Thursday, April 24, 2014

Down to the Wire: Kentucky Derby Roundtable

The official Kentucky Derby prep races are in the books and Mr. Speaker waited patiently before seizing control to take the Coolmore Lexington S. in impressive fashion at Keeneland. This week on Down to the Wire, we're joined by some of the best and brightest from Twitter: Emily White, Paul Mazur, Scott Shapiro, & Peter May Jr to talk Kentucky Derby runners and handicapping strategies. Also, of course this weekend marks the start of the spring meet at Churchill Downs, so I'll be back to giving daily analysis of those race cards. Now, onto this week's races....

Friday, April 29, 2014:

Keeneland Race 7: Maiden Special Weight (8f, Turf): #8 Fashion Fund (M/L 3/1)
Daughter of top European sire Oasis Dream, Fashion Fund makes her US debut after a winless juvenile campaign. She most recently finished third (by 1.5 and 2.25 lengths respectively) behind the then in-form Godolphin filly Wedding Ring, who went on to win the UAE 1000 Guineas Trial at Meydan. Fashion Fund stayed on going seven furlongs last time out, so the added furlong shouldn't be an issue. I'd expect her to take well to firm ground and she will, of course, be first time Lasix.

Keeneland Race 9: G2 Dixiana Elkhorn S. (12f, Turf): #11 Amen Kitten (M/L 8/1)
Most of the horses in this field enter her off top form, but Amen Kitten finished a nice second to Twilight Eclipse first time off the bench in the G2 Mac Diarmida S. at Gulfstream. It looks to be a wide open race, but the price seems right for the Ramsey/Ward son of Kitten's Joy.

Saturday, April 30, 2014:

**You can see my picks for the full Churchill Downs card by clicking HERE.

Ripon (GB) Race 3: Visit Handicap (6f, Turf): Hillbilly Boy
I've been a fan of this guy for a while now, but he has just blossomed under the watchful eye of Martin Smith, having followed up a second place finish with two wins in the short time he's been trained by him. He showed great heart to win last time out over soft ground at Doncaster and given his running style, the slight cutback in distance should be beneficial. This is a bit of a step up in class for him, but he looks to have some room left to improve.

Santa Anita Race 1: Allowance Optional Claiming $80,000 (8f, Turf): #1 Vanlose Stairway (ML 4/1)
Daughter of Leroidesanimaux broke her maiden in her first attempt in impressive fashion. After running a bit erratically early on down the hill, she flew down the stretch "like a rocket," according to announcer Trevor Denman. The move off the hill is likely a positive one given she didn't appear to take to it well in her debut.

Santa Anita Race 5: Tiznow S. (8f): #2 Soi Phet (ML 5/2)
One of the great stories in racing last year was the fantastic training job Leonard Powell has done with Soi Phet, who steadily rose through the rankings last summer and fall. He makes his 2014 debut here after a long campaign last year. Some of his best results have come in routes at Santa Anita, including his third place finish behind Mucho Macho Man & Paynter in the G1 Awesome Again.

Santa Anita Race 10: Snow Chief S. (9f, Turf): #6 Tamarando (ML 2/1)
I'm not going to get cute here. Tamarando is the fastest horse in the field and a multiple graded stakes winner. Yes, he didn't fire last time out in the Spiral, but he surely wouldn't have been accustomed to the heavy kickback he would've had to deal with there, so I'm more than willing to excuse him for that performance.

Lone Star Park Race 8: Texas Mile S. (8f): #4 Forest Mouse (ML 5/1)
I got the chance to see this guy in the flesh on the Sunland Derby undercard and instantly became a fan. Since switching back to dirt, this guy has been on fire down in New Mexico, having won each of his last three starts by over two lengths, the most recent of which was is in the easiest of manners.

Sunday, April 27, 2014:

Sha Tin (Hong Kong): Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup (Post Time 4:35 am EST): Epiphaneia
Winner of the Kikuna Sho and runner-up in the Japanese Derby and Japanese 2,000 Guineas, Epiphaneia is certainly a rising star. He finished third in the G2 Sankei Osaka Hai, his first start of 2014, but there's no shame in finishing under two lengths behind 2013 Japanese Racing Association Best Three-Year-Old-Colt Kizuna first time off the bench. By all accounts, he's looked in good order as of late.
**Recommended Play: Quinella -- Epiphaneia / Vercingetorix, Military Attack, & Dominant

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Churchill Downs Picks for Saturday, April 26th, 2014

Race 1: Maiden Claiming $30,000-$25,000 (6f): #4 Princess Mon (ML 8/1)
Daughter of Mustanfar broke slow, had a very wide trip, and still only finished one half length behind the winner versus similar at Turfway Park. The surface is a bit questionable, but she's been working well leading up to this and I expect a big effort here.
*Others to consider: #6 Little Gidding (ML 5/2), #8 Distinct Diva (ML 5/1)

