Thursday, May 03, 2007

Kentucky Derby 133: Great American Spectacle; Great Betting Race

Saratoga Springs, NY, May 3, 2007--Even if it werent Americas Race, this is one Kentucky Derby not to miss. Not in two decades has this storied mile and-a-quarter come replete with this kind of talent. And its deep, too.

One would have to time-travel back to 1987, a Derby starting gate that included Alysheba, Gulch, Cryptoclearance and Bet Twice to find one comparable. Throw in Capote, a breeding-shed star, and you have an idea of how good this class could be. For starters, all the money finishers from the 2006 Breeders Cup Juvenile are having back at it, over the same racetrack.

Street Sense, Curlin, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Hard Spun and two from the Todd Pletcher quintet, Circular Quay and Scat Daddy, could easily match the talented class of 87. And, so, with great anticipation, an examination of the field for Derby 133, in alphabetical order, with post position and early-line odds in parentheses:

#18 Any Given Saturday (12-1): He has a million-dollar pedigree, literally, and has been the consensus training star among the Todd Squad runners. Pletchers audible, to run in the Wood Memorial instead of the Blue Grass, is paying dividends now. He finished like a tired colt in the Wood following his Tampa Derby exertions but now has a high energy level according to his trainer, the three-time defending Eclipse champion. Garrett Gomez, arguably this countrys best race-rider and certain future Hall of Famer, gets aboard for the first time. A worthy contender but the draw hurts.

#11 Bwana Bull (50-1): Took a most unusual route to the Big Dance. He was scratched from the Derby Trial Stakes on Saturday due to lingering effects of antibiotics to treat an infection and winds up in the big one. From the prolific shed of Northern California ace Jerry Hollendorfer, he was fifth in Tiagos Santa Anita Derby following a G3 win in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields. Historically, thats been a good Preakness prep. So whats he doing here?

#16 Circular Quay (8-1): The knocks are well documented; no race in eight weeks and no race beyond a mile and-a-sixteenth. But note his qualities; His only defeat in three starts over the Churchill surface came courtesy of a track-biased placing to Street Sense in the Juvenile. He finishes explosively and did win the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga off an eight-week layup last year. He is the colt first-call rider John Velazquez and agent Angel Cordero Jr. chose to partner. Along with Curlin, he may be the fields best athlete despite his dawdling in the early stages of a race. A serious contender.

# 6 Cowtown Cat (20-1): The now colt of the Pletcher quints, he really blossomed in the Illinois Derby. Yes, he set a moderate early pace but exploded into a good final time, winning in full stride as if todays added ground is what he wants badly. Versatile, he has proven hes not a need-the-lead type. Hes worked brilliantly since the Hawthorne race and has a young rider that has stepped up his game to meet the biggest challenges. Name the last 19-year-old not named Fernando Jara to win the Belmont Stakes, Breeders Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup within a 10-month span? Live longshot.

#2 Curlin (7-2): Simply no telling how good this colt is. Undefeated in three lifetime starts, his winning margins total 28- lengths and he does it with brilliant dominant speed, winning with some reserves in the equine tank. His gifts are his carriage and gait, a running style with no wasted motion and owning extreme push-button acceleration. His lack of racing foundation at 2 and a three-race campaign work against him in this extremely enervating test. He might be a great one. He would have to be to defeat this group given those qualifiers. Obvious contender, nonetheless.

#19 Dominican (20-1): Much has been made of the fact hes undefeated on artificial surfaces and winless on traditional dirt. These are valid issues but he just might be developing at the right time, too. Three-year-olds in the spring grow from young boys into precocious older teenagers. He owns pedigree for the distance and is undefeated beneath the talented Rafael Bejarano. Grade 1 Blue Grass winner very likely to run his race, but a minor award remains the most optimistic call.

#20 Great Hunter (15-1): Showed much promise as a juvenile winning the Grade 1 Breeders Futurity at Keeneland but should have finished second in Street Senses Juvenile despite some first-turn troubles. Given a two-prep campaign by trainer Doug ONeill, he was disappointingly flat in the Blue Gras before the stretch incident eliminated any chance he had to win. Comes into the Derby not as advanced as required for such a demanding test but has pedigree and body type for this arduous trip. On his very best, a money finish only from extreme outside.

