April 29, 2009

Kentucky Derby 135 Week - Post Positions

The post position draw occured late Wednesday morning at Churchill Downs in a radical departure from recent years. Rather than having a "made for tv" event with emcee, interviews, etc., the draw occured in obscurity... a sign that interest in thoroughbred racing continues deteriorating. Furthermore, for the first time in many years, Friday's Kentucky Oaks will not be broadcast via live television. This is quite a change over a few generations, when companies and factories would close down on days when horses such as Seabiscuit, Count Fleet and Citation would make a scheduled start. I guess I can't blame the average Joe (not to be confused with Joe the Plumber) for lacking interest after the fatal breakdowns of Barbaro and Eight Belles in recent years, not to mention the steroid scandal with Big Brown and the lack of a national policy on drug and safety matters. Which makes tracks such as Oaklawn Park and even Lone Star near Dallas the model for racing after increasing purse money and attendance in recent years by incorporating more promotions (casino in the case of Oaklawn) and special events to draw the casual racing fan to an afternoon of fun. Oh well, enough of my tangent, let's get to the official post positions and odds!

Post Horse Trainer Jockey Odds
1 West Side Bernie Kelly Breen Stewart Elliott 30-1
2 Musket Man Derek Ryan Eibar Coa 20-1
3 Mr. Hot Stuff Eoin Harty John Velazquez 30-1
4 Advice Todd Pletcher Rene Douglas 30-1
5 Hold Me Back Bill Mott Kent Desormeaux 15-1
6 Friesan Fire Larry Jones Gabriel Saez 5-1
7 Papa Clem Gary Stute Rafael Bejarano 20-1
8 Mine That Bird Bennie Woolley Calvin Borel 50-1
9 Join in the Dance Todd Pletcher Chris DeCarlo 50-1
10 Regal Ransom Saeed bin Suroor Alan Garcia 30-1
11 Chocolate Candy Jerry Hollendorfer Mike Smith 20-1
12 General Quarters Tom McCarthy Julien Leparoux 20-1
13 I Want Revenge Jeff Mullins Joe Talamo 3-1
14 Atomic Rain Kelly Breen Joe Bravo 50-1
15 Dunkirk Todd Pletcher Edgar Prado 4-1
16 Pioneerof the Nile Bob Baffert Garrett Gomez 4-1
17 Summer Bird Tim Ice Chris Rosier 50-1
18 Nowhere to Hide Nick Zito Shaun Bridgmohan 50-1
19 Desert Party Saeed bin Suroor Ramon Dominguez 15-1
20 Flying Private D. Wayne Lukas Robby Albarado 50-1

Not really any shockers with the draw choices, especially after considering Dutrow's bold move last year of selecting post #20 for Big Brown even though there were several spots left to prove his horse could overcome anything! Baffert made some puzzling comments that he was hoping all day to get in the 16 post, which they ended up getting. That may force Pioneer of the Nile to show a little more speed on the first turn to save some ground, but all other outside horses are long-shots.

Does anyone have an angle on the Dubai horses, Desert Party and Regal Ransom? If so, please send me comments as I'm balking on my initial thought to toss them completely due to the passive race regimen this spring. My current "fear" horse is late blooming Hold Me Back at 15-1 after his win and runner-up finish on synthetics. I would love to discount these races due to his success primarily on artificial surface -- that they WON'T be running on at Churchill Downs. But then you see I Want Revenge who made the switch easily in New York from California tracks to the traditional tracks of the East. Would love to get the thoughts of my "railbird" friends!

Trivia answer: Stewart Elliott was the last jockey to win The Derby in his first attempt with Smarty Jones in 2004. After another big win in The Preakness, many thought he actually cost him the coveted Triple Crown when he moved Smarty in the Belmont Stakes through a swift 6 furlongs with more than a half mile remaining. Ultimately, he was passed in the last sixteenth of a mile by Nick Zito trained Birdstone in my only triple crown attended event to date. On Saturday, 19 year-old phenom Joe Talamo tries to duplicate this feat on the likely favorite, I Want Revenge.

