Ky. Derby Trail: Mucho Gracias

Just when it looked as if form was about to do an about face and leave us with a core of 3-year-olds who like the past couple of years keep beating each other, up popped Much Macho Man, Santiva, and Rogue Romance to boost last year’s form by finishing 1,2,3 in Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes (gr. II).

It was a strong 1,2,3 and they all did it the right way. Mucho Macho Man had a one-race head start on the other two, and with blinkers off was able to relax behind the pace-setting Decisive Moment, turn back the challenge of Santiva at the head of stretch, and draw clear to a 1 1/2-length victory. Santiva ran on well to finish second, 1 1/4 lengths ahead of the late-closing Rogue Romance, who caught the highly regarded, but inexperienced 2-1 co-favorite Machen for the show spot.

Mucho Macho Man earned a solid 94 Beyer figure and confirmed the form of last year’s Remsen Stakes (gr. II) when he was a strong second to leading Derby contender To Honor and Serve. He is a big, hard-running, heavy-striding colt who has had a remarkable career so far considering this was his seventh start and he won’t even turn 3 until a week and four days after the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), so he pretty much is still a big baby. Also, in those seven starts he has competed at six different distances from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles at five different racetracks and has never been worse than fourth, and has never been beaten by more that 4 1/2 lengths.

This colt gobbles up ground, which helped him come home his final sixteenth in a swift :06 1/5 following a :24 flat quarter. Those are the kind of closing fractions you want to see in a Derby horse.

He does have a number of speed influences in his pedigree, but his inbreeding to Grey Dawn II (through broodmares) no doubt helps him stretch out in distance. His paternal grandsire, Holy Bull, sired Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, and although his broodmare sire, Ponche, was best at shorter distances, setting a track record for seven furlongs at Calder, Ponche is a half-brother to Fleetstreet Dancer, the only American-trained horse ever to win the Japan Cup Dirt. Ponche’s dam, Street Ballet, and granddam, Street Dancer, both were top-class, two-turn grade I fillies.

With Mucho Macho Man’s victory, trainer Kathy Ritvo has infiltrated the elite group of Hall of Fame and future Hall of Fame trainers Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, and Kiaran McLaughlin who had the eight top-ranked contenders on last week’s Derby Dozen. Between Ritvo’s amazing story recovering from a heart transplant a few years ago and the small-guys-make-good stories of majority owners Dean and Patti Reeves and minority and original owner Dream Team Racing, Much Macho Man is fast becoming this year’s big Cinderella horse. More on those stories as we get closer to the Derby. Add to that the Risen Star being dedicated to the colt’s regular rider Eibar Coa, who underwent a six-hour surgery the morning of the race for a fractured vertebra suffered in a spill the day before.

In addition to the Remsen, the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) form was boosted by Santiva’s performance, as was seventh-ranked Astrology, who finished second in the KJC after winning the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III). And you can say the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) form was upheld to some degree by Rogue Romance’s strong finish.  

Santiva pressed the pace, dropped back a bit on the turn and then made quick move to pull right alongside the leaders on the far outside. He was on near-even terms at the eighth pole, but couldn’t match strides with the winner in the final furlong. This race showed some of the skeptics that he’s not as slow as once thought, based on his low Beyers figures from last year. He ran an excellent race first time out, showed some quickness on the far turn, and definitely should improve off this effort.

Rogue Romance was in behind horses most of the way and had to wait for traffic to loosen up at the head of the stretch. He wasn’t quick enough to burst through any openings but kept making steady progress and was running well at the finish. He also should move forward with this race under his belt.

As for Machen, he was overbet and ran the kind of race one would expect of a lightly raced colt who still hasn’t reached maturity, especially his tardiness breaking from the gate. He again broke slowly, moved up gradually, and like Rogue Romance had to wait for room behind horses. He was able to swing out for a clear run, but lacked a strong closing punch. As we said, it was only his third career start and first in a stakes and he was beaten only 4 1/4 lengths. He proved he can run with this caliber of horses and should improve as he continues to mature.

Pants on Fire changed tactics and was taken back off the pace this time. He made a threatening move passing the five-sixteenths pole but was fanned some eight-wide after having raced wide the entire way, and couldn’t sustain his move. He finished sixth, beaten 7 1/4 lengths, but it’s too early to count him out. This is an indication of how strong this race was, with so many horses likely to improve off it.

The Factor is on…now

It is obvious after watching Sunday’s seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) that The Factor is freakishly fast. Although his margin of victory was only three-quarters of a length over the late-closing Sway Away, he demonstrated what a special horse he is by putting a very fast horse in City Cool away with relative ease, then opening up a clear lead on his own while still on a fairly loose rein. This horse didn’t need to be on the lead, it just happened to be the place to be, especially with City Cool in the starting stall directly to his inside and the other speed burner, Premier Pegasus, in the stall directly to his outside. If Martin Garcia tried to snatch him back from between those two horses, they could have put the squeeze on him and put The Factor in a precarious position.

