Kentucky Derby Trail: Weekend Stakes Help Clear Picture...Somewhat

Kentucky Derby Trail: Weekend Stakes Help Clear Picture...Somewhat
Photo: Alexander Barkoff
Louisiana Derby puts several -- including winner Wimbledon -- solidly into ranks of Derby prospects.
Here we are a week into March and the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) picture is still pretty muddled, with many of the leading contenders either lightly raced and lightly tested this year or uncertain to get the mile and a quarter. But at least the San Rafael (gr. II) and Louisiana Derby (gr. II) provided some stimulating performances.

The overall picture, however, remains unclear, at least until next weekend. The 2-year-old champ and Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner is getting little respect, with the speed experts insisting he's too slow. Nick Zito's Champagne (gr. I) and Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. II) winners, who top many of the contenders' lists, have only easy allowance victories to their credit this year against lesser competition. Many question the distance capabilities of the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) winner and first two finishers of the San Rafael. And many have doubts that exciting horses such as Tapit, Redskin Warrior, Odds On, Purge, and Rock Hard Ten can be ready to handle the grueling 10 furlongs of the Derby. Even the latest bandwagon horse (Eddington), who is vaulting toward the top of many lists, has yet to be tested in stakes company.

The Louisiana Derby provided enough hope with the explosive victory of Wimbledon, who in his sixth career start was making his first appearance outside the maiden ranks, but ran like a seasoned pro. The powerful effort of runner-up Borrego not only stamped this improving colt as a legitimate Derby contender, but boosted the form of Sham Stakes foes Master David, Action This Day, and Preachinatthebar. Solid performances by Pollard's Vision and the late-closing Breakaway also put them in the Derby picture.

Credit Bob Baffert for touting Wimbledon since last November as his best young horse, and not changing his opinion despite the big gray son of Wild Rush being beaten four times as the favorite in four maiden races at four different distances under Mike Smith, Julie Krone, and Gary Stevens. Baffert tried everything to get the colt to relax, and when he finally put it all together with newly arrived Puerto Rican rider Javier Santiago aboard, he romped by eight lengths. Santiago had been touted by agent Tony Matos as an up-and-coming star with excellent hands, and he and Wimbledon became a perfect fit.

Granted, the rapid pace of the Louisiana Derby set it up for a closer, but for a horse coming off a maiden victory to draw off and win going away with a final sixteenth in :06 2/5 seconds in stakes-record-equaling time was very impressive. He has good natural speed if you need it, but he was able to adjust to the fast pace, came between horses and blew everyone away in the stretch. He's a big, imposing horse with unlimited potential who looked like a man against boys.

But there is a question about his pedigree, which is dominated by horses who reached their limit at nine-furlongs, many of whom have had little impact on the breed. His dam, Strawberry Clover, is a half-sister to multiple six-furlong stakes winner Mining Burrah. That's not saying they can't combine to produce a Derby winner if the horse has the kind of natural talent Wimbledon has. If you're looking for any hope, his broodmare sire, Darn That Alarm, did sire Turnback the Alarm, winner of five grade I stakes, including the 10-furlong Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I). But sires like Jig Time (who is by Native Dancer), Princely Pleasure, and Green Ticket in his female family provide little help in forming a definitive profile of his pedigree.

With that said, despite his lofty 5.00 dosage index, it's best to just focus on the colt's raw talent and physical dominance and see how far they take him. Baffert said he didn't even take a deep breath afterwards and likely will run next in the Wood Memorial (gr. I). If ever a horse looks like he can outrun his pedigree it's this horse. Also, when Baffert gets this high on a young horse so early in his career, it pays to listen.

Borrego had to go widest of all and unleashed a big stretch run out in the middle of the track. He has the pedigree, looks, and style, and keeps moving forward. Note, however, that even with Borrego and Breakaway flying at the end, neither was making up any ground on Wimbledon. You have to love the way Pollard's Vision hung tough, barely losing the place spot and holding off Breakaway for third after sitting behind torrid pace; he'll be even tougher next time. He has plenty of speed on top, but plenty of stamina on the bottom. As for the ones out of the top four, Gradepoint was stuck behind horses, but had little punch down the stretch, and Shadowland got stopped on the rail after turning for home, and did little once he did get clear. Fire Slam got cooked by the fast pace, but never stopped trying, and should bounce back at shorter distances. And look for an improved effort next time from Stolen Time, who was hadn't run in four months, missed his prep due to a fever, but was right in the thick of things in mid-stretch.

In the San Rafael, you had to be impressed with Imperialism, who, as he did in the San Vicente (gr. II), demonstrated an explosive turn of foot. The son of Langfuhr   has a huge reach to his stride and really kicks out his left leg even when he's on his right lead. The question is, how did this colt get so good after toiling around Calder for 12 races last year, including a series of turf races? If you thought the females of America rallied around past Derby trainers Jenine Sahadi and Shelley Riley, imagine if 21-year-old Kristin Mulhall makes it to Churchill Downs with this rags-to-riches gray colt.

His dam, Bodhavista, was a $4,500 purchase as a 3-year-old at the Keeneland November mixed sale after racing four times and getting beaten a total of 51 lengths. His second dam was foaled in Indiana, and this third and fourth dams were foaled in Tennessee. But for those who are doubtful he can get 1 1/4 miles, take note that his second dam, Fia, did finish a good third to champion Our Mims in the 1 1/2-mile Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I), beaten only two lengths. Also, Fia is the dam of Paulrus, who set a new course record at Dueling Grounds for 1 1/2 miles. And Fia's sire, One For All, won five 1 1/2-mile turf stakes.

The San Rafael also was a big race for Lion Heart, who was tested for the first time in his career by a fast, classy colt in Hosco. To press fractions of :22 3/5 and :45 3/5 in his first start of the year, then open a clear lead and battle back gamely against a fresh closer, proved more about the horse in many ways than his previous three victories. But he was intent on getting the lead early and needs to harness his speed if he's to have any shot at being a legitimate Derby contender. Third-place finisher, Consecrate, ran well in the final furlong, but was floundering at the quarter pole and needs to get in gear earlier.

As far as the San Rafael in general, one has to remember that they went the first half in :45 3/5 and the last half in :50 3/5, with a :26 final quarter. In their defense, horses were coming home slow all day, including the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), and not running fast times. Only in the final race did we get a freaky performance by Boomzeeboom, who romped in a six-furlong maiden race in 1:08 3/5. Previously, he had run second to Lion Heart in a swiftly run maiden race last October.

Song of the Sword remained unbeaten by scoring a game nose victory in a fog-shrouded allowance race at Aqueduct last week. The stablemate of Redskin Warrior cleaned out his feed tub the next morning and was bouncing around the shed, and will come back in two weeks for the Lane's End Stakes.

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