Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Strange Morning at the Track

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Strange Morning at the Track
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Sun King, in Thursday breeze at Churchill Downs.
Most Kentucky Derby (gr. I) works are pretty uneventful, but that certainly wasn't the case Thursday morning. You had Bobby Frankel calling a last-minute audible and working High Limit in company with Ghostzapper, and you had Greater Good and Greeley's Galaxy turn in two of the strangest Derby works in memory.

The only two works that went according to schedule were the five-furlong moves by the Nick Zito pair of Sun King and Andromeda's Hero.

Sun King was the first one to work, breaking off six lengths behind two other Zito-trained 3-year-olds, Chief Commander and Indy Storm. The son of Charismatic has been sharp in his gallops, getting down into the bit, and his work today was very similar. Chief Commander and Indy Storm hooked up from the start, going head and head, with Sun King, under Maxine Correa, steadily chopping into their lead around the turn. By the time they hit the quarter pole, Sun King had pulled to within a length of the other two, as he swung six-wide turning for home.

He switched leads smoothly and cruised by his two workmates just inside the eighth pole. Correa gave a quick shake of the whip, and Sun King seemed to respond by dropping his head and extending his stride. He got down low and was really reaching out as he crossed the wire in 1:00 flat, some five or six lengths ahead of his workmates. Zito caught him in :59 2/5, and several other clockers had him in :59 and change. After a final eighth in about :11 4/5, Sun King again took the turn pretty wide, which accounted for a moderate gallop-out time. But he kept building momentum and was rolling along pretty good down the entire backstretch. Correa finally was able to pull him up at the half-mile pole.

This was an excellent work, especially the way he did everything on his own, while showing a good closing kick, which he likely will have to use in the Derby. He has a grinding style of running, and any time a grinder can close, he becomes all the more dangerous.

Following Sun King came Greater Good, and this one got ugly well before the work even started. The son of Intidab   was extremely rank galloping around the clubhouse turn, just behind his workmate, River Mountain Rd. He was so keyed up, he had jockey John McKee standing straight up in the irons, and pulling back hard on the reins, with his feet in the dashboard.

By the time he broke off at the five-eighths pole, he had already caught his workmate, but once into the work, he quickly settled down and let River Mountain Rd. open up by eight to 10 lengths. This is just the way he's run his last two races – breaking too sharply, going right up to the lead, then dropping back to where he should have been from the start.

He was a bit late changing leads after turning home, and still had a lot of ground to make up on River Mountain Rd. But he managed to blow right on by him inside the eighth pole, while throwing his ears around. With 100 yards to go, McKee started pumping hard in preparation for working an eighth past the wire. Greater Good came home his final eighth in about :12 2/5, then put in another eighth around the turn in :13 4/5. Although he looked OK in the stretch, this was not what trainer Bob Holthus was looking for. He's been trying to get Greater Good to relax right from the start, and in that regard, this had to be discouraging.

Following the renovation break, High Limit, with Joe Deegan board, strutted onto the track, followed by 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, ridden by regular jockey Javier Castellano. High Limit has been one of the most impressive Derby horses day in and day out, with his strong gallops, quarter-mile lung openers, and overall demeanor. As he stood near the sixteenth pole, you could get a good look at the fitness lines rippling all over his body.

As High Limit and Ghostzapper stood together, Andromeda's Hero and stablemate Pinpoint stopped near the finish line and made a quick turn to begin their run-up to the five-eighths pole. Pinpoint, a recent allowance winner at Keeneland, broke off four lengths ahead of Andromeda's Hero, who leveled off quickly under jockey Rafael Bejarano and got into a good steady rhythm. He went his opening eighth in:13 and quarter in :25 1/5. He cut the corner beautifully, with Bejarano nudging him on. He was all business in the final furlong, putting Pinpoint away, and coming home right around :11 1/5-:11 2/5 to complete the five furlongs in 1:01 4/5. For what it's worth, I got him closer to 1:01 1/5, with his final three-eighths in a sharp :36 flat.

