Thursday, April 30, 2009

2009 Kentucky Derby Preview

Last week I wrote about the top 4 contenders at the time, but the departure of Quality Road makes this a much more wide open race. While I Want Revenge was named the morning line 3-1 favorite by track handicapper Mike Battaglia, there is no standout in this field, and many intriguing possibilities. Without further ado, a look at all 20 colts in the 135th Kentucky Derby. (Sire/Dam in parentheses).

The Automatic Tosses: These horses have no chance to win and were likely entered so their owners will have good seats from which to view the race.

#8 Mine That Bird (Birdstone/Mining My Own): While a "star" at two in Canada winning three stakes races and a juvenile championship up north, he finished last in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita last year. Though the $9,500 yearling purchase is a rags to riches story having earned almost $375,000, the odds of him winning this race are nearly that long.

#9 Join in the Dance (Sky Mesa/Dance Darling): One of three in the race for Derby virgin Todd Pletcher he may give his owners a thrill setting the pace for the first 6 furlongs but he's unlikely to break the schneid for the country's top earning trainer.

#14 Atomic Rain (Smart Strike/Paradise Pond): Could be a hunch play if the skies open up. Maiden winner at 5F, I hope the Hall's enjoy the mint juleps because a trip to the winner's circle is not in the forecast.

#17 Summer Bird (Birdstone/Hong Kong Squall): Did finish 3rd in the Arkansas Derby at 26-1, but with only three starts and a single win under his belt so far in his career, I don't think he has much chance to win this one.

#18 Nowhere to Hide (Vindication/Stirring): Not sure how he qualifies for this field with nary a show placing in graded stakes, but Nick Zito enters this colt anyway and puts blinkers on. This $250k KEESEP yearling is the lowest earner in the field ($100k).

#20 Flying Private (Fusaichi Pegasus/Beautiful Treasure): His daddy won the Derby back in 2000 as the favorite but has been less than stellar as a sire. D. Wayne has his Derby entry, but this colt is too slow to warrant serious consideration and drawing the 20 hole doesn't help.

Really, alot of these could have been entered in a N1X Allowance race on the undercard and it'd have been a nice little race but the owners would rather try for the glory.

The Longshots: This group of horses will be high priced, but there is a slim chance they could pull a Giacomo and shock the world.

#1 West Side Bernie (Bernstein/Time Honored): Started his career with two straight wins including the Grade III Kentucky Cup Juvenile, but hasn't won since. Did post a triple figure Beyer finishing 2nd to race favorite I Want Revenge in the Wood, but will need another step forward to have a shot.

#3 Mr. Hot Stuff (Tiznow/Sweet Damsel): His full bro Colonel John took some money in last year's Derby and could only manage 6th but hung on to win last year's Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga. Obviously bred for the distance, he closed well in his last two races, both 3rd place finishes in graded stakes. This is his first trip outside of California and on dirt; gets top rider John Velazquez for Eoin Harty in this race, and could be coming flying toward the wire. If the pace is hot and the race breaks down, he could spring the upset.

#4 Advice (Chapel Royal/Word o'Wisdom): Winning the Grade II Lexington at Keeneland two weeks ago was impressive, but wheeling back in two weeks is a very tough task. His pedigree screams "speed" and he's 0-1 lifetime on the conventional dirt. I really am not too high on this guy, but his graded victory at least shows he can compete.

#10 Regal Ransom (Distorted Humor/Kelli's Ransom): The longer odds of the two Godolphin entries he beat stablemate Desert Party in the UAE Derby (gr. II). He will likely be amongst the pace-setters and although his workouts show he'll like the track in Kentucky, unless he can sneak away to a very easy lead, I don't think he'll have enough left in the tank when the real running starts.

#19 Desert Party (Street Cry(Ire)/Sage Cat): Shiekh Mohammed paid a pretty penny, 210 million of them in fact, for this bay colt by Street Cry (Ire). He showed promise early winning the Grade II Sanford over a sealed muddy track before floundering in the Hopeful. If the track comes up wet, this horse moves up in my rankings but the fact that regular jockey Louis Dettori did not fly over for the mount, and the prior jockey in his US races Edgar Prado rides Dunkirk leaves me a little dubious of his chances.

