Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Derby Post Draw: ‘Big Four’ Have No Excuses

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 29, 2009--No more waiting; the field finally is set for Kentucky Derby 135. Despite the fact that there have been many defections for one reason or another, it’s doubtful that field size would be less than the 20-horse limit, race day scratches notwithstanding.

At Wednesday’s post draw, Wood Memorial winner and early line favorite I Want Revenge drew a perfect post in slip number 13. Indeed, none of the Big Four, including Dunkirk, Friesan Fire and Pioneerof The Nile were compromised with their position, having drawn posts 15, 6 and 16, respectively, will have any built-in excuses.

Today we’ll analyze half the Derby entrants in post position order, with the remaining 10 on Friday, followed by a detailed betting profile of the event to be posted at 1:01 AM Derby morning. Here, then, a handicapping sketch of the first 10 horses to line up for the starter at 6:04 p.m. Saturday, early line odds in parentheses:

1-WEST SIDE BERNIE (30-1): A good wide-trip third in the Holy Bull, a dull return to the synthetics, then a strong-rally placing behind I Want Revenge in the Wood Memorial. He, too, has proven “faster” on conventional dirt, but has required time to rebound from top efforts and his Wood was a career top. Connections must be concerned, scheduling a final short work to keep whatever energy may be left in the tank. A very nice colt that appears heading the wrong way and the rail draw certainly didn’t help.

2-MUSKET MAN (20-1): There might be better colts in Derby 135 but not many that are better managed: A less than perfect trip third in the Sam F. Davis is the only blemish in a six-race career. After rebounding to win the Tampa Derby, he shipped to Hawthorne and became a man with a comprehensive Illinois Derby score. But that career-best effort sets him up for a regression. Churchill training indicates that might be the case.

3- MR. HOT STUFF (30-1): Altered course, weaving his way through traffic when third in the Santa Anita Derby, galloping out very strongly past the wire. Has two nine-furlong routes under his belt, is bred for the distance, and had crisp work Monday at his Santa Anita base. With Corey Nakatani opting for Square Eddie, a last minute defection, colt picks up hot-riding Johnny Velazquez, indicating that it might be better to be lucky than good. Live exotics price play.

4-ADVICE (30-1):His work on Monday convinced his connections to make a run for the roses. Chapel Royal colt has had a career mixed with immaturity and bad luck but put it together in a big way to win the Lexington, coming from last of 11 after early trouble. Has earned his way into the field but doesn’t appear fast enough and is another deep closer in what might be a moderately paced event.

5-HOLD ME BACK (15-1): Impossible to knock in two starts this year. Colt overcame a quirky Turfway Polytrack to win the Lane’s End coming from last then was an excellent second after General Quarters got the drop on him in the Blue Grass. Nagging flaw was a horrible outing in last year’s Remsen, his only dirt start. Sunday workout showed ability to handle the surface while maintaining his freshness and strength. Exotics player.

6-FRIESAN FIRE (5-1): The negatives are a seven week layoff and no races beyond a mile and a sixteenth. Trainer Larry Jones had Hard Spun ready off a six-week respite and has a good history in this race, the Eight Belles tragedy notwithstanding. The other issue is that his best performance figure came on a sloppy track he obviously loved. Jones took a page from his own playbook, working his fresh colt five furlongs in :57 4/5. In the fray throughout, he’s a difficult read at relatively short odds.

7-PAPA CLEM (20-1): Another “new horse” with the shift from synthetics to dirt. After catching Louisiana Derby slop, he shipped to Hot Springs and won the Arkansas Derby with a career best effort. But that performance very likely could take its toll if a recent disappointing workout is any measure. The Kentucky Derby leaves a very little margin for error. Possibly worth a flyer, but needing twice the early-line odds.

8-MINE THAT BIRD (50-1): A bargain basement yearling, he’s been from one barn to the next but accomplished enough to be voted 2008 Canadian juvenile champion. Had a workmanlike five-furlong work with a good gallop-out, but when given an opportunity beneath Richard Mandella’s shedrow proved that he wasn’t really a prime time player. After SoCal sojourn, was winless in two starts at Sunland Park. Way over his head here.

9-JOIN IN THE DANCE (50-1): Apparent one-dimensional speedster is nonetheless pretty game. The trick is knowing how well he’ll class up. Held extremely well making two-turn debut in his first start over Tampa’s demanding surface, missing by a neck to win-machine Musket Man. Showing speed in the Blue Grass but tiring on Polytrack is mulligan material. Even with different owners, his best utility, as far as trainer Pletcher is concerned, would be to insure an honest pace for Advice and Dunkirk.

10-REGAL RANSOM (30-1): The speedy member of the Godolphin duo arguably possesses stoutest pedigree among Derby 135’s 20 starters. Has a juvenile foundation, is tactical--as opposed to run-off speed--and has a partner (Alan Garcia) with a deserved reputation for effectiveness with his type. With Join In The Dance to his immediate inside, a stalking posture appears more likely than a frontrunning gambit.

