Ky. Derby Trail: Making the Most of Defeat

Looking for a potential Derby contender coming out of this weekend’s races? You might want to look outside the winner’s circle.

It is difficult finding fault with the winning performances of Pants on Fire in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), Animal Kingdom in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III), Twice the Appeal in the Sunland Park Derby (gr. III), and Swift Warrior in the Rushaway Stakes – four horses whose names were not exactly on everyone’s lips prior to last weekend.

And you certainly have to forgive Mucho Macho Man’s third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby after he threw a shoe at the start of the race and ran hard the entire way, battling through the stretch to be beaten only three-quarters of a length.

But, other than Mucho Macho Man, the horses we found the most intriguing as far as being Derby-caliber colts were Elite Alex (fourth in the Louisiana Derby), Astrology (second in the Sunland Derby) Crimson China (second in the Rushaway Stakes), and Nehro (second in the Louisiana Derby).

Many are going to toss Elite Alex from Derby consideration because he’s lost all three of his races this year and they feel he is a late-closing plodder who just gets up for a minor of piece of it each race.

You can also look at it that he’s been incredibly unlucky in all three starts, breaking horribly in his first start, dropping far back in last, circling the field five-wide, and just getting beat a head by Alternation in an outstanding effort. He then drew the nine-post in the 11-horse Southwest Stakes (gr. III) going two turns, was taken back to 10th, about a dozen lengths back, was fanned six-wide turning for home and closed well to finish third, beaten 2 1/4 lengths.

He was then scratched from the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) after drawing the 10-post and re-routed to Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby, where he drew the 12-post in a 12-horse field.

Calvin Borel dropped him back to last once again and cut over to the rail, falling a dozen lengths off the pace. He was still last, 15 lengths back, after three-quarters in a moderate 1:12. He finally unleashed his run while circling the field and this time had to go seven-wide. Although he made up 11 lengths in the final three-eighths he simply had been given too much to do and could finish no better than fourth.

If anyone thinks he could have come home faster or finished closer, he closed his final three-eighths in :35 3/5 (:23 3/5 and :12 flat). You simply cannot expect any horse to come home faster than that. For him to close as fast as he did while losing so much ground showed that this is a very talented, but very unlucky horse, who has never had the opportunity to show off his talents. You have to remember, he won his career debut on the pace going five furlongs at Delaware Park, battling head and head through fractions of :22 1/5 and :45 3/5. After that race, he did not run again for 6 1/2 months.

To show how sharp he was for this race, he turned in a bullet six-furlong work at Oaklawn in 1:12 2/5 breezing, then had an easy five-furlong maintenance breeze in 1:00 4/5, which still was the fifth fastest of 32 works at the distance.

The intention was always to run him back in the Arkansas Derby, win or lose. Now they will have to focus on getting graded earnings. So, no more taking the overland route and losing a ton of ground. It's go for broke, and that means keeping him closer to the pace, six to seven lengths back, and going for any holes that might open up. He has to be given a chance to win or at least get second. If it doesn't work out, they still have a heckuva Belmont Stakes (gr. I) horse on their hands.

Yes, we realize this is the most space we can recall devoting to a horse who just finished fourth, but if Elite Alex can pick up enough graded earnings at Oaklawn to make into the Derby, he could very well be a live horse on May 7. After all, he has never actually “run” an entire race this year, so he still should be relatively fresh. If he doesn’t earn enough graded money then it’s likely on to the Preakness (gr. I).

Finally, just a quick note about his pedigree. As we all know, he is by Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont (gr. I) winner Afleet Alex and is inbred 3 x 4 to Nureyev, who is the broodmare sire of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown. Many experts in the field believe it was Nureyev’s extraordinary heart that enabled Big Brown to get the mile and a quarter. On the dam side, Elite Alex’s third dam is a half-sister to English Derby (Eng-I) winner Secreto; his fourth dam is a half-sister to French Derby (Fra-I) winner Caracolero; and his fifth dam is a half-sister to Kentucky Derby winner Majestic Prince.

