Ky. Derby Trail: Dis and Dat

It took only a week for the Derby picture to get muddled again, as To Honor and Serve’s disappointing effort left a log jam at the top of the list.

Many more people are now sold on Soldat, and while he ran an excellent race and was never in any danger of losing once To Honor and Serve called it a day, he did have everything in his favor – breaking from the rail on a speed-favoring track, getting to the lead without having to work for it, and setting leisurely fractions.

Everyone was geared up for a stretch battle between Soldat and To Honor and Serve, who got floated five-wide by El Grayling and had to rush up to get to Soldat’s flank and engage him passing the half-mile pole. But it never happened. When you’re making your first start in three months and going 1 1/8 miles, you’re entitled to get a bit tired. But To Honor and Serve, despite turning in several outstanding works over the deep Payson Park track, was done before he even hit the top of the stretch. If he were on a three-race schedule he would have time to regroup off a performance like this, but with only two starts, he now has to make a complete turnaround and run a huge race in the Florida Derby, and then put in some fairly stiff works in the five weeks to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

Fortunately, he does have a solid 2-year-old foundation to help him out. He just has to prove he can adjust and win from off the pace and not have everything his own way, as he did in the Remsen (gr. II) and Nashua Stakes (gr. III). When you’re on a two-race schedule, everything has to fall into place and you have to get something out of each race and then move forward. You have to assume he’s going to move forward, but who knows what he got out of this race.

As for Soldat, he proved he can run on a fast dirt track, as well as the slop and grass, although he does appear to have smoother action on the grass and doesn’t carry his head quite so high. We also have no way of knowing what kind of sire War Front is. Despite being a sprinter, he obviously can sire distance horses. His son Data Link looked very impressive winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance race on the grass Feb. 24 for his third win in a row. Yet his son The Factor looks to be as fast as any 3-year-old in the country in sprints. We’ll see how he stretches out in the San Felipe.

For now, Soldat just keeps winning and has two big scores this year, which no other 3-year-old can boast. He was a come-from-behind horse last year on the grass and it’s now time for him to go back to that style of running.

Gourmet Dinner
has proven himself to be more meat and potatoes. But many people prefer meat and potatoes to Coq au Vin. This colt goes out there and runs big every time and never stops trying. Down on the inside in the Fountain of Youth, he swung out for his run approaching the top of the stretch and switched leads smoothly as he set his sights on Soldat, while drawing away from To Honor and Serve. He kept after Soldat and wouldn’t let him draw away as he did in his allowance victory. When Ramon Dominguez reached back and whacked him good with a right-hand whip, he jumped back on to his left lead and still kept running strongly to the wire to be beaten two lengths, finishing almost five lengths ahead of To Honor and Serve.

As a son of Trippi, you would think he’d be more geared for races up to a mile, but Trippi, as good a sprinter as he was, did manage to win the 1 1/8-mile Flamingo Stakes (gr. III) and was on the lead turning for home in the Kentucky Derby.

What is most intriguing about Gourmet Dinner’s pedigree, as we mentioned in the Derby Dozen, is the amount of Tartan Farm/John Nerud influences in his female family, which reads like a Who’s Who of Tartan stars.

He is inbred to Dr. Fager, Aspidistra (through Dr. Fager and Magic), and Intentionally, who became one of Tartan’s and the nation’s most influential stallions. There is the presence of other Tartan/Nerud horses Fappiano, Blue Hen producer Cequillo and Who’s for Dinner, a multiple major stakes winner and half brother to champion Dr. Patches. Who's for Dinner's dam, Expectancy, is a half sister to Man o'War Stakes winner Ruffled Feathers. Gourmet Dinner’s broodmare sire, Pentelicus, is a half brother to the dam of Unbridled, who was bred by Nerud. Also in his family is the brilliant Quiet American. Here is the legacy of Tartan and Nerud rolled into one package.

In addition, to those who remember and revere the famous 1967 Woodward Stakes with future Hall of Famers Dr. Fager, Damascus, and Buckpasser, all three of those horses are in the fifth generation of Gourmet Dinner’s female family. And he also is inbred to the great stallion In Reality, who was from the same crop of Dr. Fager and Damascus. It was Nerud who convinced Frances Genter to breed Intentionally to My Dear Girl and it was Nerud who raised In Reality at Tartan Farm.

Don’t toss out fourth-place finisher Bowman’s Causeway just yet. This track played against his style of running and he was just reaching contention after passing the three-eighths pole when he ran right up behind a tiring Shackleford and was forced to steady. He regrouped, but the top three were already long gone. He looked good in the stretch and was striding out nicely, finishing 2 1/2 lengths behind To Honor and Serve. And remember, he was running back in only 15 days after breaking his maiden going a mile and an eighth, and went into that maiden race only 12 days after finishing a strong second in a one-mile maiden race, in which he made all the running.

