Brian’s Derby preps: The week(s) in review

Reviewing the Sham, the Fountain of Youth, the Gotham, and the Santa Anita Oaks, by Brian Nadeau

Lots to do and recap since we last left you, so let’s get right to it. The Fountain of Youth, Sham and Gotham all gave us definitive winners who took a major leap forward on everyone’s Derby radar. How they stack up on the first Saturday in May is anyone’s guess, but on the first Saturday in March they’re all looking like they match up with anyone.

February 28: At Santa Anita, The Pamplemousse squeezed his opposition dry in the Sham, while at Gulfstream Quality Road reminded everyone what all the fuss was about after he broke his maiden last November. Let’s take a deeper look at both races.

The Sham: The Pamplemousse let everyone know that he – and not Pioneerof The Nile or Stardom Bound – is the horse to beat come Santa Anita Derby time with this impressive performance. Sure, there wasn’t much in this field, but this was as visually impressive as it gets. And I say this as a non-believer going in. The Pamplemousse went straight to the front, set a measured but quick 46.51 half-mile and then blew things open in the lane, winning off by 6 lengths with a final time of 1:47.86 for the 9 furlongs. The Beyer came back 103, which is about as fast as you get on the fake stuff.

To me, the way The Pamplemousse leveled off in the lane and ran away from the others after setting swift splits was eye-catching. He went his first 6 furlongs in 1:10.29 yet got his last 3 furlongs in 37.57. That’s pretty snappy, all things considered. He heads next to the Santa Anita Derby and not only is he a better horse than Pioneerof The Nile and Stardom Bound, but he also holds a tremendous tactical advantage over those two as well. As a son of Kafwain out of a Rubiano mare, The Pamplemousse doesn’t exactly have a pedigree screaming for the Derby’s 10 furlongs, but we’ve seen in the past decade that that doesn’t matter much. He also has to answer the conventional dirt question, but he is clearly one of the ones at this point.

I knocked this race on paper going in, saying the quality wasn’t there (there were no stakes winners other than The Pamplemousse), but in hindsight it’s probably a bit better than I thought. The second place finisher, Take The Points, is a nice prospect from Todd Pletcher and the third place finisher, Mr. Hot Stuff, is coming to hand for Eoin Harty. The former especially is one to follow. He essentially had no chance in the Sham after making a cross-country flight only days earlier and testing two turns and a synthetic surface for the first time in his career–all while making his second start of the year and being marooned out in the 10-hole. Yet there he was the entire way, trying to press The Pamplemousse from second and only tiring in the late stages, while finishing almost 2 lengths clear of third. Simply put, this was a monster effort from a colt that might be getting good at the right time.

Mr. Hot Stuff showed his fast maiden win was no fluke, but he passed most tired and overmatched rivals and was no threat to the top two. With that being said, there’s no reason he can’t continue to move forward and be a factor with more maturity and distance.

The Fountain of Youth: Shortly after his fast maiden win at Aqueduct in November, Quality Road became one of the biggest Derby buzz horses around. The bloom came off the rose a bit when he made his second start at Gulfstream and got drilled by Theregoesjojo in a January 10 allowance race. But Jimmy Jerkens regrouped, made a bold move straight into stakes competition, and the result was the most impressive 3-year-old performance to date. Quality Road stalked the early pace of This Ones For Phil and simply blew the doors off this race turning for home en route to a 4 ¼-length win over the aforementioned Theregoesjojo. The Beyer of 113 would win the Derby by open lengths. Theregoesjojo confirmed the form of the January allowance race and was 4 lengths clear of a rallying Beethoven, who got third over favored Capt. Candyman Can.

