Ky. Derby Trail: A Ghost of a Chance

Next week, Blood-Horse magazine officially kicks off its Kentucky Derby coverage with a Derby preview cover story, the Derby contenders’ racing and pedigree profiles, and, of course, the Derby Dozen.

And, as usual, coming up with a top 12 list is not going to be easy. Once you get past the four major contenders – Uncle Mo, To Honor and Serve, Tapizar, and Boys At Tosconova – you basically have a potpourri of aspiring Derby horses who are looking to step up their game and prove they belong on the road to Louisville.

It is a road that is not for the timid. One false step, one minor mishap, and hopes wilt as quickly as a bouquet of cheap roses.

In the upcoming months, you will be reading quite a lot about the aforementioned horses, as well as numerous other contenders who have proven themselves in stakes competition.

When the first Derby Dozen appears, some people may be surprised at a few of the names listed. The reaction likely will range from, “Huh?” to “Who?” to “He better go back to writing about Zenyatta.”

One such name is Casper’s Touch; a name that isn’t exactly rolling around on people’s tongues.

So, who the heck is Casper’s Touch and what is he doing on a list of 12 Derby contenders? First off, we have decided to have a little fun frolicking about on the trail this year. And that fun will consist of trying to find a little-known horse every so often that looks to have the potential to become a legitimate Derby contender. Most of these obviously will not pan out, but part of the fun of the Derby trail is searching for diamonds in the rough.

Casper’s Touch is such a horse. By Touch Gold, out of a Saint Ballado mare, his great-grandsire in his tail-female family is champion Key to the Mint, a son of Graustark. That is enough stamina right there to assure this colt will have no problem getting a mile and a quarter.

He has not exactly had a typical career for a young horse. After finishing fourth in his career debut, going 4 1/2 furlongs on Keeneland’s Polytrack, trainer Kenny McPeek, who heads the partnership that owns the colt, decided to take an unconventional path with him.

McPeek was sending Noble’s Promise to England for the St. James’s Palace Stakes (Eng-I) at Royal Ascot and decided to send Casper’s Touch with him to run in the seven-furlong Chesham Stakes, a race designed to showcase future distance horses.

“I was handcuffed with him,” McPeek said. “I knew he needed more ground and I didn’t want to run him five or 5 1/2 furlongs. The first six-furlong race at Churchill wasn’t until the Fourth of July and he was doing well, so I figured, why not bring him to England and run him seven furlongs in the Chesham. The race is unique in that it is restricted to horses sired by stallions that had won at a mile and a half, and his sire, Touch Gold, won the Belmont Stakes.”

Sent off at 9-1 in the 12-horse field, Casper’s Touch finished a solid third, beaten 3 3/4 lengths by the top-class Zaidan. He was just nipped by a nose at the wire for second.

“He had a little medical issue when we got back that needed addressing,” McPeek said. “It was minor, but I didn’t press it. Without that setback he easily would have made the Breeders’ Cup with no trouble. But in the long run it worked out well. He’s filled out and is a big, strong horse. And he’s working really well. He’s got that Saint Ballado -- Halo look. He reminds me of Sunday Silence; jet black, with the same head. And he can run.”

He demonstrated that in a Nov. 19 maiden race going a mile at Churchill Downs. Sitting back in sixth under Julien Leparoux, he made a steady three-wide run. Still second by two lengths at the eighth pole, he collared the leader and drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:37 1/5.

“He reminds me of Repent, but he’s a more correct, toned down version,” McPeek said. “I don’t know that Repent could have won at a flat mile. He’s already traveled and ran well in Europe. You should see him; he’s a pretty horse, and he’s very, very intelligent. He’s extremely easy to train. You put the tack on him and point him, and he says, ‘OK, how fast do you want me to go?’ He hates to lose in the morning. He worked with a stakes-placed filly the other day and really whipped her.”

Casper’s Touch has been working steadily at Gulfstream, and his next start, against winners, will tell a lot.

“I’m tempted to try the Holy Bull, but I want to get him two turns first, so I’ll probably wait until an allowance on Feb. 4,” McPeek said. “Then I can come back in either the Fountain of Youth or one of those Fair Grounds stakes.”

McPeek also has another possible Derby contender in Rogue 
Romance, who finished third in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The son of Smarty Jones is doing well, but wasn't quite as advanced in his training as Casper’s Touch. However, after his last work, he will now head for the Risen Star Stakes.

As McPeek said, “At least we’ve got darts to throw at the bullseye. We’ll hit it one day.”

Speaking of Rogue Romance, who won the grade III Bourbon Stakes on the grass, his breeders, Runnymede Farm and Catesby W. Clay (the latter is sole owner of Rogue Romance) also bred Norfolk Stakes (gr. I) winner Jaycito, who is now trained by Bob Baffert and likelyis headed for the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita. Jaycito is owned by Zayat Stables.

