Kentucky Derby Trail: Visibility Zero
by Steve Haskin
Date Posted: 3/31/2005 8:19:11 AM
Last Updated: 3/31/2005 7:34:45 PM

Did sealed track play into Flower Alley's hand in Lane's End Stakes?
Photo: Associated Press
The Twin Spires are out there somewhere. We should see them once the fog lifts. The crystal clear path that once was the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) trail is no more. No matter how we analyze, theorize, or just plain romanticize, we all meet this time every year at the same crossroads, with no idea in which direction we're heading.

Recent developments are a stark reminder what a perplexing, meandering road the Derby trail has become.

With Bandini (Fusaichi Pegasus  ) and Closing Argument (Successful Appeal  ) pulled from the Florida Derby (gr. I) with foot bruises, the list of defections and walking wounded continues to grow. Declan's Moon (Malibu Moon  ), Roman Ruler (Fusaichi Pegasus), Defer (Danzig), Scipion (A.P. Indy) and Uncle Denny (In Excess) have fallen off the trail, and Wilko (Awesome Again  ) and Rockport Harbor (Unbridled's Song) have been plagued with their own nagging ailments.

It seems as if we use these same words every year, just using different names to fill in the blanks. To make matters even more confusing, the actual races offer little help. Each of last weekend's stakes -- the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II), UAE Derby (UAE-I), and Rushaway Stakes -- were more bizarre than the next. The only race that played out as it was supposed to was the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel, won by the late-running Malibu Moonshine (Malibu Moon  ).

Flower Alley, coming off just two lifetime starts and a single maiden victory, looked like three different horses in one race – the one battling on the front end early, the one dropping back and going nowhere down the backstretch, and the one charging down the stretch like a fresh horse. To rally again after forcing the early pace, then dropping back is certainly not unheard of. But the son of Distorted Humor   came flying from a half-dozen lengths back as if he had been running last the whole way and was just getting involved in the race for the first time. It was obvious down the backstretch and after turning for home that the kickback from the wet, sealed track was bothering him, as he threw his head up whenever in behind Spanish Chestnut (Horse Chestnut). But with that said, horses in that situation normally don't kick in like that. It was as if someone has given him a hotfoot at the three-sixteenths pole.

So, is Flower Alley that good? Do we have a star in the making, or was this just another case of a Turfway Park sealed track situation like we had last year? We'll know soon enough. For now, Flower Alley joins High Limit (Maria's Mon) on the list of 3-year-olds who will attempt to buck 87 years of history by trying to win the Derby off only four lifetime starts.

A few other points of interest from the Lane's End:
-- Wild Desert ran a bang-up race to finish second after closing from last, while getting pushed out by the winner in the stretch. With an effort similar to last year's Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), in which he finished third, the son of Wild Rush has now shown he can deliver a powerful late run on a relatively consistent basis. And there is still has room for improvement.
-- Third-place finisher, Mr Sword, looked like a sure winner turning for home, but a premature move from sixth to first down the backstretch by Norberto Arroyo took its toll and he came up empty in the final furlong, while ducking out from a set of tire tracks. Arroyo also almost cost the son of Rizzi third when he started easing him before the wire and the colt threw his ears up as if the race were over.
-- Although Andromeda's Hero (Fusaichi Pegasus  ) finished a disappointing sixth, it must be noted that after the wire while pulling up, he cut inside the winner and was a good length ahead of everybody in a matter of a few strides. He could be another who was affected by the sealed track, and he still may turn out to be a legitimate Derby horse.

What can one say about the UAE Derby? Godolphin sends out their next wonder horse, the unbeaten Shamardal, and he proceeds to stop to a walk while 100-1 stablemate, Blues and Royals, romps by 12 lengths. The winner, a son of Honour and Glory, looks like a promising colt on the dirt, but this race still was too bizarre to get a true read on him. And where did that Beyer Speed Figure of 110 come from?

From a visual standpoint, he appears to have a good deal of talent on the dirt and was striding out beautifully in the final two furlongs. Regardless of how good this half-brother to Limehouse (fourth in the 2004 Kentucky Derby) may be, the bottom line is the Godolphin hierarchy still insists on attempting to win the Derby their way, and this will be his only start before the big race. Logically, it shouldn't happen, but racing has changed dramatically in recent years and appears to be venturing into uncharted waters. So does anyone really know for sure what can and can't be accomplished?

All the Rushaway Stakes proved is that last year's Champagne (gr. I) winner, Proud Accolade (Yes It's True  ) is either inferior around two turns or simply cannot handle a sealed racetrack. The winner, Cat Shaker (Catienus  ) showed he either has improved drastically or he loves a sealed track.

Private Terms winner Malibu Moonshine has shown on several occasions he has a big kick and can use it early, and he doesn't mind taking the overland route. But his fourth in the Battaglia Memorial puts a question mark next to his name, until he shows he can compete outside Maryland.

Other observations:
-- Although trainer Todd Pletcher said he would have preferred running Bandini in the Derby off a five-week layoff after the Florida Derby, the feeling here is that the colt, assuming his foot bruise heals completely, will have a better shot coming off the three weeks of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). Pletcher knows his horse and may be right in his assessment, but historically speaking, the Blue Grass looks like the better of the two races. Until a horse comes along and shows the Derby can be won off a five-week layoff, it's better to go with what's worked over the past half-century.

-- It is no surprise there are no shippers for the Florida Derby. Gulfstream Park must now try to promote their premier event as something more than just a re-tread of the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), minus one of its star participants. Nick Zito will hold the hot hand with High Fly (Atticus) and Noble Causeway (Giant's Causeway  ), but it will be interesting to see how the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) form holds up through Palm Meadows-based Vicarage (Vicar) and Wallstreet Scandal (Mt. Livermore). That should provide a decent line on the winner, High Limit.

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