On The Line by John Pricci

Saratoga Springs, NY, Apr. 12, 2007--Unless something unforeseen occurs in the Blue Grass Stakes, know that the Kentucky Derby favorite runs this Saturday. The Blue Grass, along with Oaklawn Park’s Arkansas Derby, is round 14 of a heavyweight championship fight among this country’s leading three-year-olds. Next weekend’s Lexington Stakes is the lone significant prep remaining that could impact Derby 133.

And what a good crop these sophomores are. There’s no mistaking that. The immensely gifted Nobiz Like Shobiz was a smash in New York last weekend in his new blinkers, all tucked up and ready to move on. And all Scat Daddy does is win, twice taking Nobiz Like Shobiz who, finally, after five career starts, moved forward developmentally.
If the talented Circular Quay did not have his schedule altered, whereby he will enter the race off an eight-week lay-up, there’s no question he’d be fighting for attention atop everyone’s Derby poll. And if the Todd Pletcher barn weren’t deep enough, Cowtown Cat drew off in deep stretch after being challenged throughout and won the Illinois Derby in full stride, appearing to want more ground. Timing is everything, no more so than with respect to the Run for the Roses. War Emblem, anyone?

Speaking of depth, yet another Pletcher colt, Any Given Saturday, can be forgiven one tiring Wood performance. An extra week of rest and a fast Derby pace could work wonders with his laudable turn of foot. Hard Spun? He is the enigma of this Derby. Speed, style and class aplenty, he might be as good as anyone in the Louisville starting gate. And how good is Arkansas Derby favorite Curlin, winning two starts by a combined 18 lengths?

Trainer Doug O’Neill’s fortunes took a sizable hit last Saturday with the poor performances of Liquidity and Cobalt Blue. But he still has his best bullets to fire. Notional is an honest strong-rally type who doesn’t need to carry his preferred surface around. And the best of O’Neill’s Derby gang, Great Hunter, goes in the Blue Grass. Trained a bit lightly, he figures to move forward on the Polytrack surface he handled so beautifully last fall. Saturday’s effort could send him to Churchill Downs at tops.

Whether he wins the storied Blue Grass or makes a strong-finish, in-the-money placing, two-year-old champion Street Sense, the Tampa Bay Derby winner in his only start at three, will be favored when the latch is sprung for “America’s Race” on May 5th. There is evidence that he deserves that kind of respect.

To most observers, the Tampa Derby was an enervating effort. One need only see a replay of the Wood Memorial to know that. Any Given Saturday lost a head-bobbing decision to Street Sense following a stretch-long duel in Tampa. But if any horse figured to get tired that day, or in his next start, the proper guess would have been Street Sense. Any Given Saturday was the fittest horse going in but was a tired colt coming out. Why shouldn’t that be the way with Street Sense?

It just might. But not if performance figures are any measure. According to Equiform performance ratings, the victory by Street Sense was a “soft win” when measured against the clock and speed of the surface. From a pace and final-figure perspective, there’s more left in his tank. The Tampa Derby was not nearly as fast for Street Sense, early or late, such was his figure in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Not insignificantly, that rating was earned over the Derby track and was the best effort of his career by far.

Eighteen days after the Tampa race, Street Sense shipped home to Churchill and worked five furlongs in :58 2/5. He was not asked for speed, the move termed breezing, and it appeared to indicate that the Tampa race did not tax him too much, that trainer Carl Nafzger had him more than just “racing fit” for his seasonal debut.

While five-eighths in 58 is an uncharacteristically fast move for the Derby-winning horseman, the work that followed was quintessential Nafzger. It was another five furlong breeze, only this one in a dawdling 1:04. At the end he reportedly finished up like a runaway locomotive.

The trainer said from the beginning that his colt must “be there,” mentally and physically, by the time he runs in the Blue Grass, that a 1-2-3 placing accompanied by a strong late finish was mandatory. At this juncture, that appears the way it will go for the 4-5 early line choice.

Even if the Blue Grass is intended only to get Great Hunter (9-5) to the big dance in peak form, he will be the main danger to Street Sense. Only Polytrack-winners Zanjero (8-1) and Teuflesberg (10-1) seem accomplished enough to be mentioned alongside the two favorites.

It’s hard to quantify Curlin. The certain Arkansas Derby post-time favorite is undefeated in two starts. He showed talent and versatility enough to kick home in fast time off moderate fractions in his seven-furlong debut at Gulfstream Park and was classy enough to handle a rise in class and distance, taking the Grade 3 Rebel Stakes from off the pace following better-than-par splits.

Reminiscent of Nobiz Like Shobiz, he has a lamentable stretch habit. In both starts he drifted out precipitously from mid-stretch to the finish. He appears to do it out of greenness. While there are no equipment changes set for Saturday, that might be a possibility if he keeps his record in tact and marches on to Kentucky.

First, Curlin must get past a pretty salty group assembled in Hot Springs, including yet another Pletcher speed merchant, Deadly Dealer, an impressive winner at seven and a half furlongs in a strongly run Gulfstream allowances, and Delightful Kiss, a strong-rally third behind Street Sense in Tampa. Interestingly, Russell Baze, the leading rider of all time, is coming from Northern California for the ride.