Kentucky Derby Trail: Finally Making Some Sense of it All

Kentucky Derby Trail: Finally Making Some Sense of it All
Photo: Tom Cooley
Street Sense edges Any Given Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Not even a change to green silks on St. Patrick’s Day for Any Given Saturday could deny 2-year-old champ Street Sense a hard-earned victory in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III). Also on Saturday, rapidly emerging stars Cobalt Blue and Curlin burst on the Derby scene with impressive scores in their two-turn debuts.

It just goes to show you that on any given Saturday, even Todd Pletcher can lose a 3-year-old stakes, not to mention a photo. But it took a champion to make such rarities happen. Just when it looked like it was time once again to start fumbling through stagnant brain cells trying to come up with yet another twist to the Pletcher juggernaut that has been running roughshod over the Derby trail, here came Street Sense, whose well-positioned nose put a temporary halt to Pletcher’s run of victories.

But even when Pletcher loses, he wins, as Any Given Saturday, despite the heart-breaking defeat, actually gained in stature after his gutsy performance. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not really important who won or lost the Tampa Derby, but what effect this toe-to-toe battle will have on both colts, and even more important, what impact it will have on the Derby picture.

You can say that Street Sense was fortunate to get another rail-skimming trip, while Any Given Saturday was forced to lose ground racing outside horses. Then again, you can point out that only one other horse on the 13-race card won on the inside, as the vast majority of winners came from the three-path or wider. Also, Any Given Saturday had the benefit of a race over the deep, quirky Tampa surface, while Street Sense was testing it for the first time. So, let’s call that a wash.

It was commented on ESPN that having this hard a race first time off a layoff could put Street Sense in danger of following Read the Footnotes, who never seemed to recover from his gut-wrenching battle with Second of June in his 3-year-old debut, the 2004 Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II).

The feeling here is that you can’t compare the two races or horses. Read the Footnotes was a stalker, who was under some degree of pressure throughout most of the race, and was put under extreme pressure earlier than Street Sense. The latter lagged some seven lengths off a moderate pace and then quickly closed in on the leaders under no urging whatsoever from Calvin Borel, who didn’t even go to his whip until just outside the eighth pole. So, although this was a rousing battle, Street Sense was not under extreme pressure for very long, and there is no reason why this race should take so much out of him that it would compromise his chances in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

In fact, with only two scheduled starts, he needed one of them to be a tough race in order to get him battle-tested for the big one, and this certainly accomplished that. With his next start, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), coming three weeks before the Derby, trainer Carl Nafzger can now afford to give him a race similar to Unbridled’s performance in the Blue Grass – a good solid effort that will set him up for a peak effort on Derby Day.

If he wins, while saving something in the tank, fine. If he regresses slightly off the Tampa Derby (who’s to say he won’t actually improve off it?) and runs a good second or even third to a top-class horse like Any Given Saturday or Great Hunter, he’ll still be in good shape to peak on the day that it counts. That is something Nafzger has been a master at getting a horse to do. He got Unbridled to peak on Derby Day and Breeders’ Cup day, and Unshaded to peak on Travers (gr. I) day.

In the Tampa Derby, Street Sense rattled off three straight quarters in :24 flat before coming home his final sixteenth in a sharp :06 1/5 to set a track record for a mile and a sixteenth. Any Given Saturday’s fractions were equally as impressive. These are two terrific horses, pure and simple.

If Street Sense bounces out of the Tampa Derby in good shape and resumes training on schedule, he shouldn’t suffer any consequences from this race. As Nafzger’s mentor John Nerud said of Street Sense after the race, “This colt has got a helluva motor. And he’s got the lungs and the heart.”

Nafzger usually tells it like it is, so if he says all is well with the colt, you can believe him.

As for Any Given Saturday, his performance solidified his status as one of the leading Derby contenders, and despite losing the head bob, his reputation actually was boosted. It appeared as if Street Sense was holding him safe until he dug in and came on again in the final 70 yards. More important, unlike the Sam F. Davis, in which he basically went through the motions against an inferior field, while running with his head a bit high, he was all business this time and was striding out with more authority. This is a powerfully made colt who can stand up to pressure, and he’s only going to get better. And he’s now shown on two occasions against the best of his generation that he won’t back down from a fight.

For those who love to watch strategy unfold, it was interesting seeing John Velazquez cruising up to the two leaders on the outside while continuously looking back over his left shoulder for Street Sense. When he saw the champ come rolling through on the rail, he quickly began pushing on Any Given Saturday before Street Sense could get too big a jump on him. Any Given Saturday responded, and as soon as they straightened out in the stretch, you knew this was going to be a battle.

