The Brock Talk

Friday, April 29, 2011

Mint Julep Recipe

One really should enjoy the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands with a Mint Julep. And just because you won't be singing "My Old Kentucky Home" beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs, doesn't mean you can't sip on the official drink of the Run for the Roses or serve them to your Derby party guests with mini hot brown appetizers.

Just in time to make this week's shopping list, a recipe for Mint Juleps.

First, actual Kentucky Derby glasses are a big plus. Pre-chilled. Second, don't skimp on the bourbon. Woodford Reserve is used at Churchill Downs but Van Winkle Family Reserve, Maker's Mark, Old Weller Antique and Jim Beam or all good.

1. Crushed Ice (Sonic Ice by the bag is great.)
2. Sprigs of mint
3. 1-1/2 tsp. Simple Syrup (Recipe Below)
4. Bourbon to at least 3/4 full. (To top is traditional but those are really strong.)

To begin, take a sprig of mint and rub the interior walls of Glass . Be careful not to mince or crush leaves. Its the fragrant taste we are seeking. Pack glasses or tumblers with crushed ice & put in about 1 1/2 teaspoon of simple syrup. Fill glass with Bourbon. Stir until a frost appears and add topleaf sprigs of mint about 3 inches long. Enjoy!

Brew equal parts of sugar and water to the consistency of honey.

Mint Julep Fun Facts:
More than 120,000 Mint Juleps will be served at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day. Considering that the expected crowd is 150,000 or so, nearly everyone in attendance enjoys one. In making the delectable drink, Churchill Downs will use 7,800 liters of bourbon. Considering that there are 22-1/2 shots in a liter, 175,500 shots will be distributed to those 150,000 fans.

More than 475,000 pounds of shaved ice will be used to make the Mint Juleps and the Kentucky Oaks official drink, the Oaks Lilies. Churchill Downs will also use 2,250 pounds of fresh mint, all locally grown.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Ins And Outs Of The Kentucky Derby

Getting an early start on any project can sometimes be the key definition between success and failure. “The early bird gets the worm” as the old saying goes. Trying to apply that benefit to betting on the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands – or horse betting on any other race for that matter – can sometimes add to confusion of an already challenging task. Because in horse racing, significant changes can happen in an instant while others seem to just come to the front under the circumstances and pressures of owning, training or riding a thoroughbred bound for the Kentucky Derby.

The conditions of the Kentucky Derby dictate that should more than the maximum 20 horses enter, graded stakes earnings will be used to determine those 20 horses eligible to run. Every year since 2004, the Kentucky Derby has overfilled at the entry box.

Last Saturday morning the cut-off for eligibility to enter the Derby belonged to 20th ranked Santiva and his $242,397. Trainer Aidan O’Brien had also confirmed from Europe that UAE Derby (gr. UAE2) runner-up Master of Hounds (photo) would be entered into the Kentucky Derby. That late decision pushed pushed Watch Me Go out of the Derby with his $235,500 in graded earnings.

There were two graded races for 3-year-olds run last weekend that had the potential to impact the graded earnings list – the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. 3) at Keeneland and the grade 2 Jerome at Aqueduct. Despite the fact that both races had their respective grades, neither seems ideal for a last start before the Kentucky Derby. Both races were just a short two weeks away from the Derby. Horse of this calibre are accustomed to running more on a three or four-week cycle. Like the Blue Grass Stakes, also a Keeneland, the Lexington was run on the artificial Polytrack while the Derby is on natural dirt. And the Jerome was a one turn mile.

Champion trainer Steve Asmussen had horses in each race, but only Silver Medallion in the Lexington was believed to be headed to Kentucky. He also had Astrology in the Jerome, but had indicated to Churchill Downs officials that he was not likely to run in the Derby (though Astrology already had enough graded earnings to be ranked a comfortable 17th in graded earnings with his $281,893).

Silver Medallion, on the other hand, needed some help. His $184,397 was far enough below Santiva’s earnings, that Silver Medallion needed either the $120,000 winner’s check or the $40,000 second-place earnings to garner a spot in the Derby starting gate.

Silver Medallion ran fourth in the Blue Grass behind winner Derby Kitten and the $10,000 check did little ti help qualify for the Derby. Astrology, however ran a good second in the Jerome, spawning a case of Derby fever that co-owner George Bolton had to deal with. Perhaps it was just for a few moments in Bolton's mind or maybe even a day or two, but Astrology was possible for the Derby. That would have pushed Santiva out and Jaycito into the bottom spot with $250,000. That also pushed stable mate Silver Medallion all the way down to the 25th spot, pushing down hopes of Silver Medallion connections to make the Derby.

Asmussen received some good news that day that jockey Corey Nakatani had committed to riding Arkansas Derby (gr. 1) runner-up Nehro. Nakatani had also been riding Santa Anita Derby second, Comma to the Top but had chosen Nehro for the Derby. Comma to the Top trainer Gary Barber was prepared and quickly named jockey Pat Valenzuela to ride in Kentucky. Valenzuela won the 1989 Kentucky Derby aboard Sunday Silence.

Then Tuesday came and the defections began. As expected, J P’s Gusto was taken out of the Derby after finishing seventh in the Rebel (gr. 2) and eighth in the Arkansas Derby (gr. 1). Soon Bolton came with the expected news that Astrology would in fact, not run.

Santiva and Watch Me Go were back in the Derby. Then trainer Bob Baffert, who had just announced that Jaycito would not run, confirmed the same about Rebel Stakes (gr. 2) winner The Factor. The Factor had been recovering successfully from surgery to repair an entrapped epiglottis that was the likely cause of The Factor's dismal third in the Arkansas Derby. But the son of War Front was nowhere near ready to compete in the Kentucky Derby.

Suddenly, Shackleford and Twinspired are in the Kentucky Derby and the cutoff has gone all the way down to $197,500. That again takes us back to Silver Medallion, who now is on the bubble, ranked at 21st with his $194,334.

As soon as Twinspired gets the nod, jockey Robbie Alabardo is forced into a decision between the second-place finisher in the Blue Grass and Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. 3) winner Animal Kingdom. Albarado chose Animal Kingdom leaving Twinspired trainer Mike Maker without a rider. Maker was ready and quickly named Mike Smith to ride Twinspired. Smith won the 2005 Kentucky Derby aboard Giacomo and was the regular rider for Horse of the Year Zenyatta more recently.

One conundrum that hits Kentucky Derby owners and trainers each year this time, is the opportunity to replace a regular, lesser-known, regional jockey with a nationally established rider for the Run for the Roses. Derby experience can be vital to a jockey who needs to negotiate through the 19 other horses and all the potential trouble thereof. But it's usually the local guy that rode all those races that got the horse to the big dance.

In 2009, Calvin Borel (photo left) picked up the mount on longshot Mine That Bird, who had made his last start in the then un-graded Sunland Derby. Casey Lambert, a stalwart rider in the Southwest for many years, had ridden Mine That Bird in his races at Sunland but had never ridden in the Kentucky Derby. Borel, who had won the Kentucky Derby on Street Sense two years earlier and was a regular rider at Churchill Downs, was given the mount on Mine That Bird and together they won the Derby.

