Well, we’re down to our final two major preps, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and Arkansas Derby (gr. II), with the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) and Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) thrown in for good measure. The question right now is: what did we learn from last Saturday’s preps?
We learned that Colonel John is the undisputed king of the California 3-year-olds. We learned that Tale of Ekati and War Pass have righted their wrongs and are back on firm ground on the Derby trail. And we learned that the Illinois Derby (gr. II) once again produced a clear-cut winner who earned the usual high Beyer Speed Figure and closed his final eighth of a mile in fast time.
Unfortunately, we also learned that Denis of Cork, through no fault of his own or trainer David Carroll, became totally disoriented on the road to Louisville and, sadly, lost his way. It proves once again that when you hire a captain, you let him steer the ship.
But with every cloud comes a silver lining, or so they say. With the Denis of Cork cloud comes a much welcome return to Churchill Downs of Louie Roussel and Ronnie Lamarque, who have stirred the Derby pot twice before with Risen Star in 1988 and Kandaly in 1994. With their colt Recapturetheglory commemorating the 20th anniversary of Risen Star’s Triple Crown adventures with a runaway victory in the Illinois Derby, we can now look forward to more fun and frivolity – such as “Louie and Ronnie’s New Orleans Crawfish Bash,” which they held for the media on the clubhouse turn in ’94; and, of course, Ronnie’s studio-recorded songs about his horses – can anyone forget “Go, Kandaly, Go” sung to the tune of Do Wah Diddy?
The star of the weekend definitely was Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Colonel John, who, despite racing exclusively on a synthetic surface, looks as solid a Derby horse as we’ve seen this year. Forgetting for a minute about his having to make the transition to dirt and having only two Derby preps (something he shares with a number of top contenders this year), he has all the tools you look for in a classic horse – the stamina, the build, the toughness, the consistency, the closing kick, the temperament, and the connections. And as for having only two starts, that is misleading, as he ran Dec. 22 in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I). Add to that, both his starts this year were gut-checks, which he passed against fast, talented horses, assuring that he will have sufficient bottom and will be battle-tested.
The Santa Anita Derby was not an easy race to watch if you’re a Colonel John fan, especially when El Gato Malo went flying by him on the far turn, and then On the Virg passed him, putting him in ninth nearing the head of the stretch. One flaw he does have is that, with his big stride, it takes him a while to get in high gear. Another flaw, which he and jockey Corey Nakatani will have to work out, could be seen distinctly in the upper stretch. When Nakatani hit him numerous times left-handed, Colonel John drifted out and didn’t appear to be going anywhere. Then, when Nakatani switched and hit him right-handed, he took off in a flash, lengthening his stride noticeably, and it was that quick final surge that got him the victory.
With all that, he still managed to come home his final three-eighths in a sensational :35 1/5 (:23 1/5 and :12). Nakatani, apparently sensing that Colonel John had done his only serious running in the final sixteenth, wanted him to keep going and gallop out strong. He waved the whip at him crossing the wire, and then gave him a tap on the shoulder with the handle of the whip before pulling on his left rein and snapping the right rein against the colt’s shoulder. As a result, Colonel John was able to run through the wire and continue on at a decent clip without easing to the outside, as many horses will do when galloping out. It was a clever move by Nakatani, who has to make sure the colt doesn’t put himself in that position again in the Derby. He’ll have to quicken earlier, and can’t afford to let horses whiz by him at the three-eighths pole. That’s how you become swallowed up by the cavalry charge. And drifting out the way he did after turning for home is a no-no, so one would think we’ll see more right-handed whipping than left next time.
Bob Black Jack continues to improve the farther he goes, which is contrary to what most people thought would happen. The Cal-bred is fast, can rate going two turns, and can finish, which makes him a dangerous opponent. But he drifted in and out much more noticeably than did Colonel John. He was all over the track, which makes those final fractions hard to believe. Is this some Cushion Track/Pro Ride phenomenon, or are these two horses, and the pacesetting Coast Guard, really such strong closers?
Yankee Bravo saved ground all the way and had every shot to win in the stretch, but ran a bit flat in the final furlong to finish fourth, beaten four lengths. El Gato Malo looked awesome blowing by horses on the far turn, but couldn’t sustain his move, finishing fifth. The closest he got to Colonel John was when the winner drifted right across his path.
Diamonds and roses
Imagine at the end of last year, you were told that the Wood Memorial (gr. I) would have among its starters the winners of the grade I Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Champagne Stakes and the grade II Kentucky Jockey Club, Remsen, and Futurity Stakes. You no doubt would have been salivating at such a prospect.
Then imagine you were told that the winners of those races – War Pass, Court Vision, Anak Nakal, and Tale of Ekati – would go into the Wood having been beaten an average of 12 lengths in their previous start, with three of them finishing sixth or worse.
Well, that’s just what happened. Following an unpredictable turn of events this winter, the Wood, normally a match-up of leading Derby contenders, became mostly a means of redemption.
And in the end, all were redeemed, to some degree, as Tale of Ekati, War Pass, and Court Vision finished first, second, and third, respectively, with even Anak Nakal showing improvement, finishing fifth, beaten only 3 1/2 lengths, after two dismal performances.
