Kentucky Derby Trail: Spun Gun Firing Bullets Again

Kentucky Derby Trail: Spun Gun Firing Bullets Again
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Hard Spun shines in Lane's End win.
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There is no escaping the fact that Hard Spun proved he is a brilliant, classy horse with his bounce back performance in the Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II), but there is a question that pops up, that will be echoed after the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I): how legitimate was this race, or any race for that matter, run over a synthetic surface?

To Hard Spun’s credit, he was his usual brilliant self in his first race on Polytrack following victories at Fair Grounds, Philadelphia Park, and Delaware Park. The questions do not pertain to his performance, but the ones of several others in the Lane’s End and Rushaway Stakes.

Did Polytack enhance the performance of Lane’s End runner-up Sedgefield, who broke his maiden by 4 1/4 lengths at Turfway, and whose other big efforts have come on the grass? How about the third-place finisher Joe Got Even, who had three victories and two seconds over Polytrack, but was up the track in his two “dirt” races, both at Churchill Downs?

How much did it affect the five-length Rushaway victory by Dominican, who was one-for-one on Polytrack, but winless in four starts on the dirt? The same question can be asked of runner-up Trust Your Luck, who had a victory and a close third-place finish at Turfway, but was beaten more than 20 lengths in his only dirt race at Churchill Downs.

Questions also arise concerning the dull performance in the Lane’s End by For You Reppo, who finished fifth in his career debut on Polytrack before turning in three big efforts on dirt, and the last-place finish by Forefathers, who displaced his palate in his first start on Polytrack. And what about the seventh-place finish by the Rushaway 2-1 favorite Meritocracy in his Polytrack debut?

This may all be coincidence, and the performances of all of these horses had no bearing on the surface. But even so, you’re still going to have questions arise when these horses run again on a conventional dirt track. The simple truth is, you just don’t know, and won’t until Polytrack horses duplicate their form on dirt.

Derby contenders such as Any Given Saturday, Great Hunter, Stormello and now Hard Spun have done just that, but those are the cream of the 3-year-old crop, and it shouldn’t be a surprise when horses of that caliber run well on any surface. The vast majority of horses, however, are not in that class.

Street Sense ran a good third over Keeneland’s Polytrack in the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) before romping by 10 lengths in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). So, was the Breeders’ Futurity a formful race for him or was it Polytrack that contributed to his defeat, after which he came back and annihilated the two horses – Great Hunter and Circular Quay – who finished ahead of him at Keeneland? Once again, who knows?

As much as one can speculate on this subject, the Polytrack enigma should not take precedence over Hard Spun’s impressive victory. Once again, we have a Philadelphia connection hot on the Derby trail following Smarty Jones  , Afleet Alex and Barbaro. It should also be noted that Hard Spun, Afleet Alex and Barbaro all broke their maidens at Delaware Park, as did 2005 Derby favorite Bellamy Road. And Hard Spun, like Smarty Jones, and Great Hunter this year, is a Pennsylvania-bred.

As dominant as Hard Spun was, he’s going to be facing a different class of horse when he takes on Street Sense, Any Given Saturday and Great Hunter in the Blue Grass Stakes, and that will be his true test. The son of Danzig does have a few habits that are worth mentioning. He had no trouble disposing of the two leaders in the Lane’s End, but when he got to the lead he threw his ears up, and as he did in the LeComte, lost a bit of focus turning for home and was late changing leads.

Mario Pino had to go to four quick right-handed whips to get his attention back, and when he did, Hard Spun put his ears back and finally changed leads. Once he did, he looked like a different horse. His stride improved dramatically and he leveled off, increasing his margin, while reaching out with much more authority. Pino hand-rode him the rest of the way, and Hard Spun again threw his ears up as he hit the wire, which many good horses will do. You always like to see a horse who knows where the wire is. His time for the mile and an eighth was a legitimate 1:49 2/5, and his :12 4/5 final eighth was solid enough.

Hard Spun also was extremely impressive early in the race, breaking sharply from the 10-hole and getting good position just off the leaders, while doing it effortlessly through a sharp opening quarter in :22 3/5. Down the backstretch, he rated beautifully in third as the pace slowed down and just bided his time until Pino loosened up on the reins ever so slightly. Under no urging at all, he cruised right on by the two leaders, and as soon as he did, that’s when his ears went up and he began tossing them in all directions. He won’t have it this easy when he steps up against better horses, and should stay more focused at this crucial point in the race.

Hard Spun’s pedigree is second to none. In addition to being by Danzig, his broodmare sire, Turkoman, is a son of Alydar, and was at his best going a mile and a quarter. He defeated Precisionist in the 10-furlong Marlboro Cup in 2:00 flat, won the 10-furlong Widener Handicap in a track-record 1:58 3/5, and was a fast-closing second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He also had the speed to finish second (beaten only three-quarters of a length) in the seven-furlong Forego Handicap to champion sprinter Groovy in 1:21 1/5.

Hard Spun’s second dam, Darbyvail, is a half-sister, by English Derby (Eng-I) winner Roberto, to Preakness and Belmont (both gr. I) winner Little Current, and his third dam, Luiana, is a half-sister to Kentucky Derby winner Chateaugay and Alabama winner Primonetta. With seven Classic chef-de-race sires in his first four generations, it’s no wonder why he has a whopping 24 points in the Classic category of his dosage profile.

As mentioned earlier, there is no way of telling if any other legitimate Derby contenders came out of Saturday’s races at Turfway. One thing you can say about Rushaway winner Dominican is that he has proven class, having finished a solid third behind Tiz Wonderful and Any Given Saturday in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II). In that race, he made a sweeping five-wide move to pull up alongside the two favorites before tiring a bit in the stretch.