April 27, 2009

Derby 135 Week - Rachel Getting Ready

Monday had no shortage of drama on the Churchill Downs racing strip. By now you have probably seen the graphic video of a tragic training accident that occurred when a three year-old colt tossed his jockey and proceeded his workout, where he slammed into an unraced 2 year-old filly (Raspberry Kiss) at approximately 40 mph. You can probably guess the result... the filly received a broken pelvis and had to be euthanized, a truly heartbreaking scene.

The accident happened just as Calvin Borel was ready to shake the reigns at Rachel Alexandra to initiate her workout. When Rachel returned to the track to complete her scheduled work, the leggy daughter of Medaglia d'Oro dropped some jaws as she blazed around the track completing 5 furlongs in :58.40 and 6 panels in 1:10.60. By contrast, several entries in The Derby also had 5 furlong tuneups for Saturday's run for the roses; Pioneer of the Nile - 1:00.87, Chocolate Candy - :59.24, Join in the Dance - 1:00.20, Take the Points - 1:00.06, Win Willy - 1:02.40 and Friesan Fire - :57.86, following Larry Jones' aggressive training script. Even though Friesan Fire was the only horse to work faster than Rachel for 5/8ths of a mile, she made up four seconds while galloping out the final furlong while well in hand under Calvin "Bo-rail".

So what do all of these times mean... after all, this isn't quarter horse racing we're talking about! As a frame of reference, some of the fastest pre-Derby works in years past produced mixed results. Trainer Larry Jones employed the same style that didn't seem to phase Eight Belles (:58.20) or Hard Spun (:57.60) in previous runner-up efforts and Smarty Jones had a bullet 5 furlongs in :58.00 before his 2004 Derby triumph. However, the tightening may have adversely affected Point Given in 2001 (:58.20) and Artax in 1998 (:58.00), which had the scribes scurrying.

Trivia Answer: War Emblem was Baffert's last Derby winner, although he took over training the colt just prior to his Illinois Derby victory. His previous "real" trainee was "the fish" Real Quiet in 1998 one year after his first score with Silver Charm.

By the end of today, we'll have the official field for The Derby with post position assignments and morning line odds. Good luck with your handicapping!

Derby 135 - Tuesday

Well, let's get the bad news out of the way and move on... Quality Road has been declared out of The Derby based on his deteriorating quarter crack. You would think that I have learned every possible lesson from Derbies past, but I had started my betting strategy a little early this year and had pretty much decided to single Quality Road on top in my big exotic tickets... so much for that! As I indicated in an earlier post, this defection will have a HUGE impact on not only on the odds, but also the pace scenario, where he was likely to ensure a brisk pace being on or very near the lead. Now that he and The Pamplemousse are victims of the Derby trail, that must make the Friesan Fire and Papa Clem camps overjoyed by expecting more moderate fractions for the half mile and 6 furlong intervals.

On a positive note, Friday is setting up to be a huge day for the ladies at Churchill Downs. Not only will Rachel Alexandra be trying to establish herself as one of the great fillies of all time by extending her dominant win streak in the Kentucky Oaks, but it is projected that champion undefeated mare Zenyatta will make her 2009 debut in the Louisville Distaff, also on Friday's card. Zenyatta has already firmly proven herself, winning all nine starts (including the 2008 Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park) and a similar campain in 2009 will make her one of the true greats - male or female - to ever grace the oval. This couldn't have shaped up any better for Churchill Downs, who is trying to establish a Kentucky Oaks attendance record by hosting Susan G. Komen Cancer charity events throughout the infield on "wear pink" day.

Trivia Answer: Yesterday's trivia answer is Alydar, who sired both Alysheba (see my related archived tribute) and Strike The Gold. Strangely enough, "super stud" A.P. Indy has yet to produce a Kentucky Derby winner, although he was twice recognized as sire of the year by progeny earnings and produced Triple Crown champs Bernardini (Preakness) and Rags to Riches (Belmont). The votes were evenly distributed across the four choices. I will offer an easier trivia question today (at least for you Google maniacs!).