It might be wise now to skip the Florida Derby and try to get some graded earnings a week later, perhaps in the Illinois Derby (gr. II) or try for at least second-money in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) the same day. This is going to be a serious horse.

Dialed In looking for the right number

Before we get to the other 3-year-old races over the weekend, a word about Dialed In. We’ll make it short and sweet. This son of Mineshaft, who needed time as a 2-year-old to get over some niggling problems, now needs something else: two races before the Kentucky Derby. Pure and simple. Nick Zito has been trying to find a two-turn allowance race for him, but they never fill. He’s got one more shot for next Saturday. If that doesn’t go, then it’s on to the Timely Writer and Uncle Mo. Despite being at a disadvantage dropping back to a mile and having to run in what promises to be a small field, he just needs a bridge right now to get him to the Florida Derby (gr. I). He certainly doesn’t need to win the Timely Writer, but he does need a race and to get something out of it.

There was some speculation that he would train up to the Florida Derby, but that won’t happen, because it would all but eliminate him from being a major Derby threat, regardless of what he did in the Florida Derby. Yes, Big Brown, a total freak, won the Derby off only three career starts, but he had a mile race and a pair of two-turn races under him, while Dialed In would have one two-turn race, a mile race, and a 6 1/2-furlong race, giving him less miles than any Derby horse in memory. Even Curlin, who was a well-beaten third in the 2007 Derby with only three career starts under him, had a pair of two-turn races – the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. So, Zito is not about to subject Dialed In to a three-race schedule and only one two-turn race.

Zito knows these Mineshafts better than anyone, having trained his fair share of them, mostly for Dialed In’s owner Robert LaPenta. And he is well aware this horse needs two more races. The Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) looks like it would be a good alternative, but Zito and LaPenta still have nightmares of 2-year-old champion War Pass’ debacle over that track in 2008, in which he was beaten 23 lengths at odds of 1-20. Although form has held up fairly well recently over the sometimes quirky Tampa surface, a repeat of that performance by Dialed In would be disastrous. So, they’re not going to take any chances.

A Flash of lightning

Once again we have a latecomer on the 3-year-old scene score a powerful knockout victory in a sprint. Peachtree Stable’s Flashpoint, coming off a brilliant romp in a six-furlong maiden race Aqueduct, ran some of the fastest 3-year-olds in the country off their feet in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II) and looked like a beast doing it.

With 3-5 favorite Travelin Man, who had earned a whopping 106 Beyer in his career debut at Gulfstream, shooting to the lead, Flashpoint moved right off his flank and dogged him through fractions of :22 and :44 2/5 over a track that was far from conducive to fast times. It looked as if Flashpoint, under Cornelio Velasquez, could take Travelin Man any time he wanted, as the other speedsters in the field, which included four stakes winners and a pair of promising allowance winners, could not keep up with the top two. That top two quickly turned into a top one, as Flashpoint cornered beautifully and bounded away from Travelin Man in a matter of a few strides. He kept pouring it on to win by 7 1/4 lengths in 1:22 flat.

There was talk after the race from trainer Rick Dutrow about possibly stretching him out in the Florida Derby (gr. I). That is an extremely ambitious move, especially considering Flashpoint’s pedigree is geared toward shorter distances. As we mentioned earlier, even if he were to run a freaky race, he still would have only three career starts, two of them sprints. Is it worth finding out if they do indeed have a freak on their hands? It’s difficult to resist, and when it comes to spotting his horses, Dutrow doesn’t do anything he feels is irrational and not in his horse’s best interests. So, if he wants to run him in the Florida Derby, he must feel the horse can handle it. Then we’ll all find out what he has and what will come of the move.

In the meantime, this was as impressive a performance, visually, as we’ve seen all year.

In other 3-year-old races:

-- Arch Traveler, coming off an impressive seven-furlong maiden score, stretched out successfully in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream on the Fountain of Youth undercard. The track for that race, run as the third, was noticeably slower than later races, and only got faster as they watered it during the course of the afternoon. So don’t get scared off by the paltry Beyer figs. Arch Traveler, however, did benefit from the speed-favoring track, stalking a :49 half and 1:14 1/5 three-quarters. He opened a one-length lead in the stretch and was able hold off the late bid from Nacho Business to win by a length.

It was a good effort by the big, handsome son of Sky Mesa, stretching out for the first time, but the horse to watch is the runner-up, who was making only his second career start, was down on the rail for most of the race, and came home his final eighth in a sharp :12 2/5 over the slow track. We’ve been raving about this horse since his maiden win, and although trainer Kelly Breen was disappointed he didn’t win, he felt he got a lot out of the race. He said the son of Rahy came out of the race pretty tired and still was “dragging his (butt)” around the barn the following morning. This was a valuable learning experience and put some good bottom into him. In short, this is a very classy horse who will be heard from soon.

