Brian’s Derby prep: The week in review

A look at the week that was in Derby preps, by Brian Nadeau

With little in the way of Derby prep races this weekend we’ll just take a look back at the trio of stakes that were run last weekend, as well as an important allowance Thursday at Gulfstream. We saw the reemergence of the Derby favorite at Oaklawn, a feel-good story at Tampa and a filly show the boys her tail at Santa Anita. Not to mention a potential superstar at Gulfstream.

Southwest Stakes – Grade III, $250,000 – February 16, Oaklawn Park – 1 Mile

Old Fashioned returned Monday in Oaklawn’s Grade III Southwest Stakes and did little to disappointment his legion of fans with a workmanlike 3 ¼-length win over Silver City. He covered the mile in 1:37.41 and got the perfect tightener for bigger assignments down the road.

As expected, Silver City used his brilliant sprint speed to set an uncontested early pace, with Ramon Dominguez and Old Fashioned tracking intently in second, never more than 2 lengths behind. Dominguez tipped Old Fashioned out turning for home, they wrestled the lead from Silver City in early stretch, and expanded their margin under the wire. It was a solid, if unspectacular performance, but it reminded people that Old Fashioned has several gears and does not need the lead to run his best race. It was also exactly what trainer Larry Jones was looking for to start the year. He’ll probably make his next start in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 14.

Silver City lost nothing in defeat either, as he was making his first start past 6 ½ furlongs and was never allowed a breather by Old Fashioned. He has every right to move forward in his next start (the Rebel seems logical) and showed he’s a quality 3-year-old. If there was one cause for concern it’s that he shortened stride a bit in deep stretch and the 1-mile distance at Oaklawn has a unique layout with the finish line further up the stretch than a normal race. The Rebel, at 1 1/16 miles has the traditional finish line, and if that was the case Monday the margin would have been that much more.

Buzzin And Dreamin, a recent maiden winner from the Wayne Lukas barn was third at 64-1. This Five Star Day colt has seemingly come to hand but has a long ways to go to threaten Old Fashioned.

Tampa Bay Derby – Grade III, $225,000 – February 14, Tampa Bay Downs – 1 1/16 Miles

Most of the major players struggled to get a hold of the track, but that takes nothing away from the performance of General Quarters, who parlayed his home-field advantage into a 3 ½-length win. Trained by Tom McCarthy–the only horse the 75-year-old has in his barn–General Quarters sat in second off A.P. Cardinal’s early pace, moved to that leader along the rail and spurted away in midstretch. It was an impressive effort by this under-the-radar sort and makes him a major player for the Tampa Bay Derby on March 14. By Sky Mesa out of an Unbridled’s Song mare, he has the pedigree to suggest the Derby’s 10 furlongs is well within his scope.

Sumo rallied for second at over 33-1, three lengths ahead of Musket Man in third. The major disappointment was the 9-5 favorite Free Country, who spun his wheels for much of the race and failed to make an impact in the lane, checking in fourth, over eight lengths behind. I had high hopes for this colt going in, and while it’s far too early to give up on him, this was not the toughest group of three-year-olds out there, so he should have run better. Atomic Rain, who Free Country beat in an allowance at Gulfstream, was also a nowhere seventh at 5-2. I guess it might be time to go back and downgrade that Gulfstream race.

So while the quality of the field is up for debate, we’ve got to remember that three-year-olds can jump up and improve by open lengths overnight at this time of year. The final time of 1:43.54 earned General Quarters a 100 Beyer (if you’re into that kind of thing), which was considerably better than Old Fashioned’s 93 in the Southwest. I’ve lost faith in the Beyer numbers in recent years, but if nothing else, they still represent a solid point of reference.

San Vicente – Grade II, $150,000 – February 16, Santa Anita – 7 Furlongs

I openly questioned why the filly Evita Argentina was in here prior to the race and that was her laughing at me through the lane during her surprisingly easy one-length win over the boys. I guess I shouldn’t be filling out those assistant trainer applications any time soon.

