Friday, April 30, 2010

HRI Executive Editor John Pricci with a Handicapping Perspective of Kentucky Derby 136

One handicapper’s look at the 136th renewal of the Kentucky Derby:

1. Lookin At Lucky 3-1 Hasn’t been luckiest three-year-old with two terrible trips and the post draw. Now back on dirt, he projects to run a lifetime best performance figure which would be plenty good enough to win. The juvenile champion is classy and tenacious--he wants to beat you--he fits the speedy shape of this race, and has trained well at Churchill Downs. Criticism of Garrett Gomez has uber talented rider re-focused.

2. Ice Box 10-1 Graduates of Handicapping 101 understand that the race dynamics fit perfectly in this colt’s wheelhouse. His three starts at nine furlongs provide excellent conditioning and route-racing experience. His Grade 1 Florida Derby figure was first rate, he owns enough pedigree and has Derby-winning connections. Liked his final speed work for this. Hasn’t raced in six weeks, which could be problematical.

3. Noble’s Promise 12-1 Derby favorite seems to have this guy psyched out and a mile and a quarter doesn’t figure to help his cause. But he’s classy, battled tested, and resilient. More than getting nicked up in what was, for him, a roughhouse Arkansas Derby, it’s his recent respiratory issues that are the greater concern, especially at the distance. Will probably get back to his Rebel effort here but it’s unlikely to be enough.

4. Super Saver 15-1 Loves Churchill Downs, where he earned a lifetime best performance figure at 2, and broke through that figure incrementally, a good sign, when third in strongly run Arkansas Derby. The Oaklawn race suggests that he may be learning to distribute his energy more efficiently, another good sign. He’s had a very good two weeks since getting back on his favorite surface, has Calvin Borel from good position and he handles any footing. Likely middle mover has the pedigree to hold on.

5. Line of David 30-1 Undefeated since adding blinkers, his Arkansas Derby score was first rate. But it was so good that it sets him up for a regression here. He has not trained particularly well at Churchill, which might or might not be the result of the recent wet conditions. Speed type will be pressured by classier rivals and the distance doesn‘t help.

6. Stately Victor 30-1 Upset winner of the Blue Grass earned a life’s best performance figure and his trainer Michael Maker is 30 percent efficient with repeaters and 35 percent to the good when his horses switch from synthetic surfaces to dirt. But to now ask for another five-length improvement off a lifetime best, against his toughest competition ever, is a whole lot to ask.

7. American Lion 30-1 Trainer Eoin Harty pulled the right string getting his speedster off the Pro Ride carpet and on the dirt, where he won the Illinois Derby in a gutsy performance. Further, it was an incremental breakthrough performance and all indications are that he likes the Churchill track as least as much as he liked Hawthorne’s. His soft-pace strong-finish Cicero win hints he might be able to rally effectively off a brisk early pace.

8. Dean’s Kitten 50-1 Has had 11 races and still seems to be improving. Much has been made of the fact that his lone dirt attempt was terrible. But how much can a juvenile be punished for making his first dirt start from the rail out of the Belmont chute on a sealed wet racetrack that routinely favors speed? If he improves the way other horses have in their first start on “fast” dirt, he could collect some late Derby pieces at a huge price. Picking up Robby Albarado this week didn’t hurt. Possible super-exotic factor.

9. Make Music For Me 50-1 Terrible what happened to Sunland Derby hero Endorsement and trainer Shannon Ritter, but a good thing for Alexis Barba. The last horse to draw in, he will need to be declared from Friday’s American Turf. Fortunate to get SoCal riding sensation Joel Rosario, this colt has finished close behind Lookin At Lucky twice. Would not be the biggest upset in Kentucky Derby history, but close.

10. Paddy O’Prado 20-1 Looked live in the Blue Grass and did not disappoint with an excellent placing behind Stately Victor. Has been one of a handful of Derby training stars at Churchill, and he’s eligible to move forward further should he get fast footing Saturday. Kent Desormeaux, seeking his fourth Derby, takes the re-ride. For a horse that broke its maiden in March on turf, he’s accomplished a lot just to get here.

11. Devil May Care 10-1 An 11th hour Todd Pletcher starter after Eskendereya was declared, the field’s lone filly earned a performance figure in the Bonnie Miss that, despite racing greenly, makes her competitive here. Since adding blinkers for today’s race, she’s been more aggressive, focused, and well behaved. Deserves upgrading should Derby track come up wet. Her last workout in blinkers over the Churchill slop appeared little more than an open gallop. Find the replay online and see for yourself.