I’m not a fan of jockeys looking around to that extent for a particular horse instead of just concentrating on their own horse, especially when he is just about to change leads. But Velazquez is one of the smartest riders in the country, and he no doubt wanted to see if his main opponent was going to get through on the inside or not. When you’re up against the champion, it’s natural to want to know where he is. Sure, he could have gunned Any Given Saturday earlier to try to get the jump on Street Sense, but this still was a prep for the Derby, and it’s more important to teach a horse to settle for as long as possible before you step on the gas.

Although Any Given Saturday has been running fairly close to the pace in his last three races, he did demonstrate a brilliant turn of foot when exploding from eighth on the turn to win a 1 1/16-mile allowance race over Keeneland’s Polytrack last fall, in which he drilled stablemate Sam P. by three lengths. So, it will be interesting to see how he runs when he returns to Polytrack for the Blue Grass. He has settled into a running style in which he uses his tactical speed more, but it’s good to know he does have that quick-fire acceleration if he ever needs it.

He has shown more professionalism with each race. He cost himself a chance to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) when he drifted out twice, just when it looked as if he had Tiz Wonderful measured. He corrected that in the Sam Davis, but still didn’t seem to have it all together. In the Tampa Derby, he blossomed into a classy, professional running machine. And he isn’t through yet.

Going back to the opening graph reference, Any Given Saturday, who had been running in WinStar Stable's silks, donned the green silks of co-owner Padua Stables for the Tampa Bay Derby.

Merv on the move again

After a brief visit last year, it’s nice to have Merv Griffin back on the Derby trail. Unlike with Stevie Wonderboy, he’s coming aboard late with the rising star Cobalt Blue, who captured Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) in his first two-turn race.

It must be prefaced that the San Felipe on paper was basically a non-winners of two other than allowance race. It just happened to have a grade II attached to it. But the three headliners all were coming out of first level allowance races.

With that said, there is no reason why Cobalt Blue and runner-up Air Commander can’t go on to become major factors on the Triple Crown trail. We just need to wait and see how they step up in their next start, which won’t be as easy as this one.

Although some felt Cobalt Blue was able to turn the race into a sprint for home after setting a slow pace, it must be remembered that he was under pressure from Level Red a good deal of the way, and :47 2/5 and 1:11 3/5, although moderate, isn’t exactly crawling. In fact, his quarter-mile splits of :23 2/5, :24, :24 1/5, and :24 1/5 were pretty steady and pretty impressive, and he came home in :06 2/5 to complete the mile and a sixteenth in a solid 1:42 2/5.

The son of Golden Missile  is a big, strong chestnut with a long, fluid stride, and we obviously have only seen a fraction of what is to come. With trainer Doug O’Neill already represented in the grade I Florida Derby (Notional), Santa Anita Derby (Liquidity), and Blue Grass (Great Hunter), that leaves the Illinois Derby as Cobalt Blue’s next likely start.

We’ve already discussed Cobalt Blue’s connection with trainer Nick Zito, who ranked this colt as the best horse he purchased for Robert LaPenta at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale. He nevertheless was pinhooked the following year to the Fasig-Tipton Calder 2-year-olds in training sale and was snatched up by O’Neill’s brother Dennis for what looks to be a bargain $325,000.

Don’t give up on Air Commander. The son of Point Given   is a one-paced horse with a huge stride, and still has a lot of maturing to do. He’s not quite fast enough or shifty enough to compete with the heavy hitters right now, but is the type who could start catching up with every race. It’s just a question of how much catching up he can do between now and the Derby.

In the San Felipe, he looked to be a serious threat at the top of the stretch, but didn’t corner as smoothly as Cobalt Blue and wasn’t able to kick in gear as quickly as the winner, falling two lengths back. Once he leveled off, he pretty much matched strides with Cobalt Blue, and looked like a colt who will get better with more distance. It must be noted that he was dropping back in distance from a mile and an eighth. Baffert said he hasn’t decided where to run him next.

Third-place finisher Level Red had no excuse, and needs to show more if he’s going to be a factor in stakes company. The Pletcher-trained Grapelli simply didn’t run a lick, and we’ll have to wait to see how he came out of the race. He’s obviously a better horse than he showed on Saturday.

Whirlin’ Curlin blows into Derby picture

Times certainly are changing. Here we are wondering if Ravel can become the first horse since 1918 to win the Derby off only four career starts, and we’ve got Curlin, who, if he turns in another big performance in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II), no doubt will attempt it off only three career starts, which has only been accomplished by Regret in 1915. He’ll also try to become the first horse since 1882 to win the Derby without having started as a 2-year-old.

The way he destroyed his field in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III) off only one seven-furlong maiden win, who knows what he’s capable of. But you can only push history so far, and it is inconceivable to think this colt, as gifted as he is, can win the Kentucky Derby with so little seasoning and experience. It is obvious watching him run that he still is learning what racing is all about, and has accomplished what he has on raw speed and talent alone.