McPeek made it a point to mention another 3-year-old he was very high on named Washington’s Rules, who was entered on Saturday in a one-mile maiden race on the grass.

“Watch this horse,” McPeek said adamantly. “This is a really good horse. The race is on the grass, and I really wanted to run main track only. I’m going to try him on the grass, but he’s a dirt horse. He was second on dirt at Saratoga first time out. He’s been throwing out some good works and I think he’s going to be in the thick of it before we’re all said and done.”

That may be sooner than he thinks. The race, to McPeek’s delight, was taken off the grass, and Washington’s Rules came charging late on the outside to win by a length, with the runner-up, the Todd Pletcher-trained San Pablo who had opened a 2 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole, finishing 6 1/4 lengths ahead of the third horse in the 11-horse field. His time of 1:38 3/5, although not impressive on paper, was only two-fifths slower than the good 4-year-old Our Dark Knight ran two races later, and earned him a solid 87 Beyer speed figure.

Washington’s Rules, a gelded son of Roman Ruler, out of a Silver Charm mare, came home his final quarter in a solid :24 4/5. Like Casper’s Touch, he is owned by a partnership headed by McPeek that races under the name Magdalena Racing.

This was an excellent effort, considering he hadn’t run since his debut at Saratoga on Aug. 14, in which he finished second to eventual Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Stay Thirsty going six furlongs.

So, add another dart for McPeek. That bullseye is starting to look bigger and bigger.

Credit must also be given to San Pablo, a son of Jump Start, who ran a terrific race going a mile in his career debut after getting in off the “Main Track Only” list. He has moved up the ranks in the Pletcher organization after being stabled at Delaware Park last year. He turned in a bullet half-mile work in :47 3/5 at Palm Meadows on Dec. 30 and ran to that work on Saturday.

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Saturday’s Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds looked like a good spot for even-money favorite Justin Phillip to take a big step forward and collect some valuable graded stakes earnings. Instead, it was the Neil Howard-trained Wilkinson who slipped through on the rail after a ground-saving trip to wear down the pacesetting Pants on Fire, winning by a head.

Justin Phillip bobbled at the break and seemed to be out of sync while trying to gather himself. He eventually was able to stalk the pace from the outside in a perfect spot, but was never fully relaxed. When it came time to run, he came up empty and continued to drop out of it, finishing last of five.

The winner is by Lemon Drop Kid, out of an Afternoon Deelites mare, and with Manila, Le Fabuleux, and Ribot in his tail-female family, distance should be no problem.

On Friday, Soldat, runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. IIT), looked impressive thrashing a seemingly competitive allowance field at Gulfstream by 10 1/4 lengths. Inbred 4x5 to Round Table, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he handles both dirt and grass. We’ll go more into detail on him next week.

Keep and eye on the first three finishers of a one-mile Oaklawn Park allowance race Jan. 15. The first three, who ended up in a blanket finish, all look like good horses. The winner, Alternation, defeated Elite Alex by head, with third-place finisher Commander a neck farther back. Elite Alex, who hadn’t run since breaking his maiden going five furlongs back on July 3, ran a fantastic race considering his horrible start, dropping back to last, 10 lengths off the pace, and then making a big run to be beaten a head. He returned with a bruised foot and lacerations, which made his effort all the more impressive. This son of Afleet Alex, trained by Tim Ritchey and owned by the Afleet Alex gang, definitely looks like one to watch.

Alternation is another well-bred horse (Distorted Humor, out of a Seattle Slew mare) who looks to be improving with every race for Donnie von Hemel. Commander, it is worth noting, is trained by the recently unretired Larry Jones.

Caleb’s Posse, also trained by Von Hemel, led a posse of Remington Park horses to a 1,2,3 finish in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn. All three horses were coming out of the same race at Remington, which has already stamped itself as a major venue leading up to the Oaklawn meet, with the Smarty Jones finish and the victory of Alternation.

Other recent winners who will be discussed in the weeks to come are Positive Response, whose victory in the California Derby elevated him to the head of the class in Northern California; and maiden winners Heron Lake, Supreme Ruler, and Lumberyard Jack, among others.

What is interesting about Heron Lake, who showed a lot of guts in his career debut turning back two challenges in the final furlong, is that Nick Zito bought the son of Barnardini as a yearling for $140,000 for Bob LaPenta, who, as usual, pinhooked him back in the following year’s Fasig-Tipton Calder 2-year-old sale and wound up buying him back for $800,000. so, they obviously thought a lot of him to put that high a reserve on him.

Keep an eye on another Zito colt named Sinorice, who has had a second and three thirds in maiden company, but had a ton of trouble at the break in his last two starts, getting bumped hard both times. In his last start, he rallied from four lengths back at the eighth pole to be beaten two necks. With a clean trip, the son of Hold That Tiger should break his maiden next time out. He’s already been a mile twice and 1 1/16 miles, so he has the foundation, but just needs to get that maiden score out of the way.

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