Reviewing last weekend’s Derby preps, by Brian Nadeau
We’ve all crammed for a test in our day, right? But I mean really crammed–just studied the paint off the wall, hoping to unearth that one little portion of our brain that’s going to store some information vital to a good grade. And then you take the test. But immediately afterwards a funny thing happens. You leave the classroom, kind of shake your head, and then realize that in fact you know less that you knew before you even started the process.
That’s basically the feeling I had at about 7pm after all four of last weekend’s Kentucky Derby preps had been run. A few days later, I’m still not sure I learned anything, but let’s see if we can at least make a little headway.
The Tampa Bay Derby: General Quarters was the upset winner of the local prep, the Sam Davis Stakes, last time out, and considering he won pretty handily over a few others that were back, he rated the best of the locals. Classy invaders Hello Broadway and Bear’s Rocket brought big reputations while newcomers Nowhere To Hide and Warrior’s Reward were poster boys for the word “potential.” And then it all went to hell midway through the stretch drive.
Musket Man, who was a well-beaten third behind General Quarters in the Sam Davis, came rolling down the center of the track to snatch the win away from Join In The Dance. The latter was a 35-1 shot who had never been beyond 6 ½ furlongs and had one maiden win last July to his credit. Oh, and 43-1 Justdontcallmejeri, a former $32,000 claimer who had never raced on dirt, finished third. Ummm, key race anyone?
Give the winner credit; he was boxed in with nowhere to go on the second turn and came charging to get up when he looked hopelessly beaten. He showed vast improvement in his second start at two turns and deserves to move ahead on the Derby Trail. But simply put, none of the major contenders did any running and the fact that the race was so slow on paper (90 Beyer) offers little hope to the rest.
General Quarters (5-2) spun his wheels and offered only a mild rally to finish fifth; Hello Broadway (2-1 favorite), who is capable of flashing sub :45 speed, never got closer than seventh at any call behind a snail-like 48.34 half-mile and finished seventh; and Warrior’s Reward (5-1) was in a perfect spot and yet finished eighth. Bear’s Rocket was sixth and Sam Davis runner-up Sumo was ninth. Only Nowhere To Hide showed any semblance of a run, rallying from 10th to finish fourth. Needless to say, I can’t see anyone from Tampa having a major impact on the Derby.
The San Felipe: I’ve been pretty vocal about dismissing the chances of Pioneerof The Nile when the major races take place, and this effort here did little to dissuade me. Bob Baffert can sugarcoat it all he wants, but horses that are 3-10 are not supposed to feel several taps of the whip in deep stretch to edge away from a five-pack that had never won a stakes of any kind. The 1 ¼-length win over Fiesty Suances was hardly inspiring, as was the 90 Beyer, and Pioneerof The Nile is starting to give the impression he’s more like his mom, Star Of Goshen–who was a crack sprinter/miler–than his dad, Belmont winner Empire Maker. There are a few tigers waiting in the wings come Santa Anita Derby time, and The Pamplemousse and Take The Points won’t raise a hair when they see Pioneerof The Nile in the paddock.
The Louisiana Derby: When the best horse in the race takes to the track and the other eight don’t, it’s going to be pretty ugly, and that’s what happened when Friesan Fire glided over the sloppy track en route to an impressive 7 ¼-length win. Papa Clem ran decent in his first start on dirt to be second, a head to the good of Terrain in third. I think the fact that two synthetic specialists filled out the triple gives even more credence to the thought that horses like Giant Oak (fourth), Flying Pegasus (sixth), Patena (eighth) and Free Country (ninth) didn’t handle the surface.
But that should not diminish this performance by Friesan Fire, who always looked a winner and his run through the stretch suggests that the 10 furlongs in Louisville will be of little concern. The Beyer of 102 confirms the powerful effort and puts him at or near the top of any Derby list. If you want to nit-pick, or if you like another horse, you can make a point in saying all three of his best career efforts have come at Fair Grounds and his biggest speed figure to date has come over a sloppy track. Valid points, indeed, but this run was a sight to behold. At this juncture, Larry Jones has indicated he might train Friesan Fire up to the Derby or run him in the Bluegrass at Keeneland, and there’s little reason to argue with either option.
The Rebel: Conversely, about an hour after his stablemate vaulted to the top of many Derby lists, Old Fashioned began a descent down that same list after a dull second at 2-5 in the Rebel. If the Rebel were a deep and contentious field and subsequently won by a talented and classy sort, that would be one thing, but 56-1 Win Willy turned the trick after never racing beyond 6 furlongs in his two career starts on the main track. It’s silly and a bit foolish to give up on Old Fashioned, but anyone who saw how badly he shortened stride in deep stretch has to be concerned.
As for the winner, he benefited from Silver City’s insane pace of 22.54 and 46.07 and Old Fashioned’s unwillingness to relax in second, and as a result came from last and 15 lengths back to post a shockingly easy 2 ¼-length win. And we have to give congratulations to his trainer Mac Robertson, who lost top prospect Hamazing Destiny to a private sale after a romping debut. That rival, now in the hands of D. Wayne Lukas, checked in eighth.
Reportedly the top two finishers, and possibly third-place finisher Poltergeist, will move on to the Arkansas Derby. It should be interesting to see how Win Willy responds with the bullseye on his back, but the 102 Beyer he posted and the fact that he’s out of Derby winner Monarchos suggests he’ll do just fine.