It may be a blessing in disguise that Crimson China is now forced to run back in the Toyota Blue Grass and not have to buck history by going into the Derby off a six-week layoff, especially with only four career starts. Because of a lack of earnings, he was forced to switch places with his stablemate Animal Kingdom and run in the Rushaway instead of the Spiral Stakes. While Animal Kingdom got a perfect setup in which to close, with three horses going head and head in :23 2/5 and :46 3/5 and then running the next two quarters in :26 and :26 1/5, Crimson China, was forced to try to catch a good horse in Swift Warrior, who was on an uncontested lead, setting fractions of :24 2/5, :48 4/5, and 1:13 1/5. In the Spiral, they closed the final eighth in :13 1/5, while Crimson China came home his final sixteenth in :06 1/5.

The big difference visually between his race and Animal Kingdom’s is that he didn’t make his move until much later when it was too late, while Animal Kingdom came rolling up along the rail on the far turn, eased out and was all over the leaders at the head of the stretch. Crimson China, on the other hand, had to go six-wide turning for home, while the winner got a ground-saving trip.

It also appeared that Crimson China was never comfortable with the Poly powder kickback early on and either took himself or was taken out of contention, far behind the next-to-last horse. Down the backstretch, Alan Garcia had to give him a couple of cracks with the whip and continued hitting him around the far turn and down the stretch when the colt kept trying to get out. Like with Elite Alex, it was to his credit that he was able to close as fast as he did and make up four lengths in the final furlong while racing extremely wide, and in his case, failing to keep a straight course.

Despite Crimson China’s attempting to get out, his stride was so fluid and effortless down the stretch it was beautiful to watch, just as it was when he won his previous start on the grass. Although we expect a huge performance in the Blue Grass, assuming he handles the Keeneland surface, which doesn’t have quite as much kickback, or in this case sprayback, as Turfway, we still don’t know how he will handle the dirt, so that will remain a big question mark. But there is little doubt in our mind that this is a very good horse, and if he doesn’t handle the dirt, he will be a top grass horse.

As for Astrology, he hadn’t run in four months after undergoing surgery to correct an entrapped epiglottis. He got a bit antsy in the gate but settled down right before the break. What was encouraging was the quickness he showed coming out of the gate from the 11-hole and how he was able put himself into contention on his own without having to be urged.

But he did lose ground on the first turn, going four-wide, and then had to chase blistering fractions of :22 3/5 and :45 flat, about two to three lengths off the pace. He made a strong quick move midway on the far turn and took a short lead, with the eventual winner, Twice the Appeal, breathing down his neck. He has an enormous stride and seemed to take the turn into the stretch on the tight track kind of awkwardly and was sloppy changing his leads. He switched over at the three-sixteenths pole and tried get his rhythm back, but the winner already had him measured. He never could level off, in good part because he was getting leg-weary from his early efforts, the fast pace, and the long layoff. But he never stopped trying. He was throwing his ears up in the stretch and Leparoux pretty much hand-rode him to the wire.

Normally, this would have been an excellent first race back, but with only one start it’s far from ideal to go straight to the Derby. If he bounces out of this race and is thriving over the next week, there is a good chance he will run back in the Arkansas Derby. The other option is to give him a long stiff work in company at Churchill. But if he needs more time there is always a prep race and then the Preakness. What is important is that he acted beautifully in the paddock, never sweated, and was very professional during the race and didn’t get any panic attacks as he did last year from not getting his air. And he came out of the race in good shape. If this race had been two weeks ago he would be looking pretty good for the Derby, but he can still get there if everything goes right.