#8 Hard Spun (15-1): Could be the value of Derby 133. If not for a flat effort in the Southwest Stakes over an Oaklawn Park surface that broke away under foot, he could be undefeated in six career starts. He has the same running style and gifted speed as Curlin and will be almost three times the price. He worked brilliantly at Churchill Downs following a previous one-mile workout designed to get him tired and attain the proper level of fitness. His talented trainer flies a bit under the radar and is bred, as racetrackers say, to run up the side of a mountain. His :57 3/5 work was the fastest Derby week work in 34 years, since Forego in 1973. A tricky read, but a serious racehorse.

#5 Imawildandcrazyguy (50-1): In recent starts hes finished close to Scat Daddy, Circular Quay and Notional without threatening. To repeat, hes finished close. without threatening.

#9 Liquidity (30-1): Hopes were high for ONeill trainee after two consecutive runner-up efforts behind G1 winning Stormello and very highly regarded Ravel in the G3 Sham Stakes. He can be forgiven for fading after chasing the pace in Circular Quays Arkansas Derby but not for his disappointing try as one of the Santa Anita Derby choices. Stalking style places him between rocks and hard places in this match-up. Note that recent equipment changes have helped to advance his training.

#12 Nobiz Like Shobiz (8-1): Talented colt has been somewhat victimized by his own early success. He made such a favorable impression at 2 that he was atop most everyones early Derby list, mine included. But he hasnt developed much in terms of performance figures. The blinkers and cotton in his ears to muffle distractions did their job and he won the Wood Memorial. His Equiform figures did move forward in the Wood, portending another developmental move here. But was it and is it enough? With a high cruising speed, a strong Derby pace would help his focus and serve to make him more comfortable during the running. But will he revert to his drifting ways when confronted by the Derbys wall of noise at headstretch? Still, a serious contender. Nicely drawn.

#13 Sam P. (20-1): Was out of his element finding himself on the lead in the Santa Anita Derby, not his preferred style, following a good-rally placing to Great Hunter in the Robert B. Lewis Memorial. He has an affinity for Churchill, having won there at 2, and retains the great Ramon Dominguez. Even with improvement, however, he remains a cut below top class.

#14 Scat Daddy (10-1): The most accomplished of the Pletcher runners, he is the fields lone two-time Grade 1 winner. He had a great winter at Gulfstream Park, winning the Florida Derby, the race that launched Barbaro last year. His speed figures at not in the upper ranges here but all he does is win. In the Florida Derby, a review of the tape will show the very useful Notional made a strong, well-timed rally but that Scat Daddy remained in full stride right to the line and could have gone around again if needed. Showing a brilliant recent workout, he retains Edgar Prado, Barbaros partner. Karma, anyone? Yet another worthy contender despite training in a bar shoe. Perfect post.

#1 Sedgefield (50-1): Second to Hard Spun in the well-graded Lanes End, he must demonstrate hes more than a Polytrack/Turf specialist. Say this about Turfways Polytrack surface: it plays a lot more honestly than Keenelands. Might be better than generally rated and potentially offers much more value that Blue Grass winning mate but, still, a very tall order.

#4 Storm In May (30-1): Has shown nothing to indicate he wants to go 10 furlongs on dirt at this level. Should sit this dance out.

#17 Stormello (30-1): The quality speed of the Derby 133 speed. Winner of the Grade 2 Norfolk in his two-turn debut at Oak Tree-Santa Anita, he concluded his juvenile campaign with a Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity score. He ran Scat Daddy to a nose in the Fountain of Youth, his three-year-old debut, but did not have the same energy when he crossed the country a second time. Fresh now, hes working great and is very fast. All he lacks is a true distance pedigree. He should run very well for as long as he can, especially if left alone on the lead. Thats a big if, the draw hurt.

