Friday, May 8, 2009

Haskin's Derby Wrapup: Bird to Take Wing

By Steve Haskin

Calvin Borel would have made a great captain of the starship Enterprise, because time and again he boldly goes where no man has gone before. What he is able to do at Churchill Downs is mind-boggling. On Derby Day, the firmer rail was beckoning, but only Borel heeded the call. What was most amazing was how quickly Mine That Bird kicked in the afterburners when Borel engaged warp speed at about the three-eighths pole. When he spotted a small opening between Join in the Dance and the rail, he steered the runaway Mine That Bird to his favorite spot on the track. Mine That Bird was moving so fast at that point, had the hole closed up he likely would have still won by the same margin, only on the grass course.

So, what in the world (or galaxy) got into Mine That Bird to make the 50-1 shot appear to be in fast forward while 18 top-class 3-year-olds were in either normal or reverse? How does a horse’s career high Beyer figure jump 24 points in the Kentucky Derby and his BrisNet figure 20 points? How does a horse come home his final half in :47 1/5 and last quarter in :23 1/5 (pretty much the same as Secretariat’s record final quarter) over a sloppy track? Galloping out, he was throwing his ears around as if he were ready to go around again.

Was it the 3,400-foot difference in altitude coming from New Mexico to Kentucky? In Wikipedia’s synopsis on high-altitude training it says it “increases the mass of red blood cells and hemoglobin, and non-hematolological responses. Proponents claim that when such athletes travel to competitions at lower altitudes they will still have a higher concentration of red blood cells for 10-14 days, and this gives them a competitive advantage.”

Or was it nothing more than a change of tactics and racing on the firmer rail? Did everyone else run far below their best? Did he relish the sloppy sealed track? The last could be the case, but remember, his sire Birdstone detested a sealed track to such a degree that Nick Zito was all prepared to scratch him from the Belmont Stakes after hearing the forecast of rain, and also from the Travers. Birdstone never picked his feet up on a sealed track in the Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway as the 3-5 favorite and threw a shoe on a sloppy sealed track in the Derby, finishing eighth.

Perhaps it was a combination of things that came together to work in his favor. The other possible explanation that this was the greatest breakout performance in Kentucky Derby history will be either confirmed or shot down in the Preakness Stakes.

If I am allowed one small piece of self-indulgence, I did write in last Thursday’s column for whatever it’s worth: “Although no one was paying attention, Mine That Bird, who likely will be either the longest or second longest priced horse in the field, actually turned in a smooth, strong gallop this morning, which caught the eye. There is nothing striking about him physically; he's just a smallish colt in a plain brown wrapper, but he does move well.”

To expand on that, when a horse gallops two miles and moves at the clip he was going, and with that kind of efficiency, it is worth taking notice (could his strong gallops reflect the altitude change?). Unfortunately, that was as far as I took it. There was nothing to indicate it should be taken any farther, unless you specifically were looking for a 50-1 shot on which to take a stab and were willing to ignore his last three races and go back to his races at Woodbine. It is worth noting he is the only horse ever to win his first career start on dirt in the Kentucky Derby.

Perhaps the wildest statistic in this year’s dizzy Derby is that the winning trainer, Chip Woolley, has only two victories all year – a two-furlong maiden win at Sunland Park and the Kentucky Derby.

And how about Borel, not only winning the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby (gr. I), but winning them by a combined 27 lengths.

Somewhere, there is a reason for Mine That Bird’s awesome and befuddling performance, and as mentioned before, perhaps we’ll find it at the Preakness. That’s where we should discover whether he is a true or fleeting star. Another impressive victory and just like that he becomes a legitimate Triple Crown threat, despite his 5.40 dosage index (remember when people swore by dosage?). Here is a Kentucky Derby winner who was sired by a Belmont Stakes and Travers winner (Birdstone ) who was sired by a Kentucky Derby winner (Grindstone ) who was sired by a Kentucky Derby winner (Unbridled). And his broodmare sire is the sire of Breeders’ Cup Classic and Preakness winner Curlin and Breeders’ Cup Turf winner English Channel . So, there is no doubt this horse will stay as far as he needs to run.

One interested observer at Churchill Downs on Derby Day was Dick Mandella, who trained Mine That Bird for 10 days leading up to last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile following the gelding’s purchase for $400,000. Mandella had been in Lexington looking at babies and came to Churchill for the Derby. When he saw Mine That Bird walk up the track he couldn’t believe how much he had changed. “He looked like a different horse,” he said.

Mandella said a group of his owners pooled in together and paid his expense to the Kentucky Derby “hoping osmosis would set in and he would soak it all up and get something good out it.”

