Kentucky Derby Trail: Bye, Bye Miss American Pie

Kentucky Derby Trail: Bye, Bye Miss American Pie
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Dominican (2) edges Street Sense in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.
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The death of Buddy Holly on Feb. 3, 1959 was “the day the music died.” April 14, 2007 was the day dirt racing in America died. That may sound harsh and premature, but if races like the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) are what we have to look forward to in the future, then we have indeed seen the beginning of the end of dirt racing as we know it.

I must preface that comment with the acknowledgment that synthetic surfaces have proven to be a great deal safer than regular dirt tracks, and certainly better in every way than Keeneland’s old surface. And the safety of the horses takes precedence over anything, so this is not a condemnation of the surface. But in terms of handicapping and analyzing races, we might as well be watching races at Newbury Race Course in England.

Although this space is supposed to be devoted to an analysis of the Blue Grass Stakes, it simply cannot be done. The race wasn’t merely a turf race masquerading as a dirt race, it was a European turf race masquerading as a turf race masquerading as a dirt race. When the winner of a grade I stakes goes his first three-quarters in 1:17 and comes home his last three-eighths in :33 4/5 and final eighth in :11 flat, that is not American dirt racing. To show how this race was contradictory to everything we know about dirt racing, the winner of a race run in this manner is not supposed to come from fifth in a seven-horse field and pass the two favorites, both of whom are closers and two of the top choices for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Derby favorites who come home in :11 1/5 are not supposed to get caught.

This is no reflection on Street Sense or Dominican, who nosed the even-money favorite on the wire, but a reflection on the dynamics of the race itself.

You can look back all you want and pick apart everything about the Blue Grass, but the more immediate concern is, what did the Derby-bound horses get out of the race? Can a horse get fit enough and sharp enough for a grueling race like the Derby running two to four lengths behind fractions of :26, :51 2/5, 1:16 3/5, and 1:39 4/5 over an artificial surface? Then again, maybe a race like this will not be a hindrance at all in the Derby, programming horses like Street Sense, Dominican, Great Hunter, and Zanjero to go slow early, and then unleash a rapid final three-eighths. After all, that is the way most Derbys are won. As one can clearly see, no one has any answers, because there are no reference points on which to base them.

I have kept Street Sense on top of the Derby Dozen list, because I don’t know who else to put there, and the feeling is, this race will be a non-factor in determining whether he wins or loses the Derby. And because he will be the only major Derby horse training at Churchill Downs (remember those days?), while most everyone else remains at Keeneland, I have proclaimed him and trainer Carl Nafzger the voice of tradition. And besides, he didn’t do too shabbily making the switch from Keeneland to Churchill Downs last fall.

As for the Blue Grass itself, the main comments will not be about who won or lost, but about other aspects of the race. Street Sense appeared to have cost himself the race by losing his concentration and gawking at the crowd in the grandstand (Keeneland’s grandstand is built at an angle and is directly in sight of the horses on the far outside as they turn into the stretch). The 2-year-old champ has had his little quirks before, such as pulling himself up after getting the lead too soon, and you can clearly see him cocking his head and looking at the crowd as soon as he turned for home, which resulted in his ducking in several times. He won’t have those problems in the Derby, where he will be forced to focus all his attention on the race.

Great Hunter needed to get more out of this race than Street Sense, who has already had his gut-wrencher, and although he would be more attractive in the Kentucky Derby had he been given a tough race, he still remains an intriguing live horse, who now is regarded as a sleeper, as opposed to being one of the favorites. There are several reasons why he is capable of rebounding with a big effort on Derby Day, the most obvious being all the trouble he had in the stretch, especially having to take up sharply when Teuflesberg came out and shut him off. Still, in a cockeyed race like this, he was only beaten less than two lengths.

There were other factors that should be considered. After his victory in the Robert Lewis Stakes (gr. II), trainer Doug O’Neill didn’t work him for four weeks by design. Thinking of the Blue Grass as mostly a vehicle to move the colt forward into the Derby, O’Neill trained him light, giving him only two works in six weeks – one was the sixth fastest of 14 works and the other the 12th fastest of 42 works. So, it’s safe to say Great Hunter was far from wound tight for this race, and had to go into it a bit short.

On top of that, he was the only horse in the race, other than Zanjero, who was forced to alter his running style. A confirmed closer who has demonstrated a quick-fire acceleration on the far turn, Great Hunter was running second behind the crawling Teuflesberg the whole race, and had to resort to being a stalker. With the race turning into a sprint to the wire, and with his light preparation for the race, he was unable to use his turn of foot.

He still made two runs, but encountered trouble each time, the first being when Street Sense came in on him and the second when Teuflesberg wiped him out. Although some felt he was done by then, he certainly didn’t look done, and was making one last surge when the second incident occurred. It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have at least been part of the blanket finish at the wire. But again, we come back to the question of whether he got enough out of the race to make an impact going 10 furlongs off only two starts, neither of which was very demanding.

And speaking of the second incident, it’s also hard to believe there wasn’t a foul claim by Corey Nakatani or even a stewards inquiry. The head-on camera clearly shows Teuflesberg ducking out and causing Great Hunter to take up. Nakatani said he wouldn’t have won anyway, which seems like an odd comment. But even if he felt that way, what about the $15,000 difference between fifth and fourth? And where were the stewards? How do they not even put up the inquiry sign to take a look at it? There was no one watching the race who didn’t see the incident, so why would the stewards just ignore something that was so obvious?