The same question marks that apply to Crimson China also apply to Animal Kingdom, who also is immensely talented, but unlike Crimson China has basically all grass breeding, being by Leroidesanimaux, out of an Acatenango mare. But what breeding it is. His paternal grandsire is Candy Stripes, the sire of Invasor and broodmare sire of Candy Ride. Acatenango was a three-time Horse of the Year in Germany and four-time champion sire. He won almost every major race in his home country, as well as France’s Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (Fr-I). Animal Kingdom’s second dam is by European Horse of the Year Dancing Brave, winner of the Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I), King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Eng-I), and English Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I).

By winning the Spiral, Animal Kingdom now will have to go into the Derby off a six-week layoff and having only four career starts, just as Elite Alex would have had to do had he gotten a good trip and finished in the first two.

As for Louisiana Derby winner Pants on Fire, the irony is that he was intended to be a rabbit for his more highly regarded stablemate Nacho Business, who didn’t show much at all. Trainer Kelly Breen experimented with the speedy Pants on Fire in the Risen Star Stakes, taking him back off the pace. While he made a brief threatening move on the far outside he was unable to sustain it, finishing sixth. That is when his role was diminished to pacesetter for Nacho Business. But a couple of weeks before the Louisiana Derby, Breen said Pants on Fire was training and looking so good, he was beginning to think he had a chance to win it himself.

Just when it looked like Mucho Macho Man was about to drive by him, he dug down and turned back every challenge from the 3-2 favorite. Then longshot Nehro, coming off a breathtaking maiden victory, found a second gear and came flying late up the rail, but Pants on Fire still had enough left to hold him off with a :12 3/5 final eighth to win by a neck.

You’re going to have search far and wide to find a better class and distance pedigree than the winner’s. Pants on Fire is by A.P. Indy’s son Jump Start. His broodmare sire is Cape Town, a son of Seeking the Gold and his second dam is by the distance-loving Bates Motel, a son of the great Sir Ivor. The kicker is that Pants on Fire is inbred three times to Buckpasser and also inbred to the regally bred Key to the Mint. His fifth dam, Courbette (by Native Dancer), is a daughter of the great Gallorette. At this point he sits right on the edge of the Top 12.

Nehro, who is owned by Zayat Stables, reminds us of a similar story that goes back over four decades. In 1966, the undefeated Graustark, owned by Darby Dan Farm and trained by Lloyd Gentry, was one of the hottest Derby favorites in history, but an injury suffered in the Blue Grass Stakes ended his short, but brilliant career. The following year, Darby Dan and Gentry had an unknown and unheralded 3-year-old named Proud Clarion, who didn’t make his first stakes start until the Blue Grass, finishing second. He then went on and scored a 30-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby.

Last year, Zayat Stables had the red-hot Derby favorite Eskendereya, who like Graustark was injured shortly before the Derby and never raced again. Now the following year they have the unknown and unheralded Nehro who made his first stakes appearance in the Louisiana Derby, finishing second. He, like Elite Alex, may come back in the Arkansas Derby, but the “next year” storyline is still pretty close. Zayat Stables actually might have two Derby horses this year, with Jaycito scheduled to run in the Wood Memorial (gr. I). With all Ahmed Zayat went through last year, losing Eskendereya and then being embroiled in an ugly lawsuit with Fifth Third Bank that dampened his enthusiasm for the sport, here he is back on the Derby trail with two contenders. You gotta love it.

Jeff Seder, president of EQB, who helped pick out Nehro at the Keeneland September yearling sale ofe $170,000, said the son of Mineshaft had the “heart and lungs of a lion and the conformation to match.”

We are going to save Mucho Macho Man for next week when there is only one major stakes – the Florida Derby. The one irony of his race is that he winds up losing a shoe the same day his former rider Eibar Coa takes his first steps after his near catastrophic injury. Throwing his shoe did cause him to come back a bit foot sore, but the soreness is expected to be gone in a few days.

Machen again loomed boldly but could not sustain his run. Being out of a More Than Ready mare, it's possible he simply wants shorter distances.