What I liked about the son of Fusaichi Pegasus   is the way his stride quickened in the final eighth. For a horse who has been coming from far back in his races and closing too late, he's extremely quick-footed. He's very smooth and doesn't hit the ground hard. In his last two races, he didn't start running until the race was over, and managed to pass the winners both times after the wire, including Afleet Alex, on whom he made up almost nine lengths while galloping out. If only he could use the quickness he shows in the morning in his races he could make a major leap in the 3-year-old division. One thing is for sure, the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby will help him. This likely will be the most unnoticed work of the morning, but it was one of those sneakily good works that you look for if you're searching for a live longshot.

As soon as Andromeda's Hero finished up his work, High Limit and Ghostzapper broke off at the 5 1/2-furlong pole, with Ghostzapper, on the inside, a half-length in front. They continued that way through fractions of :12, :24 1/5, and :48 4/5 (taken from the five-furlong pole). Turning for home, Ghostzapper came several paths off the rail, with High Limit another two to three paths farther out. Neither Deegan nor Castellano ever asked their mounts on, with Deegan keeping his hands perfectly still, way down on High Limit's neck. Both colts hit the ground with the exact same stride, while doing everything on their own.

Ghostzapper maintained his half-length lead until 70 yards from the wire, when High Limit, still under no urging in the slightest, managed to stick his head in front. Ghostzapper was being throttled down, his work (1:00 3/5) complete, but High Limit continued on to work six furlongs in 1:13 4/5 (or 1:13 2/5 from the 5 1/2, according to Frankel), while again being carried a bit wide by Ghostzapper. As I said earlier, High Limit couldn't be doing any better. Whether he can overcome having only four starts, only two this year, no one knows. But from a physical standpoint, you can see him getting stronger and more mentally sharp every day.

Last but not least, we come to Greeley's Galaxy, and I have to be honest when I say I have no way of judging this work, it was so unusual. Trainer Warren Stute, who flew in from California with owner B. Wayne Hughes, actually wanted to work the son of Mr. Greeley an easy mile, then "sneak a mile and quarter into him."

Mikki Fincher, top exercise rider for Al Stall, in whose barn Greeley's Galaxy is stabled, simply wasn't ready for what was in store for her. After being schooled in the gate, Greeley's Galaxy broke off into a gallop, then started his work at the eighth pole. Everything was going along smoothly, and in fact, this was looking like an awesome work, with Greeley's Galaxy moving along powerfully with his head and shoulders down and reaching out with those big strides of his. He was really rolling around the clubhouse turn and down the backstretch, throwing in an :11 2/5 eighth along the way and a :36 flat three-eighths. Turning for home, he cut the corner so sharply, he was only a foot or so off the rail.

Everything was looking great. But as he approached the eighth pole, the grueling mile over a track that was on the deep side was beginning to take its toll on Fincher and the horse. By the time they hit the eighth pole, getting the mile in 1:40 3/5, Greeley's Galaxy was turning his head and shortening stride. Finally, he all but shut down, like a Ferrari overheating, and pretty much staggered under the wire.

The mile work itself, from the eighth pole to the eighth pole, was fine, and would have been even faster had Greeley's Galaxy and Fincher not started to buckle approaching the pole. But there was no way Stute was going to sneak in that extra two furlongs. This was a very demanding work on both horse and rider. At least no one can say the horse won't be fit if he makes it into the Derby field.

"Everyone was laughing at me, but I was exhausted," Fincher said. "He did his job. He went really well from the eighth pole back to the eighth pole, but I got pretty tired."

Stute and Hughes, watching from the grandstand, actually seemed to take it all in good humor. When asked if he usually works his horses like this, the 84-year-old Stute said, "Nah, I had the owner here."

Hughes snapped back, "It's a good thing you didn't work him a mile and a half."

Stute was then told if Greeley's Galaxy wins on May 7, he will have officially rewritten to book on how to train a horse for the Derby, to which he replied, "Good."

Stute told of a filly he once trained for Hughes whom he worked a mile. And when she came back blowing, he worked her another mile. Again, she came back blowing, so he worked her a third mile, all in a four-week period. Then he ran her and she stopped to a walk. Stute told Hughes, "Wayne, I don't know what happened to that filly; she got tired in the race." Hughes replied, "Warren, she was tired way before the race."

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