12. Conveyance 12-1 Sunland Derby placing the only blemish on this speedball’s record. Has had a very good two weeks in Kentucky but has not been tested in serious Grade 1 competition. The potential speed of the Derby speed, he will have Sidney’s Candy sitting off his right flank around the first turn, with Line Of David also in the early mix. Those dynamics plus a short pedigree do not augur well with another furlong to negotiate.

13. Jackson Bend 15-1 The Derby poster child for consistency with five wins and four seconds from nine lifetime starts. Second in the Holy Bull in his three-year-old debut, he matched that effort in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial--the latter races behind divisional leading Eskendereya. He’s tough, well drawn, has worked well at Churchill and, stalking, would insure a strong, pressured pace for stablemate Ice Box.

14. Mission Impazible 20-1 Hasn’t shown the kind of ability that likely will be required to win, but the late developer keeps improving with experience and added distance. He has more than enough pedigree to handle 10 furlongs, a budding riding star in Rajiv Maragh, and he’s thrived at Churchill Downs. But he will need to run farther and significantly faster against much better rivals. Still remains a viable price shot.

15. Discreetly Mine 30-1 Has run thrice this year and moved forward with each start, even in his disappointing Louisiana Derby as the favorite. Another with more than enough pedigree for the trip, he doesn’t appear to have enough kick and ability to keep up with the fastest members of his generation. But he’s better than his Louisiana Derby suggests. However, that doesn’t figure to be enough.

16. Awesome Act 10-1 After winning the Gotham impressively, took substantial grief for not passing Jackson Bend for place in Eskendereya’s Wood. But there were mitigating circumstances. Losing a shoe at the start unnerved him, according to Julien Leparoux, and he did appear to have difficulty getting him to settle into a rhythmic beat of the slow pace. That won’t be a problem here. Owns the best turn of foot in the group. Whether that’s good enough will be known at around 6:26 p.m. Saturday.

17. Dublin 12-1 Obviously, D. Wayne Lukas knows how to win the Kentucky Derby. However, his colt has had an enigmatic prep season. The handsome, accomplished colt gave a teasingly strong performance in the Southwest, only to disappoint in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, albeit a little less Worse is his bearing out in back-to-back Churchill trials. This race is hard enough to win even when things go perfectly.

18. Backtalk 50-1 His backward step in the Hawthorne Derby is legitimately attributable to a pre-race six furlong workout in 1:09 and change. No wonder he gave a flat performance. Even though he appears to love Churchill, he’s too lightly seasoned having had only two races since October. Besides, he’s always impressed as a stretch-running sprinter/miler type.

19. Homeboykris 50-1 Developing very nicely but looks impossibly slow on the Equiform performance figure scale, and he hasn’t raced since Feb. 27. Picked up future Hall of Famer Ramon Dominguez but even the wide draw works against this guy. Hopefully Louie, Rick, and the boys are enjoying their week in the bluegrass.

20. Sidney’s Candy 5-1 Any speed horse that can big-kick late is a loaded gun anywhere, anytime. Worked brilliantly at Churchill, then not so much, making his preparation a bit of a question mark. On ability and potential, he might be “the best horse.” If he can chase the speed from out here, withstand the mid-race movers, then hold the closers safe, he would be the worthiest Derby winner since, well, Big Brown.

Selections: 1. Super Saver 2. Awesome Act 3. Lookin At Lucky 4. American Lion

Tomorrow, wagering strategies for attacking America's Race, the best betting race of the year

Written by John Pricci

Comments (14)


Friday, April 16, 2010

Zenyatta Joins Conversation for Best Thoroughbred Ever

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 15, 2010--Must begin by noting that I expected a little better from some segments of the racing media.

It’s OK for fans to be cheerleaders, but not journalists. The nature of horseracing media is to be opinionated, and that's fine. It’s even permissible to be a fan of one rival and not another.

But to disparage the connections of Rachel Alexandra for not sending their filly to Oaklawn Park to run in the Apple Blossom was not only unfair but showed little real understanding of what‘s required.

“Now it is doubtful any amount of money will lure Rachel Alexandra onto the same racetrack as Zenyatta,” said the paper of record in the aftermath of the Apple Blossom. That’s enough to make you a Rupert Murdoch fan.

Let’s go way back, to the year 2009, and consider which group of connections plotted the more ambitious campaign.