Much to Tale of Ekati's credit, he put himself in position to be the first one to pick up the pieces after War Pass hit the proverbial brick wall nearing the eighth pole. But because he tried so hard to run through that wall after being hounded by a “rabbit” for the first five-eighths of a mile, War Pass received as many accolades as the winner.
Last year’s 2-year-old champion had much to prove after his shocking last-place finish at 1-20 in the March 15 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), in which he staggered home 23 lengths behind Tagg’s victorious Big Truck. No concrete explanation for his performance was ever found, and no one had a clue what to expect from him in the Wood.
Because of the red flares he had sent up at Tampa Bay, everyone’s eyebrows were raised when it was reported the colt needed three staples under his chin to close a wound suffered on the plane from Florida due to turbulence shortly before landing.
Owner Robert LaPenta was more concerned about seeing his champion restore his tarnished reputation, so he could officially put a line through the Tampa Bay Derby and chalk it up as an aberration.
“I’ve slept about a total of an hour and a half this week,” LaPenta said in the paddock before the race. “He looks good and acts well, but no one knows what’s going to happen. I’m more nervous now than I was before the Breeders’ Cup.”
Trainer Nick Zito said he was “Apprehensive, excited, happy, and cautious,” which pretty much covered the gamut of emotions.
Then there was trainer Barclay Tagg, who also was seeking redemption for Tale of Ekati, who was named after the Ekati diamond mine that was discovered in Canada’s Northwest Territory by the colt’s owner Charles Fipke. The son of Tale of the Cat – Silence Beauty, by Sunday Silence had embarked on the Kentucky Derby trail with a great deal of promise after his scintillating victory in the Futurity Stakes, but he was scheduled to have only two starts leading up to the Run for the Roses, which meant there was no room for error. So, when his first race back -- the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) -- turned into a fiasco after a terrible start, it put Tagg, who won last year’s Wood with Nobiz Like Shobiz, and Tale of Ekati in a precarious position. The colt had to rebound with a big performance to even be considered for the Derby.
Tale of Ekati came up from Florida in resplendent condition, and was a standout in the paddock. “He’s really doing well right now,” Tagg said as he watched the colt on the walking ring. “But you never know.”
Bill Mott, trainer of Court Vision, was another who didn’t know what to expect after his colt’s non-threatening rally from last to finish a distant third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II). The son of Gulch also was scheduled to have only two starts prior to the Derby, and Mott knew the colt needed to be more competitive in the Wood if he was to be battle-tested enough to have any shot in the Derby. So, he reached into his hat and pulled out a “rabbit” named Inner Light, who was coming off a victory in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream, in which he tracked blistering fractions of :44 and 1:08 4/5 before drawing off to a two-length score. He, like Court Vision, is owned by WinStar Farm and IEAH Stables, so it was a team decision to use the colt as a sacrificial lamb.
The stage was set for a wild Wood, in which all the top names were treading on unsteady ground. Those who slipped, even a little, would be munching on hay in their stall at six o’clock on May 3.
If there was one thing that was certain, it was that Cornelio Velasquez would be gunning War Pass out of the five-post in the nine-horse field (First Commandment was a late vet scratch). Although Mott had given the usual pre-race quotes about how they wanted to test Inner Light around two turns, it was pretty obvious to everyone that the colt was on a kamikaze mission. Breaking from post eight, he would hone right in on LaPenta’s maroon silks.
When the gates opened, War Pass broke just a bit sluggishly and Velasquez pushed him to the lead as if he were in a sprint race. Then, to no one’s surprise, there was Inner Light charging after him from the outside. After the opening quarter in a scorching :22 2/5 over a heavy, drying out track that was listed as fast, War Pass had Inner Light latched on to him like a suckerfish attached to a shark. The pair had already opened up six lengths on Tale of Ekati in third. With a half in a testing :46 flat, War Pass was pretty much cooked at that point. By comparison, top-class older horses in the Excelsior Handicap (gr. III) went their half in :48 2/5, a difference of 12 lengths.
War Pass finally shook free from Inner Light, who would be beaten more than 40 lengths, but he still was rolling through three-quarters in 1:11 2/5, compared to 1:13 3/5 in the Excelsior. The champ, despite a few awkward strides, took a clear lead into the stretch after being brought several paths out by Velasquez, as instructed by Zito. But it was obvious at this point that he had little left and was crawling home (his final three-eighths in :40 4/5).
Tale of Ekati, under Edgar Prado, had never given up his pursuit and he began to close the gap from the inside. War Pass dug in and battled courageously, trying to hold off his pursuer, despite being on empty. But Tale of Ekati kept coming after him, with Court Vision, who had been as far back as 18 lengths, closing the gap, along with Giant Moon.
Tale of Ekati, himself a tired horse after running his half in :46 2/5, finally wore down War Pass in the closing strides to win by a half-length in 1:52 1/5 for the nine furlongs, with War Pass finishing 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Court Vision, who closed well, but had no real excuse after failing to take advantage of the setup his stablemate had provided for him.