Tomorrow: Posts 11 through 20

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Zenyatta’s One Chance at Immortiality

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 22, 2009--Need to admit something up front: In this economy--and maybe pre-crash, too--I don’t know if I could have pulled the string and started my filly money-making machine, the mighty Zenyatta, against males in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But then I don’t think I would have whined about the way Eclipse voters cast their ballots, hinting that many voters might not have fully appreciated the behemoth filly’s wondrous 7-for-7 season while peering through their East Coast-colored glasses.

In this space last year, we implored owner Jerry Moss and trainer John Shirreffs to run in the Classic, stating that their filly had nothing left to prove beating her own kind, in her own back yard.

In the run-up to Breeders‘ Cup, many observers believed that the Pro Ride surface would favor the Europeans. But no one could have fathomed how much the invaders would dominate the silver anniversary edition of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

After all it’s still a long way from Tipperary to Tinseltown.

All Zenyatta needed to do was travel cross-town, not across an ocean and a continent, or endure quarantine, to race over a surface she demonstrated time and again that she loved. She had the disposition, body type, running style, and the pedigree to get that job done.

The filly’s connections had every right to choose the path of least resistance, even if the Ladies Classic field was one of the deepest ever assembled, and collect the lioness’s share of a $2 million purse.

Besides, managing an undefeated race horse comes with a unique set of pressures and, yes, the connections had another horse, Tiago, to run in the Classic the following day.

After having a strong three-quarter mile workout, indicating that she’s sitting on top of a season’s debut, her first race since October 24, Shirreffs spoke about her losing the Horse of the Year title to Curlin, who didn’t duck the Classic despite his trainer’s concerns with the synthetic surface. Curlin even tried grass.

Shirreffs told Art Wilson of the Pasadena Star News that he thought losing out to Curlin “was terrible,” saying that the quality of the fields she beat and the races she competed in should have made her Horse of the Year.

“Every field she ran in, out came another winner,” Shirreffs explained. “She beat horses that were peaking. The quality of the fields were just unbelievable.”

In the Classic, a pair of European three-year-olds traveled 5,000 miles and beat a full field of mostly older horses, including a defending Horse of the Year.

Indeed, Zenyatta dominated the best field of fillies assembled in 2008. However, in six previous starts, she beat a total of 30 rivals, an average five fillies per start, all but one over the California synthetics.

Owner Moss conceded that the late Joe Hirsch always held that fillies and/or three year old males must beat older males in the championship events of fall. (Triple Crown winners notwithstanding, of course). Most of Hirsch’s disciples agree.

Zenyatta’s debut could come at Churchill Downs in the Grade 2 Louisville Distaff at a mile and a sixteenth on Oaks day. It would be a greatly anticipated event and a good place to start this year’s Horse of the Year campaign, especially if the Breeders’ Cup winds up at Churchill.

A victory would improve Zenyatta’s record to 10-for-10, putting her within three victories of a great undefeated Hall of Famer, Personal Ensign, a goal worth achieving.

Should she win the May 1 race, the connections mentioned two Grade 1s, Hollywood’s Vanity in June and Del Mar’s Clement L. Hirsch in August as potential future goals. If she takes those, she’d be one win shy of Personal Ensign.

So, figuring that she wins a Breeder’s Cup prep in September, and the Ladies Classic in late October, it would be game over: 14-for-14, a place in racing history and a much better chance to become Horse of the Year 2009 without ever having to face males.

Shirreffs said that he thinks a race against colts is in the back of everyone’s mind and that we’ll see how the rest of the year goes first. (See above).

If the scenario outlined above plays itself out, we’ll never see Zenyatta face males. But if she is defeated, taking her out of the Personal Ensign territory, the only way for her to win the title her connections felt they deserved last year might be to take on the boys.

There is another possible scenario, however, one that would take--how do they say it in that part of the country? Right, cojones.

She wins her 13th consecutive race prepping for the Breeders’ Cup then goes for the record vs. males in the Classic. In that case, Horse of the Year would be a given. She would have tied Personal Ensign and Curlin wasn’t punished for his Classic loss, was he?

Instead, Zenyatta wins and becomes an iconic figure, a truly legendary racehorse, setting that standard over the same racetrack Personal Ensign ran her greatest race, beating a filly who beat boys that same year in the Kentucky Derby.

How’s that, Hollywood?

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Derby Eligibility Rules: Revisionist Redux

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 16, 2009--In case you missed this interesting note in a Daily Racing Form news post by Jay Privman:

“The graded earnings clause, which determines the starting field if more than the maximum 20 horses enter the Derby, is quite controversial, but there's a worst-case scenario lurking that Churchill Downs officials are probably hoping to avoid.

“Charitable Man and Dunkirk are tied in graded stakes earnings with $150,000. If they end up tied for the final spot in the field, the published conditions of the Derby state that the next tie-breaker would be earnings in non-restricted stakes races.

“That would still leave them tied. After that, the final tie-breaker says starting berths ‘shall be determined by lot’. In other words, a shake or pill pull.

