Kentucky Derby Trail: The Routs Continue

Kentucky Derby Trail: The Routs Continue
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Boy, has this Kentucky Derby (gr. I) picture changed. Suddenly, it's the year of the routs. So, what do you do when you have final Derby preps won by 17 1/2, 9 1/2, 8, and 6 lengths? Well, you can kick back and enjoy the big show and hope one of the winners is special enough to go on and sweep the Triple Crown, or you can claim they peaked too soon and look elsewhere.

Before last weekend's races are discussed, here is the question of the week: Name the two hottest juvenile spawning grounds in the country? For those who weren't aware of it, the winners of the Wood Memorial (gr. I), Florida Derby (gr. I), Arkansas Derby (gr. II), Louisiana Derby (gr. II), and the one-two finishers of the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) all broke their maidens last year at either Delaware Park or Calder Race Course. Bellamy Road, Afleet Alex, and High Limit scored their first career victory at Delaware Park, while High Fly, Buzzards Bay, and General John B won at Calder.

Although Bandini and Afleet Alex romped in their respective victories in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and Arkansas Derby, the opinion here is that only one was a true runaway victory. On paper, the Blue Grass was by far the stronger of the two races, with four horses seemingly so evenly matched it was highly unlikely any of them would win by a big margin.

So, how did Bandini manage to win by 6 lengths? The son of Fusaichi Pegasus   first made a big impression when he broke his maiden earlier this year. He then stamped himself as an exciting Derby prospect with a 9-length allowance romp, followed by a strong second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II). Prior to the second Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool, I wrote: "If I had to make one bet that will look good come Derby Day, it would be on (Bandini)."

Although I am still just as enamored with the colt, and find him one of the classiest-looking horses I've seen in a while, the feeling here is that his margin of victory in the Blue Grass was more of an illusion. It shouldn't be used as an indicator of his dominance over these horses and it shouldn't be a cause for concern that he may have run his big race before the Derby.

Jockey John Velazquez began pushing on Bandini at the three-eighths pole and didn't put Spanish Chestnut and High Limit away until about the three-sixteenths pole, through a slow quarter in :26 1/5. He then drew clear with a final eighth in :13 2/5 over a track that was playing on the slow side (only one deep closer won all day). This is not normally the way a horse goes about winning by 6 lengths in such a competitive field. He normally would inhale them the way Afleet Alex did in the Arkansas Derby.

What basically happened is that the race simply fell apart – in front of him and behind him. By the time Bandini stuck his head in front, his rabbit, Spanish Chestnut, was spent, and High Limit, with only one easy race this year and only three career starts, began feeling the effects of having to chase Spanish Chestnut's quick pace. Meanwhile, the riders of Sun King and Consolidator (two horses who like pressing the pace), got suckered in by the tactics and took back on their horses at the start, dropping six to eight lengths back, which sealed their fate right then and there. As a result, they were rubber-legged in the stretch and could not even mount a feeble challenge. Velazquez wisely hustled Bandini out of the gate from the outside post, knowing full well he wasn't going to wind up in front, with Spanish Chestnut (who shares common ownership with Bandini) committed to the lead. That enabled him to ease in and settle into a nice stalking position that Sun King and Consolidator should have had.

So, with the horses in front of him tiring and two of the favorites behind him staggering, Bandini could not help but draw away, even with coming home his final three-eighths in a pedestrian :39 3/5.

This certainly is not meant as a knock on Bandini by any means, or the tactics used. The feeling is that he still has room for further improvement and is going to take a lot of beating in the Derby. What all this does mean is that the Blue Grass, as it often is, was a quirky race run over a quirky track. The only thing that should be taken from this race is that Bandini won and moved a step closer to the Derby. Forget the margin, forget the fractions and final time of 1:50, and forget the performances of those behind him. That quirkiness is one of the reasons why no Blue Grass winner has won the Derby since 1991. Bandini could very well break that streak, but only because he showed he has fully recovered from a foot bruise and is now a more focused and professional horse. Not because he won this race by 6 lengths.

Afleet Again

Just when most everyone thought Afleet Alex had sailed off into the sunset, here he is back again and heading to Louisville at breakneck speed. And, boy, is it great to have him back. I must confess to having a very soft spot for this colt, who has never been given his due, considering what he accomplished last year.

Having spent a good deal of quality time with him at Lone Star Park last October when he was pretty much the only horse in the barn, I can honestly say I can't remember being around a nicer horse. He was all class, and had the sweetest disposition. Now, I know that has little or nothing to do with the Arkansas Derby or Kentucky Derby, but I can assure you that if this colt does win the Derby, he will continue the trend in popularity we saw with Funny Cide and Smarty Jones.

Just wait until newspapers start publishing the photo of Alex's breeder's 9-year-old daughter feeding him from a Coors Lite bottle when he was a foal, because his mare was unable to produce milk. Or wait until they hear about how a portion of his winnings and proceeds from merchandising items helps support "Alex's Lemonade Stand," started by a young girl with cancer to help raise money for research. The girl has since passed away, but her "lemonade stand" still goes on and is helping save other lives. The charity recently took in an additional $50,000 from a challenge made by Wild Desert's owner, Dan Borislow, a Philadelphia native who offered a horse vs. horse wager with the owners of Afleet Alex and Rockport Harbor, who are also from the Philadelphia area. Alex's owners accepted, and it turned out to be no contest.

