Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Kentucky Oaks as Wide Open as Derby

“Irony is the gaiety of reflection and the joy of wisdom,” said the 19th Century French writer Anatole France.

Wonder what he might have thought about drawing the 12 hole for the Oaks?

Before trainer Larry Jones cleared things up earlier this week, owner Rick Porter was saying he would be very concerned if his Kentucky Derby filly drew anywhere in the auxiliary gate or the first couple of inside positions.

After all, you can always save with the Oaks.

Not anymore.

Glad Cowboy Larry said later that only the 19 or 20 post might keep Eight Belles out of Derby 134. Good thing, too, for Denis Of Cork.

The Churchill-loving longshot could have been on the outside looking in, so to speak, since, according to Porter’s first analysis, there was a 40 percent chance Eight Belles could opt out of the Derby.

Not anymore, probably.

This three-year-old filly class is comparable to the colts in that there are quite a few nice horses but few truly exciting ones. But the 2008 Oaks group is a good one nevertheless, and superficially looks like a great betting race.

Eight Belles’ stablemate, Proud Spell, had better luck, drawing #8 in the 12-horse lineup. Many of these fillies can blossom as the season lengthens.

The Oaks has all the major fillies from the Ashland including a real comer in Little Belle, and there’s the Arkansas contingent, headed by Eight Belles.

Yet to see the Equiform performance figures, I will say that even if she had drawn better, Eight Belles appears no cinch. Perhaps when I get a look at how they run fast, I might be willing to change the tune.

Who knows, maybe Jones and Porter think the Derby is easier?

There are two other intriguing Oaks ladies, namely Country Star and Golden Doc A.

Before getting to them, however, a note of caution not to dismiss the Tampa Bay filly, Awesome Chic, out of hand. She lived up to her name when beating lesser in the G3 Florida Oaks. She’s bred to run up the side of a mountain and attracts Robbie Albarado.

Best of all, she’ll be overlooked by many of the 100,000-plus on hand.

Country Star was the filly I once thought would try the boys but either she didn’t develop over the winter or something else prevented Bobby Frankel from thinking too aggressively, like the purse.

A multiple G1 winner at two, she ran better than Pyro did in her return to Keeneland, where she won the Alcibiades, but not all that much better. At least she loomed into third before settling for fifth in the Ashland. Unlike Pyro, she couldn’t use the Polytrack excuse, but at least picked her feet up at some juncture.

Country Star is making her first start ever on dirt. (Oh, no, not that again).

We never hear too much about Golden Doc A in these parts, but all she does is run real good.

She won the G1 Las Vergennes, the race that launched Rags To Riches, was a very- tough-trip second in the S1 Santa Anita Oaks, and a strong-finish second in the always competitive G2 Beaumont going seven-eighths at Keeneland April 10.

Doing her best Colonel John--or is it the other way around?--she worked five furlongs in :59-flat at Churchill, a move termed breezing, with a good gallop-out, according to the attentive Mike Welsch.

Golden Doc A. drew the pole and, looky here again, she’s got Big Brown’s rider, Kent Desormeaux, in the boot.

Sure hope for Porter’s sake his filly draws well in the Derby. These fillies ain’t no pushovers.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Friday, April 25, 2008

What Big Brown Can’t Do Is Make You Rich

With all the questions surrounding Kentucky Derby 134, from the group’s generic performances figures, to the inexperience factor, the prep schedule factor and the synthetic track factor, perhaps the best way to solve the puzzle is through the prism of its most talented horse, Big Brown.

And here’s what Big Brown can’t do for you: He can’t make you rich on May 3rd.

Following Thursday’s final serious preparation for the Derby, trainer Rick Dutrow must have pinched himself. How could any horseman be this fortunate?

“I don’t know what to think, I don’t know what to say,” Dutrow admitted via cell phone, some eight hours after Big Brown worked five furlongs in :58 3/5 at his Palm Meadows winter headquarters.

“I want to tell everybody he’s a special horse. I’d love to, but I can’t. He’s going to have to prove it all over again, and he’ll have to prove it more than once.”

He’ll need to prove it three times in the near future if he wants to be as famous as Affirmed became 30 years ago. But that gets way ahead of a still developing story, a still developing and still inexperienced race horse.

When a fractured sesamoid was discovered in the left ankle of champion War Pass that will keep him out of the Derby, Big Brown’s job got a lot easier, or so it seems. But the declaration of War Pass does not address the historical challenges facing the Derby 134 favorite.

Comparisons have been made to Curlin, powerful enough by the end of last year to earn a Horse of the Year title but whose inexperience and lack of seasoning proved his undoing in Louisville. Like Curlin, Big Brown comes into the Derby off a three-race career.

On any level, comparisons are unfair because Curlin eventually proved it a lot more than once, beginning with his improbable re-rally in the Pimlico homestretch to deny Street Sense a potential Triple Crown bid.

Conversely, Big Brown has a slight edge in seasoning compared to the 2007 Horse of the Year. Big Brown, after all, raced at two, Curlin didn’t. Horses that race over a longer duration of time early in their careers gain the mental acuity to handle new situations.

No one knows for certain how any young horse will handle the Derby atmosphere. Paddocking helps to familiarize a horse with his surroundings, but no amount of schooling can replicate the Derby’s charged environment, with the possible exception of Oaks day.

When it comes to attitude, Big Brown already is special. When inside his Palm Meadows stall, call him Big Kid because of an attitude best described as playfully laid-back, like he believes he’s the coolest horse in the whole damn town. Remarkably, he goes about his job the same way.