He is the latest poster child for purchasing unproven, inexperienced horses for outrageous sums of money. But at a time when yearlings and 2-year-olds are selling for seven and eight figures, what’s $3.5 million for a 12 3/4-length maiden winner?

Curlin was always destined for great things, and his former trainer, Helen Pitts, and her staff were heartbroken when he was sold and sent to Steve Asmussen.

The Rebel also featured another spectacular maiden winner, Flying First Class, but the Wayne Lukas-trained colt tired badly to finish eighth as the 9-5 favorite. Southwest winner Teuflesberg acted up in the gate and missed the break, costing him any chance. That didn’t leave too much for Curlin to beat, and those fractions of 1:12 2/5 and 1:38 must have seemed awfully slow to a horse with his speed. Officer Rocket, runner-up in the Southwest, ran the identical race, making a premature move down the backstretch, dropping back after running up behind horses, and then coming on in the final furlong to get second. So, as impressive as Curlin looked, the jury is still out on this race.

Navarone fastest gun in Southwest

By winning the $600,000 WinStar Derby, Song of Navarone earned his ticket to the Santa Anita Derby. With the late scratch of the Bob Baffert-trained Law Breaker, and the disappointing effort by Forty Grams, the WinStar Derby didn’t take on much Kentucky Derby significance except to boost the form of the Sham Stakes (gr. III), in which Song of Navarone finished third, beaten four lengths by Ravel.

Song of Navarone, a son of Sultry Song, is a solid colt, who will earn a lot of money for his connections if placed in the right spots. The Santa Anita Derby, at this point, does not look to be coming up too deep, so he could return to Southern California and pick up a piece of it.

Beyer beware

Trainer Rick Violette is looking to put the Beyer Speed Figures in its proper place when he saddles Summer Doldrums in the April 7 Wood Memorial (gr. I). When Violette found out that the colt’s 106 Beyer figure in the Whirlaway Stakes had been changed to a 94 AFTER the Gotham Stakes (gr. III), he was quite taken aback.

The change was made when the Gotham winner, Cowtown Cat, received only an 88 Beyer, meaning Summer Doldrums, who was third, received several points lower than that, a substantial drop from his 106. There was a ton of money wagered on Summer Doldrums in the Gotham based on that 106, and Violette, fearing a bounce, purposely undertrained the colt for the race. Now, the bettors and Violette find out Summer Doldrums actually ran 12 points lower.

“My horse got a ‘2 3/4’ on the Ragozin Sheets, which shows that the Whirlaway was a fast race,” Violette said. “In the Gotham, it wasn’t taken into consideration that the winds picked up right before the race and the temperature suddenly dropped. The jocks all came back and commented on how much the track had changed. You had legitimate :45 (half) horses go in :49. There was no doubt the track slowed down, so I don’t buy that 88 for the winner.

“There were two reasons that contributed to Summer Doldrums’ defeat (by only 2 1/2 lengths). Despite the fact that they lowered his Beyer figure, he did run fast in the Whirlaway and ‘bounced’ a little off that effort, and he came back with so much crud in his lungs after the Gotham he could hardly breathe. Now I’m really looking forward to the Wood.”

In other Derby news:

Nobiz Like Shobiz is starting to get serious again, breezing five furlongs in a bullet :59 4/5 at Gulfstream for the Wood Memorial (gr. I). Adore the Gold, who should show big improvement in the Florida Derby (gr. I) off his game performance in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II), turned in a bullet five-furlong breeze in 1:00 at Gulfstream. Stormello, back home at Hollywood Park, continued his fast works, breezing five furlongs in :59 3/5 for his return trip to Gulfstream. As trainer Bill Currin said, "If I took a bad flight to Florida to run for $350,000 and grade II, why wouldn't I take a good flight to run for $1 million and grade I?" Also at Hollywood, dual stakes winner Notional tuned up for the Florida Derby with a six-furlong drill in a bullet 1:13 3/5.

Nick Zito is looking to stretch out Forefathers, who lost all chance when he was left at the gate from the rail in the Hutcheson (gr. II). He said he is considering Saturday’s Rushaway Stakes at Turfway. Another possible stretch-out is Boogie Boggs, second to Deadly Dealer in a Gulfstream allowance, but Zito hasn’t decided on a race yet. Zito’s big 3-year-old is Belmont Futurity (gr. II) runner-up C P West, who is up to a half-mile in his works. Injured slightly in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the son of Came Homeis too far behind to make the Derby, but, based on his huge effort in the Futurity behind the more seasoned King of the Roxy, this definitely is a colt to watch later on.

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