They are both 30-1 on the morning line. They are both sons of Bernardini. They both have never been two turns. And they both could be the most fun to wager on in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager…and possibly the smartest in the long run. Their names are Zulu and Shagaf, and although neither has ever run in a stakes or beaten anyone of note, they just seem too intriguing to ignore. And one thing about Bernardini himself, you never ignored him, or better still, couldn’t.
If you ask me about my main recollection of Bernardini as a racehorse it is that he was a dark bay and had no markings at all, yet you could spot him a hundred yards away. He wasn’t a particularly tall horse, but seemed to dwarf other horses. He wasn’t an overly muscled horse, but looked like The Hulk next to other horses. When he walked to the track in the morning and came into view it was as if all the horses became out of focus except him. Your eyes just went directly to him. You either knew immediately who he was or you asked, “Who is that horse?” He just stood out from the others. He had a swagger to him and walked like a champion boxer making his way to the ring. In short, he had what is known as the look of eagles.
When I watched the combined four performances of Zulu and Shagaf, I couldn’t take my eyes off them, not from a physical standpoint, but a purely aesthetic standpoint. There was just something about them that caught the eye. Now, I admit, with young inexperienced 3-year-olds, that can be misleading, because you don’t know who they are running against and they’re doing it in one-turn races. So far, they’re races are not about time and speed figures and who they beat. They are about the eye test, and like their sire, they just stand out.
I even ranked Zulu No. 12 in my first Derby Dozen, but took him off when he didn’t work for several weeks. But he is back working now. The question is, can either of these two colts, with only four one-turn races and 29 total furlongs of racing between them, be ready to go 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May? Only two horses since 1918 have won the Derby with four career starts or less, and they were Big Brown in 2008 and Animal Kingdom in 2011. The difference is, those two horses never ran in a sprint and had already been two turns after their first two career starts. And, yes, Big Brown was total freak racing against a subpar crop of 3-year-olds, while Animal Kingdom went to show his greatness on dirt and grass and on two continents.
Todd Pletcher obviously thinks a great deal of Zulu or he wouldn’t be asking him to make his stakes debut against the current Derby favorite, Mohaymen, and other proven stakes horses in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. By comparison, Zulu will go into the Fountain of Youth having raced a total of 13 furlongs, compared to Mohaymen’s 31 1/2 furlongs and three graded stakes victories. Pletcher has attempted to send lightly raced horses to the Derby before, and the last two years he won the battle, capturing the Florida Derby with Constitution and Materiality, but lost the war.
Shagaf could turn up anywhere, and we’ll just have to wait for Chad Brown to decide where his next start will be.
So, what makes these two Bernardinis so special and why would anyone gamble on a pair of horses who are unproven in stakes company and basically bucking history, with so few races?
Because the feeling here is that we haven’t seen anything close to what these colts are capable of, and they should only keep improving the farther they go. And that is the intrigue of the Derby trail and the Future Wager – trying to ferret out those potential superstars before the whole world catches on. Are they up against it time-wise and experience-wise? Definitely. Could one little hiccup along the way knock them off the trail? Definitely. Is it possible they’re simply not as good as advertised? That is always a possibility in racing, where risk is a way of life.
As for Zulu, he has one of those rare strides that is a thing of beauty (sound familiar?). He has tremendous extension to his stride, is smooth as silk, and he almost appears to be leaping forward with each stride, as if bounding along and exerting little effort. He also has demonstrated an excellent turn of foot, separating himself from his opponents in a flash. And he’s already turned back a serious challenge in his debut, so he has been in a battle, as brief as it was. Can he do that against far better horses? Who really knows?
One of the reasons I put him in my first Derby Dozen is that there’s something about him, the way he looks and runs, that reminds me of Bernardini. He just has a lot of catching up to do, especially with that gap between his last start and his first work back. We’ll see how Pletcher works him leading up to the Fountain of Youth, where it is safe to say he doesn’t have to win. If he can be fairly competitive with Mohaymen and the others and look as if he’s ready to take a big step forward in his final Derby prep, that will be plenty.
When you’re dealing with such inexperienced colts and rush them to try to make the Derby, there is always the risk of compromising their careers in the long run. But the siren’s lure of the Derby makes owners and trainers attempt things they normally wouldn’t...or shouldn't.
Shagaf is a regal-looking colt, who also has a smooth, effortless way of moving. Both colts are professional in that they always change leads right on cue. Unlike Zulu, who was a $900,000 2-year-old purchase, Shagaf is a homebred, and it’s always good to see a Maktoum – Coolmore rivalry develop.
In Shagaf’s first start, he tracked the pace and rated beautifully along the inside. Once the pace picked up on the turn, he seemed to be going nowhere for a brief instant, but quickly put it in gear and swept by the two leaders on the outside and drew off to a comfortable score. It is always impressive when a 2-year-old wins his career debut going a mile. That is not exactly the easiest spot for a young horse to debut and he did it with relative ease.
Much was expected of him in his 3-year-old debut and he was sent off as the 4-5 favorite. Although many seemed disappointed with his workmanlike two-length victory after opening up by four at the eighth pole and his slow final quarter, it must be remembered that he found himself on the lead way too soon midway on the far turn and already had a clear lead turning for home. Also, he had not run in two months and had only four relatively slow half-mile breezes during all that time. It was obvious he was far from fully cranked for this race. Another thing to note is the way he re-broke after the wire and opened up by about six lengths or more on the gallop-out. So whether he simply lost focus taking the lead prematurely or tired a little, or a combination of both, he had to be a bit short and this was no more than a good tightener and bottom builder, and you can be sure he’ll be a lot sharper and fitter next time.
Pedigree-wise, Shagaf has five Belmont Stakes winners -- A.P. Indy, Tabasco Cat, Seattle Slew, Temperence Hill, and Secretariat -- in his first four generations and his only inbreeding is to the potent Fappiano through Quiet American and Unbridled. For those who believe in the Rasmussen Factor (inbreeding to top quality mares), Zulu is inbred close-up to Weekend Surprise through her sons A.P. Indy and SummerSquall. On the bottom, Zulu's great-grandsire Lemhi Gold was champion older horse and winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Marlboro Cup, San Juan Capistrano, and Sword Dancer Stakes, and is a son of the great stamina influence Vaguely Noble.
Certainly no one is claiming these two colts look like Derby winners right now. There is too much work ahead of them, and everything is going to have to go perfectly from here on. But if you’re looking for two horses with a world of ability and promise, you can have a lot of fun with these two and have bragging rights for quite a while if they turn out as good as advertised and somehow emerge as stars on the first Saturday in May. And if it doesn’t work out, anyone know of any Preakness future bets out there?