Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Kentucky Derby Trail: Southwest & Middle East

GOOD LUCK!! and have A GREAT DAY!!!

Steve Haskin, The Blood-Horse

Although there was nothing over the weekend to knock your proverbial socks off, there were a few races that could steer you toward a horse or two as potential Derby material. With the Southwest Stakes having just been run, we’ll briefly discuss the race and go over it in more detail next week.

Old Fashioned passed his first test in fine order, showing the ability to sit off the pace and then put in a winning move. He basically did everything expected of him, and put away a brilliant colt in Silver City, who was intent on getting the lead, stretching out from 5 1/2 furlongs. It must be noted that Old Fashioned went his first half in :46 1/5 an last half in :51 1/5. Horses don’t seem to come home fast at Oaklawn, but it still would be more reassuring to see him close a little quicker next time. The bright spot, as pointed out by At the Races’ Steve Byk, is that Smarty Jones in his Southwest victory ran his two half-miles in the identical :46 1/5 and :51 1/5, and he didn’t turn out too shabby. Of course, Smarty bounced back and ran a 108 Beyer in the Rebel Stakes, coming home in much faster time, so Old Fashioned has something to shoot for.

With fractions of :22 2/5 and :45 4/5, it was surprising to see Poltergeist racing in fourth, five lengths off the pace. Those fractions apparently took their toll on him and he had nothing in the stretch. The only horse to close from out of it was Flat Out, who ran a good race to finish fourth, missing third by a neck. He definitely is one to watch in the upcoming stakes at Oaklawn.

No vino at Godolphin’s Guineas party

The UAE 2,000 Guineas was highlighted by grade I Hopeful and Champagne winner Vineyard Haven’s return to the races. But the son of Lido Palace, who cost Godolphin $12 million, never seemed comfortable at any point in the race. Some have blamed the wet track, listed as good, and the swirling winds, but he’s run well over a sloppy track and everyone had to put up with the wind. There was major question about him regarding the way he was preparing for the Guineas, and the Godolphin brain trust felt he’d need this race. But he was pretty much done three furlongs out and was laboring down the stretch, jumping noticeably back to his left lead. His action in general is flawed, as he runs very wide up front, and it was noticeable in the Guineas. He’s certainly shown he has the talent and the brilliance to bounce back, but until he does he must remain a question mark. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess.

There’s no more guessing when it comes to Desert Party, who, despite his connections’ belief he may be better at shorter distances, looks like a major Kentucky Derby contender, based on his pedigree, his steady progress, and the way he was striding out at the end of the Guineas. Despite the three-eighths of a mile stretch, he stayed on his right lead the whole way and came home his last eighth in :12 2/5 while drawing off from stablemate Regal Ransom with every stride. It would be ironic if Sheikh Mohammed finally gets his Kentucky Derby win with a son of Street Cry, who would have been his best chance by far to land the roses had he not injured himself shortly after arriving at Churchill Downs.

Desert Party’s purchase price, while not on the same planet as Vineyard Haven’s, wasn't exactly chicken feed, as Godolphin shelled out $2.1 million for him as a 2-year-old, despite his rather weak tail-female line. His female family’s best attribute is the inbreeding to the Calumet Farm stallion Barbizon. He does, however, get good stamina from broodmare sire Tabasco Cat’s family.

It should also be noted that among the horses he defeated handily in the Guineas were two older southern hemisphere horses from the always dangerous Mike de Kock stable – Rocks Off, a group I winner in South Africa, and Blues and Rock, a group I-placed colt in Argentina. With two victories at Nad al Sheba, defeating “older” horses, and having won the grade II Sanford Stakes at Saratoga in the mud and a maiden race over Polytrack at Arlington, it seems this colt can run on anything.

A Valentine Candy for Jenny

Many will look at Chocolate Candy’s hard-earned half-length victory in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. I) against questionable competition and his so-so 90 Beyer figure and come away unimpressed.

But here’s why this may be the best race the colt has ever run. A confirmed stretch runner, he charged to the lead after a half-mile and found himself in the unusual position of being in front with half the race still to be run. That he was able to turn back one challenge and then hold off a strong finish by a hard-knocking colt in Massone was enough to put a positive spin on his performance. But what made this a better effort than most people think was the fact that he went to the lead running a :23 flat third quarter. Second choice Axel Foley moved with him and wound up fading to fourth, beaten 12 lengths. But Chocolate Candy went his next quarter in :24 flat (for a strong :47 half-mile run) and still came home is a respectable, if not brilliant, :12 4/5.

Massone, despite having only one victory in eight starts, had finished in the money six times, including a second to I Want Revenge and a third to Chocolate Candy.

