Ky. Derby Trail: Pre-Derby Awards

Before we get really perplexed and befuddled by the morass of statistics, opinions, and rumors, here is one person’s opinion of the best of what we have and what we’ve seen, listed by categories. You may be surprised by the horse who finished first in the most categories and who could be a very live Derby horse at a decent price, but we will explain later in this column why it shouldn’t be as much of a surprise as one might think. And because of this, he will move up several places on next week’s Derby Dozen.

Can you guess who it is? Well, think blazing britches or charred trousers or scalding slacks. If you haven’t gotten it yet, you won’t have far to look.

BEST PEDIGREE – The winner is Pants On Fire. He is by A.P. Indy’s son Jump Start, who is out of the Storm Cat mare Steady Cat, who placed in five stakes. Jump Start’s second dam, Hopespringsforever, is a full sister to Miswaki. Pants On Fire’s broodmare sire, Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Cape Town, is by Seeking the Gold, out of the Seattle Slew mare Seaside Attraction, winner of the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and dam of 2-year-old filly champion Golden Attraction, as well as Cape Town.

Pants On Fire’s second dam is by Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) winner and champion older male Bates Motel, whose daughter, Barbarika, is the granddam of Curlin. Bates Motel’s sire, Sir Ivor, won the English Derby (Eng-I), 2000 Guineas (Eng-I), and Washington D.C. International.

Pants On Fire is inbred 4 x 5 to Graustark’s son Key to the Mint, winner of the grade I Travers, Woodward, Whitney, Brooklyn, and Suburban and champion 3-year-old male. He also is inbred three times top and bottom to the classic sire Buckpasser. In addition, he is inbred to Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Mr. Prospector.

Honorable mention goes to Stay Thirsty, a son of Bernardini and a half-brother to Belmont Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Andromeda’s Hero. His tail-female family is the crème de la creme of King Ranch breeding, as well as Rokeby Stable through Arts and Letters. His second dam is by English Derby winner Roberto, giving him Darby Dan breeding as well.

TOUGHEST
– The winner is Mucho Macho Man, a big, rugged colt who was foaled incredibly late, June 15, yet still made his career debut in July of his 2-year-old year and has run a total of eight times, six at a mile or longer, and has run big at Calder, Saratoga, Monmouth, Aqueduct, Gulfstream, and Fair Grounds. He also was tough enough to run the entire way in the Louisiana Derby with a missing shoe that he lost at the start and still finished a close third, coming out of the race a little sore. Runner-up goes to Archarcharch, who has run in November, December, January, February, March, and April at five different distances from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles, and finished third in the Rebel after getting cut up and bruised by a thrashing Alternation in the next stall. And we have to give an honorable mention to Comma to the Top, who has run 13 times at nine different distances, starting back in May at Hollywood Park, and nearly pulled off the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). And he has raced on or just off the pace in every race but his debut.

GUTSIEST PERFORMANCE
– We have co-winners -- Master of Hounds, who returned off a 4 1/2-month layoff, traveled to Dubai and ran his heart out to be beaten the shortest of noses, while racing on a synthetic surface for the first time and stretching out to 1 3/16 miles over an incredibly deep and slow track. The other co-winner is Pants On Fire, who dug in gamely when challenged by Mucho Macho Man on the outside and Nehro on the inside in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), and held off both horses to win by a neck, despite having only one half-mile breeze in five weeks due to a lung infection and ring worm-like condition on all four of his legs (more on that later). Honorable mention goes to Dialed In, who had to really lay his body down to wear down the front-running Shackleford in the Florida Derby over a speed-favoring track. Shackleford as well gets honorable mention, as he dug in when challenged and fought back courageously, giving way only in the final strides. Mention also has to be made of Midnight Interlude, who ran a similarly game race in the Santa Anita Derby when he kept coming, despite Comma to the Top veering out into his path twice, causing him to lose his momentum each time.

FASTEST RISE TO STARDOM – The winner is Dialed In, who came off a 6 1/2-furlong maiden win, his only career start, to defeat many of the leading Derby contenders in Florida in the one-mile Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III), blowing by everyone in the stretch to win going away in a sharp 1:35 flat. Honorable mentions go to Midnight Interlude and Nehro, who also came off maiden victories to quickly establish themselves as major Derby contenders with bang-up performances.

