Always Dreaming Todd Pletcher
Bodemeister—Above Perfection, by In Excess
There is very little separating him and Irish War Cry in natural ability and running style, and both should have no problem with the 1 1/4 miles. The Florida Derby now appears to be the best of the preps, mainly because he easily handled the No. 3 ranked horse Gunnevera and was actually increasing his lead at the wire, while getting stronger the farther he went. Also, there is no telling how good this colt could be, having won three straight races and dominating his opponents in each one. He certainly has all the tools – sprint and tactical speed, class, professionalism, consistency, instant acceleration, tremendous balance and action, long graceful strides, and is extremely light on his feet. Like Irish War Cry, he has a commanding presence about him, and it should be interesting to see how tactics develop with these two exceptional colts in the Kentucky Derby. I believe they key to his success was Pletcher running him in that allowance race instead of throwing him in against graded stakes winners in the Fountain of Youth Stakes the same day. This was an excellent confidence builder and gave him a much-needed mile and an eighth race under him. It also allowed John Velazquez to experiment a little by turning him off and on at will and seeing what kind of gears he has, and then letting him gallop out a full mile and a quarter in about 2:07. So he was able to slow a proven fast horse down to a crawl, then use his turn of foot in the stretch, and finally put a lot of bottom in him. All of that will pay dividends on the first Saturday in May. As mentioned earlier, it wasn’t the margin of the Florida Derby that was impressive or even the time, as much as it was watching him run through the wire, as they say, getting stronger at the end.
Irish War Cry Graham Motion
Curlin—Irish Sovereign, by Polish Numbers
Never before on the Derby trail have I seen a colt turn in two such powerful performances with such a dismal effort in between. That will forever remain a mystery, but the important thing is that he is back, and he did it the right way, rating beautifully in fourth and pouncing on Battalion Runner and running him into the ground. He is almost on even terms with Always Dreaming, but if you want to look for one thing separating them it is his :39 final three-eighths in the Wood. But to be fair, it was a slow track, and he did get a 101 Beyer figure, his second one of the year. He broke sharply from the far outside post in the Wood Memorial, and was four-wide going into the first turn. Unlike his second and fourth starts, he was able to relax and wait for the command by his rider. This was more like the Irish War Cry we saw in his sensational maiden victory at Laurel, which was the last time he rated kindly off the lead. He was content to sit patiently behind Battalion Runner down the backstretch, and when Rajiv Maragh asked him at the three-eighths pole, he shifted into drive and quickly headed Battalion Runner by the five-sixteenths pole. A confident Maragh looked back under his right arm at the head of the stretch, shook the reins at him, and he began to draw clear inside the eighth pole, increasing his lead with every stride. At the finish, he was striding out beautifully, looking much like he did in the Holy Bull Stakes and making the Fountain of Youth seem like nothing more than a bad dream. A baffled Graham Motion has had plenty of time to try to solve the puzzle and he did come up with a change of equipment, putting a figure-8 bridle on the colt for more control. For those interested, a figure-8 bridle is what John Nerud put on Dr. Fager during his 4-year-old campaign that helped turn him from a great horse into a legend. In his first start with the new bridle, the good doctor rated beautifully in the Suburban Handicap under 132 pounds, defeating arch rival Damascus and equaling the track record. So, for Motion, perhaps this was the move that unleashed a giant.
Gunnevera Antonio Sano
Dialed In—Unbridled Rage, by Unbridled
He has been getting mixed reviews since his well-beaten third in the Florida Derby. Was he struggling to make up ground on Always Dreaming or was he running strongly enough to snatch third when he looked to be out of contention for a placing? The truth is, everything was against him that day, and there is no reason to believe he won’t bounce back with the five weeks off and, with a more contentious pace in the Kentucky Derby, once again show that rapid-fire turn of foot we saw in the Delta Jackpot and Fountain of Youth Stakes. As mentioned last week, he did come home his final five-eighths in a sensational :58 4/5, which shows you how near impossible it was for him to win. He did not go into the Florida Derby at his best, having apparently lost some weight after two big efforts at Gulfstream and having raced steadily since last June, with only a brief respite between 2 and 3. If you just watch him in the Florida Derby and not use Always Dreaming as a barometer, he is running strongly with good extension to his stride and did very well just to run down Impressive Edge and Three Rules for third, while missing second by 1 1/2 lengths. With him, it all depends on how he thrives over the next few weeks and how he trains at Churchill Downs. Yes, he will need a contentious pace in the Derby, but so does every come from behind horse, just as the speed horses need a slow pace. If it’s meant to be it will be, and he will be flying in the stretch, at a much better price than one would have thought a couple of weeks ago.
