Ky. Derby Trail: Go East, Young Man

Ky. Derby Trail: Go East, Young Man
Photo: Coglianese Photos
Court Vision showed toughness and determination in winning the Remsen.
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As we head into December, a well-funded trainer is looking for a potential Kentucky Derby horse, but does not want a horse based in Southern California. At the same time, a well-funded gambler is looking for a solid Derby horse to bet in the future book, but he, too, is looking away from California. The reason behind their thinking is quite simple.

That reason can be summed up in two words: synthetic surfaces. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but the truth is, the trainer and the gambler do not want to invest their money on an unknown commodity. If they do, are they getting a legitimate Derby horse or simply one who likes a synthetic surface, in this case the Cushion Track of Santa Anita and Hollywood or the Polytrack of Del Mar? Most of these horses have never even set foot on a dirt track, in the morning or afternoon. So, in essence, the trainer and the punter would be investing a great deal of money on a product that hasn’t been fully tested.

That it is the situation that exists as we embark on the 2008 Derby trail. Unless a Southern California-based horse travels east to compete over a dirt track, whether it’s Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, or Aqueduct, or has already raced over one, no one, not even their trainer and jockey, will have a clue how they will perform at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. We’ve seen too many 2-year-olds already this year who have run big on dirt, but couldn’t pick their feet up on Polytrack, and vice versa.

But we’ll deal with that aspect of the Derby next spring. For now, there’s plenty to concentrate on following the plethora of stakes, allowance races, and maiden races run over the holiday weekend, mainly at Churchill Downs and Aqueduct.

Of course, we first have to talk about the victorious Court Vision’s trip from hell in the Remsen Stakes (gr. I) and the bad stumble by runner-up Atoned after clipping heels on the clubhouse turn. For those two colts to run as well as they did in the nine-furlong race says an awful lot about them as potential Derby horses.

One can criticize the slow final time of 1:52 2/5 all they want, but the toughness and determination displayed by the winner, especially, made the time insignificant by comparison.

As the field rounded the clubhouse turn, Big Truck, racing in fourth, cut in front of Atoned, who clipped his heels and stumbled badly. With only one horse beat in the field of six, Atoned gathered himself and methodically picked off horses one by one throughout the nine-furlong race. He was able to forge to the front turning for home and looked like a sure winner, opening up a three-length lead at the eighth pole, but Court Vision, the 4-5 favorite, somehow was able to run him down.

The key word is somehow. Bottled up every step of the way under Eibar Coa, Court Vision’s situation looked hopeless at the top of the stretch. In a desperate move, Coa asked the son of Gulch to make his own hole, and the colt bulled his way through, bouncing several times off Big Truck. As soon as he emerged from that traffic jam, he got into a shoving match with Trust N Dustan, who was rallying on the outside. The two bumped soundly, with Trust N Dustan leaning in on Court Vision. Finally, Court Vision was able to shake free, but found himself having to make up three to four lengths on the Todd Pletcher-trained Atoned. Showing uncanny grit and tenacity for a young horse, he closed relentlessly to wear down Atoned a few strides from the wire.

Before the race Mott said that Court Vision is the type of horse that will do whatever you ask him to. He certainly proved that in the Remsen. After the race, Mott added, “I don’t know what more you could ask a horse to do. I mean he just keeps coming.”

Court Vision had to survive a foul claim by the rider of Big Truck. Atoned’s assistant trainer Seth Benzel said it was a shame his horse had to get beat after the huge race he ran, but admitted while waiting for the steward’s decision that it would also be a shame to take down the winner after all he had to go through.

In the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs, the first three finishers – Anak Nakal, Blackberry Road, and Racecar Rhapsody – all ran well enough to stamp themselves as legitimate Derby hopefuls. Anak Nakal is a son of Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Victory Gallop, out of a Quiet American mare. He is inbred 3x3 to Fappiano, which makes him inbred three times to Dr. Fager. With classic French horses Margouillat and Diatome in his female family, stamina will not be a question. With his pedigree, a stakes win over the Churchill Downs track, and a second in a stakes at Aqueduct, home of the Wood Memorial (gr. I), his prospects for next spring look strong.

Blackberry Road, who closed from last along the rail to be beaten a half-length, has improved steadily, and also should have no problem with distance, being by Gone West, sire of Belmont winner Commendable, Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) winner Johar, and Kentucky Derby runner-up Proud Citizen, out of a Strawberry Road mare. His only poor effort came in the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. III) when he showed uncharacteristic speed, battling head and head on the lead before tiring. Coming from off the pace, he’s finished first, second, third, and a close fourth at Churchill Downs. Like Atoned, he is owned by Dogwood Stable, which seems to come up with a good young horse every year.

Blackberry Road is trained by David Carroll, who has another 2-year-old that is worth getting excited about. Anyone who saw Denis of Cork’s career debut at Churchill Saturday had to come away feeling this colt could be special. Of course, he has to take the next big step against winners.