When The Factor wants the lead it is apparent there is no one to stop him, as evidenced by the torrid :21 1/5 second quarter that cooked City Cool, who staggered home in last, beaten 16 1/2 lengths. Even the two-time stakes winner Premier Pegasus started to get a bit leg weary trying to keep up with that pace, in which they went the six furlongs in 1:07 1/5. Even on the new Santa Anita Freeway that is motoring.

The Factor opened a 1 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole and was never in any danger despite the explosive late run from Sway Away. One would have thought that Sway Away’s momentum would have carried him past The Factor on the gallop-out, but the winner actually opened up several lengths on him and showed no signs of wearing down from that taxing pace.

What made The Factor’s victory all the more impressive is that he went into the race off only two works since Jan. 9 – both at Hollywood Park and both long works (6f in 1:12 and 7f in a bullet 1:24 2/5), which gave him the bottom he needed.

The question is: now what? Baffert could stretch him out in one of his favorite races, the $800,000 Sunland Park Derby (gr. III) March 27, but don’t expect him to rush this colt into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Right now, with his speed and his pedigree, which has a good deal of speed influences, he looks like a King’s Bishop (gr. I) type of horse, and don’t be surprised to see him point for the Met Mile (gr. I), especially in a year with no Quality Roads.

As for Sway Away, this was a huge 3-year-old debut, with him having been out since his second-place finish in the Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) on Aug. 8. The flashy son of Afleet Alex, out of the Seattle Slew mare, Seattle Shimmer, came from dead-last, almost a dozen lengths back, with a powerful sweeping move. He was running with his head high as he charged past horses down the stretch and then seemed to level off in the last 100 yards. His tail-female family is made up mostly of sprinters, so it will be interesting to see how he stretches out, especially with his sire and broodmare sire both having won the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

Premier Pegasus ran a solid enough race to finish third, beaten 3 1/4 lengths. He is bred to run long, so there is no reason to think he won’t fare better at longer distances. Don’t throw this colt out of the Derby mix just yet.

Arch of Triumph

The recipe was there for an upset in Monday’s Southwest Stakes (gr. III), with an 11-horse field, the 6-5 favorite J P’s Gusto making his first start of the year, and the 2-1 second choice, Elite Alex, drawing post 9.

Meanwhile, 14-1 shot Archarcharch, whose owners no doubt are taunting the Derby gods with that name, was coming into the Southwest having finished a tiring fourth as the even-money favorite in the one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes after an impressive score in the six-furlong Sugar Bowl Stakes at Fair Grounds. However, this is a son of Arch, out of a Woodman mare, whose second dam is by Nureyev, so he’s not even bred to run that short and it was just a question of taking him back off the pace and letting him settle, which he did in the Southwest.

So, as seven horses managed to string themselves out across the track turning for home it was Archarcharch, under jockey Jon Court, who broke free from the pack and began drawing clear while still on his left lead. Court hit him several times right-handed and began drifting in, but he did finally switch with about 70 yards to go. Oaklawn’s fractions and final times have been pretty bizarre, as they have been for several years, so it’s hard to judge the :26 1/5 final quarter or 1:38 1/5 final time.

J P’s Gusto ran another solid race. Throw out his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and he’s always right there, having won four stakes and finished second in three others, including a first or second in three grade Is. He encountered a bit of traffic at the head of the stretch, but pretty much had a clear run and was gradually getting to the winner without ever looking like he was going to win. Pedigree is a big question mark with him, with speed running all through his pedigree. But he’s a stone-cold runner and is going to continue to win his share of races.

Elite Alex had an opportunity to run earlier on the card in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race, but his connections chose to stay at one-mile and face a tougher group of horses to see what they had and try to collect some graded earnings. As it turned out, the allowance race was won in impressive fashion by Alternation, who was coming off a head victory over Elite Alex in a one-mile allowance race, in which Elite Alex was forced to overcome a horrendous start.

With his outside post, Elite Alex had to take a circuitous route in the Southwest and had made good steady progress from 10th to reach contention approaching the top of the stretch when everyone fanned out, forcing Elite Alex and Calvin Borel to go seven-wide. He ran evenly to the wire, finishing third, beaten 2 1/4 lengths. It is important to remember that these are prep races and Elite Alex was making only his third career start and his first stakes appearance, just as Machen was in the Risen Star. There will be better days ahead for the son of Afleet Alex, who still has the Rebel (gr. II) and Arkansas Derby (gr. I) to pick up stakes earnings. The Southwest will give him valued experience, especially encountering large fields.

The biggest surprise in the Southwest was the huge fourth-place finish by 79-1 Picko’s Pride, who had never been farther than six furlongs and had to break from the 11-post. The son of Cactus Ridge was forced out by Brickyard Fast coming out of the gate and dropped way out of it, some 20 lengths off the lead. Around the far turn, he unleashed a big move along the inside, flying past horses, but ran into a wall of traffic. Engulfed by horses, he was able to ease out to the middle of the track and closed fast to be beaten 3 3/4 lengths.
Caleb’s Posse, winner of the Smarty Jones, was trapped behind horses and couldn’t get free until it was way too late. With even a little luck he surely would have done much better than a sixth-place finish.

