Ky. Derby Trail: Talking Points

The Factor spoke loudly and made his point perfectly, as he ran off with the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) in his two-turn debut, winning by 6 1/4 lengths and coming home his final sixteenth in :06 1/5. When a frontrunner setting testing fractions of :46 3/5 and 1:10 4/5 can come home that fast, there aren’t many horses who are going to be able to beat him.

The son of War Front has one main weapon, and that is speed and more speed. And he’s now proven he can carry it two turns, thanks in part to a long, efficient stride that wastes little energy. When he can control a race, like he did in the Rebel, stretching out his neck and flicking his ears back and forth, while stringing out his field, he is going to be tough no matter who he’s running against. The main question is whether he can carry that speed 1 1/4 miles in a 20-horse field with a contentious pace. He still has to show he can carry it 1 1/8 miles. But you had to love how strongly he galloped out an extra furlong after the Rebel. Jockey Martin Garcia said the colt just took a huge breath around the three-eighths pole, as if realizing he’s going to be out there longer than usual.

The Factor allowed several horses to close in right behind him, but once he turned for home and switched leads, he kicked it into another gear and was gone, as Garcia hit him a couple of times right-handed just to pretty much keep him on a straight course, which he did. Garcia said what impressed him the most was how The Factor was actually getting stronger in the last 100 yards.

The Factor scoped clean after the race and ate all his dinner, and was scheduled to fly home on Monday. The question now is whether to send him back for the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) or run him a week earlier in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).

If there is any other question left for The Factor to answer, other than the usual distance and heart questions, it is whether he can handle faster two-turn horses than the locally based group he faced at Oaklawn. But for now, he went from a King’s Bishop (gr. I) type of horse to a Kentucky Derby (gr. I) contender, and will keep taking gradual steps up the ladder to see just how far his speed will carry him. Many times, sprinters will air first time around two turns, but it is the second time that is the real test, so we’ll know a lot more about The Factor after his next start. His 103 Beyer actually is the only triple-digit Beyer run in a two-turn stakes race for 3-year-olds this year and gives him three straight 100-plus Beyers.

As for the others in the Rebel, which suffered from the defection of Elite Alex and the late scratch of Alternation after a scary incident at the gate, Caleb’s Posse ran a good race after his horrible trip in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III), circling widest of all and just beating out Archarcharch for second. The latter probably was closer to the pace than he wanted to be and lacked the turn of foot he exhibited in the Southwest. He certainly deserves another chance with different tactics. The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Saratoga Red, a neck winner of his only career start, ran a big race to finish fourth, beaten 1 1/2 lengths for second, after chasing The Factor through those stiff fractions. That was an excellent performance for a horse making only his second career start.

J P’s Gusto, Sway Away, and Picko’s Pride were the big disappointments.

Splendor in the grass

Are you getting tired of looking at the same names on the various Derby rankings week after week, with only a handful of horses stepping up and looking like top contenders?

Well, here’s an idea on how to bring new intriguing names and faces to the Derby scene: look to the grass, which just may be hiding a few contenders.

Three in particular who look talented and versatile enough to step up on the dirt are Crimson China and King Congie, who are pointing for the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. II) March 26, and Data Link, who is heading for the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).

Of these, only Data Link, a winner of three straight on the grass for Shug McGaughey, has shown some ability on dirt, finishing a fast-closing fourth in a Saratoga maiden sprint behind eventual graded stakes winners Astrology, To Honor and Serve, and Anthony’s Cross. Data Link is by War Front, who has sired top-class dirt horses Soldat and The Factor and Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) hopefuls Summer Soiree and Snow Fall, both impressive two-turn winners on dirt in their last start.

“He's trained decent on the dirt, but I don’t know about the Derby; I'll have to answer that question after he runs in the Blue Grass,” McGaughey said of Data Link. “As of right now I'm not thinking Derby, but you can never discount it. The War Fronts will run on anything. He’s a nice horse and he’s getting better., When he won his first race here this winter (Alex) Solis, whose knowledge I respect, said there's a lot more in the tank. After his last race, he said he felt a lot stronger. In his second career start, on dirt, he was fourth and I felt if he had broken better that day he would have been competitive with those horses. And I he’d be competitive if we ran him on the dirt now.”