McCraken Ian Wilkes
Ghostzapper—Ivory Empress, by by Seeking the Gold
Let’s start by asking this question: who would you pick as the big potential overlay in the Kentucky Derby? My answer right now would be McCraken, who has now gone from favorite to being a pretty enticing price, and his defeat in the Blue Grass Stakes to me was a near perfect setup effort for the Derby, which has major bounce back written all over it. Although I have him ranked No. 4, watch out for my selection/wagering column on May 5 after seeing how trains at Churchill Downs. Yes, one would have hoped he’d be closing faster in the Blue Grass against a maiden, having missed the Tampa Bay Derby, he needed a race like this more than an easy victory. This was a disastrous trip from the start and I can’t emphasize more how much he got out of it. First off, he broke outward, bumping with J Boys Echo, and being as fresh as he was, he was way too aggressive going into the first turn, dragging Brian Hernandez up into third between horses, and still was too keen entering the backstretch. Sitting in an uncustomary spot right behind the two leaders, he had Hernandez pulling back on the reins. Then Practical Joke on his outside made a bold early move and he began to lose his position, as J Boys Echo moved up alongside him on the inside. He now had only one horse, Tapwrit, beat, and when Tapwrit moved up on his outside, he once again was stuck between horses. When Tapwrit started to make his move, Hernandez finally pulled the trigger and McCraken put it in another gear, as he has in all in his races, and closed in on the leaders, pulling to within a half-length of Practical Joke and 1 1/2 lengths of the leading Irap. Turning for home, his hind end bounced off Practical Joke’s hind end twice. Hernandez threw a couple of crosses, hit him twice left-handed, and then hand-rode him to the wire. He had little left in the final furlong and ran evenly the rest of the way, apparently a tired horse running on a slow tiring racetrack that several horses, including Tapwrit, seemingly didn’t handle. To me, this race will give him a ton of bottom, and it exposed him to much-needed adversity for the first time. Finally, before winning the Kentucky Derby for Wilkes’ old boss Carl Nafzger, Unbridled finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes, beaten the same 3 3/4 lengths. Like Unbridled, expect to see a different horse in the Derby.
Girvin Joe Sharp
Tale of Ekati—Catch the Moon, by Malibu Moon
A lot is being made of his 91 Beyer speed figure and that he wasn’t that impressive beating a recent maiden winner with only two career starts by 1 1/4 lengths, but there is so much more to this horse than speed figures and how far he wins by. The bottom line is he knows how to win and does what he has to. I’ve been saying all along he is one of the most determined young horses I’ve seen in a long time, and he wins despite overcoming some minor flaws, such as his inconsistency with lead changes. But again, it doesn’t matter. He has run only four times in his career and learns a little more each time. Yes, he jumped back to his left lead in the final sixteenth of the Louisiana Derby, but the Fair Grounds stretch can seem endless, especially to a young inexperienced horse, and his lead changes, which, by the way, don’t seem to affect his performance, will improve with experience. He does have to overcome history, having only the four career starts, but he has come such a long way in a short time, and he seems to have crammed a great deal into those four starts. What is important is that he’s the only 3-year-old to have won back-to-back graded stakes, he always has himself in a good position, and uses his long strides to suit his grinding style of running. He runs down the stretch with his ears pinned, and as mentioned before, he keeps them pinned even after the race is over and does not take kindly to horses trying to pass him past the wire. He is in great hands with Joe Sharp, and literally with assistant Rosie Napravnik, who works him. Granted, he hasn’t been facing the best 3-year-olds and needs to step it up against tougher competition, but no one at Fair Grounds has been able to stop him yet.
