Ky. Derby Trail: Thirst Quencher has an interesting definition of the word prep: “A preliminary or warm-up activity or event; trial run: the race is a prep for the Kentucky Derby.”

It should have added: “See Giacomo.” You know, the 2005 Kentucky Derby winner who went into the race off five straight defeats and only a maiden victory at 2 in seven career starts and peaked on Derby Day.

Yes, it’s easy to knock Stay Thirsty’s Gotham Stakes (gr. III) victory. He time was slow, his Beyer figure was low, he wasn’t beating a strong field. We get all that, but considering he hadn’t run in four months, had never won beyond six furlongs, had no works from Nov. 6 to Jan. 30, broke last, was forced four-wide into the first turn, had to stay close behind a sloth-like pace, and raced greenly in the stretch, switching leads three times and lugging in, this was an excellent “prep,” (as in “preliminary” and “trial run”).

Of course, trainer Todd Pletcher has to work on that greenness, as he’s shown a tendency twice now to lug in and you don’t want to see them jumping back and forth on their leads. That should be corrected with maturity; he just has to do it in the next two months.

So it was that owner Mike Repole came armed with all the above ammunition when he entered the TVG battlefield Sunday afternoon to face his colt’s detractors after learning beforehand some of the analysts were less than thrilled with the performance.

All the pleasantries of the typical introduction were bypassed when TVG led up to the phone interview by showing Uncle Mo’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) victory.

Repole didn’t bat an eye and immediately fired off the first salvo. “Come on, Stay Thirsty wins the Gotham and you guys have to show Uncle Mo,” he told them. “Come on, give the guy a little credit; holy cow.”

If you know Repole you’re not surprised or taken aback by his opening comment. It was a good-natured jab (while getting his point across) and the TVG guys to their credit didn’t back down, which started off a friendly game of verbal darts, with Repole defending the honor of his horse.

Let’s go back to Saturday. Pletcher had already won two stakes on the card (what else is new?). As Stay Thirsty began to close in on the leaders around the far turn, Pletcher, watching from the film theater just up the hall from the jockey’s quarters, kept leaning forward on his chair until the back legs were off the floor. He remained in that position for the remainder of race.

A few seconds after Stay Thirsty crossed the finish line 3 1/4 lengths in front of 47-1 shot Norman Asbjornson, Pletcher, in his typical stoic manner, got up and calmly walked out without saying a word and headed for the winner’s circle…again.

You can be sure that wasn’t the scene above him in the box section. You didn’t need to have plaster from the ceiling of the film theater falling on your head to know there was a raucous celebration going on up there among the men and women in black that made up the Repole Regiment of Rooters. If Uncle Mo and/or Stay Thirsty make it to the Derby, fasten down the Twin Spires.

Between this victory and earlier victories by Repole’s Calibrachoa in the Tom Fool (gr. II) and Bobby Flay’s Sensational Slam in the Fred “Cappy” Capossela Stakes, the Aqueduct winner’s circle resonated with New Yawk accents.

It is interesting to note that Stay Thirsty had been picked out at the Keeneland September yearling sale by Nick Zito for Robert LaPenta, who finished second in the 2005 Belmont Stakes with Stay Thirsty’s half-brother Andromeda’s Hero. Purchased for $160,000, Stay Thirsty was pinhooked by LaPenta at the following year’s Fasig-Tipton Calder 2-year-old sale and was snatched up by Pletcher for $500,000.

When you have a Bernardini colt from a powerful King Ranch family who catches the eye of both Zito and Pletcher you know you’ve got a potential star. Stay Thirsty would have already been a star in anyone else’s barn, but when you have to compete for top billing with Uncle Mo you are going to be relegated to the second team.

With Uncle Mo still a week away from his 3-year-old debut, this was Stay Thirsty’s time to finally bask in the spotlight. Despite the cloudy skies and cold winds blowing in off Jamaica Bay, Stay Thirsty was able to shine brightly and warm up the winner’s circle just with the friction caused by all the hugging from the Repole throng.

Sent off as the 4-5 favorite in the field of seven, Stay Thirsty had his head in the air at the start and broke slowly under Ramon Dominguez, then was forced four-wide into the first turn. The Fed Eased, coming off a 7 1/4-length maiden score at six furlongs, set an easy pace, with fractions of :24 3/5, :49, and 1:13 2/5, as Stay Thirsty took up a comfortable position in third.

He began closing in on The Fed Eased and Norman Asbjornson on the turn, with 8-5 second choice Toby’s Corner, who would wind up third, about two lengths behind him and beginning his move, but under strong urging by Eddie Castro. Turning for home, Stay Thirsty switched leads on cue and set his sights on the two leaders, while under a vigorous series of roundhouse left-handed whips. When he began drifting in despite the left-handed whips, jumping back to his left lead, Dominguez found himself too close to Norman Asbjornson to keep hitting him. He threw a cross on Stay Thirsty and the colt ducked in again, but was already clear of the others. He then switched back to his right lead with 70 yards to go and actually was striding out beautifully at the wire, galloping out strongly, well ahead of the others.

Despite his poor start, losing ground into the turn, switching leads three times in the stretch, and lugging in, he still managed to come home in :24 2/5 and :06 2/5. Who knows how good this colt is going to be once he gets over his greenness and figures out what he’s doing.