Also remember that earlier on the card, the top-class older horse El Gato Malo, favored at 2-5, was all out to win the McCann’s Mojave Stakes in 1:44 1/5 for the 1 1/16 miles. Both that race and the El Camino Real Derby were run in almost identical fractions, and Chocolate Candy’s 1 1/8 miles in 1:50 2/5 compares favorably with El Gato Malo’s time. In all likelihood, Chocolate Candy ran his 1 1/16 miles in the same time or slightly faster than El Gato Malo, who earned only an 85 Beyer. Chocolate Candy’s 90 Beyer figure is not exactly going to excite anyone, but at least it has climbed in each of his last five starts (68-70-79-83-85-90). He still has a lot of improving to do in the speed department, but appears to be progressing the right way.

No one is saying this was a fantastic effort, as he was the 1-2 favorite and didn’t exactly dazzle anyone. But he’s already won the Real Quiet Stakes at Hollywood Park, and was a fast-closing third in the grade I CashCall Futurity, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths by Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge. And he’s still learning the game. We’re only saying his race was better than it looked, and not to forget he has four wins, a second, and a third in his last six starts. In this day and age, there’s something to be said for consistency. Is he a legitimate Derby contender? Will he handle the dirt? Can he improve dramatically on his speed figures? The answer, like many others regarding California horses is, no one knows. We’ll just have to wait to see if diet guru Jenny Craig makes it to the Derby with a horse named Chocolate Candy.

Battle stations

It seems every year we get at least one feel-good story about the little guy who made good, like Bennie Stutts with Smooth Air last year. Well, it didn’t take long to get our first one this year.

General Quarters looked like just another horse going into Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes, but he came out of it a bona fide Derby contender, sporting a lofty 100 Beyer figure. Although General Quarters was impressive, as was the runner-up Sumo, one has to wonder about these kinds of races at Tampa, where horses who have run over the quirky surface finish 1,2,3, and every one of the shippers, including the favorite and second choice, show absolutely nothing.

General Quarters was purchased at the Keeneland September yearling sale by Ken Ramsey for a mere $20,000. In his career debut for trainer Wesley Ward, a 4 1/2-furlong dash at Churchill Downs, he was claimed by owner/trainer Tom McCarthy, a retired high school principal from Louisville, for the same $20,000. An ill-advised run in the Bashford Manor Stakes resulted in a poor sixth-place finish. Out for four months, the son of Sky Mesa returned with three so-so efforts on the turf and over Keeneland’s Polytrack. Back on dirt, he showed decent form finishing third in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race at Churchill Downs behind Silver City in the fast time of 1:15 4/5.

That’s when McCarthy decided to turn General Quarters over to trainer Mark Miller, who had been stabled next to him at the Trackside Training Center near Churchill Downs. The two met there and hit it off. When Miller went down to Tampa Bay Downs, McCarthy sent him the horse, while corresponding with him on a regular basis. General Quarters flourished at Tampa, coming from far back to finish second in the six-furlong Inaugural Stakes. In the seven-panel Pasco Stakes, he made a big early move to take the lead, but failed to hold off the undefeated Musket Man by a length, while earning a solid 90 Beyer figure.

McCarthy had gone down to Tampa for six weeks to be with General Quarters, the only horse he owns, and began rubbing him, admitting he is “very hands-on with this colt.” Miller kidded, “He’s the best groom I’ve got.”

“I’ve rubbed him, I’ve walked him; I haven’t had another hand touch him for six weeks,” McCarthy told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “That was very emotional, very exciting. I left my family and wife up there for six weeks to come down and take care of him and get to be with him. My wife (Patricia) just called me and said, ‘You’ve got to get me a plane ticket for the next race.’”

For the Sam Davis, it was decided to remove the colt’s blinkers for the first time in his career, and he responded with a powerful 3 1/2-length victory in a solid 1:43 2/5. The win was the first stakes victory for Miller, who had won only one of 19 starts in all of 2008.

The plan is to point General Quarters for the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) and then the Toyota Blue Stakes (gr. I), and then ... the dreams start to get real.

The disappointments in the race were Free Country (4th at 9-5), Atomic Rain (7th at 5-2), and A.P. Cardinal (5th at 7-1), all of whom had never raced at Tampa.

Council states his case

The key race in our opinion, even though it was only a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race, was the return victory of Imperial Council in a Gulfstream allowance test. The son of Empire Maker obviously has a lot of catching up to do and not a lot of time. But there is something about this colt that stamps him as a budding star. He just has an air of professionalism and superiority about him that it makes him appear much more mature than one would expect from an inexperienced 3-year-old with only three sprints under him. And he’s shown those attributes from day one.