Classic Empire Mark Casse
Pioneerof the Nile—Sambuca Classica, by Cat Thief
As he makes his way back up toward the top where he began, I keep thinking of the old Abbott and Costello routine, “Slowly I turned ... step by step ... inch by inch ...” For the closing act of his wild and wacky Derby journey, all he needs now is a big effort in the Arkansas Derby to continue his step by step, inch by inch turnaround. The way he has been training and behaving since arriving at Winding Oaks Farm, all we can do is hope it continues through Saturday and then the following three weeks leading up to the Derby, culminating with an uneventful experience in the Derby Day preliminaries. With Gunnevera, McCraken, Gormley, and Practical Joke all representing last year’s 2-year-old crop in fine fashion the past two weeks, it would be a crowning touch for the champ to finish off the prep season with a big effort at Oaklawn Park. As frustrating as he has been all year, you can’t say he hasn’t kept things interesting. From a physical standpoint, he is in the same boat as McCraken in some ways, having missed a race and being forced to bounce back from minor issues and needing to get a lot out of his final prep. You have to admit, it would be great if last year’s 2-year-old champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner returned to his winning form and put some normalcy back into the 3-year-old picture.
Practical Joke Chad Brown
Into Mischief—Halo Humor, by Distorted Humor
Good news and bad news. The good news is that he showed in the Blue Grass Stakes he can get a mile and an eighth without losing ground in the final furlong. The bad news is that he had the entire length of the stretch to get by a maiden coming home in :13 and wasn’t able to do it. But, remember, he, too had only one start and could simply have been a bit short. In the past, I have seen a number of Derby winners run an almost identical race as Practical Joke in his final Derby prep, such as Super Saver, beaten a neck by a 17-1 shot in the Arkansas Derby; Grindstone, beaten a neck by an 11-1 shot in the Arkansas Derby; Funny Cide, beaten a half-length in the Wood Memorial; Silver Charm, beaten a head in the Santa Anita Derby; Street Sense, beaten a nose in the Blue Grass Stakes; Lil E. Tee, beaten a neck in the Arkansas Derby. Although he didn’t win the Derby, Sham ran the exact same race in the Wood Memorial, failing to get past Angle Light before turning in arguably the greatest second-place finish in Derby history. In addition, Monarchos, Real Quiet, and Go For Gin all finished second in their final Derby prep, simply getting outrun. But, again, skeptics will point out this was against a maiden, and there is no escaping that, although he was a maiden with some pretty good stakes credentials, including a second in a grade I stakes against Mastery. It is possible that Practical Joke is distance limited, but it must be said, he looked magnificent before the race, an imposing, well-muscled colt. He broke sharply from the outside post and rushed up three across the track into the first turn, and surprisingly made a bold early move down the backstretch. To his credit, he was able to settle again, two lengths behind the leaders before closing in to challenge Irap at the top of the stretch and was under steady left-handed whipping down the stretch. After the way he won the Hopeful and Champagne I thought for sure he would wear down Irap, but he just couldn’t get by him. Whatever you think of him he definitely should get a lot out of this race and will be a presence in the Derby. Whether it’s enough to win is another matter.