The Live Longshot(s): These three horses are 20-1 on the M/L but have won a major derby prep which warrants them an additional look.

#2 Musket Man (Yonaguska/Fortuesque): Hard to fault a horse that's 5 for 6 and I love horses that know how to win. This guy proves you don't need big bucks to get to the Derby, just a good eye and a little luck. He went for only $15,000 at Keeneland's 2007 yearling sale, and boasts a workmanlike pedigree. That could prevent him from being able to get 10f as his sire was a speedster and his damside doesn't project stamina either. Couldn't handle General Quarters in the SF Davis but rebounded to win two graded stakes since then. Has talent, has won at 9 furlongs, but I just don't think he's quite good enough to win the roses, could get a slice.

#5 Hold Me Back (Giant's Causeway/Restraint): If he is able to translate his synthetic surface ability to the Churchill track, he could pose a big threat. His only dirt run was a disappointing 5th at Aqueduct in the Remsen (gr. II). Trainer Bill Mott has never won the Derby but jockey Kent Desormeaux has three times including last year on Big Brown. He does have the kind of pace profile that wins, and great closing times, so if he can translate his Lane's End run to the Derby, he could be a player. He's gotta prove it before I take him.

#7 Papa Clem (Smart Strike/Miss Houdini): Ran 2nd to two of the races favorites (Pioneer and Friesan Fire) before taking the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) at Oaklawn last race. To me he proved the West Coast horses were to be reckoned with and don't forget he finished ahead of I Want Revenge in the Robert B Lewis (gr. II). Nice pedigree as Smart Strike has become a top sire and Miss Houdini was a grade I winning filly. His style should keep him within a few lengths, but if the track is muddy you have to put him behind Friesan Fire who beat him by 7 1/4 in the slop at the LA Derby. If he's 20-1 on Saturday he's worth a flyer.

The Storybook Endings: Two sentimental favorites, these longshots have a legitimate shot to win, but also sport great background stories.

#11 Chocolate Candy (Candy Ride/Crownette): Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer is third on the all-time wins list and has been the dominant trainer in Northern California for 20+ years winning over 5,000 races but has never really established himself in the major Grade 1 races. He had the Derby favorite in '96 but had to scratch Event of the Year due to injury and has 0 wins in 3 Derby starts. He comes in with a live horse in Chocolate Candy who's off the pace style fits this race to a "t". A good foundation at two, this will be his 10th career race, and he gets a jockey upgrade in Mike Smith, whose experience will be an asset. A "dual qualifier" his pedigree boasts the Rasmussen factor through Alanesian, the blue hen mare of Boldnesian, grandsire of Seattle Slew. He's never raced on dirt, but has worked beautifully over the Churchill surface including a 59 1/5 5F earlier this week. He hasn't been able to run past Pioneerof the Nile yet, but the extra furlong may give him the opportunity. I expect him to be running fast late, and if he gets the right pace set-up, Jerry may get the cherry on top of his Hall-of-Fame career. He's my personal favorite pick, having seen him live in the El Camino Real Derby (pictured above).

#12 General Quarters (Sky Mesa/Ecology) : In contrast to Chocolate Candy's trainer Jerry Hollendorfer who's sent horses to the starting gate over 4oo times this year, General Quarters trainer Tom Mc Carthy (great background story from the New York Daily News) has only two starts this year and one win, both with his featured colt. McCarthy claimed this horse for $20,000 last year, the same price he sold for at the Keeneland 2007 yearling auction, and has turned him into a grade I winner. I absolutely love the 4x5 cross of champion Round Table in his pedigree imparting stamina and durability. Churchill specialist Julian Leparoux gets the mount, and if he can repeat his effort from the Grade III SF Davis he stands a chance for the big prize. Don't count this underdog out.

