Steve Haskin's Derby Report: A Work Festival

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: A Work Festival
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Sweetnorthenrsaint gets in good Saturday morning work.
It took a week, but we finally have works...and works...and works. In what has to be a one-day record, a dozen Derby horses were on the work tab on a mild, drizzly Saturday morning, and we had a little bit of everything, from Lawyer Ron's sizzling five-furlong drill to a mixed bag of six-furlong works.

It must be noted that the track was not the same following the renovation break, when nine of the 12 horses worked, as it was earlier in the day when Barbaro, Sweetnorthernsaint, and Sunriver were out there. With a steadily drizzle starting just prior to the break and the harrowing of the track, the surface appeared to be on the cuppy side, as evidenced by the number of horses dropping their heads and not seeming all that comfortable.

We had horses under the whip, others being strongly urged by hand, and several switching to their left lead. We had one horse, Barbaro, working a four furlongs or six furlongs, depending on how you want to look at it. And, oh, yes, we had a missing jockey, who overslept and never showed up for his work.

Many of the works were good, some not as good, but times aside, the standout works of the morning belonged to Barbaro, Sweetnorthernsaint, and Jazil. Although Bob Baffert said he was looking for something better from Sinister Minister, the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) winner worked as effortlessly as anyone.

The absentee jockey was Kent Desormeaux, who overslept after arriving from New York the night before and never showed up at the barn to work Sweetnorthernsaint. That left trainer Mike Trombetta in a bind. He had jockey Calvin Borel to work stablemate Fleet Valid, and could switch him to Sweetnorthernsaint, but would still need a rider for the workmate.

"I'll have Calvin work him," Trombetta said. "I'll give Kent another five or 10 minutes, but I can't wait any longer than that. The pony girl had to leave, and I imagine she'll be back. Kent's agent (Jim Pegram) has been calling him, so maybe he overslept. It happens to everybody. But I got to get this horse worked. If I heard from him I could wait a little longer, but I can't sit here and wait all morning. Calvin has other appointments, too, and he can't wait too long. I spoke to Kent twice yesterday and he told me he'd be here bright and early."

Co-owner Ted Theos at this point was just hoping Desormeaux was OK. "If I don't hear from him in the next 10 minutes, I got to go," Trombetta told Theos. "These horses are treated and they're ready to roll."

Trombetta spent the next several minutes on the phone, and fortunately, Borel's agent, Jerry Hissam, was able to line up Willie Martinez to work Fleet Valid. Soon after, the pony girl returned, Martinez showed up, and it was time to go.

"This is the most screwed up situation I've ever been part of," Trombetta said as he headed off to watch the work from the grandstand. Despite the unexpected hassle, Trombetta never lost his cool and handled a bad situation well.

Trombetta said he expected Sweetnorthernsaint to work between 1:11 and 1:12, and he hit it right on the head. The work looked almost identical to the Illinois Derby (gr. II), with Sweetnorthernsaint settling comfortably in second, right alongside Fleet Valid, who rattled off steady eighths in about :12. In the stretch, Borel shook the left rein, and inside the eighth pole he asked Sweetnorthernsaint, and just like the Illinois Derby, the gelding took off, pulling well clear of his workmate. He came home his last quarter in :23, with a final eighth in :11 3/5, and by the clubhouse turn was some 10 lengths in front. He covered the six furlongs in 1:11 3/5, the fastest of 11 works at the distance.

Trombetta was happy and relieved it was over. "I thought I did pretty well," he said later. "I didn't come unglued. I finally spoke to Kent and he was pretty bummed out over it, and apologized. You just have to shake it off and go about your business."

Trombetta will be at the barn tomorrow morning and then will catch a flight back to Maryland to spend six hours with his family, including his one-month-old baby, before flying back later in the day.

A short while earlier, Barbaro went out for a four-furlong work, in which he was timed in :46 flat, the fastest of 69 works at the distance. But the son of Dynaformer kept on motoring past the wire, getting the five furlongs in :59 2/5 and six furlongs in 1:11 3/5, and that was with exercise rider and assistant Peter Brette having to abort the work and start over due to a loose horse on the track.