This year, the Sunland Derby was a grade 3 and winner Twice The Appeal is in Kentucky with trainer Jeff Bonde. And like 2009, Borel takes the mount on the Sunland Derby horse while jockey Christian Santiago Reyes, while the 2009 champion apprentice in earnings, bowed out to the more experienced Borel.

The team behind Decisive Moment took the loyalty road with regard to their riding chores. Kerwin Clarke, a 52-year-old mainstay on the Louisiana circuit, picked up the mount on Decisive Moment because of his experience riding at Delta Downs in the Delta Downs Jackpot (gr. 3) last November. They finished second at Delta but won the ungraded Jean Lafitte the next race. Back in graded competition, Decisive Moment was fifth in the Risen Star (gr. 2) then second in the Spiral, but Saturday, owner Ruben Sierra announced that the 52-year-old Clarke – with former Derby winners such as Kent Desormeaux and Edgar Prado without mounts, would get the mount on Decisive Moment in the Kentucky Derby.

When J P’s Gusto was withdrawn from the Derby Tuesday, it marked the second time in three years that jockey Cliff Berry lost his first chance to ride the Kentucky in the days leading up to the race. In 2009, Berry was set to ride Rebel Stakes winner Win Willy in Kentucky before his was withdrawn in the final week. The 48-year-old Berry has been a leading rider in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas in recent years and won the 2011 grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap this year with Win Willy.

Just in case you're now comfortable with the Kentucky Derby field, the last chance for more graded earnings comes a week before the Kentucky Derby when they run the Derby Trial (gr. 3) Saturday night at Churchill.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Baffling Kentucky Derby Group Could Produce Some High Odds

As the Spring season of prep races for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands comes to a close (it officially ends with the Derby Trial (gr. 3) at Churchill Downs, Saturday, before Apr. 30) it has been no secret that this group of 3-year-old thoroughbreds have been difficult to decipher and will be equally, if not more challenging to handicap on the first Saturday in May.

Dialed In will likely be the favorite in the Kentucky Derby this year and the win price may be even higher than some expect. Mike Watchmaker of Daily Racing Form currently has Dialed In as the favorite at 4-1 odds, just ahead of Uncle Mo at 6-1, Nehro at 8-1 and Toby’s Corner and Archarcharch at 10-1. There is also plenty of chat on Twitter, Facebook and other horse racing blogs and columns about the possibility that Dialed In may even go as high as 5-1.

I see no reason why the favorite this year can’t be as high as 6-1. The field is certainly befuddling enough with only Toby’s Corner and Dialed In among the probably Kentucky Derby starters with more than one victory in a graded prep race this year. Even those two were not the favorites in their respective last starts. Dialed In was the second choice at 2.90-1 behind favored Soldat at 1.5-1 in his Florida Derby victory and Toby’s Corner was the 8.70-1 second choice behind 1-10 Uncle Mo while winning the New York Casino Wood Memorial (gr. 1).

The 4-1 mark also seems to be the natural over-under point for the Kentucky Derbies run since the field wagers were eliminated in 2001. Prior to that, wagering on the Run for the Roses was limited to 14 betting interests because of the technological limitations of that time. In the ten Kentucky Derbies since, the favorite has been below 4-1 five times and the above 4-1 five times.

Last year, Lookin at Lucky was the highest price favorite during that time at 6.30-1. His rough trips in the Rebel Stakes (gr. 2) at Oaklawn and the Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) combined with his number one post position in Kentucky, of course, contributed to the high price. But also remember that undefeated Barbaro was just a little more popular as the favorite in the 2006 Kentucky Derby at 6.10-1. 2002 Derby favorite Came Home was also 6-1 so having a Derby favorite with odds that high may not be such an anomaly - especially with as many as 20 betting interest in modern Kentucky Derbies.

The most popular horse in the last ten runnings of the Kentucky Derby was Point Given at 1.8-1 in 2001. With slightly less betting appeal were Big Brown in 2008 at 2.40-1; Empire Maker in 2003 at 2.50-1; and Bellamy Road in 2005 at 2.60-1. Empire Maker and Point Given were also in the only two Kentucky Derbies during that span with less than 18 wagering interests. There were 16 betting interests in 2003 and 17 in 2001.

Give credit where it is due to those four however. Point Given had romped through southern California’s San Felipe Stakes (gr. 2) and Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1). Bellamy Road came into the Derby off of a 14-1/2 length win the Wood Memorial while Empire Maker had won both the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial. Big Brown overcame a bad post position in the Florida Derby (gr. 1) breaking from the 12 gate, but still won easily by five lengths.

Uncle Mo was certainly on his way to that kind of popularity this year before his disappointing third-place finish in the Wood. He stumbled at the start and grabbed a front hoof in that race, but trainer Todd Pletcher said neither was an excuse. Two days later, it is determined that Uncle Mo had a gastrointestinal infection but again, there is no way of knowing if that affected his race in the Wood.

Horses like Archarcharch, Nehro, Toby's Corner, Mucho Macho Man and frankly, quite a few others also have a chance to take some unpredicted late action. Soldat certainly has the credentials to regain some respect in the weeks leading up to the Derby, just as prep race upset winners Midnight Interlude, Brilliant Speed and Pants on Fire have the opportunity to build on their races.

Regardless of the many excuses and reasons that have seemed to plague this group headed for the Kentucky Derby, it is almost certain that the post time favorite is going to be at a healthy price. Placing 4-1 odds on Dialed In seems perfectly reasonable to me, as it does many others opinionating throughout the social media circles and horse racing journals and papers.

But with the uncertainty that seems to follow these 3-year-olds, it would also not be too surprising to see the favorite as high as 6-1.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Louisiana Derby May Have The Fire and Machismo For Kentucky

Upsets in nearly all of the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) prep races this Spring will without doubt make this one of the most difficult crops to decipher on the first Saturday in May.

We are all left wondering if Resorts World New York Casino Wood Memorial (gr. 1) winner Toby’s Corner is a one hit wonder.

Is Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) upset winner Midnight Interlude so much on the improve that he can win the most prestigious race in North American?

What about Uncle Mo? (photo) He was looked upon as unbeatable before his loss in the Wood Memorial.

Don’t forget The Factor. Before his dismal performance in the Arkansas Derby (gr. 1), Churchill Downs handicapper Mike Battaglia made the Bob Baffert trainee the favorite to win the Run for the Roses.

Anybody remember Soldat? As pretty as he looked winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. 2) in February, he looked just as ugly running fifth in the Florida Derby (gr. 1) won by Dialed In. And there was that allowance race in January that he won by more than 10 lengths. What happened to that?

So Dialed In is your favorite? Care to explain his schedule. He won the Holy Bull (gr. 3) in January then we didn’t hear from him in February. When trainer Nick Zito does start him, Dialed In is running against older horses in an optional claiming race. Then almost another 30 days go by and Dialed In comes bouncing down the Gulfstream Park stretch to win the Florida Derby. You remember all of those Kentucky Derby winners that have taken the Fountain of Youth-Optional Claiming-Florida Derby path to Kentucky... don’t you?

Look at the graded stakes earning list and you’ll see Comma to the Top at number three – right behind Archarcharch. Really? We’ve been listening to the connections of Comma to the Top tell us the Kentucky Derby is not an option since his fourth-place finish in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. 2) in March. Trainer Peter Miller said then, he had concerns about the colts ability to win at 1-1/4 miles. Comma to the Top then runs second by a head behind Midnight Interlude in the Santa Anita Derby and plans suddenly might change.

