Final Approach

Post positions were drawn late this afternoon for the 141st Kentucky Derby to be run Saturday, May 2 with a post time of 6:34 p.m.,EDT.

Let’s get right to the bottom line of who got which post.

1.Ocho Ocho Ocho
2.Carpe Diem
3.Materiality
4.Tencendur
5.Danzig Moon
6.Mubtaahij
7.El Kabeir
8.Dortmund
9.Bolo
10.Firing Line
11.Stanford
12.International Star
13.Itsaknockout
14.Keen Ice
15.Frosted
16.War Story
17.Mr.Z
18.American Pharoah
19.Upstart
20.Far Right

I don’t think in recent memory, I’ve found sitting through a post position draw to be such a tense experience. This one was, especially since it appeared that the first 10 posts determined, for the most part, went to horses with the least chance to win. The only serious contender, in my opinion, to be drawn in the first 10 horses assigned a position was Frosted (15). Keep in mind, these are random pairings of horse and post. Still, at the end of the first half of the draw, the dreaded 1-2-3 posts were still open, and Carpe Diem, American Pharoah, Dortmund, and Mubtaahij were still awaiting a post draw. You can see from above how that ended up.

Generally, drawing Posts 1, 2, or 3 is not necessarily a bad thing, and often can be advantageous. But not in a 20-horse field (the ONLY 20-horse field for any American horse race all year to my knowledge; more on that in a bit). In a 20-horse field, posts 1-2-3 are about the kiss of death for any chance in winning the race. Why? As the gates open, it’s a run and rush to attempt to get as near the rail and not hung out wide before the first turn. So while it would seem those first three spots would be advantageous, in reality it requires a horse coming out of those spots not only to press (and use energy better used/needed in the final quarter mile of the race) to secure position and not get pinched off, battle off (literally physically some days) other colts jostling for the same spot(s), AND the horse breaking from the rail, is nearly looking at running into the rail pretty quickly out of the gate, if the rider isn’t careful. It’s just bad luck to end up in 1, 2 or 3 in the Kentucky Derby.

So what do the post positions mean for the five horses I think are the best in the race?

Carpe Diem I think loses all chance to win from Post 2. I hate it, as he’s been training beautifully and is an extremely talent colt. I simply think it’ll be too much for him to overcome. Further, Carpe Diem can be a handful in the stabling area, warm up, and being loaded in the gate. This post does not play well to those issues. If the massive crowd has revved him up (look to see if he’s prancing, otherwise looking nervous/acting out, and/or sweating profusely) his race could be over before it begins.

American Pharoah’s draw into Post 18 isn’t ideal, but I’d FAR prefer him there to further in. Here, Victor Espinoza can keep him out of early trouble in terms of traffic and bumping for position. He showed in the Arkansas Derby he can rate; this post shouldn’t compromise him much if at all. Meanwhile, American Pharoah has continued to DAZZLE during his works at Churchill Downs. His final major work April 26 was basically perfection. Not only was it the bullet move of the day, but it has received nothing but rave reviews from all. He worked exactly as you’d want any horse to perform. And he will likely be the post-time favorite.

Undefeated Dortmund drew well into Post 8. Being the massive (17 hands) animal he is, it is likely he can handle himself in any traffic crush. He’s already had some racing luck as Post 1 was still open when his name was pulled. Dortmund has continued to train forwardly; however, there has been some talk that he didn’t school well in the paddock at Churchill Downs. I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep over that point as he’s already raced and won at Churchill. Additionally, trainer Bob Baffert apparently thinks he handles the Churchill track better than Santa Anita where the bulk of his victories have come.

My “Mystery Horse,” UAE Derby winner Mubtaahij drew Post 6. His trainer Mike de Kock had wanted posts 7 or 8 so he should be relatively pleased. Still hard to say what we’re going to get from Mubtaahij. He’s been highly successful and won with great ease in his races overseas. But to participate in the Derby, not only has he had to travel a great distance, he did lose weight (not unusual) when he arrived stateside, had to change feed, did not train at Churchill (he was stabled and training at Arlington Park in Illinois), and had a new groom. A LOT of changes for an animal that is a member of a species that thrives on routine. By all accounts he’s put the weight back on and is training well. He’s either going to live up to his reputation (and then some by overcoming all of the above) or he’s going tho flounder badly. Impossible to say, but based on his accomplishments, he can’t/shouldn’t be disregarded.

