in the Rebel, Lookin at Lucky rallied to win by a head over Noble’s Promise in his 2010 debut.

Traffic problems continued to haunt Looking at Lucky through losses in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) and Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1), but he was finally able to get a clear trip and won the Preakness Stakes. He would also go on to win the grade 1 Haskell Invitational and the grade 2 Indiana Derby on his way to being named Champion Three-Year-Old Male of 2010.

Three years earlier, Steve Asmussen brought Curlin to Oaklawn for the Rebel after breaking his maiden in his first start at Gulfstream Park in February. Curling would win the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby (gr. 2) and was second choice in the Derby. But he could only manage a third behind winner Street Sense and runner-up Hard Spun.

Curlin returned to win the Preakness Stakes before finishing second after a stretch-long duel with the filly Rags To Riches in the Belmont. Curlin then finished third in the Haskell in an upset by the ironically-named Any Given Saturday, but bounced back big to take the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) over Lawyer Ron, (winner of the 2006 Rebel). Curlin then went to Monmouth Park to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) and was named 2007 Horse of the Year as well as Champion Three-Year-Old Male.

Three years earlier trainer John Servis brought his undefeated 3-year-old colt Smarty Jones to Hot Springs to prepare for a run at the Kentucky Derby. Smarty Jones swept through Oaklawn taking the Southwest Stakes, Rebel and Arkansas Derby and went to gate at Churchill Downs as the post time favorite. He did not disappoint, becoming the first undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew in 1977.

Smarty Jones then won the Preakness but his bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 failed when he was defeated by Birdstone in the Belmont Stakes. Like Majestic Prince before him in 1969, Smarty Jones went into the Belmont undefeated, finished second and never raced again. But unlike Majestic Prince, Smarty Jones was awared the Eclipse Award for Champion Three-Year-Old Male.

One has to go back to 1980 to find the other Rebel graduate that went on to garner the champion 3-year-old title in Temperence Hill. Brought to Oaklawn by trainer Joseph B. Canty, Temperence Hill won the Arkansas Derby after the Rebel. But the trainer and owner John Ed Anthony decided to bypass the Derby and run instead in the Withers Stakes (gr. 3) at Aqueduct in New York, concerned that the colt needed some time to mature and overcome his laziness. Temperence Hill finished second in the Withers, missed the Preakness, then took the Belmont at odds of 43-1 over Kentucky Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk and Preakness winner Codex.

Temperence Hill would then win the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Super Derby before he too would be named champion of his division that year.

Three years after Temperence Hill, Sunny's Halo (photo left) would win the Rebel, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby of 1983. He finished sixth in the Preakness after reports of a sore ankle and skipped the Belmont. He would finish fourth in the Arlington Classic and missed the Queen's Plate (gr. 1) at Woodbine, again from the bothersome ankle. He ended his career winning the Super Derby by 12 lengths in track record time, before the nagging injuries ended his career.

Twelve years after Temperence Hill, owner John Ed Anthony returned to his native state of Arkansas with Pine Bluff in 1992. After Pine Bluff won the Rebel, he defeated Lil E.Tee in the Arkansas Derby but finished fifth behind him in the Derby. Pine Bluff avenged the loss in the Preakness, but could only manage a third in the Belmont behind A.P. Indy.

A more infamous Rebel graduate that also would go on to win the Belmont Stakes was Victory Gallop. After the Rebel, Victory Gallop defeated defending Horse of the Year Favorite Trick in the Arkansas Derby but could only muster two seconds to Real Quiet in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But the 1-1/2 mile Belmont distance worked in Victory Gallop’s favor and he was able to deny Real Quiet his Triple Crown by catching him at the last moment to win the Belmont by a scant nose.

Saturday will be the 51st running of the Rebel Stakes and full gate of 13 has entered. Whether there is a future Derby, Preakness or Belmont winner in the bunch remains to be seen. But there is plenty of talent and plenty of stories in this group and somebody will eventually add to the lore that is Oaklawn Park's Rebel Stakes.

Click here for my Rebel Stakes Handicapping and Selections in ThoroFan.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Elephant's Name Is Charlie

As the undefeated champion and winner of last year’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. 1), Uncle Mo tops nearly everybody’s list of Kentucky Derby contenders. In fact, he was the 3-1 favorite (over the field at 7-2) when the second of three Kentucky Derby Future Wagers closed Sunday. After the Todd-Pletcher-trained Uncle Mo won the $100,000 Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream Park in South Florida Saturday in his 2011 debut, there was little to prove otherwise.

