Saturday, May 7, 2011

KENTUCKY DERBY 137 – Things that make you go “Hummm”

At a time when horseplayers are digesting plentiful statistics and rationalizing video replays, there are some things about the 2011 Derby that make you go “Hummm” and provide casual fans with reasons to bet on the most exciting two minutes in sports.

How often have you been approached by a co-worker, friend, or relative about a horse they are thinking about betting in the Kentucky Derby? If it was 2008 Derby winner MINE THAT BIRD, were you able to find a redeeming quality or did you talk them off the hit of the century that would have made them a fan for life?

I’ll try to provide some information that you can expound as positive virtues for every horse in the wide open field.

ARCHARCHARCH
He is by ARCH, sire of 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and Champion Older Male BLAME who adored the Churchill Downs main track.

Jinks Fires and son-in-law Jon Court are less fortunate, but equally committed versions of 1986 Derby winning trainer and jockey Charlie Whittingham and Bill Shoemaker.

BRILLIANT SPEED
The Live Oak Plantation colt won a major G.I Derby prep at 1 1/8 miles like another son of DYNAFORMER did back in 2006…BARBARO.

Bet Charlotte Weber’s “other” Derby nominee who made the gate at 30-1 morning line, unlike vacationing TO HONOR AND SERVE who seemed the more logical contender to start the year.

TWICE THE APPEAL
Recant the 2009 story of MINE THAT BIRD, Sunland Park preparation, and hiring Calvin Borel the week before the Derby.

STAY THIRSTY
He’s owned (Mike Repole) and trained (Todd Pletcher) by the most interesting men in the New York horse racing game.

Last year Pletcher’s best horse and Derby favorite ESKENDEREYA did not make the gate, like UNCLE MO won’t this year, but he won with his second stringer SUPER SAVER…enter STAY THIRSTY.

DECISIVE MOMENT

He hasn’t been disgraced by four horses entered today, splitting two of them and finishing second last out in the Spiral.
Grandson of historic sire STORM CAT could become a major pace factor if it rains and the track is rated “off” thanks to a bullet workout in the mud at CD.

COMMA TO THE TOP
Gritty gelding will be ridden by the best jockey that will never be considered the best jockey that’s ever lived.

Won and finished a close 2nd in two G.I races…the saying goes G.I horses win G.I races.

PANTS ON FIRE
Anna Napravnik just proved her ability as the leading rider in wins against legitimate jockeys in Louisiana.

She is trying to become the first woman jockey to win the Derby.

DIALED IN

Nick Zito and Bob LaPenta just missed with last year’s Florida Derby winner and know what to do with a good horse.

He breaks from the post position (#8) that has produced two of the last five Derby winners (BARBARO and MINE THAT BIRD).

Julien Leparoux has ridden him in each career start.

DERBY KITTEN
Is out of a dam by MENIFEE, 2000 Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up, and MENIFEE is by ANNE CAMPBELL, also dam of 1983 Derby runner-up DESERT WINE.

Colt is aptly named to win this race, perhaps fulfilling the prophecy that was written when Ken Ramsey and his staff mated KITTEN’S JOY with BLUSH.

Won the last prep for the Derby, had to wait until the eleventh-hour to be awarded a starting position…perhaps this was meant to be.

TWINSPIRED
Obviously, another mating that was hoped to run at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

MASTER OF HOUNDS
Ship to CD got him away from FRANKEL, the best 3y.o. in training worldwide, so the Derby is a drop in class.

SANTIVA
Was favored at 2-1 in a G.I prep but never got the chance to run because of traffic…horse racing enthusiasts are well versed in the “beaten favorite” angle.

MUCHO MACHO MAN
Fate has smile kindly on his trainer, Kathy Ritvo, who’s alive thanks to a heart transplant. Her colt had bad luck losing a shoe in the Louisiana Derby yet had enough heart to finish a close 3rd.

SCHACKLEFORD
His damsire won the 1991 Kentucky Derby and his namesake was the most famous basketball player to come out of Burbank, CA…he won titles under John Wooden at UCLA.

MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE
His sire was top class on turf and dirt, very fast, balancing his dam’s New Zealand stamina. Trainer Bob Baffert has already won three Derbies and is a Hall of Famer.

ANIMAL KINGDOM
Has the top Daily Racing Form Tomlinson figure for aptitude at the distance and he’s never finished worse than second in his four race career.

SOLDAT
Was the beaten favorite in the G.I Florida Derby but prior to that had won two starts by a combined 12 ¾ lengths including a G.II Derby prep.

NEHRO
Has the two fastest finishes at 1 1/8 miles and gave the impression in both runner-up efforts he’d have defeated the winner if the race was 1 ¼ miles. His jockey (Corey Nakatani) and trainer (Steve Asmussen) are hungry to win a Derby.

WATCH ME GO
The colt won his qualifying race at 43-1 so there’s precedent that he can win when bettors ignore him. He was the beaten favorite in his last race on a track some horses just don’t run well on.

Safe trip to all, good luck!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

KENTUCKY DERBY NOTEBOOK: In Search of the Winner (Part 2)

The revolving door of Derby contenders winning and losing races in 2011 produces the quintessential puzzle to solve for horse racing fans around the world. Next up are two talented colts with turf-oriented pedigrees but G.I dirt successes: ARCHARCHARCH and MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE.

The plethora of information for Kentucky Derby 137 and the 2011 Triple Crown makes decisions among the most informative of any race or series of races all year long. I identified the holes in DIALED IN and UNCLE MO in Part 1, the two colts who will vie for Derby favoritism. Will their inflated prices, relative to their recent races, bring the prices down on logical price horses in the second tier on the earnings list? That’s for a later discussion.

In the spirit of sharing opinions about the Kentucky Derby (and to get the contenders and pretenders straight in my head), here are my thoughts to get the conversation started. Read on!

ARCHARCHARCH
This colt has raced every month since a late November debut in which he finished a troubled 2nd going 7 furlongs at Churchill Downs. Jinks Fires has put the son of ARCH in stakes races exclusively since, including a very good maiden breaking win in the Sugar Bowl S. on the cutback to 6 furlongs.

ARCHARCHARCH could be the sturdiest, most reliable horse in the Derby field. He seems to be thriving with more work, each and every giving him strength not present in his prior efforts. His 2011 Kentucky Derby story begins here.

SMARTY JONES STAKES – January 17
Sent off the even-money favorite in a race contested in a dense fog, ARCHARCHARCH did the speed/fade on the sprint/route angle. Jon Court, the trainer’s son-in-law and only jockey ARCHARCHARCH has partnered with in races, rode the colt like he was the second coming of SECRETARIAT that day. I can’t really blame him, whether it was his instincts or that he may have been following orders. ARCHARCHARCH regressed as many developing horses do after a big forward move in start #2. Draw a line through that effort. SECRETARIAT he's not, but I don't think there are any of that kind in this year's event anyway.

SOUTHWEST (G.III) – February 21

How fickle are horseplayers? ARCHARCHARCH, the beaten Smarty Jones S. even-money favorite, went to post at 14-1!!!

He was bounced around a bit going into the first turn while 4w. He settled nicely for Court once in the clear continuing wide on the backside. ARCHARCHARCH was allowed to gain contending position 4w into the far turn while keeping favored J.P.’S GUSTO in a box. The Yagos color-bearer came back to Court within a few strides after the rider took another hold. Allowed to engage for the lead leaving the far turn, Court set ARCHARCHARCH down for the short stretch run and the pair immediately went 2 ½ lengths clear. Clearly tiring, the colt lugged in and bothered the closing favorite in the shadow of the wire, but not enough to warrant a DQ.


ARCHARCHARCH galloped out ahead of the field giving the impression no horse in the Southwest field would love the distance progression more.

REBEL (G.II) – March 12
The story of this race was an uncontested lead for the fastest 3y.o. on the Kentucky Derby trail. ARCHARCHARCH was no match for THE FACTOR.

After getting over how impressive the winner was, examination of ARCHARCHARCH’s effort was reminiscent of a solid run, while losing to CONSOLIDATOR, at 1 1/16 miles by former Derby winner GIACOMO back in 2005.