He returned after a four-month layoff, and obviously came back razor sharp, sitting in behind horses on the turn and then exploding when steered to the outside by Rafael Bejarano. It was a race that would have delighted any European. The son of El Corredor   quickly drew off to win by five lengths in 1:43 2/5 for the mile and a sixteenth. His trainer, Darrin Miller, and owner, Silverton Hill, had big days, also sending out Sedgefield to a game second-place finish in the Lane’s End a race later.

Not to be overlooked on Saturday was the third straight blowout victory by the Dick Small-trained Etude, who drew off to an impressive 5 3/4-length win in the one-mile Private Terms Stakes at Laurel. The son of Include  , after three straight second-place finishes, has won his last three by an average margin of almost six lengths with the addition of blinkers. There is no telling how good this colt is or how good he’s going to get. But he is in excellent hands with Small, who trained Etude’s paternal grandsire Broad Brush.

Ketch me if you Kan

So, what was the deal with that early move by Louisiana Derby (gr. II) runner-up Ketchikan, who had never been on the lead in three career starts? Trainer Al Stall was more surprised than anyone to see the son of Mister Greeley drag jockey Larry Melancon past three horses to take a clear lead leaving the clubhouse turn and then setting quick fractions of :46 2/5 and 1:10 4/5. While it wasn’t Secretariat’s breathtaking move in the Preakness, it nevertheless was quite startling.

To his credit, he was able to turn back the challenge of California invader Liquidity, and although he couldn’t hold off the late charge of Circular Quay, he did try to fight back while switching to his left lead, and finished three lengths ahead of Zanjero, who was rallying from dead-last.

The reason this section is going to be quite long for a Louisiana Derby runner-up who is ranked just behind the 12th horse Cobalt Blue on the Derby Dozen, is because he looks at this time to be the most live dark horse for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). If you’re a future book player, this is the time to get him.

Returning to the Louisiana Derby, there is one possible theory that could explain the sudden early move. Watching the replay, Ketchikan broke well and saved ground going into the turn, with Slew’s Tizzy, Liquidity, and Soaring By in front of him. When he moved a bit closer, Soaring By came in on him a little, just as the rider of Slew’s Tizzy, on the inside, was grabbing a hold of his horse, which put Ketchikan and Melancon in danger of getting trapped down on the rail and running up on horses’ heels. Whether it was the horse who decided to get out of that situation or Melancon moving on him in order to clear Soaring By, Ketchikan outran Soaring By and built up so much momentum, he just kept going.

With the first quarter run in :23 3/5, he had to run his quarter in :23 flat. By then he was rolling and went his next quarter in a sizzling :22 4/5. He took the field on a merry chase, and when Circular Quay came in on him slightly as he was charging by, Ketchikan did a little dipsy doodle and jumped back to his left lead. He did get his act together in the final 50 yards, switching back to his right lead, and then galloped out like a tiger, passing Circular Quay on the outside.

So, assuming this was no more than inexperience, Ketchikan should run a more professional and improved race in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). Owner B. Wayne Hughes has made a decision to switch jockeys, naming Victor Espinoza to ride the colt at Oaklawn.

If you’re a little concerned about Ketchikan being by Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up Mr. Greeley, remember that Mr. Greeley has produced several classy nine-furlong horses already. Mr. Greeley’s sire line actually is extremely versatile. His sire, Gone West, was mainly a miler who sired Belmont Stakes winner Commendable and Pacific Classic (gr. I) winner Came Home. His broodmare sire, Reviewer, also was mainly a miler who sired Ruffian, winner of the mile and a half Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I). Ketchikan’s female family is all stamina, with names like Roberto, Nijinsky II, and Graustark.

It is interesting to note that if Ketchikan does get to the Derby, he will be Hughes’ fifth Derby starter, with four different trainers.

How the major Derby preps are shaping up

Looking ahead, here are the probable and possible final stops of the leading Derby contenders before heading to Churchill Downs, with Pletcher eligible to change his mind, because of having to juggle so many horses.

The Florida Derby (gr. I) likely will attract, Scat Daddy, Stormello, Notional, Adore the Gold, Imawildandcrazyguy, Bold Start, Chelokee, Johannesburg Star, Hal’s My Hope and Boogie Boggs.

The following weekend, the Wood Memorial (gr. I) will feature Circular Quay, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Summer Doldrums, and possibly Sightseeing. The Santa Anita Derby should get Liquidity, King of the Roxy, Sam P., Bwana Bull, Boutrous, Medici Code and Song of Navarone. The Illinois Derby (gr. II) likely will attract Cobalt Blue, Freesgood, Catman Running, and possibly Birdbirdistheword, Cowtown Cat, Quite Acceptable and U D Ghetto.

On the final big prep weekend, those likely for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) are Street Sense, Any Given Saturday, Great Hunter, Hard Spun and Zanjero, with Birdbirdistheword a good possibility if trainer Kenny McPeek can line up Kent Desormeaux. Hard Spun could also skip the Blue Grass and wait for the Derby. The Arkansas Derby (gr. II) should attract a decent-sized field, including Curlin, Ketchikan, Officer Rocket, Teuflesberg and either Cowtown Cat or Deadly Dealer from Pletcher, and any of two Wayne Lukas horses – Flying First Class and Flashstorm, a recent 5-length allowance winner.

In other Derby news:

If last week’s works are any indication, there will be some sharp horses running in the Florida Derby. Adore the Gold blazed five furlongs in a bullet :57 3/5 at Gulfstream, Stormello worked a bullet five furlongs in :58 1/5 at Hollywood, and Notional drilled six furlongs in 1:12 2/5 at Hollywood. Trainer Doug O’Neill also sent out Liquidity to work five furlongs in :58 2/5 for the Santa Anita Derby.

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