HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., February 2, 2013—Well, the calendar has reached the second month of the new season and the Triple Crown trail now resembles an on ramp to the Glory Highway that begins three months hence in Louisville.

Four graded stakes for three-year-olds, From Queens to Arcadia and from Tampa to this address, there are four graded stakes for the sophomore class and this doesn’t reflect a copy of non-graded trials at Fair Grounds and Laurel Park.

A few notes before looking at the results. This week, the Jockey Club released its weights for the Experimental Free Handicap which every February ranks the accomplishments of the previous year’s juvenile class.

Always fun to look at, this exercise had its 15 minutes as Kentucky Derby predictor that is, of course, if you ranked within 10 pounds of the highweight, in this case Shanghai Bobby at 126 pounds. (Filly champion Beholder was the high-weighted filly at 123).

If you did, or were a champion from another land, and if you qualified on Dosage, a measure that calculates distance-running aptitude--that quota being below 4.0—that horse became known as a Dual Qualifier. That notion, like the Experimental Free Handicap itself, has come to be regarded as anachronistic.

And maybe that’s true, inasmuch as it was true when it was taken very seriously a few decades ago. But the system always is fun to peruse; good for the soul of a Thoroughbred racing fan, a different kind of X’s and O’s.

One more note. We’re on record as being pro-Kentucky Derby points system for eligibility; indeed lobbied for it here a few years back. A work in progress, as the Churchill Downs folks said it would be from the outset, here are some early impressions:

It’s working because media and fans are talking about it; it’s working because now you hear quotes you never heard before, such as “it’s not the end of the world if we don’t make the race; there’s always the Preakness.”

The points tally is getting more coverage at this early stage than the former graded earnings standard. Also reiterating, either the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and/or two-year-old champion, deserves to be seeded into the event.

Finally, the guesstimate as to the number of points required to gain entrance into the Louisville starting gate keeps growing, now thought to be around 50. Now, no one knew that last week’s Holy Bull would come up as strong as it did, but no matter.

Off the top, two turn races in the “Derby Prep” rounds should have their point values bumped up to 25 for the winner of a graded two-turner. This gives more relevance to Tier 1 races and gives horsemen more valuable prep options. Besides, if you, say, sweep Gulfstream’s Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, you still can still be out-pointed by the Florida Derby winner. This seems reasonable, yes?

As does putting the Illinois Derby back into the prep mix. The game has enough issues without having (capital-p) politics interfere with how the game traditionally has been played. And the city of Chicago should be somewhere on the road to Louisville.

Parenthetically, moving the Hawthorne event back two weeks makes all the sense in the world.

TODAY’S PREPS: Before looking at those with names attached, the winning allowance performance of Verrazano was first rate and then some. As track announcer Larry Collmus intoned of the lengthy winner; “he won from Staten Island to Brooklyn”

The crowd actually took a late rip against the favorite, betting Gunderson down to 5-2 into the 2-5 favorite before blowing out to 7-2 ante post, and the Mark Casse trainee took it to Verrazano from the get-go.

There was, of course, no panic from John Velazquez, content to stalk in hand until getting the More Than Ready colt midway of the far turn.

The colt labored some to push passed the challenger but, that done, was mildly encouraged to draw off by 16-1/4 lengths at the end of a mile in 1:34.80. By way of comparison, three-year-old maiden allowance winner Doherty raced the distance in 1.37.24.

By way of a top class measure, Itsmyluckyday, one of the fastest of his generation, won the Gulfstream Park Derby in 1:34.40; not too shabby. The question now becomes where does he get those Derby qualifying points next time? Right now, he has none.

“We’re just going to have to figure it out,” Todd Pletcher said of the scenario. “This was about as impressive as you’ll see one run. We were encouraged going into [the race] and even more so coming out.”

Pletcher’s stock knows no bounds. At Aqueduct, Revolutionary took the Grade 3 Withers but unlike Verrazano, the War Pass colt at no time looked like he would justify his odds.

Credit the Winstar colt, and Gulfstream’s leading rider, Javier Castellano, who made the trip north worthwhile by winning his third stakes of the afternoon and second for Pletcher- the other being the Busher with impressive Princess of Sylmar.

