2009 Kentucky Derby Contenders

Courtesy of Rob Fundter, The Amateur Capper

An Embarrassment of Riches: Part 1

Great horses, Kentucky Derby winners in this case, possess the ability to adapt to different circumstances and win.  This year's Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands 3y.o. crop, thanks to the absence of Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome, has quality that we haven't seen in years.  There is more than one contender deserving of the adjective "legitimate" which will make selecting a winner on May 2 a challenging prospect.

At the top of the heap, in order of ultimate prep race dates, are FRIESAN FIRE, QUALITY ROAD, I WANT REVENGE, and PIONEEROF THE NILE.  Each of these colts has risen above the race circumstances to win their final prep race.  In fact, they will go into the Derby with at least two straight graded stakes wins.

FRIESAN FIRE was first in the Kentucky Derby clubhouse.  His Louisiana Derby (G.2) win on March 14 completed a sweep of the graded stakes program at Fair Grounds that included the Risen Star (G.3) February 7 and the Lecomte (G.3) January 10.  The Lecomte win was his second in blinkers which seems to have brought out the potential that his breeding suggested.  His first two graded stakes wins featured a Larry Jones trainee that got the lead into the stretch and increased the margin from the stretch call to the wire.  However, the Louisiana Derby was his definitive race this winter.  The son of 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. INDY sailed home 7 ¼ lengths best over a sloppy Fair Grounds main track.  While the surface was an excuse for well-bet also-rans PATENA and FLYING PEGASUS, FRIESAN FIRE got his final 2 ½ furlongs in :30.02.  That fraction was 5 lengths better than the come-home time he earned in the Risen Star win.  The result of the Louisiana Derby was flattered by PAPA CLEM's win in the G.2 Arkansas Derby April 11.  Third place TERRAIN finished 4th in the Blue Grass (G.1) while fourth place GIANT OAK ran 2nd in the Illinois Derby (G.2).  All three are expected to be part of the 20 horse cavalry charge on Derby day.  LARRY JONES has a live shot with FRIESAN FIRE to improve on his two consecutive runner-up finishes (HARD SPUN in '07, EIGHT BELLES last year).

QUALITY ROAD answered the two-turn question with an emphatic Florida Derby (G.1) win March 28.  The son of ELUSIVE QUALITY, sire of 2004 Derby winner SMARTY JONES, confirmed to his doubters that his Fountain of Youth win was no fluke.  He sits at or near the top of many Kentucky Derby contender lists.  What sets QUALITY ROAD apart from the others in this discourse is his speed, agility, and respiratory capacity all rolled into a massive 17 hands package.  In the Gulfstream Park signature prep race, JOHN VELAZQUEZ extricated his steed from the rail before traffic engulfed them into the first turn.  The JIM JERKENS trainee tracked a fast pace, cruised effortlessly to the lead on the far turn, and idled awaiting his rider's instructions.  While Velazquez searched for DUNKIRK, GARRETT GOMEZ launched his mount on a winning sneak attack some four or five wide.  Velazquez realized his mistake and frantically asked QUALITY ROAD for his best.  His colt responded like champions do, quickening at the top of the stretch to match DUNKIRK's momentum, then outran his foe to the wire with a solid :12.44 final furlong en route to a track record.  With THE PAMPLEMOUSSE and OLD FASHIONED out of the picture due to injury, UAE Derby (G.2) winner REGAL RANSOM will be QUALITY ROAD's pace foil.  Nothing comes easy in the Kentucky Derby, that's why it's such a special feat and a race that crowns champions.

I WANT REVENGE authored the most eventful Derby prep of the year when he won the Wood Memorial (G.1) on April 4 in dramatic fashion.  The son of STEPHEN GOT EVEN put the hearts of DAVID LANZMAN, IEAH, and JEFF MULLINS into their stomachs when he got left at the gate.  JOE TALAMO  recounted that his mount was startled when a neighboring starter rammed the gate just prior to the bell.  The young rider showed the composure of  a 20 year veteran, allowing I WANT REVENGE to find his best stride.  He picked off the back markers with successively faster ¼ mile splits but ran into a roadblock coming off the turn.  So special is this colt that Talamo was able to dial down to a simmer despite being ready to boil.  Showing that luck is needed even when you're 10 lengths best, I WANT REVENGE was fortuitously bounced out to the four path while trying to find running room.  He shot through a seam and was gone in a blink.  Realistically it took him :11.96, the fastest 9f final 1/8 of the prep season...FROM A STANDSTILL!  Don't be surprised if he's the starting favorite...he's already seen just about everything bad that can happen and overcame it all.

Last but certainly not least is PIONEEROF THE NILE, twice the conqueror of I WANT REVENGE.  The BOB BAFFERT trainee is on a four race win streak that includes the Hollywood Futurity (G.1) on Cushion Track, widely considered the synthetic track most like dirt.  Who can argue with the success of I WANT REVENGE at Aqueduct.  PIONEEROF THE NILE has gotten no love in my sample polls.  When asked which contenders were the most likely Triple Crown Winners, the son of EMPIRE MAKER got a measly 5 votes while QUALITY ROAD led the lot at 17.  FRIESAN FIRE, THE PAMPLEMOUSSE, and I WANT REVENGE tied for second at 11 tallies.  All PIONEEROF THE NILE does is win, any way his rider pleases.  His San Felipe (G.2) win has proved a key prep, with I WANT REVENGE emerging as the New York kingpin and PAPA CLEM winning the Arkansas Derby.  His final 1/16 in the San Felipe was the fastest final fraction of the '09 preps at 8 ½ furlongs.  That day he made two distinct moves.  The first was matching the second ¼ fraction of the leader (:23.83) after a personal opening fraction of :24.68.  He idled to :24.47 when the pace of the race slowed markedly (:25.07) to the 6f mark, but accelerated again with a :23.41 fraction to the mile mark while racing wide on the final turn.  His subsequent races showed his ability to adapt against slow fractions.  GARRETT GOMEZ allowed him to press the leader on the backside in both the San Felipe and last out in the Santa Anita Derby.  The tandem even got the lead at the ½ mile mark last out instead of allowing his outclassed competition to put them into a precarious position.  Don't sleep on PIONEEROF THE NILE...he may send your Derby wagers up the river without a paddle. 

Enjoy the next few weeks.

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