We had a little bit of everything this week, with Nobiz Like Shobiz back to his winning ways; the déjà vu-like return of Team Giacomo; and some shifts in the Todd Pletcher power structure. So, with links to Funny Cide and Giacomo providing a sense of recent history, the Kentucky Derby trail heads into its final big weekend of preps.
Following this week’s action, the question still lingers in many people’s mind: just how good is this year’s 3-year-old crop? If you’re into pure speed numbers, you’re certainly not going to be dazzled by any single performance other than perhaps the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III). No one has really lit up the teletimer, and closing eighths all winter and spring have been mainly between :13 and :14 seconds. As professional and game as Nobiz Like Shobiz was in the Wood Memorial (gr. I), it still must be noted that the grade III Excelsior Handicap, run one race later, was a second and two-fifths, or seven lengths, faster than the Wood, and Nobiz’ final three-eighths was run in a tepid :38 3/5.
The reason for all this could be that these horses simply are not that fast. But it also could be that we are witnessing the beginning of a Kentucky Derby renaissance. Trainers, fearing a May meltdown, are more concerned these days with their horses peaking too soon, and then falling apart either right before or after the Derby. The days of four- and five-race pre-Derby campaigns are gone. This year, it seems as if even the three-race campaigns are approaching the endangered species list.
With Street Sense and Great Hunter, the two favorites for Saturday’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), having only two preps, with Circular Quay (also having two preps), Scat Daddy, Notional, Chelokee, and possibly Hard Spun all heading into the Derby off five-to-eight-week layoffs; and Tiago and Curlin going into the Derby with only four and three lifetime starts, respectively, it is safe to say times are changing dramatically, as are the methods we’ve been using to handicap the Derby.
Trainers simply do not want their horses wound too tightly before the Derby, and are nursing them along, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle on the first Saturday in May. Because of this conservative approach, which may or may not be by necessity, we rarely see big-name Derby horses around much after the Triple Crown, because the three races take more of a physical toll on a horse who is not toughened and prepared for such an arduous ordeal.
And then we come to Polytrack. If you want a good idea how the mentality of training horses has changed, especially for the Kentucky Derby, just keep in mind that as of now only Street Sense will train for the Derby at Churchill Downs, which is unbelievable when you think that only a few years ago, most everyone was at Churchill two weeks before the race. But, because the Churchill strip is allegedly tinkered with on Derby Day and is nothing like the surface the horses train over, trainers now would rather stay home or go directly to Keeneland and train over Polytrack.
Nobiz Like Shobiz will remain in New York until two or three days before the Derby; Tiago will train on the Cushion track at Hollywood until the last minute, and all of Pletcher’s and Doug O’Neill’s horses will remain at Keeneland until Derby week, as will Curlin, Zanjero, Chelokee, and Hard Spun. Some may come to Churchill a little earlier, but that’s the way it is looking as of now.
Nobiz no nonsense in Wood
At Aqueduct Saturday, WinStar Farm’s Doug Cauthen stood in the paddock prior to the Wood Memorial (gr. I), looking admiringly at the handsome Any Given Saturday, whom WinStar owns in partnership with Padua Stables. Just then, his vision was obstructed by a large mass of horseflesh passing directly in front of him.
Cauthen looked at Nobiz Like Shobiz, who was being bet down to 3-5 favoritism by the Aqueduct crowd, and commented, “This horse has really tightened up since Florida. He looks great.”
He would soon find out just how tight Nobiz Like Shobiz had become. The son of Albert the Great fought off the early challenges of Summer Doldrums and Flashstorm and then turned back the stiff, but brief, challenge of Any Given Saturday, who surprisingly gave up the battle in the final sixteenth. But Nobiz Like Shobiz wasn’t home free yet. Ripe for the kill, he still had enough left to hold off the late charge of the Shug McGaughey-trained Sightseeing by a half-length.
Whether it was the addition of blinkers or the cotton trainer Barclay Tagg placed in his ears to remove even more distractions, Nobiz Like Shobiz ran a much more professional race than he had in his prior couple of starts. As a result, he returned to his winning ways following a narrow defeat to Scat Daddy and Stormello in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II).
He did get rank early, breaking from the rail with first-time blinkers, and Cornelio Velasquez had to take a strong hold of him. He was able to settle a bit in third down the backstretch, but still had Velasquez in a fairly upright position, with two horses right outside of him. Whether his running style will be conducive to the Derby we won’t know until we see how the scenario shapes up. His speed figures, although remarkably consistent and solid, have not been eye-catching, and we also won’t know how he stacks up against the likes of grade I-winning closers Street Sense, Great Hunter, and Circular Quay. From a numbers standpoint he really hasn’t improved much from his career debut. He’s beaten two of Pletcher’s big guns, Any Given Saturday and Scat Daddy, but he’s also been beaten twice by Scat Daddy in their three meetings.
