Kentucky Derby Trail: Two for the Road

Kentucky Derby Trail: Two for the Road
Photo: Tampa Bay Downs
Any Given Saturday, won Sam F. Davis Stakes in 2007 debut.

When outnumbered, retreat. Times are no doubt changing, and with so many leading contenders looking at only two preps before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), perhaps it is time to loosen our tight grip on the history books and accept the fact that one of these years some horse is going to write its  own chapter.

Until it happens, there still will be question marks, but after Funny Cide (first New York-bred ever to win the Derby and first gelding since 1929) and Barbaro (first horse since 1956 to win the Derby off a layoff of longer than four weeks), it seems the pages of the history books are beginning to show signs of wear.

Now, we’re all aware by now that the only horse since 1947 to win the Derby off only two starts at 3 was Sunny’s Halo in 1983. It must also be remembered that Sunny’s Halo made 11 starts as a 2-year-old, and he went into the Derby off six straight two-turn races, two of which were at 1 1/8 miles. Horses nowadays who attempt it do not have that kind of seasoning and foundation.

Despite the clearly written pages on this subject in the Derby scriptures, trainers still insist on blazing their own trail to Louisville. With Carl Nafzger leading the way with 2-year-old champ Street Sense, the new wave has begun. Others following the same path (assuming the Derby is their destination) are Doug O’Neill, with Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) winner Great Hunter; Bill Currin, with Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) and Norfolk (gr. II) winner Stormello; Ken McPeek, with Delta Jackpot winner Birdbirdistheword; Patrick Biancone, with Hollywood Prevue (gr. III) winner Belgravia; Nick Zito, with Belmont Futurity (gr. II) runner-up C P West; and Christopher Paasch, with Best Pal (gr. II) winner and Norfolk runner-up Principle Secret.

Todd Pletcher said he was leaning that way with Sham (gr. III) winner Ravel, who would have a double whammy going into the Run for the Roses, with only four career starts. The last horse to accomplish that feat was Exterminator in 1918. 

Well, records and historical trends are all meant to be broken, right? If enough trainers with outstanding horses try it, the chances increase that someone will succeed. As Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud said on the subject, “If a horse is good enough he can do it.”

There have been several horses with only two starts who have come close in recent years – Closing Argument finished second in the Derby in 2005, Lion Heartwas second in 2004, Proud Citizen  finished second in 2002, as did Victory Gallopin 1998.

Top horses who failed badly include Point Given  (5th), Lemon Drop Kid  (9th), Bellamy Road(7th), and Birdstone   (8th) -- not really enough to make one believe it won’t be done.

Sam Davis result a given

It doesn’t take a fortune teller to know that Any Given Saturday’s victory in the Sam F. Davis Stakes will be looked at by many of the experts with less than enthusiasm. There is no denying it wasn’t much of a field, and the horse he defeated by 2 3/4 lengths had never run farther than seven furlongs, with his two biggest scores coming in Michigan-bred stakes at Great Lakes Downs. Also, Any Given Saturday’s last five-sixteenths in :31 4/5 (:25 and :06 4/5) was OK over the deep Tampa track, but nothing to get excited about.

So, how come he moved up a place, ahead of Street Sense, in the latest Derby Dozen? Because, sometimes, it is more important for an established horse just to get past his 3-year-old debut in good order and show signs that he has moved in the right direction. In that respect, it was mission accomplished. Now, the son of Distorted Humor  has to face stiffer competition and take another step forward.

In the Sam Davis, over a Tampa surface that can best be described as quirky, especially for first-time visitors, Any Given Saturday tracked the pace in third and always seemed to be in complete control. In the stretch, John Velazquez, who had taken a look back to his inside at the quarter pole, basically gave the colt a strong hand ride to the wire. Many thought he’d leave his foes in the dust, but the runner-up managed to stick with him for a while.

