Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Special Performance By a Special Horse

HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., Mar. 30, 2008---And I Think Its Going To Be All Right. Yeah, The Worst Is Over, Now the morning sun is shining like a Red Rubber Ball.

You hear the term special horse a lot, a lot more often than you get to see one. And so we went on the road to find one and, this time, we did.

In the run-up to the Florida Derby, we knew we had to get a look at the horse that ran the fastest Equiform figure at a mile or longer by a three-year-old this year. Frankly, we were a little curious about Rick Dutrow, too.

As a prolific winner in New York, I should know Dutrow better, but I dont. Thats my bad. Maybe its because Ive been conditioned distrust trainers who win at 25 percent or better, meet after meet, year after year.

To me, its not so much about super-trainers as it is about super-vets. Curiously, a trainers success rate falls right in line with the cost of veterinary care. The difference between a 10-15 percent trainer and a 25 percent trainer is the difference between a $1,000-a-month vet bill and a $2,500 statement.

And theres nothing insidious about that. In life, you get what you pay for. Of greater import may be that the Rick apple, like the Tony apple, didnt fall far from the legendary Richard Dutrow tree.

As opposed to horse trainer, Rick Dutrow is a horseman. Almost anyone can be a trainer but it takes more than a piece of paper to win three million-dollar races on two continents a half a world apart on the same day.

Theres no wagering in Dubai. Neither is there a permissive medication policy similar to the one in place on this side of the Atlantic. Drug policies are very strict almost anywhere else in the world.

Dutrow trainees Benny The Bull and Diamond Stripes, impressive winners on the World Cup under-card, ran medication free. Between those two and Curlin, American racing, despite its issues, was radiant as a beacon in the United Arab Emirates Saturday.

Diamond Stripes couldnt warm up Florida Derby winner Big Brown in their company workout a few weeks ago at Palm Meadows. You may not believe it but that workout meant something, Dutrow said following Big Browns blow-out victory.

Diamond Stripes is a good older horse. It takes a special young horse to do what this colt did. And a clever horseman to be savvy enough, and confident enough in his own horse, to stay out if his way.

I felt the only way the horse could get beat was if I did something wrong or he got in trouble, said an emotional Dutrow after collecting his post-race thoughts. I knew after he went around those horses on the first turn it was over.

Dutrow wasnt bragging. Its not bragging if you know what your horse can do. But its not clear even now whether Dutrow knows what Big Browns limitations are.

Rick Dutrow is in awe of Big Brown.

Today is [the highlight of my career], was how Dutrow described his multi-million dollar accomplishment. Im so excited I dont know what to say.

Excited like the enthusiastic crowd lining the rails at Gulfstream Park that welcomed the big colt back with hoots and hollers, and an enthusiastic Kent Desormeaux, who threw his helmet in the air in celebration and will go wherever Dutrow sends Big Brown.

Next stop Kentucky.

Hell stay where he is, Dutrow said. He likes it [at Palm Meadows]. Ill work him five-eighths when he needs to work then, depending on the weather, Ill make my move.

What makes Big Brown special is his class. At one point, Big Brown reached down, grabbled the rope holding his Jolly Red, and threw the tether ball over to the visitors side of the webbing. It was the first time I recall seeing a racehorse act with equine body language that said play with me. The only thing missing was Simon & Garfunkel and a transistor radio.

Hes just a love, with an easy-going class about him. People ask all the time, who do you like? I usually give them my standard Fotias-type response: Ask me at three minutes to post time. You have to be objective to do this job the right way. Big Brown wants to make you break that rule.

When this horse reached the quarter pole in Saratoga, I picked up the phone, called Rick, and said: turn on your television right now, I have to own this horse. I never saw a two-year-old break his maiden around two turns like that, said IEAH Stable managing partner Michael Iavarone.

He just has so much class. When we had him vetted, he stood absolutely motionless for 45 minutes while we did an ultra-sound. He let us do whatever we wanted, added Iavarone.

Picked out as a yearling by Dr. Michael Galvin, HRI has learned that International Equine Acquisitions Holdings purchased a three-quarter interest for $2.25-million, original owner Paul Pompa Jr. retaining a 25 percent share. Darley Stable, represented by trainer Kairan McLaughlin, was the under-bidder.

Obviously, special horses dont grow on trees.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Time for Real Derby Horses to Step Up

HALLENDALE BEACH, Fla., Mar. 28, 2008---

Its been an interesting week.

Todd Pletcher said he doesnt 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 todays Florida Derby, is, and what he expects to see from the colt this afternoon, his answer was I dont know.

That speaks volumes.

Rick Dutrow, the trainer of Big Brown, the early line favorite for todays 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.

Bill Mott has three live sophomores but it wasnt until about 10 days ago when he finally decided where they would have their final preps. And if Majestic Warrior had drawn the 11 or 12 post, instead of the 10 for todays race, he said his horse could run someplace else.