Happy Derby Week!

April 25, 2009

Happy Derby 135 Week

I know it's not quite Monday, but I'm kicking off the show a little early this year due to an imposing travel schedule -- more on that later.

Let me start by reporting that the Quality Road camp is still optimistic after this morning's jog around the track that produced a trace of blood from the quarter crack, but no soreness or swelling. He is still scheduled for an official workout Monday morning.

Folks, let's not kid ourselves. Kentucky Derby 135 is all about revenge. And I'm not talking about I Want Revenge, rather revenge of the sires of this year's crop to make up for past Derby's lost. Speaking of I Want Revenge, his sire - Stephen Got Even - ran a laughable 14th as the "danger horse" in the '99 Derby (Charismatic). Pioneer of the Nile's sire - Empire Maker - was the beaten favorite in '03 (Funny Cide). Another beaten favorite in '96 (won by Grindstone), Unbridled's Song sends out Dunkirk in hopes of redeeming his off-the-board finish, while Mine That Bird tries to best Birdstone's 2001 (Monarchos) 8th place finish.

On the other hand, a few horses are trying to pull off the father-son double as Win Willy hopes to follow in Monarchos'(01) shoes and Flying Private likewise of Fusaichi Pegasus (2000). Furthermore, Elusive Quality hopes to sire his second winner in Quality Road to join brother Smarty Jones (04).

Most of you know that I've never witnessed The Derby in person -- waiting to have my very own horse entered in The Derby to go in style if/when that ever may happen! But this year I have decided to at least spend a couple of days in Louisville leading up to The Derby for live blogging from the backstretch. Since I have to be in Memphis for a work trip this week, I realized Louisville wasn't that far away, so what the hell! While I'm there, I will also be able to see my favorite filly - Rachel Alexandra - go for the win in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday's card.

Here is a very helpful site to watch race replays and evaluate the talent for Saturday's big race: http://www.kentuckyderby.com/2009/racing-information/

Trivia questions can be found in the left margin... please participate since no one can tell if you are right or wrong with your response. And feedback and comments are always encouraged... Talk Derby to me!


April 24, 2009

Quality Road... say it ain't so!

Just eight days prior to the 135th Run for the Roses, major news hit the backstretch and personally threw a major wrench in my handicapping. Quality Road has suffered a new quarter crack on his right front hoof, although, reportedly not as severe as his last one that split on his right rear during his Florida Derby triumph. With Big Brown last year and now this horse, "quarter crack" is giving "stimulus" a push for the most quoted word(s) over the past year -- at least in my world. At worst, he'll be declared out of the race over the weekend and perhaps be mended in time for the classics to follow, or likely by Saratoga's Travers Stakes. At best, his last scheduled workout will be pushed back to Sunday or Monday, not the optimal approach in training regimen for the biggest race of his life!

If he indeed scratches in the coming days, that is a bad thing for all bettors. If you planned on tossing the son of Elusive Quality due to speed/distance concerns, now your horse will be bet down to lower odds. On the flip side, if you liked this horse (like me) and planned on keying him in the exotics, it's time to go back to the drawing board. Even if he gets in the race there will be lingering doubts that will shatter confidence at the betting windows... the VERY LAST thing you want when trying to whittle down a 20 horse field!

So - true to form - we have our first official Derby drama. There are usually one or two candidates that suffer such a fate during the final workout or days leading up to The Derby, so let's hope all else remains calm over the weekend. As always, I'll be keeping you posted and remember -- Derby trivia begins Monday!

Happy Racing.

April 12, 2009

Papa Clem relishes Easter in Arkansas

The worst kept secret on the Oaklawn Park backstretch last week was that Old Fashioned could not rate. Trainer Gary Stute used this information to his advantage as he and jockey Rafael Bejarano changed tactics and brought Papa Clem off the pace to capture the 73rd running of the $1 million Arkansas Derby. The colt still eligible for a NW1/X finally recorded his break-through victory in an easier spot after chasing such stars as Pioneer of the Nile in California and Friesan Fire in Louisiana.