What he does have going for him is his strength, pedigree, and his willingness to fight. He is an imposing horse, who is not going to get intimidated, even when stuck down on the rail inside horses. A horse with his size and power, who is still maturing mentally, is capable of making a huge leap at any time, and the Wood Memorial might have toughened him up enough mentally and physically to make that leap on Derby Day. And he shouldn’t be as rank wearing blinkers for the second time. But he’s still a guess.
Runner-up Sightseeing, coming off two defeats in allowance company, had dead aim on Nobiz passing the eighth pole, but he drifted out, losing a bit of momentum. He made another run at him inside the sixteenth pole, but Nobiz dug in and held him safe. McGaughey said Sighstseeing isn’t quite mentally mature yet, and he is not thinking Derby with him at this time, looking more toward the Peter Pan (gr. II) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
Any Given Saturday, who was supposed to run in the Blue Grass, was yanked out of that race and sent up to New York as a replacement for Circular Quay, who will train up to the Derby. Any Given Saturday was expected by many to regress slightly, coming back in three weeks after his furious stretch battle with Street Sense in the Tampa Bay Derby. But, although he was forced nearly five-wide going into the first turn and raced three-wide throughout, Pletcher was surprised to see him back out of it at the end. “I was disappointed in the last sixteenth of a mile,” he said. “He didn’t really polish it off.”
Pletcher at least has four weeks to the Derby, and it would come as no surprise if Any Given Saturday, who looked sensational in the paddock, rebounded off this effort and returned to form on Derby Day. The one main question surrounding him is the fact that he has been involved in three stretch duels and lost them all, although it was greenness that cost him the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II), and you certainly can't fault his performance in the Tampa Bay Derby, in which he gave up a lot of ground to Street Sense. He is a beautifully made colt with a powerful shoulder, but he runs with his head up, and who knows if that contributes to his failure in stretch duels, where you like to see a horse lower his head and shoulder, dig down, and look his opponent in the eye, while pushing off from his hind end. It's not as easy getting that push when your head and neck are up in the air.
What this colt does have is an excellent turn of foot, as he demonstrated last year in an allowance race at Keeneland, and even in the Tampa Bay Derby. But he has become a stalker, and it just might be that he’s more effective coming from farther out of it (he came from eighth at Keeneland) , where he can make one quick run and try to build momentum off that. The large Derby field has a way of making horses drop farther back than they’re used to, and it could force him to be ridden the way he wants to run, and the way he is more effective. So, if you see him running in mid-pack in the Derby, instead of in a stalking position, expect him to come with a big run at some point. What is important to remember is that, despite his Wood defeat, this is a very talented horse.
As for Circular Quay, Pletcher no doubt had a good reason for making such a drastic last-minute change of plans. If Circular Quay were to win the Derby, it would set quite a precedent. He will try to become the first Derby winner in memory to win off that long a layoff. That memory could go all the way back to Morvich in 1922, although that is not official. He also will attempt to become the first horse in 24 years and second horse in 50 years to win the Derby off only two preps, and the first horse in 58 years to win without ever having been a mile and an eighth.
Does all this mean he can’t win the Derby? In the past, I would have said yes without hesitation. But in this day and age I wouldn’t be quite so bold, especially with almost every major Derby contender this year bucking some kind of historical trend. So, if almost the entire field comes up to the race on the soft side, someone has to win, regardless of what history tells us. When Barbaro romped in last year’s Derby off only one race in 13 weeks, it gave hope to all the conservative trainers, while converting others to this way of thinking.
That is another reason not to give up on Any Given Saturday, who has had a “rigorous” three-race campaign. If there is one thing he won’t be on Derby Day it is soft. He’s been battle-tested on two occasions this year, and once last year, and although he failed each time, he likely won’t be presented with that kind of scenario in the Derby, where you rarely , if ever, see any stretch-long battles. It is usually a quick strike that wins the Derby, and Any Given Saturday is capable of delivering that if kept farther back.
Welcome back, Team Giacomo
A warm and unexpected welcome to some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet in racing. Only two years after Giacomo’s stunning upset victory in the Run for the Roses, here comes his half-brother, Tiago, trying to make some history of his own. Tiago’s Giacomo-like victory at odds of 29-1 in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) will bring back to Churchill Downs the familiar team of trainer John Shirreffs, owners Jerry and Ann Moss, Shirreffs' wife Dottie Ingordo, who is the Moss’ racing manager, and jockey Mike Smith. In today’s world of high-powered entrepreneur horse owners and massive training operations, we welcome a return visit from the Nelsons and the Cleavers to provide a warm, family-like atmosphere.