As mapped out by Pletcher and owner Mike Ropole after the Breeders’ Cup win last Fall, Uncle Mo is now headed for the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. 1) at Aqueduct in New York April 9. The Wood will be his final stop before going to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby May 7 and seems this plan has few road blocks. He has $1.26 million in graded stakes earning to lead all Derby contenders, so money is of little concern. If he disappoints and runs second, third or worse in the Wood, he still qualifies for the Derby and would probably still run as long as he is healthy. Depending on the performance, he may still go off as the favorite in the Derby and may perhaps even win the Run for the Roses.

But there is a large elephant in the Pletcher shed row that everybody seem to be ignoring. The question is the Derby distance of 1-1/4 miles. The classic distance. Ten furlongs. And there lies the chink in the otherwise shiny armor of Uncle Mo. Can he get the ten furlongs.

Since it is a distance not covered by any other contender in this Derby, the concern reduces. However, Indian Charlie is the sire of Uncle Mo, and the concern again rises. And that is the name of the 10,000-pound elephant.

That is not intended to implicate that Indian Charlie has been a failure at stud. In fact he has been very successful siring four Eclipse Award champions in five years. This year, Indian Charlie has both Uncle Mo, and Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. 3) winner Anthony’s Cross in the race for a Kentucky Derby slot. Indian Charlie also stands for a $70,000 fee which defines his success during the tough economics facing the breeding industry in recent years.

The concern is that Indian Charlie has had a difficult time producing horses that like to run a route of ground. The lone exception is 2006 Champion Older Mare Fleet Indian (photo). She won sever grade 1 races around two turns including both the Personal Ensign Stakes (gr. 1) and Delaware Handicap (gr. 1) at ten furlongs.

Indian Blessing was the 2-Year-Old Champion filly in 2007, then came back to be named Champion Female Sprinter the next year. Last year, Conveyance turned heads in winning the Southwest Stakes (gr. 3) at Oaklawn Park on his way to Kentucky. But the Bob Baffert trainee went directly to the front of last year’s Kentucky Derby, led the race for 6 furlongs before fading to 15th. Another Indian Charlie 3-year-old last year was My Pal Charlie, second in the Louisiana Derby (gr. 2). He did not start in the Kentucky Derby but won the grade 2 Super Derby at 1-1/8 in the Fall.

Uncle Mo won’t get much help from his dam, Playa Maya, a winner on the track who’s best races came while placing in minor stakes at Ellis Park in Kentucky and Delta Downs in Louisiana. Should Playa Maya pass on any distance, it would be because of the influence of her sire Arch.

While Arch’s stallion career has not matched that of Indian Charlie, he is the sire of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) winner, Blame. A quick scan through Arch’s current leading runners, and nearly all are competing around two turns. Arch has Archarcharch, winner of the Southwest Stakes (gr. 3) at Oaklawn Feb. 21, on this year’s Derby trail, so he his connections have interest as both a sire and a dam’s sire of two Derby hopefuls.

No doubt horses can run through their pedigrees. And there has been no indication that Uncle Mo will have any problems keeping his undefeated streak alive as the race distances increase. But before we christen Uncle Mo the Kentucky Derby winner in March, let’s at least acknowledge the elephant.

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.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Of All Kentucky Derby Lists, Only One Rules

When a horse steps onto the trail for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1), there are two types of races they must win in order to prove themselves worthy of going to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May. There are the horse races on the track in which they must win or compete strongly, and the graded stakes earnings race. The needed victories in races seem obvious, but it is the graded stakes earnings list that determines who gets the precious 20 spots in the starting gate for the Derby.

And then there is the challenge of getting through the remainder of the trail injury free, hope racing luck at least leans in your direction and outperform the one hundred or so 3-year-olds that are still seriously on the Kentucky trail. Seriously is a relative term here. There is an apparent difference between the those that may be serious contenders and those whose human counterparts are seriously dreaming about a spot in the Derby… but little else.