This race probably won’t offer anything in terms of Derby horses, but the winner showed she’s a pretty serious one-turn sprinter/miler. Evita Argentina broke last and settled in that spot for the first half-mile under Garrett Gomez. She made a wide, sweeping move to gain contention turning for home and then drew off in the lane. It was an impressive performance, and considering the ease and the way it was accomplished, it probably doesn’t give much hope for those that finished behind her, including Leedstheway and Gato Go Win, who completed the trifecta.

A Star is Born

Looking to find 2009’s version of Big Brown? You saw him Thursday afternoon at Gulfstream in the eighth race. The first buzz horse of the 2009 Triple Crown season emerged when Dunkirk, a $3.7 million son of Unbridled’s Song out of Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Status improved to two-for-two lifetime by defeating a group of entry-level allowance three-year-olds. But that hardly tells the story.

Dunkirk broke from the eight-hole under Garrett Gomez, an extremely disadvantageous post in 9-furlong races at Gulfstream. He was every bit of 10-wide entering the first turn before Gomez was able to angle him in down the backside where he enjoyed a midpack trip behind the well-regarded leader Alma d’Oro. As the field entered the far turn, Dunkirk began dragging Gomez to the leaders and he hit the front as the field straightened away. From there it was only a matter of how much. The final margin was 4 ¾ lengths, though it could have been more had Gomez asked for it. Factor in the considerable ground loss and the effort was that much more impressive.

So that’s why Gomez left Santa Anita to come and ride him.

Dunkirk made waves when he won his debut on January 24 for Todd Pletcher. After breaking 11th of 12 that day, he was forced to wait on the turn before finally finding running room and exploding through the lane to draw off by 5 ¾ lengths. The time was ordinary, but it was obvious there was ample talent here.

Thursday he confirmed that talent by overpowering a quality field of sophomores. Alma d’Oro was well liked by several (including myself), Warrior’s Reward was a good-looking maiden winner, and More Than Willing and American Dance were both 3-year-olds with solid credentials. And Dunkirk laughed at them all. Did I mention he came in with one start under his belt at 7 furlongs? The final time of 1:50.15 was as good as a three-year-old will post on February 19. It’s an admittedly rough comparison, but for a point of reference, Albertus Maximus covered the same distance in the Grade I Donn Handicap on January 31 in 1:50.96.

No doubt this was a serious effort by a tremendously talented horse. There will be a stakes race coming up next (Pletcher has already mentioned the Florida Derby on March 28) and Dunkirk will merit a lot of respect and will probably go favored. It’s the exact path Big Brown took last year; using a romp in an allowance to springboard him to the Florida Derby off only two lifetime starts.

But before we go too overboard, it’s important to note he’ll have to buck some serious history if he wants to wear roses on May 2. Off the top of my head, the last horse to win the Derby as an unraced two-year-old was Apollo in 1882. Dunkirk is spotting a lot of seasoning and experience to his rivals, not to mention eons of history. Derby winners have broken a lot of trends in the past decade, but this one has never been approached. Remember Curlin? The horse of the world? The best he could do was third while trying to reverse history. Only time will tell.

2 thoughts on “Brian’s Derby prep: The week in review

  1. Pletcher wins his first Derby with a horse bucking history – sounds like something television audiences will see at great length if Dunkirk keeps progressing and makes the gate. Personally, I would love for Pletcher to finally get a Derby win under his belt.

  2. Pletcher might in a good spot this year. In years past he’s had accomplished horses that were precocious 2-year-olds who never quite made the transition. This year he has the late bloomers such as Dunkirk, Take The Points and Masala, who all should be seeing stakes action soon. All three have taken the patient approach and that could have them peaking come the spring. One thing people need to remember about a horse like Dunkirk is that he has ZERO graded stakes earnings, so he’s far behind the eight-ball. We’ve seen a lot of good horses over the years (Sunday Break, Eddington and Chelokee come to mind) that could had made waves in the Derby but were left out because of earnings. Of course, if he wins the Florida Derby by 6 it won’t matter anymore.

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