MOST VERSATILE – The winner is Nehro, who broke his maiden with an explosive move on the far turn, coming from 11th, 12 lengths back, to win by 4 1/2 lengths. He then was beaten a fast-closing neck in both the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby, rallying on inside at Fair Grounds and the outside at Oaklawn, and coming from third in the Louisiana Derby and 10th in the Arkansas Derby. It is apparent that is doesn’t matter where this horse is running, he’s stil going to give you that big run. Runner-up goes to Archarcharch, who has the speed to win the six-furlong Sugar Bowl Stakes in 1:10 2/5, tracking a :22 1/5 quarter and :46 half, and was able to rally from 10th to win the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby.

FASTEST – The winner is The Factor, with his blistering speed from six furlongs to 1 1/16 miles and three consecutive 100-plus Beyer figures. Runner-up goes to the 2-year-old Uncle Mo, whose 102 maiden Beyer and 108 in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) made him one of the fastest 2-year-olds we’ve seen in a while. He hasn’t duplicated those figures at 3, but you never know when he’s going to break out.

THORO-GRAPH FIGURES – Best number this year -- Archarcharch (1). Best pairing this year – Soldat (1 1/2, 1 1/4). Best numbers at 2 -- Uncle Mo (0,0,0), Mucho Macho Man (3/4).

BIGGEST DANGER ON A SLOPPY TRACK
– This is extremely close between Pants On Fire, Toby’s Corner, and Soldat, the only three horses who have won impressively in the slop. From a pedigree standpoint, the edge goes to Pants On Fire, who has a ton of slop influences, with his inbreeding to Seattle Slew, Mr. Prospector, Key to the Mint (Graustark), and Buckpasser, not to mention Seeking the Gold. His seven-length maiden romp in the slop at Delaware Park was not by chance. Soldat had the most powerful performance in the slop, with his 10 3/4-length romp at Gulfstream. We’ll give  honorable mentions to Stay Thirsty because of all the classy slop breeding throughout his pedigree, and Animal Kingdom, based partially on gut feeling and the number of German-breds in his female family. Many German-breds seem exceptionally tough going long distances and on soft ground, and his broodmare sire, Acatenango, was as tough as they come. We’ll see if that can translate to dirt. Also, his paternal grandsire, Candy Stripes, is the sire of Invasor, who won the Uruguayan 2000 Guineas easily over a very muddy track.

BEST MOVE ON THE FAR TURN
– The winner is Archarcharch in the Arkansas Derby, with Animal Kingdom in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes a close second. The most explosive move was by Nehro in his maiden race, but he apparently towered over that field, so you have to give more credit to the moves in major stakes races.

BEST MOVE FROM THE QUARTER POLE TO EIGHTH POLEDialed In in the Holy Bull and Florida Derby and Archarcharch in the Arkansas Derby.

BEST MOVE FROM THE EIGHTH POLE TO THE WIRE
Nehro in the Arkansas Derby and Brilliant Speed in the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I).

BEST OVERALL TURN OF FOOT – The winner is Archarcharch for his quick acceleration in both the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) and Arkansas Derby.

BEST MIDPACK GRINDER – The winner is Mucho Macho Man, who just keeps coming at you and can sustain his run a long way. Honorable mention goes to Toby’s Corner, who probably is more comfortable racing in midpack and can also sustain his run.

PACE HORSE/TRACKER MOST LIKELY TO CLOSE – The winner is Pants On Fire, who has already demonstrated his ability to rate off the pace in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II), in which he put in a huge run from seventh and looked like a winner circling his field, moving right up to the leaders while forced very wide. He made that move with a :23 4/5 quarter, but was unable to sustain his run and tired. He came out of the race with the aforementioned lung infection and skin condition (see more farther down). In the Louisiana Derby, he rated comfortably in second, took over the lead turning for home, and held off his two challengers with a solid :12 3/5 final eighth. He is capable of racing anywhere from fifth to seventh in the Derby and closing well, getting the jump on the late closers.

Runner-up goes to Uncle Mo, who closed his final quarter in :24 flat in the Champagne (gr. I) after blazing a :45 4/5 half; you just don’t see horses doing that, especially 2-year-olds. In the Timely Writer this year, he set a slow pace and came home his final quarter in :22 4/5. In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he came home his final sixteenth in :06 1/5, so this colt does have a powerful closing kick. Honorable mention goes to Midnight Interlude, who hadn’t closed fast in his two one-mile maiden races, but did close his final eighth in about :12 1/5 in the Santa Anita Derby.

