Quality Road Deserves Top Ranking

By Kevin Stafford, The Aspiring Horseplayer


A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!

Now that Quality Road has dispatched the heavily hyped Dunkirk, just where does the son of Elusive Quality belong in the rankings for the 2009 Kentucky Derby?  All the way at the top, if you ask me.  His gutsy performance to hold off the late charging Dunkirk in the stretch at Gulfstream Park has convinced me that this lightly raced colt will be a force to be reckoned with come the first Saturday in May. 

Ranking the Derby contenders gets incredibly complex, if you allow it to be so, due to the different paths being taken by the various runners.  Without an opportunity to size them up in face-to-face competition, one is left using the non-scientific approach of interjecting much speculation into their analysis.   Even taking things as straightforward as final time comparisons cannot be considered truly "apples to apples" due to the differences in surface at each of the race tracks in question. 

So what are we to make of Quality Road?  How does he match up with the other big guns?   At some point you have to draw the line between hype and actual production.  It's a blurred line and one that is constantly changing as the situation unfolds.  For example, I believe that right now you have to rank Friesan Fire and Quality Road above the other contenders.  They've finished their preps, and they've both done so in impressive style.  Just around the corner, however, we'll get our best read on the contenders coming from California (in the Santa Anita Derby), and New York (In the Wood Memorial), so things are not set in stone at the top of the list.  

Let's start by looking at the top 5:

  • #1 Quality Road
  • #2 Friesan Fire
  • #3 The Pamplemousse
  • #4 Pioneer of the Nile
  • #5  I Want Revenge

I don't think there's much variety out there in terms of who belongs in the top 5.  The argument seems to be  where these top 5 should be ranked in relation to one another.  Disregard the #1 and #2 rankings for a moment on Friesan Fire and Quality Road.  Truth be told I consider them to be dual #1 contenders.  Both colts used similar stalk and pounce approaches to cash in on their recent victories.  Friesan Fire had to run down the speedy Papa Clem early on, and then hold off late charges from Terrain and Giant Oak.   Many of the bigger named horses who gave the Louisiana Derby such a deep feel prior to the race (Flying Pegasus, Patena, etc.) simply did not fire for whatever reason, leaving Friesan Fire with a relatively easy victory once he reeled in Papa Clem.   Quality Road didn't face a field quite as deep on paper, but the big names in the Florida Derby did show up to run, as he had to hold off the late charging Dunkirk in the stretch (as well as Theregoesjojo who ran well enough for show) after dispensing with longshot pacesetter Casey's on Call.  The end result?  I think you've got to have these guys one, two.  Where you rank them amongst each other is open for debate, but for now I"ll give the slight edge to Quality Road, and continue to be disappointed that I could not select the horse in the Road to the Roses challenge.

Moving down the list, the next great debate is what to do with the California runners and I Want Revenge.  Obviously if I Want Revenge had remained in California, this would be easier to do from a direct comparison standpoint.  However, that would have left us completely unable to determine how these colts might run once they tried the dirt for the first time.  With the defections of Papa Clem and I Want Revenge and the subsequent success they've enjoyed, their would seem to be much promise for the colts currently leading the California Division;  The Pamplemousse and Pioneer of the Nile.  Until Pioneer of the Nile shows he can rundown The Grapefruit (which he very well might do in the upcoming Santa Anita Derby), I'll continue to rank The Pamplemousse ahead of him.  With The Pamplemousse firmly entrenched at 3rd, that makes things simple for me as I can look at the next two and say "well, Pioneer of the Nile defeated I Want Revenge head to head, so he stays on top for now."  Of course, it's never quite that easy, and the 113 Beyer figure that I Want Revenge earned on dirt in the Gotham suggests he's just as capable as Quality Road.  Here's one last factor in stacking them as I have above.  Pioneer of the Nile and The Pamplemousse will square off face to face next weekend at Santa Anita, so we'll get a much clearer read on how they match up.  I Want Revenge will face a challenge from some of the lower ranked contenders, and could be vulnerable if a runner like Imperial Council rises to the occasion. 

  • #6 Old Fashioned
  • #7 Imperial Council
  • #8 Dunkirk
  • #9  Chocolate Candy
  • #10 Win Willy

Things get a bit fuzzier once you're outside of the top 5.   The first challenge is what to do with the falling stock of both Dunkirk and Old Fashioned.   Dunkirk in particular might not have enough earnings to even qualify for the Kentucky Derby, which basically makes his position on a Derby rankings list rather moot.  Let's say he does find a way to draw into the field though.  Then what would we make of him?   Is he not good enough to merit consideration among the bigger guns?   We must remember that the Florida Derby was this horse's third race of his career.  There's still a tremendous amount of room for improvement, and judging from the way this guy is bred and the fact that he's only allowed one horse to finish in front of him so far (and did not go down without a fight), I think you've got to keep him around.  Ditto for Old Fashioned.  Larry Jones is simply too good a horseman for this guy to fall too far.  I'm convinced Friesan Fire is his best shot, but Old Fashioned has enough class in him to get past many in this year's crop.  

Then you've got some room for "buzz" horses and longshots.  Imperial Council fits into that former category and now becomes the hype horse in the rankings.  He'll get a shot to turn the tables on I Want Revenge in the Wood, and if he were to do so he'd have to be considered a top 5 contender in the Derby at least.  I'm still holding out hope that this guy could be the best of the Empire Maker colts this year (with all due respect to Pioneer of the Nile). 

Chocolate Candy is now the "Rodney Dangerfield" of this list.  Each week it's someone different who gets no respect.  In CC's case, I believe it's because folks simply haven't had many good looks at him..  All that will change next weekend with the Santa Anita Derby.   He needs to finish in the top 3 to warrant this ranking, but stop for a moment and consider what a shakeup it would be if he found a way to prevail?   I'm not saying that will happen, but what would the fallout be if it did?  The only thing I can find that he hasn't done is to win a race recently. 

Lastly, there's my longshot Win Willy, who I'm going to hold onto in these rankings until someone else forces me to remove him.   I'll clue you in on another thought going through my mind right now that relates to this guy.  The Pamplemousse is a speedy type.  Friesan Fire, Quality Road, and even Old Fashioned like to be just off the pace anywhere from 2nd to 4th in the early running.  We just might have enough early zip up front that things could open up for a closer like this.  It might take some additional lights out speed signed up on the front end, but I'm just saying that a horse that isn't on most people's lists despite running a very visually impressive race to defeat the then top ranked Old Fashioned still warrants some consideration.  

So there you have it, for the moment at least.  In the spirit of the increasingly annoying Capital One credit card commercials:  "Who's on your list? "

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