Kentucky Derby Trail: Is Class of '05 the Fastest Ever?

Kentucky Derby Trail: Is Class of  '05 the Fastest Ever?
Photo: Benoit photo
Fusaichi Samurai, highly-regarded colt who has some catching up to do on the Triple Crown Trail.
"Too fast to last."

That is an old slogan that racing fans hope does not ring true in 2005. If it doesn't, then we're in for a memorable winter and spring on the road to the May 7 Kentucky Derby (gr. I), as a legion of brilliant young horses across the country prepare to embark on the journey of a lifetime.

It is safe to say that never before have so many run so fast at age two. But it is also safe to say that never before have we seen so many fast horses with pedigrees to carry them classic distances. So, all we can do is fasten our seat belts and hold on tight. And, yes, keep our fingers crossed.

To demonstrate just how fast a group of youngsters we're talking about, it's best to use the Beyer Speed Figures, which most can identify with. In looking at the Beyers, no less than 10 juveniles registered a figure of 100 or higher. And all have the pedigree and racing credentials to be considered legitimate Derby contenders.

They are Declan's Moon (Beyer Speed Figure of 107), Roman Ruler (106), Afleet Alex (102), Rockport Harbor (102), Galloping Grocer (102), Proud Accolade (100), Lost in the Fog (109), Devils Disciple (103), Going Wild (102), and the filly Sweet Catomine (102), who may very well be headed for the Derby trail. Nine of those have already won or placed in graded stakes, and another is a listed stakes winner and track record holder.

Many of these young horses combine their brilliant speed with a classic pedigree. But now it's time to see how they make the transition from 2-year-old to 3-year-old and how they hold together.

Another fascinating aspect to this crop of Derby horses is the courage several of them have already shown. It's one thing to be fast and win by huge margins, as many of these have done, but when you see Declan's Moon (a five-length maiden winner) and Roman Ruler (averaging 7 1/2 lengths a victory) in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. II), and Rockport Harbor (averaging 7 1/2 lengths a victory) and Galloping Grocer (averaging 10 1/2 lengths a victory) in the Remsen (gr. II) hook up in gut-wrenching stretch battles with none of them giving an inch, you know you're looking at special horses.

You also had Afleet Alex (averaging 9 1/2 lengths a victory) gamely running down a tenacious Devils Disciple (averaging seven lengths a victory) at the wire in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I); and Proud Accolade (averaging 6 1/2 lengths a victory) holding off Afleet Alex in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I).

Those races revealed much more about these horses than their runaway victories.

Adding to the anticipation of this year's Derby trail is having unbeaten stakes winners in several regions--Declan's Moon (four-for-four) in Southern California; the lightning-fast Lost in the Fog (two-for-two) in Northern California; Rockport Harbor (four-for-four) in Arkansas; and High Fly (three-for-three) in Florida.

High Fly, a son of Atticus trained by Bill White for Charlotte Weber, couldn't have been more impressive winning the one-mile Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream Jan. 8. Not only did he display an explosive turn of foot in the stretch, he did it under a hand ride, while running straight as an arrow every step of the way. It's always encouraging to see a young horse display both brilliance and professionalism, especially in only his third career start and first in a stake.

This past weekend did not reveal anything as exciting as High Fly, but Harlington, a regally bred son of Unbridled out of Serena's Song, looked impressive winning a 1 1/8-mile allowance race for his second win in as many starts, both in the slop. Trained by Todd Pletcher, he still has some learning to do, but this effort at nine furlongs was a big step forward. Jockey John Velazquez went to a very early left-handed whip nearing the quarter pole. When he switched to a right-handed whip in the stretch, Harlington pinned his ears and jumped back to his left lead. But he still drew clear and was striding out strongly at the wire, coming home his last eighth in a solid :12 3/5.

Pletcher, who also has stakes winners Proud Accolade and Flamenco, and the impressive maiden winner Bandini, sent out yet another promising 3-year-old over the weekend when he saddled Monarch Lane, a son of Maria's Mon, to a 5 3/4-length victory in a seven-furlong maiden event. Then, on Monday, he was represented by Yes Yes Yes, a son of Yes It's True  , who romped by 9 3/4 lengths in a six-furlong maiden race.

