Kentucky Derby Trail: Here Comes the 19th Nervous Breakdown

Kentucky Derby Trail: Here Comes the 19th Nervous Breakdown
Photo: Alexander Barkoff
High Limit dazzled in the Louisiana Derby.
Expect some frazzled nerves on March 19 when the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) picture either becomes crystal clear or gets turned upside down. We saw a sneak preview of the latter last weekend when newcomers High Limit and Bellamy Road dropped out of the sky and caused some big explosions in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and in Florida.

You can also add two new shooters in Uncle Denny and Wannawinemall, who emerged on the Derby scene in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) at Bay Meadows. And then there was the familiar face of Sweet Catomine, who took another step forward in her quest for the roses by winning the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I). Now, it's on to meet the boys in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).

High Limit's dazzling performance in the Louisiana Derby off a 4 1/2-month layoff and only two strolls in the park at Delaware was nothing short of freaky -- as was Bellamy Road's 15 3/4-length romp in a Gulfstream allowance race, his first start in five months. But these performances are a far cry from going a mile and quarter in a 20-horse field on the first Saturday in May. Both horses are confirmed frontrunners who will have only two starts going into the Derby, with High Limit having only four career starts. Rather than throw the same old statistics out there once again, let's just say history is against both of them.

High Limit no doubt is a very special horse, and there is no way one can know for sure what a horse this gifted is and is not capable of doing. But not only does the son of Maria's Mon have to overcome his lack of experience and his (for now) one-dimensional running style, he also needs to get through a race without jumping the tire tracks and landing back on his wrong lead. He's done it in at least his last two races, despite wearing a shadow roll both times. He's been so superior to his opponents that he's been able to get away with it, but it's not something you want him doing in the Derby. Then again, there are no tire tracks in the stretch for the Derby.

High Limit's former trainer, Tony Dutrow, knew right away this was no ordinary horse and did very little with him last year, only running him twice as a lark. He realized the colt had bigger and better things awaiting him as a 3-year-old. All he told jockey Ramon Dominguez was, "Just let him go out there and run around a little bit."

Dutrow said he wasn't surprised at all that High Limit was able to turn in such a powerful performance in the Louisiana Derby. "He's become what everyone kind of fantasized he might be," Dutrow said. "For a young horse with only two minor races at Delaware Park that were no more than workouts to take that big a step and shine the way he did is something you don't see too often. And you have to give credit to both Bobby Frankel and High Limit for what he was able to accomplish. It broke my heart when he left my barn, but (owner) Gary West is entitled to do what he feels is best for him, his family, and the horse. I'm fine with it. I'm just happy they kept Ramon on him."

So, now, we'll just have to see where Frankel decides to run him next. It obviously will be either the Wood Memorial (gr. I), four weeks before the Derby, or the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), three weeks before the classic. Frankel said he's leaning toward the Blue Grass, which would give him an extra week. Frankel won both races in 2003 with Empire Maker and Peace Rules, respectively, when the Derby preps were run on the same day.

As for Bellamy Road,, Nick Zito has had this colt for about two months, and he obviously is another of those horses who come off former trainer Michael Dickinson's Tapeta Farm dead-fit, as Tapit   did last year to win the Wood Memorial.

Bellamy Road is Zito's fifth solid Kentucky Derby hopeful. One rival trainer commented, "Zito's getting all these good horses. I guess he wants people to start hating him now. What's wrong with him?"

And a rival owner said, "I heard that he now plans to conduct his own race, the inaugural Nicholas P. Zito Derby, 1 1/8 miles, Palm Meadows. The only problem is the race is restricted to 10 starters and Nick has 27 horses he wants to run."

Ah, the price of success. But it's a price Zito will gladly pay. He's been down this road before, as recently as last year, when he saw it all come apart, then come back together again in what proved to be a roller coaster year. You can't have enough good 3-year-olds, as evidenced by the defection of Derby favorite Declan's Moon, and the near exit the following day of Rockport Harbor, who like Roman Ruler, has been battling nagging problems all winter.

Bellamy Road, a son of his owner George Steinbrenner's stallion Concerto, is pretty much in the same boat as High Limit. While he has one more career start, he'll have only one two-turn race this year. He also was brilliant last year, and does have a graded stakes, the Miller Genuine Draft Cradle Stakes (gr. III), to his credit.

