Entering the Derby fray

The racing gods work in mysterious ways.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I felt compelled to confess publically my lack of Derby interest, and as the Road to the Roses game has begun, and the Derby preps are coming more frequently, and the racing press is dominated by news of three year old colts, I have felt increasingly uneasy–and frankly a little left out.

And then, like Whirlaway coming around the turn in the Kentucky Derby, a Derby handicapper appears out of nowhere.

Please offer a hearty Brooklyn welcome to Brian Nadeau, who will be offering regular commentary on this year’s Derby preps and prospects. He begins today with an overview and will follow shortly with analysis of this weekend’s prep races. Wish that I’d seen this before I’d picked my Road to the Roses horses…

Readers of the Saratoga Special will recognize Brian for the feature writing and handicapping he does during the Spa meet; since 2006 he’s been working at ST Publishing and works out of the company’s Fair Hill office. His ST Publishing bio tells us that this “die-hard Mets and Giants fan” “grew up a short drive from Saratoga Race Course and is as comfortable with a Racing Form in his hands as he is with a notepad and tape recorder.”

Brian’s Derby Overview

With Churchill Downs offering their first installment of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager this weekend, what better time to take a look at Derby 135 and who figures to be among the crowd of 20 in the starting gate on May 2? Teresa has been kind enough to welcome me aboard for some guest posts so starting today through to the Derby I’ll try and give some updates on the prep races, their importance and how they figure to shake out, as well as look back at the completed ones and what they mean to the big picture.

I’m also going to keep a running list of my top 10 Derby prospects and update it as things shake out on the road to the first Saturday in May. Here we go!

Brian’s Derby Top 10

1. Flying Pegasus– He gets the nod for a couple reasons, most notably he’s a nice price right now. Made his 3-year-old debut at Fair Grounds in the Risen Star on February 7 and was a visually impressive second to Friesan Fire. He dragged his jockey to the lead turning for home and wilted late to his sharper rival. All things considered, it was a big effort from an improving horse that has a huge upside. The Risen Star was his first start at two turns and he ran faster than he did at any point in his juvenile campaign, often a great sign for a 3-year-old.

2. Old Fashioned– Clearly the most visually impressive 2-year-old of 2008. His win in the Remsen was a thing of beauty and he was never even asked for any run. He’ll make his 3-year-old debut on Monday in the 1-mile Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn and will take the Midwest route for Larry Jones, who has finished second in the Derby the past two seasons. He’s yet to get tested or beat anyone of note, but he’s the best we’ve seen so far.

3. West Side Bernie– Another who made a strong impression in his first start at 3, running third in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park on January 31. He closed from far back that day on a speed biased track, while breaking from the 9-hole for a trainer who doesn’t have them cranked for their first start back, so it was a most encouraging effort. His two dirt stakes races stack up well with the rest of this crop.

4. Friesan Fire– Another from Jones’ talented group of sophomores. This colt defeated Flying Pegasus by 2 lengths in the Risen Star, which followed a nice win in the Grade III Lecomte at Fair Grounds a month earlier. Talented and bred to run all day, but he must show he can do it away from New Orleans.

5. Hello Broadway– Ran big in his seasonal bow, finishing second to the well regarded Capt. Candyman Can in the Grade II Hutcheson at Gulfstream on January 30. Nobiz Like Shobiz’s little brother will now head out of town in search of a two-turn stakes race and that might be where he really picks up his game.

6. Free Country– One of an assortment of flashy sophomores from the barn of Ken McPeek. This colt is perfect in two starts and heads to the Sam Davis at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday. His sire, Big Country, never put it together in the afternoon, but he is a son of champion Flanders, so there’s pedigree power to be sure. Bred to run all day and seems to be improving by the minute. Look out.

7. Alma d’Oro– Aired in his first start for Rick Dutrow when he blasted maidens at Gulfstream on January 15. Unknown sort will have to tackle tougher in his next start, but there’s a lot of talent here and he’s one to keep an eye on.

8. Charitable Man– Good-looking winner of the Grade II Futurity last fall at Belmont Park just had his first published workout of 2009 after being injured late last year. It might be asking a bit much to get him to the Derby, but he’s as talented as anyone out there and is in expert hands.

9. Pioneerof The Nile– At the risk of looking a bit foolish for leaving out the best of the West, I’ll throw this guy at the end of my list. But like most of the Santa Anita-based runners, he’s never been on conventional dirt, and probably won’t be until the Derby, and that’s a major sticking point with me, no matter how good or bad a horse might look. Simply put, until I see it done I won’t believe it.

10. Silver City– This guy is a bit of a reach, considering he’s never been past 6 ½ furlongs in his life, but he has shown tremendous talent and is bred to run on. He’ll stretch out and tackle Old Fashioned in the Southwest and based on his speed and the fact that his main rival is just beginning to stretch his legs, this colt has a big chance to pull the upset and make a name for himself.

Ok, I’m not crazy. And I’m well aware I left out names like Vineyard Haven, Midshipman and Stardom Bound; so let’s take a quick look at some familiar names and some that are under the radar.