So what did we learn? On the face of it, this was a mighty impressive performance by Quality Road, who always looked a winner and was nothing short of brilliant. But a one-turn mile in February is a bit different from the 10-furlong, two-turn Derby in May. And you are allowed to question the form of this race. Going in, Capt. Candyman Can, This Ones For Phil and Notonthesamepage had all earned speed figures to match their reputations. But oddly, speedball Notonthesamepage tracked in sixth, the fleet Taqarub was in third, and This Ones For Phil found himself alone on the lead, a place he’s not accustomed to. Meanwhile Capt. Candyman Can never made a run and was always under pressure just to keep up, and the well-regarded Break Water Edison (at least by me) was abysmal. This Ones For Phil retreated badly when the real running began, Notonthesamepage never did any real running and Taqarub was finished by the top of the stretch. Point being, the only two horses who did do any real running finished 1-2. So exiting this race, you have two really nice colts, but you also have to ask yourself how they will perform under vastly different circumstances next time out, most notably two turns and 9 furlongs.

Quality Road could go to the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct or the Blue Grass at Keeneland, while Theregoesjojo is already confirmed for the Florida Derby. Personally, before we go too crazy about their efforts in the Fountain of Youth (and their Derby chances), we need to see their next races while giving them the obvious respect they deserve after the Fountain of Youth.

March 7: As usual, the Gotham brought together a quality but unproven cast looking to make an impression on the Derby Trail. They came from all coasts and all surfaces, but only one left an impression. And how.

I Want Revenge headed east with a solid reputation built on a pair of graded stakes placings at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, both over synthetic surfaces. He chased West Coast hotshot Pioneerof The Nile in both the Grade I CashCall Futurity, where he finished second by a nose, and the Grade II Robert Lewis, where he was third. Saturday in the Gotham he made good on trainer Jeff Mullins’ hope that he would take to the dirt with an eye-opening 8 ½-length win over Imperial Council and Mr. Fantasy.

I Want Revenge dogged pacesetter and 2-1 favorite Mr. Fantasy early, took over in early stretch, and drew off with each and every stride. Teresa put up footage of Easy Goer’s Gotham in 1989. Please, please, please don’t think I’m comparing the two horses, but this performance was closer to that effort than it was far. The Beyer came back 113, and considering that this was at two turns, it trumps Quality Road’s Fountain of Youth and goes straight to the top of 3-year-old performances.

Imperial Council hardly disgraced himself while running second in his stakes debut. He was farther back than normal in his first start at two turns, but rallied nicely behind a moderate pace to neck out Mr. Fantasy for the show. The latter found out that beating NY-breds while waltzing on an easy lead is a bit different from hooking pace pressure in an open-company stakes, and Mr. Fantasy was urged to keep up turning for home and tired badly in deep stretch. Considering how slow the early pace was (the half went in 48.45), it doesn’t bode well for his chances if he opts to move on the Wood. Masala, also making his stakes and two-turn debut, sat the perfect trip but was an uninspiring fourth in an effort that suggests he might not be this quality. Inner dirt hero Haynesfield was in a good spot (though wide) on the backstretch but never fired and finished a disappointing eighth.

The top three finishers will reportedly meet again in the Wood, and while Imperial Council has a right to improve, at this time it’s hard to envision him making up over 8 lengths on I Want Revenge. I got a text from a friend after the race said, “Mighty impressive, but there was no one behind him.” At first, I agreed. But the more I thought about it, the more I deviated from this opinion. I Want Revenge made a cross-country trip, ran on dirt for the first time, and drew a tough outside post. All he did was run off the screen by over 8. What more could we ask for?

Stardom Bound: I’d be a bit remiss if I didn’t mention last year’s 2-year-old filly champ, who many thought was/is a viable Derby candidate. I’ve never been in that corner and Saturday’s death and taxes win over weak competition in the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks only reinforced my opinion. Sure, she was extremely wide turning for home, but she’s always extremely wide turning for home. But instead of running by her competition, she labored badly through the lane and needed one last desperate, final surge to get the job done over Third Dawn, who entered off a maiden win. It was a nose back to Hooh Why in third, who was a neck ahead of Nan in fourth. I know synthetic surfaces tend to bunch horses at the finish, but seeing four of them spread across the track isn’t the best sign. And keep in mind that her connections went out of their way to tell us she was much, much fitter than her comeback win in the Las Virgenes. We’ve seen way too many nice fillies try the Santa Anita Derby and get ruined for the immediate future as a result (Surfside and Sweet Catomine come immediately to mind). Do the right thing, guys; go win the Ashland and the Kentucky Oaks. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.

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