Gormley John Shirreffs
Malibu Moon—Race to Urga, by Bernstein
So, just where does California stand on this year’s Derby trail? On one hand you have the Santa Anita Derby winner run 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.16 and come home his last three-eighths in a sluggish :40 2/5, earning a meager 88 Beyer. But on the other hand you have a California-based maiden who was beaten handily by the Santa Anita Derby third-place finisher win the Blue Grass Stakes. The in and out trend of Gormley’s career continued right on schedule Saturday. He wins the grade I FrontRunner Stakes last fall by three lengths, then gets beats more than 16 lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, then wins the Sham Stakes in a gutsy effort, then gets beat almost 10 lengths in the San Felipe Stakes, then wins the Santa Anita Derby. So, who is Gormley and can he break this pattern by running another bang-up race in the Kentucky Derby? I don’t even pretend to be able to grasp the significance of the extremely slow final time and closing fractions of the Santa Anita Derby, except to say it does send up warning flares regarding the crop of Southern California 3-year-olds. But they did send two maidens back east to run monster races in graded stakes, so who knows? We do know what Gormley is capable on his best day, turning in one of the fastest Thoro-Graph numbers of the year in the Sham Stakes, and you have to be encouraged the way he rated more than 5 lengths off a pretty hot opening three-quarters. But that’s when the race fell apart, as the field spread out across the track after turning into the stretch and staggered home, with the first 5 horses finishing within two lengths of each other. And his stablemate, Royal Mo, who defeated Irap by 3 1/2 lengths in the Robert Lewis Stakes, also ran big, racing three abreast in :22 3/5, :46 2/5, and 1:10 4/5 and getting beat only one length, so Shirreffs could send a pair to Louisville, if Royal Mo has enough points.
Malagacy Todd Pletcher
Shackleford—Classiest Gem, by Dehere
He tuned up for the Arkansas Derby with a 5-furlong breeze in 1:01 2/5. He pretty much faces the same kind of task as did his stablemate One Liner before he exited the Derby trail, relying mainly on his overall talent and brilliance. With One Liner out, he has a huge shot to win the Arkansas Derby. But I must remind everyone of Pletcher’s comments after his second start, stating he most likely is best around one turn, having run two spectacular races to begin his career going 5 1/2 and 6 1/2 furlongs. Many fast sprinters will be able to stretch out to two turns in their first attempt, but it catches up with them after that. Whether he falls into that category I have no way of knowing, because of the way he settled so nicely off the pace-setting Uncontested in the Rebel. I can see Malagacy charging to the lead and setting the pace or taking back if someone is intent on going. A victory doesn’t mean it will move him forward as a potential Kentucky Derby winner. It’s all about having the experience and toughness to handle a 20-horse field going a mile and a quarter, and he still has those questions to answer.
Royal Mo John Shirreffs
Uncle Mo—Royal Irish Lass, by Saint Ballado
If you like Gormley even a little you have to like his stablemate as well. Royal Mo is the one who ran a sneaky good race in the Santa Anita Derby, breaking from the 13 post and being rushed up into contention, battling three wide through quick fractions and remaining three abreast the whole way. Despite the fast pace, he held on tenaciously to finish third, beaten one length. He is a big, handsome, muscular colt who is a strong galloper and should appreciate the extra quarter mile at Churchill Downs, where he can use those big strides at one long steady pace. And he should only keep getting better with racing. Hey, he did beat Irap easily in the Robert Lewis Stakes, which didn’t mean much before, but does now. He is another who had to rebound off a clunker, finishing up the track in the Rebel Stakes, as did American Anthem. Yes, I know the Santa Anita Derby was agonizingly slow, and no one is saying he is going to win the Derby, but at No. 10, he could certainly make his presence felt, and no one is better than John Shirreffs at getting a horse to peak for a particular race. Everyone said Giacomo was way too slow to win the Derby and beat the likes of Bellamy Road, Afleet Alex, Bandini, Flower Alley and the others with their gaudy Beyer numbers, but Shirreffs didn’t focus on winning any of the preps as long as he had him peaking on the first Saturday in May. The question is, can Uncle Mo have back-to-back Derby winners? This colt is a complete outcross in his first five generations, with a good deal of European blood in his tail-female family.
