March 20, 2011

Kentucky Derby Top 10 list - March 20

Another two weekends of prep races have come and gone, yet I am stuck in a rut with my Derby handicapping. The Tampa Bay Derby was quite a flop with two bomb long-shots completing the $2,200 exacta (on a $2 bet!). Now don't get me wrong, I prefer a mid-priced horse winning here and there to spark a nice payoff. But this race outcome reminded me of the Rockamundo shocker at 100-1 in the 1993 Arkansas Derby, Calvin Borel's first major victory. At least it was a nice and sunny day at the Oldsmar, FL track with a festive crowd in attendance.

But the 13,000 or so present there could not compete with the 35,000 Oaklawn patrons who witnessed numerous Breeders' Cup runners this past Saturday. Preceding the Rebel Stakes, Havre de Grace and Blind Luck renewed their rivalry in the Grade 3 Azeri Stakes, in which Havre de Grace used her tactical speed to her advantage getting the best of the back-of-the-pack running Blind Luck on a speed favoring track. Then in the Rebel, Martin Garcia astutely put The Factor into the race early, wasn't pressured at all and was able to give him a breather until the turn for home, in which he again spurted away from the overmatched field of sophomores.
A big disappointment for me was the late scratch of Alternation after he sustained minor cuts when flipping in the starting gate prior to the race. Perhaps he could have at least tested The Factor in the stretch, who finished strongly, but still ran about a fifth of a second slower than Havre de Grace at the same distance from the previous race. Sway Away was a complete bust as he and Garret Gomez were fighting each other throughout the race. He never put in a run after having issues of his own leaving the gate, but this was not the step forward he needed. So at this point I am hoping to complete my "trifecta" of Derby preps on a positive note this weekend at the Louisiana Derby and perhaps I can wipe away my "O for 2011" dubious betting steak!

Top 10 removals: I will be tossing Brethren, Cal Nation and Sway Away. Brethren ran a dull third in the TB Derby on a track he had previously won on against two off-form horses and Cal Nation couldn’t last in a mile allowance race at Gulfstream - which time was slow comparable to other races on the card. I’ve received several comments as to why top performers such as The Factor and Soldat (both out of new speed-oriented sire War Front) have yet to crack my top 10 in spite of their obvious talent. Thus, let me remind all that this is a list of horses that can potentially WIN The Derby on May 7th, not those who are the most impressive in the 8.5 furlong or 9 furlong prep races, but may not be the best choice in the 10 furlong Derby distance. Thus, I have a tendency to avoid most colts that I perceive to be pure speed horses (learned that lesson the hard way last year with Sidney’s Candy!) or who have distance limitations at the classic distance (in my humble opinion).

1) Dialed In – As I pointed out in previous post, had a tall task against older horses and lack of pace in last 9 furlong prep race, but I believe he got more out of this than Uncle Mo’s walkover, thus he’s still my #1. Connections may have feared a “bounce” race after his huge effort two back and certainly didn’t WOW us like others. But perhaps Dialed In learned a little in his last race having to run closer to the lead, which may help him depending on Derby pace. Monarchos had a similar race in the Wood Memorial before getting back to his best running style in winning the 2001 Kentucky Derby in near -record time. Expect another first or second finish in the Florida Derby in spite of pace to keep him as my top choice heading into Louisville.

2) Santiva – The Giant's Causeway son (same as Eskenderaya last year) was last seen at the Fair Grounds where he ran a huge race for 2nd place off the shelf in the Risen Star. Rather than running back in this Saturday’s $1 million LA Derby and wait six weeks to the big one, his connections smartly pushed back his next start to the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on Polytrack, where he has also performed well. Could very well be the under the radar horse for this year’s Derby.

3) Uncle Mo – After trashing owner Repole for backing out of the Tampa Bay Derby, I may have come to understand his decision after seeing the quirky finish of the TB Derby in person, where a 45-1 and 89-1 shot rounded out the exacta. There were multiple other bomb long-shots win last Saturday and a defending Breeders’ Cup champion (Pluck) run out of the money, leading to an inverse show pool (someone bet 50K to show on chalk favorite Pluck and since she didn’t hit the board most show payouts exceeded win or place payouts, a unique situation!). Still not convinced he got anything other than a glorified workout from the one-mile turn Timely Writer (half mile went in :50 and change), but should continue to move forward. The question is where he will be placed in The Derby with a stampede of 20 horses. And The Factor winning and likely Derby bound hurts Mo's chances in my pace scenario, as he will be engaged earlier at a faster cruising speed, setting things up for a horse in the 3rd or 4th wave of horses.

4) Premier Pegasus – This newcomer to my list followed up his well-beaten third place finish sprinting against The Factor and Sway Away with a diabolical stretch drive against lesser opponents last out, winning drawing away. I have always been puzzled how Fu-Peg hasn’t thrown off better runners being the complete physical specimen he was with the high price tag at auction and winning the 2000 Derby, but this year he is back on the radar. Had a son, Roman Ruler, make some noise a few years back on the west coast and is now an attractive young stud himself (he sired Rule from last year's preps, before being injured).