After the race, LaPenta put it simply: "The rabbit did him in, but he ran a great race." Even Mott saluted War Pass. "He's a very game horse and he ran a big race, because we pushed him along pretty good."
So, did we see the Derby winner in the Wood? When horses close that slowly in their final Derby prep, it’s a good reason to throw them out. But the first three finishers all desperately needed this race to bounce back and get much-needed conditioning. They all should improve with this race under their belt, but can they improve enough to compete against the best 3-year-olds in a 20-horse field going a mile and a quarter? Let’s just say it’s going to be a difficult assignment. Tale of Ekati and War Pass are brilliant colts with a great deal of talent, and they’ll need all of it, especially War Pass, who will no doubt become embroiled at some point with Bob Black Jack, Recapturetheglory, and the indomitable Big Brown. But he showed in the Wood that anyone who wants to run with him will pay the price. There's a reason why he's a champion.
Court Vision needs to find some speed and quickness between now and the Derby, but he does have the stamina and the drive, and he does close consistently. With a track more to his liking he still could be a legitimate Derby contender. Anak Nakal made a wide, steady move, and although he was never a factor, he may have run well enough to punch his ticket to Louisville.
Return of the ragin’ Cajuns
Recapturetheglory’s emphatic victory in the Illinois Derby at 15-1 was hard to predict by looking at the colt’s past performances. The son of Cherokee Run appeared to have some promise, but he had never run in a stakes and was coming off only one start this year – a third-place finsh in a turf allowance race at Fair Grounds. His most impressive credential was having run second to Cool Coal Man in an allowance race at Churchill Downs in November.
Yet, there he was out on the lead, setting slow fractions, with no one other than Golden Spikes paying much attention to him. By the time they did it was way too late. With a final three-eighths in :36 1/5, he was gone, drawing off to a four-length victory over Golden Spikes in 1:49 flat.
Once again, for some reason, the Illinois Derby was an impressive race on paper, with the winner jumping from an 80 Beyer to a 102. But let’s not forget Sweetnorthernsaint’s stalking 9 1/4-length romp and his 109 Beyer in 2006; or Greeley’s Legacy’s stalking 9 1/2-length procession and 106 Beyer in 2005; or Pollard’s Vision’s wire-to-wire victory and his 107 Beyer in 2004; or Cowtown Cat’s front-running victory and 98 Beyer in 2007. While none of those horses even came close to winning the Derby, we do have to remember War Emblem’s 6 1/4-length, wire-to-wire score and 112 Beyer in 2002. But that was at Sportsman’s Park. Hawthorne is a tricky surface that some horses love and others hate.
Recapturetheglory has a powerful stride and high kick, and he was really pouring it on in the final furlong, much like War Emblem did. That certainly is not meant to imply that this colt is in the same stratosphere as War Emblem, but there are some similarities.
As for Denis of Cork, he was on a perfect schedule heading into the Rebel, but instead was put in mothballs and allowed to rust for seven weeks. And all because of some obsession with speed figures. Trainer David Carroll had the colt’s winter and spring campaign all mapped out and then saw a big “X” drawn through it. He attempted to keep Denis of Cork on edge, but to be inactive for that long when you’re primed for competition, and then forced to return over a quirky surface like Hawthorne, it was an invitation to disaster.
Denis of Cork never at any point looked like the colt who had won all three of his races, in which he showed speed, power, and guts. Going into the first turn, it was difficult to see what happened, but jockey Julien Leparoux, in between horses, went flying up in the air and completely lost his balance and rhythm on the colt. That didn’t seem to affect the horse at all, but down the backstretch, it was obvious he was in trouble. He wasn’t moving with any authority and began losing ground over a track where you needed to be right there turning for home. It was sad to see such a talented horse struggle home a non-threatening fifth.
Now it’s a question whether he will have enough earnings to get in the Derby if that’s where they decide to go. He most likely will, but if several horses behind him run huge in the Arkansas Derby (including Carroll’s Blackberry Road) and Blue Grass, it could knock him out. But does he even have a chance to win the Derby off this race? Normally, you would answer an emphatic ‘no,’ but we’ve seen too many good horses bounce back from a clunker before the Derby, and the belief here is that this is a very good horse who just wasn’t given the opportunity to show it.
Because of the costly decision to skip the Rebel, Denis of Cork lost one of the hottest jockeys in the country in Robby Albarado, is now in jeopardy of not getting in the Derby, and will have to go in the race off only four career starts (the last horse to win the Derby off four starts was 90 years ago). His connections were afraid he’d "bounce" on the speed sheets in his next start. Well, he bounced all right, possibly right out of the Derby. Let’s just hope Carroll can get him back on track and show everyone what he’s capable of doing.
Atoned was a bit of a disappointment, especially with Denis of Cork not running his race, and he and runner-up Golden Spikes most likely will not have sufficient graded earnings to get in the Derby. Z Humor ran another steady, but unspectacular, race to finish third, and he’s in the Derby earnings-wise if Zayat Stables wants to run all their horses who qualify. Their others are Halo Najib and Z Fortune, who needs a placing in the Arkansas Derby to make the field.