Race 2: Claiming $30,000-$25,000 (8.5f): #4 Cold Facts (ML 3/1)
A winner over a mile last time out, Cold Facts sports some of the best speed figures of the bunch, not to mention he appears to like running at Churchill Downs, as he's finished in the top three five out of the seven times he's run there.
*Other to consider: #2 Ration (ML 5/2)

Race 3: Allowance Optional Claiming $80,000 (6f): #4 Sky Girl (ML 7/2)
Finished third in 2014 debut over the all weather at Keeneland, but figures to improve second time off the bench. Mott trainee is three out of four at Churchill Downs, including a victory last year in the G3 Dogwood.
*Other to consider: #1 Anahauc (ML 3/1)

Race 4: Maiden Special Weight (8f, Turf): #11 I'mbetterthangood (AE) (ML 3/1) 
Ken McPeek's I'mbetterthangood has only finished outside the top three once in six career starts and ran a big race over the all weather at Keeneland last time out before being caught late -- losing by only a neck. He'll be trying turf for the first time and the slightly shorter distance should suit. Julien Leparoux gets the mount.
*Others to consider: #4 Dynamic Decision (ML 6/1), #7 Street Chief (ML 9/2)

Race 5: Starter Allowance $5,000 (7f): #8 Highroller Dave (ML 7/5)
Here's your single for the day. Tom Amoss' Highroller Dave is as consistent as they come, having two wins and never finishing outside of the top four in his last five starts. He drops in class here and Rosie Napravnik gets the mount.

Race 6: Claiming $25,000 (6f): #2 Phat Day (ML 6/5)
Probably not the best betting race of the day, as Phat Day, who loves Churchill Downs, will be looking to get his seventh straight win for Tom Amoss. He moves up in class here, but on paper appears to be too fast for these.
*Other to consider: #1 Lookn Mighty Fast (ML 5/1)

Race 7: Maiden Special Weight (8f, Turf): #7 Joyful Moments (ML 5/1)
Son of Henrythenavigator out of a Dynaformer mare is bred to take to the turf and after two fourth place finishes on dirt, he'll get his first crack at the green stuff here. He appears better suited to today's distance of one mile and trainer Gary Hartlage excels with first time turf starters.
*Others to consider: #10 Great Minds (ML 4/1), #1 Identity Crisis (ML 8/1)

Race 8: G3 Derby Trial (8f): #10 Myositis Dan (ML 5/1)
In a race that looks to be loaded with early speed, I'll side with an off the pace runner in Myositis Dan, who most recently won a seven furlong allowance race at Keeneland quite nicely. His two career wins have come on the all weather, but two good second place finishes on dirt at Gulfstream, one of which was over eventual Arkansas Derby winner Danza, suggests the surface won't be too much of an issue.

Race 9: Claiming $5,000 (8f): #4 Oddity (ML 10/1)
Son of Osidy out of a Distorted Humor mare has been running on the all weather and turf as of late -- and has been fairly consistent in doing so. He returns to the Churchill dirt, on which he has a runner-up and a fourth place finish in four starts. Solid works in prep for this one.
*Others to consider: #5 Dangerous Dream (ML 5/2)

Race 10: Maiden Claiming $10,000 (8.5f): #4 Lucky Pursuit (ML 7/2)
Was bet down in last outing, which was over course and distance, but a horror trip led to him finishing a distant second versus similar last time out. He hasn't ran since last June, but he sports quick works and the Maker-Napravnik combo, of course, doesn't hurt.
*Others to consider: #5 Foggy Goggle (ML 15/1)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Keeneland Picks for Thursday, April 24

Race 1: Maiden Special Weight (4.5f, AW): #3 Beauty Sisters (M/L 2/1)
We don't start with the greatest of odds here being that she'll absolutely be bet down even further from her 2/1 morning line, but this $300,000 yearling purchase is about as well bred as they come, being by War Front and out of Nafisah, who has four winners from five starters. She sports quick works entering here and it's impossible to ignore Ward's stats with juveniles. Either single her in your early pick three or skip playing this race altogether.

Race 2: Claiming $25,000 (9f, AW): #3 Bowman's Causeway (M/L 4/1)
Progeny of Giant's Causeway historically have been successful on the Keeneland poly track and this guy proved to be no different two weeks ago when he closed late to finish third over course and distance -- just one and three quarter lengths behind the winner -- despite having covered the most ground of any runner in the field according to Trakus. He drops in class here and figures to be able to take advantage of what appears to likely be a quick early pace.