Archarcharch won the Arkansas Derby at 25-1 odds. He has the Cinderella story with long time midwest training stalwart Jinks Fires legging up jockey Jon Court with the same heartland credentials. The son of Calumet stallion Arch, is also one of four horses to win two Kentucky Derby prep races this year joining Dialed In, Toby’s Corner and The Factor. Archarcharch also won the Southwest Stakes (gr. 3) at Oaklawn to go along with his Arkansas Derby tally. So does he go from Arkansas long shot to Kentucky contender in one race? Or is it two out of the last three races after running third in the Rebel behind The Factor?

Just more than two weeks from the Kentucky Derby and it seems we must find the horse with the fewest strikes instead of the horse with the most accomplishments.

Is such a race the Louisiana Derby (gr. 2)?

Pants on Fire was a surprise but logical 6-1 winner of the Louisiana Derby defeating favored Mucho Macho Man. This may be an improving colt and wouldn’t it be nice to see jockey Rosie Napravnik become the first female jockey to adorn the blanket of roses in the Churchill winner's circle?

Louisiana Derby runner-up Nehro is trained by Steve Asmussen of Rachel Alexandra and Curlin fame; and third-place finisher Mucho Macho Man lost a shoe in the Fair Grounds showcase.

That’s very shallow handicapping admittedly. But the other contenders in this year’s Derby, don’t seem to pass that simple litmus test like the Louisiana Derby contenders.

Everybody likes to talk about the depth of the Florida Derby this year – and justifiably so. Fountain of Youth winner Soldat, Dialed In, To Honor and Serve and Gotham Stakes (gr. 2) winner Stay Thirsty were among that group. But look behind the top three finishers in the Louisiana Derby and Elite Alex, Machen and Wilkinson – all promising Derby contenders in their own right – rounding out the top five finishers.

So much can and will change in the next two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Contenders will likely scratch and wise-guy horses will begin to appear from the darkness and fog of morning works at Churchill Downs. There will be speculations, calculations and reservations between now and that famous moment when the field of 20 breaks from the gate at Churchill Downs.

It seems now, however, that one needs look no further than New Orleans to find the Kentucky Derby contender with the least voodoo.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Look For Lexington Winner Later

While Keeneland’s Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. 2) has not produced the number of Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) winners as its fellow grade 1 stakes leading up to the Run for the Roses, its graduates have been heard from later in the Triple Crown.

In the previous 40 runnings of the Lexington, only 1999 winner Charismatic has gone on to adorn the blanket of roses at Churchill Downs. This year, only Silver Medallion, with his $184,334 in graded earnings, is the only probable Lexington starter with a chance to qualify for the Kentucky Derby - and he probably needs the winner’s share of the $200,000 purse to do so.

Much of this, it can be assumed, is due to the fact that the Lexington is usually run just two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Not including the grade 3 Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial Stakes (gr. 3) run at Churchill, the Lexington Stakes is sometimes thought of as that last chance to get the big dance. The Derby Trial is just seven days before the Kentucky Derby and is run at one mile - not the best conditions under which to prepare for the 1-1/4 mile Derby a week later.

The first and second Lexington Stakes were in 1936 and 1937 before being run as an overnight stake from 1938 to 1941 The Lexington was discontinued for the next 24 years but was run as the overnight Calumet Purse from 1973 to 1983 when the race was reinstalled into the Keeneland stakes schedule.

Our Native won the renewed 1-1/16 mile Lexington in 1973 but as one might suspect, 1973 was not a good year to attempt much in any of the Triple Crown races other than chase home Secretariat. And that is what Our Native did, finishing third behind second-place Sham in both the Derby and Preakness. However, the son of Exclusive Native would go on to win the Monmouth Invitational Handicap (gr. 1) and Ohio Derby (gr. 2) later that year.

Two years later, trainer Smiley Adams brought Master Derby to Keeneland from Fair Grounds where he won both the Louisiana Derby trial and Louisiana Derby. Pointed for the Kentucky Derby, Master Derby won both the Lexington Stakes and Blue Grass at Keeneland but could only muster a fourth behind Foolish Pleasure in the Kentucky Derby. Master Derby avenged that loss two weeks later by taking the Preakness Stakes and becoming the first in a long line of Lexington winners to do so.

Seven years after Our Native won his Lexington, his son Rockhill Native took the 1980 Lexington and Blue Grass but could only manage a fifth in the Derby behind winner Genuine Risk and a third in the Belmont Stakes behind Temperence Hill.

The 1988 Lexington Stakes was perhaps one of the more exciting in the race’s sporadic history with plenty of Triple Crown influence to come later.

Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens came to Lexington with Forty Niner, the Claiborne farm home-bred son of Mr. Prospector and champion 2-year-old colt the year before. After winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in his 3-year-old debut, Forty Niner was upset by 32-1 long shot Brian’s Time in the Florida Derby. Wanting another race before the Kentucky Derby, Stephens opted for the Lexington.

Meanwhile New Orleans trainer Louie Roussel had been winning the Louisiana Derby Trial and Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds with his giant young son of Secretariat, Risen Star.

Around the far turn in the 1989 Lexington Stakes, Forty Niner looked as if he was comfortable on the lead and on his way to victory. But Risen Star had other intentions. Loping along comfortably in third leaving the half-mile marker, Risen Star accelerated so suddenly that new rider Jacinto Vasquez was concerned more with keeping Risen Star from running over Forty Niner than passing him as he stood in the saddle and steered with both hands. Forty Niner and jockey Pat Day came out of the turn in front, but by now Risen Star had carried Vasquez to the outside and within a few strides was even with Forty Niner. The two bobbed heads down the entire stretch with Risen Star getting to the finish first, but only by a head.

When the two got to the Kentucky Derby, they found themselves chasing the brilliantly fast filly Winning Colors and her jockey Gary Stevens. Both Forty Niner and Risen Star rallied to catch the fast filly but Forty Niner fell a head short in second. After the Vasquez ride in the Lexington, Roussel gave the Derby mount to Eddie Delahoussaye. Delahoussaye kept Risen Star clear in the Derby, but was forced to circle the entire field on the far turn before managing an unmenacing third.

That’s when the fun began.

Following the Derby, Pat Day vowed to not let Gary Stevens put his filly alone on the lead in the Preakness. Stevens took offense to the comments and the two future Hall of Fame riders went into the Preakness with plenty of bad blood between them.

Just as he promised before the Preakness, Day immediately put Forty Niner to the inside of Winning Colors and the two jockeys and horses bumped and fought each other the entire race. Day took Stevens and Winning Colors wide in the first turn and the two leaders found themselves running far from the rail and away from what was believed to be a slow inside part of the track that day at Pimlico. This time, Delahoussaye kept Risen Star closer in third when he again found his stride around the far turn. Delahoussaye took advantage of the large hole left on the rail and within moments had moved to the inside of the two leaders and passed them with ease. Risen Star pulled away at the top and easily won the Preakness by just less than two lengths over a charging Brian's Time in second.

The speed dual took its toll on both frontrunners as Winning Colors finished third while Forty Nine faded to seventh.