But it was Castellano’s confidence and patience that was absolutely the difference at the finish, waiting for room in deep stretch, getting a seam, bursting into breach to come away with a narrow victory over the game runnerup, Escapefromreality.

Revolutionary flashed laudable acceleration but needs to improve his gate manners. However, his gallop out around the clubhouse turn was eye-catching. He has class or he would not have won the Withers. Of course, the waters will get much deeper from here.

Before the race, Pletcher was concerned about the race shape. “The key will be for him to break cleanly and put himself in a good stalking position. The main thing is we want him to get away cleanly and get into a nice rhythm.” That didn’t happen; only the result turned out to be predictable.


A HITCH IN THE HUTCH: The new Derby points system might have claimed its first victim in the Hutcheson. The Grade 2 sprint was worth $90,000 of graded money to the winning Honorable Dillon, but nary a point, since the race was less than a mile.

“We’ll talk to the owner and come up with a plan,” said winning trainer Eddie Kenneally. “It’s a shame that these Grade 2 stakes aren’t worth any points for the Kentucky Derby. I think it’s wrong.”

Kenneally, of course is entitled, but every trainer with a live three-year-old knows what the rules are going in.

“Can he [go farther than a mile]? He’s bred to go farther than seven-eighths of a mile. We’ll find out when we try.”

The colt certainly won like a horse that won’t mind a little more distance, which also might be the case for runnerup Forty Tales, which any decent race observer will tell you that, as the race was run, he was “probably best.”

Shuffled back from the rail slip going 7 furlongs—never a bargain but especially so at Gulfstream—he was hard to conceive he would get anything approaching headstretch.

But, as one of the few horses that closed strongly in the middle of the track all day, he came within a half-length of giving Pletcher his third viable Derby winner of the day.

Pletcher also had the winner of the G3 Endeavour with Brazilian import Old Tune, an impressive winner of her U.S. debut.

And, so, what might be next for Honorable Dillon? “The Swale is a definite possibility.”

That would be the seven furlong Grade 3 on March 2nd, yes?


BAFFERT GOES 1-2 IN THE LEWIS: But buzz horse Flashback, an impressive maiden-debut winner at Betfair Hollywood in December, moved up in class and distance--albeit against three rivals, one of which was stablemate and eventual runnerup, Den’s Legacy—won the Grade 2 race that catapulted I’ll Have Another to prominence last year in a dominating performance.

But it’s hard to know what to make of the effort. What is one supposed to make of a front-running score at the Great Race Place after waltzing through an opening gambit of :24.17?

In fact, Daily Racing Form reported that the half mile of 48.69 seconds was the slowest half-mile fraction of the meet at the distance. But he drew off in push-button style by 6-1/4 lengths in a very solid 1:42.95 for 1 1/16 miles on a fast track.

“He’s still a little green but it was an easy race,” said jockey Julien Leparoux. “He’s going to improve off this race.”

“We were hoping he’d do something like that,” said Baffert, and agreed that “he’ll get something out of the race.”

All will know more when and if he gets to the Santa Anita Derby April 6. “The last prep is so important,” Baffert added. “It’s still pre-season right now. As he goes on, he’s going to have to run against better horses.”


THE SKY IS FALLING…THE SKY IS FALLING…That was almost the refrain as G3 Sam F Davis Memorial winner Falling Sky got a bigger scare from the stewards than he did from most of his rivals.

Those eight rivals included favorite My Name Is Michael who checked in a fairly well beaten third, the loss preventing Joel Rosario from sweeping the three graded stakes on the Tampa Bay Downs program.

Making his first start for trainer John Terranova, he was hustled to the lead by Luis Saez, who also made the drive north on Route 75 to ride the third horse that was exiting a preliminary allowances at Gulfstream on December 15.

The anxious moment came approaching headstretch when Speak Logistics got through on the rail but was forced to steady when caught in close quarters on the rail. The stewards took a look and apparently determined that Saez and Falling Sky held their position and did not veer into Speak Logistics, which faded to fourth in the drive.

Falling Sky, Revolutionary and Flashback all earned 10 graded Derby eligibility points for their efforts, placing all three in a 10-way tie for fourth on the list. Shanghai Bobby and Goldencents are tied for the lead at 24. Oxbow is alone in third with 11.