Race 3: Claiming $40,000 (6f, AW): #3 Juanita Senorita (M/L 5/1)
Daughter of Corinthian drops in class for Joseph Deegan who has favorable stats when making a sprint-route-sprint move, but what stands out to me is that in her only run at Keeneland -- which just so happened to be over today's course and distance -- she only missed by a nose and ran by far her fastest speed figure. She'll be making her third start of this form cycle and this meet's leading jockey Julien Leparoux gets the mount.

Race 4: Maiden Special Weight (9f, Turf): #14 Majestic Sunset (AE) (M/L 3/1)
Son of Artie Schiller has come close against good company, including Can'thelpbelieving, who runs later on the card; Asserting Bear; and Matador. Most recently finished second going a mile on good ground locally, was closing late, and just missed by half a length. Alan Garcia, who rode him last time out, retains the mount.
**If Majestic Sunset doesn't get into the race, I also like #1 Wildlife Artist & #11 Stroll To Victory  

Race 5: Allowance (about 7f, AW): #6 Schmooze (M/L 8/1)
Finished second last time out after gaining late in a 6f OC20K/n1x -- steps up in class here, but he should appreciate the extra furlong and if he runs back to his speed last out in what will be his second start of this form cycle, he should get the job done.

Race 6: Allowance (9f, Turf): #1 Can'thelpbelieving (M/L 5/2)
Broke his maiden in January before finishing fifth in the very salty G3 Palm Beach, just two and a half lengths behind second place finisher Mr. Speaker, who won the G3 Coolmore Lexington with ease last week. This is a step down in class.

Race 7: Allowance Optional Claiming (8.5f, AW): #11 Code West (M/L 5/1)
Son of Lemon Drop Kid makes his 2014 debut by returning to the all weather, on which he made his debut. When we last saw him, he finished fifth in the G2 Jim Dandy behind the likes of Palace Malice, Will Take Charge, and Moreno, so this is a definite drop in class. This will be his first start for Wayne Catalano and Julien Leparoux gets the mount.

Race 8: G3 Bewitch (12f, turf): #2 Left A Message (M/L 6/1)
Romantica is the deserving favorite off of her effort in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, but this will be her first start since then and I'm thinking she's beatable first time off the bench. The Proctor trained Left A Message most recently finished fourth in the G3 Very One, just one and three quarter lengths behind winner Inimitable Romanee, despite being steadied in the first turn.

Race 9: $10,000 Claiming (7f, AW): #11 Professor Trek (M/L 10/1)
Like most $10,000 claimers, this race is a mess, so might as well go for a price to finish off the day. Professor Trek comes in here after having won going wire-to-wire at Turfway Park. Yes, he steps up in class here, but his speed figures are improving, and given his running style, the cutback to seven furlongs could be helpful. He'll be on the lead here, it's just a matter of how long he can hold on.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Remembering the Champions: Swale

From the instant he was born, he was destined for greatness.

The son of a Triple Crown champion in Seattle Slew and out of Tuerta -- a daughter of Argentinian Horse of the Year Forli, who herself was a multiple graded stakes winner, the horse who was named after he was found sleeping in a low lying area had all the markings of a future champion

Bred in the Hancock family's historic Claiborne Farm, Swale was trained by the legendary Woody Stephens and despite his propensity for sleeping, the dark bay colt's winning ways showed themselves early, as he captured the G2 Saratoga Special in only his third career start, turning the table on Shuttle Jet, who had defeated him in his debut. He would go on to win three of the four additional starts he made as a two-year-old, which was highlighted by his win in the G1 Young America Stakes at the Meadowlands -- the final race of his juvenile campaign.

Swale began his three-year-old campaign in the G3 Hutcheson, which he won by a whopping eight lengths, before being defeated just ten days later in the G2 Fountain of Youth. He rebounded two weeks later, however, when he won the G1 Florida Derby after again putting his gameness on full display.

It wasn't always pretty, but the son of Seattle Slew had shown a tremendous amount of heart to this point in his career, and yet he was overshadowed by stablemate and 1983 Champion Two-Year-Old Colt Devil's Bag, who was purchased by Claiborne for $36 million after his juvenile season. While the high priced son of Halo's undefeated juvenile campaign was littered with easy victories, Swale had to fight tooth and nail to barely squeak out wins -- leaving him an afterthought when compared to his stablemate who had already been dubbed "the next great champion."

Ultimately, however, Devil's Bag flopped in the G1 Flamingo and was withdrawn from the Kentucky Derby five days before the race, leaving Swale a pinch hitter of sorts, and the sole entry for his ailing trainer who was suffering from pneumonia.