The 1-1/2 mile Belmont Stakes was no contest as the tall and long-striding Risen Star won the third leg of the Triple Crown by 14-1/2 lengths.

In 1991, Hansel would give jockey Jerry Bailey his third of a six Lexington Stakes, a record that stands today. Hansel would be a disappointing tenth in the Derby but would then come back to become the third Lexington winner to take the Preakness.

The winner of the 1997 Lexington, Touch Gold, would not run in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, both races won by Silver Charm and trainer Bob Baffert. But the Belmont would be where Touch Gold made his mark, upsetting Silver Charm and the hopes many fans had for the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed 19 years earlier.

So when watching the Coolmore Lexington Stakes this weekend, one might want to take a few notes. They may not be much help in picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby, but the could be very useful in the weeks to follow.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Still A Ways To Go On Road To Derby

Now that the majority of the prep races leading up to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands have been run, each full of surprises and disappointments, it’s time to start putting the puzzle pieces together. As Axel Rose once sang in Sweet Child O’ Mine: “Where do we go now?”

There is still the Coolmore Lexigton Stakes (gr. 3) this Saturday at Keeneland, but the $200,000 purse and $120,000 winner’s check will only help El Camino Real (gr. 3) winner Silver Medallion qualify for the Derby by adding to his $184,334 in graded earnings. According to Keeneland, the other probables are Beachcombing, Casper’s Touch, Derby Kitten and Prime Cut. Hurricane Lake and Uncle Sam are also possible.

Should Silver Medallion win the Lexington, (all other things remaining the same), Santiva would fall out of the Kentucky Derby top 20 with his $242,397. Others on the outside of the Derby looking in are Watch Me Go ($235,500), Shackleford ($212,000) and Twinspired ($197,500). All of these horses of course, were pushed down a notch earlier this week when Coolmore Stud announced that Criterium Internation (F.-1) and Airlie Stud Ganullule Stakes (Ire-3) winner was headed for the Kentucky Derby from Europe.

Last year, it took $218,750 for Make Music for Me to get the chance to enter the Kentucky Derby. Last minutes changes due to injury or an alteration of plans can also wreak havoc on the top 20 graded stakes earning 3-year-olds. In 2009, multiple late scratches allowed Nowhere to Hide to enter the Run for the Roses with only $55,500.

Technically, 2011 has already had several defections, the most recent being Astrology, currently ranked 17th on the list with $281,893. Trainer Steve Asmussen said he will instead be pointed to the Jerome Handicap at Aqueduct this Saturday. That pulled Jaycito up to the 19th spot with his $250,000 and Santiva into the last remaining spot in the top 20.

The additions and subtractions to the field may go right up to the morning of the Kentucky Derby. Two years ago, morning line favorite I Want Revenge was scratched after trainer Jeff Mullins found a hot spot on the colt’s left front ankle. Unfortunately, when a horse scratches that late, no horse can be pulled of the also elibible list. Also that year, Florida Derby winner Quality Road was scratched just days before the Derby due to problems in a front hoof.

This time last year, Eskenderya was coming off of a 18-1/2 length romp in the Wood Memorial and a similar devastation of rivals in the Fountain of Youth (gr. 2) in February. So dominant was Eskendereya that people began to think there was hope for the next Triple Crown winner. But a week later, trainer Todd Pletcher walked into his shed row only to find swelling between the left front ankle and knee. Because of his potential as a sire, Eskendereya was retired to stud in Kentucky.

This year, Pletcher has Uncle Mo, considered the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby before he finished a dismal third in the New York Casino Wood Memorial (gr. 1) last week at Aqueduct. Following the race, it was discovered that Uncle Mo had grabbed a quarter during the running of the Wood. Then a gastrointestinal infection was found a few days later. Pletcher said neither would effect Uncle's Mo training but it can be assumed that Pletcher is doing everything to secure his barn from black cats, turks, gremlins and all other bad luck creatures mythical or real.

Last year at this time Backtalk and Make Music for Me were ranked 22nd and 23rd respectively on the graded earnings list. Both started in the Kentucky Derby and give hope to the connections behind Watch Me Go, Shackleford and Twinspired.

Even as most of the graded stakes monies have been distributed and the major races have been run, the road to the Kentucky is far from it's May 7 destination.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bluegrass Adds to Competitive Season of Derby Preps

The 2011 class of 3-year-olds vying for fame in Kentucky, Maryland and beyond might be a maligned a bit for their talents thus far, but one has to congratulate the group on giving fans competitive races this spring.

Since the March 5 Gotham Stakes (gr. 2) at Aqueduct when Stay Thirsty won as the favorite, only The Factor has won a major Kentucky Derby prep race as the most popular betting choice when he took the Rebel (gr. 2) a week later at Oaklawn Park.

Since then, the nine other graded prep races for 3-year-olds at a mile or further and the main track, have produced an average winning payout of nearly $30.00 each. The lowest priced winner was Dialed In, who’s Florida Derby (gr. 1) victory returned $7.80 to his supporters as the second choice. Of note: Shackleford was just a head short of winning the Florida Derby at 68-1 while favored Soldat was far back in fifth.

The biggest long shot of the group honor goes to Watch Me Go, winner of the March 12 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. 2) paying $89.40 to win while Sunland Derby (gr. 3) winner Twice the Appeal was not far off the pace returning $53.20 for a $2 win ticket.

The biggest upset of the spring run to Kentucky did not, however, produce the largest payout. Uncle Mo went to the gate of the New York Casino Wood Memorial (gr. 1) as the 1-10 favorite but could only manage a tiring third. Although rallying winner Toby’s Corner went off with odds of nearly 9-1, he was the second choice behind the heavily favored Uncle Mo.

Like Dialed In, Vinary Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. 3) winner Animal Kingdom was the second choice and runner-up Decisive Moment also figured as the third choice of the punters that day. But favorite Positive Response, like Soldat in Florida, ran a very disappointing race finishing eighth in the Spiral.

We have already chronicle the hurdles The Factor must leap in the Arkansas Derby (gr. 1) Saturday and the Toyota Bluegrass Stakes (gr. 1) looks even more competitive. As if the $750,000 purse is not good enough to recruit a good field, it’s the designation as graded stakes earnings that make those Keeneland dollars so attractive to the connections of the prospective runners. The $450,000 winner’s share guarantees the opportunity to enter the Kentucky Derby and the $150,000 check for second would be enough to give others enough or at least near the “Derby Bubble” expected to be somewhere just north of the current cutoff at Shackleford’s $212,000.

Santiva, a horse that started the year on many Kentucky Derby watch lists based on his win in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. 2) last year at Churchill Downs, it appears, is the only starter in the field with enough graded earnings already to make the Derby with $240,254 Trained by Eddie Kennally, Santiva started his sophomore campaign respectfully finishing second in the grade 2 Risen Star Stakes behind Mucho Macho Man in February. The son of Giant’s Causeway also ran second over Keeneland’s Polytrack last year in the grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, so the artificial surface should not be a concern.