Breen will train his big 3-year-old Sweet Ducky, second in the Holy Bull (gr. III), up to the Florida Derby and will saddle recent maiden winner Nacho Saint in Saturday’s Gotham Stakes (gr. III). He hasn’t decided where to run LeComte runner-up Pants on Fire after the colt’s sixth-place finish in the Risen Star (gr. II).

This was a good comeback race for third-place finisher Washington's Rules, who was being wheeled back in two weeks after a disappointing effort in the Sam F. Davis (gr. III). This time the son of Roman Ruler ran his race, closing fast to be beaten three lengths.

-- The Borderland Derby, which produced 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, was won by the maiden Fusa Code, a son of Fusaichi Pegasus who was making his fifth career start. This was not a strong field by any means. Behold de Buy, whose only two career wins came at Arapahoe, closed from last in the 10-horse field to be beaten three-quarters of a length.

-- Here is a tip: if you see a son of Pleasant Tap with an easy win and two seconds in sprints stretching out to two turns for the first time and he’s 40-1 in a weak field, take a shot. If you had in the Turf Paradise Derby you would have won a bundle, as Pleasant Tap’s son Beer Meister came from 22 lengths out of it and blew by everyone to win going away by two lengths in 1:41 4/5 for the 1 1/16 miles. The 3-5 favorite, Indian Winter, was rank and never appeared to be in sync. He wound up finishing an ugly third, but was moved to second on the disqualification of 4-1 Twice the Appeal.

-- At Laurel Saturday, two very promising horses, J J’s Lucky Dream, a New York invader, and the locally based Bandbox, put on quite show in the seven-furlong Miracle Wood Stakes.

J J’s Lucky Dream, coming off a second to Toby’s Corner in the Whirlaway Stakes, tracked Bandbox all the way in fractions of :22 4/5 and :45 4/5. But Bandbox, who had finished a troubled fourth in the Remsen Stakes after winning the Sleepy Hollow Stakes for New York-breds, let J J’s Lucky Dream get first move on him when got stuck on his left lead. Travis Dunkelberger did an excellent job getting him change leads inside the final furlong and Bandbox came on again, but J J’s Lucky Dream was tenacious and held on to win by a neck in 1:23 3/5.

-- About a month ago, we mentioned that John Shirreffs was high on a son of Artie Schiller named Mr. Commons, who had broken his maiden impressively sprinting on the grass. The grand-looking colt had been training well on the dirt and Shirreffs tried to no avail to find a dirt allowance race for him. A mile allowance finally went on Saturday, and while Mr. Commons had to struggle to win by a head in a three-horse photo, he nevertheless won, getting the mile in 1:34 4/5, closing his final quarter in :24 flat. Shirreffs now has to decide whether he wants to try much tougher opponents, possibly in the Santa Anita Derby.

Mr. Commons was picked out of a field by David Ingordo, who will always be known as the person who picked out Zenyatta, not to mention dozens of other top-class horses.

-- If you’re looking for a real under-the-radar horse who has won three straight on the grass, but ran well on the dirt last year, keep a close eye on recent allowance winner Data Link, another son of War Front, who turned in a powerful stretch run to mow down his opponents with a :05 and change final sixteenth, defeating a promising European invader, Longhunter, in 1:41 flat. We’ll see if trainer Shug McGaughey keeps him on the grass, tries the dirt, or possibly runs him on Polytrack in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III) at Turfway.

Derby Dozen challenge still alive

On Feb. 1, we decided to issue a challenge – our Derby Dozen Top 12 vs. a secondary Top 12, made up of little-known horses who had not established themselves on the Derby trail. Then we would see how each list stacked up against the other come Derby Day.

Well, a number of the second-list horses have been busts, including the biggest disappointment, Casper’s Touch. Awesome Patriot, Heron Lake, and Rustler Hustler haven’t shown up since, with Heron Lake suffering a slight setback, and Tiz Blessed was recently sent to Rood & Riddle to try to find out what has been bothering him. So, with the possible exception of Awesome Patriot, who has been working regularly, we can kiss those horses goodbye.

Of the ones still alive, Elite Alex ran a good enough third in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III), going extremely wide, to be considered a threat in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II), as is Alternation, who looked good winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance race the same day as the Southwest. Sway Away closed like a rocket in the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) and may come back in the San Felipe (gr. II). Machen, ran a credible fourth in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) against seasoned stakes winners in only his third career start. Washington’s Rules, who ran horribly in the Sam Davis, bounced back with a fast-closing third in a nine-furlong allowance race on the Fountain of Youth card. Beamer came off his  third to Soldat in an allowance race to finish fourth, after a bad start, in the Sam F. Davis. And Crossbow was scratched from the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II) after drawing the rail, and may go in Saturday’s Gotham Stakes (gr. III) or look for another stakes.

So, we have seven of the 12 horses still alive on the Derby trail (possibly eight), although some are hanging precariously by their fingertips.

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