Haskin's Weekend Preview: Barbaro at the Gate

Haskin's Weekend Preview: Barbaro at the Gate
Photo: Equi-Photo
Barbaro comes into the Florida Derby with an eight-week layoff that followed this Holy Bull victory.
With many of the leading 3-year-olds in Florida skipping town because of what most horsemen feel is the unfavorable scheduling of the Florida Derby (gr. I), Gulfstream's premiere event drew a wide variety of horses, most of them non-stakes winners. The headliner will be the undefeated Barbaro, winner of all four of his starts.

One trainer who approves of the five-week gap from the Florida Derby to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) is Barbaro's conditioner Michael Matz, a former equestrian rider who feels having a fresh horse is the right way to go.

Matz said the son of Dynaformer has been successful running mainly every five to six weeks, and he feels no need to change for the Derby. Barbaro, however, will be coming off an eight-week layoff in the Florida Derby.

Although no horse has won the Kentucky Derby off a layoff of as long as five weeks since Needles, it is interesting to point out this is the 50th anniversary of Needles' victory, so what better year for that trend to come to an end?

Barbaro is the most accomplished horse in the Florida Derby field, having won the Tropical Park Derby (gr. IIIT) and Laurel Futurity on grass and the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) in the slop. If his opponents are looking for some ray of hope that he can be beaten it is that Barbaro still has not won on a fast dirt track, and drew post 10 in the field of 11.

The key to the Florida Derby will be riding tactics. Barbaro and Flashy Bull are stalkers who like to sit right off the pace, Sunriver and Saint Augustus have no distinct running style, and both likely will be right behind Barbaro and Flashy Bull. The latter drew post 2, with Rafael Bejarano aboard, and will be able to save ground, but must avoid getting stuck down on the inside too long for fear of getting trapped on the rail. Barbaro, on the other hand, will have to be used to secure a comfortable position.

Saint Augustus did wire his field in a nine-furlong allowance race last time out, but it was only a four-horse field and there was no other speed in the race.

High Blues is a dead closer and will have to rely on a contentious pace; Rehoboth also should be coming from out of it; and California invader Sam's Ace has not shown much speed, while racing in allowance company.

That leaves Sharp Humor, winner of the seven-furlong Swale Stakes (gr. II), as the only true speed in the race. The New York-bred son of Distorted Humor   rattled off a :44 2/5 half in the Swale, while battling head and head, and still had enough left to turn back the favorite, Noonmark, winning by a neck in 1:22. Trained by Dale Romans, he's already won at a mile, running a similar race to win the state-bred Sleepy Hollow Stakes last October.

Sharp Humor will break from post 5 under Mark Guidry, and could be tough to run down, regardless of what kind of pace he sets. If he runs fast up front, he could kill off Barbaro and Flashy Bull, and anyone else close to him. The question is, how far can he carry his speed?

The horse to watch in mid-pack is Sunriver, who is getting good at the right time, and in his last start, a 1 1/8-mile allowance race, he ran four-fifths faster than the Fountain of Youth. The full-brother to champion Ashado is trained by Todd Pletcher, who also saddles Saint Augustus. He seems like a versatile colt, who can track the leaders or come from farther back. High Blues looked to have him measured in the stretch, but he battled back to win by a half-length in a sharp 1:48 1/5.

Rehoboth is a hard-knocking with a good deal of experience who can sprint or go long, and he looks to be an interesting longshot possibility, never having run a bad race in 10 dirt appearances. His stretch kick in the Fountain of Youth was visually impressive, but it was more likely due to the craziness going on in front of him. The fact that three horses all kicked in again suggests it wasn't quite what it seemed. That aside, the son of Wagon Limit has been making steady improvement and, with the possible exception of Barbaro, he doesn't have to improve that much more to beat these horses.

His trainer, Frank Gomez, has been a fixture at Calder for years, and never leaves town with a good horse, so it will be interesting to see what happens if Rehoboth goes on to Kentucky. There's an excellent chance Gomez will give him up, as he did with eventual Breeders' Cup winners Princess Rooney, Smile, and Cherokee Run, all of whom he developed at Calder.

Nick Zito sends out Doc Cheney and Hesanoldsalt, who both will be longshots. Doc Cheney was second to Saint Augustus last time out, and Hesanoldsalt is coming off poor efforts in his last two starts.

Charming Image is in way over his head, but has won three in a row while moving up the claiming ladder.

In summation, unless Barbaro is even better than people think and the 10-post won't be a factor, just about anyone can win this race and it won't be that much of a surprise. If any of these deserves to land a big one it is Flashy Bull, who runs his heart out every race, only to come up a bit short. The son of Holy Bull just needs to find a scenario where his stalking running style can get him home first.

Baffert pair heads WinStar Derby

It's difficult to figure out just where the WinStar Derby fits among the plethora of Kentucky Derby preps. With so many major final preps in the next couple of weeks, is there really a place for serious Derby contenders at Sunland Park?

The quality of this year's running seems to say no, but there is nothing wrong with having a $600,000 race for 3-year-olds who are not quite ready to tackle the top guns, but there still is enough talent in here to make for a competitive race.

Bob Baffert, whose Kentucky Derby hopes ride with Bob and John and Point Determined, will be represented by Sky Diving and Wanna Runner, both of whom have a big shot to land this prize. But you'll have to forgive Sky Diving's dismal effort in the San Felipe (gr. II), and not be concerned by Wanna Runner's two-month layoff following a disappointing effort in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III).

Sky Diving, who ran a super race when he finished second in the Turf Paradise Derby, will get blinkers back on, as will Wanna Runner, who finished third behind Brother Derek and Stevie Wonderboy in the San Rafael (gr. II) before having the blinkers removed in the El Camino Real.

Another horse trying to rebound after losing his form is the Steve Asmussen-trained Doctor Decherd, who upset the Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 7. But the son of Louis Quatorze followed up that promising effort with a tiring sixth in the sloppy Holy Bull and a no-show in the Borderland Derby at Sunland, in which he pretty much stopped to a walk. He's been working lights out since that race, and should bounce back with a big effort.

Others who have the credentials to win the 1 1/8-mile race are Keagan, winner of the Turf Paradise Derby; and Wait in Line, who was beaten a head in the Borderland Derby, despite the rider losing his whip. An interesting speed factor is Blaze It, second in the Cal-bred Graduation Stakes at Del Mar and a well-beaten fourth in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship (gr. III). In his only start this year, he was third, beaten a neck, in a starter allowance at Santa Anita after setting fractions of :21 2/5 and :44 1/5. This is a big stretch-out, and he appears to be overmatched, but he'll at least provide a live pace.

The pick would have to be Wanna Runner, who worked five furlongs in :58 4/5 for the race, and if he returns to his early winter form, he should be able to handle this field.

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