By Tom Jicha
HALLANDALE, FL--The Swale used to be a significant stepping stone toward the Kentucky Derby, the co-feature on Florida Derby Day. That was in an era when trainers didnâ€™t regard a three-race or more prep agenda as animal abuse. Triple Crown contenders would get their 3-year-old campaign started in the seven furlong Swale, then move on to a couple of two-turn stakes.
More significantly, the new Kentucky Derby points system, which dismisses races at less than a mile, hadnâ€™t been created. All of this made this yearâ€™s Swale seem to be merely an early season gauge of outstanding sophomore sprinters.
The Swale still might turn out to be just that. But hold the phone. It took Clearly Now only 1:23.19 to perhaps vault himself back into Derby consideration. â€śThereâ€™s always that temptation, isnâ€™t there?â€ť jubilant trainer Brian Lynch said in the Gulfstream winnerâ€™s circle. â€śEspecially the way he finished today.â€ť
Clearly Now surged from mid-pack of the 11-horse field to take the lead in the lane, then draw away to a decisive length-and three-quarter margin, which was extending with every stride. In so doing, he remained perfect around one turn, winning for the third time in as many tries. But itâ€™s not as if he is without two-turn credentials. He finished third in Woodbineâ€™s Display, then came south to do the same in the Holy Bull. Granted, he was more than 13 lengths behind Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby. However, those two were breaking the course record and there were seven behind Clearly Now.
If Clearly Now does jump back on the Derby trail, it will almost certainly be in the Florida Derby on March 30, Lynch said. Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby and several other promising colts also are targeting Gulfstreamâ€™s premier event. â€śWherever you go, itâ€™s a gunfight,â€ť Lynch said.
While Lynch allowed himself a few moments to dream the dream, he quickly came back to earth. â€śThereâ€™s the points system (Clearly Now has none). Also, thereâ€™s the question of whether he wants to run that far. This might be an ideal distance for him and he might be a lovely miler on the turf.â€ť
About 1,200 miles up the coast in Aqueduct's Gotham, Vyjack continued to provide the correct answers to questions about his ability to handle a distance. Moreover, he showed a new dimension that encourages the notion that the son of Into Mischief will run as far as he has to and do it faster than those lined up against him.
In winning his first three starts at six furlongs, seven furlongs and a mile and 70 yards, Vyjack raced close to the pace. Joel Rosario, who replaced Cornelio Velazquez because of his ability to get horses to relax, did just that. Rosario allowed Vyjack to dawdle at the rear of the 11-horse field down the backstretch in the mile and a sixteenth stake. Going to the far turn Vyjack still had only three horses beaten but Rosario had put him into overdrive.
Rather than break their momentum, Rosario swung Vyjack five wide at the top of the stretch and he gobbled up foes like Pac Man. They hit the wire in 1:44.09 a drawing away 2 1/4 lengths in front.
West Hills Giant, a 33-1 shot whose only victories were in New York-bred races, held the place over maiden winner Elnaawi. However the margin and style of Vyjackâ€™s triumph left the impression that in this bunch there was him and then everyone else.
The Todd Pletcher Derby bandwagon, which had been seemingly running downhill since late last season, hit another pothole as Overanalyze, game winner of the Remsen in November, could do no better than fifth in his season debut. The Remsen is moving toward negative key race status, as runnerup Normandy Invasion also disappointed last Saturday at the Fair Grounds.
Overanalyze's failure comes on the heels of a potential career-ending injury to Violence in last weekâ€™s Fountain of Youth and an also-ran performance by Palace Malice in the Risen Star. With points, not money, the new criteria, Pletcherâ€™s once loaded barn of Derby contenders is in danger of running out of time and races to make the Derby cut.
With the cutoff estimated to be at about 40 points (no one knows since this is the first time), Team Pletcher is going to have to begin to step it up, starting next Saturday with Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby. As brilliant as he has been in two runaway wins, Verrazano has zero points. If he doesnâ€™t grab the 50 for first in Tampa, heâ€™ll be part of a mad scramble in the final phase of Derby preps, where circumstances might force Pletcher to run multiple entries, each in need of a win or second.
Saturday just wasnâ€™t Pletcherâ€™s day. His Forty Tales, sent away at even-money in the Swale, never really fired and wound up fifth, almost four lengths behind Clearly Now. The best that can be said of this from Pletcherâ€™s standpoint is that Forty Tales was never considered a Triple Crown contender.
The 50 points earned by Vyjack effectively puts him into the Derby starting gate. This affords his connections the luxury of picking his next stop. In the aftermath of the Gotham, they indicated it would be the Wood, which could wind up loaded. However Vyjackâ€™s people donâ€™t have to worry about wringing him out to win, possibly compromising his chances in Louisville.
Though the way he won the Gotham, Vyjack might not have to overextend himself to go into the Derby undefeated.