And then there is Frosted in Post 15. His turnaround in the Wood Memorial was truly impressive and showed a horse on the improve AND finally meeting expectations. Simply put, he could be coming around at exactly the right time.

Those are the horses I feel have the best shot to win the race. Other horses you might want to consider are Danzig Moon (improving), Keen Ice (a closer), and El Kabeir (a steady performer). Materiality I like, but drawing Post 3 and this being just his fourth start, I think he’s now too compromised by both of those factors. Upstart (who was ailing just a bit in my last post is fine and that was a one-day hiccup), but Post 19 does him NO favors.

My pick remains American Pharoah. He appears to be a once in a lifetime kind of horse. And I’ll go on record now and say because I am so smitten by him I will be crushed if he doesn’t win. For what that’s worth.

But it IS the Kentucky Derby, and anything can, and often does happen–think Mind That Bird and Giacomo. So I always encourage anyone to back the horse they like or even just have a feeling about. Whether it’s the color of the silks or the horse or the name or even the post number, go for it! That’s the real fun of any horse race, especially America’s most famous!

One final thought. Again, in my opinion, there is one thing that could make the Kentucky Derby better and I’ve said it for years–limit the field to 14 horses, just as the Breeders’ Cup and most other major stakes races do. It’s fairer to the horses and riders and safer for all involved. I’ll close with a quote that addresses this point by two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Carl Nafzger (Unbridled-1990 and Street Sense 2007) from the April 25, 2015 edition of The Blood Horse: “The trouble with the Triple Crown is that too many people run [a horse] in the Kentucky Derby that don’t belong in it. If they want to help the Kentucky Derby, forget the point system and make it a 14-horse field. Basically, there’s about eight [horses] every year that belong in the Kentucky Derby.” Amen! This year is no exception.

Safe run for all horses and riders!! Enjoy!!!

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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

Yesterday was the running of the final major Kentucky Derby prep race–the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

It boiled down to three words: ALL. HAIL. PHAROAH!!

American Pharoah’s performance was awesome, and truly the word I’ve tried to avoid since Tom Durkin used it to describe Barbaro’s dream run in the 2006 Kentucky Derby: Sublime.

The race boiled down to this: American Pharoah broke cleanly, this time from Post Six on a dry, fast track and struck off for the lead. He was headed by longshot Bridget’s Big Luvy, who set respectable early fractions. Victor Espinoza rated American Pharoah to stalk the pacesetter in second in the early stages of the race. On the turn for home he ever so lightly shook the reins at American Pharoah who promptly lowered his head and body and lengthened that smooth, ground-skipping stride. Race essentially over. The most telling moment was as the field straightened for home, American Pharoah had opened by at least three while behind him was a clump of seven other runners straining and struggling to make up any ground while every jockey was scrubbing and going to the whip…all to NO avail…American Pharoah was long gone, ears pricked, finishing his workout, er, race, by eight lengths. It looked like he barely broke a sweat. It was SO thrilling to watch.

Far Right finished second and Mr.Z, third. Both have the points and will go on to the Derby. I’m not sure why.

So now it’s on to Louisville for Kentucky Derby 141. In reality, the next 20 days are the most difficult–keeping horses happy, fit, and most importantly healthy and sound…

A few related odds and ends that only emphasize that point. Upstart missed a work yesterday as he spiked a fever. What exactly was amiss with him yesterday morning is unclear. It may just be a hiccup. It might develop into something that drops him out of contention for the big race. It’s a wait and see moment for now. Prospect Park, who ran an uninspired race against Dortmund last week in the Santa Anita Derby, is off the Derby trail completely after coming out of the race with an elevated white blood count. Winning and running well in the prep races is sometimes the easiest part of getting into the gate the first Saturday in May.

So the next thing I’ll be looking forward to and that I enjoy about as much as the race itself are the morning workouts of the contenders at Churchill Downs the week of the Derby. I’ll have lots to say about those, and from those efforts I’ll tell you who I think has the best chance to wear the roses May 2.

I know who I believe it is today and I think you do too. But I’m keeping an open mind…kinda…and will see what the works show me. Can’t wait!!