“If El Crespo finishes second in the Lexington, he also would have $150,000 in graded earnings. Like Charitable Man and Dunkirk, he has no earnings from any other non-restricted stakes races…”

Those of us not so secretly rooting for this Derby doomsday scenario to play out, are not at all motivated by schadenfreude--gloating at somebody else’s bad luck.

Parenthetically, schadenfreude is more rule than exception in the racing business, pretty much on every level: Owners, trainers, jockeys, handicappers, etc., etc. But that still doesn’t mean that the graded earnings rule doesn’t have woeful shortcomings.

In case you’ve forgotten our position, or missed it entirely, this was the HRI post from 2008 pre-Derby 134. Hopefully, it will not need another reprint in 2010.

[Bracketed text indicates updated material].

“Win, lose or post position draw, this should be the final year that Kentucky Derby eligibility is determined by earnings, graded or otherwise.

“The system has outlived its utility, if indeed it ever made sense. Twenty Derby starters is the modern rule not the exception. And it matters not that this year’s draw involving the filly Eight Belles went smoothly. Using any criteria, she earned her way in.”

[Irony is sometimes cruel and tragic].

“Admission based on earnings is fraught with inequities to the existing prep process too numerous to mention, and in the future it’s bound to get worse because any track could artificially inflate the importance of its prep race by throwing money at it.

“That might be good for business, but it’s bad for the Derby.”

[See the Delta Jackpot, UAE Derby and Sunland Derby, i.e., if the latter ever becomes graded].

“Racing is a game built on opinion backed by dollars. Having a lot of either doesn’t guarantee quality. All reasonable people acknowledge the Derby as “America’s Race.” As such, it should feature the best three-year-olds based on one criterion: Performance.

“Why shouldn’t the best 20 thoroughbreds be loaded into the Churchill Downs starting gate, gaining entry the way most horses earn their titles: Racetrack accomplishment in the sport’s time-honored events.

“There are only two ways to look at a horse race; before and after the fact. Post race any argument can be made with certitude, yet still might not provide the best course for future action. Such as the notion that the graded-stakes earnings system works.

“…[Here are] two ideas, one from a fan, the other from a respected journalist. Not only were they practical but also included additional benefits:

“[New rules would] heighten interest and anticipation during the prep run-up season; boost bottom lines at tracks hosting the established preps; help horsemen to make the best decisions possible by knowing exactly what is gained from successful participation in certain events [with fixed values].

“While the establishment of two-year-old form is important from a developmental perspective, it’s meaningless if the individual fails to make an often difficult transition from two to three, [allowing the competition to catch up].

“Juvenile form is just that; juvenile form. Precocity is an unreliable predictor of classics success… Meaningful Derby talk should begin on January 1 and not the last Saturday in October.

“There are twenty spots in the gate and, fortuitously, 20 established Derby prep races. The following is a modern breakdown of traditionally recognized preps by region:

“The Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby; the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby; the Lane’s End; the Gotham and Wood Memorial, the Illinois Derby; Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby; the Sham, San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby; the El Camino Real Derby, the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby; the Blue Grass and Coolmore Lexington.”

[Some distances and scheduling may need tweaking, such as this year’s successful Fountain of Youth to Florida Derby transition. Further, the future status of the El Camino Real is in question].

“By region, this covers the West Coast of Florida (2), South Florida (3), Louisiana (2), New York (2), Illinois (1), Northern California (1), Southern California (3), Arkansas (3) and Kentucky (3).

“The ultimate goal is to have your horse peak on the first Saturday in May. Instead of money won… points earned from in-the-money finishes in 20 widely recognized preps [should be the criteria].”

“Three-year-old form and the ability to handle two turns at meaningful distances is the best measure of [Derby] worthiness. Assigning points [give horsemen better options]. Horses can gain experience and conditioning while not leaving their ‘A’ game at the prep-race finish line.

“A too-late, fast-finish second or third in the Wood, Blue Grass or Santa Anita Derby [often] is the best way to arrive in Louisville near tops. A graduating point scale of 3-2-1 for the money finishers in a Grade 3, a 6-4-2 scale at the Grade 2 level, and a 9-6-3 score in Grade 1s is a fair measure-to-grade ratio.

“…If there remains insistence to include juvenile form, the only races should be the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Remsen, Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and Cash Call Futurity. Two are Grade 2, two are Grade 1, all are around two turns in fall and early winter.

“Twenty preps for 20 stalls. What could be more impartial, obliging, or easier to understand?”

[As for European participation, a point system based on the same sliding scale reflecting Group form, with only three-year-old and juvenile races at a mile or longer the measure.

The idea of a single “win-and-in” three-year-old prep did not have an auspicious debut. After a terrible effort in the Blue Grass, Mafaaz will not run in the Derby.

The notion that greater European participation is interesting, but quaint. No one wants to jam up Churchill Downs Inc. for trying to increase handle by introducing the Kentucky Derby to a new market. But the goal should always be that “America’s Race” is all that it can be].

Written by John Pricci

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