Monday, April 11, 2011
Making the Grade
(CHICAGO, IL – April 11, 2011) The last few days have caused quite the upheaval in thoroughbred racing’s three-year-old ranks. The five Grade I stakes at the end of the Kentucky Derby trail are meant to clarify matters. Instead, they are muddling them. Surprise results on the racetrack aren’t the only things causing confusion. The injury flu, which appears every April, has come on like pollen.
Sizable audiences of horse racing fans turned out at Aqueduct and Santa Anita on Saturday. They seemed not to be discouraged that Uncle Mo was installed the 1-9 favorite to lord over his hopeless rivals in the Wood Memorial or that Premier Pegasus and Jaycito, the two West Coast horses predicted to have chances of winning in Louisville, were both scratched from the Santa Anita Derby starting gate. Elephants could have run, and some did, and the crowds would have been satisfied. At last report, no refunds were given.
Premier Pegasus is gone for good, headed to the hospital for surgery. Jaycito could have run, but his trainer didn’t want to apply a bar shoe. Bob Baffert, in whom Jaycito’s future rests, ultimately won the Santa Anita Derby with Midnight Interlude at 12-1 and said he’d have Jaycito ready to run in the Lexington Stakes. That Grade 2 race will be run on Keeneland’s synthetic racing surface on April 20.
There was another Kentucky Derby prep race run Saturday, but for horses supposedly of more questionable quality. The $300,000 Grade 3 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne offered a purse that was $700,000 shy of the bloated pots that the Wood and the Santa Anita Derby offered. The Illinois Derby was won by Jo Vann, who wasn’t anywhere to be found on anybody’s list before winning. Traditionally, the Kentucky Derby winner has prepped in – not won, mind you - the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass Stakes or the Arkansas Derby.
In the last 60 years, and probably a few decades more, every Kentucky Derby winner but four – Mine That Bird in 2009, War Emblem in 2002, Spend A Buck in 1985 and Canonero II in 1971 – has competed in one of these five Grade 1 races. Even the Derby-winning fillies – Winning Colors in 1988 (first in the Santa Anita Derby) and Genuine Risk in 1980 (third in the Wood) - followed the same dependable path. Since 1940, only five Kentucky Derby-winning horses – Giacomo in the 2005 Santa Anita Derby, Sea Hero in the 1993 Blue Grass Stakes, Gato Del Sol in the 1982 Santa Anita Derby, Count Turf in the 1951 Wood and Gallahadion in the 1940 Santa Anita Derby – ran unplaced in these key preps.
Given the history, at this point in time, one would have to grant the first spot on the Kentucky Derby leader’s board to Dialed In. In the decade, Kentucky Derby winners Monarchos, Barbaro and Big Brown have won the Florida Derby, which Dialed In won impressively. Shackleford, the horse that Dialed in caught at the wire, fought gamely. But he may not make the Kentucky Derby starting gate because of the earnings requirement. Even if he did, would you bet him?
The Wood Memorial was to have crowned Uncle Mo, making him the next in a line of 11 Wood winners to wear roses. It’s possible that Toby’s Corner is Angle Light, who defeated Secretariat in the 1973 Wood – merely a minor impediment to a losing favorite’s greatness. Yet, only one Wood winner has won the Derby since 2001 and before him (Fusaichi Pegasus) one must look back to 1981, the year of Pleasant Colony, to find another. Saturday’s winner doesn’t appear likely to threaten that drought. Uncle Mo will, in contrast, go from being the next possible Triple Crown champion to a horse that can’t get the distance.
As for the 13-1 Midnight Interlude, no winner of the Santa Anita Derby has won the Kentucky Derby since Sunday Silence in 1989; he won’t either. Despite recording a faster 1-1/8 mile score by more than a second than Toby's Corner or Jo Vann, Midnight Interlude is light on seasoning. The inexperienced bay colt by War Chant made his first career start on January 29 – a month into his three-year-old season, which is a bigger Kentucky Derby jinx than the rest.
One week hence, the last two of the five Grade 1 Kentucky Derby preparatory stakes will be contested. Because horses with Triple Crown success like Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver (second in 2010), Preakness and Belmont Stakes winners Curlin (first in 2007) and Afleet Alex (first in 2005) and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones (first in 2004) have used Oaklawn’s showpiece event to advantage, it has become the prep du jour. Meanwhile, Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes, has suffered without a horse that could take it and the Derby since 1991 (Strike the Gold).
Perhaps The Factor will indicate he can carry his speed over a distance of ground in Arkansas and rise up to become a horse to be taken seriously. Maybe Newsdad will be to To Honor and Serve what Swale was to Devil’s Bag in Kentucky. Regardless, what is (practically) certain is that this year’s Kentucky Derby will be far less historic than it was thought to be several weeks ago; that won’t make the race less appealing. Just don’t expect a horse for the ages to emerge from it – just the winner from one of five Grade 1 races.
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