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.

Its been an interesting year, too.

But thats what can happen when developing three-year-olds either dont or are not asked to step up. Make no mistake. They have been winning, many stringing a couple of victories together, but they dont run fast enough to please the speed boys. That includes myself but Im 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 its 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 seasons debut over a handful of outclassed rivals. And while Pyros 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.

The Equiform par for a strongly run Kentucky Derby is 82. By this time of year, Fotias explained, Derby horses should be running in the 76, 77 range. The best efforts so far have been around 75. Big Brown earned a 76 [winning the mile allowance race]. If he wins the Florida Derby by 3 or 4 lengths, and Pyro bombs at Keeneland, Big Brown could wind up the Kentucky Derby favorite.

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. Thats 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. Its a breeders race, a trainers race and a riders 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.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Friday, March 28, 2008

Facing Facts with Face the Cat

WEST PALM BEACH, Mar. 27, 2008---

For Face the Cat, like so many others in Gulfstream Parks signature event, Saturday is the Kentucky Derby.

Unless hes first or second in the Florida Derby, I dont have to worry about the next move, trainer Todd Pletcher said. And its not only about the graded earnings, of which the colt has none. There are other races, but we think one prep suits him.

Like Rick Dutrow and Florida Derby favorite Big Brown, Pletcher is learning more about Face the Cat every day. He took over his training soon after long-time patron Satish Sanan purchased a majority interest following the colts impressive allowance win at a mile over the Florida Derby track.

That allowance race put him on everyones radar screen, Pletcher explained. Sasha Sanan, Satishs son, called to tell us they were interested in him. We went over to look at him and they decided to buy him, said Pletcher.

For Sanan and the colts other partners, they can only hope that he turns out half as good as the horse trainer Steve Asmussen helped buy from Helen Pitts outfit last year after his impressive Gulfstream Park win. But then not many young three-year-olds go on to become Horse of the Year the way Curlin did in 2007.

So, what has Pletcher learned since the sale? Hes very laid back, he handles nicely, doesnt get anxious or nervous. Johnny [Velazquez] worked him the other day for the first time [5 furlongs in 1:01, breezing, at Palm Beach Downs] and he liked him.

He thought he was very tractable. But he can be a little lazyhes not overly ambitious.

What is ambitious is Saturdays level of competition, going from preliminary allowances and moving up in class and distance into Grade 1 company. He made a progression into the allowance race, but hes got to continue to improve. To get there, he needs to take baby steps, said Pletcher.

Pletcher has no idea how good Face the Cat is, but he thinks the three year-old class is a tough read, too.

Ive always said the most accurate way to judge the three-year-olds is how they do in the fall against older horses. These races dont tell you much, said the sure first-ballot Hall of Famer still in search of that first Kentucky Derby score.

When a three-year-old can win races like the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders Cup Classic, that tells you how good a crop is. Obviously, last years crop was exceptional with Curlin the Horse of the Year.

Pyro deserves to be [the division leader]. His Risen Star was extremely impressive, electrifying. His Louisiana Derby was very good. Denis Of Cork was very good in the Southwest. Adriano was impressive in the Lanes End. What will be interesting is to see how the California horses run coming off that Polytrack. Since the track was changed its been all closers. The jocks are even riding differently, like Keeneland. It distorts the results. Its hard to figure.

Pletcher is well aware of statistics indicating that no horse from post 11 or 12 has won at the two-turn distance since Gulfstream was reconfigured in 2005, but the strategy for Face the Cat is fairly simple. He won going six furlongs and a mile, so I think hed be prominent early. Johnny will have to play it off the break.

Then Pletcher took some comfort from last years successful South Florida campaign with Scat Daddy. I think he won [the Fountain of Youth] from the 9 or 10.

Like everyone in the race who needs his horse to run well, Pletcher will play the hand thats dealt. I think last year you needed $150,000 [to get into the Derby]. It probably will take the same, maybe a little more. I could have run him in the Rebel but I thought he would need more time. One prep suits him, hes two for two at Gulfstream, so this race made a lot of sense.

But is the 8-1 fifth choice good enough to win the Florida Derby? I dont know, said the trainer of Face the Cat. What you hope is that he breaks well, gets a good trip around the first turn, makes his run, and wins. Thats what you hope for.

As for Pletchers six other Kentucky Derby prospects, they, too, must prove themselves before moving on. On The Verge will run in the Santa Anita Derby; Atoned in the Illinois Derby. Texas Wildcatter will run back in the Wood. Were getting a little ambitious with this one, but Spurrier will run in Illinois or the Wood. Cowboy Cal and Monba are both going to the Blue Grass.

As for the future, they all need to go well first. For Face the Cat, that test comes Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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