Court allowed ARCHARCHARCH to make up as much of the stagger as he could during the second ¼ mile without going sub-:23 (they went in :23.14). This pair, a la 2005 Derby winner GIACOMO and Mike Smith, tried to win but couldn’t quicken and sustain against the high cruising speed of a middle distance/sprint sort. Unfortunately, THE FACTOR never came back and ARCHARCHARCH had to settle for 3rd, outrun late for 2nd by one-paced CALEB’S POSSE.



In hindsight, what made this effort most impressive was that ARCHARCHARCH was stressed out and cut up by a caste ALTERNATION before the race. After unloading and reloading, ARCHARCHARCH ran a brave race from the one hole. That makes two races in a row where he persevered despite adverse circumstances. This toughness set him up for a career-best effort.

ARKANSAS DERBY (G.I) – April 16
THE FACTOR was the center of attention. So much so that two colts, J.P.’S GUSTO and DANCE CITY, blew out of the gate in an all-out effort to deny the speedy Bob Baffert-trained colt the lead. This duel relegated ARCHARCHARCH and the rest of the Arkansas Derby field to chasing positions.

Breaking from the 10 hole, Court allowed his steed to find his own position at the rear of the bulky 13 horse field. While far back, ARCHARCHARCH had settled into a nice stamina pace going :24.34 the opening ¼ mile. He quickened to make contact with a :23.39 second ¼, continued to make up ground with a :23.99 third ¼ split, then made that move to take the lead…one that would be the turn run at Churchill Downs which wins so many Kentucky Derbies. ARCHARCHARCH, sent off at 25-1, had enough gas in the tank to hold off a determined NEHRO by a neck.



Don’t think he will like the Derby distance as much as NEHRO? Remember, ARCHARCHARCH lost most of his advantage in the Southwest, wasn’t quick enough to outrun THE FACTOR in the Rebel, yet won a G.I prep at 1 1/8 miles earning his best lifetime speed figure. I believe the Derby distance will be well within his ability and his past performances indicate he’ll be handy enough to gain a winning position. ARCH sired Champion Older Male and BC Classic winner BLAME. That’s enough pedigree for me.

MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE

The son of Breeders’ Cup mile winner WAR CHANT could be the one who takes his sire’s breeding career to the next level. Back in 2000, WAR CHANT won the San Rafael S. (G.III) and finished 2nd in the Santa Anita Derby (G.I).


Coming off a fast maiden win after setting a fast pace…


…MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE showed a new dimension in the Santa Anita Derby that only supremely talented horses can produce. He will need to be one-of-a-kind in order to buck the “APOLLO” angle, one that has been true for over a century. Since APOLLO, there has been no Kentucky Derby winner who hasn’t raced as a juvenile. Even CURLIN, for all his freakish talent, could not overcome the lack of foundation at age two in the '07 Derby.

SANTA ANITA DERBY – April 9
MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE showed enough tactical speed to be close to a :22.81 opening ¼ by COMMA TO THE TOP. Thereafter he rattled off three consecutive ¼ mile splits between :24.32 and :24.42, using that solid cruising speed to outlast the pacesetter. His final 1/8 in :13.31 won’t have any closer shaking in their horseshoes, but for a tactical runner to show that much kick en route to a 1:48.66 final time is certainly nothing to turn a tail to.

Go back and check the replay…


This Zetcher-owned colt was 4 wide on the clubhouse turn, 4 wide on the far turn and floated 5 wide into the lane, which means he ran about the Preakness distance in a time for 9 furlongs that would make UNCLE MO or DIALED in 8-5 at post time. Factor in as well that Victor Espinoza had to check and shift course when MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE raced greenly behind game but tiring COMMA TO THE TOP. That the Bob Baffert trainee had enough class to re-rally and nip his foe on the line bodes well for his ability to adapt to a normally rough Derby run.

If the Santa Anita Derby has taught us anything, it’s not to count Baffert out at any price.