“You had to see his workout this morning,” said Dutrow. “He looks like he’s doing the same thing every time, looked like he was going at the same pace he always does. To me, it was just unbelievable.

“I told Michele [exercise rider Nevin] to let him do what he wants but let him pick it up a little in the stretch. I told her I can’t believe he went that fast, he looked like he was just galloping along when he went past me.”

“After a work like that,” said Nevin to her boss, “this is the best I’ve ever felt on any horse.”

And so Big Brown has an exercise rider that never has felt like she did after working any horse, a rider who apologized after calling him the best horse he’d ever ridden following his allowance win and a trainer who still refuses to get in his colt’s way.

“I still haven’t come close to doing that,” before he tempted the racing gods with this: “There’s such good karma around the barn now that I can’t see how he can get beat.”

The fact they all get beat is a racing truism. The scenario for Big Brown’s defeat comes in the form of a hot pace. Even without War Pass, Bob Black Jack, Recapturetheglory and Gayego are quality speed. Then there’s the greenness he showed in the Florida Derby stretch, and a questionable ability to rate.

In the guessing game that is Derby 134, I have two theories. While not helpful in the uncharted territory of the Churchill homestretch, his greenness could be a function of the big kid just playing around. Clearly, no one was challenging at that point.

My other guess may have more merit. A replay of the Florida Derby’s first turn shows an under-control Big Brown as he joined the leaders at mid-first turn, before easing his way into second and eventually into the lead in :22 4/5 and :45 4/5.

At no time did Big Brown look or act like “run-off” speed. The fastest horse on performance figures by a significant margin, he just might be able to stalk the Derby’s leaders with the same high-cruising speed.

If then Big Brown is as good as he’s looked so far, he’ll win. If not, he won’t. But he continues to do freaky things and deserves his role as Derby favorite.

“He’ll be the favorite on Derby day, I can guarantee that. We’re a betting stable and we’ll make sure he’s the favorite,” said Dutrow earlier. Doesn’t sound like the usual brand of trainer-speak, or that you‘ll get rich betting his horse a week from Saturday.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Racecar Rhapsody Music to My Ears; Tomcito Deserves Derby Berth

Since next Saturday’s Derby Trial hasn’t been a meaningful Kentucky Derby prep since the Calumet days and, these days, more a harbinger of Preakness form, today’s Grade 2 Coolmore Lexington is absolutely the last chance for connections of Derby aspirants to qualify for the big dance.

The only member of the 11-horse field we can take seriously as a potential major Derby player is Peruvian champion Tomcito. We’re not disparaging colts such as Atoned, Salute The Sarge or Racecar Rhapsody--our choice to win the race. At this point they appear a notch below the top Derby contenders.

But the jury is still out on Tomcito. It’s not so much that he’s already won at the Kentucky Derby AND Belmont Stakes distances--pretty damn impressive, that--but there is the matter of his U.S. debut. It was very good.

I’m well aware he was third, beaten by 12½ lengths by Big Brown and Smooth Air in the Florida Derby. But the race was run in 1:48 and a couple of ticks. And he came from last to be third, 3¼ lengths in front of Hey Byrn, who came back to win the Holy Bull last Saturday. In fact, the Florida Derby was key, producing two winners from two subsequent starters.

Before the race, much was made of the fact that posts 11 and 12 were zero for life since the Gulfstream Park track was refigured. But how many horses win in Hallandale Beach coming from last of 12, last of anything for that matter? It might not be zero, but it’s pretty close.

Today, Tomcito goes postward second-time Lasix for trainer Dante Zanelli. That’s never a bad thing. Jorge Chavez will ride him back; he must have learned something last time, right? And how about this? We’ve noticed that horses making their debuts on Polytrack run much better if they work fast on it. Not just good, but fast.

After a maintenance breeze at Churchill Downs, presumably testing out that strip to find out what his energy level is coming out of South Florida, Zanelli shipped him to Keeneland and sent him a half-mile from the gate in :46 3/5.

Not only was that move the best of 35 the morning of April 15--and remember that’s compared to most workers that have a run-up start--but it was the fifth fastest work at the distance by a three-year-old of the 134 to work all week. It should put him in the race a little sooner. Even on Polytrack, that’s never a bad thing.

Keeneland this past week has been playing almost like a dirt track. Speed horses had a chance, if they were the best horse. Some even won, which hardly ever happens in Lexington anymore.

With betting handle off double-digits, perhaps the word went out to tweak the surface a bit, giving speed types some chance instead of no chance at all.

Tomcito needs to run well as he can use the graded earnings. And if he does earn his way into the race, it does two things: It gives the Derby another layer of mystery--like the 134th renewal needs one--and it would only help grow the legend of the undefeated upstart, Big Brown. Given his accomplishments, Tomcito deserves to be in the field more than a half dozen I could name, but won’t.

They know who they are.

I’ll likely wager on Racecar Rhapsody to win the Lexington if I can get at least early line odds of 9-2. I don’t think it’s outrageous to believe that if they ran 100 Lexingtons he could win 18 of them.

Racecar Rhapsody is yet another member of this sophomore class that’s been competitive in graded company but hasn’t stepped up. But given his Equiform development line, he appears poised for a forward move in his second start following a layup. That start was a mid-move, semi-troubled, semi-short-of-condition fourth in Adriano’s Lane’s End, beaten four lengths. He should move forward off that, too.

So, if I might steal a line from Cary Fotias, for me it will be Racecar Rhapsody for the Lexington money, with Tomcito the emotional hedge.

Written by John Pricci

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