Well, we’ve got our first big horse heading to Churchill Downs following Scat Daddy’s victory in the Florida Derby (gr. I), and judging from the other cards trainer Todd Pletcher is holding, he’s going to have a full house come May 5. But who knows if runner-up Notional will be the first of four aces held by Doug O’Neill.
Not many owners can claim to have their ticket punched to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) at 1:30 in the morning, half way around the world, and on a computer no less. Scat Daddy’s owner, Jim Scatuorchio and his family, along with Pletcher and Pletcher’s father J.J., having just hours earlier watched English Channel finish 12th in the Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I), were looking for a way to watch the Florida Derby, not an easy task in the middle of the night.
Even Sheikh Mohammed wasn’t able to help out, so they wound up in the business center of their hotel, which had been left open for them. Huddled around one of the computers, they were able to watch the race live, but the picture froze just as the horses were heading down the stretch. So, with nothing to look at but the image of Scat Daddy frozen at the eighth pole, they listened to Gulfstream track announcer Larry Collmus' call of the finish.
Although it was an anticlimactic way to win a $1-million race, it sure helped them sleep better. But not before they indulged in some pizza and champagne until 5 a.m. Only in racing can one’s fortunes change that dramatically at 1:30 in the morning.
So, Pletcher has one in the books, and who knows how many more will follow, with Circular Quay, Any Given Saturday, Sam P., King of the Roxy, Cowtown Cat, and possibly Soaring By heading to their respective final Derby preps.
Many were down on Scat Daddy after his third-place finish in the Holy Bull (gr. III), where he uncharacteristically went to the lead, battling head and head with Nobiz Like Shobiz. A return to his normal come-from-behind running style followed in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), which resulted in a nose victory.
The Florida Derby looked to be similar to the Fountain of Youth, with Stormello and Adore the Gold the ones to catch. Going into the race, however, only one closer had won on the card, and that was in a seven-furlong race. Edgar Prado, who was to win six races on the day, took advantage of John Velazquez’ trip to Dubai by winning four races for Pletcher, including the Florida Derby and Skip Away Stakes (gr. III).
Prado knew that Scat Daddy, who is not exactly a plodder, needed to be in relatively close striking range on this track, so he moved him up along the inside after the break, then eased him three wide, where he was able to sit comfortably in third and track Stormello and Adore the Gold.
The fact that the son of Johannesburg was able to sit right behind the two leaders and still unleash his powerful closing kick bodes well for his chances in the Derby, which not only tests a horse’s talent, stamina, and toughness, but his ability to adapt to whatever scenario unfolds, and that scenario usually is not what a horse has experienced in the past.
Unlike the Fountain of Youth, when he passed three horses in the final sixteenth and just got up at the wire, Scat Daddy already was cruising to the lead by the time they turned for home, and was in complete control of the race.
Having had an old-fashioned type campaign at 2 and 3, finishing first or second in traditional races like the Sanford (gr. II), Hopeful, Champagne, Fountain of Youth, and Florida Derby (all gr. I), Scat Daddy has demonstrated his class and has built the kind of foundation that Derby winners years ago used to have.
Of course, there will be those who point to the final three-eighths in :38 1/5, which like the Fountain of Youth was a bit on the slow side. But on both these big Saturdays, the track was playing a bit odd, and horses were not coming home fast. The fact is, Scat Daddy not only ran three-fifths of a second faster than stablemate A.P. Arrow in the Skip Away Stakes for older horses, his final three-eighths was four-fifths faster.
Some also feel a mile and a quarter might be beyond the limit of a son of Johannesburg, but that doesn’t seem to come into play as much any longer, considering the sires of recent Derby winners and the fact that Johannesburg never was given a chance to prove himself at 10 furlongs. He was sent into the Derby off one seven-furlong race on the grass in Ireland, had no conditioning at all, and still managed to beat more than half of the 18-horse field. He was injured shortly after and never got a chance to return to the form of his incredible 2-year-old campaign.
Johannesburg’s sire, Hennessy, also never got a chance to prove himself at a distance, racing only at 2, and he is by Storm Cat, out of a Hawaii mare, and Hawaii didn’t start running until a mile and a half. On the female side, his broodmare sire, Mr. Prospector, has sired a Belmont (gr. I) winner, and his tail-female grandsire is Nijinsky II.
Like many 3-year-olds, Scat Daddy will have his backers and his detractors. He’s not as brilliant as some of the others, being more workmanlike. But whether you like him for the Derby or not, you can’t help admire his consistency and toughness, while running against top-class horses from both coasts in seven consecutive graded stakes, including four grade I’s. He’s already defeated Nobiz Like Shobiz twice in graded stakes and has two grade I wins to his credit. So, even if you don’t like him for the Derby, you certainly have to respect him.
Also punching his ticket to Louisville was Notional, who ran another bang-up race, but simply was unable to make up the three lengths he spotted Scat Daddy down the backstretch. He also was being pushed along much earlier than Scat Daddy. That makes three straight big efforts for the son of In Excess at three different racetracks in three different states since the addition of blinkers.
What is interesting about Notional is that he, like Scat Daddy, is a proven closer, but won his career debut going short in brilliant fashion and in fast time. Scat Daddy broke his maiden at first asking, winning by 5 1/4 lengths in a sharp 1:03 3/5 for the 5 1/2 furlongs. Notional won his debut beating the exciting Exhale by 2 1/2 lengths in a sizzling 1:09 flat for the six furlongs, while earning a monster 105 Beyer Speed Figure.