The Fab Four: The four most talented colts in the field, and which combined I think there is a 90% chance the winner will come from this group. In reverse order of preference:

#15 Dunkirk (Unbridled's Song/Secret Status): Regally bred grey colt that didn't debut until January of this year (big no-no), and that's one of his few faults. His other fault is that he's never won a stakes race, but did finish 2nd to superstar Quality Road in the Grade I Florida Derby. What he has done is bust out the top last race Beyer Speed Figure of 108, which two of the past three winners sported. He's also the offspring of a Grade I winning millionaire dam by a top sire in Unbridled's Song. I just think his lack of experience will hurt him in the end and trainer Todd Pletcher will once again fail to get his brass ring.

#13 I Want Revenge (Stephen Got Even/Meguial): Started miserably in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) but finished like a champ to draw clear by 1 1/2 at the wire. His Gotham run was equally impressive scoring by 8 1/2 lenghths and earning the field's top Beyer (113). Oft maligned trainer Jeff Mullins shipped his colt east after failing to beat West Coast division leader Pioneerof the Nile, and its proved to be a great decision. He loves the dirt and handled the Churchill track firing a bullet 4F workout Tuesday. He's been made the morning line favorite, but I think the Wood might have taken alot out of him, he was all out in the win. Additionally he's being guided by a 19 year old jockey in his first Kentucky Derby. I don't like 3-1 odds given those factors so I won't be singling him to win, but he's a very logical candidate.

#6 Friesan Fire (A.P. Indy/Bollinger): His three race graded stakes streak was accomplished at the Fairgrounds, not the normal route to the winner's circle at Churchill. Also he hasn't raced since March 14th, a seven week layoff. What I do like is how he's improved in each of his last three, including a huge run in the slop in the LA Derby crushing Papa Clem who went on to win the Arkansas Derby next out. He moves to the top if the track is sloppy. He's got tactical speed but I don't foresee him sprinting to the lead and getting caught up in a dual. His final quarters aren't spectacular, and he hasn't been past 8.5 panels, but his pedigree is outstanding, and there's no reason to suspect he won't get the distance. Absolutely blitzed 5F last Monday in 57 4/5 showing he's itching to run. I expect him to be heavily bet, and may even end up the favorite, but I'll have him in my exotics on top along with....

#16 Pioneerof the Nile (Empire Maker/Star of Goshen): Has all the makings of a Derby winner. Dual qualifier, Mr. Prospector sire line, good final quarters, top connections, and most importantly a strong will to win. Four straight wins in fact including two Grade I's, most in the field, and he hasn't lost since the Breeder's Cup Juvenile while getting caught in traffic. The knocks against him are his low Beyer figures, having never earned triple digits, and never running on dirt, only synthetics. Clocker reports indicate he's moving nicely over the Churchill surface in the mornings, and that he shouldn't have trouble handling the dirt, but you never know. Trainer Bob Baffert has great success in this race having won three times, though he hasn't scored since 2002 with War Emblem. What stands out to me is that he's beaten four of his opponents today in preps including favorite I Want Revenge and Papa Clem, both who've won major preps. The top pick.

The Race - I think the race will have an honest but not blazing pace. I favor horses that can come from a stalking position and not get caught too far behind early. Of course navigating traffic is essential in the Derby so those horses with experienced jockeys have an advantage. Pioneer and I Want Revenge should be just behind Friesan Fire and Papa Clem after 6 furlongs moving up on the leaders. Chocolate Candy, General Quarters and Dunkirk will likely be behind them trying to close fast. If the leaders run the first 3/4 miles in 1:10 or lower, expect one of these three to win, if they run slower expect one of the stalkers to take it.

The Pick:
Win: #16 Pioneerof the Nile
Place: #6 Friesan Fire
Show: #11 Chocolate Candy

The Bet: $20 Win #16. $20 Show #11.
$5 Exacta: (6, 16) with (6, 11, 12, 15, 16)
$2 Trifecta: (16 with 3, 6, 11 with 3, 5, 6, 11, 12, 15)

Total wagered: $110

Good Luck All and hope for a safe race this year.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

2009 Kentucky Oaks Preview

The last time Rachel Alexandra entered the
starting gate at odds above even money she was 3rd choice in the Grade II Golden Rod Stakes at 3-1 odds. After blitzing graded stakes winners Sara Louise and Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies runner-up Dream Empress, she has never run higher than 2/5. In Friday's Grade I Kentucky Oaks she'll likely be odds-on again, facing a field of seven other fillies including multiple graded stakes winner Justwhistledixie.