Monday, May 2, 2011

KENTUCKY DERBY NOTEBOOK: In Search of the Winner (Part 1)

There has been a revolving door of Derby contenders winning and losing races in 2011 leaving the quintessential puzzle to solve for horse racing fans around the world. First two pieces to consider: UNCLE MO and DIALED IN.

There is a plethora of information for Kentucky Derby 137 and the 2011 Triple Crown, more than for any horse race or series of horse races all year long. This year, as in many renewals, the Kentucky Derby has favorites with question marks which will likely inflate their prices while producing prices too short to ignore bigger blemishes on normally attractive longshots. For conversation sake (and to get the contenders and pretenders straight in my head), here are my thoughts on the top two contenders on the earnings list. By the way, the two contenders most likely to be the post time favorite and second favorite look vulnerable to me. Boxcars, here we come! Read on for the details.

UNCLE MO
I admit this champion colt had me thinking I would see a SEATTLE SLEW kind of Triple Crown run after he throttled the G.I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He ran three times as a juvenile, making uncommonly strong efforts look routine. There was a debut maiden win by daylight, followed by a win going a mile in the G.I Champagne, then he stretched out around two turns and turned away BOYS AT TOSCANOVA like no horse in the 2008 foal crop belonged in his stratosphere.

Turn the page to 2011 and UNCLE MO has been handled with kid gloves instead of as the alpha male of his class. Reports surfaced that he reportedly spent time on a farm this winter, which never happens for a healthy horse in training. There was a missed start in the G.II Fountain of Youth. Then Mike Repole and Todd Pletcher decided to run at Gulfstream Park in the “written-for-‘MO” Timely Writer Stakes that turned into a afternoon work in company. That win came in lieu of trying stablemate BRETHREN in the G.II Tampa Bay Derby. All systems appeared “go” for a break out Wood Memorial run against seemingly overmatched competition. However, reports of ‘MO suffering from a quarter crack and eventually being diagnosed with an active Gastrointestinal Infection (fancy name for stomach flu) were reasons he was a shadow of his juvenile self down the lane at Aqueduct.

TIMELY WRITER STAKES – March 12
We learned absolutely nothing from this race. It was facile because his competition let it play out that way. The field could have come over on a slow-starting UNCLE MO, putting the champ and John Velazquez in a serious bind. The other riders played nice and allowed ‘MO and Johnny V. to come through on the rail to set a pedestrian pace. Even though he finished strong, running the final ¼ in :22.87, this was a great prep if it had come in February or he was going to wheel back quick for the G.II Lousiana Derby (March 26), followed by the G.I Arkansas Derby. The latter two races would have allayed any doubts about UNCLE MO’s readiness to handle the Triple Crown grind. A horse with his on-pace style, no matter how talented, needs to run hard every step of the way in a legitimately paced final prep and in the Kentucky Derby. This just wasn’t enough to give him a satisfactory foundation for what loomed next

WOOD MEMORIAL STAKES – April 9

This prep held true as the end result of Repole and Pletcher’s Derby trail preparations for the champion. Despite the fact UNCLE MO did not have a representative winter/spring campaign, I did not buy in that any horse in the field could defeat UNCLE MO. Learning of his health issues after his third-place finish, I felt like the Wood Memorial was lost by UNCLE MO and not won by TOBY’S CORNER. Even fighting a stomach virus, the son of INDIAN CHARLIE got the final 1/8 in :12.87 despite running his opening ¼ mile 10 lengths faster than he’d traveled during the first ¼ mile in the Timely Writer.

KENTUCKY DERBY PROJECTION

UNCLE MO has had a very truncated prep season which will likely be his undoing the final ¼ mile of the Kentucky Derby. If it wasn’t 1 ¼ miles during a Derby cavalry charge, I’d be picking him on top. From running hard for only a ¼ mile in the Timely Writer to being hounded at a decent clip for at least 5 furlongs and finishing out the 1 1/8 miles, UNCLE MO would have been tough right back at 9 furlongs. That said, the weight of his Eclipse Award-winning talent and a healthier body figure to make life a living hell for the pace players in this year’s Derby.

