March 29, 2010

April 3 Derby preps preview and Top 10 update

Has anyone else noticed how the Oaklawn sophomores are blazing their way through the major Derby preps? In addition to the big 3 from the Rebel Stakes (Lookin At Lucky, Noble’s Promise and Dublin) other Oaklawn horses are shipping out of town to much success. Mission Impazzible, 4th in the Southwest Stakes, was good enough to take the top prize in the LA Derby on Saturday. Endorsement, who broke his maiden at OP just over a month ago shipped to New Mexico and captured the $800,000 Sunland Derby over the weekend, beating Southwest Stakes winner Conveyance in the process (and boosting me up the WinStar leader board in the process!) Northern Giant, owned by the father-son Ford family team operating under Westrock Stable (spending some of their Verizon buy-out money from Alltel sale!) also broke his maiden and Oaklawn and has since hit the board twice in Graded Stakes, most recently second to Dean’s Kitten in the Lane’s End. Lookin At Lucky will have a chance to keep the streak going in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby.

I have three new additions to this week's Top 10 list - #7-9. Good luck with all your Saturday bets and Happy Easter to all!

1) Eskendereya - Now pointing to Wood Memorial on April 3 for better spacing leading into Louisville. Expect to see him sitting just off pace and closing well for the win or place.

2) Lookin At Lucky - Baffert is sitting pretty and can run this one anywhere now that he won the Rebel on dirt. 90% probable for SA Derby on Saturday per Baffert.

3) Awesome Act - Gotham Stakes winner at Aqueduct is a striking son of Awesome Again who may be peaking at the right time. Will have to tackle Big E in the Wood Memorial but doesn't have to win to get to Louisville. If lively pace develops and Big E is in the fray, his closing kick could prove the difference.

4) Noble's Promise - Game effort at Oaklawn, but again came up short to Lucky. Should be the best in $1 million Arkansas Derby April 10 if Lucky stays home.

5) Super Saver - Pletcher charge had terrible tactics in Tampa Derby. Will give him one more try, likely to run in Arkansas which will give us a good litmus test to his quality.

6) Jackson Bend - He stepped up in class nicely with a game place to Big E in the FOY. But my gut is telling me that his best races are behind him with the shorter distances. Has a tall task in the Wood.

7) Aikenite - I hate his breeding but love his gutsy races where he never gives up. Obviously, I'm putting a lot of stock in the Fountain of Youth as a "key" race and see no reason why this one won't improve as well in his third race off layoff. It's been a while since Dogwood Stable had a "big horse," but this one is aptly named.

8) Northern Giant - Oaklawn graduate with dramatic maiden score. Followed that with a third (by nose) in LA Derby and place effort in Lane's End. Stalking running style may be sitting on a breakout race for Ford family of Arkansas (Alltel fame). Son of "it" sire Giant's Causeway, along with Big E - Eskendereya.

9) Mission Impazible - Of all the past weekend's preps, I liked his win in the LA Derby the most. In the chaotic Derby field, it's nice to have a horse who can break well, but then settle and let the jockey place the horse. By reading the LA Derby race chart, that's exactly what happened in the big field when he broke 2nd but was taken back to 5th, then 7th before commencing his rally after true race fractions. Yet another Pletcher charge who was coming out of a 4th place effort at Oaklawn Park in Southwest Stakes. Could be my live longshot in exotics in this year's Derby!

10) Connemara - Grinding effort while 7 wide into stretch in Lane's End on polytrack, where it's harder to draw away from field. Still like his race pattern and closing kick; hopefully it will re-emerge on Churchill Downs strip, assuming his earnings put him in.

March 18, 2010

Rebel Stakes recap and first "final" Derby prep this Saturday

It's hard to believe that just one week after the return to the track of several top 10 Derby prospects, a few will be making their last tune-up race in Saturday's Florida Derby, six weeks from the "big dance" (it is NCAA March madness after all!).

