Sunday, March 13, 2011
Too Good for the Derby
Myung Kwon Cho usually doesn't run a horse this good in the Kentucky Derby. When Cho brings a horse to Louisville, he prefers that they be a 65-1 shot that he claimed off Wayne Lukas for a ham sandwich; or a hopeless 109-1 shot who's lost all 15 of his races. Premier Pegasus, Cho's current Derby candidate, has a profile that's better than John Barrymore's. Premier Pegasus won at first asking, last summer at Del Mar, won two more, finished a good third in a Grade 2 and now he's won a Grade 2. He not only beat what was thought to be California's best 3-year-old, but the margin of 7 3/4 lengths was a stakes record. Premier Pegasus finished in Arcadia, where the race was run; when he reached the line, Jaycito, the favored second-place horse, was still in outer Monrovia.
Video Ranger and Nationalore, he's not. Video Ranger was Cho's first Derby horse, in 1990. I made a big deal out of Bobby Frankel running a maiden, Pendleton Ridge, in that year's Derby, and for a while Frankel would only talk to me if he could use the f-word three times in every sentence. Video Ranger, who had won one race, one more than Pendleton Ridge, slipped into Churchill Downs minus the usual slurs that a Derby underachiever must absorb. Hardly anybody even noticed Video Ranger until Eddie Delahoussaye said he wouldn't ride him and Cho and his trainer, Ian Jory, hired the dodgy Ron Hansen.
Earlier in the year, Hansen had been banned from Golden Gate Fields during an investigation into the bribery of other jockeys, and his reputation as a fabulist took on whale-like proportions when he arrived at Churchill Downs and began spinning stories about his Las Vegas wedding (all were naked, including the preacher). Suddenly, interest in Video Ranger picked up, especially when the puckish Hansen was around the barn. He said repeatedly that he had no photos from Las Vegas.
Cho was wrong about his horse, of course. Video Ranger didn't win the Derby. But Cho wasn't wrong by much. Video Ranger ran fourth, and he outfinished the three horses that were trained by Lukas, who tut-tutted before the race that "no horse claimed off me has ever amounted to anything." Cho's claim off Lukas was $40,000.
Eight years later, Cho was back at Churchill with Nationalore, a son of Video Ranger. With a maiden, Cho was to the 1998 Derby what Frankel had been to the 1990 version. But while Nationalore couldn't beat lowly California-breds, he seemed to relish running second and third (12 times), and by running third as Favorite Trick won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he had jacked up his earnings to almost $300,000. His purse total was higher than seven of the other horses in the race. That didn't help, as he struggled home ninth, and two years later, when he was put down after breaking his shoulder at Hollywood Park, Nationalore was still a maiden, winless in 26 races. With purses totaling $318,227, he lives on as one of the richest non-winners to ever race.
By 1998, Cho was owning as well as training his horses, at least that's what the listings in the programs said. The week of the 1998 Derby, the Korean-born Cho was too busy with his clothing export business back in Los Angeles and his assistant, Rafael Martinez, cared for the horse at Churchill. Martinez also has a lot to do with the development of Premier Pegasus, although the 68-year-old Cho is triple-listed as breeder, owner and trainer. Fifty years ago, there was a Derby winner whose trainer, Jack Price, was also triple-listed (although technically, Price's wife, Katherine, carried the owner's tag).
Carry Back, as he was known, was as cheaply bred as they come, by nobody (Saggy) out of never-heard-of-her (Joppy). Premier Pegasus will not carry that bloodlines stigma if he runs well in the Santa Anita Derby and punches his ticket for Louisville. His sire, Fusaichi Pegasus, won the 2000 Kentucky Derby, and in fact won the same prep race, the San Felipe at Santa Anita, that Premier Pegasus has won. Premier Pegasus' dam, Squall Linda, is by Summer Squall, winner of the Preakness. On the page, the colt had every right to beat Jaycito and the rest of them. On the track, he did more than that. Chewing them up and spitting them out is about right.
Written by Bill Christine
Sunday, March 06, 2011
When a Steward Needs a Friend
Since Solomon, the Magi and Benjamin Disraeli had other plans, it fell to Kim Sawyer, Scott Chaney and Tom Ward to decide whether Game On Dude or Setsuko would win the 74th running of the Santa Anita Handicap. Mere mortals, they. A fly on the wall in the stewards' stand would have been privy to an interesting 12-minute discussion, as they determined who did what to whom down on the bridle path. It's a good thing stewards come in odd numbers, because the vote was 2-1, in favor of Game On Dude, who was the first-place finisher to begin with. Had there been a perfect squelch, somebody who would have voted "present," then the old Santa Anita grandstand might not have been able to withstand the turmoil.
There was enough rancor to go around. There were lusty boos before and after the stewards' inquiry. Richard Mandella, the trainer of Setsuko, who missed by a nose after twice almost being knocked down in the stretch, said next to nothing. This is not Mandella, never has been, but there he was, in the wake of the outcome, offering "I've got nothing to say, no comment, it wouldn't be worth writing," and walking away. His jockey, Victor Espinoza, was more to the point. "It's the wrong decision," he said. "I don't know why it took so long to make the wrong decision. I think the stewards are blind. They need to have some education so people know what's going on at the races. Obviously, those three stewards, they don't know what they're looking at. How many times do they have to drop me to disqualify the horse? That's insane."