A sneaky horse to watch coming out of this race is fourth-place finisher Nacho Saint, who broke awkwardly, took back to sixth, then made a good move after being steered to the inside, pulling to within three-quarters of a length of the leaders at the eighth pole and looking like a sure thing for second. But when Stay Thirsty came in, causing a traffic jam, The Fed Eased was forced into Nacho Saint, who now had nowhere to go, while losing his momentum. The rail quickly opened up again and although he couldn’t threaten the winner, he was only beaten a half-length for third by Toby’s Corner and 1 1/2 lengths for second. Also note that he ran his second, third, and fourth quarters in :24 1/5, :24, and :24 1/5.

Dialed In still connected

Although Sunday’s defeat in an allowance optional/claimer at 1-5 was not what Dialed In’s connections were expecting, the colt still is capable of rebounding big-time in the Florida Derby (gr. I).

This was an ugly race from start to finish, which often happens when you scrape and claw to put on a race for one horse. And when you encounter five- and four-horse fields with no pace, that’s when problems normally occur.

It is senseless to go into detail on this race and you can pretty much put any kind of spin on it you wish. Should he have won? Yes. Did he show the same high-powered move he showed in his first two starts? No. Was the slow pace a factor in the outcome? With a horse with his style of running, definitely. Was he versatile enough to change his style? The answer is either no or we have no idea because he was never given a chance to.

OK, so let’s say the slow pace hurt him, as did being eased back and getting stuck in traffic for most of the way. But the opinion here is that it’s much simpler than that. The horse was dead short, having only two works (4f and 5f) in 5 weeks. Add to that going two turns for the first time against older horses and being lulled to sleep and you have a tidy little excuse package. Five weeks off after his resounding Holy Bull (gr. III) score seems a lot, assuming he had no setbacks, but when on top of that you have only one little half-mile work and one sharp 5-furlong work in those 5 weeks and then stretch out to 1 1/8 miles, you’re looking at a recipe for an upset.

The positive was his :12 2/5 final eighth. His supporters can look at the race as a learning experience and feel confident he is going to run a much-improved race in the Florida Derby with some pace, which is altogether possible. There is a huge difference closing from far back into :45  2/5 and :46 1/5 half-miles going one turn, as he did in his first two starts, and sitting two lengths off a crawling :49 2/5 and 1:13 4/5 pace going two turns, while stuck in traffic most of the way.

And it should be pointed out that his stablemate who beat him, the 4-year-old Equestro, is not a bad horse. He broke his maiden going 6 1/2 furlongs at Churchill Downs in a sharp 1:16 2/5, then won a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream in 1:36 2/5, earning a 93 Beyer. In his last start, he closed from eighth to finish fourth in another one-mile allowance race. He’s had a couple of bullet works at Palm Meadows and was no soft touch in here.

The bottom line is, watch his work pattern between now and the Florida Derby. If he gets a good sharp work in and has no setbacks there is no reason to think he can’t turn it around. At least Zito got his mile and an eighth race in and the colt came out of it in good shape. Once again, this was only a prep – a bridge to get him to the Florida Derby with some bottom under him.

Positive result

Talk about a good spot. With the Turfway Park 3-year-olds appearing to be suspect, with the possible exception of WEBN winner Twinspired, Bill Morey, trainer and part-owner of California Derby and Gold Rush winner Positive Response, put his Pomeroy gelding on a plane to Kentucky following his solid third in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) and now has the horse to beat in the $500,000 Vinery Spiral Stakes after Positive Response’s seven-length, wire-to-wire romp in Saturday’s John Battaglia Memorial.

This is an interesting horse, who has worked his way up from the $40,000 and $50,000 claiming ranks at Woodbine and has blossomed under the care of Morey in Northern California. He sold twice as a yearling, for $15,000 and $35,000, and again as a 2-year-old for $21,000. He also was consigned and withdrawn from a weanling sale, so he’s been around the block and is a tough, hard-nosed competitor. The big question is how he’ll handle the dirt.

Second wave keeps pounding the shore

As if we haven’t had enough exciting late-developing 3-year-olds burning up the track in sprints, such as The Factor, Flashpoint, Runflatout, Albergatti, and Bind, say hello to the latest sensation, Wilburn, who broke his maiden first time out at Santa Anita Saturday, winning by 3 1/4 lengths in a blazing (do you even have to use that word anymore at Santa Anita?) 1:13 4/5 for the 6 1/2 furlongs, which is four-fifths off the track record. He is yet another Bernardini, and he certainly looks to have a bright future.

This wasn’t the only impressive maiden win by a son of Bernardini over the weekend. If you’re looking for a late spring/summer horse with tremendous promise, keep a close eye on the Shug McGaughey-trained, Phipps family-owned Break Up the Game, who is out of Personal Ensign’s daughter Pennant Champion. After getting beat a fast-closing nose in his career going seven furlongs, he closed fast again to finish fourth, beaten a length, in a top-class maiden race, finishing a head behind the recent allowance winner and Wood Memorial (gr. I) prospect Arch Traveler. Going seven panels for the third time on Saturday, he rallied from eighth and came charging home late with an :11 4/5 final eighth, to win by three-quarters of a length in 1:23 1/5. He has an efficient stride and reaches out with great extension.

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