I confess to bewilderment, bordering on disenchantment and even disillusionment, regarding this year’s Kentucky Derby prep races. Week after week passes, and thus far only Eskendereya has risen to each challenge presented to him. Oh-so-promising contenders fall by the wayside, and the most unlikely winners emerge. I’m beginning to believe that, come the First Saturday in May, the winner might best be selected by tossing a freaking coin. Then again, who ever said it was easy to bet on the Kentucky Derby?
Only Eskendereya has won two dirt preps—G2 Fountain of Youth, and G1 Wood Memorial—and done so with ease. How can he not be the Derby favorite at this point? By Giant’s Causeway out of a Seattle Slew mare, he’s bred to run classic distances and (surprise!) on dirt. Rightly or not, I always associate Giant’s Causeway progeny with turf (Shamardal, Aragon, My Typhoon, Red Giant), but he has had good dirt performers, like G1 Hopeful and G1 Champagne winner First Samurai, G1 Ruffian winner Swift Temper, and G1 Spinster victress Carriage Trail.
Honestly, I don’t hate synthetics—I love Keeneland and Woodbine, and follow Presque Isle horses that go on to run elsewhere (often a savvy handicapping angle). I enjoyed the recent Dubai World Cup races at Meydan for what they were. However, I firmly believe that synthetics are a third surface—not dirt, not turf, but something uniquely its own. And for that reason, I bemoan alleged championship “dirt” races being run on the stuff, and I intensely dislike synthetic Derby prep races.
Look at the G1 Blue Grass results as an example—a 40-1 longshot winner whose only previous victory in seven races was a maiden effort on turf, Stately Victor now has plenty of graded earnings to make the Derby field. A colt whose previous dirt race at Churchill Downs was a last-place (by nine lengths) first-level allowance level race last November, he’s lost his three prior out-of-the-money races this year by just over 14 lengths. Am I scornful of his Derby chances? Damn right! Another Monba or Dominican cluttering up the Derby field without a chance in hell of winning (yes, I said it here). My God, I just realized looking at his pedigree that his half-brother Senor Enrico is a $16k claimer running at Aqueduct on Wednesday. He’s won just twice in 44 starts, and he’ll be running here against the likes of Malibu Moonshine and Medjool—you remember him, the 2008 third-place finisher in the useless G2 Lane’s End at synthetic Turfway Park, now in for $16k tag.
Oh, and Blue Grass runner-up Paddy O’Prado is currently #19 in earnings, with $250,950—in addition to the $150k from Saturday’s win, his other graded winnings are from turf races. His only dirt try (albeit over a sloppy Churchill track going a mere six furlongs last July) was a seventh-of-eleven finish, nearly 12 lengths back. Let me reiterate: I have no problem with him getting second in the Blue Grass (well, maybe a little because I had him on top). I just don’t think he’s a worthy Derby contender.
And what the hell was Tom Albertrani thinking running Odysseus in the Blue Grass? I mean, seriously. He’s no Street Sense with plenty of graded earnings and a championship 2-year-old campaign behind him. Just look at how, since Keeneland switched to Polytrack in fall 2006, the Blue Grass has become practically irrelevant as a test for Derby success and, frankly, a sub-par Grade 1. The G1 Arkansas Derby would have made far more sense as he was training in Florida. Just a bad gamble, and now a talented “true-dirt” colt will probably not have enough earnings for the Derby. Frustrating doesn’t begin to cover it.
And what can one say about G1 Arkansas Derby winner Line of David? From turf allowance winner to Grade 1 on dirt—a Cinderella-story, right? By Lion Heart out of a Capote mare, John Sadler and the Thrashes have been wasting this young horse on California synthetics, and I do mean wasted as he’s been losing to complete nobodies on Hollywood’s Cushion track and Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride. Two turf wins against inferior competition, and then he gamely wins against...well, there’s Noble’s Promise and Dublin, second and third respectively to Lookin’ at Lucky in the G2 Rebel. Of course, Lookin’ at Lucky isn’t look so hot lately either (and if you are a West Coast apologist, don’t bother arguing with me because I find him suspect).
Maybe Sadler’s been hiding G1 Santa Anita Derby winner Sidney’s Candy in plain sight too, but I find it hard to envision a front-runner wiring the Derby. Then again, there was Winning Colors... He has won three graded stakes in a row this year, and, being by Candy Ride out of a Storm Cat mare, he should take to dirt—but that’s yet to be seen. Still, he’s in my top 10.
In addition to Eskendereya, I hope Pletcher does send Mission Impazible—I’m not convinced he can get the distance, but I want to see young Rajiv Maragh with a Derby mount. There aren’t many better young riders than he right now, and with Odysseus unlikely to get in due to earnings, this would be a good consolation ride. I doubt Rule—I love that his dam is a half-sister to Funny Cide, but his latest workout (4f, 52.40) is beyond slow. I know a tiny voice in the Internet wilderness won’t affect the Toddster’s decision-making process one bit, but, please, Todd, don’t run Aikenite, Interactif or Discreetly Mine. They just aren’t good enough. Concentrate on Eskendereya, Rule, Mission Impazible and Super Saver—damn, as if four horses aren’t enough for the normal person!
I like Ice Box’s running style, but it will only work if there is early hot speed that collapses. Super Saver’s narrow third-place finish in the G3 Tampa Bay Derby behind Odysseus and Schoolyard Dreams, followed up by his second-place finish to 17-1 longshot Line of David in the G1 Arkansas Derby makes him a lukewarm entry on my top 10 list.
In all honesty, my likely Derby favorite will be Endorsement, not only because his breeding says he can run all day, but he can make Shannon Ritter the first woman trainer to ever win the Kentucky Derby—and that’s an accomplishment that’s long over due for all the talented, hard-working women trainers out there.