Well, this is it, the final major Derby prep weekend. After this, there is only the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) for horses hoping to hop aboard at the last minute. All eyes now turn to Street Sense, who can emerge from the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) as a solid Derby favorite. But he has to get by Great Hunter first.
Down at Oaklawn, the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) looks like a grab bag of all kinds of horses, with the emphasis on lightly raced colts looking to play catch-up and fast.
The Blue Grass, run for the first time over Polytrack, will not have one of its crazy results, such as last year’s mind-blowing romp by Sinister Minister over a typical speed-biased Keeneland surface. Now we have a surface that often hinders speed horses, and leaves questions as to whether a result is legitimate or simply due to certain horses liking or disliking Polytrack.
Form-wise, the Blue Grass looks to be a two-horse race between Street Sense and Great Hunter. Both have shown they can handle Polytrack, especially Great Hunter, who defeated Street Sense in the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I). So, what does one make of that race? The fact that Street Sense came back and trounced Great Hunter at Churchill Downs in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), makes one ask: did Street Sense really like Polytrack that much? Why would he get beat nearly two lengths by Great Hunter, who had been training over Hollywood’s synthetic surface, and then beat him by 12 over a regular dirt track?
It could have been that he simply needed the race, but such a dramatic turnaround has to make one wonder. It also must be pointed out that Street Sense is the only Derby hopeful training at Churchill Downs, while Great Hunter has been training on nothing but synthetic surfaces.
With that said, what if Great Hunter defeats Street Sense again by a length or two in the Blue Grass? Will that have any bearing at all on the Kentucky Derby? Such are the handicapping pitfalls that surround Polytrack. You just don’t know how to interpret races run over it.
So, when you get right down to it, it really shouldn’t matter one way or the other if Great Hunter defeats Street Sense. It certainly didn’t matter last fall. But if Street Sense defeats Great Hunter, it could very well show that last year’s 2-year-old champ is so good right now that he is capable of doing anything and beating anyone.
On the other hand, the acceleration Great Hunter showed in his victory in the Robert B. Lewis (gr. II) at Santa Anita might just indicate that the son of Aptitude also has gotten good, and that a victory over Street Sense on Saturday would actually be legitimate and not due to Polytrack. Enough questions to ponder for now?
The seven-horse field, with only one speed horse, is not going to be conducive to either horse, both of whom like to come from off the pace. But if Teuflesberg can cut out a solid pace it shouldn’t matter. These two horses can unleash big kicks on the far turn, regardless of the pace, and they hold a big class edge on the rest of the field.
The one intriguing horse in here is Dominican, and if the two favorites are going to fall, which seems unlikely, he could be the one to pull it off, based on his impressive victory in the Rushaway Stakes. Of course, he was meeting far inferior horses, but from a visual standpoint, he looked awfully good doing it, especially the quick burst of speed he showed when clear inside the eighth pole, and the way he bounded away from his opponents to win by five lengths is a solid 1:43 2/5 for the mile and a sixteenth.
He does have credentials in other stakes against top-class horses, finishing third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) behind Tiz Wonderful and Any Given Saturday, and fourth, beaten only 2 1/4 lengths, in the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. III), in which he was only a half-length behind Street Sense. So, keep an eye on this El Corredor gelding, who is two-for-two over Polytrack, and who breezed five furlongs in :59 4/5 at Keeneland on Apr. 8.
As for the others, Teuflesberg, as mentioned earlier, looks to be the only speed and should have an uncontested lead. The son of Johannesburg is a tough, durable colt who has already run 14 times, including a victory over Hard Spun in the Southwest Stakes and a neck defeat to Scat Daddy in last year’s Sanford Stakes (gr. II). He lost all chance in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III) when he was left at the gate and had to change tactics, coming from off the pace, which is not his strong suit.
Zanjero, a stone closer, has been chasing Circular Quay, Notional, and Nobiz Like Shobiz, and always picks up a piece of it. He should be motoring in the stretch, but it’s a tough task having to out-close both Street Sense and Great Hunter.
Time Squared, who came from the clouds to win a maiden race earlier in the meet, has a great deal of potential, but hasn’t shown yet he’s in the class of these horses. Love Dubai “prepped” for the Blue Grass by getting beat almost 32 lengths a week ago in his U.S. debut.