Unlike the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), in which he practically gave the race away by drifting out on two occasions, Any Given Saturday ran a fairly straight course down the stretch. His mile time of 1:37 2/5 in the 1 1/16-mile race was four-fifths faster than the final time of the Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, won by the Nick Zito-trained Autobahn Girl. But then again, it should have been faster.

So, despite the criticism that is likely to come, he still got the job done. From a visual standpoint, if he can learn to keep his head a little lower in the stretch and level off better, it might give him more extension to his stride; something he will need when he goes longer against better horses.

Looking at the overall picture, he has now run at four different tracks in as many starts – two on Polytrack and two on dirt, including Churchill Downs. He’s turned in devastating moves at 5 1/2 furlongs and 1 1/16 miles in back-to-back starts; he’s run a fast speed figure; and he has the looks (a $1.1 million yearling purchase) and the pedigree (how about Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, and A.P. Indyon his dam’s side alone?).

So, his competition in the Sam Davis aside, you’re dealing with a horse who appears to have a lot going for him. The idea is to peak on the first Saturday in May, not at Tampa Bay in February. With his credentials (trainer, jockey, pedigree, style, looks, and proven speed), there is nothing wrong with beginning the arduous journey to Louisville with a small step.

Teufle ruffles Southwest

The Oaklawn route to the Kentucky Derby finally got underway Monday…sort of. With the theft of the one-mile Southwest Stakes perpetrated by the hard-knocking speedster Teuflesberg and the fourth-place finish by the previously unbeaten 1-2 favorite Hard Spun, we have no idea what kind of impact, if any, this race will have on the Derby picture, especially considering the final quarter was run in a tardy :26 1/5.

Hard Spun can certainly be excused after getting hung five-wide on the first turn after breaking from the outside post in the nine-horse field and losing ground again rallying on the second turn. And the runner-up, Officer Rocket, dead-heat winner of last year’s Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. III), ran a big race after making a strong early move down the backstretch only to hit a brick wall on the turn and dropping back several lengths. The son of Officerrallied again after getting clear and was closing well in the middle of the track.

As for the winner, the son of Johannesburg was making his 13th career start, and first gained notice when he nearly stole last year’s Sanford Stakes (gr. II), just getting nipped at the wire by Scat Daddy. Trainer Jamie Sanders, who scratched Teuflesberg from the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III) after he drew post 13, took the blinkers off the colt following his third-place finish in the LeComte Stakes, and it obviously helped him settle early, as he managed to sneak off to a clear lead in :47 4/5 for the half-mile.

Although Officer Rocket was the only one getting to him at the wire, he was never in any danger of getting caught, winning by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:38 1/5 for the mile.

The Todd Pletcher-trained Our Sacred Honor leaped in the air at the start, dropped back and never threatened, beating one horse. The promising Forty Grams ran an even race to finish third.

So, as far as the Kentucky Derby is concerned, it’s back to square one for these horses.

Out of the Blue

The Derby trail often can be most frustrating when you have a potential star on your hands who is behind and playing catch-up. With three career starts under him, there is still a chance, however, that Merv Griffin’s Cobalt Blue can make it to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May and possibly join stablemates Notional, Liquidity, and Great Hunter; but he can’t afford even the slightest setback.

One had to come away impressed with Cobalt Blue’s six-furlong allowance victory at Santa Anita Feb. 14, especially considering he really wasn’t wound that tight for the race. Sitting in third along the inside in the small field, he appeared to lose touch with the two leaders passing the three-eighths pole, but quickly found his best stride again and pounced on them at the quarter pole.

After getting carried a bit wide, he switched leads on cue and took off after Street Lights, who had surged to a clear lead in midstretch. With smooth, ground-devouring strides, he swept past Street Lights to win by a length in 1:09 flat, while coming home the final quarter in a sharp :23 4/5. The runner-up finished 5 1/2 lengths ahead of 6-5 favorite Can This Be True.

