Derby Dizzy - by Evan Hammonds

 (Originally published in the April 23, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Evan Hammonds  

By Evan Hammonds Based on the results of this season’s prep races, it doesn’t look good for Derby 137. Is this year’s crop of 3-year-olds—seemingly ill-prepared, not completely fit, and not particularly ambitious—falling into what is now considered American mediocrity?
United States high school students rank near the bottom in math and science compared to students in 30 industrial countries. More than half of our eighth graders can’t read at their grade level. Our Thoroughbreds are making fewer starts. When reality appears in the form of a rough start or—gasp—another horse eyeballing a champion, they seem to wither.

Our expectations weren’t high that the picture for the May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) would be clearer following the running of Keeneland’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and Oaklawn’s Arkansas Derby (gr. I) April 16. Those results added two more layers of inconsistent form to this year’s 3-year-old crop.
In the last six weeks only two favorites have won graded preps: Stay Thirsty won the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) March 5 at Aqueduct and The Factor took the March 19 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn. Stay Thirsty followed his big win with a 16 3⁄4-length drubbing in the Florida Derby (gr. I), and The Factor flopped, beaten 8 3⁄4 lengths in the Arkansas Derby.

April 9 gave us 13-1 Midnight Interlude, taking Southern California’s main prep, the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), off a maiden win, and Uncle Mo’s stomach-churning third-place finish in the Resorts World New York Casino Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) to Toby’s Corner. Is Uncle Mo’s defeat, blamed on a gastrointestinal virus, another sign our Thoroughbreds, like water, are seeking their own level?

Recent history was against favorite Santiva in the Blue Grass. The colt clearly had the best dirt form, but the race was contested on Polytrack. Since the Poly was installed at Keeneland for the 2007 spring meet, there have been 27 grade I races run over the synthetic surface with only one favorite emerging victorious. In the synthetic era the Blue Grass has been won by Dominican (8-1), Monba (8-1), General Quarters (14-1), and Stately Victor (40-1). None offered realistic threats three weeks later under the Twin Spires.

Add Brilliant Speed (19-1) to the list of high-priced Blue Grass heroes. We wish him, trainer Tom Albertrani, and breeder-owner Charlotte Weber the best of luck in the Derby, and he’ll need it. His dirt form is subpar. He has been beaten a combined 401⁄4 lengths in a pair of main track efforts. The Blue Grass runner-up, Twinspired, has now made one of eight starts on dirt, that being an 113⁄4-length defeat at Remington Park in December.

Despite The Factor’s fade in Hot Springs, we liked Archarcharch’s off-the–pace win. His 70-year-old trainer, “Jinks” Fires, will bring a colt to Churchill Downs with four starts as a 3-year-old under his belt, which bucks recent training trends. In today’s world, Archarcharch can almost be considered a “throwback.” Arkansas Derby runner-up Nehro also will ship to Louisville with four sophomore starts on his ledger.

If there has been one consistent sophomore this year, it’s Robert LaPenta’s Dialed In, winner of the Florida Derby (gr. I). His trainer, Nick Zito, excites Derby handicappers, as does the colt’s come-from-the-clouds running style. However, it’s a tougher route to the wire in the Derby, and he’ll probably have 19 inconsistent players to contend with.

Due Process...Prevails

The convoluted legal drama that allowed horses trained by racing bad boy Richard Dutrow Jr. to run in Keeneland stakes races April 14-15 demonstrated that due process still prevails—and lawyers sometimes are the only real winners.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission denied Dutrow a license April 13, for “consistent disregard of racing rules,” among other things. That meant he would have to scratch Amen Hallelujah and Court Vision from their respective stakes. On April 14, attorneys for the horses’ owners sprinted to state court, where a judge ruled the owners would suffer “irreparable injury” if the horses were scratched.

Then, after more legal huddling and just minutes before the start of the April 14 Vinery Madison Stakes (gr. I), racing regulators allowed Amen Hallelujah to start for substitute trainer Justin Sallusto. She finished second. The fact Amen Hallelujah ran at all could be construed as a victory of sorts, but owners of the third- and fourth-place finishers might disagree. Court Vision, also running with Sallusto listed as trainer, finished fourth in the following day’s Maker’s Mark Mile (gr. IT).

It might have been simpler to rule Dutrow off or to have held the licensing hearing in advance of the Keeneland meet. But an emboldened Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has taken a stance, and it will be interesting to see how New York regulators deal with Dutrow when he goes before them in May for a license review.

In the meantime, as Dutrow appeals the Kentucky ruling and contests suspensions in New York, the legal meter continues to run.

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