Yet a look back at the grade stakes earnings list of Kentucky Derby contenders in the middle of March last year may give more credence to the so-called dreamers. Of the top ten on the graded stakes earnings list as of March 16 last year, only half made it to the Derby. They were Looking at Lucky (left), Noble’s Promise, Discreetly Mine, Dublin and Homeboy Kris.

Of the eventual top three finishers in the 136th running of the Derby last year, only Super Saver was ranked in the top 20 at this time last year AND he was ranked 20th. Runner-up Ice Box was not ranked in the top 40 and Paddy O’Prado came in at number 23.

Ice Box was not the only Derby starter in last year's Derby not to be ranked in the top 40 of 3-year-old graded stakes earners in mid-March. Stately Victor, Mission Impazible, Devil May Care, Dean’s Kitten and Lines of David were all ranked below the 40 mark in graded earnings this time last year. Make Music For Me, the fourth-place finisher in the Derby, was ranked 12th on the graded stakes earnings list in mid-March last year, yet became the last to qualify for a slot in the Derby starting gate with $55,000.

One can expect a similar pattern of changes from between now and the Derby on May 7, there are seventeen graded races for 3-year-olds including the Palm Beach Stakes on turf this weekend and two 7 furlong graded stakes in the Bay Shore and Swale. Those races are not exactly the kind of races in which a contender needs to run leading up to the 1-1/4 mile Kentucky Derby on dirt. Regardless, the earnings still count so one never knows.

The purses for those 17 remaining graded races before the Derby total $8.8 million, so there is plenty of graded stakes earnings yet left to be disseminated. Depending on the conditions of each race, there are at least 85 opportunities in those 17 races to earn graded stakes money.

It is difficult to determine the graded stakes earnings cut-off for the 20 Derby positions. Last year, Make Music For Me needed $218,750 in graded earnings to qualify. But the year before, No Where To Hide needed on $55,500 to make into the 2009 Derby. In 2008 Denis of Cork qualified with the lowest total at $165,500 while Imawildandcrazyguy pulled into Churchill Downs with $104,000.

With Sweet Ducky and Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. 3) winner Brethren currently tied in the twentieth spot on the grade stakes earning list at $120,000, it is not difficult to imagine or even predict it will take more than last year’s $218,000 to qualify for Kentucky Derby 137.

Although $8.8 million in 17 races seem like a good number of opportunities for a Derby hopeful, don’t think that makes those dollars and races any less precious. Realistically, each horse has two more stops on the trail before Kentucky in the next 60 days or so. Some connections may push for three starts, but that is just not practical - especially if a five-week Triple Crown is at all a part of their plan.

Choosing those two races are perhaps some of the most important decisions a trainer can make leading up to the Derby. Case in point this year is Brethren. Brethren won the traditional prep race for the Tampa Bay Derby, the Sam Davis Stakes (gr. 3) Feb. 12. He is the logical favorite for the Tampa Bay Derby Saturday unless Uncle Mo runs. Uncle Mo is entered, but trainer Todd Pletcher is looking for another race that weekend for Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. 1) winner and Champion Uncle Mo so as not to run him against Brethren. Uncle Mo is slated to start in the Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream Park, also on Saturday, but if for some reason the Timely Writer does not fill with enough entries, Uncle Mo will be going into the Tampa Bay Derby.

With Brethren on the bubble the winner’s share of the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby is $210,000. That would give him $330,000 in graded stakes earnings and probably enough to qualify for the Derby. But the second-place check of $35,000 puts Brethren at only $155,000 and in all likelihood in need of another big performance leading up to the Derby. That race would likely be in the late grade 1 preps like the Florida, Arkansas and Santa Anita Derbies or in the Wood Memorial. Other avenues for Brethren might include some of the lesser late preps like the Illinois Derby (gr. 3) April 9 or the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. 2) April 23. But Brethren would be in a must win situation in those races that have $250,000 and $200,000 purses respectively in order to get into the Derby. Even second place in, say the $1,000,000 Arkansas Derby would be $200,000 and third money of $100,000 may be enough to qualify.

So one can easily see the challenges ahead for those on top now, but also envision a set of circumstances that sees a Machen, currently ranked at 51 with $12,000, qualify for the Derby. Trained by Neil Howard, the son of Distorted Humor will have to improve vastly over his recent fourth in the grade 2 Risen Star in February. But imagine if he wins the $1 million Louisiana Derby (gr. 2) Mar. 26. With $612,000 in graded stakes earnings, he's Kentucky bound. Even with the second-place money of $200,000 and Machen is suddenly up from 51 to being at least the proverbial Kentucky Derby bubble of not enough to qualify.