In his allowance score, he destroyed his opposition, running the favorite, Dearest Mon, into the ground with fractions of :45 3/5 and 1:10 1/5 before drawing away under a hand ride by Javier Castellano to win as he pleased in 1:35 4/5 for the mile. Now, Zito has to find a spot for him, not only where he can get a strong prep for the Derby, but where he doesn't knock off one of Zito's other big Derby horses. And that, by process of elimination, would be the Wood Memorial.

Cry Uncle

Obscured by the heroics of High Limit and Bellamy Road was the El Camino Real Derby, which may very well turn out to be an unveiling of sorts. The winner, Uncle Denny, was mentioned here in detail back in late January as a live horse at 75-1, even though he had just been knocked down from 150-1. This is not your typical Cal-bred. There is nothing California about his pedigree. His sire, In Excess, not only won the Met Mile (gr. I), he ran the fastest 1 1/4 miles in the history of New York racing, capturing the Suburban Handicap (gr. I) in 1:58 1/5. His broodmare sire, His Majesty, epitomized Darby Dan classic breeding, and is one of the last remaining true stamina and class influences in the country, especially through his son Pleasant Colony. And Uncle Denny's maternal great-grandsire is Hail to Reason. So, this colt has an awesome mix of brilliance, class, and staying power.

He demonstrated all three in the El Camino Real. Under pressure the whole way, and from both sides, through testing fractions of :22 3/5, :45 3/5, and 1:09 4/5, his pedigree kicked in at the quarter pole, and so did he, quickly accelerating away from the field. He drifted out a bit under a couple of left-handed whips from Russell Baze, but had no trouble maintaining a 2 1/4-length advantage to the wire over two promising closers, Wannawinemall and Buzzards Bay. Despite the fast fractions and constant pressure, he still came home his final sixteenth in a respectable :06 3/5, while covering the 1 1/16 miles in a swift 1:42 1/5.

This was a nice move in the right direction after Uncle Denny finished a close fourth in the Sham Stakes. He still needs to show he can beat top-class horses, but he looks to have a lot of improvement still left in him.

Runner-up Wannawinemall looks to be a promising colt, who could bring trainer Kristin Mulhall back to Churchill Downs. Although he has to overcome his name (one-word sentences never win the Derby, and his name looks like that of a Boy Scout camp), he is making steady improvement at the right time, and ran a big race in his stakes debut while going five-wide turning for home. He also showed a lot by out-gaming the Golden Gate Derby winner Buzzards Bay (Marco Bay), who also launched a strong move around horses on the far turn.

Wannawinemall is by Royal Anthem, who not only is remembered as a top-class international turf horse, but a magnificent-looking horse as well. Wannawinemall's broodmare sire is Gone West and his maternal great-grandsire is Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Lemhi Gold, so once again, you have an excellent blend of top mile speed and stamina.

Sweet Dreams

The Derby dream for Sweet Catomine's connections is as alive as ever after the daughter of Storm Cat toyed with her field in Sunday's Santa Anita Oaks. But now comes the big test in the Santa Anita Derby. The Oaks was a contradiction of sight and stats. Once again, the powerful bay filly unleashed her devastating move on the turn, while appearing to be still on cruise control. She coasted home by three lengths and galloped out as she if were about to lap the field.

But on paper, the race was extremely slow, especially the six furlongs in an excruciatingly slow 1:14. The mile time of 1:38 1/5 was way off the 1:36 4/5 final time run in the Santana Mile two races earlier, in which they went the six furlongs in 1:11. The final time of 1:44 2/5 actually was respectable considering the fractions. And she did come home the final sixteenth in :06 1/5 before galloping out in another time zone. And it must be noted that the track was damp and on the deep side.

So, what does all that mean? How does this equate to Sweet Catomine's low Beyer Speed Figure of 88 in the Santa Ysabel Stakes (gr. III)? After watching her races, both this year and especially last year, it's probably best to just enjoy the spectacle of it, and not worry about times. It's pure speculation whether she can beat the colts. Yes, her times this year have not been fast, but she did run faster than Wilko, Afleet Alex, Sun King and company while winning last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). So, who really knows what she's capable of when put to the test?

We're all aware by now she has the power and the class to compete with the colts, and she has the pedigree to run with them going 1 1/4 miles. The bottom line is that she's a very special filly, and we'll just have to wait until the Santa Anita Derby to see how she stacks up against the boys.

-- Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) runner-up Rush Bay (Cozzene), who was a big disappointment in the Risen Star (gr. III), went for easier company on Monday and captured a 1 1/16-mile allowance optional claimer at Fair Grounds by two lengths.

-- The upcoming March Madness weekend will be discussed in depth later in the week.

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