Hence Steve Asmussen
Street Boss—Floating Island, by A.P. Indy
These last two spots are so up for grabs, with Tapwrit, Battalion Runner, Cloud Computing, Battle of Midway, and J Boys Echo still viable Derby horses. But Irap’s shocking victory in the Blue Grass Stakes certainly boosted the reputation of Hence, who defeated Irap by 8 1/2 lengths in the Sunland Derby. I became a big fan of Hence’s watching his astounding maiden victory, in which he put on a remarkable display of athleticism and balance to avoid crashing into the rail, and still came back to win. I also was impressed with the way he rebounded off his Southwest Stakes defeat to win the Sunland Derby so impressively. And he did it the right way, coming from far back and blowing his field away to win by nearly 4 lengths in a very solid 1:48 flat, defeating the undefeated local hero Conquest Mo Money, as well as the aforementioned Irap. Granted, this was far from a talented and accomplished field, but I can’t help but remember what Firing Line did in the Kentucky Derby after trouncing his foes at Sunland. And Mine That Bird didn’t do too shabbily at Churchill Downs. A Derby winner can come from anywhere these days and we really don’t know just how good this colt is or is getting.
Irap Doug O’Neill
Tiznow—Silken Cat, by Storm Cat
It was easy to see that one coming. Yeah, sure. That certainly threw a major monkey wrench into an already befuddling Derby picture. But give credit where it is due, and Irap ran his eyeballs out and refused to be passed. After all, maiden or not, he did run second to Mastery and Royal Mo in graded stakes. Several weeks ago, I wrote about the two most shocking Derby winners, Mine That Bird and Canonero, both of whom came to Kentucky from high altitude cities – Sunland Park and Caracas, Venezuela. Racing at Sunland Park’s 3,800-foot altitude one time may or may not be beneficial, but in Irap’s case, he raced there twice, and who knows if two races at that altitude can, even in a small way, affect a horse’s performance coming down to a 400-foot altitude. It is quite possible I am reaching for the proverbial straws to come up with an explanation why Irap ran so well, and even if true, it wouldn’t really carry over to the Derby in four more weeks. The bottom line is it’s horse racing and longshots win every day, and he has fared well against top quality horses and apparently has overcome some foot issues with the help of his blacksmith. Whatever the reason, it is time re-evaluate some of these horses and try to unlock the mystery of the 2017 Kentucky Derby.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
And so, the Kentucky Derby, at this point, boils down to the oddest geographic showdown in racing history – Brooklyn vs. New Jersey vs. Venezuela. And you can add Kansas, Texas, and a touch of Spain, Dubai and Ireland. Just to clear that up, Always Dreaming’s ownership is made up mainly of lifelong friends from Brooklyn; Irish War Cry was bred in New Jersey and owned by the daughter of the late owner of Monmouth Park; Gunnevera’s connections are from Venezuela, with one of the owners being from Spain; McCracken was named after a town in Kansas; Girvin was named after a town in Pecos County, Texas, and Thunder Snow, if he comes, is owned by Godolphin and was bred in Ireland.
It’s hard to believe all the major preps are over with the exception of the Arkansas Derby, and we have only three Derby Dozens remaining after this one. Following the Arkansas Derby and all 12 placings are pretty much set, barring anything unforeseen, the comments will be mainly work updates and any enlightening, slightly wacky, and historical tidbits I can come up with. I will also focus on possible strategy in the Derby and which horses could have great setups and which may be compromised. I also will look for fresh pedigree notes that could prove informative in regard to horses getting the mile and a quarter.
There currently are three horses in the Arkansas Derby listed in the Top 12, so there are still likely changes in store. Also, Godolphin is still weighing THUNDER SNOW’S options (he is a group 1 winner in Europe and is a candidate for dirt and grass classic races), so I’m just waiting for an official comment regarding his status and schedule before adding him to the Top 12. I’m projecting at least one of the three Arkansas Derby starters currently in the Top 12 to be dropped, but there is always a chance that either PETROV or UNTRAPPED or the improving SILVER DUST could find his way on with a big performance. And you can’t forget the surprising Rebel Stakes runner-up SONNETEER. So there are still lots of possibilities for more juggling.
Also expected to be in the Arkansas Derby field are the Sunland Derby runnerup CONQUEST MO MONEY, as well as LOOKIN AT LEE and ROCKIN RUDY.