As for Alternation, he has yet to face stakes competition, but you have to like what you've seen so far from the son of Distorted Humor, and he did defeat Smarty Jones runner-up Dreaminofthewin in his 3 1/4-length allowance score. He was under pressure early and felt the whip before reaching the head of the stretch, but he did dominate this field and drew off in complete command.

So, all in all, this was a strong weekend with a number of promising performances. Many Derby hopefuls are showing improvement and that's all you can ask for in February.

Crimson seeing red, as in roses

Don’t be surprised to see recent grass allowance winner Crimson China show up in a stakes either on dirt or synthetic next time out. He’s already won on synthetic and he has dirt all through his pedigree. The Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) could be a possible target.

But if he ever makes it to the Breeders’ Cup, you might want to consider putting him on the bottom of all your exactas, and don’t count on him winning any photos. Here is a little whimsical pedigree note on this colt:

His sire, Giant’s Causeway, finished second, beaten a neck, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Giant’s Causeway’s sire, Storm Cat, finished second, beaten a nose, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. His broodmare sire, Mr. Greeley, finished second, beaten a neck, in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and his second dam’s sire, Dayjur, finished second, beaten a neck, in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

But for now, we’re talking about the Derby, and the above mentioned performances in the Classic, Juvenile, and Sprint, suggest a horse with a great deal of versatility in his pedigree. As we said, he’s already won on Polytrack in England and grass in America, and the best work he’s had at Palm Meadows has been on the dirt. What was impressive about his latest performance is that he went from a rail-skimming trip to fanning seven-wide turning for home, cornered beautifully, and came flying home his final eighth in :10 4/5 to defeat the 4-5 favorite, Ari C. Like Giant’s Causeway, he runs with his head slightly down and with a lot of determination. And you have to like his final three-eighths in :34 2/5. He could be an interesting sleeper if he can run like this on the dirt.

Trainer Graham Motion also has the Whirlaway Stakes winner Toby’s Corner, who is on course for the Gotham Stakes (gr. III), so Motion could have a double-pronged attack for the Derby from the north and the south. Crimson China was purchased by Team Valor International following his three-length victory at Wolverhamption Nov. 25.

Blazing Bind

When was the last time anyone saw so many young, incredibly fast horses break their maidens at 3? Imagine if The Factor, Runflatout, Albergatti, Cal Nation, and now Bind were able to get started earlier and not fallen so far behind.

It looks like the Adele Dilschneider, Claiborne Farm, Al Stall team, which brought you Blame last year, has a monster on their hands after Bind’s freakish maiden romp in which he drew off on his own with smooth, effortless strides to win by 9 1/2 lengths in a scorching 1:08 4/5, earning a lofty 105 Beyer. And he did it without being touched with the whip. His connections have been waiting for this moment to unleash him, and just like that they have a potential star with a limitless future.

Bind is a son of Pulpit, out of the Unbridled mare Check, so there is no reason to believe he will not carry that brilliance two turns. He’s just not ready to be thrust into the Derby picture, and this is the last team that would rush a young horse.

Cause and effect

A recent headline on reads: “Queen’s Plate, not Derby, is the goal for Bowman’s Causeway.” Although the story itself does not state anything definitive, the lead-in reads: “Bowman’s Causeway, a winner going 1 1/8 miles in a maiden race at Gulfstream Park earlier this month, is not a Kentucky Derby candidate.”

Bowman’s Causeway, who was not nominated for the Triple Crown, currently is under consideration for the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) and/or the Florida Derby (gr. I). If the son of Giant’s Causeway, who is nearly 17 hands, built like a stayer, and maturing with each race, runs big in these races, does anyone really believe owner Martin Schwartz will not pay the late nomination fee and point for the Derby, or at the very least the Preakness (gr. II)? After all, the Queen’s Plate is nearly two months after the Derby and one race has nothing to do with the other.

This long-striding colt still has to prove his class in major stakes company and certainly doesn’t have to win the Fountain of Youth over what promises to be a very tough field. But if he does run on Saturday and is competitive against the likes of To Honor and Serve and Soldat, it would be wise to keep him in your Derby sights.

Trainer Patrick Biancone feels this is a talented and promising colt and said no decisions will be made until after they see how he performs in his next two starts. There is plenty of time to nominate to the Triple Crown.

Dialed out

By skipping Saturday's Fountain of Youth, Dialed In will have to find another race somewhere before his final Derby prep or be forced to go into the Kentucky Derby off only three career starts and only one start in more than three months.

Sham Stakes (gr. III) runner-up Clubhouse Ride will miss the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), all but putting him off the Derby trail

2011 Triple Crown Prospects

The Blood-Horse's production of 2011 "Triple Crown Prospects," an online supplement, is now available for purchase on It contains in-depth analysis, ratings, color photos, pedigrees, and many other features on 40 top Triple Crown prospects, as well as information on dozens of other 3-year-olds.

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