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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Just What Makes a Derby Contender

Last week my Top 10 list of Kentucky Derby contenders over at the Paulick Report elicited a skeptical comment as to why Dullahan is my top pick when he had been sick and hadn’t posted a workout in over a month (he eventually did work five furlongs on Saturday). I didn’t bother to post a response there as rational explanations inevitably seem to turn into nasty attacks online, but it is a point worth justifying.

When putting together a list of Derby contenders, my overriding consideration is which horse can get the 10-furlong distance. Period. I don’t care if a horse wins a 7-furlong or 1-mile grade 1 event yesterday; I need to know, or at least reasonable expect, a horse can run the classic distance. Only then do I factor in a horse’s previous performances—and they don’t have to be winning ones to merit serious consideration. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on my current Top 10 list:

  1. Dullahan (Even the Score-Mining My Own, by Smart Strike) While he may not scream 10-furlong horse, his unraced dam has already produced a Kentucky Derby winner, half brother Mine That Bird. His lightly-raced second dam Aspenelle finished second in the 9-furlong Canadian Oaks. Sure, it’s not a slam-dunk pedigree, but taking into consideration his juvenile races, I think he’s a live chance for trainer Dale Romans even with only a two-race prep. In his maiden effort last June at Churchill he finished third behind G3 Bashford Manor winner Exfactor and recent G3 El Camino Real Derby victor Daddy Nose Best, the latter who has proven to be good quality. After one more dirt race and then switching to turf for his next two outings at Saratoga (including a third-place finish in the G2 With Anticipation), Dullahan finally broke his maiden in October, with an impressive victory in the G1 Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity over Keeneland’s Polytrack. However, the pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance in my eyes was his performance in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where closing like a freight train he got up for fourth-place behind Hansen, Union Rags and Creative Cause. To me, it was far more impressive than any other performance in the race, and an indication of great things to come from him. That his connections decided long ago to take a conservative route to the Derby doesn’t bother me any longer, given how delicately three-year-old colts and geldings are handled these days. We’ll next see him on March 11 in the grassy G3 Palm Beach over nine furlongs, and then at Keeneland for the G1 Blue Grass Stakes—not exactly a Derby winner-producing race lately, but not one to be discounted given that last year’s winner Brilliant Speed went on to finish third in the G1 Belmont Stakes, and before that runner-up Paddy O’Prado subsequently ran third in the Derby behind Super Saver and Ice Box. Hey, we no longer live in the age of Seattle Slew, Affirmed or Spectacular Bid, let alone Real Quiet, Victory Gallop or Smarty Jones. Beggars can’t be choosy, and Derby winners just aren’t that predictable to select these days. Call this a gut selection.
  2. Algorithms (Bernardini-Ava Knowsthecode, by Cryptoclearance) Lightly-raced? Hell yes. Beat nothing in his maiden effort last June or in his final juvenile race at Gulfstream in December, but that G3 Holy Bull win over 2-year-old champion Hansen was impressive (stumble or no stumble). His G3-placed dam won at 8.5 furlongs, and has already produced G2 winner Keyed Entry (Honour and Glory) who finished third behind Bob and John and Jazil in the G1 Wood Memorial. She’s also birthed G3 miler Successful Mission (Successful Appeal) and G1-placed sprinter Justin Phillip (First Samurai), so I’m thinking Bernardini could lengthen him out. Another good sign: his warhorse second dam Ava Romance was a stakeswinner at 10-furlongs—and her sire Avatar won the 12-furlong G1 Belmont Stakes. Plus, I just love Cryptoclearance! Algorithms’ next start: Sunday’s G2 Fountain of Youth.
  3. Battle Hardened (Giant’s Causeway-Jen’s Fashion, by Northern Fashion) Just nosed out going nine furlongs at Gulfstream on New Year' Eve, this Eddie Kenneally-trainee crushed the 8.5-furlong G3 Sam F. Davis last out, and in impressive enough fashion for me to consider him a serious Derby horse. His sire’s predilection for stamina is well-documented; his damline is equally noteworthy given that his damsire Northern Fashion was G3-placed in France going 12 furlongs. His juvenile stakes-winning dam Jen’s Fashion has also produced a half-brother Colonial Colony (Pleasant Colony) won the 9-furlong G1 Stephen Foster.
