Kentucky Derby Trail: Stevie Defeat No Big Deal

Kentucky Derby Trail: Stevie Defeat No Big Deal
Photo: Fair Grounds/Loud Hodges Jr.
Lawyer Ron, impressive in Risen Star victory.
Before we get to this week's races, any trainers out there happen to catch the Colts' surprising loss to the Steelers? Did the Colts look rusty, out of sync, a bit soft, not battle tough? Remember how they basically phoned it in the last few games, resting their stars? Well, it's possible that's what can happen when horses are rested too long before the Kentucky Derby.

There are several reasons why the Colts lost, just as there are several reasons why a horse loses, but going into a tough battle soft after peaking early is one worth mentioning as we embark on the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) trail. It's been a half a century since a horse won the Derby off a layoff longer than four weeks. And the ones that did win off a four-week layoff were given a number of long, stiff works, which proved successful on five occasions for trainers Charlie Whittingham and Bob Baffert. Like the Colts, if you play it safe and concentrate too much on just trying to make it to the big dance, don't be that surprised if your horse comes up empty.

With the Florida Derby (gr. I) now five weeks before the Derby, and the Wood Memorial (gr. I) now four weeks out, racetracks are encouraging -- almost forcing -- trainers to run soft horses on the first Saturday in May. Last year, Giacomo went in off a four-week layoff, but he'd been racing steadily for almost seven months, and like Baffert's and Whittingham's Derby winners, he was the only one of the "fresh" horses to work his butt off, turning in bullet works at six furlongs (1:11 4/5) and seven furlongs (1:23 4/5), something you don't see anymore.

If a trainer today feels his horse needs to be babied, then perhaps that horse shouldn't be running in a grueling, demanding race like the Derby. If you do run in the Derby you might as well try and win.
Trainers might also look at the Colts as an example of what can happen when a team, or any athlete, peaks too soon, a common occurrence on the Derby trail.

So much for deviating off course, but it couldn't be helped after observing these parallels watching the Colts come up flat after such a dominating season. Back to the Derby trail.

Stevie Wonderboy's second-place in the San Rafael Stakes (gr. II) can be summed up very easily: Making his first start around two turns; advantage Brother Derek. Facing only three opponents: advantage Brother Derek. Having to stay closer to the lead than normal: advantage Brother Derek. Going wide on both turns; advantage Brother Derek. Having to chase a top-class speed horse on an uncontested lead; advantage Brother Derek. Having to move through a sharp :23 3/5 third quarter; advantage Brother Derek.

Credit Garrett Gomez for sensing the futility of the chase in the stretch, hitting Stevie Wonderboy only once and then going to a series of crosses and a hand ride to keep the colt together and striding out at the finish. Brother Derek was turning in some impressive speed figures and it wouldn't have been wise for Stevie Wonderboy to bust a gut trying to run him down, especially in January in his first start of the year.

Sure, he was giving it his all, but there's a difference between running hard on your own and being driven hard with the whip, especially when it's obvious you're not going to catch a talented, classy horse who has had everything his own way. It must also be noted that you rarely ever see a 2-year-old champion make his 3-year-old debut in January and have to face as formidable a foe as Brother Derek.

This was only the first step on the long, arduous road ahead. Stevie Wonderboy needed to get experience around two turns; he achieved that. He needed to show he made the transition from 2 to 3; he achieved that as well. So, other than continuing his three-race winning streak, which has no bearing on what he's going to do on the first Saturday in May, this has to be considered a step forward.

Brother Derek has shown in three major stakes – the San Rafael, Hollywood Futurity (gr. I), and Norfolk Stakes (gr. II) – that he doesn't need to steal a race with slow fractions. Leave him alone on the lead and he'll :23 and change you to death. And it's that third quarter that does in his pursuers. In the San Rafael, he was running his opposition into the ground with a :23 3/5 third quarter at the same time Stevie Wonderboy was making his move while losing a good deal of ground. That gave Brother Derek the luxury of putting in a final quarter in :25 3/5 and not being seriously challenged.