The Very Nice Pile

It’s just about go time.

Yesterday, three major prep races were run across America, further solidifying who the starters will be for the 2015 Kentucky Derby. The results were fairly predictable, but there were a few surprises.

First up yesterday was the mile and an eighth (as all preps discussed here were) Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. This race was the chance to see if ultra consistent El Kabeir would seal the deal as the ruling colt out of New York, if Daredevil could get much needed points to get in the gate or if throat surgery really made a difference for Frosted so that he might display the talent all his connections saw in him, but hadn’t come to pass on the track…where it counts.

The Wood was the most surprising of the three races. El Kabeir trailed or was near the back of the field throughout most of the race. MEANWHILE, at the head of the field was longshot Tencendur, who initially stalked, then led and held that lead late into the stretch until Frosted inhaled him for the win. El Kabeir finally got in gear, but it was too wide and too late and he finished a well-beaten third. Daredevil managed fourth.

So what does this all mean? Frosted is talented after all and his win gave him 100 points to put him in the Derby gate. And with his breathing problem corrected, I’d think there’s room for improvement going forward. El Kabeir, hard to tell what this race showed as he never seemed to be in contention until it was too late. I liked his tenacity, but that’s about it. The 40 points Tencendur earned has put him in the gate as well, but besides yesterday’s effort, there’s nothing that shows me he’s a serious Derby-winning threat. And, in my opinion, Daredevil’s fourth shows me that his strong suit is seven furlongs. Further, this finish didn’t give him the points he needs to get in the gate.

It was like old times at Keeneland: the Bluegrass Stakes was back to being contested over a dirt track and it was being run four weeks before the Derby, two significant changes from recent runnings (on a synthetic track and run two to three weeks before the Derby) that instantly reestablished its importance as a significant prep race for the Kentucky Derby. The race was Carpe Diem’s to lose. Having run and won over the track impressively last fall, coupled with his highly impressive season debut win in the Tampa Bay Derby, losing this race seemed unlikely. Ocho Ocho Ocho was attempting to rebound from his disastrous eighth place finish last out in the San Felipe. Frammento was trying to build on his solid, closing third place finish in the Fountain of Youth and get points for a Derby run.

No surprises here. Carpe Diem ran and won easily. He sat off the flank of leader Ocho Ocho Ocho throughout the race and passed him at will in the stretch. In the process he again displayed total professionalism and command of the track and his foes. The race was no contest. Ocho Ocho Ocho ran gamely, but was no match for Carpe Diem and finished a fading third. Frammento never got involved. Danzig Moon ran impressively for second and looked like he might be interested in more ground. As a son of Malibu Moon (sire of 2013 Derby winner Orb), that is certainly a possibility.

Finally, there was the Santa Anita Derby where the two main questions were would Dortmund win yet again and remain undefeated or would Bolo and/or Prospect Park take the next step forward to beat him? I’ll be succinct here, from Dortmund’s point of view I’m sure he was thinking “PLEASE, Stop wasting my time!!” Dortmund won again. After stumbling a bit breaking from the gate (Sound familiar?) and in the process losing his right front shoe (Sound familiar?) Dortmund took the lead and never looked back. He galloped throughout easily, controlled the pace, and the only significant, and impressive, change for him was that once he got into the stretch he OPENED on the field instead of just winning by a bit, he finished clear at the wire by four and a quarter lengths. And never looked extended at any point in the race. Aside: If he and American Pharoah break clean and keep all four shoes on during the Derby, AIIIEEE! Watch Out!

So now what? For me, and hopefully as a help for you, it’s time to start cutting to the chase.

Westminster Dog Show Host David Frei refers to Group judges making their next to last judgement as to who will be a winner as selecting a “pile” of dogs from which they will make a final winning selection. Based on almost four months of prep race watching here’s my initial pile.

The Very Nice Pile
1. American Pharoah–I’m not at all ashamed to say I’m smitten with this horse. He’s just a dream to watch run, the entire package–efficient, fast, ground covering, and smooth as silk. He already has sufficient points for the Derby. His final prep run (and that’s all it should likely amount to is another workout in race conditions) is next Saturday (4/11) in the Arkansas Derby.