5) Mucho Macho Man – Risen Star winner in a talented field of horses. Upon further look, the bottom (dam) side of his breeding has plenty of stamina with names like Mr. Prospector, Nijinsky II and Hoist The Flag. That gives this grandson of Holy Bull (who sired Giacomo - ’05 Derby winner) a nice 2.43 dosage index rating, which is picture-perfect for improving chances of winning at 10 furlongs. Looking forward to seeing him run in person in this weekend’s $1 million Louisiana Derby against not-so-great competition. Interesting that Elite Alex scratched from the Rebel Stakes for an "easier" spot in this $1 million prep, but I agree with that decision.

6) To Honor and Serve – Was clearly a short horse in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, but keep in mind that Super Saver began his Derby trail last year with a third at unheralded Tampa Bay Downs before running a good second to a runaway speed horse (Line of David) in the Ark. Derby before capturing the top prize in Louisville. A solid next race still places him in the elite echelon of sophomores and thus the reason for these trainers being particularly careful with prep schedules to keep their horses moving forward.

7) Jaycito – Baffert now has multiple bullets with The Factor and this distant runner-up to Premier Pegasus in his 3YO debut in the San Felipe Stakes. Came from the clouds and never even threatened the winner, but showed that he can make up some ground in the stretch and more distance should only benefit him. With all my other picks struggling, there is no reason to move him down at this point.

8) Stay Thirsty – I can see the headlines now, “The other Repole horse takes the roses…” Stablemate of Uncle Mo has been on the back page of The Derby news but keeps running better as the distance goes longer. I’m not crazy about Aqueduct as training grounds for The Derby, but this son of Bernardini has done little wrong to this point. Will either stay in NY for the Wood Memorial or head south to Gulfstream for the FL Derby, depending on what Pletcher/Repole decide to do with Mo.

9) Archarcharch – Still not convinced that the Oaklawn group is much to talk about this year, but he backed up his Southwest Stakes win with a gutsy performance racing closer to the lead than usual while being nipped for second by Caleb’s Posse in the Rebel. Should appreciate a little more ground that he’s soon to get and with a few races under his belt should be as tight as possible leading into May. Another very hot sire at the moment, with Arch siring Blame - last year's BC Classic winner who got the better of Zenyatta at the same Derby distance.

10) Sweet Ducky - This Pulpit pupil ran in the wake of Dialed In last time out at Gulfstream. The connections were enticed with the huge purse of the UAE Derby, also this weekend (although, thousands of miles away!). Disconcerting that he “ducked” the FOY Stakes, but with the large purse money only has to finish in the top four in the desert to qualify earnings to gain admittance in the starting gate at Louisville. We'll know soon how this works out.

Happy Racing!

March 7, 2011

Uncle Mo tops weekend preps

What we are fairly sure of is that Uncle Mo will run on Saturday, although still not positive where - in the Tampa Bay Derby or Timely Writer at Gulfstream Park, an "overnight" stakes (assuming enough horses enter) created to fit the specs of Pletcher. When the race was originally scheduled to be run at 8.5 furlongs, there was a chance that Dialed In and Uncle Mo would have gone head to head in this ungraded race at Gulfstream. But after owner Mike Repole made the case to Gulfstream's racing secretary to shorten the race to a one-turn mile for Uncle Mo, Nick Zito looked elsewhere to get valuable two-turn experience for his son of Mineshaft, even though that meant in a small field against older horses. So even though Dialed In ran a fast closing second after spotting a dawdling pace, perhaps this could be more meaningful than anything Mo may do this weekend.

I, for one, hope Mo is on or pressing the pace and wins in a blistering time in the Timely Writer. Based on this year's early favorites running poorly (Comma to the Top, To Honor and Serve, Tapizar), not running at all (Jaycito, Astrology) or off the trail (Boys at Tosconova), a strong showing by Mo on Saturday will create a virtual walkover in the Wood Memorial and essentially put his odds at even money come the first Saturday in May. And to beat him on that day with more battle tested horses means a five figure trifecta payout!

I'm not going to release my third Top 10 list under after Mo's first appearance on the trail, but elsewhere this weekend on the left coast, Jaycito and Comma to the Top look to stay in The Derby fray in The San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the new, lightning-fast Santa Anita dirt track.

Also, next weekend's Rebel Stakes at my beloved home track of Oaklawn Park is setting up to be a doozy. The Factor, Astrology and Sway Away from California are likely to join the top five finishers from the Southwest Mile (won by ArchArchArch) and multiple Oaklawn allowance winner Alternation, the son of Distorted Humor who won on the undercard to the Southwest in a faster time. With this many horses still fighting for precious graded stakes money, an off-the-board finish in the Rebel may mean goodbye to The Derby trail (and hello to the lower rungs, like the Lone Star or West Virginia Derby).

Good luck at the betting windows this weekend! I'll publish my report from the Tampa Bay Derby next week.