#7 Street Sense (4-1): The two year-old champion and Derby-winning trainer Carl Nafzger need no introduction. He will have only two preps prior to the biggest race of his life, but what preps they were. He gave fast and fitter Any Given Saturday all he wanted in the Tampa Bay Derby before coming back to lose by a nose when Polytracked in the Blue Grass. We believe those two efforts and two excellent workouts will be enough to achieve the proper level of fitness to win Derby 133. No Derby colt loves the Churchill surface more than this one. And he has a better turn of foot and more athleticism than many observers think. Beat the fastest horse and you wear the roses.

#10 Teuflesberg (30-1): The Iron Horse of Derby 133, he is the first horse in 33 years to be heavily raced at 2 and still make it into the Derby starting gate. Part owner/trainer Jamie Sanders was Nick Zitos former top exercise rider so shes been around good horses and this scene for over a decade. Teuflesberg is a speed horse, and that doesnt augur well given the presence of Stormello, not to mention the heavy heads of this group.

#15 Tiago (15-1): Fairytales can come true, it can happen to you, if you bet this long-winded late developer. We dont believe this years Santa Anita Derby was anywhere near its best renewal but well give props to the colt that can finish in front for the first time in its career in a Grade 1 event. From the owner, trainer and jockey that gave the world Giacomo, a Tiago win would be even more stunning considering the class of this crop. Equipment changes have helped and he has worked strongly since the SA Derby. But how many times can lightning strike? I expect that hell run well, just not well enough.

#3 Zanjero (30-1): Might be the most disrespected colt in the field. In his last four starts, he was beaten a total of 14 lengths over 34 furlongs by the likes of Nobiz Like Shobiz, Notional, Circular Quay and Dominican. Finished third by a head in the Blue Grass, the good news and bad news being that he saved all the ground at outside-favoring Keeneland. He can stalk from close range or come from the clouds only he hasnt done it fast enough. On his very best, a punchers chance to complete the superfecta.

Most Probable Winner: Street Sense (fair odds 7-2).

Derby Dark Horse: Circular Quay (fair odds 10-1).

Best Value: Hard Spun (12-1 or greater).

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ability To Sustain Strong Pace Key To Derby 133

Saratoga Springs, NY, April 26, 2007--With the yummy Kentucky Derby less than a fortnight away, time has come to examine a trusted racetrack axiom, if not challenge its validity flat out: So, does pace make the race?

Before resolving this, theres one tenet that all handicappers must accept first; that the final time of a race is a function of early pace. That, and the notion that both early fractions and finish time are needed to measure velocity by quantifying the energy expended measured against the speed of the racing surface.

If youre familiar with the copious copy generated by the racing press following the running of the Blue Grass Stakes two weeks ago, you know what Im talking about. Simply stated, race times that lead to the creation of speed figures should not exist in a vacuum.
Times taken at various intervals in a race are all about relationships, one to another. If it werent, it would be impossible to reconcile how Grade 1 horses could race seven furlongs in 1:21 1/5 and nine furlongs in 1:51 1/5 on the same track, even on an artificial surface like Polytrack.

Back in the day, racetrackers used the pace/race term to draw handicapping 101 conclusions: Speed horses that run at a very fast pace would surely tire from their early efforts and victory would go to the late-running competition. In this context pace didnt make the race, it made the winner.

With the advent of new artificial surfaces, pace has become a hot handicapping topic again and has given impetus to those taking the contextual view. Not even the rankest novice would have expected Dominican to run the distance in a more acceptable 1:49 1/5 off a dawdling six-furlong split of 1:17 1/5. But that was the mid-race fraction in the first ever Blue Grass run on Polytrack.

Clearly, pace did not make the Blue Grass race, it made only for the slow final clocking. After all, Dominican did come from last to win it. Last! If the eventual winner comes from last of 20 to win Kentucky Derby 133 next Saturday, youd probably be wise to set the over-under six-furlong Derby split somewhere around 1:09 and some change.

Most Derby observers feel that the pace will be nowhere near that fast. Indeed, the talk in many racing chat rooms is that there is no true speed in this Derby. But here it may be wise to recall another racing truism: Theres always pace in the Derby. And with good reason.