Away for almost 4 1/2 months, and with nothing more than mostly slow half-mile breezes over the deep Payson Park surface, he tracked a blistering early pace, running his first two quarters in :22 3/5 and :22 2/5, but seemed to be doing it on his own without any pressure. He did slow down at the end, closing in :24 4/5 and :06.86, but always seemed in total command, despite having to run down a speedy colt in the Rick Dutrow-trained Z Day.

By comparison, the grade II Richter Scale Handicap for top-quality older sprinters on the same card, was run in almost identical fractions, and the winner came home his final eighth in a pedestrian :13 4/5. So, you certainly couldn’t fault Imperial Council for not closing in fast fractions. His final time of 1:16 3/5 was solid, and compared favorably to the 1:23 they ran in the Richter Scale. In fact, no one closed fast all day.

Just a note for the future, the fastest final eighth of the day was :13 flat by an exciting first-time starter by Smarty Jones named Chef, who won wire-to-wire by 4 1/4 lengths in 1:23 3/5. He could be one to watch down the road.

A 6 1/2-furlong allowance race in mid-February is a far cry from a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May, and everything would have to go perfectly for Imperial Council to make the Derby. He has a major stretch-out coming up and then only one nine-furlong race to give him the foundation he’d need to be competitive in the Derby. One little misstep and you can bet the ultra-conservative McGaughey will start looking at the Preakness or the Peter Pan. But the bottom line is that this colt has shown all the qualities you want to see in a young horse, and there is little doubt he has a bright future.

Another “A” for Asmussen

Saturday might be a day Steve Asmussen will look back on as the breakthrough moment for two of his top prospects, Captain Cherokee and Fierce Thunder. Don’t make too much of the final times on this day in two-turn races or Captain Cherokee’s mediocre 79 Beyer figure, because of the sloppy, sealed track. Captain Cherokee, who was coming off an impressive maiden victory on Jan. 17, in which he stormed through along the rail and won going away, came right back with another good performance, this time taking the overland route and drawing off to a 2 3/4-length score. The son of Sir Cherokee is progressing the right way and has shown he can win coming up the rail or around horses.

He’s not a big horse, but he’s quick and agile and has a female family to die for. Yes, his half-brother, Midnight Lute, was a champion sprinter, but that was due to a breathing problem; he was meant to be a distance horse. His second dam, Bolt From the Blue was a stakes winner who placed in the E.P. Taylor Stakes. His third dam, Berkut, a daughter of the legendary Sea-Bird (winner of the Arc de Triomphe, English Derby, and Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud), produced Alydar’s Best, who won of the group I Yorkshire Oaks, the Pretty Polly Stakes, defeated colts in the Grand Criterium, and finished second in the Irish Oaks and Yellow Ribbon Stakes (gr. IT) at Santa Anita. Captain Cherokee’s fourth dam, Feria, won the Italian St. Leger, Italian Oaks, and Premio Roma, and produced Gyr (also by Sea-Bird), who won the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and was second to Nijinsky in the English Derby. Fifth dam, Feira de Rio, won the Italian Oaks and produced a Gran Premio del Jockey Club winner. It’s also worth noting that Feria’s sire, Toulouse Lautrec, was bred by Federico Tesio and won the Gran Premio di Milano and Gran Premio d’Italia. So, as you can see, this is a family that has excelled for several generations at 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 miles.

As promising as Captain Cherokee might be, Fierce Thunder could be the one to watch in the long run. In his career debut at a mile, the son of Thunder Gulch closed well to finish second to Captain Cherokee, then came back Saturday to wire his field by 5 1/4 lengths, running three-fifths of a second faster than Captain Cherokee. Unlike Captain Cherokee, he’s a big strapping colt who can take a good of training and stand up to pressure. On Saturday, he was throwing his ears around out on the lead. Then when he was challenged down the backstretch he pinned his ears and turned back the challenge. Once he did, he started throwing his ears around again, just galloping along. Jockey Brian Hernandez had to work to get him to change leads, and once he did he opened up. Hernandez had been told go on with him, but when he hit him twice, the colt resented it and threw his tail straight up both times, but kept his mind on business and continued to draw off.

What is fascinating about his pedigree is that he’s out of a Graustark mare, and you normally don’t see Graustark before the fourth and fifth generation. The reason he’s that close up is because Fierce Thunder’s dam, Suite, was 22 when she foaled him, and Graustark was 24 when he sired Suite. Needless to say this colt will run all day.

