Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Crunch Time

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Crunch Time
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Haskin: "Street Sense is THE horse."
Derby Works Photos
Arriving in Kentucky two weeks ago, the feeling here was that there were two horses in particular to concentrate on who looked to be coming into the Derby with enough angles to make them live at a decent price. After watching most of the Derby horses work and gallop at Keeneland and Churchill, things have changed a bit, as has track condition.

The two horses in question are Any Given Saturday and Great Hunter, and while both look great and still appear to be coming into the Derby in excellent shape, drawing posts 18 and 20 is a bit of concern and can’t help but temper the enthusiasm a little. But in the final analysis, you can’t drop them due to post position, because as we’ve seen many times in recent years, horses can win or run big from anywhere.

This column in past years has been based mainly on how the horses have looked and trained, and how they’ve progressed physically over the past two weeks. So, as usual, the column will be divided between that aspect of the race and the more standard handicapping angles.

With that said, I must start off by saying, that over the course of two weeks, I cannot recall a horse training any better for the Derby than Street Sense. Smarty Jones had the single most impressive Derby work I’d ever seen, and Barbaro’s last year was right up there. And both horses looked awesome galloping as well, so from a training standpoint, they were no-brainers. In 2001, Monarchos was the pick on works.

But those were based on a single work, with Smarty Jones and Barbaro only training at Churchill for about a week. I have watched Street Sense work twice at Churchill Downs and was amazed what a machine this horse is. Both works, although different time-wise, were pure artistry. As mentioned in earlier columns, you don’t see horses hugging the rail turning for home, hugging the rail galloping out into the clubhouse turn, and you certainly don’t see them hugging the rail pulling up into the backstretch, where horses normally are well off the rail and starting to slow down. With Street Sense, you couldn’t tell if he were pulling up from a work or galloping to the pole to begin it.

And on both occasions, the son of Street Cry came off the track without blowing in the slightest. That is why I refer to him as a machine. This morning, he came out for a twice around gallop over the wet track and steamrolled over it, moving along at a strong clip while getting down into the bit.

We already knew watching last year’s Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) that he loves Churchill Downs, but I can honestly say, I have never seen a horse handle a track the way Street Sense handles this track.

Of, course, none of that means he’s going to win the Derby, but if he gets a good trip I simply cannot look past him based on what I’ve seen over the past two weeks. There is a good chance we’re going to have a sloppy or muddy track Saturday, and there is no guarantee he is going to handle it the same way he handles a fast track. But he has a great deal of off-track breeding, especially in his bottom line, so, although I try to avoid selecting a favorite when there are so many potential overlays, he would have to be my key horse and selection on paper. Of course, I cannot bet a horse that short to win, but he has to be included in all exotics.

Looking past Street Sense, there are a few horses I do like for win at a good price, and I will discuss potential bombs that can sneak into the exotics. As for the horses bucking history, and there are quite a few of them (including Street Sense if you go by the two races at 3), I will have to put some of them (like Curlin, Circular Quay, and Tiago) on hold and consider them pioneers for future Derbys if they win. I’m not saying they won’t win. I’m just saying I need to see them win first before completely dismissing historical stats and logic.

As mentioned earlier, my first and foremost priority is how the horses have been training and looking, so I will start with that.

While all eyes were focused on Curlin, not too many people paid much attention to his stablemate Zanjero. But the son of Cherokee Run is one of the handsomest horses in the field and his works have been sneakily good. He looked great working at Keeneland last week, and I was impressed with the length and smoothness of his stride. Even galloping and jogging, his bowed neck makes him look like a show horse, and everything about him is pleasing to the eye. Working impressively at Keeneland is all well and good, but to see him come back and work and gallop equally as good at Churchill is encouraging enough to suggest that he is a longshot to pay close attention to.

My other longshot based on training, and in this case gut feeling, is Cowtown Cat, who many experts do not like at all. The son of Distorted Humor snuck in under the radar, working five furlongs in :58 3/5 at Keeneland the day before Any Given Saturday, Scat Daddy, and Circular Quay worked. This work was very strong and smooth, and I like the way he was striding out down the stretch. Physically, he is not your typical distance horse, being more blocky than the others, but he makes up for that in power and a great reach. He’s also been feeling good in the mornings at Churchill.

As for the gut feeling, it’s something I can’t explain rationally other than I just have a feeling this horse is better than people think, and I do know that he has improved as much as anyone in the race over the past month and looks to be sitting on a peak performance.

A couple of potential megabombs, who are capable of hitting the board at a monster price are Sam P., if he is ridden correctly and confidently by Ramon Domiguez, and Bwana Bull, based on the strength of his recent gallops and how he’s handling the track. Sam P. has turned in two solid works at Churchill Downs while his more illustrious stablemates were working at Keeneland. The son of Cat Thief is a grinder who does not have the speed of many of the others, but he will keep coming when others are tiring, so Dominguez must keep after him (but not whipping him four times left-handed on the turn as he did in the Santa Anita Derby) and not panic if horses pass him on the turn. I’m also looking for him to handle an off track well, which will help his style of running.