At approximately 6:00 PM, EDT a week from Saturday, 20 wired thoroughbreds, wound tighter than theyve ever been wound before, will step on the Churchill Downs track. At that point, the loud speaker system will begin playing what Derby jockeys refer to as: that song.

Two minutes later, Stephen Fosters bluegrass hymn will end and 160,000 julep-quaffing race fans will erupt and the church that is Churchill Downs post parade will transform into the brickyard on Memorial Day. Gentlemen, start your thoroughbreds!

And the infield crescendo will begin to build so that by the time Tom Durkin tells America theyre off! a handful of the best three-year-olds in the country will jack-rabbit from the gate, quarter-horse under the Twin Spires for the first time and poof: a strong Derby pace is assured.

But who will those sophomores be?

If trainer Bill Currin has his way, it wont be multiple-Grade 1 pace-setting Stormello. Currin doesnt want him on the lead. He wants him back off the early pace. Instead of tiring on the pace as he did in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby this winter, he wants Stormello to have a target to run at. But that probably wont happen for several good reasons.

For one, Stormello may not take to rating tactics, fighting his jockey and becoming a run-off. And Currin might be blowing pace smoke, having no intention to take back but hoping to trick his speedy rivals into rating themselves thereby allowing Stormello a relatively easy lead. This is trainer trash talk.

And given that the average winning distance of the offspring of Stormellos sire and grandsire is 6.4 and 6.5 furlongs, respectively, Currin might not have the luxury of taking back. Besides, its not considered wise to take a horse out of its best game before the biggest race of its life.

If not Stormello, then who? Thats the tougher question. While I have my favorites, it would not shock to see any one of nine different horses draped with roses. Hard Spun has Stormello-type speed if he wants to use it. So does Curlin. It is unlikely either will. They would prefer to stalk the early pace from close range.

So, too, would Any Given Saturday and Nobiz Like Shobiz and Cowtown Cat, among others. The problem is five horses cant occupy the same space. There could be even more battling for the sweet spot if they show any of the quickness they demonstrated as two-year-olds; Scat Daddy and--hold on to your julep cups--Street Sense! Of course, these two have long since learned to distribute their energy more efficiently. Its called development. But useful to know the speed is there.

Perhaps the best way to assess pace in this Derby is to examine, through a class prism, the ability of the eventual Derby winner to run at a sustained pace throughout a two-turn race, the suitability of pedigree notwithstanding. Those best able to sustain a strongly run pace throughout a two-turn race are, in no particular order; Nobiz Like Shobiz, Hard Spun and Scat Daddy.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Of Polytrack Preps, Speed Figures and Impressive Race Horses

On the Line by John Pricci

Saratoga Springs, NY, April 19, 2007--When turf writers for such national journals as the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today question the efficacy of last weekends Blue Grass Stakes results as a predictor of Kentucky Derby form, Polytrack advocates may have a problem.

Horsemen, handicappers and journalists everywhere have tried to get a handle on Dominicans Blue Grass victory and what it will mean three weeks hence. And who could blame them? Does anyone know how to interpret splits of :26, :25 2/5, :25 1/5, :24 3/5, with a final furlong in :11 2/5?

The old inside-speed highway at Keeneland Race Course has produced 22 Derby winners from the storied Blue Grass. Based on those numbers, this nine-furlong fixture has been the best way to arrive in Louisville and depart with a few red roses from the winners blanket to be pressed forever between the pages of Derby history.

Like any worthwhile academic exercise, interpretation of Polytrack data compiled from results posted at the new Keeneland needs historical context. But know that the first meet on the new surface was last fall and frontrunners went 1-for-48. Or, as three-time defending Eclipse champion trainer Todd Pletcher noted: It looks like they replaced one bias with another.

Pletcher, of course, is correct. He believes that in a perfect world training is done or artificial surfaces and racing on conventional dirt. In Great Britain, where artificial surfaces have been in vogue much longer, noted European author and professional horseplayer Nick Mordin shared this opinion:

[Artificial surfaces] erode the difference between horse race betting and other forms of gambling. Races are harder to predict and are unquestionably more competitive. When youre betting on a horse you hope that it has a significant edge. Polytrack denies you that. The surface has reduced betting almost to the level of a lottery.