In Saturday’s seven-furlong maiden race, Denis of Cork broke alertly, but quickly dropped back under Calvin Borel. After a quarter of a mile, he had one horse beat in the field of 12. When Borel stepped on the gas, along the rail, of course, Denis of Cork unleashed a devastating run, quickly passing horses one by one. He was moving so powerfully, Borel, not wanting to risk getting him stopped, swung him to the outside and wound up eight-wide turning for home. But the colt had built up so much momentum, losing all that ground meant little. He took dead aim on the Steve Asmussen-trained favorite, Stungbythestorm, who was coming off a solid third behind Monba (who would win later on the card).

Under a right-handed whip, Denis of Cork came home his last eighth in :12 flat to beat the favorite by three-quarters of length in 1:22 2/5. What made the race even more impressive was the 7 1/2-length gap to the third horse, the highly regarded Empire Maker colt Major General, from the Bobby Frankel barn. Despite having to go so wide, Denis of Cork still managed to come home his final three-eighths in a sensational :34 3/5. This was one of the most impressive debuts we’ve seen in quite a while, and you’ll no doubt be hearing a lot more from this horse. By Harlan’s Holiday, out of an Unbridled mare, he should run all day.

Speaking of Monba, he is another newcomer to watch. The son of Maria’s Mon, out of an Easy Goer mare, ran hard all the way in a one-mile allowance race, while racing wide most of way from the 11-post. He surged to the front turning for home and had enough left to turn back the challenge of another exciting colt, Macho Again, winning be a neck in 1:35 2/5. His final quarter in :24  flat down that long Churchill stretch was impressive, as was the final quarter turned in by Macho Again, who overcame several bumping incidents throughout the race and still ran gamely after splitting horses at the head of the stretch. He is one of several horses who has looked great on dirt – a big win and two good seconds – but didn’t run a lick over Polytrack. These two colts, along with Denis of Cork, made this Churchill card one we may be looking back at in a few months.

So far, Denis of Cork, Monba (who is two-for-two), Macho Again, He’s Solid Gold, National Pride, and Referee head the list of under-the-radar 2-year-olds who should be heard from in no time. Of these, Denis of Cork, He’s Solid Gold, and National Pride are the ones who have turned in what we believe to be extraordinary performances for a young horse.

Other 2-year-olds over the weekend who bear watching include the Wayne Lukas-trained Legacy Thief, who dominated a field of maidens going a mile at Aqueduct. The son of Cat Thief, needed some encouragement from Mike Luzzi to change leads, but he bounded away from his opponents like a good horse to win by 5 3/4 lengths for Mary Lou Whitney.

At Hollywood Park, Massive Drama, one of the most laid-back horses in Bob Baffert’s barn, showed for the second time in as many starts that he is a tiger on the track, as he out-battled the 2-1 favorite Into Mischief, winning the Hollywood Prevue Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths in 1:21 2/5 for the seven furlongs. We’ll just have to wait to see how far the son of Kafwain wants to go.

Other observations from the weekend included a couple of grass performances by Todd Pletcher-trained horses. Although he’s no doubt better on the grass, you had to love the way The Leopard re-broke in deep stretch of the Generous Stakes after being challenged briefly. The $2.5-million son of Storm Cat has learned to settle off the pace and is beginning to mature. There is no reason to think he can’t duplicate that performance in the Cash Call Futurity (gr. I) on Cushion Track. And he’s already shown he can handle dirt for down the road if Pletcher decides to return him there. He’s a handsome colt and a beautiful mover. Pletcher also won the Laurel Futurity with Cowboy Cal, who demolished his field by 6 1/2 lengths. As of now, he looks to be much better on the grass, but what was impressive about him was his fluid action and the extension of his stride. His only start on dirt was a bust, but Pletcher likely will give him another shot, possibly in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II). By Giant’s Causeway, out of a Seeking the Gold mare, he worked well enough on dirt at Belmont Park, so it’s way too early to consider him strictly a grass horse.

Back to Churchill, Zito finally got his Fusaichi Pegasus colt Aquarian to break his maiden going 1 1/8 miles after four tries. This is one tough colt and no doubt needs time to mature. But he’s got a nine-furlong win under him already and he should only keep improving. He just has to start getting faster.

Kenny McPeek is always a trainer to fear when it comes to young horses. McPeek has himself a top grass/synthetic surface horse in Old Man Buck, winner of the Grand Canyon Stakes on turf at Churchill Downs. The son of Hold That Tiger is tough and consistent on those surfaces, but has run poorly in both his dirt starts, including the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). We’ll see where he goes from here.

McPeek also trains Racecar Rhapsody, who ran a huge race to finish third in the Kentucky Jockey Club, stretching out from a 6 1/2-furlong maiden win on Polytrack to 1 1/16 miles. He closed steadily on the outside and was beaten a half-length and a head. A son of Tale of the Cat, out of an A.P. Indy mare, he is another who looks to have a bright future.

Up at Woodbine, 40-1 shot Discreet Commander barely held off Briarwood Circle and 34-1 shot Mighty Vow to win the Display Stakes in a blanket finish, in which all three horses were noses apart.

Finally, at Hollywood Park, Beau Greely sent out the Ecton Park colt Tres Borrachos to break his maiden by a half-length going 1 1/16 miles, repulsing the challenge of Medjool, who was discussed in last week’s column.

 

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