Battle of the babies
That’s pretty much what the Arkansas Derby looks like on paper, with Curlin (two lifetime starts), Deadly Dealer (three lifetime starts, all sprints), and Flying First Class (three lifetime starts) trying to grow up fast. The Kentucky Derby often makes people attempt to turn inexperienced babies into men virtually overnight in order to run in the classic. In the case of Curlin, Deadly Dealer, and Flying First Class, all are extraordinarily fast horses, but even if any one of them wins the Arkansas Derby (gr. II), it’s going to be an arduous task having them come back in three weeks and run a mile and quarter in a 20-horse field with so little seasoning and experience.
Curlin likely will be the favorite off his stunning victory in the Rebel, and he no doubt is an extremely gifted horse who could easily come back and repeat in the Arkansas Derby. Deadly Dealer looked awesome in a 7 1/2-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream in his first start for Todd Pletcher. The horse he defeated by seven lengths, Boogie Boggs, came back and ran well in the Florida Derby (gr. I), but other than that, we really don’t know much more about this colt. Wayne Lukas took the blame for Flying First Class’ poor effort in the Rebel, in which he showed speed and tired badly. Feeling he didn’t have him fit enough after his awesome maiden win, for which he earned a 107 Beyer, he has since worked him a bullet five furlongs in 1:00 1/5, a stiff mile in 1:40 4/5, and a bullet five-furlong breeze in :59 1/5.
If you like a little more meat on your bone, there are two horses in here that come highly recommended and who should be a decent price. The logical horse on paper to pick up the pieces in the stretch is Officer Rocket, who is coming off second-place finishes in the Southwest and Rebel, but if you’re more interested in finding fresh faces who could not only run big here, but come back and be a factor in the Kentucky Derby, then focus your attention on Delightful Kiss and For You Reppo.
Delightful Kiss could be the real sleeper, and wouldn’t it be ironic if owner Jack Dreyfus, after owning horses in New York for half a century under his Hobeau Farm colors, finally makes it to the Kentucky Derby with a horse NOT trained by Allen Jerkens, but with one based at Calder with former jockey Pete Anderson?
Delightful Kiss, who had been racing mostly on turf, had two good efforts on dirt when he burst on the scene by coming from the clouds to defeat Sightseeing and Chelokee in a mile allowance race at Gulfstream. Sightseeing and Chelokee, of course, went on to finish second in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) and a troubled third in the Florida Derby, respectively.
In his next start, the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), he drew the outside post and took a right-hand turn at the break and then had to be yanked back to the inside. Before he knew it, he was four lengths behind the next-to-last horse, eventually dropping some 15 lengths off the pace. This was an ambitious spot anyway, running against Street Sense and Any Given Saturday, and after such a bad start, he had no chance of being anywhere near these two at the finish. As it is, he made a long sustained run, came wide into the stretch, and still managed to finish third, 6 1/4 lengths behind two of the best 3-year-olds in the country, who were turning in arguably the best performances of the year by a 3-year-old.
Now, he returns in a 10-horse field, with plenty of pace, over a track that is often kind to stretch runners. And he doesn’t have Street Sense and Any Given Saturday to contend with. He also has Russell Baze coming in from Northern California to ride him for the first time. Drawing the rail isn’t ideal, but if he can ease out and get clear sailing at some point in the race, it shouldn’t hurt him.
Unless Curlin, or even Deadly Dealer, runs some kind of freaky race on Saturday, watch out for Delightful Kiss to run them all down at a decent price. If one of them does run lights out, then keep this guy in mind for second.
Now we come to For You Reppo. His story is a bit different, as he is coming off a disappointing fourth-place finish, beaten almost 10 lengths, in the Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II). And for the fourth time in his last five starts, he has drawn an outside post in a mile and an eighth race. The other time, he drew the rail, also not a post you want if you’re a com-from-behind horse.
It very well could be he is one of those horses that simply does not care for Polytrack, so you can excuse his last effort. The bottom line is that he looks to be a very good horse who is maturing and getting better. After breaking his maiden by four lengths from the 10-post, he finished a strong second to Chelokee after breaking awkwardly from the rail, while finishing ahead of Sightseeing. In the Lane’s End, he broke from post 11, was hung wide on both turns, and just didn’t fire in the stretch. Helen Pitts is one the sharpest trainers around and she wouldn’t keep him on the Derby trail if she didn’t believe he can compete with the top horses. The son of El Corredor is a powerful, handsome colt who should only keep improving.
So, watch out for both these horses on Saturday. It would be a surprise if neither one was flying down the stretch. And if the lightly raced horses, Curlin, Deadly Dealer, and Flying First Class, falter, they could even run one-two, with Officer Rocket proving to be their main foe. Either way, they look like live horses in the exotics.