Wilkinson, winner of the Lecomte Stakes at Fairgrounds in January, is one who needs to finish second in the Bluegrass to have any hope of a chance at the Derby. His $70,000 and the second place check in the Bluegrass would put him squarely on the Derby bubble. In order to get the winner’s share he will have to significantly improve off of his sixth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby last month behind long shot winner Pants on Fire. Wilkinson was second in his first start at Keeneland last year, so it has a fondness for the Polytrack as well.

Most of the other top choices seem to be trying to make the turf to Polytrack angle work in their favor. Second choice King Congie has crossed the finish in three consecutive races on grass. However, in his last race, he was disqualified from first and placed third in the $100,000 Hallandale Beach Stakes in February..

Co-third choice with Wilkinson at 6-1, Brilliant Speed last started on the main track in August in a Saratoga maiden special weight. Trained by Thomas Albertani, Brilliant Speed has since started five times on the turf, in the last, he was placed second through the disqualification of King Congie in the Hallandale Beach.

The 12-horse field also makes the Bluegrass a great wagering race and it should be plenty fun to watch for fans as well. One horse will come out of the Bluegrass a winner but as many as three might run well enough to get into the Kentucky Derby. The Polytrack, the influx of solid turf horses, the tradition and of course, the money and grade 1 status all make the Bluegrass an important race.

But its influence on the big blanket of roses given to the Derby winner, won’t be known for weeks.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Factor Fights Favorite Failures and More In Arkansas Derby

It has not been a good season for favorites in the grade 1 prep races leading up to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands.

Most notably, Uncle Mo finished third in Saturday’s Resorts World New York Casino Wood Memorial (gr. 1) Saturday at Aqueduct in what was described by track announcer Tom Durkin as the biggest upset since Secretariat. Further south, Soldat finished a dismal fifth as the 3-2 choice behind winner Dialed In in the Florida Derby (gr. 1) while the 2011 Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) could easily borrow from a Saratoga moniker as the graveyard of favorites.

This year’s Santa Anita Derby lost not one, but three favorites. Morning line favorite Premier Pegasus was the first to be withdrawn after a hairline fracture was diagnosed just days before the race. The Bob Baffert-trained Jaycito took over as the favorite but a foot abscess forced him to be scratched on the Friday before the race. When the dust and scratches finally settled before the race, Silver Medallion inherited the roll of post time favorite but then finished fourth behind winner Midnight Interlude at 13-1.

In the world of logic and reality, those races and their upsets thereof, should have absolutely no impact on the Arkansas Derby this Saturday, one of the last two grade 1 prep races on the road to the Kentucky Derby along with the Toyota Bluegrass Stakes the same day at Keeneland.

Arkansas Derby morning line favorite The Factor, has enough challenges ahead of him on Saturday. A natural speedster who trainer Bob Baffert has likened to a runaway train, The Factor will likely have some company during the early stages of the Arkansas Derby - something he has not dealt with since his only loss, a race against maidens in his first start in November. The Todd Pletcher-trained Dance City has shown he likes the lead in winning a maiden and allowance race at Gulfstream Park racing on lead more often than not. Another from the Pletcher barn, Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. 3) winner Brethren also likes to lead the pack from the start.

If by chance The Factor is unable to relax early and use up energy against the aforementioned front runners, there are several closers waiting in the wings.

The Steve Asmussen-trained Nehro was just a neck short of defeating Pants on Fire in the grade 2 Louisiana Derby while racing from a stalking position and having to fight for running room down the stretch. He also broke his maiden two starts back at Oaklawn, coming from as far back as 11th, some 12 lengths behind the winner, so the son of former Horse of the Year Mineshaft has repeatedly shown he can make a late move.

Another closer, Sway Away, may have bounced when running sixth behind The Factor in the Rebel Stakes (gr. 3), also at Oaklawn. A month earlier in Southern California, Sway Away’s late rally fell less than a length short of chatching The Factor in the seven furlong San Vincente.

Trip handicappers looking for an Arkansas Derby winner will be looking closely at Elite Alex. A son of 2005 Arkansas Derby winner Afleet Alex, the Tim Ritchie trainee was very wide in both the Louisiana Derby at Fairgrounds and the Southwest Stakes (gr. 3), races in which he was fourth and third respectively.

The final hurdle The Factor may have to overcome is that of genetics. I say “may” because we can only suspect that sons and daughters of The Factor’s sire, War Front, will have similar running tendancies and War Front was a solid, multiple, graded stakes winning sprinter. On the bottom side of The Factor’s pedigree, his dam is by Rubianno, a champion sprinter.

The folks at Claiborne Farm, home to War Front, have certainly had their celebrations and toasts to War Front during this, his first crop of 3-year-old runners. Other War Front get Soldat and Summer Soiree are both headed to Kentucky for Kentucky Derby week. Soldat for the Derby and Summer Soiree is headed for the Kentucky Oaks (gr. 1). Soldat won the 1-1/8 mile Fountain of Youth Stakes, so that works in The Factor’s favor in trying the same distance for the first time in the Arkansas Derby. But the genetic question remains and will get asked again should The Factor succeed in Hot Springs.

Based on other major Kentucky Derby prep races this year, one may suggest there is a cosmic influence that has so cursed the favorites. But even if the more sensible examine Saturday Arkansas Derby, it appears 7-5 morning line favorite The Factor has plenty of adversity – star alignment or not.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Masters and Road to Kentucky Derby Have Similarities This Year

While watching The Master golf tournament Sunday, I began to notice some similarities and parallels between golf’s major event at Augusta National Golf Club and this year’s road to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1). Like the last three grade 1 prep races for the Run for the Roses, (Florida Derby, New York Casino Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby), the last nine holes of The Masters had eight different names on the lead. There are no female members of the Augusta National Golf Club, just as there are no female thoroughbreds with Kentucky Derby dreams.

Looking at the races leading up to the Derby in a more general sense, there was a clear cut favorite coming into the weekend. Uncle Mo was undefeated, atop nearly every Kentucky Derby watch list and the 2010 undisputed champion of his division. Uncle Mo had quickly taken control of his previous races by racing immediately to the lead at the start, maintaining that lead with confidence, then pulling away from the field down the stretch.

Like Uncle Mo, Rory McIlroy is young and obviously very talented. At the end of the first round of the Masters Thursday, the brilliant 21-year-old from Northern Ireland went to the clubhouse with a score of seven under par and the early lead. Friday and Saturday were much the same for McIlroy as Sunday, he took a four-shot lead into the the final round at Augusta at 12 shots under par.

McIlroy bogeyed the first hole Sunday, missing a testy five foot put for par.

Uncle Mo’s Wood Memorial did not start well either, as he literally stumbled out of the starting gate. Before finding his stride.

McIlroy never really found his stride Sunday. On the par 5 second hole, McIlroy puts his drive in a fairway bunker then his second shot catches the lip of the bunker leaving an extremely long approach to a front pin position. McIlroy saves par but things are not going well as Carl Schwartzel eagles number 4 and McIlroy’s lead has vanished.

At some point during the early running of the Wood Memorial, perhaps when he stumbled, Uncle Mo grabs a portion of a front hoof with a back foot while running. The injury is minor and trainer Todd Pletcher said the injury was not an excuse for the poor performance. It couldn't have helped either.

McIlroy lost the lead in The Masters when he triple bogeys the tenth hole. He hit a tree on that hole approaching the green.

