HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 7, 2021 — Approaching the five-sixteenths pole in the Santa Anita Derby, our first thought was how much Johnny Velazquez was asking of Medina Spirit–just to keep pace with the leader. Leaving the quarter-pole, it was more what will Life Is Good do after he learns to become a professional race horse?
If he keeps doing what he’s been doing, however, it may not matter. The question then becomes will any horse be capable of getting close enough to test him in a truly run race?
In words that Generation Z understands, undefeated Life Is Good is stupid fast–in a good way, of course. But did his drifting down the lane mean that 10 furlongs, two starts and two months from now, is a trip too far, or will new rivals wear themselves out just trying to keep pace?
Handicappers know how hickory Medina Spirit is, yet he was all out to stay within hailing distance of his stablemate. Life Is Good was on a loose rein while drifting through the stretch, energetically crossing the line while still playing around.
Perhaps Mike Smith is right; maybe Life Is Good likes seeing himself on TV or was intimidated by the bright giant matrix board on the other side of the fence. He took 1:42.18 to get the 1-1/16 miles trip, with a final sixteenth in 06.72, solid enough on a track that yielded fast times throughout the day.
For now, it seems that racing in the afternoon is just so different than what happens in the morning. He was, as Bob Baffert said, “smooth as silk” in his blowout the other day, never deviating from his path; straight and strong, and even stronger rounding the clubhouse turn on the gallop out.
Baffert says his running action is reminiscent of American Pharoah’s. I thought Pharoah was the best moving horse I’ve seen in the modern era and don’t know that this guy’s there quite yet, but so what? He’s just so fast maybe no one knows what he’s all about, including Baffert?
Should everything go well and all the top colts make it into the Louisville starting gate, will higher-quality speed be capable of pushing him? Would a rival trainer with multiple entrants use one as a rabbit to help a mate with a closing kick?
Just some things to think about until the Santa Anita or Arkansas Derby.
IN GOTHAM, SON OF GIANT KILER STRIKES
After a wide trip in debut, trainer Jimmy Jerkens added blinkers for Weyburn’s second start and the son of Pioneer of the Nile showed immediate improvement to finish second in fast time and that was enough to tell the horseman what he might have.
Off that effort he won his next start and 11 days after the maiden breaker, Jerkens came back with a soft half-mile move. Following that slow breeze came seven more works, four of them a five-eighths–two of the bullet variety–for yesterday’s Grade 3 flat-mile.
Chad Brown started two in the Gotham and it was the “other Chad,” Crowded Trade, that nearly pulled off the upset despite an unclean getaway but could not match the winner’s experience and heart at the end. Trevor McCarthy was aboard for the nose victory in 1:38.70 over a tiring surface.
If odds-on favorite Highly Motivated learns to leave the starting gate on time, he will win something major this year. Virtually with little chance after also steadying twice in the first three furlongs, he settled, followed his mate around the turn, and finished well too late; a good effort to build on.
Weyburn, however, is more suited by pedigree to the longer trips to come and may not get the respect he earned yesterday. Time will tell, especially in the right hands. Not Derby nominated, he has until the end of the month to be supplemented.
With stablemate Risk Taking pointing for the Wood Memorial, it seems likely that Brown will send Highly Motivated to Lexington. He showed last year that he loves Keeneland, winning a listed stakes on Breeders’ Cup’s Futures Friday undercard.
HELIUM BLOWS UP THE TOTE BOARD
We don’t usually trade in red board discussions but the fact that Helium was allowed to leave the Tampa Bay starting gate at 15-1 was a crazy overlay. Many trip handicappers apparently ignored his effort in Woodbine’s Display and that proved a costly miscalculation.
We recognize that the Tampa Bay Derby was his dirt and two-turn debut but were also cognizant that it was Mark Casse pulling the strings. The Hall of Famer is not unfamiliar with the winners’ circle on Festival Day, having won this race with Prospective a decade ago.
Helium improved to 3-for-3, his first two victories coming as a 2-year-old at Woodbine, including his Oct. 18 score in the Display Stakes in his last start. Still, Casse knew there were many questions to answer.
“He trained well enough that we thought he deserved a chance,” he said, adding “we thought if we’re going to try the dirt let’s run him close to home, [Ocala]. It worked well…
“He made that big wide run on the turn but when [Hidden Stash rallied] I was going to be happy with second; I thought we can build on this. What was amazing is that he wasn’t overly exhausted after the race.
“He’s bred to run all day and looks like a Derby horse, so it’s exciting,” Casse told the Tampa press staff.
Favorite Candy Man Rocket lost all chance at the start when, in the gate a long time and unsettled after a horse inside him began acting up, he broke out of hand, Junior Alvarado managing to maintain his balance. But all position and any chance to win was lost before reaching the lower first turn.
No decision as to where Helium might show up next has been made but, knowing Casse, my money would be on the Blue Grass if he decides to run again between now and May’s first Saturday.