There has been a great deal of talk this year how Barbaro has the action of a grass horse. He does have high action and hits the ground hard, but his stride is enormous and he really stretches out beautifully. This was an excellent work, and seeing how he moves in the morning, and knowing how he runs in his races, it is understandable why trainer Michael Matz does not want to over-race him and wants to have a fresh horse for the Derby. Whether that approach will work, we'll find out soon enough.

All one can say about Lawyer Ron is that the horse is a machine. Like Afleet Alex last year, he just loves to run. With jockey John McKee up, the son of Langfuhr   broke off running from the five-furlong pole and kept building up speed and momentum. He actually took the turn for home sharper than he has in most of his races, where he tends to ease out to the middle of the track. He had his head slightly cocked to the inside, as if gawking at the infield tents, which is something he also does in the morning. McKee threw a few crosses on him and kept after him to the wire. His time of :58 4/5 was the fastest of 48 works at the distance.

He cornered beautifully galloping out, and was still moving with a great deal of momentum around the turn and into the backstretch. You can't help but like this horse, who is a pure runner and enthusiastic about everything he does.

Even though Jazil finished only a half-length in front of stablemate and fellow Derby hopeful Flashy Bull in 1:00 2/5 for the five furlongs, it was the smoothness of his stride and the effortless way he moves that was so impressive. After the wire, he put about seven lengths between himself and Flashy Bull, who eventually went by him on the backstretch after Jazil had all but pulled himself up.

What also was impressive was the way he cornered at the head of the stretch, indicating he is a shifty horse. He's just a little guy, no more than 15 hands tall, and coming from as far back as he does, that agility should help him pick his way through holes, which he'll have to do if he's going to get through a 20-horse field.

When trainer Dan Peitz heard the times of Sweetnorthernsaint's and Barbaro's works, he assured Steppenwolfer was not going to go that fast. "I expect he'll go in about 1:13 and come home fast," Peitz said.

Like Trombetta, Peitz nailed it, as Steppenwolfer, working by himself with jockey Robby Albarado up, went his six furlongs in 1:13 flat, with his last quarter in :23 4/5 and last three-eighths in :35 2/5. He did take the turn a bit wide and was carrying his head a little high, but his stride was smooth and he had good extension, and he galloped out strongly, passing the seven-eighths in 1:26 4/5.

Bob Baffert said Sinister Minister worked well, but didn't "wow" him. He told jockey Garrett Gomez over the two-way radio to pick it up at the end and the colt gave a good surge in the final yards to complete his five furlongs in 1:00 1/5. But after Sinister Minister's freaky performance in the Blue Grass, he didn't need a "wow" workout. This was an excellent maintenance move.

Early in the work, Gomez, as in the Blue Grass, had his feet in the dashboard, trying to reign in the son of Old Trieste. In the stretch, Gomez was way up in the saddle and never moved his hands on him until the very end when Baffert told him to. The colt did switch over to his left lead, something he had trouble with in the Blue Grass. But all in all, this was a good solid work.

Sharp Humor was primed for speed this morning, as he went his five furlongs in :59. Baffert, timing the opposition, got him in :11 for the first eighth and :21 4/5 for the opening quarter.

Bluegrass Cat breezed a half in :50 4/5 and dropped his head numerous times in the stretch, as if the track was cupping out under him. He also turned his head in right before the wire, as if he spotted something in the infield.

Cause to Believe turned in a solid time of 1:00 4/5 for five furlongs, but it wasn't pretty. He was smacked several times with the whip, and each time he jumped over to his left lead. He took the final turn very wide, and when he was hit right-handed, he ducked to the inside and switched back to left lead for the first time. He also gave a bob of the head as if he was uncomfortable with the track.

Keyed Entry was on the muscle and raring to go, throwing his head up before breaking off at the six-furlong pole. With Angel Cordero way back in the saddle, it took a while for the colt to finally settle. He took the turn for home wide, but in the stretch was moving much more smoothly, with Cordero motionless on him, never moving his hands in the slightest. Keyed Entry crossed the wire with his ears pricked in 1:12 4/5, cut the corner nicely and galloped out strong. Physically, he is one of the most impressive-looking horses in the race, with powerful quarters and a beautiful coat.

Finally, Sunriver worked six furlongs in 1:13 3/5 in company with Harlington in the dark, and from what little there was to see, he seemed to be going smoothly, finishing about a length in front and galloping out strong.

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