In the HRTV broadcasting booth, the Big 'Cap observers also came in threes. Laffit Pincay, the jockey's son, was smart enough to step aside and ask the others what they thought. Gary Stevens, who rode four Big 'Cap winners, said that Chantal Sutherland, who rode Game On Dude, had done enough damage to be disqualified. What is more, Stevens thought that Sutherland's "body language" before the stewards' decision showed that she thought she was guilty. But Sutherland went to the phone twice to talk to the stewards while they deliberated, and must have made a strong case. Jeff Siegel, Stevens' colleague and one of the owners of Martial Law, the 50-1 winner of the 1989 Big 'Cap, also gave Game On Dude a thumbs down.
Before the bumping, Sutherland had already hit Game On Dude twice lefthanded as they left the quarter pole. When the horses straightened out, there was Game On Dude on the inside, with Setsuko on the outside and Twirling Candy, a 1-2 shot in need of a respirator, between them. Twirling Candy and his rider, Joel Rosario, drifted to the outside, slamming into Setsuko. Twirling Candy bounced off and was headed in Game On Dude's direction, but before he could get there, Sutherland whacked her mount two more times lefthanded. I watched this in slo-mo dozens of times, and every time I came away convinced that Game On Dude bumped Twirling Candy before Twirling Candy made contact with him. There was daylight between the two horses while Sutherland was flailing away. When the horses finally bumped, that sent Twirling Candy to his right again, as Setsuko took the worst of it for the second time. Setsuko still made the lead, by a tiny margin, before Game On Dude came on again, just in time for the wire. Twirling Candy finished fifth.
Of the stewards, Chaney and Ward voted for no change in the result. Sawyer, who felt that Game On Dude and Twirling Candy were equally responsible for the bumping, came down on the side of disqualification. Chaney saw something I didn't. "It's a fair debate whether (Game On Dude) came out a little bit," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "The lefthanded whipping actually makes the horse look like he's coming out. But we looked at the horse itself and not the lefthanded whipping. (Game On Dude) was still going straight. On a quick glance, it looks like (Sutherland) is hitting lefthanded, the horse comes out and just starts the big disaster. But if you watch it closely, the inside horse goes very straight, maybe comes out an inch if you want to be really critical, but most of the drifting is coming from the middle horse and (he) makes contact and causes the whole chain reaction after that. There are several more bumping incidents, but it was initiated by the middle horse (Twirling Candy)."
No matter how many times I watch the head-on, I see daylight between Twirling Candy and Game On Dude, until Sutherland begins her whipping. "The inside (Game On Dude) came out, and the outside (Setsuko) kind of stayed with me," said Rosario, Twirling Candy's rider. "He (Game On Dude) bumped me pretty hard, and I lost control. After that, I didn't have anything. I lost all the momentum."
Baffert's win came on top of his win in the race last year with Misremembered, a horse he bred. He started four horses this time.
"The five (Twirling Candy) came in, and his hind end hit the 11 (Game On Dude), and that started a chain reaction," Baffert said. "(Rosario, on Twirling Candy) was out of horse, and that's what started that ping-pong effect. It was a tough call. The first time I saw it, live, I thought we might be in trouble. But when I saw the replay, I knew there was a chance of us staying up."
Sutherland, one of Canada's leading riders, doesn't ride for Baffert, but she got the call when John Velazquez, Baffert's jockey at entry time, stayed back in Florida to ride at Gulfstream Park. A female jockey had never won the Big 'Cap, and in fact, few of them had ever ridden in the race. Robyn Smith and Julie Krone rode in the race once each, and last year Sutherland finished 10th with Pool Play, a 70-1 shot. Game On Dude, who had run only once since running fourth in last year's Belmont, was 14-1. Before Game On Dude, Sutherland had won only three races the entire meet. "If you're sitting there at the right time," she said, "something great can happen." Her body language was one wall-to-wall smile.
Written by Bill Christine
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Some Early Ultimatums
They're running the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May this year, which means that it's 10 weeks off. But it's not too early to throw out 10 of the contenders, and I'm also going to throw them in:
Why he will win: He loves Churchill Downs. Won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile there in a laugher.
Why he won't: OK, Street Sense shattered the bugaboo, but the fact remains that juvenile champions usually don't win the Derby.
Will: His grandparents are A.P. Indy and Storm Cat. Wrap him up, I'll take him.
Won't: Four career starts going into the Derby? Didn't bother Big Brown (three starts), but doesn't happen very often.
Will: He can go a mile and a quarter, without taking a cab.
Won't: The only thing that might stop him is peaking early.
Will: A reprise for the 18-year-old sire Distorted Humor (remember Funny Cide). And if that isn't enough, he's a half-brother to Super Saver.
Won't: If he doesn't lose between now and May 7, watch out. I know all about Big Brown and Barbaro and Smarty Jones, but I still don't like an all-winning horse in the Derby.
Will: Another War Emblem, sort of. Mike Mitchell off, Bob Baffert on.
Won't: They don't run the Derby on synthetics or grass.
Will: Does Steve Asmussen have a Derby out there with his name on it?
Won't: A May foal.
Will: When Eoin Harty gets super confident about a horse, you better believe.
Won't: Lil E. Tee and Smarty Jones were Pennsylvania-breds. One time when something won't come in a three.
Will: He's shed the label of being the wise-guy horse at an early date.
Won't: 15 horses whose names started with the
have run in the Derby. None finished better than third.
To Honor and Serve
Will: Bill Mott's record in the Derby has been abysmal. His time has come.
Won't: His front-running style is all wrong for the race.
Will: Non-winning horses that hit the board in Derby preps are dangerous in Louisville.
Won't: Nine career starts before the Derby? Unheard of, these days.
Written by Bill Christine