I've been chomping at the bit to discuss Saturday's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, where I met up with a raucous crowd that is sure to become the next big annual event. What a perfect weekend in Hot Springs, when the dogwoods were yielding their virgin blooms and the track was abuzz with electricity, which would ultimately be unplugged with the shocking loss of Rachel A. later in the day. Lookin At Lucky "looks" like a champion, well maybe because he was last year's two year-old champion. But what I mean is that I can clearly see him in the winner's circle on the first Saturday in May with the familiar silver haired Bob Baffert high fiving his beer drinking owner friend, Mike Pegram, in the same silks as Sssshhhhh, Real Quiet, claimed The Derby with back in 1998. Let's hope this first race off the shelf won't take too much out of the champ. And how about that Ken McPeek's Noble's Promise? What a game effort in defeat in also his first effort of 2010. Although, I still get leary with the top of his bloodline since he seems to be coming up a tad short in all of his distance races. Dublin really disappointed me in that I thought this would be his break-out race. While he did make a big move approaching the turn, he flattened out into the stretch which also leads me to believe his best distance is 7 furlongs to one mile.

At Santa Anita they had a bit of an upset with Sidney's Candy (recall brother Chocolate Candy from last spring?) and Interactif taking the win-place over Caracortado and American Lion. Meanwhile at the Tampa Bay Derby it was an ugly race with the top four horses - including my Super Saver - trading places all around the racetrack. Many people are jumping on the winner's - Odysseus - bandwagon, but I'm not sure about this one even after his 15 length romp leading up to the Tampa Bay Derby. Neither or these races impressed me near as much as the Rebel, and the Beyer speed figures back me up on this one.

This Derby is shaping up with more speed than any of recent memory. I'm not talking about the blazing speed of Songandaprayer or Smoke Glacken, but rather many of the top prospects seem hell bent on getting the lead and trying to dictate pace. Perhaps it seems this way since Todd Pletcher trains about half of this year's three year-olds! But seriously, did anyone else see Super Saver's race at Tampa and watch that horse spurt away from the field in the opening strides, only to lose by a length at the wire? Having natural or tactical speed is one thing, but I'll never understand gunning a horse to the front in a 9 furlong race. Oh well, the point of all this is that I am giving particular consideration to those who are comfortable having some dirt splashed in their face and routinely pick up horses in the stretch. I feel somewhat burned last year with Friesan Fire (even though Pioneerof the Nile was my top pick with a nice place finish) after he broke poorly and was thus "Brooks & Dunn" due to his running style.

Without further delay, here is my latest and greatest top 10 list heading into the Florida Derby; two defections with American Lion and Dublin.

1) Eskendereya - Now pointing to Wood Memorial for better spacing leading into Louisville.

2) Lookin At Lucky - Baffert is sitting pretty and can run this one anywhere now that he won the Rebel on dirt.

3) Awesome Act - Gotham Stakes winner at Aqueduct is a striking son of Awesome Again who may be peaking at the right time.

4) Rule - Speedball now the likely favorite for the Florida Derby this Saturday. Perhaps the six weeks will keep his tempo level.

5) Noble's Promise - Game effort at Oaklawn, but again came up short to 'Lucky.

6) Super Saver - Pletcher charge had terrible tactics in Tampa Derby. Will give one more try.

7) Jackson Bend - He stepped up in class nicely with a game place to Big E in the FOY. But my gut is telling me that his best races are behind him with the shorter distances.

8) Connemara - My 30-1 futures bet is alive and well with a score in the Cal Derby running down pedestrian fractions. Truest closer of the bunch!

9) Radiohead - This diminutive lead pony comes from the same connections as Big Brown. Clearly, this one is not being doped up by Rick Dutrow, but he recently wore down much larger horses in a 1 mile race at Gulfstream and may upset in the Florida Derby.