The bottom line is that these are two classy, talented horses who ran pretty much the way they were supposed to. It still would be to Brother Derek's benefit to show he can rate off the pace, as he won't be able to count on short fields once the big push to Churchill Downs begins in earnest. And he likely won't have things so easy in the Derby. He has been a bit headstrong early in his last few races, and you can't make a horse do what he doesn't want to, but the feeling here is that he will take back if and when he has to. There was no need to on Saturday with only three opponents.

Many feel it's best to set a slow pace and save something for the end. But in many cases, especially in a small field, when you have a hard-running horse with class like Brother Derek, it's more effective to set a solid pace and force a closer like Stevie Wonderboy to expend more energy early on than he's used to. That's one of the main reasons Stevie Wonderboy couldn't make up much ground through a moderate final quarter.

Saturday's other stakes, the Risen Star (gr. III), run at Louisiana Downs, was won in brilliant fashion by racing's most improved horse, Lawyer Ron, who after taking eight races to break his maiden, has won three straight by a total of 20 lengths. Trainer Bob Holthus attributed the turnaround to being put on the dirt, although the colt had run three of his first eight starts on the dirt, with a win and a second, the latter for a $50,000 claiming tag.

The son of Langfuhr has a smooth, powerful stride and covers a good deal of ground, but why, as he was drawing off on his own, he had to be whipped a half-dozen times in rapid succession by John McKee is incomprehensible. One or two taps would seem to be sufficient to keep his mind on business, but six cracks, within about three seconds, seemed excessive and unnecessary.

The second wave of talented 3-year-olds began this past weekend with several impressive performances. The Baffert-trained Point Determined turned in a powerful performance to break his maiden by 5 1/2 lengths going 1 1/16 miles. Baffert's most promising colt, Royal Legacy, finished second after getting rank and displacing. Point Determined, an imposing son of Point Given  , was always in control and drew off with ease. Not as impressive in the morning as Royal Legacy, he sure knows how to put it together in the afternoon.

At Gulfstream Sunday, Darley Stable's Barbican, a full-brother to 2-year-old filly champ Tempera, circled his field in a one-mile allowance race and then drew off impressively to win by 4 1/2 lengths in a solid 1:35 4/5. He gives trainer Eoin Harty a good one-two punch on both coasts. Harty also trains the promising A.P. Warrior in California and has been doing a lot of traveling recently.

On the same card, Hesanoldsalt, trained by Nick Zito, showed he knows how to grind it out, winning a 1 1/8-mile allowance race by three-quarters of a length over a strong field. Under pressure a long way out, the son of Broad Brushshowed the toughness of his sire as he kept coming, and then gave a good burst of speed nearing the wire to defeat the promising Sunriver, trained by Todd Pletcher.

There were several others that ran over the weekend that bear watching. On Board Again, a son of Awesome Again  , made an auspicious debut blowing away his field to win by 4 3/4 lengths for trainer Brian Lynch. Owned by Frank Stronach, this is a well-bred colt, top and bottom, who demonstrated an explosive kick in the stretch.

Most eyes were on the Zito-trained Fabled in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race, but it was the far more experienced, stakes-placed, Rehoboth who charged by him at the top of the stretch to win going away. Fabled, as in his previous race, found himself in tight quarters turning for home and battled gamely to finish second. We'll get a better line on him once he stretches out to two turns. Saint Daimon, who was highly regarded for the Aventura Stakes, threw in another poor performance and has not been able to return to the form that saw him win the Huntington Stakes so impressively.

At Laurel, Mike'sgoodandtough made it two for two, winning a mile allowance race going away by three lengths. This was an excellent follow-up to his spectacular maiden score, in which he came from a dozen lengths back in a 14-horse field, lost a ton of ground going eight-wide at the top of the stretch, and still managed to be in front by two lengths at the eighth pole before drawing off to a 3 3/4-length victory. Bred in West Virginia, the son of the quick Good and Tough is trained by Randy Allen.

John Ward has an exciting colt who should be heard from soon. Strong Contender, a son of Maria's Mon, looked super winning his debut at Arlington Park last August. He has an awesome distance pedigree, being inbred three times to Ribot. An $800,000 2-year-old purchase, he's been in steady training and is nearing a race.

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