2. Carpe Diem–What’s not to like? Knows his job. He’s been a model of consistency, runs easily, and has shown the ability to stalk and run well off the pace. Can’t see how he can’t be a serious Derby contender.

3.Dortmund–Yes, I’ve placed the six for six colt third. Could easily have placed him second, but his size gives me a little cause for pause going into the Derby, but that’s a discussion for closer to the big day. One more bonus he possesses that my 1 and 2 choices don’t–a win at Churchill Downs.

4.Mubtaahij–WHO? With a nod to The Black Stallion I’ll also refer to him as “The Mystery Horse.” In reality, he’s FAR from a mystery, Mubtaahij is a very talented colt and last week won the UAE Derby on the undercard of the Dubai World Cup day. Won, might understate what he did in the race; dominate is more like it, finishing about eight plus lengths ahead and continuing to draw off. That win got him in the Derby and his connections say he’s coming. The big plus for him is in that race he’s already run and won at a mile and 3/16ths, just a 16th short of the Kentucky Derby distance and further than any of his competitors have run. The minus, in my mind, is the “Dubai Bounce,” where horses running in Dubai and then shipping stateside seem to be not fresh or rested enough in their next start(s). And sometimes that’s MONTHS later. The Mystery Horse will have to do this as a developing three year old and with only five weeks between races. Beyond that I can’t really gauge where he belongs, as he hasn’t raced against the rest of the colts I’ve watched this year. He’s a very good horse, how good we shall see.

5.Frosted–I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt that in the races prior to the Wood, that the breathing problem was his real issue. I liked what I saw yesterday. Not sure it’s Derby-winning caliber, but I’m also not sure it’s not.

The Maybe Pile
These colts are nice, consistent horses, but they haven’t convinced me they’re serious Kentucky Derby contenders:

International Star–The absolute model of consistency, sweeping the Fair Grounds Racecourse series of Derby preps. All he’s done late winter/early spring is win, but I kind of wonder who he’s beat in the process and he just doesn’t look as impressive as the colts in my Very Good Pile.

Materiality–He’s also undefeated, but has jumped into Derby consideration late. He gave a great account of himself in defeating Upstart in the Florida Derby, but as I said in the previous post, it was a grudging slugfest between the two of them through the stretch and I’m wondering how much it drained them both. Can he win the Derby in his fourth start? And as he didn’t run as a two year old, can he overcome the old “Curse of Apollo”?

El Kabeir–Another consistent trier, but I think yesterday’s Wood was a step back for him.

Upstart–Like El Kabeir, I think his Florida Derby was a step back and didn’t do him any favors. Still, he does have talent.

Firing Line–He’s got potential, but Dortmund has already dispatched him twice, including the San Felipe when he’d taken the lead and Dortmund rerallied to get him at the wire. His Sunland Derby was great, but against lesser horses.

Honorable Mentions for this pile: Danzig Moon and Stanford. Both are showing promise late in the game, but I’ve not seen enough to whole heartedly endorse.

The NO Pile
These colts, as of today have the points to get in the race, but…

Ocho Ocho Ocho–Like I said after the San Felipe, I’ve seen enough. There were no excuses in yesterday’s Bluegrass. I hope his connections will take this good colt in another direction.

Bolo–Too nice a grass horse to keep fooling around pursuing the Derby. He made NO inroads on Dortmund yesterday.

Itsaknockout–And, in my opion, that’s about what happened to him in the Florida Derby–knocked out of contention. He was a very well-beaten fourth. Should be saved for another day, not ground up in the Derby.

Finally, Dubai Sky, winner of the Spiral Stakes, is out of Derby contention after suffering a left hind condylar fracture (YES, the very same injury Far From Over sustained last week) in a workout. He’s already had surgery to repair it and should be able to return to training later this year.

The 141st Kentucky Derby is now 27 days away!

Maintenance

“Sometimes love is wonderful and sometimes it’s only love.”–Luther Vandross

And for me, the prep races of the past two weeks have amounted to–Sometimes horse racing is wonderful…and sometimes it’s only horse racing…

Four major Derby preps–The Spiral at Turfway Park in Florence, KY (3/21), the Sunland Derby at Sunland Park, NM (3/22), the Florida Derby at Gulfstream, and the Louisiana Derby (both run 3/28) are complete. There were some solid performances, but in my estimation, none that really clarify my Derby thoughts and honestly none that made me think I was looking at the Kentucky Derby 141 winner.