Sent off as the second choice, Swale was in good position just off the pace set by favorite Althea, daughter of the great Alydar, heading down the backstretch before taking the lead in the far turn and never looking back -- opening up down the stretch to win by three and one quarter lengths. He was the first to bring the famed gold silks of Claiborne Farm to the Kentucky Derby winners circle in what would be the only Derby victory for Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr.

While Swale disappointed in the Preakness when finishing off the board for the first and only time in his career, he bounced back in a big way in the final leg of the American Triple Crown by emphatically winning the race nicknamed "The Test of the Champion." The nearly gate-to-wire victory cemented him as the best of his generation and a legend at the hallowed grounds of Claiborne Farm.

The almost chocolate colored colt had officially blossomed into an American racing star.

Just eight days after his victory at Belmont, however, Swale returned to Woody Stephens' barn to cool off and be bathed following a routine gallop. It was during that bath that the sport's newest champion collapsed -- dying within minutes.

At just three years of age, the horse who went from being relatively ignored to having captured the attention of a nation and making Kentucky Derby dreams come true for both his owners and his jockey was lost -- leaving behind a grave reminder of the fragility of life.

Following his mysterious death, Swale was brought home and at the tender age of three was laid to rest among the champions at Claiborne including French Champion Two-Year-Old Colt Ambiorix, as well as, U.S. Champion Three-Year-Olds Bold Ruler and Buckpasser.

Swale's life and unfortunate passing embodies what racing fans have already come to realize -- that this sport perhaps has more extreme emotional peaks and valleys than any other and that as quickly as a one champion is crowned, he can be lost in the blink of an eye.

But perhaps the more important takeaway from Swale's life is the power of the heart. It was his perseverance that earned him victories and at the end of the day, it was that will to win that triumphed over the other well-bred and high priced colts of his generation.

As the great college basketball coach Jim Valvano once said in the now famous ESPY speech he gave after being diagnosed with cancer "Don't give up...don't ever give up," and the story of Swale, who himself never gave up, is another reminder of the power of grit and gameness, the importance of having dreams, and the notion that if you work hard enough, your dreams can become a reality.

So as you sit down to watch this year's edition of the Kentucky Derby, which will mark the 30th anniversary of the moment the garland of roses was draped over Swale, I urge you to take a moment to remember the lost son of Seattle Slew who on one Saturday in May made dreams come true.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Down to the Wire: Illinois Derby & Coolmore Lexington Stakes

Dance With Fate stole the show at Keeneland when he closed well to win the G1 Blue Grass Stakes. He was ridden beautifully by Corey Nakatani in doing so. Personally, I'm a big fan of Two Step Salsa as a sire, so a G1 win from his leading son was nice to see. In Arkansas, Danza shipped in from Florida and blew 'em away, providing us with another interesting Kentucky Derby prospect. A big weekend of racing is on tap, so let's get right to it. 

4/19/2014: Hawthorne Race 9 -- G3 Illinois Derby (9f):
We may be uncertain whether or not he'll ultimately show up at Churchill Downs come Kentucky Derby day, but Midnight Hawk does have the points to run on the first Saturday in May, so this could very well turn out to be his final Derby prep. The Baffert-trained son of Midnight Lute always runs his race and has never finished outside of the top three in five career starts (four of which being graded stakes). He holds a speed and class edge here and should get the win. If you're hard-pressed on betting against him, one to consider is Class Leader, who won his two most recent starts, both of which came at Fair Grounds. The lightly raced son of Smart Strike out of the multiple graded stakes winning mare Class Kris will be making his third start of this form cycle and fourth career start overall. I expect him to be able to sit a good trip just off the pace and although this is a step up in class for him, he seems the improving type to me. 

Pick: #8 Class Leader to Win

4/19/2014: Keeneland Race 9 -- G3 Coolmore Lexington Stakes (8.5f, AW):
The synthetic track at Keeneland has played kindly to closers this meet and I'd expect this race to go no differently. Mr Speaker is the class of this field, his two most recent turf starts at Gulfstream immediately make him a contender here, and his most recent runner-up finish in the G3 Palm Beach caught my attention. I'm a big fan of Pleuven, who is a strong closer, and coming down the stretch, he blew by Pleuven with ease. The Pletcher-trained Divine Oath also merits consideration. The son of Broken Vow is undefeated in two starts, both of which came on the turf at Gulfstream, and he beat the likes of Big Bazinga and Ring Weekend along the way. 

