Saturday, August 29, 2015


The Race Is for Place in the "Midsummer Derby"

Does it sound too simplistic to think Zayat Stables, LLC's AMERICAN PHAROAH will reassert his dominance over fellow 3yo’s in the 146th running of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on August 29, 2015? 

There have been some upsets thoroughbred racing fans were intermittently exposed to through the years? 

Triple Crown winners have succumbed at “The Graveyard of Champions”:  SECRETARIAT lost to ONION in the 1973 Whitney…AFFIRMED was disqualified in the 1978 Travers after interfering with arch rival ALYDAR.  Then there was RUNAWAY GROOM, who defeated eventual champion CONQUISTADOR CIELO and the two other Triple Crown race winners in 1982.
Beautiful Saratoga, grandstand view from the backside.
The inimitable Charlie Whittingham once said, “Horses are like strawberries, they spoil overnight.”  We also know that terrible racing luck, unexpected race riding (see SMARTY JONES’ 2004 Belmont Stakes loss), and the inexplicable clunker (see AMERICAN PHAROAH’s debut) can fell the best of horses.

However, over the last 15 years, Champions WILL TAKE CHARGE (2013), SUMMER BIRD (2009), and BERNARDINI (2006), Horse of the Year POINT GIVEN (2001), along with heavily favored Kentucky Derby winner STREET SENSE (2007) have graced the Travers Stakes winner’s circle.

AMERICAN PHAROAH has already defeated all of this year’s “Midsummer Derby” starters save 20-1 shot SMART TRANSITION and a pair of 50-1 bombers, MID OCEAN and KING OF NEW YORK.  His speed figures are best, whether by BRIS or Beyer (sheets players will have to chime in).  The race shape is squarely in the Bob Baffert trainee’s favor, with vanquished Haskell Invitational second choice UPSTART the only other E/P designated style in the field.  Should anyone try to exert early energy chasing while AMERICAN PHAROAH gallops to the lead, they’re sure to lose their needed kick and any chance of being second in the demanding 1 ¼ miles test, as UPSTART tired to third in the Haskell.

The son of PIONEEROF THE NILE owns seven Grade 1 stakes wins, by far the “class” of the field, while the rest of the runners have two combined (TEXAS RED - BC Juvenile, FROSTED - Wood Memorial).  ‘PHAROAH won eight graded stakes total under Victor Espinoza; of the rest only Keith Desormeaux-trained TEXAS RED boasts two (UPSTART crossed the wire 1st in the Fountain of Youth but was disqualified to 2nd).

Bob Baffert, pictured here at Santa Anita, 2011
Baffert's best-ever trainee gets special treatment at Saratoga, galloping alone in front of throngs of adoring/screaming fans on freshly groomed dirt, while the rest of the field exercise in the same sets as allowance and claiming horses.  Their connections don’t complain probably because they’re in awe, reduced to fans in the presence of greatness, like the rest of us.

Texas Red and Kent Dewormeaux, before the 2015 San Vicente
The Travers will be a rematch between Champion AMERICAN PHAROAH and TEXAS RED, the dominant Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner who returned to winning form with an easier-than-looked G.2 Jim Dandy Stakes win.  ‘RED makes that all-important 3rd start off the layoff but will carry three more pounds at the longest trip he’s ever run.

American Pharoah, dominant winning the G.1 Frontrunner in 2014, with a view most Travers starters/jockeys have seen.
So, is it as easy as AMERICAN PHAROAH?  I believe the answer is “Yes” and a defeat would be a “TEXAS”-sized upset.  If Kent Desormeaux and 'RED challenge 'PHAROAH too energetically, Donegal Racing's KEEN ICE, Dale Romans' Haskell runner-up, under Javier Castellano for the first time, will fly fast for place.

Enjoy one of the most thrilling non-Breeders’ Cup, non-Derby, or non-Triple Crown Belmont Stakes days...a race card and marquee race fitting for Saratoga, the most historic and beloved track in America!

Monday, March 23, 2015

FIRING A WARNING TO EAST COAST SOPHOMORES – Firing Line destroys the Sunland Derby field affirming the top Kentucky Derby contenders are (still) in California

Shared Belief/Mike Smith
California Chrome/Victor Espinoza
Through the first few months of the Kentucky Derby prep season, as it was to conclude 2014, California has been the epicenter of accolades as much as a target for aspersions early in 2015.  While I admit to my Golden State bias, the evidence is undeniable.  CALIFORNIA CHROME won two-thirds of the Triple Crown en route to Championship 3y.o. and Horse of the Year honors.  SHARED BELIEF, 2015’s older horse division leader, missed the 2014 Triple Crown races but made a late season run at ‘CHROME by winning the Los Alamitos Derby, Pacific Classic, Awesome Again and Malibu Stakes.  However, his bid and undefeated record were felled by a controversial Breeders’ Cup Classic result.  What transpired with the juveniles based in California, at the end of last year and into this year, gives me reason to expect that the Kentucky Derby winner could once again come out of the West.

