Ky. Derby Trail: Catching up on the Sleepers

Our report on this weekend’s stakes action will appear on Tuesday, but for now there are several allowance and maiden races from the past few weeks that should be touched on, based solely on observation.

Speaking of which, are we seeing a new trend with all these blazingly fast maidens debuting at 3 and running a hole in the wind and then having to be rushed to make the Derby? Under normal circumstances, these types of horses -- and we’ve had more this year than any other year – aim for sprint stakes and then gradually move up in distance to see if they can carry their incredible speed a distance of ground. But several of these have the Derby as their goal, meaning they’ll have only three starts beforehand.

First we had The Factor, who romped in a maiden race on Dec. 26 (yes, technically he was 2), scorching the six furlongs over the farcical Santa Anita strip in an unheard of 1:06 4/5. Then there was Runflatout (who we discuss later in this column) easily win his debut at Santa Anita in 1:07 3/5. Then at Gulfstream, Cal Nation romped by almost eight lengths in his career debut, blazing the seven furlongs in 1:22 flat. Finally, this past Saturday we had Albergatti win his second career start at Santa Anita by daylight in 1:20 3/5 for the seven furlongs (What in the world is with the Santa Anita track, where fast times have proven to be meaningless? If you’re not running world- or near-world record times, you’re considered a plodder). It’s one thing to run lightning-fast times on a souped up track, but to have young horses doing it in their first or second career start is absurd.

In Albergatti’s race, the second-place finisher was a first-time starter by Medaglia d’Oro named Chico d’Oro, who was beaten only 1 1/2 lengths and finished 8 1/2 lengths ahead of the third horse. So if it wasn’t for the winner, who had a start under his belt, Chico d’Oro would have won his debut by a pole in 1:20 4/5 or 1:21.

Did these speed freaks need more time because of physical setbacks at 2 or were they just late-maturing horses? Whatever the reasons, they seem to be pouring out of the Hemi factory every week or so.

The five horses mentioned are trained by Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, and John Sadler (who trains two of them), so if you’re looking for some trainer Cinderella tale to go along with these performances forget it. In fact, you won’t find many of those among the leading Derby contenders, as our top-ranked horses are trained by Pletcher, Bill Mott, Asmussen, Nick Zito, Pletcher, Pletcher, and Baffert.

As for our observations, we will start with a pair of maiden races (at a mile and 1 1/8 miles) that are linked, with the second coming this past Friday.

If you’re looking for a key maiden race, you might want to consider a one-mile event at Gulfstream on Jan. 30. The winner, Nacho Business, made a huge impression in his career debut, running down the pace-setting Bowman’s Causeway with a :24 4/5 final quarter. The runner-up finished 7 1/4 lengths ahead of the third horse. What we loved about this son of Rahy was the efficiency of his stride and the lack of wasted action. He did everything like a pro and came bouncing back to the winner’s circle as if he had never run. He obviously is well behind, and the Derby might be a bit of a rush, but whatever the plans are, keep an eye on him. His trainer, Kelly Breen, is pointing the hard-knocking Sweet Ducky for the Florida Derby (gr. I), so we’ll see what path he takes with this colt, who like Sweet Ducky is owned by George and Lori Hall.

To demonstrate just how strong this race was, Bowman’s Causeway came back on Friday to break his maiden going 1 1/8 miles, and there was nothing about his performance we didn’t like. He broke sharply, but this time going two turns he was able to take back off the pace, while going almost four-wide into the first turn. In the mile maiden race, he broke from the rail, which all but forced him to go to the front.

This time he sat comfortably in fourth most of the way behind a fairly slow pace, settling in behind horses. He patiently waited for room, changed leads smoothly after getting clear and bore down on the Nick Zito-trained Charlies Swell, who had opened a 1 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole. But as strongly as Charlies Swell was moving, Bowman’s Causeway looked to have him measured. With a strong final eighth in :12 flat, he edged away to win by a length under seven-pound bug boy Ryan Curatolo and galloped out well clear of the runner-up. Even in his maiden race, he galloped out well past the winner. He runs with his head down in similar fashion to his sire, Giant’s Causeway. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see trainer Patrick Biancone run him back in a stakes. The question is, will he get an experienced rider or keep the seven-pound apprentice on him? Charlies Swell, who ran a winning race, finished almost six lengths clear of third-place finisher Praetereo, making this a very strong effort by both horses.

The highly touted Machen turned in huge performance to win a Fair Grounds allowance race Jan. 30, in which he went off at odds of 1-20. The bridge jumpers had several anxious moments when it looked as if Machen, who had pretty much walked out of the gate, was hopelessly trapped approaching the top of the stretch. But Jamie Theriot was patient, knowing he was on much the best horse. When a small hole appeared, Machen never hesitated and gunned right through, quickly opening up on the field despite drifting out noticeably. Once straightened out, he coasted home and was striding out beautifully in the final sixteenth.

