Sunday, February 28, 2010

The 'dirt' on the Kentucky Derby

Bob Ehalt
Hope no one minds, but let’s put the Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta feud on the back-burner and focus some attention on another matter that’s certain to stir up as much controversy as NBC’s late-night programming decisions.
The Kentucky Derby is a little more than nine weeks away, and this past weekend provided the first real dose of upheaval on the always rocky road to the Triple Crown.

A foursome of races -- the Fountain of Youth, Southwest Stakes, Risen Star and El Camino Real Derby -- helped reshape the outlook for the eagerly-awaited first Saturday in May, largely because each of them were dirt races. Santa Anita and Keeneland will offer richer preps down the road, yet any dirt prep has to be scrutinized closely because it helps eliminate one slice of the guesswork on Derby Day. Picking a Derby winner is hard enough without having to flip coin about a runner’s ability to transfer superior form on a synthetic surface into a performance good enough to beat the best horses of his or her generation at the 10-furlongs distance over a natural surface.

Eskendereya created the loudest buzz, taking not a sip but a long guzzle out of the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. Winning decisively by 8 ½ lengths over a solid field that included runner-up Jackson Bend, Aikenite and the disappointing Buddy’s Saint, Eskendereya bulled his way into the short list of top Derby contenders through his lopsided victory and might eventually wind up as the betting favorite for leg one of the Triple Crown.

With 10 weeks standing between the FOY and the Kentucky Derby, Eskendereya looks, at the very least, like the kind of horse few will want to face in the March 20 Florida Derby -- or spell or pronounce for that matter. After that, it’s a choice between a six-week gap into the Kentucky Derby or a prep three weeks before the Run for the Roses.

Trainer Todd Pletcher would be wise to opt for the six weeks, since the FOY had to be taxing on his horse and it’s unlikely that he’ll be the same bolt of lightning in the Florida Derby. The more time Pletcher gives his horse to develop and get back to his FOY form, the better his chances of having Eskendereya in peak form for the Triple Crown chase.

Behind the runaway winner, let’s not give up yet on Jackson Bend, who is trained by Nick Zito, a fellow that knows a thing or two about getting a horse ready for the Triple Crown. One mediocre effort can be forgiven on the Road to the Derby; two is a different story.

Buddy’s Saint was the 9-5 favorite in the FOY but didn’t deserve the honor. There was plenty of hype generated by his wins in the Nashua and Remsen but only one of them -- the Nashua -- was impressive. His time in the Remsen was bland and overrated. He had a troubled trip in the FOY, which is partially to blame for his ninth-place finish in his 3-year-old debut, yet he has much to prove before anyone should label him a budding superstar.

Pletcher also trains Discreetly Mine, who posted a wire-to-wire triumph in the Risen Star. Discreetly Mine was one of New York’s best 2-year-olds last year under the care of Stanley Hough and now has the look of a speedy and consistent horse who cannot be ignored at two turns.

Couple Discreetly Mine with Eskendereya, Aikenite, Rule and Connemara, who won the El Camino Real Derby for him in lackluster time, and Pletcher is holding the kind of hand that belies his 0-for-24 record in the Derby. Hey, if the New Orleans Saints can win the Super Bowl, maybe Pletcher can win the Derby. C’mon now, let’s hear it, “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Pletcher horses?”

The Southwest Stakes brought the synthetics vs. dirt dilemma into the spotlight. Three Californians -- Conveyance, Cardiff Giant and Domonation -- shipped into Arkansas for the race, and the winner proved to be Conveyance, who remained undefeated.

Now before getting too excited about the result and its impact on the Derby, the only real threat for the trio from the land of Governor Terminator was the runner-up, Dublin, who might have won if the race was a mile and a sixteenth instead of a mile. And while I’m not looking to pitch a shutout in the preps by shunning synthetic horses, when it matters most I’ll confidently hand the ball to the Great Rivera and focus on proven dirt runners in the Run for the Roses.

Call me thick-headed, or worse, but I’m still willing to take a stand against the 3-year-old crop’s synthetic superstar, Lookin at Lucky, in the Derby. I wasn’t that impressed with his performance in the CashCall Futurity, and when you mix that with his lack of dirt form I’ll happily toss him from the top spot in my Derby plays.

My hope was that trainer Bob Baffert would bring him to the Derby off a series of dazzling preps over a synthetic surface, so I could get better prices on the dirt runners in the field. But now Baffert is toying with the idea of running Lookin at Lucky on the dirt in the Rebel, which would remove that big, brown question mark hovering over him and make his Kentucky Derby odds more in line with his chances of winning.

Drat. It’s only February and my wise-guy Derby plans are already falling apart.

Maybe I should go back to talking about the Apple Blossom.

And what are your thoughts on this past weekend’s races? Unlike me, do you feel “Lucky” about the Kentucky Derby? Well do ya?

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