  4. Union Rags (Dixie Union-Tempo, by Gone West) Honestly, I’m not totally sold on his Derby chances, but giving respect to his juvenile achievements he makes the list. His full brother Geefour toiled mostly in the claiming ranks as a sprinter, as did most of his siblings. Yet, his half sister Tempo West has produced 10-furlong European winners Vertiformer (Dynaformer) and War Power (Pulpit); the latter once defeated G1 Champion Stakes victor Cirrus Des Aigles. His second dam Terpsichorist won the 12-furlong G3 Long Island Handicap, so I suppose the stamina could be there…we’ll see how good he is on Sunday when Julien Leparoux climbs aboard him for the G2 Fountain of Youth Stakes.
  5. Alpha (Bernardini-Munnaya, by Nijinsky) Runner-up behind Union Rags in the G1 Champagne last fall, he failed to impressive in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. However, he’s come back strong this year, winning the Count Fleet and the G3 Withers. His Nijinsky (!) dam won the 11.5-furlong English Oaks Trial, and she’s produced some nice stakes-quality horses—Dreamalong Lavender Sky, Mystic Melody, and Numaany—and five winners at or beyond 10 furlongs. This is also the family of champion Kamar (Key to the Mint) who produced multiple G1-winner Gorgeous, G1 Kentucky Oaks victress Seaside Attraction (dam of G1 Florida Derby winner Cape Town and champion juvenile filly Golden Attraction), and Queen’s Plate victor Key to the Moon.
  6. Creative Cause (Giant’s Causeway-Dream of Summer, by Siberian Summer) I’m not seriously considering a California-based horse a likely Derby winner, but Creative Cause tops my list of West Coast horses that could do well, especially after his even third-place effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. His recent third-place finish in the 7-furlong G2 San Vicente hardly disappointed given how short it was, and disappointing with only four entrants. His G1 Apple Blossom-winning dam Dream of Summer wasn’t precocious, breaking her maiden first-out at age 4, but she proved to be one tough cookie, twice just missing in the 9-furlong G1 Santa Margarita and winning 10 of 20 starts, failing to hit the board only 3 times. Next for him: possibly March 17’s G2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn.
  7. Out of Bounds (Discreet Cat-Unbridled Elaine, by Unbridled’s Song) Last out, he won the 1-mile G3 Sham Stakes over Secret Circle, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint winner who this week captured the faster heat of the G3 Southwest Stakes. His damline is tremendously impressive, given his dam Unbridled Elaine not only won the G1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff over the tremendous mare Spain, but she also ran a game second to Macho Uno in the 9-furlong G3 Pennsylvania Derby. She’s already produced (by Forestry) the G2 winner Etched who won multiple times at nine furlongs so his miler sire Discreet Cat isn’t necessarily a hindrance. Unbridled Elaine’s half sister Glitter Woman, winner of the G1 Ashland, is the dam of 10-furlong G1 Suburban victor Political Force (by Unbridled’s Song), while another half sister Gwenjinsky birthed multiple G2 victress Lead Story.
  8. Discreet Dancer (Discreet Cat-West Side Dancer, by Gone West) While he has yet to race beyond one mile, this Todd Pletcher trainee has just dominated his competition thus far. Although he missed a recent workout due to fever, he’s on schedule to start in Sunday’s G2 Fountain of Youth along with stablemate Algorithms. I’m absolutely concerned about his distance limitations; his dam’s other runner Travelin Man (Trippi) won the 7-furlong G2 Swale last year and Pletcher kept him in sprints. There’s nothing to think he’ll get the Derby distance, so I expect him to drop off my list soon, probably after this weekend.
  9. El Padrino (Pulpit-Enchanted Rock, by Giant’s Causeway) Honestly, he should be ranked ahead of stablemate Discreet Dancer—and probably will after this weekend’s G2 Risen Star. His recent first-level allowance race win over 8.5 furlongs was beautifully done, and his breeding strong indicates he wants longer. His G1-winning second dam Chic Shirine also produced the 10-furlong G2 Ladies Handicap winner Tara Roma (dam of 9-furlong G1 Go For Wand victress Serra Lake). This is also the family of G1 Haskell runner-up Coal Play, G2 Lake Placid victress Hungry Island, 11-furlong French G1-placed Baraan, and multiple 12-furlong G1-placed Al Khali.
  10. Russian Greek (Giant’s Causeway-Sand Dollar, by Grindstone) Seriously, look at that pedigree. It screams stamina. His dam’s half brother, Breeders’ Cup Classic victor Cat Thief, finished less than a length behind Charismatic and Menifee in the 1999 Kentucky Derby. His second dam Train Robbery ran second in the 10-furlong G2 Delaware Handicap, while his third dam Track Robbery won multiple times at nine furlongs, including the G1 Vanity, Apple Blossom and Spinster. Russian Greek broke his maiden at first-ask on dirt at Santa Rosa, but since then has only raced over the Tapeta track at Golden Gate, winning the 8.5 furlong California Derby before disappointing last weekend in the 9-furlong G3 El Camino Real Derby. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer doesn’t have plans for his next race yet, but, boy, I’d like to see him on dirt—maybe in the $800k G3 Sunland Derby on March 25?

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