So, the only horse to win four first-place awards is Pants On Fire. Archarcharch won three, with two runner-up awards. Dialed In, Nehro, and Mucho Macho Man won two each.

Pants On Fire wins for pedigree, the ability to close after tracking the pace, gutsiest performance, and most likely to relish a sloppy track.

Archarcharch wins for best move on the far turn, best move from the quarter pole to the eighth pole, and best overall turn of foot. He also was runner-up as toughest and most versatile.

Mucho Macho Man wins for toughest, and best midpack grinder. Nehro wins for most versatile and best move from the eighth pole to the wire, and gets an honorable mention for fastest rise to stardom. And Dialed In wins for fastest rise to stardom and best move from the quarter pole to the eighth pole, and receives an honorable mention for gutsiest performance.

So, if anyone is surprised at the results of these awards, especially the overall winner, it just might be time to reevaluate Pants On Fire, especially his performance in the Louisiana Derby.

As mentioned, he came out of the Risen Star with a little blood and mucus, and by the time he arrived back at Palm Meadows he had a full-blown lung infection, as well as a ring worm-like condition on all four of his legs. It was as if his entire immune system had gone haywire.

In the five weeks between the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, he had only that only one little :48 3/5 half-mile breeze.

“His immune system to say the least was weak, and this really knocked him out after the Risen Star,” trainer Kelly Breen said. “He had to be harboring something going into the Risen Star. When we got him back to Palm Meadows he was pretty sick. That’s why he had only one workout. He just wasn’t healthy enough; he was still having problems with his lungs. We treated him and got it cleared up enough to run him in the Louisiana Derby.

“When he shipped him to Fair Grounds for the race he left Palm Meadows and went to Ocala. He stopped at Barry Eisaman’s farm, which is a little less than halfway and rested overnight and then continued on the next day. At Barry’s he was given an IV of antibiotics just to make sure the shipping didn’t set something off again. We did everything to make sure he was healthy.”

As for the skin condition, Breen said, “Normally when a horse gets ring worm they’ll get it on their back and neck, but he had it on all four legs, more so behind than in front. We don’t know if he got an allergic reaction to something; perhaps the solution the bandages were washed in. For the next month we didn’t train him with any bandages. I didn’t want anything touching his legs. We treated him with a steroid, prednisone, for a couple of days. You can still see the remnants of the skin condition. It looks like someone laid onion rings underneath his skin. Our vet said he’s seen this maybe once or twice in his life. And in that case the tests came back as an allergic reaction, so that’s how we treated it.”

It makes sense now why Pants On Fire’s big run in the Risen Star fizzled out when he looked so good one minute and so bad the next, and why his Louisiana Derby is even better than it looked visually and on paper.

“When he ran in the LeComte (in which he was beaten a head right on the wire by Wilkinson) I didn’t even think of scoping him or anything like that because I thought he ran well enough,” Breen said. “But who knows if he was sick or bled a little in that race? The more I think about it I wish I had scoped him back then just to check him, because sometimes these things just slip by.

“In the Risen Star he was in an absolutely great spot and made that good run. What impressed me about his race in the Louisiana Derby, and I may be wrong, but watching the race on DVD, I put it on fast forward through the stretch, and when both of those horses came up to him it looked like had they gone around three more times he wasn’t going to let Nehro or Mucho Macho Man get by him. He really dug in.

“Everything is good now, except for the remnants of the ring worm on his back legs.”

Unlike his one little half-mile breeze before the Louisiana Derby, Pants On Fire has already begun to crank it up big-time, breezing five furlongs in :58 3/5 at Palm Meadows. He then had a solid maintenance breeze in 1:00 4/5 Saturday and was scheduled to ship to Louisville Saturday evening at 6 or 7 o’clock when it was a little cooler. He is expected to arrive at Churchill Downs at around 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.

Form-wise, he had been running “5s” and “6s” steadily on Thoro-Graph, but after recovering from his lung infection he jumped to a career best “2 3/4” in the Louisiana Derby. With a four-point improvement from the Risen Star, he most likely will benefit from the extra time off, and it is encouraging to see him bounce out of it with two excellent works.

If you’re looking for a relatively big price on a proven stakes winner who has not gotten much hype, Pants On Fire just might be the horse, based on what he’s been through, his attributes listed above, and how much he’s improved. If he can take even a small step forward on May 7 he should be a serious contender.

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