Unlike McIlroy, Uncle Mo looked like a winner for most of the running of the Wood Memorial. Although Uncle Mo didn’t hit a tree just before he gave up the lead to Author’s Tale inside the final furlong, it looked like he might have. Turning for home, jockey John Velazquez gave Uncle Mo the signal to start running and the colt responded. But then suddenly, it appeared as if Uncle Mo was finished as Author’s Tale quickly ran by Uncle Mo before eventual winner Toby’s Corner as well, even more rapidly.

Again, both Uncle Mo and Rory McIlroy are young and talented. McIlroy’s trade as a golfer will surely last years longer than Uncle Mo’s career as a race horse, but the odds are that they will both be heard from again.

There other parallels between The Masters final day and some other three-year-old thoroughbreds heading for Churchill Downs. Florida Derby winner Dialed In – who is perhaps now the pre-race favorite for the Kentucky Derby - likes to stay out of trouble by laying back in the pack before making a late run at the early leaders for his wins.

Masters champion Carl Schwartzel didn’t stay out of trouble all day, but stayed close enough to finish with a late run of four straight birdies on the final four holes of the Masters to win going away.

Adam Scott and Jason Day finished The Master two shots back of Schwartzel on the final leaderboard. Bo Van Pelt made a run with two eagles on the back nine but could manage no better than eighth place at eight under par. While these young men are obviously not new to the PGA tour, they did represent a wave of young names new to the average golf fan.

So too can be said of Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude, Toby’s Corner and and Florida Derby winner Shackleford. Like Tiger Woods, Geoff Olgivy and Angel Cobrerra, don’t expect to say good bye easily to the more recognized Kentucky Derby contenders like The Factor, Comma to the Top, and Mucho Macho Man.

But like The Masters final leaderboard, the road to the Kentucky Derby has some new travelers.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Doors of Opportunity Open Wide in Santa Anita Derby

If they hadn’t run the Florida Derby (g.r 1) last weekend, this Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) would not look as enticing as perhaps it is now. But they did run the Florida Derby, and three of the four most promising contenders on the east coast threw in clunker efforts in Gulfstream Park’s marquee event and main prep race for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands. The highly regarded To Honor and Serve ran an exhausting looking third, Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. 2) winner Soldat was even further back in fifth while Gotham Stakes (gr. 2) winner Stay Thirsty finished seventh.

Take nothing away from Florida Derby winner Dialed In and long shot runner-up Shackleford. They both ran very nice races that will garner attention from punters on Kentucky Derby Day. But even with the defection from the Santa Anita Derby by morning line favorite Premier Pegasus, there remains several horses with the potential to put forth better efforts than To Honor and Serve and his also ran compadres in Florida.

Ironically Jaycito, who inherits the early favoritism in the Santa Anita Derby when Premier Pegasus was scratched, has a resume eerily similar to that of To Honor and Serve before the Florida Derby. Both were highly regarded early this year based on their success as two-year-olds. Both also had disappointing debuts. Jaycito was beaten by nearly eight lengths by Premier Pegasus in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. 2) at Santa Anita on Mar. 12. To Honor and Serve was third, beaten nearly seven lengths by Soldat in the Fountain of Youth Stakes Feb. 26.

Jaycito will need to show marked improvement Saturday in the 1-1/8 mile Santa Anita Derby in order to be among the serious in the Kentucky Derby May 7. The late running son of Victory Gallup will also need an honest pace in the early stages of the Santa Anita Derby in order to maximize his running style.

There is also the pair of Silver Medallion (photo left) and Anthony’s Cross, two winners of graded stakes on the west coast early in the Kentucky Derby prep season. Silver Medallion won the El Camino Real Derby (gr. 3) at Golden Gate Fields way back on Feb. 12. Anthony’s Cross took the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. 2) on the same day at Santa Anita. Ironically, neither has started since. But Anthony’s Cross trainer Eoin Harty has watched his son of Indian Charlie put in a couple of bullet morning works since. Silver Medallion trainer, Steve Asmussen, has been more conservative with his Derby prospect in the mornings, but that should not reflect too much on his potential in the Santa Anita Derby. Certainly Asmussen has a penchant for timing his horses' training with their optimum races.

Trainer John Shirreffs of Zenyata fame, has a newcomer to stakes competition in the Santa Anita Derby in Mr. Commons. After finishing sixth in his first start at Hollywood Park, Mr. Commons seemed to excel on the Santa Anita turf, breaking his maiden by five and-a-half lengths in January. Shirreffs then tried his son of Artie Schiller on the main track and he defeated allowance colts at one mile.

Comma to the Top may be another to watch for the Santa Anita Derby. After winning five consecutive races from October to December including the CashCall Futurity (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park, he was among the highest regarded in his three-year-old class. But a fourth-place finish behind Silver Medallion in the El Camino Real and a similarly disappointing fourth in the San Felipe behind winner Premier Pegasus, and Comma to the Top was pushed off most lists of serious Kentucky Derby contenders. Among those lists were those held by trainer Peter Miller and owners Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, and Kevin Tsujihara. They have said they have decided not to take their colt to Kentucky. Perhaps a big race in the Santa Anita Derby will change that.

No matter which horses go on to Kentucky after the Santa Anita Derby, two big doors have opened for all those hoping to make a Run for the Roses. Last week three top Kentucky Derby contenders put in less that impressive performances in the Florida Derby while locally, morning line favorite Premier Pegasus was scratched from the Santa Anita Derby with a fracture to his left cannon bone. Say nothing of the $1 million purse that offers $600,000 to the winner and $200,000 to second. All personal accounting aside, those checks each appear to have enough graded stakes earnings to qualify the recipient for the Kentucky Derby.

The question now is: Who will take those opportunities to capitalize and walk through the door at Santa Anita that leads to Churchill Downs.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Uncle Mo And The Wood Memorial Curse

This Saturday, it is expected that Uncle Mo (photo below left) will walk into the Aqueduct Race Track starting gate in Queens, New York as the heavy post time favorite in the Wood Memorial (gr. 1). Given that, and his undefeated record and two-year-old championship, it is also expected that he will win the Wood and move into Churchill Downs as the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) on May 7.

In order for the son of Indian Charlie to go on to historic Kentucky Derby accolades, he will have to overcome circumstances that have plagued so many Wood Memorial winners who have either been victimized by injury before the Kentucky Derby, or unable to fulfill their expectations on the first Saturday in May.

Few decades have been as difficult on Wood Memorial winners than that of the oughts in the new century. If nothing else, Uncle Mo owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher can be grateful of a new decade. Although that ten year span seems to have been the most difficult on Wood winners, the Kentucky trouble for New York winners goes many years before that.

The most recent decade before the 2010s, began with trainer Bob Baffert winning his first Wood Memorial with Congaree over Florida Derby (gr. 1) winner Monarchos. While Congaree would be third choice in the Kentucky Derby at just more than 7-1 odds behind favorite Point Given (also trained by Baffert) and Dollar Bill, he came to Kentucky amid plenty of optimism off of his Wood victory.

After stalking the early leaders in the Kentucky Derby that year, Congaree raced six-wide around the far turn of the Kentucky Derby and took the lead at the top of the stretch. However, the late charging Monarchos took advantage of Congaree's record setting Derby first mile and passed him with less than a sixteenth of a mile to go, drawing off to win by more than four lengths. Invisible Ink caught Congaree at the wire for second while the Wood winner had to settle for third.