Firing Line/Gary Stevens
On Sunday, FIRING LINE was the dominant winner of the G.3 Sunland Derby by over 14 lengths in fast time of 1:47.39.  That win proved his past results, and those of many Kentucky Derby contenders based at Santa Anita, haven’t been a fluke.  California is at the very least the beginning, and most likely the ending, of any discussion about the Kentucky Derby trail. 

Firing Line/Dortmund battle
in the G.3 Robert B. Lewis
Away from DORTMUND for the first time after two heart-breaking defeats in the G.1 Los Alamitos Futurity and the G.2 Robert B. Lewis, the son of LINE OF DAVID won with the ease expected of an odds-on runner.  He took heat while cutting out fast fractions, yet had the fortitude to run away in track record time.  I can understand those arguing that there wasn’t a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender in the field.  Decimating that group while shipping out of town for the first time, racing over a surface he’s never touched and competing at an altitude he’s not accustomed to, should lend some legitimacy to his win.  I always give extra credit to thoroughbreds who run well at short prices, but especially when they win. Stepping up in class, as FIRING LINE will do in the Kentucky Derby, there is a chance runners like him will be overlaid relative to their very good past performances.

What also makes FIRING LINE’s win impressive to me is that there are times when a horse is defeated by the same horse and loses confidence.  SPECTACULAR BID did that to FLYING PASTER in 1979-80.  I’m sure there are more recent examples but that’s always stuck in my mind as the prime example.  Thankfully FIRING LINE is too young and too talented to allow that to happen at this stage of his career.  However, there are more obstacles than the massive DORTMUND in his way on the First Saturday in May and most of them will come from his home state.

American Pharoah
The Champion Juvenile of 2014, AMERICAN PHAROAH, was unable to compete in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile won by TEXAS RED.  However, ‘PHAROAH’s decisive victory over ‘RED in the G.1 Frontrunner, along with a G.1 Del Mar Futurity win, was enough to sway votes in his favor. 

While we awaited the returns of the Eclipse Champion and G.1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, DORTMUND catapulted himself into the Derby conversation late in 2014 with an “off-the-screen” allowance win at Churchill Downs followed by a thrilling G.1 Los Alamitos Futurity win over FIRING LINE and MR. Z.  The massive colt has lived up to expectations in 2015 as he defeated arch-rival FIRING LINE in the Robert B. Lewis in February and followed up with a decisive victory away from his arch rival in the G.2 San Felipe on Big ‘Cap Day to remain undefeated.

Prospect Park/Kent Desormeaux
Bolo/Mike Smith before the Eddie Logan
Disappointing in his return was G.3 Delta Jackpot winner OCHO OCHO OCHO who suffered lacerations from a troubled start and eventful first turn en route to an off-the-board finish.  While he is behind in fitness compared to the top Derby Trail contenders from California, he may add to the strength of the Santa Anita Park based crop’s reputation with a much improved effort in the G.1 Blue Grass in April.  Fellow Californians PROSPECT PARK and BOLO emerged as compelling late season prospects after terrific runs against DORTMUND in the San Felipe, finishing second and third, respectively.  It remains to be seen if they try DORTMUND again in the Santa Anita Derby or go out of state.  Wherever they show up their opposition’s connections and local fans should take notice. 

Calculator/Elvis Trujillo
CALCULATOR also missed the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but the Frontrunner runner-up to AMERICAN PHAROAH was an easy winner of the G.3 Sham before injury felled his Derby aspirations. 

Texas Red/Kent Desormeaux
TEXAS RED looked ready to meet the tight deadlines set by Keith Desormeaux when he returned a narrow loser in the G.2 San Vicente at 7 furlongs.  That race appeared to be a perfect prep, sharpening his route speed for a second seasonal start in the G.2 Risen Star.  However, a hoof abscess derailed him.  Despite returning to the track after the condition healed, Desormeaux decided to pull the plug on the Derby after his work wasn’t deemed as fluid as hoped.  Instead of pushing the talented son of AFLEET ALEX and risk losing him the remainder of the year, his connections will have a fresh horse going into the latter part of the year…the time of the year in 2014 when TEXAS RED exploded onto the G.1 scene.

AMERICAN PHARAOH emerged from his return run in the G.2 Rebel on March 14 without a shoe and a facile win, guaranteeing him a berth in the Kentucky Derby.  He did nothing to dissuade opinions that voted him Champion of this crop last year.  What he showed us is that he’s fit, retains the class he showed as a 2y.o., and he ran away from his field like there’s more quality performances than what we we’ve already seen from him on the track.

Awaiting to upend California’s seeming stranglehold on the Derby Trail in alphabetical order:  CARPE DIEM, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up and G.1 Breeders’ Futurity winner served notice with an easy/decisive G.3 Tampa Bay Derby comeback win; FAR RIGHT, winner of two stakes at Oaklawn Park – the Smarty Jones and G.3 Southwest; from Fair Grounds comes INTERNATIONAL STAR, the G.3 Lecomte and G.2 Risen Star winner; and UPSTART, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile show finisher, G.3 Holy Bull winner, and disqualified winner of the G.2 Fountain of Youth will be among the Florida Derby favorites. 