There are so many decisions to be made by trainers with condition books and graded races to be run between now and the Kentucky Derby. Hence there will be races studied and evaluated by serious horse players, fans and trainers alike. Results will be recorded and horses will climb and fall the many Kentucky Derby lists published by turf writers and bloggers. But the list everybody will be watching is the graded stakes earnings of each Kentucky Derby hopeful. Because that's the one that counts.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Kentucky Derby Trail Rocky For 2011 Debuts

It all started on Jan. 20 when Mucho Macho Man finished fourth as the favorite in the grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Mucho Macho Man was making his 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull after finishing second behind Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) hopeful To Honor and Serve in the grade 2 Remsen and grade 2 Nashua Stakes in his final races last year.

Then Mucho Macho Man came back Feb. 19 to win the Risen Star Stakes (gr. 2) at Fair Grounds, defeating Santiva in second and favorite Rogue Romance in third. Like Mucho Macho Man a month before, Rogue Romance was making his career debut after finishing third in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. 1) behind Uncle Mo last fall. And like Mucho Macho Man, Rogue Romance stumbled.

A week prior to the Risen Star, similar circumstances and results occurred at Northern California’s Golden Gate Fields in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. 3). The highly regarded star making his first start of 2011 was Comma to the Top, winner of the CashCall Futurity (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park in December. Like his classmates, Comma to the Top disappointed, running fourth, 4-1/2 lengths behind winner Silver Medalion.

Two days after the Risen Star, J.P.’s Gusto makes his 2011 debut by running a troubled second in the Southwest Stakes Feb. 21 at Oaklawn Park. As a 2-year-old, the son of Successful Appeal won the Hollywood Juvenile Championship (gr. 3), Best Pal Stakes (gr. 2), and Del Mar Futurity (gr. 1). In the Southwest Stakes, J.P’s Gusto was making his first start of the year and first since he was sixth in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs in November.

In the Southwest, J.P.’s Gusto had plenty of excuses, having been boxed in no where to run from the half-mile pole until the field turned for home nearly a quarter of a mile later. His loss may be easier to understand and accept compared to the others, but it also remains a less than perfect preparation for the Derby.

Five days later at Gulfstream Park, To Honor and Serve made his 2011 debut and flopped like the other promising 3-year-olds chasing dreams of roses. As eventual winner Soldat turned for home To Honor and Serve had a shot at him but never responed. Now trainer Bill Mott is expected to start To Honor and Serve next in the Florida Derby (gr. 1), Apr. 3 at Gulfstream Park.

Stay Thirsty won his first start of the year Saturday while taking the grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, but there was much that might concern trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole, who also owns Uncle Mo. Stay Thirsty certainly did not dominate the Gotham field as expected and Toby’s Corner was the only stakes winner in the group. The son of Benardini switched to his wrong lead turning for home and never went back to his correct lead again until nearing the wire. And with stablemate Uncle Mo being pointed toward the Wood Memorial (gr. 1) next month, Stay Thirsty may have to leave New York for his final Kentucky Derby prep. That should not be too much of a challenge as Stay Thirsty has been stabled all winter in Florida, but it might be a late schedule change none-the-less.

There are two stars from last year yet to make their debut on the Kentucky Derby trail, but their days are coming soon. Perhaps the most anticipated is Uncle Mo, who is expected to run In either the Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream Park or the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. 2) in Tampa. Both races are this Saturday, Mar. 12 and the connections behind last year's Champion Two-Year-Old Male have said they are prepared for Tampa should the Timely Writer not attract enough competitors.

Then there is Jaycito in Southern California in trainer Bob Baffert’s barn. Winner of the Norfolk Stakes (gr. 1) last fall during the Oak Tree meeting at Hollywood Park, Jaycito was an erratic seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile under a different trainer. but multiple fast works at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita have Baffert pointing Jaycito toward the San Felipe Stakes (gr. 2) Mar. 12.

With two months left until the Kentucky Derby, there has not been a dazzling debut of a star from 2010. Yet. In fact, there have been few winning ones in the Kentucky Derby prep races that have dotted the calendars during this spring. Of course the most anticipated debut this year has yet to come in Uncle Mo. But we have just days to wait for that. Jaycito and the Steve Asmussen-trained Astrology are a few others and they’re just more than a weeks away from their first start this year.