At Sunland, Firing Line, twice a close second to Dortmund earlier in the season wiped lesser competition off the map, winning the Sunland Derby by 14+ lengths. The race is likely a confidence builder for the horse and he completed 1 1/8 miles successfully, but he was never pressed at any point in the race. I would have been more impressed if he’d knocked off Dortmund, Prospect Park, and others in this weekend’s Santa Anita Derby. But he earned the points to make the cut and will likely be in the gate May 2.

Later that day Dubai Sky had a solid win in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway. He was a bit of an upset winner as El Camino Real Derby winner Metaboss, Battaglia Memorial Stakes winner Royal Son, and Conquest Typhoon were favored. Dubai Sky passed them all and won going on. However, the Spiral is on a synthetic track, and with the exception of the exceptional Animal Kingdom, who used the Spiral as a springboard to his Kentucky Derby win, in my opinion, it’s not the best prep option for the Run for the Roses. Nonetheless, Dubai Sky’s performance was workmanlike and he could advance from this win.

In the Florida Derby, it was a rematch between Upstart who was DQed to second behind Itsaknockout for interference in deep stretch in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. It was also seen as a potential coming out party for Materiality, a son of Afleet Alex, who’d recently won a minor stake at Gulfstream. In the end it turned out to be a grudging slugfest between Upstart and Materiality through the stretch, with Materiality crossing the line first. Itsaknockout was indeed knocked out finishing a far distant fourth and suffering his first defeat. Ami’s Flatter, also a Queen’s Plate candidate finished a ways back in third. Again Gulfstream was considered a tiring track last Saturday, and even though they’d left the rest of the field FAR in the rearview mirror, both Materiality and Upstart appeared to be staggering to the wire in the final 16th. I didn’t find this a great step forward for Upstart, who, by hook or crook, has now lost his last two preps. Materiality’s effort was a bit more impressive as he hung tough and pinned a loss on a more experienced colt. That shows determination and talent. Now can he win the Derby in his fourth start?

Later on March 28, International Star swept the important Fair Grounds series of Derby preps with a completely professional win in the Louisiana Derby. Also impressive was the race of second place finisher (and Materiality stablemate) Stanford, who led the race until the final few strides. For whatever reason, I still can’t get excited by International Star. He’s done nothing wrong and has continued to step up and improve in each prep. I think what may be bothering me is he appears to have an affinity for the rail. Unless Calvin Borel is riding you in a Kentucky Derby, that’s generally not a desirable place to be. We shall see.

Things should get a lot more interesting this weekend with the running of the Santa Anita Derby, featuring Dortmund, Prospect Park, and Bolo (the 1-2-3 finishers in the San Felipe); the Bluegrass Stakes (back on dirt!!) featuring Tampa Bay Derby winner Carpe Diem, a cross-country appearance by Ocho Ocho Ocho, Gary Stevens flying in to ride the fast-closing fourth place finisher in the Fountain of Youth Frammento; and at Aqueduct the Wood Memorial featuring the steady and classy El Kabeir, Frosted who is attempting to redeem lesser efforts in earlier preps and get in the gate for the Derby, and second place Swale Stakes finisher Daredevil.

In the interim, American Pharoah continues to click along in his works and will return to race in the Arkansas Derby, April 11.

Now for the disappointing news. The curse of winning the Breeders’Cup Juvenile continues. Street Sense is the only colt to win the Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby in the following year since the Breeders’ Cup’s inception. 2014 Juvenile winner Texas Red was declared out of Kentucky Derby contention a few weeks ago. Trainer Keith Desormeaux was unhappy with how he was moving in training and felt in the time remaining it was impossible to have him ready for a Run for the Roses. Hopefully, things will shake out for him and he’ll return to form and the races later this year.

Worse still, very promising Withers Stakes winner Far From Over, who was scheduled to run in the Wood Memorial Saturday, is out after suffering a non-displaced condylar fracture in his left hind leg. He should have a full recovery following surgery to repair the break. I’m very much hoping so as I was really looking forward to seeing what this son of Blame could do May 2. Rest and continued growth and development should do nothing but allow him to come back stronger.

Twenty-nine days left and NO room for error, losses or setbacks now!