The staunchest of UNCLE MO supporters will enjoy a price in the 4-1/9-2 range like STREET SENSE was in 2007. Unfortunately, the best I can see him finishing is a game 3rd on class alone a la CONGAREE in 2001 or AFLEET ALEX in 2005. If he’s good enough to overcome his preparation and the twenty horse cavalry, I’ll hope SANTIVA runs along for 2nd, cash my future wager exacta, and root for a 12th Triple Crown winner.

DIALED IN

Much like UNCLE MO, DIALED IN turned in two remarkable performances to start his career. Robert LaPenta and Nick Zito were understandably excited about the future of the son of Horse of the Year MINESHAFT. There was a debut maiden win from dead last going 6 ½ furlongs at Churchill Downs in November, followed by a brief break and a last-to-first score in the G.III Holy Bull on January 30.

HOLY BULL (G.III) – January 30
Despite the legitimate final time of 1:35.19 in the Holy Bull, I was not convinced that a colt forced to overcome a :26.06 opening ¼ mile fraction would have any legitimate shot at catching more tactical and equally talented competition. I did find his internal 6 furlongs in 1:09.13 very impressive and my belief in DIALED IN as a Met Mile/Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile type of contender was developed.

Allowance – March 6
That reasoning came true when he lost an allowance race as the 1-5 favorite against older horses like stablemate and winner EQUESTRIO. Despite being close to a dawdling pace, it took a severe duck out by EQUESTRIO to make the margin of loss look better on DIALED IN’s resume. For a closer like this to have a legitimate shot in the Florida Derby, let alone in the Kentucky Derby, he’d have to improve over his final 5 furlong clocking of 1:01 and 1/5 after getting the first 6 furlongs in a pedestrian 1:14 1/5.

FLORIDA DERBY (G.I) – April 3
This race was just another false type of prep race which seemed to me the order of the year along the Triple Crown trail. Horses like SOLDAT and FLASHPOINT did not choose to use their tactical speed, leaving the dirty work to SHACKLEFORD and pace presser TO HONOR AND SERVE. The former, a 68-1 longshot, reverted to the pace style that resulted in an allowance win in January and forced the lightly prepped TO HONOR AND SERVE into submission. SHACKLEFORD could not stay the final 1/8 allowing DIALED IN to lope along for the life-and-death win.

Once again, I did not see the acceleration from DIALED IN that he demonstrated in his maiden win and in his Holy Bull score. I’ll use LaPenta’s and Zito’s ICE BOX, the 2010 Florida Derby winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up, as a comparison to 2011 Florida Derby and Holy Bull hero DIALED IN:
Horse: DIALED IN ICE BOX
Race: Florida Derby ‘11 Florida Derby ‘10
1st ¼ :25.10 :25.51
2nd ¼ :23.35 :22.75
3rd ¼ :24.28 :24.00
4th ¼ :25.75 :24.33
Final 1/8:12.99 :12.60
Final 5 furlongs 1:01.62 1:00.93

I understand that it’s difficult to compare raw times because these races were run a year apart and the tracks could have been very different. However, ICE BOX demonstrated superior acceleration in the second 1/4 of his win while demonstrating much better stamina the second ½ mile when compared to DIALED IN.

KENTUCKY DERBY PROJECTION
While I would love to share Nick Zito’s infectious enthusiasm, I’ve got the sneaking suspicion DIALED IN won’t be nimble enough to extract himself from trouble in the bulky field without losing momentum, nor will he have the stamina necessary to run down more tactical contenders. I also had concern over Zito’s light a.m. preparation before the Florida Derby, and I still have that feeling today. There are only two 4 furlong works listed since the Florida Derby and they came 12 days apart. By contrast, the work spacing was every nine days prior to the Holy Bull. I believe he rounds out the bottom rung of the superfecta at best.

So, I’ve effectively eliminated the top two probable favorites in Kentucky Derby 137 from win or exacta consideration. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them life and death just to hit the board.

I’m going to continue price shopping. Will “Part 2” featuring ARCHARCHARCH, COMMA TO THE TOP, TOBY’S CORNER, and PANTS ON FIRE yield my winning selection? Tune in tomorrow for the next installment.