Tiago, as some might remember, was involved in that wild and wacky maiden race back on Jan. 21, in which he was forced out way past the middle of the track by a bolting Spankey Come Home. He cut back to the inside of Spankey and closed in on the leaders. He stuck his head in front, only to get nipped right on the wire by none other than Spankey Come Home. The subsequent no-brainer disqualification provided Tiago with the only victory of his career going into the Santa Anita Derby.
He had followed that maiden race up with an inexplicable seventh-place finish in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II), after which Shirreffs took the blinkers off the colt and worked him a bullet six furlongs in 1:12 1/5 at Hollywood Park.
The Santa Anita Derby drew a field of 10 and lacked a standout, with most of the field given some kind of chance. Tiago, like his brother, lagged at the back of the field early, and then uncorked a big move around the turn, while saving ground. After straightening into the stretch, Smith must have felt as if it were the 2005 Kentucky Derby all over again, as Tiago came charging up the inside to defeat the Pletcher-trained King of the Roxy, who looked like a sure winner at the eighth pole. But the Team Valor colt, coming off only one sprint this year, was a tired horse and couldn’t resist Tiago’s late run. With this race under his belt, he should have a lot more foundation under him for his next start, which likely will be the Preakness (gr. I)
Although the closing eighth of :13 1/5 was just OK, the three previous splits of :23 4/5, :23 3/5, and :23 4/5 were strong, suggesting that Tiago is getting good right now, and despite having only four career starts (remember that no Derby winner had that few starts since Exterminator in 1918), he could be ready for a peak effort on May 5. Whether that is good enough to compete with the leading contenders we have no idea, which just adds to the uncertainty of the entire Derby picture.
Tiago doesn’t possess that long, sweeping stride of his brother, but he has a smooth, beautiful way of moving. And if you liked Giacomo (by Holy Bull) at a mile and a quarter, you’re going to love his baby brother, who is by Pleasant Tap.
Pletcher’s other starter, Sam P., was not helped at all by blinkers and wound up battling on the front end. This is a once-paced grinder who needs to be hard-ridden a long way out, and it was not a pretty sight seeing jockey Ramon Dominguez give him four roundhouse whips on the far turn. Sam P., to his credit, kept coming as he always does and finished a respectable third, beaten 3 1/4 lengths. Liquidity, once again, ran one-paced, stalking the leaders, and faded to fourth.
New cash cow for Pletcher
So, Circular Quay missed his shot at the Wood, Any Given Saturday suffered a slight setback with his defeat, King of the Roxy is heading for the Preakness, and Sam P. was a beaten favorite in the Santa Anita Derby.
No one knows how to rebound quite like Pletcher, and he did it again when, only minutes after losing the Wood, he watched Cowtown Cat, also owned by WinStar and partners, score a wire-to-wire victory in the Illinois Derby (gr. II).
The time of 1:51 1/5 was not fast on the surface, and with Cobalt Blue never a factor at even-money, this turned into a pretty easy spot. So, how come this colt is starting to look more and more like a Derby contender?
The answer is, I don’t know, except to say there is something about him that makes me believe this is a far better horse than people might think. His Gotham (gr. III) victory, despite his questionable 88 Beyer Speed Figure, was visually impressive, as was his Illinois Derby score, despite the fact that both races were run in extraordinarily slow fractions.
The consensus opinion is that the track for the Gotham had gotten much slower after a sudden drop in temperatures and a dramatic increase in the wind. The Hawthorne surface simply looked slow, and when no one wanted the lead, Cowtown Cat and Fernando Jara, who seems to be blessed these days, obligingly took it. It was no contest after that, as there simply wasn’t anyone good enough to make him raise a sweat.
Although Cowtown Cat, yet another top-class son of Distorted Humor, doesn’t have the physical look of stayer, and is bred more for a mile and an eighth, he has the stride of a distance horse and seems to be improving as rapidly as any horse on the Derby trail. When he finished third in the six and a half-furlong Swale Stakes (gr. II), jockey John Velazquez felt he wanted two turns, and he was proven right.
Cowtown Cat has shown his versatility, sitting in behind horses in the Gotham, waiting patiently for a hole to open, and then bursting through and running down a fast horse in Wafi City. In the Illinois Derby, he cruised to the lead, ran steady quarters in :24 3/5, :24 1/5, and :24 4/5, and then drew off in :12 4/5 for the final eighth to win by 2 1/4 lengths. His final three-eighths in :37 3/5 was solid.
Runner-up Reporting for Duty, did have a good second to Ketchikan in an allowance race two races back, but was one-for-eight going into the Illinois Derby. Third-place finisher Bold Start, second in the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II) to King of the Roxy, raced evenly, but couldn’t out-close Reporting for Duty for the place.
So, as far as Cowtown Cat’s chances in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), he doesn’t have the credentials of the top contenders, but gut feeling says he will be more of a factor than people think. He has not proven himself against grade I horses, so gut feeling is all one can go by.