Last weekend bettors believed they had a significant edge backing Breeders Futurity winner Great Hunter over favorite Blue Grass favorite Street Sense. Great Hunter beat Street Sense last fall, so why not again? Instead, it was Dominican that would remain undefeated in three career Polytrack starts.

Of course, the Kentucky Derby will be run on a conventional dirt track, one that gets faster as Derby Week progresses and is close to superhighway-fast by Mays first Saturday. What to do?

The benefits of artificial dirt surfaces such as Polytrack should be noted. Its vertical drainage system virtually eliminates treacherous sloppy or muddy track conditions, carrying water down and away from the surface. Although Polytrack has been adversely effected by extreme cold and breakdowns over Turfway Parks Polytrack increased at the winter/spring meet, Polytrack has proven to be a safer surface.

There are other benefits, too. Faster recovery time between starts, fewer scratches that help maintain field size and thereby the bottom line, and a greater incentive for turf horses to remain in rescheduled grass races is not inconsequential. All this and the unqualified success of turf-bred specialists racing on the new artificial surfaces.

The Derby question is how do handicappers reconcile the Blue Grass fractions and race shape on a surface fast enough to produce a world record clocking for juveniles at four and a half furlongs 48 hours earlier and times recorded by juvenile under-tack sales horses in :20 1/5 for a quarter mile and a furlong in :09 3/5 earlier that week? The answer is you cant, so you dont try.

There is sufficient empirical evidence to suggest that having a morbidly slow Polytrack run does not adversely effect horses moving back to conventional dirt, no matter how fast that playing field. One only needs consider how well Cushion Track-trained horses performed at Santa Anita and elsewhere, or the success enjoyed by Woodbine invaders this winter at Gulfstream Park. Anecdotally, many won at first asking instead of needing the usual race over the track.

Specifically, the colts that ran 1-3 in last years Breeders Futurity at Keeneland finished 1-3 in the Breeders Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, albeit in reverse order. Interesting to note, too, that Circular Quay split Great Hunter and Street on both occasions. Apparently, Keeneland goes into Churchill very nicely, indeed.

This is the only instance when the racetrack adage of time only counting when in jail may be accurate. Revisiting the Breeders Futurity, Great Hunters mile and a sixteenth was clocked in 1:44. Street Sense needed only 1:42 2/5 to win the Juvenile. According to Equiforms data base, Street Sense earned the best performance figure by a juvenile since Easy Goer dominated the 1988 Champagne Stakes. Parenthetically, performance figures quantify and qualify running time measured against the speed of a tracks surface.

In a circuitous fashion, this brings us to Curlin. Over an Oaklawn Park surface slower than par, Curlins 10- length Arkansas Derby romp was the fastest figure earned by a three-year-old this year in a two-turn distance by a significant margin. His nine-furlong figure was one point faster than Circular Quays mile and a sixteenth Louisiana Derby victory, or roughly less than 2- lengths. Those were the best figures earned over a distance of ground by a three-year-old this year.

Running times are the games only absolute truth. Speed figures are an effective measure of those times, even if many believe their certitude exists only in the eyes of their creators. Rather, it is assessing thoroughbred performance through a visual prism that truly is the subjective exercise.

But what we have seen from Curlin has been extraordinary: Athletically he is nearly perfect. He carries his head low, seemingly in perfect relation to his running action. He is so economical and push-button paced that he appears to glide over the ground. In his last race he showed none of the drifting-out greenness demonstrated in his previous two starts. Could he be learning this quickly, be this good?

Historical context is a subject for another day. Meanwhile, Curlins Arkansas Derby figure was a point lower than Street Senses Juvenile. Curlin is lightly raced and celebrates his true birthday 30 days later than Street Sense. But the Street Sense figure was earned as a late-season two-year-old, thus he has a higher figure to return to on his best effort. The only question now is whether his Polytrack prep helps get him back there.

Written by John Pricci

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