We all know how quickly things can change on the Derby trail, nobody better than Todd Pletcher. Only a couple short months ago he was loaded with five or six top Derby prospects, many of them with some of the best pedigrees he's had in years. But even during those promising times, Pletcher knew not to get overly excited with Derby fever; he's been around too long to know how this thing works.
Beginning the day of the Fountain of Youth, Pletcher suffered his biggest setback with Algorithms, who sustained a fractured splint bone and had to undergo surgery. Hansen's subsequent win in the Gotham solidified just how much promise Algorithms had. Later that day in the Fountain of Youth, Discreet Dancer tired badly, proving that he is probably best suited for shorter distances.
Last Saturday, Pletcher went into the Tampa Bay Derby with a horse that may have been training better than any 3-year-old in his barn--Spring Hill Farm. He came out of it with a fourth-place finish and a colt that suffered a fractured knee. The injury was likely suffered after Spring Hill farm fell at the break. As his co-owner George Bolton said, "He was a serious horse...we just got really unlucky."
Pletcher's top remaining gun is El Padrino, who will get his biggest test in the Florida Derby against Union Rags. He also has Gemologist, who will make his comeback in an allowance race today at Gulfstream. The undefeated son of Tiznow got started late this year, so we'll see how he bounces back from the layoff. He will face a short but tough group, including Currency Swap.
On Pletcher's decision to run him in an allowance race instead of Saturday's Rebel, he said: "This race came up late; it wasn't really an allowance race in the (condition) book, but I inquired about it and it became a viable option. The biggest consideration was the ship to Oaklawn was very complicated. We would have had to van to Ocala, then fly to Hot Springs, and there was no return flight. So with a 14-horse field and the potential to draw a bad post, it sort of put a lot of potentially negative variables into the equation. So when this became an option we decided to stay home."
Pletcher also has Our Entourage, who will go in either the Wood Memorial or Illinois Derby. But he's better on turf and is only getting a shot in one of those races because...well, because it's Derby time and why not?
So just when it looked like the vaunted Todd Squad was dwindling, up pops another one that bears watching. The colt is named Heavy Breathing, owned by Jack Wolf's Starlight Racing, who is also owns Algorithms. By Giant's Causeway and out of the Gone West mare Takesmybreathaway, Heavy Breathing is a late-bloomer who was on his way to getting his career started on the turf. Only thing is, his Feb. 8 maiden race was rained off the turf, and so Pletcher ran him on the main track. He wound up winning by 7 3/4 lengths against a short field.
"He handled the dirt better than we anticipated he would," Pletcher said. "In his training in the mornings he did better on the turf. But because he did so well we decided to try him back on the dirt again in an allowance on dirt. It seemed like that went pretty well also."
It did go pretty well. Heavy Breathing won by 4 1/4 lengths in a first-level allowance race at 1 1/8 miles on March 3. And just like that, he is on the Derby trail.
"He's by Giant's Causeway, so we think a synthetic race is the most viable option for him--the Spiral, the Blue Grass, and the Lexington are all races we'll look at.
"We had some unfortunate setbacks with Algorithms and Spring Hill Farm. They are part of the game. But we've had some nice ones come around too. The Derby is all about timing."
It remains to be seen if Heavy Breathing is a Derby horse--history says he would have to overcome a lot considering his late development. But like Pletcher said, it's all about timing. Maybe this one is quickly blossoming into something special.
Secret Circle is the deserving favorite based on his Southwest win and consistent record. Baffert said he bounced out of the race in good shape and keeps improving. He's the one to beat, and should be somewhere in the mix. I still think he has distance limitations and is not a legitimate Derby contender, but an extra sixteenth and a second turn probably won't bother him too much here. He's a must-use in exotics
All that being said, I'm still going to try to beat him, simply because he's going to be the favorite in a large field. I'm intrigued by three horses--Atigun, Najjaar and Jake Mo--in that order. All of them should be coming from off the pace, which could be a good thing since Secret Circle and Scatman should ensure a decent pace.
Atigun enters off an allowance win at the track and distance on Jan. 15. He was supposed to be in the Southwest but missed it because of a slight quarter crack. Ken McPeek said he only missed one work and has turned in two solid works since. He has the looks of an improving colt, as he's won two of his last three. He made a big middle move in his latest win and fought off Ring It Up gamely in the stretch. McPeek thinks Atigun is a Derby-type horse, but he'll need to prove it here.
Like Atigun, Najjaar enters off an allowance win at the track and distance. The only difference is, his came on March 2, so he may be a little sharper right now. Najjaar came from the clouds in that one. He has little tactical speed, so the 12 post should not hinder him. The son of 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil, Najjaar also broke his maiden at Oaklawn on Jan. 14 after four failed attempts elsewhere, so he obviously likes the track and is getting good.
I liked how Jake Mo was running at the end of the Southwest. He was beaten nearly four lengths by a much-the-best Castaway, but was too far back early on to be a factor. He showed a little bit more tactical speed in the Smarty Jones, where he was beaten only 1 3/4 lengths, and won on the front end in both of his wins as a juvenile at Prairie Meadows, so I'm expecting him to be a little bit closer this time. His trainer, Allen Milligan, is the leading trainer by wins at the current Oaklawn meet with 19.
I've been on the record as saying I like Sabercat as a potential Derby horse, but Asmussen is going to have him sharper for the Arkansas Derby, and even sharper for the Kentucky Derby. I don't think he'll win this one, but I'm going to include him because he just might be that good off the layoff.
Trifecta box--Atigun, Jake Mo, Najjaar, Sabercat, Secret Circle
Who do you like?