And then we come to the third-place finisher, Chelokee, who is attempting to get trainer Michael Matz back to the Derby. For those wishing to see Barbaro’s trainer return to Churchill Downs, they can only wait and hope the $100,000 he earned is enough to get him in the starting gate. It’s going to be nip and tuck, and we won’t know much more until all the major preps have been run. It would be unfortunate if he didn’t get in, considering some feel he may have been the best horse in the race after having to take up sharply turning for home, scraping the rail, and then coming on with a late burst of speed to finish three-quarters of a length behind Notional.
The son of Cherokee Run has now had two disastrous trips in a row, in which he has managed to turn sure out-of-the-money performances into a victory (in an allowance race) and a third. Despite breaking from the 6-hole in the Florida Derby, jockey Ramon Dominguez somehow managed to get him trapped down on the rail for the entire race, with the colt making an early move down the backstretch, just as he had done in his previous start. In both instances, he was forced to drop back when nothing opened up.
This time he continued to hug the rail, waiting for an opening. Stormello came just far enough off the fence to make it inviting, but when Chelokee tried to get through, Victor Espinoza, on Stormello, closed the door on him, forcing Dominguez to take up sharply. He finally was able to angle Chelokee out, and although winning was out of the question, he was closing in on Notional at the end.
Now come the questions: would Chelokee have won with a clean trip? How strong was this race in general? The feeling here is that Chelokee very well could have gotten second, but Scat Daddy just looked too strong and is too classy a horse. As for the strength of the race, it is unwise to judge the quality of a grade I field immediately after the race. Just ask all those who tossed out every horse coming out of the 2005 Santa Anita Derby. What you can do is look at the fifth-place finish by Boogie Boggs, who was coming off only three career starts, all sprints and no stakes, yet was beaten only 4 1/4 lengths. Boogie Boggs has shown potential and could be a good horse in the making, so you’ll have to judge for yourself whether his performance here was any reflection of the quality of the field.
The big disappointments were Stormello and Adore the Gold. The former gave up the lead without a fight, which is unlike him. He obviously was a tired horse this time. Stormello was returning to Gulfstream after his fourth cross-country flight this year and a number of fast works, so who knows if that contributed to his regression. Imawildandcrazyguy and Birdbirdistheword were never in the race.
The other horse to watch from Saturday is Soaring By, who bounced back from his ordeal in the Louisiana Derby, in which he reared and broke through the gate and never got into the race. Dropping back to allowance company, he had little trouble winning by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:50.
In other races, Belmont Futurity (gr. II) runner-up C P West made his 3-year-old debut at seven furlongs and ran well, but was beaten a nose at 3-5 with no apparent excuse. He did make a wide early move through testing fractions of :22 1/5, :44 2/5 and 1:09 2/5, and appeared to simply come up a bit short. The final time of 1:22 3/5 was solid enough.
In the seven-furlong Aventura Stakes, Street Magician remained undefeated with a game half-length victory in 1:22 1/5 and now heads to the Withers Stakes (gr. II) and Preakness (gr. I).
Horses vs. history
Recent horses who have ended historical trends, curses, whammies, or whatever you want to call them:
Fusaichi Pegasus 2000 (First favorite to win the Derby in 21 years); Funny Cide 2003 (First New York-bred ever to win the Derby and first gelding to win since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929); Barbaro 2006 (first horse since Needles in 1956 to win the Derby off a layoff of more than four weeks).
Horses bucking history this year:
Street Sense, Great Hunter, Stormello, Curlin, King of the Roxy, Dominican (attempting to become the first horse since 1983 and second since 1947 to win the Derby off only two starts as a 3-year-old).
Curlin (attempting to become the first horse since 1882 to win the Derby without having raced at 2).
Curlin (attempting to become the first horse since 1915 to win the Derby off only three career starts).
Street Sense (attempting to become the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner to win the Derby).
How much is too much?
There has been a great deal of talk about the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) possibly taking too much out of Street Sense. If that race, in which he had an easy trip until he was put under pressure at the three-sixteenths pole, took too much out of him to the extent that it would hurt his chances for a race seven weeks away, then that’s a sad commentary on today’s Thoroughbreds.
That race was a stroll in the park compared to the gut wrencher Silver Charm had in the Santa Anita Derby when he went head and head every step of the way in :45 flat and 1:09 flat, battling with Sharp Cat, then was passed by Free House and fought back to be beaten a head in 1:47 3/5. He came back four weeks later and turned in one of the gutsiest performances ever in the Derby.
Was the Tampa Derby that much different than Barbaro’s stretch-long battle in last year’s Florida Derby coming off an eight-week layoff? True, he wasn’t coming off a four-month layoff, as Street Sense was, but Street Sense had much more foundation as a 2-year-old.
It was only a few years ago that Funny Cide had a hard-fought battle in the Wood Memorial against Empire Maker, and they came back three weeks later to finish one-two in the Derby.
And don’t forget about Thunder Gulch, who had two gut-wrenchers at Gulfstream. He won the Fountain of Youth by a neck and the Florida Derby by a nose under pressure the whole way in both races.
Going back a little farther, there was the battle between Lil E. Tee and Pine Bluff in the Arkansas Derby, in which they went head and head almost the entire race, with Pine Bluff winning by a neck. It certainly didn’t hurt Lil E. Tee, who came back only two weeks later to win the Derby.