If you respond Zenyatta's because she ran in the Breeders’ Cup Classic then you’re not being fair. Zenyatta ran in the Classic because her stablemate Life Is Sweet was more than capable of winning the Ladies Classic and, more significantly, it was her only chance to win Horse of the Year recognition.

“Even [Steve] Asmussen, who saddled the fifth-place finisher War Echo,” the Times story continued, “seemed awestruck by his close-up view of Zenyatta. ‘That was incredible,’ [Asmussen] said. ‘We were no match’.”

Of course they were no match. Grade 3 fillies don’t match up well with the winner of 16 straight races, winner of nine Grade 1 events, a mare for the ages.

The only way Zenyatta could have won the Apple Blossom easier is if the race were a reprise of Spectacular Bid’s 1980 Woodward.

I’ve seen Zenyatta in person only once, last fall late one Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita. She is the most imposing race mare I’ve ever seen, and I saw all of Shuvee‘s races. If I ever saw Zenyatta in her stall I think I probably wouldn't believe my lyin’ eyes.

I’ve seen many great horses in the flesh: Bid, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Ruffian. And great horses have a presence. But the show Zenyatta puts on; the bowing, the prancing? To quote Esquire Vincent Gambini: “You were serious about that?”

Never in my life have I seen anything like the show she puts on, and my teeth get longer by the day. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I have been fortunate enough to see other greats, too: Kelso, Forego, John Henry and, yes, Rachel Alexandra. It takes a great filly to accomplish what she did last year.

But given her unique combination of personality and ability, Zenyatta has entered the rarified air normally reserved for the best thoroughbreds ever to walk the planet.

And so the spotlight is clearly Zenyatta's now. As far as the sport is concerned, the balance of the 2010 racing season runs through her, not the 2009 Horse of the Year. Not until they meet, anyway.

It is important to remember that Racel Alexandra was under-prepared while losing for the first time in 16 months on a racetrack, Fair Grounds, that tests physical and mental toughness at once.

Rachel Alexandra wasn’t ready to run in her Apple Blossom prep and it showed. In fact, her uncharacteristic lack of determination made one wonder about her transition to 2010 off the most ambitious campaign ever waged by a three-year-old filly.

And that question will linger until Rachel proves otherwise in compettion.

To run her back at Oaklawn, or to suggest that it was because she was ducking Zenyatta, is irresponsible, unfair to the filly and her fans. Rachel Alexandra has a huge following, too. She owned 2009; Zenyatta owned the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

When she is fit, physically and mentally, she will meet Zenyatta somewhere down the line. The difference is that her crown no longer entitles her to a pass. She must chase Zenyatta as Zenyatta chases history. She is the defending Horse of the Year but Zenyatta clearly has entered another dimension.

But Rachel has earned the luxury of joining the “Zenyatta dance” at the time of her choosing. She won that right between the fences of seven racetracks last year by winning five Grade 1s and beating males thrice, smashing track records and never tasting defeat.

To think that either Jess Jackson or Steve Asmussen will shrink from the challenge now is to understand neither man nor acknowledge the level of greatness their filly achieved. You don’t map out a campaign like last year’s then go hide at a bullring somewhere the following season. But she wouod have had zero chance to win the Apple Blossom and the effort likely would have extracted a heavy toll.

John Shirreffs is said to be considering the G1 Stephen Foster vs. males at Churchill Downs in June. That may or may not be too early for Rachel; too soon to know.

The 2009 Horse of the Year needs another race, badly, and she needs to win with authority over strong competition and do it the right way. A soft win over suspect competition at this point won't help her conditioning or her reputation.

The interesting note about the Foster is that it was won last year by Macho Again, the same horse Rachel defeated in the 2009 Woodward, a race that sealed her Horse of the Year deal. Trainers and owners love to point for races they’ve won in the past.

Zenyatta’s connections and fans should relish the challenges to come. Another Vanity win wouldn't prove anything. Been there, done that, and under 129 pounds. And Shirreffs is sounding he would much prefer challenging males to carrying the grandstand.

It also has been written that people such as this Rachel Alexandra voter won’t be satisfied until “[Zenyatta] beats the best possible men and boys on the oldest dirt in the land…And the Beyer number had better be good.”

Really, can we be any more sophomoric?

Before any clash of the titans can occur, Rachel needs to get her mojo back, and that clearly has not been the case. Her trainer has said that. But she might be on her way to getting it back now if this Monday's workout is any measure.