So here’s hoping for success to all 2011 debuts. And it’s nice to be dazzled every once-in-a-while too.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Swing For The Fences When Betting Kentucky Derby Future Wagers

Looking at Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) lists from the Associated Press to the Horse Racing Nation website, it’s appears there is somewhat of a consensus on the top contenders. Nearly every list has Uncle Mo, Dialed In, Soldat, and To Honor and Serve in their top five. Jaycito and Mucho Macho Man are getting their recognition as are Brethren and Santiva.

It would not be a great handicapping feat to pick any of these horses to win the Run for the Roses – even in early March – and most future book odds reflect that. According to the Kentucky Derby future odds from the Wynn Las Vegas Race & Sports Book as published in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Uncle Mo is currently 7-2, followed by Dialed In at 8-1, To Honor and Serve at 10-1, Soldat at 15-1, Mucho Macho Man and Jaycito at 18-1, Brethren at 20-1 and Santiva at 22-1. The realistic odds of Uncle Mo (or any other horse for that matter)even starting in the Derby are may not be too far away from 7-2 at this point. On must certainly factor in the inherent risk any 3-year-old Thoroughbred colt faces in the last two months leading up to the first Saturday in May. Consider the fact that last year’s Derby favorite, Lookin at Lucky, went to the gate at odds of more than 6-1. This time last year, Lookin at Lucky was also on the same level of promise as Uncle Mo currently. So 7-2 on Uncle now isn’t practical.

Almost the same analogy can be applied to the current second and third choices in the future book this year. Super Saver went to the post at 8-1 in the Derby last year and Dialed In is currently 8-1 in the future book at Wynn Las Vegas Race & Sports Book. Sidney’s Candy was the third betting choice in Kentucky last year at 9.5-1. If To Honor and Serve was to be third choice in the Derby this year, it is feasible he will also be in the 10-1 range. Why bet those same odds now?

But if one likes to bet the Kentucky Derby future books, there are horses that have some promise with equally intriguing odds.

So far the Rodney Dangerfield of the sophomore class of 2011 is Archarcharch, winner of the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The last seven runnings of the Arkansas Derby have given us Papa Clem, Curlin, Lawyer Ron, Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones. Currently Archarcharch sits atop that potential Arkansas contingent and he comes from the rising star stable of Bret Calhoun. At 85-1 on the future book, he may present some value.

Another future book bet that may capture your attention is Comma To The Top, listed at 50-1 on some future books. Among the leading Derby contenders after ending his 2-year-old season with five straight wins including the CashCall Futurity (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park Dec. 18, the son of Bwana Charlie flopped in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. 3) Feb. 12, finishing fourth behind winner Silver Medalion. He has since trained well in the morning for trainer Peter Miller, working :58-4/5 at Hollywood Park (2nd fastest among 34) Feb. 28. So if you think the El Camino Real was an aberration, Comma to the Top has the odds to bet the future book.

A little further down the line of potential returns is Sway Away at 30-1. He came from last to second behind The Factor in the seven furlong San Vicente Stakes on a track that was favoring speed. Also second to J.P.’s Gusto in the grade 2 Best Pal Stakes last year, Sway Away may make his next start in the Rebel Stakes (gr. 2) at Oaklawn Park Mar. 19, the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. 3) Mar. 26 or the Sunland Derby (gr. 3 Mar. 27.

Whether it be Sway Away at 30-1 or Archarcharch at 85-1, if wagering on the Kentucky Derby future book, one must certainly look for attractive prices. Don’t be lured in by marginal odds at 25-1 or less. There is a good chance those odds will be very similar on a given horse on the first Saturday in May. Remember too that Old Man Time and his associates - injury and racing luck – are standing smack in the path between your selection and the Kentucky Derby two months away.

There is nothing more deflating than holding a future book ticket on a Kentucky Derby starter on Derby day, looking at the tote-board and seeing current odds looking eerily similar to those on your future book stub. Just as there is nothing more exhilarating than cashing a future book bet on a Derby winner at 85-1 as he crosses the finish line at 10-1 or thereabouts.
So if you’re compelled to bet a future book – swing for the fences my friend.