Pick: #1 Mr. Speaker to Win, Double (starting in R8): 6,10 / 1,6

Bonus Pick for Saturday, April 19, 2014:

Charles Town Race 12 -- G2 Charles Town Classic (9f): #1 Clubhouse Ride
While Game on Dude is a deserving favorite in nearly every race in which he runs, he runs his best races when he gets an easy lead and with Moreno in the field, the lead here will be contested from the start. Clubhouse Ride comes here after having finished third in two straight at Santa Anita, but the track hasn't necessarily played to his strengths, not that there's much shame in losing to multiple graded stakes winner Sahara Sky; the up-and-coming Big Macher; or Fury Kapcori, who is undefeated in 2014. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Narrowing Down the Kentucky Derby Contenders

Now that we've finished the major Kentucky Derby preps, I've narrowed down my list of Kentucky Derby contenders. I won't make my final selections until after the confirmed runners have worked at Churchill Downs and the posts have been drawn, but for now, these are the horses who I am considering. Bare in mind, these are listed in no particular order and the comments are my personal notes on how I view each of the contenders at this point. 

California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit - Love the Chase, by Not For Love)
--Pros: Clearly comes into the Derby with the best resume of any horse in the field, as is shown by his four-straight victories in stakes, highlighted by his most recent win in the G1 Santa Anita Derby. He's shown a versatility in running styles, although he does seem to prefer to be near the lead early. He definitely possesses a "winning move," where he switches into high gear at the most crucial time of the race and in about two or three strides has kicked clear of the pack, not to mention his speed figures are improving the further he runs.
--Cons: Is is possible that he's won too easily to this point? It's hard to think he'd be able to win the Derby without a fight and he certainly isn't the most battle tested of the bunch. Aside from the San Felipe Stakes, he has a history of stumbling out of the gate and although his powerful first few strides have bailed him out so far, that could be a bigger issue in a larger, more talented field. Speaking of his stride, it's fluid and powerful, but not necessarily long, which again brings into question how he would fare if engaged in a battle while tired in the last furlong of the Derby.

Vicar's In Trouble (Into Mischief - Vibrant, by Vicar)
--Pros: One of the more consistent of this crop, having won three of his five starts and never finishing outside of the top three. He has progressed nicely from his big win in the G3 LeComte, in which he ran a bit greenly at times, to his most recent victory in the G2 Louisiana Derby, where he looked like a veteran in that wire-to-wire victory. Won by a wide margin on a downgraded track, so he's another who could be a major factor if rain is in the forecast.
--Cons: Distance is the obvious concern. Into Mischief had two sons on the Derby trail last year in Vyjack and Goldencents and neither were able to hang with the big boys when going further than nine furlongs. Not to mention, he came home quite slowly in the Louisiana Derby, which perhaps was the first sign that ten furlongs will be too far for him, as well. Additionally, he does his best running on the lead, so the potential pace scenario could prove difficult for him to overcome.

Wicked Strong (Hard Spun - Moyne Abbey, by Charismatic)
--Pros: By a Kentucky Derby runner-up and out of the daughter of a Kentucky Derby winner certainly gives one confidence that he'll relish ten furlongs more than most. He seems to be getting good at the right time, as his closing fourth place finish on the speed biased Gulfstream main track was a good effort before he broke through with his win in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. He's one of the true closers in this group, which certainly bodes well for his chances with all of the speed that's signed on at this point.
--Cons: His no-show appearance in the Holy Bull is still a bit of a mystery and he has done his best running in New York to this point. More troubling, perhaps, is his tendency to get a bit erratic when the whip is used. That was a major issue for him as a two-year-old in the Remsen and it appeared to again show (albeit to a much lesser degree) in the Wood.

Danza (Street Boss - Champagne Royale, by French Deputy)
--Pros: Surprise winner of the G1 Arkansas Derby won in impressive fashion over runners who were much more seasoned than him. He came home strongly in that nine furlong contest and, in fact, ran only 0.13 seconds slower than multiple graded stakes winner Will Take Charge, who won at the same distance the race before. He only has four career starts, two of which were this year, so there may very well be room for him to further improve and his off the pace running style certainly boosts his case for the Derby.
--Cons: His pedigree screams miler, but he's clearly outran that already. He did run a bit greenly down the stretch last out, although that's perhaps not too surprising given it was only his fourth career start, and he did storm through the wire when it counted. He does appear to have a high knee action, however, and one could question whether his lack of seasoning will catch up to him when facing the best of his crop on the first Saturday in May.

Hoppertunity (Any Given Saturday - Refugee, by Unaccounted For)
--Pros: One of the contenders who has noticeably improved, particularly since his wide but closing fourth place finish in the G2 Risen Star. He's yet to put in a poor effort and his speed figures have consistently improved the further he's had to run. A half to multiple graded stakes winner Executiveprivilege, Hoppertunity is built like a "classic-type" router, has a beautiful long stride, and his gallop-outs after nearly every one of his races are eye-catching. His best performance to date was over a wet-fast track in the G2 Rebel, so rain on Derby day shouldn't be an issue. He's ran well at multiple tracks and no matter the circumstances, he just always seems to run his race.
--Cons: He ran a sneaky good race in the Santa Anita Derby, but it was still a bit alarming how quickly California Chrome skipped away from him even before Dublin Up had forced him out wide. It's also worth mentioning that he did not run as a two-year-old and will be making his sixth start of the year in the Derby.