Cobalt Blue, a son of Golden Missile  , is a gorgeous chestnut who looks to have untapped ability. His next start likely will be a stretch-out to two turns in the WinStar Derby on March 18, and another impressive victory would set him up timing-wise for one of the final major Derby preps on April 14.

For trainer Nick Zito and owner Robert LaPenta, this could be one that got away. Not to rub salt in their wounds, as they have been agonizing over losing the colt since last year, but Zito had fallen in love with him and rated him his No. 1 pick in the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale. Zito was able to get him for only $100,000 and was hoping this would be one he’d get to keep. But, like all LaPenta purchases, he was pinhooked in the Fasig-Tipton Calder 2-year-old sale, where Doug O’Neill’s sharp-eyed brother, Dennis, snatched him up for only $325,000.

LaPenta, who has had more success on the racetrack than one might expect from someone who puts all his yearlings up for sale, has bought back 2-year-olds for as much as $750,000. But the low reserve that was put on this colt proved to be a gift for the O’Neills, especially since Zito felt he should have gone for as much as $1 million.

Cobalt Blue still has a lot to prove before he can be considered a steal, but he sure looks to be headed in that direction.

No Holiday for Roman

How about owner Larry Roman letting IEAH Stable off the hook for their ill-timed purchase of undefeated Whirlaway Stakes favorite Lawrence the Roman, who failed to fire at odds of 1-2. Giving IEAH their money back is something you never see in this sport, and Roman should be commended for his integrity. He said he wanted to crawl into a hole after the race, and for good reason. But horses, as quickly as they put you in that hole, have a way of pulling you out, and even though the New York-bred may be off the Derby trail, at least until a reason can be found for his performance, he should have many good days ahead of him, even if it means returning to state-bred company.

Top Derby hopefuls such as Liquidity, Adore the Gold, Summer Doldrums, and Buffalo Man have all thrown in clunkers and all are still highly regarded on the Derby trail. Lawrence the Roman’s problem is that he threw in his in mid-February, which is a bit too close to the Derby to take that big a step backward without an apparent excuse.

In other Derby news:

-- The hard-knocking Level Red, with excellent seconds to Ravel and Law Breaker behind him, captured a 1 1/16-mile allowance race Sunday by 2 1/2 lengths, which could set him up for the March 17  San Felipe Stakes. Although the closing fractions were on the slow side, and the 1-2 favorite, Major Pleasure, proved to be no factor after dropping out of contention on the far turn, Level Red did gallop out very strongly, and continued improvement could bring his trainer Dave Hofmans back to Churchill Downs. As a son of Aptitude, out of a Strawberry Road mare, Level Red should get better with more distance.

-- Hofmans also has a talented 3-year-old in Desert Code, who was brilliant breaking his maiden at Hollywood Park, going 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15 flat, and then tired to finish fourth in the San Miguel. Hofmans put him on the grass Sunday in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race, and the son of E Dubai  was impressive winning by two lengths in 1:13 flat. It’ll be interesting to see if Hofmans keeps him sprinting and on the grass or tries to stretch him out.

-- Another new face emerged at Fair Grounds when the Albert Stall-trained Ketchikan stretched out from an easy 5 1/2-furlong maiden victory in the slop to win a mile allowance race by three lengths on Feb. 16. The son of Mr. Greeleyhas a ton of stamina in his female family and runs like a horse who wants to go on.

-- Great Hunter continued his excellent work pattern, drilling six furlongs in 1:12 4/5, which followed a six-furlong drill in 1:13 1/5. The son of Aptitude, despite being on a two-prep schedule, should have plenty of bottom, with seven strong works, and a solid 2-year-old foundation. 

-- An exciting prospect John Sadler is pointing toward the Robert Lewis is maiden winner Exhale. The son of Millennium Windhas not exactly been frequenting the work tab since his brilliant maiden victory on Jan. 15, but he did turn in a strong six-furlong work Sunday in 1:13.                                                                                                                                   

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