Now, let’s get back to Any Given Saturday and Great Hunter, my original two favorites. Any Given Saturday probably is the most handsome horse in the race. Nobiz Like Shobiz is the most imposing and awe-inspiring, but with him shipping in on Wednesday evening, I simply have not seen enough of him to justify picking him or even discussing him in any great length. I liked Any Given’s Saturday’s work two works back, because of the way he sat several lengths off his workmate and then dug in and caught him at the wire with a final quarter in :22 4/5. I have maintained this horse will be more effective taking back and using his acceleration to make one big run.

His Wood Memorial (gr. I) is a toss out in my opinion. In his other two-turn races he had been stalking, with the exception of his maiden victory, in which he made a quick powerful move on the turn, coming from eighth to win. In those races, his six-furlong times ranged from 1:11 4/5 to 1:13 4/5. In the Wood Memorial, a race in which he was not supposed to run, he was right there in 1:10 4/5 for six furlongs after going nearly five-wide on the first turn, and was three-wide on the second turn.

He had every right to regress coming off his gut-wrencher against Street Sense in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III). He’s now had four weeks off, which will help, and has been training very well. I liked his last work, a strong five-furlong maintenance drill. His main weakness is his tendency to carry his head high, which prevents him from getting the extension he should. He needs to drop his head more in order to get better extension, and he needs to stay cool and collected before the race. From post 18, he will have to take back and use his acceleration when the holes open up. I’m still high on this horse and definitely will play him straight, despite the post.

I also will play Great Hunter from the (gulp) 20-post for several reasons. The main one is the fact that he was dead-short going into the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I), with only two moderate works in six weeks and spiking a fever two and a half weeks before the race, which caused him to miss several days of training on top of that. It was hoped he would get more out of the Blue Grass to help set him up for a peak effort on Derby Day, but that race was a disaster. Still, the belief is that he got enough out of it, and would have been right there in the blanket photo had he not had to take up sharply when Teuflesberg came out on him. He also lost some momentum earlier in the stretch when Street Sense came out on him briefly.

The son of Aptitude has come back with a good six-furlong work at Keeneland (wish it was at Churchill), and I particularly like the way he’s been flourishing in the past two weeks. His coat has been radiant and dappled, and he’s been on his toes in the morning. If he can escape unscathed from the 20-post, he also looks to be sitting on a peak performance.

One quick note about his stablemate Liquidity, who has not been applying himself lately and will lose his blinkers and get a Sure-Win strap (bit) to help get him more involved in the race. With his speed, strength, and stamina, if he gets loose on the lead at any point, watch out. He could get brave out there, and he’s going to be around 40 or 50-1.

We have to conclude with Hard Spun, who turned heads earlier in the week with his :57 3/5 work. I have no idea if that work will have any impact on Hard Spun’s performance, positively or negatively, but I can say that he bounced out of it in great shape, and it’s hard to believe that work will hurt him. He’s such a powerful colt, with a ton of speed, and it was five days before the race. From all indications, he’s ready for more action. The main question with the son of Danzig surrounds the competition he’s faced. He is a very talented horse, but he’s never faced horses of this caliber, so we just don’t know.

Major stakes winner Scat Daddy and Dominican have done nothing wrong, nor has Circular Quay. But you can only zero in on a few horses, and based on training, looks, and handicapping, and, yes, history to a degree, I’ll concentrate on several others, although Scat Daddy has to be included in many of the exotics because of his class and consistency, and his professionalism in his races and his willingness in the mornings.

Looking at the race on an off track, I don’t believe it will hurt many horses, and would help Hard Spun, Street Sense, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Tiago, and Sam P. And the two Distorted Humor colts, Any Given Saturday and Cowtown Cat should handle it very well. Curlin is by a son of Mr. Prospector and Scat Daddy is out of a Mr. Prospector mare, so no problem there. Bottom line is, not much help to be gotten from pedigrees.

So, lets see what we have. Street Sense is THE horse and must be the focus of all wagers. If you’re looking for enticing straight win payoffs, Any Given Saturday and Great Hunter in the 15-1 to 18-1 range (I’d prefer to see them a little higher because of their posts), and Cowtown Cat and Zanjero in 20-1 to 30-1 range. If you don’t think these two are capable of winning, you at least have to include Zanjero in your exotics. Cowtown Cat may be more of an all or nothing type of horse. He could win this at a big price, but a lot of that, as mentioned earlier, is based on gut feeling and the visual aspect of his last two races. Zanjero is more proven of the two in top-quality competiton, so he would seem more likely to hit the board. Boxing these five horses in the trifecta seems enticing as well, and if you want to add one more, you can include Scat Daddy because of his consistency and proven class at 2 and 3.

As for Nobiz Like Shobiz, Tiago, and Stormello, I can’t comment on them because of their late arrival, and you’re on your own with them.

You can do what you like with Sam P., Bwana Bull, and Liquidity. They are just mentioned as potential shockers who could make their presence felt under the right circumstances.

From a non-monetary standpoint, Hard Spun and Dominican are the two horses to root for, because they will be the two best human interest stories, along with Teuflesberg, following in the footsteps of Funny Cide, Smarty Jones  , and Barbaro. As a journalist, and as a pure racing fan, I’d love to see any one of them win.

Good luck. It’s anybody’s race, with numerous puzzles to be unlocked. Anyone who can make a killing in this field deserves it. It’s been a fun ride. Thanks for tagging along.

 

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