The lengthy move at Churchill Downs was not only fast but it was done the right way, the way it was done in her championship season. It was the first time this year that Asmussen had a reason to think that a great three-year-old will become a great four-year-old.

Rachel will have to be all of that before stepping on the same racetrack with Zenyatta right now. As the great turf writer Charles Hatton once wrote of Secretariat, Zenyatta’s only frame of reference is herself.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Modern Game Is No Place for Rough Riding

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 6, 2010--What happened between Garrett Gomez and Victor Espinoza at Santa Anita last Saturday is likely to happen several times a day at America’s racetracks.

Not the fisticuffs, necessarily, but the rough-housing, and this is too bad, of course. Playing chicken on horseback is never a good idea.

Not only can riders do serious harm to themselves, but what of the owners and trainers and the horses involved? Who has their hindquarters?

Back in the day, a little rough-housing was routine back. As Bill Christine recalled here the day after the incident, it would have been business as usual for all-time great Angel Cordero Jr.

“Papa,” as he was called by friends and fans as a term of respect, was famous for riding more than one horse per race, his and his main rival. And papa always had to be the center of attention.

There was his infamous ride aboard Shake Shake Shake in the 1978 Travers in which the overmatched invader was allowed to drift off the rail beneath Cordero, herding Affirmed with Laffit Pincay Jr. and affording Alydar a fortuitous opportunity.

Alydar, ridden by Cordero’s close friend Jorge Velasquez, shot through along the fence. After Affirmed finally disposed of Shake Shake Shake to reach even terms with Alydar, Pincay responded in kind by dropping over on Alydar, forcing him to check badly.

Alydar finished second was placed first via the disqualification of Affirmed and Pincay. Pincay overreacted to the situation and Affirmed was punished as the result of an incident that Cordero had started.

Trainer Laz Barrera was so angry he threatened never to race Affirmed against Alydar again, all but accusing Cordero and Velasquez of conspiring to beat his horse. “Cordero forced my horse out to let Alydar through,” said Barrera at the time.

Two years later, Cordero’s ride aboard Codex in the 1980 Preakness, in which he rough-rode Kentucky Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk, was so flagrant that the Daily Racing Form took a rare editorial stance decrying Cordero’s actions.

Probably the two most famous incidents involving rough riding was the legendary “Fighting Finish” whipping battle between Don Meade and Herb Fisher in the 1933 Derby, the photo making the front page of every newspaper in the country.

Meade won the race on Brokers Tip--the only race that horse would ever win and the only horse to earn that particular distinction. Despite the obvious disregard for the rules, the result was allowed to stand, adding another layer to the Derby’s legendary fabric.

In the 1942 Cowdin Stakes, another legend, jockey Eddie Arcaro, almost lost his license as the result of a severe bumping match he had with jockey Vincent Nodarse that ended with Arcaro putting Nodarse over the fence. He was suspended for a year.

Of course, the Santa Anita Derby incident was nothing like the above cases, but then neither was the punishment. A three-day suspension for Espinoza is light considering the circumstances, and a $750 fine for Gomez for fighting is almost an embarrassing joke.

Three days is what you should get for careless riding, putting another horse and rider in harm’s way without premeditation, which might not have been the case here.

Not with a back-story involving Espinoza and his mounts on Bob Baffert’s horses, or lack of same, exacerbated by his lost mount on Big ‘Cap winner Misremembered. It might have been Baffert, not Gomez, that was the intended recipient of Espinoza’s frustration.

It would seem that if any rider needing replacing it would be Gomez on Lookin At Lucky. I didn’t have a big problem with his Rebel ride as others did, but he put him in close enough quarters that he clipped heels and nearly fell.

It was the colt’s three-year-old debut and his first on dirt, so if Gomez wanted to play it a little cozy, it was understandable.

But given that the whole purpose of the Santa Anita Derby was to sharpen the mind and hone the body, a good strong finish while in the clear was the way to go, not rushing up precariously on the fence with an odds-on favorite.

Indeed, Gomez was boxed in by his heady rivals. But he should not have been where he was in the first place and everyone knows it. To his credit, it was Baffert who took the heat. He left the rider to his own devices and it didn’t work. In fact, it was “horrendous.”

Meanwhile, if Garrett Gomez is the Garrett Gomez he can be and wins the Derby, all will be forgotten. But the relationship between Gomez and Espinoza is another matter. Cooler heads must be made to prevail. The sport is dangerous enough as it is.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (6)


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