Twirling Candy/Joel Rosario
Twirling Candy (middle) gets sideswiped
in the by Game on Dude (inside),
Setsuko outside
Adding to that list of California foils for Kentucky Derby hopefuls is DUBAI SKY, winner of the G.3 Spiral Saturday, March 21.  His full brother is the handsome and brilliantly fast TWIRLING CANDY, who adeptly handled dirt in California as a G.1 winner at 7 furlongs in the Malibu Stakes and winner of the G.2 Strub and G.2 Californian at 1 1/8 miles.  He also finished a troubled fifth in GAME ON DUDE’s controversial first Big ‘Cap win in fast time and was second in the G.1 Pacific Classic.  DUBAI SKY, a Bill Mott trainee, is an offspring of CANDY RIDE who’s amassed a pretty decent line of progeny including SHARED BELIEF.  The 2013 Champion Juvenile’s two G.1 wins at 1 ¼ miles among numerous graded stakes wins, along with the accomplishments of TWIRLING CANDY, hints that DUBAI SKY may be capable of reaching beyond atmospheric limits. Remember, ANIMAL KINGDOM used a win in the 2009 Spiral as a springboard to a Kentucky Derby win.

Each of the past three years I’ve enjoyed contributing to the Kentucky Derby Dozen.  We are an eclectic group of horse racing aficionados with varying degrees of industry involvement.  For me it’s purely from a fan perspective, volunteering the last two Breeders’ Cups for ThoroFan.  What unites us all is a passion for thoroughbred racing; every winter/spring Kentucky Derby fever infects us as it spreads in various degreesto the rest of the racing world.

If imitation is considered the sincerest form of flattery, this unofficial poll was given rise to and was loosely fashioned after the Derby list created by Mike Watchmaker and Jay Privman of the Daily Racing Form.  We by no means consider these opinions equal or better than the trained eyes and decades of experience that goes into the lists created by Watchmaker and Privman.  What we’ve contributed individually is a list of the top 12 3y.o’s and the result is a compilation of those opinions from coast to coast, including novel commentary about each horse’s chances and/or connections.  The exercise forces us to consider the contenders past performances and view race video to form a somewhat educated opinion.  It is great fun to read what Steve, head of, chooses from our offerings as the best commentary.

Our latest edition, the second of the season, came out on Wednesday before the Spiral and Sunland Derby.  Please click Volume II to see the results of last week’s poll, and here's Volume I from three weeks earlier.  Also, pay special attention to the predictive comment by @tencentcielo about TEXAS RED.

Below you will find my top 12 offerings as of Sunday, March 15.

Please let me know your thoughts during the dwindling weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby.  You can leave me a comment here or I can be reached on Twitter, @Amateurcapper.

2015 Kentucky Derby Dozen – Volume II
1.       AMERICAN PHAROAH – Fit off injury/layoff – check. Slop – double check. Classy Champion – of course! Kentucky Derby favorite – hell, yes!
2.       DORTMUND – The colt’s massive frame, chisled physique, undefeated record, and a proven Triple Crown race trainer Baffert created a mountain of Kentucky Derby expectations.
3.       TEXAS RED – A 2nd in a 7 furlongs prep race, an abscess, a missed Risen Star run, cross training in a pool, then workouts and one final Derby Trail run isn’t the route the Desormeaux brothers drew up for Kentucky Derby success.
4.       BOLO – While he scared Dortmund coming off the turn in the San Felipe, he came up two missed works short proving he could handle dirt and became a legit Derby contender.
5.       CARPE DIEM – The Tampa Bay Derby win was perfect: an easy prep race, a fitness enhancing afternoon exercise, and proof that last year’s BC Juvenile runner-up is also among this year’s top Derby contenders.
6.       INTERNATIONAL STAR – The Ken & Sarah Ramsey magic helped get former Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus his “star” offspring.
7.       FAR RIGHT – Mr. Spock would tell you it is highly illogical not to use the far right portion of your brain to consider the Moquett trainee a legitimate Derby contender.
8.      FIRING LINE – Callahan & Stevens need to find the right bullet to propel the Zetcher colt, into legitimate Derby contender status instead of a Preakness Stakes “new shooter.”
9.       UPSTART – Despite being DQ’d from the G.2 Fountain of Youth win, the BC Juvenile 3rd and G.3 Holy Bull winner is not what his name implies.
10.   FAR FROM OVER – Can’t “blame” anyone who fell in love with the Pletcher colt’s Kentucky Derby chances after a horrendous start allowed him to live up to his name with a thrilling G.3 Withers win.
11.    EL KABEIR – A Derby contender who’s already earned his way into the starting gate, but his G.3 Gotham & G.3 Jerome wins have the appearance of a Zayat oasis.
12.   DAREDEVIL – While his runner-up return gives hope to his faithful fans, he looks more like a Preakness Stakes foil than a Kentucky Derby contender.