Crimson China broke his maiden easily on a synthetic surface at Wolverhampton in England and was extremely impressive winning a 1 1/8-mile allowance race on grass at Gulfstream in a sharp 1:46 4/5. He runs a lot like his sire, Giant’s Causeway, who was a champion grass horse in Europe and was beaten a neck by Tiznow in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) in his dirt debut. His maternal great-grandsire, Dayjur, also was a champion in Europe who just missed in his dirt debut in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) after jumping a shadow right before the wire costing him the race. His fourth generation tail-female sire is Native Charger, who won the Flamingo and Florida Derby and was fourth in the Kentucky Derby. And his fifth generation tail-female sire is Dr. Fager, who won championships on dirt and grass in the same year. So, there is a lot of versatility in his pedigree when it comes to grass and dirt.

“I really want to run him in the Spiral,” trainer Graham Motion said. “But I'm afraid he might not get in. He’s only won a ham sandwich at Wolverhampton and a nonwinners of one other than here so he’s way down the earnings list. We’re going to ship him anyway, and I want to run Animal Kingdom in the Rushaway. That’s always been our plan for him. They’re both really nice horses. Animal Kingdom looks more like a grass horse, but we've definitely thought about the dirt with Crimson China, and that will be an option if we don’t get in the Spiral; perhaps the Illinois or Arkansas Derby. If he ran in the Spiral then Barry (Irwin) and I would have to talk about whether to run him back on the dirt before the Derby. We breezed him on the dirt I thought he handled it fine. H’s not a flashy work horse on either surface. He’s a real neat horse, probably a little further along than Animal kingdom at this point as far as seasoning.”

Finally, King Congie, winner of the Tropical Park Derby on grass and disqualified from first in the  Hallandale Beach Stakes, has a ton of dirt breeding on both sides of his pedigree. In his tail-female family, his third generation sire is Wise Times, winner of the grade I Travers and Monmouth Invitational (Haskell) and is fourth generation sire is Bold Lad, one of the most brilliant 2-year-olds of all time and winner of the Metropolitan Handicap under 132 pounds.

Another to keep an eye on is Willcox Inn, who is already stakes-placed in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and Dixiana Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) on Keeneland's Polytrack and who recently finished a fast-closing second in the Grindstone Stakes at Fair Grounds on grass. By Harlan's Holiday, out of a Gone West mare, he likely is heading back to Polytrack and there is no reason to think he can't make the transition to dirt, although his tail-female family is all European grass.

So, watch out for the top three to possibly pop onto the Derby scene next month, as well as Willcox Inn. We wrote extensively about Crimson China several weeks ago after his allowance win, a race that really caught our attention.

Ready or not

This is not your typical Derby trail. It may be the trail of the future, but right now there are a number of horses who are going against the grain or plan to go against the grain and are attempting to pave new trails on the trail.

First off, we are well aware that one historical trend that has fallen by the wayside is having only two starts before the Derby. Four of the last five Derby winners have had only two starts, and before Street Sense did it in 2007 you had to go back to Sunny’s Halo in 1983 to find the last horse to accomplish it, and Sunny’s Halo made 11 starts as a 2-year-old. So Street Sense managed to do something that hadn’t been done in 24 years.

This year, an unprecedented number of top Derby contenders are trying that approach – Uncle Mo, To Honor and Serve, Jaycito, Stay Thirsty, and Santiva, along with several others.

Here is the kicker: of the four horses who have won the Derby off only two starts, three of them – Street Sense, Mine That Bird, and Super Saver – had at least one gut check, where they engaged in a head-to-head stretch battle. The only one who didn’t was Big Brown, who was, well, Big Brown, and who faced relatively weak fields in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.

None of the above mentioned horses had their gut check in their first race, so if they are going to be tested it will have to be in their final prep. Santiva was briefly tested in the upper stretch of the Risen Star before giving way to the winner in the final furlong.

As of now, Uncle Mo is not expected to face a tough field in the Wood Memorial, so he’s going to have to find a way to get enough out of the race to have him battle-tested for the first Saturday in May. And remember, only one horse (Big Brown) in the past 31 years has won the Derby off only one-turn race at 3.

