Steve Haskin's Derby Report: High Anxiety

High Limit blew out a half-mile this morning, and his trainer Bobby Frankel, nearly blew out the colt's rider. There's nothing like a little drama to spice up a slow Wednesday morning on the backstretch, and Frankel provided today's entertainment by coming oh so close to switching riders at the last minute.

Frankel spent a good portion of the morning showing visitors an article from the Louisville Courier-Journal, in which High Limit's rider, Ramon Dominguez, was quoted that he wasn't sure if the colt had the necessary experience to handle top-level competition. So, did Dominguez really say it, or was he misquoted? Ben Glass, racing manager for owner Gary West, said that some of his comments to the writer were omitted, which made his quote misleading. Frankel was reluctant to use a rider who did not have confidence in the horse.

"Let me sort this out and see what happens," Frankel said.

When West showed up, Frankel had him read the quote, and told him he was seriously thinking of replacing Dominguez with Pat Valenzuela, who had recently been booked to ride the Todd Pletcher-trained Coin Silver, winner of the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II). Valenzuela's agent, Ronnie Ebanks, had been trying desperately to land the mount on High Limit following the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), and he soon showed up at the barn like a shark smelling blood.

Ebanks was happy with Coin Silver, who he feels is a vastly improved horse, but this was his chance to finally get the mount on the colt he wanted most of all. When Ebanks contacted Pletcher to tell him he might want to switch mounts, Pletcher said he was OK with it, according to Ebanks, but he had to check with Peachtree Stable owner John Fort, who was instrumental in giving the call to PVal.

"So, what do you wanna do, Ronnie?" Frankel asked Ebanks, who just sat there pondering the situation. He knew, even if High Limit wasn't ready to win the Derby, he'd be dynamite in the Preakness.

A few minutes later, Courier-Journal reporters put Frankel in touch with the reporter, who told him that Dominguez may have taken his question out of context.

"We're stayin' with (Ramon)," Frankel said after hanging up. "(The reporter) said Ramon didn't sound as if he wasn't confident. Maybe he'll learn a lesson: don't talk to the press."

OK, so much for today's mini-drama. All's well that ends well. As for High Limit's work, it went just as planned. With Jose Cuevas aboard, the son of Maria's Mon went his half in :48 2/5. (I caught him in :48 flat, galloping out five furlongs in 1:01 4/5. He took the turn a bit wide, but was allowed come home on his, in what was pretty much a maintenance work. Frankel said before the work he was looking for something between :48 and :49.

There isn't much more Frankel can do with the horse. He has him sharp and dead-fit, and as ready as possible for whatever he will encounter in the Derby. With the colt pairing "4's" in the Ragozin Sheets in his two races this year, Frankel is hoping he can improve two points and the others regress two points.

The best news of the morning came later when High Limit drew the number 5 selection order, allowing Frankel and the colt's connections to put him pretty much wherever they want. Three of the four horses who will select before him – Bandini, Flower Alley, and Greeley's Galaxy -- all have stalking speed, so Frankel will already know where they'll be breaking from before making his decision. It will be interesting to see if chooses to go inside or outside of Bandini, who defeated him by six lengths in the Blue Grass.

Greeley's Galaxy remains an enigma. The Illinois Derby (gr. II) winner, who had such a bizarre work last week, turned in a normal move this morning, working five furlongs in 1:01 3/5. Although it appeared as if the colt was shortening stride just a bit in the final furlong, I caught his last eighth off the video (several times) somewhere around :12 flat (The eighth pole angle at Churchill can be tough to nail). What I do like about him is the way he gets his head and neck down real low and is always reaching out. He's just a great horse to watch in action, especially when his stride is fully extended.

Bellamy Road emerged in bright sunshine this morning, unlike his usual routine of coming out at 6 o'clock. He was very strong and was really showing off those massive strides. High Fly, who has been tough to gallop in general, was really keyed up this morning, looking to mix it up. Coming off a five-week layoff, and being this sharp, it'll be interesting to see if he'll settle for Jerry Bailey. Another Zito charge, Sun King, also was very sharp this morning, turning in his strongest gallop in a while. Noble Causeway was fluid and controlled, and is coming up to the race in good shape. But again, there is that five-week layoff to contend with.

Wilko was out for his first gallop over the Churchill strip and he had a pretty uneventful spin around there. He's just a pocket-sized little guy, and he'll have to demonstrate his toughness and agility in order to compensate for his lack of size. But he is one tough colt and won't back down from anyone.

One more morning and it will be time to finally get to the analysis of the race, based on physical appearance, mental keenness, works, and gallops, and whatever other observations there are to be made.

I have answered a good number of questions on a special Bloodhorse.com Talkin' Horses live chat page (from 12 to 1 this past Wednesday). A full transcript of that discussion is available here and may provide any insights not covered in this column over the past 10 days.

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