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Monday, April 21, 2008

Less Than Two Weeks 'Til Derby Day...

Ah, one more day of final exams, some quick grading and freedom at last! Sorry about the lack of posting this week, but in all honesty this Kentucky Derby is throwing me off stride. Every prep brings less than stellar results, and the overall picture is muddled at best. I was particularly disappointed that Tomcito didn’t finish farther up in the Lexington, but considering what a joke Keeneland is for dirt horses, not surprised. It’s just a damn shame he probably won’t have enough earnings. So, freaking Anak Nakal is Derby bound? His three races this year have been abysmal, and he’s not getting better. He worked 4f over the Churchill surface on April 18, and could only manage :49:40 (20/33)…does that sound like a horse sitting on a big performance? And Z Humor? Other than his maiden victory, the only win in seven subsequent outings for this one was the dead-heat with Turf War in the overpriced Delta Jackpot over the bullring track that is Delta Downs. Minus the $400,000 he won that night, Z Humor would most likely be in the barn come Derby day, with $179,000 in graded stakes earnings. Oh so many unworthies…

Well, here’s my take on the challengers as I see them right now—before Churchill workouts, before the post position draw, and before knowing any last minute additions or subtractions. My top five, in no particular order:

Of the original four colts on my mid-January watch list, only two remain in the Derby: Tale of Ekati (Tale of the Cat-Silence Beauty, by Sunday Silence) and Court Vision (Gulch-Weekend Storm, by Storm Bird). Both are regally bred with plenty of stamina, both in the sire and dam lines; Tale of Ekati’s dam is a half-sister to Sky Beauty, while Court Vision’s dam is a half-sister to AP Indy and a full-sister to Summer Squall. There is no doubt these two colts have the breeding and proven ability to run well—it’s just a matter of whether or not they are primed for a big performance. Watch their workouts carefully—Court Vision posted a bullet 4f work (:46.20) at Churchill on April 17, so he certainly appears moving in the right direction. He also has already won over the Churchill surface, taking the G3 Iroquois Stakes last October going 8f. Both Court Vision and Tale of Ekati also have great trainers—Bill Mott and Barclay Tagg, respectively—who no one can have problems rooting for, as they are true horsemen, and not to mention Eibar Coa (Tale of Ekati) and especially Garrett Gomez (Court Vision) are jockeys who know how to ride in big races. Consider this: rumor is Gomez turned down an offer to jump on Pyro after the G1 Blue Grass, and Gomez’s agent is emphatic that his client is sticking with Court Vision. Enough said.

Moving onto my top 5 list is Colonel John (Tiznow-Sweet Damsel, by Turkoman). Other than having never run on dirt, this colt has done nothing wrong, never finishing worse than second in six starts, including in two large G1 stakes fields. Considering the dirt success of his family, I don’t doubt he can make the transition from the all-weather surface to dirt. Again, I rate him a serious threat, and his Churchill workout will tell a lot. Trainer Eoin Harty was Bob Baffert’s assistant for Silver Charm and Real Quiet’s back-to-back Derby victories—it’s time he enjoyed that success standing on his own. Veteran jockey Corey Nakatani broke his collarbone in January, but returned to guide Colonel John to victory in the G1 Santa Anita Derby; he’s had 13 Derby mounts, but has yet to finish in the money. This may very well be his year.

While his pedigree may not suggest he can get 10 furlongs, Visionaire (Grand Slam-Scarlet Tango, by French Deputy) appears to me a horse that outruns his breeding. With Michael Matz’s careful handling, he should be ready again come May 3. While he recently finished fifth in the G1 Blue Grass, Visionaire was moving well over the track at the end. The chart reads: outrun five wide for seven furlongs, came out twelve wide entering the stretch to secure room, then was slowly gaining in the late stages. According to Keeneland’s Trakus measurements, in the final segment of the race Visionaire closed fastest of all (12.17) and overall travelled third farthest (6052’), outdistanced only by Big Truck (6066’) and Stone Bird (6068’) who finished 11th and 12th respectively. The shortest distance was actually run by Miner’s Claim (6003’), followed closely by Cool Coal Man (6008’) and Pyro (6010’)—very interesting! My point? I’m not giving up on Visionaire at this point. Considering the surface, I found his run encouraging. I also take it as a sign that my very first online wager was on Visionaire’s first allowance victory in January…

That day in January I also placed a $2 win bet on Smooth Air (Smooth Jazz-Air France, by French Deputy) in the G2 Hutcheson Stakes—which he won, paying $20.60. Since then, he’s run two big races, finishing just a little over a length back in third behind Fierce Wind and Big Truck in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, and second behind Big Brown in the G1 Florida Derby. While I continue to question his ability to get 10f, I admire Smooth Air’s tenacity, and he too may outrun his pedigree. And talk about a feel-good story—his 70-year-old trainer Bennie Stutts Jr. has his first Kentucky Derby runner, 40 years after gaining his trainer’s license.

Come the first Saturday in May, I envision a Court Vision-Visionaire exacta box, with Tale of Ekati up for third, but, again, so many unknown factors. To recap, my top five (in no particular order):

1. Court Vision
2. Visionaire
3. Tale of Ekati
4. Smooth Air
5. Colonel John

Two horses I also really want to see run: the afore-mentioned Tomcito (Street Cry-Inside or Outside, by Eastern Echo) and Eight Belles (Unbridled's Song-Away, by Dixieland Band). Tomcito, bred for stamina, has already proven himself in Peru—if you haven’t yet watched those races, browse over to YouTube and check them out. Impressive! (I admit being a sucker for a deep closer). He belongs in this race far, far more than others. Hopefully enough defects will permit a spot to open up for him. As for Eight Belles, I have no doubt that, as in Australia and Europe, if American fillies consistently ran against colts at two and three there would be no sense of novelty when one of them attempts to run in the Kentucky Derby or other big races. Eight Belles is a monster in size so physically she belongs. Additionally, she’s one of the most raced challengers (nine), including four straight victories this year against equally talented and much-raced competition. And, I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for Dixieland Band mares and their offspring. If her 4f work (:46.60) at Keeneland on Sunday (2/39) is followed up by an equally-impressive Churchill work, and she draws a good post, I rate her a solid threat.

Derby post positions are selected April 30.