Two years later, Empire Maker and trainer Bobby Frankel would become the next Wood winning disappointments. Empire Maker had also won the Florida Derby before winning the Wood, so by the time the the first Saturday in May rolled around, the royally-bred son of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner and champion Unbridled was a solid favorite at 5-2 odds at Churchill Downs.

Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Baily was able to negotiate almost a perfect trip for Empire Maker in the Kentucky Derby as he rallied from eighth to third to second at the top of the stretch. The two would take on a little New York-bred gelding they had defeated in the Wood, but Funny Cide would turn the Wood exacta around in Kentucky by holding off runner-up Empire Maker by a length and three-quarters.

Another two-year gap and Bellamy Road is winning an allowance race at Gulfstream Park by nearly 16 lengths in his sophomore year debut. Owned by George Steinbrenner’s Kinsman Farm, Bellamy Road then won the Wood Memorial by 17-1/2 lengths and equaled the track record in doing so. The colt would go to Kentucky as a solid 3-1 favorite over Arkansas Derby (gr. 2) winner Afleet Alex, but could not manage a rally and finish seventh in a Kentucky Derby won by 50-1 long shot Giacomo.

The last two Wood Memorial winners were perhaps the most frustrating – not because they were unable to live up to expectations on the Churchill Downs race track, but because they were victimized by injuries. What makes both their stories so extra difficult was that both lost their Kentucky Derby dreams in the final days leading up to the big race.

I Want Revenge had won the 2009 Gotham Stakes (gr. 2) by 8-1/2 lengths after moving to the natural dirt tracks of New York from the synthetics of California. On the West Coast, I Want Revenge had chased home Pioneerof the Nile in both the CashCall Futurity (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. 3) in their 3-year-old debuts at Santa Anita. But once exposed to racing on natural dirt, I Want Revenge seemed to improve greatly.

There was no question about I Want Revenge and his fondness for natural soil after winnning the Gotham Stakes in New York by 8-1/2 lengths. Then in the Wood, he and jockey Joe Talamo overcame a terrible break to race into contention around the far turn. At the top of the stretch, I Want Revenge looked ready to pounce on the leaders before the window slammed shut on the wall of horses in front of them. After steadying I Want Revenge to almost a gallop, Talamo steered the big colt to the outside for what looked like a futile attempt at winning the Wood. Then I Want Revenge seem to personify his name and accelerated to win by a length and a half as track announcer Tom Durkin exclaimed, “a remarkable victory by I Want Revenge!”

Everything went well for I Want Revenge leading up to the Kentucky Derby. His works were fast and trainer Jeff Mullins was happy. Then, the morning of the Kentucky Derby, swelling and heat was discovered in the left front ankle of I Want Revenge. Mullins scratched his promising colt just hours before the race and another Wood Memorial star had bitten the Kentucky dust during the decade.

A year later, Eskendereya (photo right) would win the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. 2) at Gulfstream Park by more than eight lengths before going to New York for the Wood Memorial. Also trained by Todd Pletcher, Eskendereya had little trouble in New York, winning the Wood by nearly 10 lengths in a runaway.

Again a Wood Memorial winner was the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby in the weeks leading up to the Run for the Roses. But on April 25, just days before the race, the injury monster again hit the Wood winner with swelling in the left ankle. This time it was the ankle belonging to Eskendereya and trainer Todd Pletcher was forced to withdraw I Want Revenge from Kentucky Derby contention.

Whether a curse can be established after only ten years is left to the judgment of an individual. After all, Fusaichi Pegasus won both the Wood Memorial and Kentucky Derby in 2000. Pleasant Colony (1981), Seattle Slew (’77), Bold Forbes (’76) and Foolish Pleasure (’75) also won in Kentucky and New York.

This list of Wood Memorial winners who lost as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby includes Captain Bodgit (’97), Unbridled’s Song (’96), Easy Goer (’89), Private Terms (’88), Bold Ruler (’57), Nashua (’55) and Native Dancer (’53) going back 60 years.

Certainly races that occurred in 1996, 1989 and 1957 have little or no effect on the 2011 Wood Memorial and Kentucky Derby, regardless of the success of Uncle Mo Saturday. But then again, there is no reason to believe that the Bambino has a monopoly on New York sports curses either.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Florida Derby Confirms, Changes and Provides Hope For Kentucky Plans

Like ugly pitchers and pretty quarterbacks, everybody loves a late running thoroughbred and an emotional Nick Zito. Who can forget the raspy sounding Zito thanking God and everybody within reach after Strike the Gold won the 1991 Kentucky Derby. Well Dialed In gave horse racing both again Sunday afternoon at Gulfstream Park when he won the grade 1 Florida Derby narrowly over a stubborn Shackleford in second.

“This particular horse [Dialed In], I’ve become attached to," Zito said Monday at his barn at Palm Meadows Training Center. "I’ve had a lot of great horses, but with this particular horse there’s something about him, the horse’s courage, the way he is. More importantly, you’re not supposed to do what he’s done in his young career,“ Zito continued. “It’s almost impossible to do the things he’s done. You get emotional. He defies a speed favoring track – he defies it.”

Zito said Monday that he would not be shipping Dialed In to Kentucky anytime soon and would instead remain at the Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida for at least a few more weeks. But there is not doubt they are headed to Kentucky where Zito will be trying to win his third Run for the Roses. Zito won the Kentucky Derby in 1991 with Strike the Gold and again in 1994 with Go For Gin.

Shackleford, the Florida Derby runner-up at odds of 68-1, will be leaving for Kentucky a little sooner according to his trainer Dale Romans. The question for Shackleford will be whether his $212,000 will be enough graded stakes earnings to qualify for the Derby. Shackleford added the $200,000 second-place Florida Derby check to his previous $12,000 earned while finishing fifth in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. 2) won by Soldat Feb. 26.

“We’ll see how everything shakes down and if the $212,000 will be good enough to get in,” Roman’s said Monday. “We won’t run him again. He’ll be pointed to the Derby and if doesn’t get in, we’ll give the Preakness a try.” Shackleford is currently ranked 20th on the list of graded stakes earnings by Kentucky Derby contenders. While that will be the final spot available to enter on May 4 for the Derby three days later, there are plenty of very rich graded stakes between now and the Kentucky Derby and that day. On the positive side for Shackleford, there are several horses ranked above the son of Forrestry that are questionable for the Kentucky Derby. The owners of Comma To The Top, currently sixth on the money list, have said the Kentucky Derby is not in their plans for the colt. Also ranked above Shackleford are three horses that finished well behind him in the Florida Derby.

Florida Derby favorite Soldat is ranked fifth on the list with $540,000 in graded earnings but was fifth in the Florida Derby, beaten more than 10 lengths by Dialed In. Florida Derby third-place finisher To Honor and Serve is ranked tenth with $350,000; and Stay Thirsty, seventh in the Florida Derby, has the 15th highest graded stakes earnings with $260,000.

“My gut tells me, ‘yeah, go on to the Kentucky Derby’” Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Soldat, said Monday. “You’ve got the earnings and [the Florida Derby was the] first race he wasn’t first or second. But I’ll have to talk to all the owners.” McLaughlin also said the 3-year-old son of War Front came out of the Florida Derby with no concerns.