Wildcat Red (D'Wildcat - Racene, by Miner's Mark)
--Pros: You'd be hard-pressed to find one from this three-year-old crop who has a bigger heart than Wildcat Red, who perhaps had the most gutsy performance of these runners when he fought tooth and nail to just miss to Constitution in the G1 Florida Derby. He broke from the rail there, which all but forced him to take the early lead, but contrary to popular belief, this guy can settle off the pace -- and he did just that en route to winning the G3 Hutcheson. He never goes down without a fight, which in and of itself will make him a factor in most races. His pedigree has been tabbed as that of a sprinter's, but he has certainly showed an ability to route and his dam did win going ten furlongs on turf.
--Cons: He did ride the rail for the bulk of the Florida Derby (pretty much all but when it mattered most) and while he did hold the lead from the start, he wasn't exactly setting a blistering pace, which throws up a red flag about his ability to stay that extra furlong.

Ride on Curlin (Curlin - Magical Ride, by Storm Cat)
--Pros: Has shown slow, but steady progress throughout the year after a nice juvenile season that was concluded by an impressive third place finish behind Havana and Honor Code in the G1 Champagne. Ten furlongs should not be an issue and he does have the ability to run comfortably off the pace. He's another who would appreciate a wet track, if that were to come into play, and he does have experience -- albeit with mixed results -- at Churchill Downs.
--Cons: The way he finished in the Rebel was a bit off-putting to me, as he snagged the lead late and then was passed, and not necessarily because he couldn't get the distance, as was shown by his runner-up finish in the Arkansas Derby. His best finishes have come when he's been closing late, but following the Rebel, I'm thinking he's one who's move to the lead needs to be timed perfectly, as he can perhaps idle a bit when out alone in front. His two career wins don't necessarily support that theory, but neither of those came in stakes races, so he could have just simply been the class of those fields, regardless.

General A Rod (Roman Ruler - Dynamite Eyes, by Dynaformer)
--Pros: The battle-tested General A Rod seems to have fallen off the radar since the Florida Derby, but he deserves more credit than he's getting for that run. Wide all the way, he ultimately finished just one and one half lengths behind Constitution, who had ridden the rail during the entirety of the race. He's a fighter and he always seems to find a way to get himself into the mix. He has a second place finish at Churchill Downs to his name and his maiden win and the manner in which he did it was mighty impressive. Perhaps he's a more versatile runner than some think?
--Cons: He's another who has outrun his pedigree, so his ability to stay ten furlongs is questionable. Every race of his since his maiden win has been done in the same manner -- running outside and very close to the pace -- but that formula likely will not work if there's a hot early pace come Derby day.

Medal Count (Dynaformer - Brisquette, by Unbridled's Song)
--Pros: He arrives at Churchill Downs as one of the more in-form runners after having won the G3 Transylvania, which was taken off the turf, and finishing second in the G1 Blue Grass. His most recent attempt on dirt, which was in the G2 Fountain of Youth was also a relatively sneaky good run, in my opinion. Recall that race was run at a quick pace on the speed friendly Gulfstream main track and Medal Count spent most of the race in the second flight of runners behind the dueling duo of Wildcat Red and General A Rod. Essentially, he was in no man's land, running more quickly than he'd like. Everyone he was running near for the bulk of the race was backing up before the far turn and the fact he at least somewhat stayed on under those circumstances caught my attention. It's also worth noting he has trained at Churchill Downs in the past, so one would expect him to be comfortable with that surface.
--Cons: His best results have clearly come on turf and synthetic surfaces and the fact he's run twice on dirt without a top three finish to show for it could make it difficult for some to give him another chance on that surface. It's also worth mentioning the Kentucky Derby will be his third start in a month.