There are several other horses who are taking an unorthodox approach to the Derby. Astrolology, by making his first start in the Sunland Park Derby (gr. III), will have to come back in three weeks, likely the Arkansas Derby, in order to get even two preps in. If he doesn’t, he has no shot in the Kentucky Derby off one race. Elite Alex, by skipping the Rebel to run in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), also will have to come back in the Arkansas Derby or be forced to run in the Kentucky Derby off a six-week layoff and only one race in 11 weeks. The six-week layoff, which likely will apply to every horse running in the Louisiana Derby who does not have a another prep, has history going against it, as the last horse to win the Derby off that long a layoff was Needles in 1956.

Robert B. Lewis (gr. II) winner Anthony’s Cross, who runs next in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), will have to go into the Kentucky Derby off only one race in 12 weeks. Santiva, by waiting for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), will have only one Polytrack race in 11 weeks going into the Derby. All the big Florida Derby (gr. I) horses – Soldat, To Honor and Serve, Dialed In, and Stay Thirsty, will have five weeks to the Derby, which was proven successful by Barbaro, Big Brown, and Mine That Bird. As you can see, times definitely are changing.

The only horses who will go into the Derby the old-fashioned way, with at least three and less than a six-week layoff, are Soldat, Premier Pegasus, Bench Points, Comma to the Top, Positive Response, Brethren, Toby’s Corner, the horses coming out of the Oaklawn Park series, as well as The Factor. The status of Sway Away is up in the air following his disappointing effort in his two-turn debut.

In other Derby news:

-- Riveting Reason, runner-up in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, is dealing with a hoof problem and will be given some time off. The Derby hasn’t been totally ruled out, but it seems like a huge longshot at best.

-- Flashpoint turned in a strong five-furlong breeze in :59 4/5, the fastest of 14 works at the distance. No decision has been made on the Hutcheson (gr. II) winner’s next start, but owner John Fort of Peachtree Stable, is seriously considering stretching him out in the Florida Derby, not necessarily as a Kentucky Derby prep, but as a goal by itself.

-- Graham Motion said there is a good chance Toby's Corner, third in the Gotham, will tackle Uncle Mo in the Wood Memorial (gr. I).

“I’m not crazy about running against Uncle Mo, but it doesn’t involve the ship and I’d rather not ship,” Motion said. “I think he just regressed a little off his Whirlaway win. He ran such a big race that day. In hindsight, and I’m not knocking Eddie at all because I think he did the right thing, but he tried to get him to settle and they crawled up front. It was hard to make up that kind of ground. The winner was only two lengths in front of us, but he got the jump on us. (Toby’s Corner) is a neat looking horse, very scopey, and he has such a good stride on him. Right now we're 50-50, but I haven’t even breezed him yet. I think under the right circumstances I wouldn’t be opposed to going to the Wood. I guess if there is ever going to be a time to run against Uncle Mo this would be it.”

-- March has been quite a lucrative month for George and Lori Hall and trainer Kelly Breen. They sell their top 3-year-old Sweet Ducky for well into seven figures and still will be represented this weekend by two horses – Nacho Business and Pants on Fire – in the $1 million Louisiana Derby and two horses -- Nacho Saint and Ruler on Ice -- in the $800,000 Sunland Park Derby.

-- Astrology will make his long-awaited 3-year-old debut in next weekend’s Sunland Park Derby (gr. III), after which a decision will be made whether to give him another start before the Derby or possibly await the Preakness.

-- Todd Pletcher sent out Dance City and Cal Nation to a 1,2 finish in a one mile allowance race at Gulfstream. We could see Dance City, owned by the Estate of the late Edward P. Evans, in the Illinois Derby (gr. III). He had broken his maiden going 1 1/8 miles in the slop, so he has some foundation under him.

-- Bandbox did what he had to at 3-5 to win the one-mile Private Terms Stakes at Laurel for his fourth career victory from six starts. The son of Tapit scored by 1 1/2 lengths, running down the second choice Rush Now, who finished five lengths ahead of the third-place finisher in the field of six.

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