Amazingly, Pletcher now has six Derby prospects for six different owners – Eugene and Laura Melnyk (Harlington), Padua Stables (Proud Accolade), Peachtree Stable (Flamenco), Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith (Bandini), Edgewood Farm (Monarch Lane), and Team Valor Stables (Yes Yes Yes).

If ever a filly looked like a strong Derby contender this early in the year it is Sweet Catomine, who finally got her 3-year-old debut out of the way, winning the Santa Ysabel Stakes (gr. III) pretty much as she pleased, tossing her ears around as if looking for competition. Considering she wasn't 100% for the race, according to trainer Julio Canani, we can expect bigger and better things from this powerful daughter of Storm Cat who appears to have no weaknesses. With her push-button acceleration and ability to get herself out of trouble in a flash, and a pedigree loaded with brilliance and stamina, she definitely looks like the real thing.

It's hard to get a good gauge on the other 3-year-old winners this past weekend. San Rafael (gr. III) winner Spanish Chestnut, a son of Horse Chestnut is improving with every race, and turned in a gutsy effort in the San Rafael, but he's still determined to get the lead, and we'll have to wait to see if he'll learn to settle for Patrick Biancone, who faced the same challenge last year with Lion Heart.

Count Fleet winner Scrappy T, by Fit to Fight, also won wire-to-wire, and while he's as consistent as they come, it's too early to tell if he's a legitimate Derby horse. The same is true for LeComte winner Storm Surge, who is now a three-time stakes winner for Dallas Stewart. The son of Storm Cat did not beat a strong field in a race in which they came home the last quarter in :26 3/5. He is no doubt a good horse, but must prove himself against stronger competition.

At Golden Gate, Buzzards Bay, a son of Marco Bay, showed a lot of grit to win the Golden Gate Gate Derby, but he runs with his head a bit high, and was subjected to a furious barrage of whips to eke out a victory in a three-horse field.

In the six-furlong San Miguel Stakes (gr. III), the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Going Wild, by Golden Missile  , just held off So Long Birdie, a half-brother to Birdstone   and Bird Town, to win by nose in 1:09 3/5.

In another six-furlong stake, Maddy's Lion, a son of Lion Hearted  , romped by 6 1/4 lengths in a solid 1:11 2/5 in the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes (formerly the Best Turn) at Aqueduct, his third victory in five career starts.

Also, last week, Stormin Away, a son of Skip Away, defeated the Bob Baffert-trained Devil's Bay by a half-length in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Santa Anita. Finishing third was the stakes-placed Scipion.

Talking about the speed of this crop of 3-year-olds, the aforementioned Lost in the Fog, who has run freakishly fast times in both his starts, worked five furlongs last Saturday in a scorching :57 4/5 over a dead strip at Golden Gate. The next fastest work of the 42 at that distance was 1:00 4/5.

Also turning in a big work this past week was Galloping Grocer, who breezed a half in :47 2/5 at Belmont. Returning to the work tab after suffering a foot abscess that cost him a week's training was Roman Ruler, who drilled a sharp five furlongs in 1:00 2/5.

The much-heralded Fusaichi Samurai, who has some catching up to do, breezed a half in :49, while the Lukas-trained Consolidator, winner of the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. I), went five-eighths in :59 4/5. Finally, turning in his first work of the year was the highly promising Rush Bay, who breezed a half in :48 4/5 at Fair Grounds for Tom Amoss, who also sent out Cherokee Path for a five-furlong breeze in 1:00 4/5.

Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing may be be back on the Derby trail this year after confirming their undefeated 2-year-old Shamardal will be nominated to the Triple Crown and pointed for the UAE Derby (UAE-I) at Nad al Sheba. The son of Giant's Causeway   is three-for three, including victories in the group I Dewhurst Stakes and group II Vintage Stakes, both in England.

Also pointing to the UAE Derby, and heading for the Kentucky Derby trail is Team Valor's Italian 2-year-old champion Becrux, winner of the group I Gran Criterium. Team Valor has two other European horses on the Derby trail. They are Congleve, a five-length maiden winner on the all-weather track at Deauville, who will go to Michael Dickinson, and the stakes-placed Guillaume Tell, who has already breezed a half in :47 3/5 for trainer Pletcher.

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