I know all that doesn't have anything to do with do the Arkansas Derby or Kentucky Derby either. But we all know this sport is not only about handicapping and analysis. And in this case, there really isn't much to handicap or analyze. Afleet Alex crushed his opposition, pure and simple, and did it by coming home his final three-eighths in a blazing :36. Slow pace or not, this was an extraordinary feat, especially on a track that was not playing fast at all.

With a good 10 Derby hopefuls either wanting to be on the lead or sitting just off it, Alex, who possesses the quickest turn of foot of any 3-year-old in the country, should be in a perfect position in the back half of the field, just waiting to pounce on the others.

Most of the experts have insisted since last year that Afleet Alex is not a two-turn horse, never mind a 10-furlong horse. Well, he's proven their first theory wrong, and he should prove the second one wrong as well. Rather than go into his pedigree for the umpteenth time, I will again dig up a past comment and simply reprint it. Dated Jan. 24, it read:

"Are times changing when it comes to finding a Derby horse through pedigree? Looking at the last three Derby winners, all had the same profile, being by sires -- Our Emblem, Distorted Humer, and Elusive Quality   -- who were best at seven furlongs to a mile, and being out of female families with top stamina influences in their third and fourth generation.

Well, for all you doubters, take another hard look at Afleet Alex, who fits that profile to perfection. His sire, Northern Afleet   not only won the 7-furlong San Carlos Handicap (gr. II) in 1:21 2/5, the 1 1/16-mile San Diego Handicap (gr. III) in 1:41 4/5, and finished third, beaten a length, in the Met Mile (gr. I) in 1:33 flat, he also stretched out to win the 1 1/8-mile San Fernando Breeders' Cup (gr. II) in a solid 1:48 2/5.

To complement that, Afleet Alex has stamina (mainly grass) all through his female family. His broodmare sire, Hawkster, set a world-record for 1 1/2 miles at Santa Anita, and his great-grandsire, Hawaii, set a course record for 1 1/2 miles at Belmont. And both set their records in grade I stakes. Hawkster's grandsire, Roberto, won the 1 1/2-mile English Derby (Eng-I) and set a course record at York for 1 5/16 miles. Afleet Alex's second dam, Qualique, won the 1 1/8-mile Demoiselle Stakes (gr. II).

Not only does Afleet Alex fit the profile of a Derby winner through his pedigree, he arguably was the most accomplished 2-year-old in 2004, dancing every dance and only losing the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) by a half-length because of a bad trip, in which he stumbled slightly at the start, then was forced to go wide on both turns. He was asked for his run very early and hit the front too soon. Reverse that half-length and he would have locked up the 2-year-old championship and become a standout favorite for the Derby. He's tough, consistent, and has the kind of acceleration you want to see in the Derby horse. It's inconceivable at this point to think he's not a legitimate Derby contender.

The Others

As mentioned earlier, throw out the performances of Sun King (Charismatic) and Consolidator (Storm Cat). Both looked like they were running in quicksand down the stretch. High Limit (Maria's Mon) ran as hard and as fast as he could, while being forced to chase a horse for the first time in his brief career. He should improve off this effort. But he still has some learning to do. Mainly, he has to stop jumping tire tracks in the stretch and switching leads. Third-place finisher Closing Argument (Successful Appeal  ) turned in a solid effort, having not run since Feb. 5.

In the Arkansas Derby, Andromeda's Hero (Fusaichi Pegasus  ) couldn't find room around the far turn, being stuck down on the rail, and could only pick up some of the pieces at the end to get third. However, as he did in the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II), he galloped out like a wild horse and actually passed Afleet Alex on the turn. He's still not quite there, but he will love the 1 1/4 miles and there should be enough speed to help him mount some sort of serious challenge.

Also, don't give up on Greater Good (Intidab  ) if you liked him before. Breaking from the outside, he had a very bizarre trip, being rushed up with the leaders, about five wide, before beginning his steady retreat back toward the rear of the pack, where he probably should have been in the first place. He came very wide into the stretch and, with the slow fractions, was unable to pick up horses in the final furlong. He accomplished too much before this race to discard him now. He doesn't have the speed or the quick acceleration of Afleet Alex, but he is a solid, honest horse who will be back.

In other Derby news

-- Don't throw Survivalist (Danzig) out of the Derby picture just yet. Trainer Shug McGaughey said he is going to work the Gotham (gr. III) winner and Wood Memorial runner-up on Wednesday before making up his mind. McGaughey feels most of the major Derby preps fell apart, and he was happy with the way Survivalist closed in the Wood and separated himself from the horses he narrowly beat in the Gotham.

-- It's not every day you see a horse win a grade II stakes by 9 1/2 lengths, then come back one week later and turn in a bullet :47 3/5 work. But that's what Greeley's Galaxy (Mr. Greeley) did last Saturday following his blowout score in the Illinois Derby.

-- Buzzards Bay (Marco Bay), game winner of the Santa Anita Derby, worked five furlongs in :59 4/5 at Santa Anita on Monday. As he did in the big race, he had horses on both sides of him. This is a powerfully built, tough colt who is very versatile and on the improve and shouldn't be ignored on Derby Day simply because his speed figures weren't as impressive as the other two preps run that day.

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