Getting back to the Sunland Derby, Twice the Appeal, who broke his maiden in a $30,000 claiming race three races back, was coming off a second in the Turf Paradise Derby, but was disqualified and placed fourth. It was his first stakes appearance in nine career starts, but he has been consistent, finishing in the money in seven of his last eight starts.

Ruler on Ice closed well to just miss second by a nose, giving Kelly Breen a win in a $1 million race and a third in an $800,000 race. Not a bad payday after selling his star 3-year-old Sweet Ducky for a figure well into seven figures.

Finally, the Rushaway winner, Swift Warrior, had run his best races on the grass, finishing third in the Tropical Park Derby, but has run well on dirt as well. In 12 career starts he's never been worse than fourth, so he is tough and consistent. He had never been on the lead before, but managed to steal this race on the front end in his synthetic track debut.

So, all in all, no one really stepped up this weekend to put themselves among the top Derby contenders. Mucho Macho Man pretty much stayed where he was, and Elite Alex, at least in one person’s opinion, provided a ray of hope, if he can pick up enough graded earnings in the Arkansas Derby. The two Graham Motion horses will remain more or less a guess until the Derby, and Astrology will be a horse to watch as well if he comes back in the Arkansas Derby, where Asmussen could also run Nehro.

Jolt of reality

What do these pillars of the Turf -- C.V. Whitney, Alfred Vanderbilt, George Widener, Joseph E. Widener, Ogden Phipps, Ogden Mills Phipps, Mrs,. Henry Carnegie Phipps, William duPont,  John A. Morris, James Cox Brady, Max Gluck (Elmendorf Farm), and Hal Price Headley – have in common?
You probably guessed by now -- none of them won the Kentucky Derby, despite devoting their lives to the sport and its breeding program.

No one gets handed anything in this sport, no matter how much money they spend and how committed they are, especially when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. And remember, with the graded earnings restrictions and 20-horse fields, made up of nothing but stakes horses, it’s a lot harder to win the Derby now than it was years ago when cheap claimers and cheap allowance horses made up a decent portion of the starting fields each year. And a number of Derby fields back then consisted of anywhere from six to 12 horses.

In other Derby news:

-- Alternation, who was scratched from the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) after washing out badly and flipping in the gate, was taken back to the gate the following morning and was no problem. Trainer Donnie Von Hemel said he has not ruled out the Arkansas Derby for the colt’s next start.

-- Bowman’s Causeway, a horse we still think highly of, will make his next start in the Florida Derby. Trainer Patrick Biancone said his third in a recent allowance race served the same purpose as a mile work. Don’t know if he’s ready for these horses at this point, but one day this horse is going to put it all together and land a big one.

-- Two grass horses seeking riches and possible glory in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) are Data Link and Willcox Inn, both of whom could have a future on dirt.

-- Expect to see Todd Pletcher with one or two starters in the Illinois Derby (gr. III). Two possibilities are recent allowance winner Dance City and recent maiden winner Praetereo.

-- Watch out for Dominus, an impressive maiden winner at Santa Anita Saturday. Yet another 3-year-old co-owned by George Bolton, the son of Smart Strike has been highly touted for months. He could show up next in either the Derby Trial (gr. III) or Withers Stakes (gr. III) and then come right back in the Preakness. If he runs in the Withers, he will be taking basically the same path as Bernardini in 2006.

-- The brilliant maiden winner Bind was defeated at 1-10 Saturday at Fair Grounds, stretching out to two turns. He did get tired, but was beaten by a very nice horse in Prime Cut, who missed the track record by a fifth of a second.

-- One-time Derby hopeful Casper’s Touch, who ran such a disappointing race in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II), will look for an allowance race at Keeneland as his next start, but is no longer under consideration for the Derby. Another Fountain of Youth disappointment, Shackleford, is back on the work tab, breezing six furlongs in 1:15 3/5.

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