At least Mandella can now say he’s had his hands on a Kentucky Derby winner. Mandella actually had particular rooting interest in Regal Ransom, who he and Diamond A Farm had sold to Darley. As he was watching Regal Ransom still in contention in the stretch, he noticed a darting figure inside him and asked, “Geez, who’s that horse who just got through on the inside?” It wasn’t until 100 yards from the wire that he realized it was his former horse Mine That Bird.

“I was hoping nobody knew that I saddled him to finish last in the Breeders’ Cup,” Mandella said. “For a couple of days it was pretty quiet around here, but today I’m hearing a lot of crap flying around.

“But seriously, that horse looked fabulous. The trainer has done a great job with him. Just because a trainer doesn’t have a big stable doesn’t mean he’s not a good horseman. This goes to show what someone who has a lot of time to spend with one horse can do when that horse has talent. That’s the beauty of this game. Everybody’s got a chance. We don’t promote enough how equal and how fair this game can be. It has very little prejudice. This is the only business where a sheikh or member of a royal family will lean down to some minimum wage hotwalker or groom and say, ‘What do you think?’

After watching the Derby several times and trying to make some sense of sanity out of it, the feeling here is that the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the two Sunland races were the aberrations and that Mine That Bird will be heading to Belmont Park trying to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner. And he could very well do it. His Derby victory was just too incredible to think this isn't a legitimate top-class horse. I have always maintained that the next Triple Crown winner would be a horse who was either a champion or near-champion at 2. I just wasn't thinking in terms of Canada. But the fact is, he was a champion and multiple stakes winner, he has the pedigree, and a tremendous turn of foot that he can sustain. So, why not? The Preakness will determine whether the Derby was mostly about the high altitude angle. If it wasn't then the sky's the limit for this gelding. Whether the racing gods agree is something we'll just have to wait to find out. Maybe they decreed in 2004 that Birdstone would stop Smarty Jones' Triple Crown attempt just so his son could accomplish the feat five years later.

More afterthoughts from Derby 135:

-- Let’s not forget the gutsy performance of Pioneerof the Nile, who looked like he was going to finish fourth at one point nearing the eighth pole. Although he had no response for the rocket flying by him on his inside, he dug in and turned back the challenges of Musket Man and Papa Clem to hold on for second, confirming once again what a fighter he is. He actually came out and bumped Papa Clem, another game, tenacious battler, which could very well have cost Papa Clem second or third.

-- Kudos to David Lanzman and Jeff Mullins for showing up in the paddock before the Derby, despite the pain they were feeling. They accepted condolences graciously and never once felt sorry for themselves. You could feel the emotion bottled up inside Lanzman as he held the large green and white I Want Revenge sign – his last remaining link to the Kentucky Derby.

-- One question that keeps popping up is why did the track remain sealed when Churchill Downs is known for drying out quickly after being opened up and harrowed? And why did the track open for training when it could have been sealed early, preventing water from getting in?

Track superintendent Butch Lehr explained: “We were right on the edge of the front, and it wasn’t until I opened the track in the morning and let the horses train on it for two hours that we realized there was a good chance we weren’t going to get any more rain. A lot of the Derby horses had never seen mud and I wanted to let them jog over it and get a feel for it rather than have them experience it for the first time in the Derby. If I had to do it again I might not have opened up the track in the morning, but we weren’t sure what the weather was going to do and I was just thinking of the guys whose horses had never been exposed to it before.

“With the water that got down into the track during training hours, if I had opened it too soon in the afternoon it would have made the track real heavy. I didn’t want to keep harrowing the track in that condition. It was better to keep it sealed and have the track more wet-fast than deep. I was going to open it but I just ran out of time, and we didn’t have the sun and wind we had on Oaks day to help dry it out. It was just one of those situations where the weather didn’t cooperate.”

Even Bob Baffert commented before the Derby that the track would have been worse had it been opened and harrowed.

-- That was a pretty odd move Kent Desormeaux made on the late-running Hold Me Back, going from 12th to 4th in about a sixteenth of a mile leaving the five-eighths pole; and the colt was being pushed along to do it. It was obvious that by the three-eighths pole, with the colt still being scrubbed along, that he was going nowhere.

-- How about this double for the Graded Stakes Committee: make the Arkansas Derby a grade I race already (see Papa Clem’s performance) and the Sunland Park Derby a graded race, so the track doesn’t have to put up an $800,000 purse in order to get a halfway decent field. If Mine That Bird and Big Drama run one-two in the Preakness, you’ll have the first two finishers having run in the Sunland Derby and the Delta Jackpot (gr. III) at Delta Downs. Yep, times have changed.

See you in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2009 Blood-Horse Publications. All rights reserved internationally.

No comments:

Thoroughbred News | BloodHorse.com