Brian’s Derby preps: The Weekend in Review

Reviewing last weekend’s Derby preps, by Brian Nadeau

Well, one big weekend down and one to go. The true favorite for the Kentucky Derby has emerged, and judging by I Want Revenge’s performance in the Wood Memorial, it’s going to take a serious horse to beat him. A weird and wacky Santa Anita Derby took place–without the heavy favorite–and the Illinois Derby showed that Musket Man can fire a big shot as well.

Wood Memorial:

Somehow I Want Revenge topped his 8 ½-length win in the Gotham here. Sure, at 1-2 he was supposed to win, but his 1 ½-length score over West Side Bernie was nothing short of remarkable. After completely blowing the break and spotting the field several lengths, I Want Revenge and Joe Talamo were able to gather themselves and settle about 8 lengths off of Lord Justice’s pace as they hit the clubhouse turn. Second choice Imperial Council tracked that leader in second while Just A Coincidence and Atomic Rain completed the top four. The half-mile went in a tepid 48.13.

As the field hit the backstretch, Talamo and I Want Revenge began passing a few rivals in between horses and as the field entered the far turn, they were remarkably only a few lengths from leaders Lord Justice and Imperial Council. Lord Justice led the charge off the far turn while Imperial Council came up wanting. Just A Coincidence swung into action three-deep and West Side Bernie followed that over four-wide. In behind that quartet, I Want Revenge was coiled and begging for a seam. West Side Bernie got the jump nearing the eighth pole, but Talamo was able to angle I Want Revenge out and once free, they ran to daylight to win going away.

Much the best doesn’t do the horse justice. And I know this wasn’t the strongest Wood Memorial we have ever seen. But this effort was nothing short of amazing. If you want to get technical, the horse ran about 2 of the 9 furlongs. The other 7 were spent galloping along or bottled up in and amongst horses. And you also have to give credit to Talamo, who at 19 years old showed tremendous poise and patience. Even the best rider in the world might have rushed up his mount after that tardy break, but instead, Talamo sat back and bided his time, knowing he was on the best horse. The same applies in deep stretch, when a seam looked like it would never open.

Here’s your horse to beat on May 2, folks. There’s no question about it. He’s already showed he can run fast, but Saturday he showed he can handle adversity and has several different gears in the transmission as well. We all know in a 20-horse Derby field you’re going to have some jostling and bumping and you aren’t going to get a perfect trip. It’s nice knowing that none of this will make this guy blink. And I don’t want to knock Quality Road, but he’s had two dream trips in Florida to get his wins. Heck, he might do the same in Louisville–but how will he react if he loses stride when he gets bumped by the calvary charge of the first turn? You just don’t know. With I Want Revenge we do.

It was nice to see West Side Bernie show some life signs as well, and this effort stamps him as a live longshot in the Derby. Sure, the reality was that he would have been nowhere near ‘Revenge if that one had a clean trip, but this was a nice effort to build on and shows he belongs in the starting gate with the best of his generation.

Upon further review, we can give Imperial Council a pass for his no-show. He was unruly in the paddock and actually fell down, and just never looked comfortable at any point. He’s a much better colt than he showed on Saturday and he’ll be heard from later this summer.

Santa Anita Derby:

The entire complexion of the race changed with the early morning scratch of heavy favorite The Pamplemousse. With the main speed of the race out, Zayat Stables opted to scratch Z Day, who was entered only to ensure a quick pace for the Zayat-owned Pioneerof The Nile, all while hopefully ruining the chances of The Pamplemousse.

So the scratch left Pioneerof The Nile in an extremely enviable position. Not only was he now an overwhelming favorite, but he also got a much easier pace scenario to track. Instead of hoping The Pamplemousse would tire, Pioneerof The Nile was able to take over from longshot Feisty Suances soon after the start and set a slow half-mile fraction of 48.65. The latter battled back and went back in front, but Pioneerof The Nile put him away turning for home and maintained a 1-length lead to the wire over Northern California invader Chocolate Candy, who closed from last at the top of the stretch. Mr. Hot Stuff, a confirmed deep closer, felt the biggest brunt of the early scratches and his late rally from the back of the pack fell 2 lengths short.

As for the winner, he did what he always does: win while hardly looking impressive. Garrett Gomez stalked the early leader for three furlongs and then, when it appeared that Pioneerof The Nile got a bit rank under restraint, Gomez made the key decision in the race. Instead of fighting his mount and trying to keep him off the pace, he let Pioneerof The Nile range up boldly on the outside and take the lead. This prompted Feisty Suances to battle back and from there Pioneerof The Nile relaxed briefly before Gomez moved to the lead turning for home. To see such a seasoned horse get rank like this during the early running of a race is a little concerning, but at least he turned off briefly after Feisty Suances retook the lead. I’ve gone out of my way to bash this guy, probably too much actually, as there is something to say for a horse who has won four straight races (two of them Grade I’s). With that being said, he’ll have to take his game to another level to get unsaddled on the first Saturday in May over a dirt surface that’s quite foreign to him.

As for Chocolate Candy and Mr. Hot Stuff, both ran big races while having little chance the way things shook out. When the half-mile was put up on the board and they were towards the back of the field, it was pretty impressive that they made up as much ground as they did. Chocolate Candy proved he can contend with big boys and warrants a longshot look in the Derby.

The big disappointment was Take The Points, who ran fourth with no excuse. Actually, he got a dream one-over trip and faded badly when the real running began. The sad part is he entered only after the surprising scratch of The Pamplemousse. Todd Pletcher had intended to run him in the Blue Grass this weekend at Keeneland.

As it stands right now, Pioneerof The Nile and Chocolate Candy will head to the Derby while both Mr. Hot Stuff and Take The Points will fall short on graded stakes earnings and miss the cut.

Illinois Derby:

Big props to the winner Musket Man who showed that he doesn’t need to take his track with him for a big race. The Tampa-based colt left his friendly confines and was a good-looking winner by 2 lengths over Giant Oak. His Greatness, at 51-1, was third, some 5 lengths behind the runner up.

Musket Man, a son of Yonaguska, has already outrun his sprinter/miler pedigree and heads to Churchill Downs flying a bit under the radar but in top form. Saturday he stalked loose leader Perfect Song from fifth, made a sudden move to take the lead and held sway under the line. It was another top performance by this underachiever and he heads to the Derby with a puncher’s chance. Giant Oak finally got a clear run and showed that he indeed has the talent many thought he did. He gets a few bonus points as well because he was kept close to an ordinary pace and taken a bit out of his running style. He now has the earnings to make the Derby and with the honest pace he figures to get he’s a legitimate exotics player, if not more.

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