Cairo Prince (Pioneerof the Nile - Holy Bubbette, by Holy Bull)
--Pros: Having begun his career winning four out of five races -- with his lone loss being by a nose to Honor Code in the G2 Remsen -- Cairo Prince was the "it" horse for most of this year's road to the Kentucky Derby. Unlike many of these, he has nice tactical speed that allows him to get in striking position early and he has used a quick burst of acceleration to snatch the lead going into the stretch in every one of his victories. His fourth place finish in the Florida Derby also wasn't nearly as bad as some are making it out to be, particularly with him coming off a two month layoff. Surely, he needed the run and he did start to make his signature outside move before flattening out late. I'd expect him to strip fitter from that effort and perform better next time out.
--Cons: I got the chance to see Cairo Prince in the flesh in Florida back in February and his build isn't exactly what you'd expect from a potential Kentucky Derby winner. He has a more compact build than I'd expect from a classic router, but at the same time he had a lighter frame than you'd typically see from a true sprinter. I've spoken in the past about my concern in that he had never ran behind horses prior to the Florida Derby and that concern was justified by his clear discomfort while running behind Constitution early last time out. If kickback is in fact the issue on a dry track, you'd have to think he's a toss if the track comes up wet on Derby day.

Uncle Sigh (Indian Charlie - Cradlesong, by Pine Bluff)
--Pros: He started off his career as consistent as they come, having finished in the top two in his first four races and never losing by more than one length. In his first two tries in graded stakes, he had to "do the dirty work" up front, which in turn, gave Samraat a tactical advantage both times. He most recently ran fifth -- beaten eight lengths -- in the Wood, in what I feel was one of the best under the radar runs of the major prep season. He blew the break and was forced to rush simply to get himself back into contention and despite having the widest trip in the field according to Trakus, he was still passing horses late. In fact, the only runner who was going faster than him at the finish was the winner Wicked Strong. Although it may have been forced by his slow start, Uncle Sigh did show he was able to settle off the pace, which makes him a more versatile runner than perhaps previously thought. He also finished a very game second in his debut, in which he lost by just a head in a quickly run race over a muddy track, so if the track comes up wet on Derby day, look for him to take advantage.
--Cons: In both the G3 Gotham and G3 Withers he was handily beaten by Samraat, so the case could be made that he simply wasn't good enough to get the win. His speed figures also aren't quite up to par with the top contenders, although they aren't a long way off.

---- Not Yet in the Field: 
Commanding Curve (Master Command - Mother, by Lion Hearted)
--Pros: The only horse who doesn't yet have a spot in the field that I want anything to do with is Commanding Curve, who was my choice in the G2 Louisiana Derby. He wound up finishing third there despite being bumped hard by Rise Up early on, in what was his best performance to date. Trained by Dallas Stewart, who also trained last year's Kentucky Derby runner-up Golden Soul, Commanding Curve is a true closer and is one of the few in the field who I am confident can stay for ten furlongs. His lone win also just so happened to come at Churchill Downs.
--Cons: He's not the most consistent runner of this crop and you definitely have to really look to find the positives in some of his performances. While he did come on strong late in the Louisiana Derby, visually it probably looks better than it really was considering how slowly Vicar's In Trouble and Intense Holiday finished that race.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Down to the Wire: Wood Memorial & Santa Anita Derby + Weekend Quick Picks

Constitution stamped himself as a Kentucky Derby contender after edging out a very game Wildcat Red in last week's Florida Derby. That being said, he was quite rank early and all but got the trip of a lifetime, so I'm still a bit tentative on his chances on the first Saturday in May. Over in Louisiana, Vicar's In Trouble dominated the field and all but secured Ken Ramsey his second Derby runner. In that race, I was most impressed by our choice Commanding Curve, who closed strongly late, but it's a shame that the twenty points he received for third place will likely not be enough to get him in the Derby because he would've fit nicely in that field. 

4/5/2014: Aqueduct Race 10 -- G1 Wood Memorial (9f): 
Ever since the Gotham, I've hoped that Uncle Sigh would be drawn outside of Samraat here and that's exactly the setup for this third tussle between the two three-year-old stars of New York. Samraat has gotten the better of the son of Indian Charlie in their two meetings, but being drawn outside of his primary rival allowed him to get a tactical advantage and forced Uncle Sigh to "do the dirty work" of either setting or pressing the pace. You can't take anything away from Samraat, who is undefeated in five starts, but he'll be a shorter price than Uncle Sigh and although he outran his pedigree in the Gotham, distance is again a serious concern. Noble Moon returns for the first time after injury kept him off the track since winning the Jerome back in January. It's tough to know how he'll fire first time off the layoff, but being by Malibu Moon and out of a Kingmambo mare, at the very least, he should be able to stay the distance. Wicked Strong returns after finishing fourth in Constitution's optional claimer on the Fountain of Youth undercard. He appears to have bounced back from his no-show appearance in the Holy Bull and he'll be coming late. Kristo ships to New York after being thoroughly trounced by California Chrome last time out. Perhaps he can get up for a minor award, but I'm inclined to think he's not a true contender for the win. I feel similarly about Harpoon, who does his best running on the outside, so drawing the four post does him no favors here. Schivarelli is intriguing in this spot. This may be too quick of a turnaround, but he has impressed in his first two starts. While this is a step up in class, he could surprise underneath at a price. Fan favorite Social Inclusion drew the widest post, which will likely force him to the the lead early. I'll be watching him intently, but he's going to have to run well here to win me over after having everything go his way last time out at Gulfstream.