Atomic Rain– Finished second to Old Fashioned in the Remsen and then was necked out by Free Country in his last start. He gets a rematch in the Sam Davis.

Bear’s Rocket– Huge second in the Holy Bull but he benefitted from his speed and rail draw. He’s got to prove it again, but considering that was his first start on dirt it’s hard not to be intrigued.

Beethoven– Solid 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull, but not quite sure who he beat in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club last fall.

Break Water Edison– Too bad to be true in the Hutcheson, where he was nowhere while finishing sixth. He’s got a lot of talent and a nice pedigree, so it’s far too early to give up on him.

Capt. Candyman Can– Impressive so far, but I fear he might be over the top come Derby day. Might also have too much speed for his own good.

Dunkirk– Visually impressive debut at Gulfstream on January 24 for this $3.7 million yearling son of Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Status. The problem is he didn’t run very fast and is well behind his peers in terms of experience. Needs to hurry.

Giant Oak– His two dirt races have gained him a huge following, but let’s see him actually win one before we go too crazy.

Gone Astray– Talented 2-year-old is gearing up for his 3-year-old debut, but it’s not like Shug to push a runner to make the Derby. Travers anyone?

Haynesfield– He’s done nothing wrong this winter at Aqueduct and we’ve seen sprinter-milers win the Derby before. The acid test might not come until the Wood Memorial in April.

Imperial Council– Another from Shug, this colt makes his sophomore debut in a Gulfstream allowance on Saturday. Talented sort is worth following.

Masala– Pletcher runner is not getting any publicity, but he just ran a big second to stablemate Take The Points in a Gulfstream allowance and has the look of an improving colt who might be putting it all together.

Midshipman– Juvenile champ has been whisked off to Dubai and we’ve seen that fail time and time again. Another who’s never run on conventional dirt, so while talented, he’s really up against it.

Mr. Fantasy– He sure doesn’t run like a NY-bred, winning both career starts by a combined 19 lengths while running extremely fast. Sure, there wasn’t much behind him in those state-bred spots, but he’s one to watch for sure.

Poltergeist– Sure scared some excitement into his connections when he freaked in an Oaklawn allowance on January 17, running off by 6 lengths. Someone to keep your eye on when he makes his next start, which could come in the Southwest on Monday.

Stardom Bound– Juvenile Filly champ has done her best work on synthetics at Santa Anita and against fillies–three factors that will be nowhere near the Churchill Downs starting gate on May 2.

Take The Points– Just beat stablemate Masala by 2 lengths and he’s another that seems to have had the light bulb go on. Have to believe a stake is in his future, which is important as he lacks any graded earnings.

The Pamplemousse– Give him credit for wiring a race a Santa Anita–that’s tough to do–but it was only a five-horse field and Square Eddie returned banged up. Much to prove, including running on dirt.

Terrain– He’s done his best work on synthetics, but unlike some others he has at least tested the real stuff. Gearing up for his 3-year-old debut at Fair Grounds.

Theregoesjojo– McPeek runner was awesome winning a Gulfstream allowance on January 10; his first start in over six months. Not sure how far he wants to run, but the talent is there.

Vineyard Haven– I thought he was the best 2-year-old of 2008 but if you saw him Thursday afternoon in Dubai that was a distant memory. He was a bad fourth to stablemate Desert Party in a prep for the UAE Derby, so where this guy now stands now is anyone’s guess.

Future Wager Tips:

As I mentioned, this weekend marks the first of three future wagers that Churchill Downs will offer (the other two are in March and April). Betting (here) closes Sunday evening, so if you feel the need to wager, make sure you wait until the very end to survey the odds. Once you place your wager it’s final, so waiting until the end allows you to get any last minutes updates as well as monitoring the price of your horses.

My biggest piece of advice is to search for value. No one out there should be betting Old Fashioned or anyone else at 10-1 or so. Heck, those aren’t even true odds that they make the race, much less win it. And there’s a decent chance you’ll get about the same odds in Pool 2 as well. With only 23 individual betting interests value is hard to come by, so you’ll likely see a lot of horses bunched in the 15-1 range. And those are terrible odds when you consider the race is almost three months away.

I’ll be looking to bet Flying Pegasus and West Side Bernie and will draw my line in the sand at 40-1. Anything less is just not worth the risk. Remember, the Derby has 20 horses in it every year, so anyone other than the favorite is likely to be at least 8-1 on May 2. Why take 15-1 on February 15? As a reference Big Brown was considered a cinch last year to win-and he was 5-2.

Ok, I hope this is some help to those looking to get a grasp on the 3-year-olds out there. If nothing else we’ve gone over a bevy of runners that figure to fill the entry box in several of the upcoming prep races.

3 thoughts on “Entering the Derby fray

  1. For a gal who professes to have no interest in the Derby, that’s a heckuva lot of Derby! – J. “Danger to Society” S.

  2. Up to about 10 years go I would be with you 100 percent, but we’ve seen more recently that the sprinter-milers have more than held their own. Smarty Jones was out of a Smile mare, Barbaro a Carson City mare and Big Brown a Nureyev mare…those three damn sires make Capote look like Yeats.

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