10) Drosselmeyer - My boy didn't show up like I thought he would at the Fair Grounds, but he was in front about five jumps past the wire and all indications are that he should impove with another furlong.

Be sure to update your WinStar Farm Fantasy Stable for the three horse addition by tomorrow if you haven't already. I'd use Radiohead in that pool as a sleeper!

March 15, 2010

Jess Jackson pulls plug on Rachel in Apple Blossom for second time

After being in Hot Springs for the weekend to witness a riveted 50th edition of the Rebel Stakes (blog to follow later in week), I have some advice for billionaire wine magnate Jess Jackson. Stay the hell out of Hot Springs for the foreseeable future. On second thought, stay entirely out of the state of Arkansas for a really long time. Bert the cabbie hates your freakin' guts. As does Billy the bellman at Arlington Park. Sue the waitress at Hester's restaurant called you a really despicable name and my nephew Daniel Lee thinks you are a scaredy-cat. And I think they all have a right in their opinion considering you cost many of these people the most lucrative payday in their careers. And that's saying something at Billy's age!

Of course, I'm speaking of his decision to withdraw Rachel from the Oaklawn showdown with Zenyatta in 4 weeks that Charles Cella had previously moved back to accomodate him! During my time in the Spa City (of the south, anyway) I polled those in service trades what their expected financial impact would be from the "Race for the Ages" and if they believed the race would actually happen. To my astonishment, none believed the race WOULDN'T happen! Typically responses were, "What are you talkin' bout? They done already said they were gonna race here!" Might sound a tad naive, but in the Natural state a man is only as good as his word.

Yep, they were already counting their money from the 100,000 or so additional horse lovers expected to come from all corners of the land. Rumors (some perhaps true, others exaggerated) swirled about "the sheik" who tried to reserve the entire Arlington hotel but had to settle for another hotel off the strip and many lake houses being booked for $200,000 for the weekend. Stories of Oaklawn seats and boxes selling for up to 5 times the price of season seats! Many of these transactions were already consummated, but for most of the mom and pop businesses their revenue depends on actual headcount and that will surely drop after the dream match is history.

And what about the announcement from Jess Jackson, "While she is healthy, just as I had anticipated, she is not in top form. Therefore, I decided today she will not be going to the Oaklawn Invitational on April 9. Steve and I discussed this fully and we now regret we tried to accelerate her training in order meet the Apple Blossom schedule." This doesn't resemble an apology as much as it hints at ire towards Oaklawn Park for "rushing the devolopment" of last year's wonder horse, Rachel Alexandra. Rather than expressing regret to the fans and to Charles Cella, owner of Oaklawn Park, for his multiple commitments and then going back on his word he reminds us all through "just as I had anticipated" he is some form of oracle who is to be praised for his wisdom. It's yet another example of how his ego is actually turning people against one of the greatest racehorses of this or any eras. Much like it went down with Curlin a couple of years ago after his synthetic flop in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita. The pattern is a trail of excuses with Jess Jackson, just as he had laid them out even before Rachel's New Orleans Ladies classic defeat.

What is most unfortunate is that this news is further distraction to the real story that is ZENYATTA. Oaklawn's press release reminded me that Zenyatta (who still plans on racing in the Apple Blossom, by the way, in spite of its reduced 500K purse without Rachel's presence) will be trying to equal Cigar and Citation's U.S. record of 16 consecutive unrestricted race wins. This is an incredible achievement that at the time of Cigar's record in 1996 many believed would be harder to accomplish than another triple crown champion. So don't think that the crowd will be any less jubilant in seeing a deserving champion, albeit smaller in numbers. The only thing Arkansans enjoy better than a good day at the track is Razorback football and the Hogs are out of season. I know I will be thrilled to see "Big Zen" for a third time, especially after pushing around the Grade I field in the stretch of the Santa Margarita (the race, not the drink) in California. Just don't expect those in attendance to be celebrating on race day with any Kendall Jackson wines!