Pick: Uncle Sigh to win
Bankroll Play: Exacta -- Uncle Sigh / Samraat, Wicked Strong, Noble Moon, Social Inclusion, & 

4/5/2014: Santa Anita Race 8 -- G1 Santa Anita Derby (9f):
This marks the highly anticipated return of California Chrome and Hoppertunity who both impressed last time out, but neither of them really need the points to get into the Kentucky Derby, so I doubt either will be all out to win here. Candy Boy, on the other hand, has been away since winning the Robert B. Lewis back in February. He needs to run well here to get into the Derby and recent work reports on him have been positive. He's your logical choice here. Of the outsiders, Schoolofhardrocks is interesting coming off his fourth place finish in the San Felipe in what was his first start since last summer. Surely, he needed the run and if he manages to finish well here, he could be an intriguing prospect from a pace perspective in the Derby. That being said, having success as a closer at Santa Anita is often easier said than done. Rprettyboyfloyd is still a maiden, but he's run just behind some tough customers including Kobe's Back, Cherubim, Chelios, and Bayern. Perhaps he's not a contender for the win, but he's finished second in four of five starts and has never finished outside of the top three.

Pick: Candy Boy to win and exacta box: Candy Boy, Schoolofhardrocks, & Rprettyboyfloyd 

Weekend Quick Picks for Friday, April 4, 2014:

Keeneland Race 4 -- Allowance: Kingston Jamaica (if on turf)
Rain is in the forecast in Lexington, so if this race remains on the turf, expect this son of Galileo to run big on the distance cutback. This will be his third start on this side of the pond and his lone win overseas was on soft ground.

Keeneland Race 5 -- Maiden Special Weight: Watery Moon
$275,000 yearling purchase at the Keeneland sales. Graham Motion trained son of Malibu Moon boasts several speedy works heading into his debut.

Keeneland Race 9 -- G3 Transylvania Stakes: Pleuven (if on turf)
He's twice ran on this side of the pond and he ran respectably in both of those runs. In the G3 Dania Beach, he finished third after a tough, wide trip and he was closing late last time out in the G3 Palm Beach. Potential for wet turf aids his case and he should be flying late. **Recommended play: Exacta Box: 8,9

Weekend Quick Picks for Saturday, April 5, 2014:

Aintree Race 5 -- Crabbie's Grand National Chase: The Rainbow Hunter & Pineau De Re
Last year, The Rainbow Hunter crossed the finish just two lengths behind the winner Aurora's Encore despite being riderless, and after nicely winning at Doncaster last time out, he appears primed and ready to finish on top this time around. Pineau De Re won by an impressive margin two back at Exeter and backed that up when just being edged for the win in the Pertemps handicap hurdle during the Cheltenham Festival.

Aqueduct Race 6 -- Allowance Optional Claiming: Catron
Often the workmate of Palace Malice, this son of Distorted Humor out of a graded stakes placed A.P. Indy mare won two straight before finishing fourth in the Gulfstream Park Sprint Stakes, which was his stakes debut. He drops in class and steps up ever so slightly in trip for Todd Pletcher.

Keeneland Race 8 -- Allowance: Myositis Dan
Son of Istan broke his maiden over this track last year and he's ran second twice in a row to the likes of Can't Stop The Kid and the promising Anchor Down.

Keeneland Race 9 -- Ashland Stakes: Rosalind
Testa Rossi should go off favored here and for very good reason after backing up her runner up finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf with a win in the G3 Florida Oaks first time off the layoff. Rosalind, who herself finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, has experience on this track, however, as she finished second in a G1 over course and distance as a juvenile. There also appears to be a fair amount of early speed signed on, which helps her case.

Santa Anita Race 4 -- Maiden Special Weight: Footstepsinbronze
After a failed attempt on the dirt, this Irish-bred son of Footstepsinthesand gets another crack going down the hill, on which he finished second behind Home Run Kitten in his debut.

Santa Anita Race 7 -- Providencia Stakes: Nashoba's Gold
The impressive daughter of Curlin, Diversy Harbor, has been very hyped since her big win in the China Doll and will likely be favored in this contest. I'm a big fan of the filly who finished just behind her last time out: Nashoba's Gold. She is a closer like Diversy Harbor and both of them had wide trips in their last outing, but the deciding factor for me here is that Nashoba's Gold has a win over course and distance, whilst Diversy Harbor has yet to run this far.