Rachel Alexandra is the first starter from the Roar mare Lotta Kim who was a stakes winner at three before retiring from an injury. Lotta Kim is one of three stakes winners from the dam Kims Blues (Cure the Blues/Early Decision) who displayed the Rasmussen factor through the 4x5 cross of the blue hen mare Imperatrice. Rachel Alexandra's is from the first crop of Medaglia D'Oro who won the Travers (gr. I) and Jim Dandy (gr. II) as a 3yo before 2nd place finishes in the BC Classic, Belmont and Dubai World Cup, all Grade I's. She enters the race having won four consecutive races including the Grade II Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park by 8 and 3/4 lengths in her last leading every step of the way.
The biggest threat to RA's Oaks commencement could come in the form of Justwhistledixie who has reeled off five straight victories. Justwhistledixie is a half sister to the precocious Chace City (Carson City) winner of the Saratoga Special Breeders Cup (gr. II) at 2. Her dam General Jeanne is a sibling to 6 black type runners, herself a winner of three races. Her last four wins were in stakes, including two grade II's, and she'll look to rate just off Rachel Alexandra and pounce on the leader when the real running starts.
Bob Baffert's Gabby's Golden Girl won the Sunland Park Oaks by 13 lengths to earn a trip to the Oaks. Also by Medaglia D'Oro, she is out of a stakes winning dam who raced in Italy before coming to the US. The Sunland Oaks was her first start on conventional dirt, and her workout this week indicates she should like the Churchill Downs surface as well. She could provide pace pressure to Rachel Alexandra but she'll need her best to win this race.
Flying Spur finished 2nd to Rachel Alexandra in the Fantasy and her best races have come over a sloppy racecourse, which could be the case Friday. Her dam Lakeway was a grade I winner who finished 2nd in this very race in 1994. Her connections are top notch, Bill Mott and Garrett Gomez, but she's only a maiden winner and is still eligible for N1X allowance.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has three entries in the race and I think the Mary Lou Whitney owned Tweeter offers the best chance to add to his record four victories. While only a maiden winner, Tweeter is a half sister to Ky Oaks winner Bird Town and Belmont winner Birdstone. A bullet workout leading up to the race indicates she could be ready for a suprise.
While Rachel Alexandra is only 2 of 5 at Churchill Downs in her career but she's just at the top of her game right now and I see her winning this one pretty easily. I think Justwhistledixie is the likely runner-up with Tweeter coming in third.
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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Less than a week until Derby Day

The prep races are done and the field is taking shape for the 135th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2nd. A quick look at the Graded Earnings list reveals that all of the contenders with any real shot at winning the run for the roses are in the top 20.
Two months ago I chronicled 3 horses I thought would be top contenders next Saturday, and in fact all 3 won their prep races with Pioneerof the Nile taking the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Friesan Fire winning the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and Quality Road winning the Florida Derby (gr. I).

Friesan Fire attempts to win the Derby off of a 7 week layoff, not the most common path, but his LA Derby win was flattered by Papa Clem's win in the Arkansas Derby over Old Fashioned. Trainer Larry Jones has had recent success in the Derby with the last two second place finishers, Hard Spun and the ill-fated Eight Belles. He's been working very well and has the pedigree to be a serious threat but the obviuos question is can he win outside of the Fairgrounds.

All Pioneerof the Nile has done is win 4 in a row including two Grade 1's for recently voted in Hall-of-Fame trainer Bob Baffert, no stranger to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. But he's only won his races on synthetics. He hasn't posted a Beyer Speed figure over 100. The last Santa Anita Derby winner to win the Kentucky Derby was Real Quiet back in 1998, also for Baffert. One key thing on his side is jockey Garrett Gomez, who also rides Dunkirk, has selected Pioneer as his Derby mount, which is nothing to sneeze at given his success this year and knack for winning big races.