Unlike Soldat, To Honor and Serve has not had a good race this year. In his only two races as a 3-year-old, To Honor and Serve has finished third, more than 6-1/2 lengths behind the winner, in both the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth. Last year To Honor and Serve won the grade 2 Remsen Stakes at 1-1/8 miles over Mucho Macho Man but has yet to match that race as a sophomore. Bill Mott, his Hall of Fame trainer is also not one to be smitten over having a Kentucky Derby starter. In a training career that spans some 40 years, Mott has had only seven Kentucky Derby starters with Hold Me Back, 12th in 2009, as his most successful starter.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has not indicated as to whether Stay Thirsty will be heading to Kentucky for the Derby, but the odds are that he and owner Mike Repole will be looking elsewhere. Stay Thirsty was never a factor while finishing a well beaten sixth in the Florida Derby. Pletcher also trains Derby future book favorite Uncle Mo for Repole, so it not likely they will need Stay Thirsty to get to Churchill Downs for the Derby.

Whether To Honor and Serve, Soldat or Stay Thirsty head to Kentucky or not, one can be assured the list will change many times during the next four weeks leading up to the Derby. Millions of graded earnings have yet to be given away in New York, California, Illinois, Kentucky and Arkansas, so new names on the list of probable Kentucky Derby are likely to appear. Just as names fall of that list for various reasons as well.

Safe be it to say that the connections behind Shackleford will watch their colt fall of and return to the Derby list a few times in the next four weeks.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Deep Florida Derby Has Trainers In The Know

There is no question the Florida Derby (gr. 1) Sunday at Gulfstream Park is the deepest prep race for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands so far this year. And Sandra Bullock is more popular than Jesse James. The race has two horses that are ranked in the top five of most Derby watch lists this Spring, two other top ten candidates and four new comers to the Triple Crown trail including a monkey wrench. The eventual winner is the mystery.

The favorite is Soldat, a good looking son of War Front who won the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. 2) at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 26. Although War Front was a sprinter and Soldat’s grandsire, Rubiano, was a champion sprinter, Soldat has had little trouble winning his two previous starts this year, both at the Florida Derby distance of 1-1/8 miles. Befor the Fountain of Youth, Soldat also won a 9 furlong allowance race in February by more than 10-1/2 lengths.

Soldat has used his speedy genetics to win both races from gate to wire, making one think jockey Alan Garcia might employ the same tactics in the Florida Derby. However, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin (photo right) calls the game plan and it is doubtful he wants Soldat to race to the front Sunday. “He does everything right,” McLaughlin said on Televison Games Network. “The only thing I’d like to change is for him to get some dirt in his face. Whether it be in the Florida Derby or in the morning, we might do both. But on the first Saturday in May, you don’t want to be on the lead.”

Soldat has already fulfilled his morning “dirt in the face” requirement, beginning his Mar. 20 five furlong work behind two runners from the McLaughlin stable before accelerating around them to complete the assigned task. The grimy trip didn’t seem to bother Soldat much as he recorded a bullet work in 1:00 3/5, the fastest of 29 five-eighths of a mile works at Palm Meadows that morning. Odds are that McLaughlin wants to fulfill the other “dirt in the face” requirement Sunday.

Regardless of McLaughlin’s strategy, trainer Rick Dutrow looks to have his sights on the early lead in the Florida Derby with his late entrant Flashpoint. Like Soldat, Flashpoint is by a young sire who was successful on the track as a sprinter. His sire Pomeroy won the King’s Bishop and Kelso Handicap, both grade 1 races at seven furlongs in New York. Unlike Soldat, however, Flashpoint has never been further than the seven furlong Hutcheson Stakes, a grade 2 race on Feb. 26 he won by seven and a half lengths.

Flashpoint breaks from the outside post in the eight-horse field, but he figures to the first leader in the Florida Derby and perhaps putting McLaughlin at some ease for the moment. Should Soldat also want the lead as his past performances may indicate, that would be the wrench du monkey previously mentioned.

A trainer that will be rooting for Soldat and Flashpoint to battle each early, is two-time Kentucky Derby winning condition Nick Zito, who saddles 2-1 second choice Dialed In. Considered among the future book favorites to win in Kentucky, the son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft is a classic late closer. He broke his maiden at Churchill Downs coming from last in a 12-horse field and then won the one mile Holy Bull Stakes (gr. 3) Jan. 30 at Gulfstream Park coming from last, ten lengths off the lead.

Scheduling challenges and a need to expand out to nine furlongs, forced Zito to run Dialed In against older horses in a Mar. 6 optional claiming. A slow pace in that race also presented a challenge for the young closer and jockey Julien Laparoux, but they rallied to finish second to remain on the Kentucky Derby trail.

Having some difficulty staying on the Derby track is To Honor and Serve who finished a tired looking third behind Soldat In the Fountain of Youth. Coming from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott (photo left) somewhat eases those concerns for To Honor and Serve fans, but that does not reduce the necessity of a much improved performance in the Florida Derby in order to stay the Kentucky course.

If the Derby path had somehow narrowed to a straight line down the stretch of Aqueduct’s inner track on March 5, it is uncertain if Stay Thirsty would still be aboard. But the Derby path didn’t constrict and Stay Thirsty remains pointed toward Kentucky.

Although Stay Thirsty won the grade 3 Gotham Stakes that day, he looked less than professional in doing so. That day he broke poorly but jockey Ramon Dominguez was able to eventuall place him into contention. Turning for home, Stay Thirsty veered in without impeding another horse before then changing leads a few times. But his talent endurred and Stay Thirsty drew off to win the Gotham by just over three lengths.

It was the first start of the year for Stay Thirsty, so trainer Todd Pletcher looked at the Gotham with a glass half full attitude - seeing the room for improvement in his young son of Bernadini. He will put blinkers on Stay Thirsty in the Florida Derby to help him focus and seems confident he’ll see a smarter Stay Thirsty this time.

Rounding out the Florida Derby are Arch Traveler, Bowman’s Causeway and Shackleford, all at 20-1 and none of which are stakes winners.

There have been eleven Kentucky Derby winners who ran in the Florida Derby without winning. The most recent of those was Monarchos who took the 2001 Run for the Roses after finishing second in Florida. Before that, both Thunder Gulch (1995) and Go For Gin (’94) won Kentucky Derbies after finishing fourth in their respective Florida Derbies.

Pletcher, McLaughlin, Mott, Pletcher and Zito probably know of a few of those horses. Zito does. He trained Go For Gin. The four trainers also know their horses likely have enough graded earnings to qualify for the big prize at Churchill. And despite the $1 million purse in Florida, the riches and prestige of the Kentucky have no rival in North American horse racing – perhaps even the world.

So a loss Sunday does not present any type of third strike or punch off the proverbial trail to the Kentucky Derby. But the talent in this field in abundant and wide spread – even hidden, perhaps, in one of the three long shots. The light prep races disappeared with the days of February and March and time is eroding the options for change as the first Saturday in May nears.

Still the Florida Derby is not life or death. But a bad race by any of the promising contenders will surely cause less than comfortable illness for the previously hopeful connections. You can bet the four trainers know that too.