That was not an attempt to discount the Derby field or runner-up, Old Fashioned, who again laid down zippy fractions while staying into the bit in the ninth furlong to finish a determined second. But later that evening trainer Larry Jones was dealt another blow as Old Fashioned was found to have a broken knee and will likely never race again. That leaves stablemate Friesan Fire as his last hope prior to retirement to capture the run for the roses after two runner-up finishes with Hard Spun and Eight Belles. Lightly raced Summer Bird picked up the pieces for the show spot, meaning that Papa Clem will likely be the lone representative from Arkansas in Louisville.

In the other major final prep at Keeneland, the $20,000 claimer from last May - General Quarters - was a surprise winner of The Blue Grass Stakes over favorite Hold Me Back and fellow long-shot (and my pick) Massone. Theregoesjojo and Terrain threw in clunkers to put an end to their Derby dreams.

So with most if not all of the projected Derby starters now primed for the big one, that makes Quality Road the leader in the clubhouse (it is Masters Sunday, after all!). Even though the colt developed a slight quarter crack in his Florida Derby triumph, apparently it is not as severe as Big Brown's hoof problems from a year ago, which obviously didn't slow him down. Many of you have heard me talk about "key races" early on The Derby trail. It's easy to look back and circle the February 7th Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita as such a race, where Papa Clem finished just behind Pioneer of the Nile and a length ahead of I Want Revenge. Neither of those horses have lost again, so it's going to be tough to try to separate these three come the first Saturday in May!

Hope you all had a blessed Easter.

April 5, 2009

Too many "favorites" with 3 preps to go!

Three major prep races were run on Saturday with three favorites winning -- all with authority! Pioneer of the Nile deserves top billing after bringing Baffert his 5th Santa Anita Derby win, not only based on his last two victories over Santa Anita's cushion track, but particularly three races back when he defeated I Want Revenge and Papa Clem, sending those to weaker competition to the East and South, respectively. Papa Clem had a nice second to Friesan Fire in the LA Derby and is up next Saturday in the AR Derby at Oaklawn while I Want Revenge completed his thrashing of Aqueduct foes on Saturday with a flat-footed start and stretch impeded flourish to claim the Wood Memorial.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Musket Man backed up his Tampa Bay Derby score with a victory in Hawthorne's Illinois Derby, a race that War Emblem won in 2002 while coming into The Derby under the radar. Even though this one has a sprinter's pedigree, there's something about this late blooming colt that intrigues me.

So if that's not enough of a stellar cast, let me back up 2 weeks ago when Quality Road delivered the record performance I expected of him in the Florida Derby while outclassing Dunkirk, to clearly establish himself as the colt to beat on May 2nd. Although, Dunkirk proponents will lament the fact that the Gulfstream Park dirt track produced three stakes records on a day that tended to favor speed. Even though Quality Road wasn't on the lead, he was a close second most of the way while Dunkirk loomed towards the back of the pack being a closer. Another duo who made some noise in Dubai were Godolphin owned Regal Ransom and Desert Party, who finished about a furlong ahead of the best of the rest in the UAE Derby.

So at this time, I would have to say that Quality Road and Pioneer of the Nile are the leaders in the clubhouse, with I Want Revenge, Dunkirk and Friesan Fire clipping at their heels. Old Fashioned can put his name back into the favorite discussion (especially with Larry Jones as trainer) with a win in the Arkansas Derby this coming Saturday. As I anticipated, with these others winning impressively closer to The Derby, it seems as though Friesan Fire is already the forgotten horse. An example is Steve Haskin's Derby Dozen rating, where he has slid from #2 to #5 over the past three weeks while training up to The Derby. With many of these other horses running extremely fast races at or near the pace, this year's Derby pace scenario is shaping up to be impossible to handicap. It's a matter of how the trainers and jockeys may be changing tactics based on their post position draw. Do we really have to wait FOUR MORE WEEKS???