Quality Road could be the post-time favorite on Saturday but has been bothered by quarter cracks on his hooves the past few weeks. His Florida Derby win was quite impressive as he set the 9 furlong track record at Gulfstream while dusting top contender Dunkirk in the process. He's probably the fastest horse in the field, but is also inexperienced having only raced four times. The result of his 5F breeze on Monday and how the hoof holds up will be key in whether he starts in the Derby.

I Want Revenge looms the largest of the other 17 contenders by virtue of his two straight stakes wins at Aqueduct in tremendous fashion after beginning his career in California winning only once on the synthetics. He blitzed the field in the Gotham (gr. III), and rallied from last place to take the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I). I Want Revenge is by Stephen Got Even, best known for siring 2yo champion Stevie Wonderboy, out of the Argentine bred Roy mare Meguial. Meguial was Group 1 placed in her native country with I Want Revenge being her second foal.

The next tier of contenders includes the wiseguy choice- Dunkirk, a pair of Dubai imports - Regal Ransom and Desert Party, and major prep winners General Quarters, Musket Man and Papa Clem. I'll take a more detailed look at these horses and the other starters in subsequent posts.

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Derby Preps April 4th

Big weekend of racing with the Santa Anita Derby (g. I), Wood Memorial (g. I), and Illinois Derby (g. II) all taking place Saturday. To counteract most pundits East Coast bias, i'm going to focus most of my post on the prep out west, and give picks for the other two contests.

The $750,000 Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby features the top two west coast based 3 year olds in The Pamplemousse and Pioneerof the Nile. The Pamplemousse is a grey colt by Kafwain out of the Rubiano mare Comfort Zone, herself a sibling to five blacktype runners. He's won three straight including two impressive wire-to-wire Grade 3 victories at Santa Anita. In the Sham Stakes he defeated the #7 Take the Points and #5 Mr. Hot Stuff easily, pulling away by 6 lengths and earning the only triple digit Beyer in today's field. Update: The Pamplemousse will be scratched.

Pioneerof the Nile was featured here, and is looking to come from off the pace. Trained by Bob Baffert, Pioneerof the Nile is the only Grade 1 winner in this field. He's done nothing wrong in 2009 winning both graded stakes at Santa Anita that he's entered and has leading jockey Garrett Gomez in the irons again. While his speed figures don't stand out, he's been working great coming into this race and he obviously loves the surface.

Chocolate Candy is an interesting horse for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. He's won two stakes up north including the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby, but that was 7 weeks ago. He's trained regularly up to this and remember he finished only 1 1/2 length behind Pioneer in the Grade 1 Cash Call Futurity last December.

#2 Z Day appears to be the speed of the speed, but having only run in sprints he likely won't get the distance.

#6 Feisty Suances also could show speed and he ran well in the Grade 2 San Felipe, but has been defeated by both Pioneer and Chocolate Candy in his last two races.

#3 Unbridled Roman and #8 Cape Truth appear overmatched while #9 Gallant Son hasn't placed in the money in three starts on synthetics.

With The Pamplemousse scratched, Pioneerof the Nile should be heavily favored based on his class, but I'm going to pick King Jerry's Chocolate Candy. He appears to have been pointed to this one all along, and is set up to run a huge one. Hopefully he'll get enough of a pace to run at and outkick Pioneerof the Nile in the stretch.

$750,000 Wood Memorial: #2 I Want Revenge will be a big favorite off of a huge effort in the Gotham Stakes (g. III), but I'm going to pick #5 Imperial Council (Empire Maker/Jaramar Rain). While he finished 8 1/2 lengths back in the Gotham, it was his first route and he got off to a poor start. I Want Revenge is a likely bounce candidate, and I don't expect him to duplicate his effort.

$500,000 Illinois Derby: This is the most wide open of today's 3yo races with 7/2 Musket Man a tepid favorite. He has earned that distinction winning four of his first five races including the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby in his last. I like #6 Perfect Song who I think could be the controlling speed in this race. By Pleasantly Perfect out of a stakes winning dam, Pefect Song wired an optional claiming field by 2 last time at a mile, and comes in off a bullet workout. The Todd Pletcher trained Lord Justice appears to be the likely top challenger.
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