Speed-wise, both horses have an awful lot of improving to, but so far there haven’t been many brilliant two-turn performances to get excited about, so perhaps the curve isn’t that pronounced this year.

Other Asmussen-trained horses on the Derby trail are dual stakes winner Haynesfield, stakes-placed Uno Mas, Soul Warrior, Dumar, and the promising Omniscient, a Pulpit colt who looks to have a bright future. A horse to watch later on is the brilliant Mineshaft colt Nuclear Wayne, winner of his last two sprints.

Other performances of note over the weekend were Cape Truth’s maiden victory at Santa Anita in 1:22 4/5 for seven furlongs and His Greatness and Marquee Event’s 1-2 finish, respectively, in a mile allowance race at Oaklawn, in which the winner made a sweeping move to take the lead and then held off the late charge of Marquee Event. This wasn’t a bad race at all, with the promising Flying Private finishing fourth. At Gulfstream, second-time starter Ziegfeld, trained by Dale Romans, showed a lot of determination to break his maiden by a half-length at 1 1/8 miles.

Revised Derby Dozen

1. Old Fashioned/Larry Jones/Unbridled’s Song – Collect Call, by Meadowlake

Other than coming home fast, Old Fashioned did everything you wanted to see in the Southwest. He settled nicely off the pace and let revved up Silver City have his own way on the lead, then put him away and drew off with authority.

2. Pioneerof the Nile/Bob Baffert/Empire Maker—Star of Goshen, by Lord At War

The verdict seems to be split whether he’s as good as he looked in the Robert Lewis or whether he’s just a turf/synthetic horse. As no one will be able to prove their case either way until the Derby, it’s all moot for now.

3. Patena/Rick Dutrow/Seeking the Gold—Handpainted, by A.P. Indy

He hasn’t worked in two weeks, as Dutrow takes care of a few minor issues. So, nothing to do but wait for him to show up on the work tab and then see how he comes back off a two-month layoff in the Louisiana Derby.

4. Hello Broadway/Barclay Tagg/Broken Vow—Nightstorm, by Storm Cat

Happy to see Tagg has changed his mind and will run him two turns next time out. The only concern with the Tampa Bay Derby is the quirkiness of the track, as we saw in Sam Davis, but this colt has so much talent and potential.

5. Giant Oak/Chris Block/Giant’s Causeway—Crafty Oak, by Crafty Prospector

Looking forward to seeing how he rebounds in the Louisiana Derby off his horrible trip in the Risen Star. The main question is whether he’s an emerging star or one of those long-striding closers who tends to fall just short.

6. Friesan Fire/Larry Jones/A.P. Indy—Bollinger, by Dehere

It may mean nothing, but can’t remember the last time a horse based at Fair Grounds, going through their series of preps, won the Derby. Grindstone and Funny Cide shipped there to run. That’s not to say he won’t be the first. He’s talented enough and in the best of hands.

7. Capt. Candyman Can/Ian Wilkes/Candy Ride—Stormy Way, by Storm Creek

Would prefer to see him go two turns next out to get a better idea how he’ll relax, only because he was too headstrong in his only two-turn race. He was keyed up early in debut, but liked the way he took back off the hot pace and settled.

8. Desert Party/Saeed bin Suroor/Street Cry—Sage Cat, by Tabasco Cat

It’s time to start taking this guy seriously, despite his connections’ prior belief he’s probably better going short. His pedigree and running style certainly don’t back that up. Loved the way he was striding out in the UAE Guineas.

9. Flying Pegasus/Ralph Nicks/Fusaichi Pegasus—Lilly Capote, by Capote

The more I watch his race in the Risen Star the more impressive it looks. This could be a very good horse. But have seen it all too often where a horse doesn’t move forward off a big return race. If he does, he will be a major force.

10. Chocolate Candy/Jerry Hollendorfer/Candy Ride—Crownette, by Seattle Slew

His El Camino Real Derby performance was better than it looked. He made an early move, putting in a :23 third quarter, and followed it up with another fast quarter. Final time compared favorably with older horse El Gato Malo in an earlier stakes. Still learning the game.

11. Stardom Bound/Bobby Frankel/Tapit—My White Corvette, by Tarr Road

Many are knocking her low Beyer figure in Las Virgenes, but she was visually impressive and is sure to move forward off that race. Frankel got his way and will run her in the Santa Anita Oaks before tackling the boys.

12. Imperial Council/Shug McGaughey/Empire Maker—Jaramar Rain, by Thunder Gulch

It’s not common practice to rank a horse this high with so little racing, having never been two turns, and having never run in a stakes, but there are so many things to like about this colt it would be a surprise if he wasn’t the real thing.

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