Saturday, March 29, 2008
Time for Real Derby Horses to Step Up
HALLENDALE BEACH, Fla., Mar. 28, 2008---
It’s been an interesting week.
Todd Pletcher said he doesn’t bother evaluating a three-year-old class until they run against older horses in the fall. When asked how good Face The Cat, his entrant in today’s Florida Derby, is, and what he expects to see from the colt this afternoon, his answer was “I don’t know.”
That speaks volumes.
Rick Dutrow, the trainer of Big Brown, the early line favorite for today’s million-dollar Grade 1 prep, just wants “to stay out of his way.”
Two weeks ago, the 2007 juvenile champion put in an effort at Tampa Bay Downs that still mystifies his trainer, Nick Zito. All Zito knows now is that next time, win or lose, War Pass will be on the lead.
David Carroll, trainer of the promising, lightly raced Denis Of Cork, decided to skip the Rebel, point for the Wood Memorial, then called an audible on himself and will go to the Illinois Derby instead. And so it goes.
It’s been an interesting year, too.
But that’s what can happen when developing three-year-olds either don’t or are not asked to step up. Make no mistake. They have been winning, many stringing a couple of victories together, but they don’t run fast enough to please the speed boys. That includes myself but I’m a little more forgiving, a bit more patient.
“I might have to go back 15 years to Sea Hero [to find a group this slow],” said HorseRaceInsider handicapper in residence, Cary Fotias. “Maybe it’s a function of how [trainers] race their horses these days, wanting them fresh, getting them to peak on that day.”
The fastest Equiform figures of this Derby class going two turns were delivered by two horses--when they were two-year-olds.
But what are we to make of the extremely fast figure earned by the Juvenile winner over a speedy, sloppy Monmouth Park strip? And did runnerup Pyro earn an exceedingly high figure because he finished behind War Pass? Are both sets of numbers aberrations?
There is evidence suggesting that they were. War Pass can be forgiven for not running fast in his meaningless season’s debut over a handful of outclassed rivals. And while Pyro’s Risen Star was visually electrifying, and his Louisiana Derby dominatingly professional, he failed to get back to the level of his two-year-old top.
In speaking with Pletcher Thursday morning, he conceded that trying to evaluate California three-year-old form is “very tough” because since the polymer bonding was added, the racing there has more resembled Keeneland. Fotias used the Del Mar analogy, different pockets from the same pants.
In any case, recent racing at Santa Anita has more closely resembled turf races, where finishing ability off a moderate pace is paramount. The ability to close strongly on dirt is equally important but dirt pace develops much faster and that clearly can compromise late-running power. That’s a problem, especially in a 20-horse field.
Empirically, the unknown ability of synthetic specialists to transfer their best form to dirt could be exaggerated. Last year, Street Sense won the Derby after having prepped on Polytrack, as everyone knows. Hard Spun always ran well and synthetic surfaces never compromised his efforts. Last fall, everything coming from Presque Isle Downs won virtually everywhere at every level. Factor in faster recuperative time from synthetic-surface racing and concerns could be much ado about nothing.
But the Kentucky Derby is unique, the profile of its winners almost singular, even before 20-horse fields became the standard. And, unlike your run-of-the-mill horse race, by singular we mean a little of everything. It’s a breeder’s race, a trainer’s race and a rider’s race, one in which the element of luck plays no small role.
In the main, no matter where horses are in their various stages of development, the time for further testing or making miscalculations is over. Things must go right beginning tomorrow at 5:45 p.m., ending virtually the week after next. After that, the Lexington is a last resort.
If prep accomplishments to date are a measure, Pyro clearly is the leader in the clubhouse. But what happens in the Florida, Arkansas and Illinois Derbies, and in the Wood, Blue Grass and Holy Bull, is particularly significant this year.
Will a Sea Hero prove the best of an underachieving class on that day, or will someone step forward in the next three weeks? Whatever this group lacks in speed, it still has potential to become an excellent group of three-year-olds. But sometimes potential can be the cruelest word in sports.
Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".