In his impressive maiden score, he also broke slowly and never changed leads down the lane. In this race, he changed leads on cue, so he seems to be learning from experience, although he still obviously needs work breaking from the gate. He’s only run twice and has been demolishing his foes with pure talent. But now it’s going to get tougher, so he’ll need to be more professional. Who knows how good this colt is going to be once he matures?

One horse who won a strong allowance race by daylight, but wasn’t pretty doing it, was Shackleford, who did pretty much everything wrong down the stretch, changing leads three times and ducking in badly. He paddles his right front leg, so he’s not pretty from the head-on shot either. But there is no question about his ability. It’s just a matter of him getting his act together, which he’ll have to do once he starts facing stakes horses.

The runner-up, Casper’s Touch, had everything go against him. He broke slowly from the rail, then was headstrong going into the turn. He was stuck down on the inside, and just when he was about to launch his move after turning for home, Shadow Warrior ducked in suddenly and slammed into him hard, nearly knocking him into the rail. But he recovered quickly and closed well to get up for second. He’ll obviously face much tougher in the Fountain of Youth, but this was a great learning experience, and don't be surprised to see him take a lot of action, despite stepping up in class, just as Dialed In did in the Holy Bull (gr. III)

The worst start of a race no doubt belongs to Elite Alex, who got his feet all tangled up breaking from the gate in an Oaklawn allowance and leaped in the air. Before he knew it he was dead-last and well behind the pack. He made a big move on the turn and swung out five-wide to pull even with the leaders, but was outrun to the wire by Alternation, who had made his big move a couple of lengths ahead of Elite Alex. Both look like top-class colts, but considering what Elite Alex had to go through he will be heavily backed in his next start, which will be the Southwest Stakes (gr. III), where he’ll take on Alternation again. We were toying with putting Elite Alex in the Top 12 this week, but he hadn't worked in two weeks, so we held off. But we just saw he worked seven furlongs in 1:27 Monday morning. As it turns out, he missed his last work because trainer Tim Ritchey did not like the track, but he loved today's work, so all systems are go for the Southwest. This colt could be special. His next start will tell us for sure.

One of the most visually impressive horses we’ve seen is the aforementioned Runflatout, who, yes, can flat out run. Right from the beginning of his seven-furlong career debut at Santa Anita, it was apparent this son of Flatter was going to run a huge race. Running second to favorite Tokubetsu, he was moving with powerful strides and had jockey Garrett Gomez well up in the saddle, but wasn’t fighting him and wasn’t headstrong in any way.

When Gomez asked him, he only had to throw several crosses on him without having to go to the whip. He continued to throw a few crosses, and Runflatout began to build up a head of steam, drawing off from the favorite to win by 2 1/2 lengths in a ridiculous 1:07 3/5 for the six furlongs. Although the track, as usual, was lightning fast, his final quarter in :23 flat was impressive and you had to love the way he won flicking his ears up.

His big obstacle now, obviously, is time, and it would be a major rush job to get him to the Derby with a mere three career starts and none at 2. It looks like West Point is going to go for it, and will stretch him out in the San Felipe (gr. II). It’s a lot to ask of a young inexperienced horse, but this is a good-looking colt with a great demeanor who appears to have freakish ability.

In other non-stakes, Bench Points is now undefeated in four starts after defeating the swift Da Ruler in a six-furlong allowance race Saturday in 1:08 1/5. After breaking slowly and then losing touch with his three opponents around the turn, he was taken to the far outside, even though there was a big opening on the inside, and wore down Da Ruler with a :12 1/5 final eighth to win by 1 1/4 lengths. He’s not built like a stayer, but he’ll get his chance to stretch out in the San Felipe.

On Sunday at Gulfstream, Free Entry, tracked the front-running favorite Rocking Out, collared him after turning for home and drew clear to defeat 74-1 shot Imperial Czar by 1 3/4 lengths in 1:37 3/5 for the mile. At Laurel Saturday, No Easy Answer made a big move around the turn going five wide before drawing off to a 3 1/4-length victory in a one-mile allowance optional claimer.

Finally, keep an eye on Majestic Harbor, who wired a maiden field at Fair Grounds to win by 6 1/4 widening lengths in 1:43 4/5 for the mile and 70 yards. The son of Rockport Harbor was coming off a good third to Shackleford at Churchill Downs and seems to be improving with every start for trainer Paul McGee. In both his sprints, he closed from 10th, but this time he went to the lead, pressed by 8-5 second choice Awesome Bet. But once he straightened into the stretch, he drew off with authority to win in impressive fashion.

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