As for Dominican, his victory should not be tainted by the bizarre nature of the race or the excuses of others. This is a totally different horse since being gelded because of an undescended testicle that was bothering him last year. Even his stride has changed dramatically. He now gobbles up ground effortlessly and has great extension. And he’s light on his feet, which helps him skip over the ground and should enable him to keep stretching out. He has shown in his last two races he likes running with cover, just like a typical European, and when he’s pulled out and sees daylight, he kicks into high gear.

Yes, he is three-for-three over Polytrack, but he has plenty of credentials on the “dirt” from last year, including a third-place finish behind Tiz Wonderful and Any Given Saturday in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) and finishing a half-length behind Street Sense when fourth in the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. III) in only his second career start. And in that race, he stumbled badly at the start, losing a shoe, and then jumped the tire tracks in the stretch.

Zanjero ran an excellent race, racing close up on the rail, which was not where the jockeys wanted to be on Saturday. Teuflesberg hung on and almost pulled off the upset, despite his erratic running.

So, there are reasons to get excited over several of the horses, even with the race earning a humble 93 Beyer Speed Figure, which can be attributed more to the pace and the craziness of the race than the merits of the horses. We did learn that riders can actually get top-class Thoroughbreds to run that slowly, something not many people were aware of. Because of the poor record by front-runners so far during the Keeneland meet, riders felt they had nothing to fear from Teuflesberg, so the slower he went, the slower they went.

Whether it was the nature of Polytrack or some mass hysteria suffered by all the riders, the best bet would be to pretty much ignore the race, and don’t let it change whatever opinions you had for these horses. If you don’t ignore it, and you look at the numbers and the fact that the recent maiden winner Time Squared was beaten less than three lengths at 26-1, you’re going to feel compelled to make some major adjustments to your Derby selections. And you don’t really want to do that, do you?

Freak show returns to Oaklawn

OK, it’s time to get to the next bit of Derby insanity. And that is Curlin. As if we need more to confuse us. Now that it looks as if this colt could be racing’s next superstar, and is the most brilliant 3-year-old seen this year, you have to go right to all the history that is against him. But you also have to start thinking that maybe history doesn’t apply to this horse.

The most amazing thing about the son of Smart Strike  , along with his freaky performance in the Arkansas Derby, is the fact that he closed as the 7-2 favorite in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Street Sense is next at 6-1, with Circular Quay, at 9-1, the only other horse going off at single-digit odds. That’s 7-2 on a horse who has run only three times in his life and who didn’t race at 2. It’s getting tiresome bringing up the last time a Derby winner won with so few starts and not having raced at 2 (1915 and 1892, respectively). With the Future Wager favorite having to overcome that, and the third favorite having to overcome several historical trends himself (eight weeks to the Derby, two starts at 3, and never having run at a mile and an eighth), how in the world can anyone have a clue what to make of this year’s Derby?

Curlin hasn’t faced the caliber of horses he’ll be facing in the Derby, but what he’s accomplished so far in such a short period of time is amazing. The ease with which he cruised to the lead, with his ears up and Robby Albarado sitting motionless on him, was awesome in itself, but then to see his turn of foot when Albarado moved ever so slightly on him was something to behold. Despite decimating the field and drawing off at will to win by 10 1/2 lengths, he still closed his final eighth in :12 flat, or :11.91 to be exact. That is scary. Also scary is the way he does everything like a seasoned pro, despite having only three career starts, and just keeps making giant leaps forward.

And you have to be impressed with the way he settled so well, rating beautifully three lengths off the pace, and the way he dropped his head and neck in the stretch and leveled off. Although the fractions of :47 4/5, 1:12 3/5, and 1:38 appear slow, the track on Saturday was dead, and both mile stakes on the card were run in 1:38 4/5. So, this was as flawless a performance as you’ll see.

But, again, can a horse, no matter how brilliant he looks (remember Bellamy Road?), actually win the Kentucky Derby with so little experience and seasoning? If he does, it will set a precedent unlike anything we’ve seen. The method of evaluating a horse’s chances in the Derby and what it takes to win the race will be changed forever.

One quick note about runner-up Storm in May. The son of Tiger Ridge has now finished in the money in 12 of his 13 starts, and has won or placed at six furlongs, seven furlongs, and 1 1/8 miles on a fast dirt track, at one mile in the slop, and at 7 1/2 furlongs, 1 1/16 miles, and 1 1/8 miles on good and firm turf courses. Now, that's the kind of horse you'd love to have in your barn.

While on the subject of crazy races, the Blue Grass has left everyone so punch drunk, I have come up with a trifecta for the Derby. I will play a straight trifecta of Nobiz Like Shobiz, Hard Spun (trained by Larry Jones), and Curlin, just so I can say I have a trifecta of No, Larry, and Curlin. Sorry, the mind is getting too warped and I couldn’t resist. And if you’re not familiar with the Three Stooges, a double apology.

The best call of the day during a particular race was Terry Wallace going through the Arkansas Derby field horse by horse as they headed down the backstretch, and calling, “…Officer Rocket Going Ballistic…” That one is true.

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