To show just how crazy a year this has been, the only two Santa Anita shippers to make an impact on the Derby picture – Blue Grass winner Irap and Rebel runner-up Sonneteer – were both maidens.
As for this past weekend, it was not what you would call a brilliant exhibition of speed, with the three stakes producing final three-eighths in :38, :39, and :40 2/5, with Irap actually coming home the fastest of the three. And who could have predicted that none of the three stakes would break 1:50? But to be fair, none of the tracks were fast by any means. Still, the last time the Santa Anita Derby was run as slow as 1:51 was 60 years ago. But take heart, Swaps won the race in 1:50.
As for those who ran over the weekend and either dropped out of the top 12 or are newcomers on the bubble, I can see TAPWRIT bouncing back with a good race, but there is no Derby winner I can remember who came off a defeat by that many lengths and that far back in the field. It simply looked to me that he was struggling with the track. The question is, how far can he bounce back from it? J BOYS ECHO also may not have handled it, but these are not excuses you can make for a horse one race before the Kentucky Derby. I always say, a horse racing on Aqueduct’s inner track still has to prove himself at a bigger venue and against better quality horses.
In New York, BATTALION RUNNER ran well to finish second, but with only four career starts and being basically a speed horse, I don’t know if he’s ready for a grueling mile and a quarter in a 20-horse field as much as he would be dynamite in the Preakness. The big difference between the son of Unbridled’s Song and Always Dreaming is that Pletcher, as mentioned, gave Always Dreaming an easy allowance race before moving him up against graded stakes horses, while he gave Battalion Runner a long layoff between races, despite having only three lifetime starts, and he just seemed to come up a tad short. He no doubt will head to Louisville, losing little luster in the Wood, considering who beat him and how much he likely will improve off this race. But he, Always Dreaming and Malagacy all have excellent tactical speed and like to run the same kind of race. It was between him and Royal Mo who to add at the last minute to replace One Liner, and he could still show up in the Top 12 at some point.
CLOUD COMPUTING, who it seems most everyone was picking, was coming into the Wood off only two lifetime starts and he simply did not get the kind of trip his connections were hoping for. He broke a step slowly and quickly dropped back to last, going four-wide on the first turn, while racing seventh in the eight-horse field. Down the backstretch, Irad Ortiz made an early move for some reason, and the colt then had to put in a steady run for six furlongs. He tried to close in but just couldn’t sustain such a long run and was put to an early left hand whip at the five-sixteenths pole, and had little punch left in the stretch. With only three lifetime starts, it might be asking a lot of this colt to put him in the Derby, especially when his connections have Practical Joke, while Cloud Computing could be live in the Preakness.
I don’t even know to begin to describe the Santa Anita Derby, with a cavalry charge crawling home. The first three – Gormley, BATTLE OF MIDWAY, and Royal Mo -- all ran well over a track that still had quite a bit of moisture in it, with the last two hanging in gamely after battling through fast early fractions. And if the Bob Baffert-trained REACH THE WORLD didn’t have to steady early and then get hung seven-wide turning for home he might have been able to sneak his way into the Kentucky Derby, but with only 10 points for finishing fourth, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths, it could prove best in the long run and make the big long-striding colt a dangerous opponent for the Belmont Stakes. The 3-1 favorite ILIAD didn’t run badly, but never really threatened and ran an even race to finish a close fifth. It was kind of surprising to see Battle of Midway on the lead and setting such fast fractions, although he did set blazing fractions in his career ebut sprinting.
Checking on some Arkansas Derby works, Petrov, breezed a half in :50, Untrapped went his half in :51, and stablemate Lookin At Lee also went his half in :51.
Looking at the points standing, Sonneteer (20 points), Petrov (13 points), and Looking At Lee (12 points) all need at least a third-place finish to have as shot of getting in the field, and that certainly doesn’t guarantee a place, with the 20th horse in the standings, Untrapped, having 34 points, and Classic Empire, Royal Mo, and Local Hero all with 30 points. So expect a huge scramble after the Arkansas Derby.