Ky. Derby Trail: Of Thorns & Roses
Be careful how you handle Crown of Thorns. As we’re well aware, the impressive winner of the Feb. 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) has never run on a real dirt track. But with that said, let’s pretend it will make no difference, and that he will be as good on dirt as he looked in the Bob Lewis.
Time is irrelevant on the Santa Anita speedway, where “Road Closed” signs have been posted on a regular basis. So, one cannot get too excited over Crown of Thorns’ final time of 1:40 3/5 for the 1 1/16 miles and his third and fourth quarters in :23 flat, especially after the outrageous times in all the other races on the card. But you have to like the fact that he was able to put together two quarters that quick and then come home his final sixteenth in :06 1/5. Those would be spectacular splits on a normal dirt track, but on Santa Anita’s Cushion Track they are just numbers. It’s his ability to run back-to-back quarters in the exact same time and sustain that pace over five-sixteenths of a mile that is more impressive than the actual times.
What you can get excited about is the way the son of Repent accomplished the victory, specifically his push-button acceleration that enabled him to dart through an opening on the rail at the five-sixteenths pole in the blink of an eye. Jockey Victor Espinoza sent him through while still saving a lot of horse for the stretch run, during which he drew clear of the promising Coast Guard to win by 2 1/2 lengths, while being hand-ridden the final furlong. He has a fluid, efficient stride and a pedigree strong enough to suggest he’ll handle 1 1/4 miles.
Crown of Thorns gives trainer Dick Mandella a powerful classic trio, along with grade I winners Into Mischief and Dixie Chatter, although Dixie Chatter has only an outside shot of making the Derby due to an injury suffered last year.
Mention must be made of runner-up Coast Guard, a long-striding son of Stormy Atlantic , who was stuck on his left lead for most of the stretch run. Distance will be no problem for him, and he should only get better with maturity. The third-place finisher, Reflect Times, a late-running son of French Deputy, had too much ground to make up in the small field and couldn’t threaten the top two. The big question with him right now is whether he needs more pace and larger fields or if he’s more of a one-turn miler type. We’ll know more in his next two-turn race.
It is interesting to note that fourth-place finisher Indian Sun, who was a head behind Reflect Times, was beaten 6 1/4 lengths, the same margin of defeat as his runner-up performance against El Gato Malo in the San Rafael Stakes (gr. II). So that bodes well for the quality of horses Crown of Thorns defeated in the Lewis.
It is still way too early to assess this year’s crop of 3-year-olds based on the results of the 2-year-old stakes and the few 3-year-old stakes run so far. You can make up a Top 10 list and put the horses in pretty much any order you want and no one can really argue with it. The proven stakes horses are that scrambled right now, and none have yet to induce goose bumps. Of course, the accomplishments of War Pass stand alone, but the questions surrounding the colt’s ability to stay 10 furlongs, combined with his one-dimensional running style, has kept him off the top spot on many lists. The others, however, still have a long way to go to catch up to him speed figure-wise.
Dogwoods are blooming early
Which owner has had the most success in the Kentucky Derby spanning the last 20 years? Robert and Beverly Lewis and partners William Condren and Joseph Cornacchia are the only owners to win it twice, but the Lewis’ wins came close together in 1997 and 1999, as did Condren and Cornacchia’s, who won in partnership with B. Giles Brophy in 1991 and by themselves in 1994.
But for longevity over that time you have to look at an owner who has never even won the race. Credit must be given to Cot Campbell’s Dogwood Stable, the father of the syndicate partnership that is so common and successful today. With a sales bracket somewhere between $100,000 and $300,000 Dogwood has managed to finish second in the Derby with Summer Squall in 1990, third with Impeachment in 2000, and fourth with Limehouse in 2004. Limehouse was 41-1 and Impeachment likely would have been that high had he not been coupled in a four-horse entry that included Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) winner High Yield.
This year, Dogwood has two good shots to make it to the Derby with proven stakes horses who are bred to run all day. Although neither has won a stakes yet, Atoned has placed in three stakes, including the Remsen Stakes (gr. II), in which he was beaten a neck on the wire by one of the leading Derby contenders, Court Vision, after stumbling badly and nearly falling on the clubhouse turn when he clipped another horse’s heels. And Blackberry Road has used his powerful closing kick to finish second in the LeComte Stakes (gr. III) behind the undefeated Z Fortune; second in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), beaten a half-length by Anak Nakal; third in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile (gr. III); and fourth in the six-furlong Bashford Manor Stakes (gr. III), won by the brilliant Kodiak Kowboy in a blazing 1:09 flat.
As far as pedigree, there are no concerns whatsoever. Atoned, trained by Todd Pletcher, possesses the rare and extremely desirable Rasmussen Factor – being inbred to a top-class broodmare, and not through the mare’s sire. For example, if a horse is inbred to Somethingroyal only because he is inbred to Secretariat, that does not constitute an RF. In Atoned’s case, he is inbred to Shenanigans through her sons On to Glory on the sire’s side and through Icecapade on the dam’s side. In addition to those two successful sires, Shenanigans also is the dam of the great Ruffian. Atoned’s sire, Repent, was one of the leading 3-year-olds of 2002, but his career was cut short by injury. This year, in addition to Atoned, he is represented by Derby hopefuls Crown of Thorns, winner of the Robert Lewis Stakes, and Check it Twice, winner of the What a Pleasure Stakes at Calder.
Blackberry Road is by Gone West, sire of Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Commendable and Kentucky Derby runner-up Proud Citizen, and is a half-brother to Vindication. His dam is a graded stakes-winning mare by stamina influence Strawberry Road, whose sire, Whiskey Road, is by English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky II out of Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I) winner Bowl of Flowers, a half-sister to Graustark and His Majesty. Blackberry Road’s second dam is by the great classic influence Hail to Reason, so he should get the 1 1/4 miles with no problem. Even his trainer, David Carroll, has a classic background, having been the regular exercise rider for Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer.
Both colts are training forwardly (Blackberry Road at Fair Grounds and Atoned at Palm Beach Downs) and should be ready for big efforts next time out. Blackberry Road will square off against Pyro and/or stablemate Z Fortune, Calder stakes winner Check it Twice, and the exciting prospects Visionaire and California invader Signature Move in Saturday’s Risen Star (gr. III) Stakes.
So, will this be Dogwood’s year to hit the home run and complete the cycle? Few operations deserve it more, and Cot may even have a few entertaining quotes afterward.
Speaking of David Carroll, he also has the undefeated Denis of Cork ready for a possible engagement in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn Feb. 18. The buzz has been out on the son of Harlan's Holiday since his impressive maiden score last fall, and he no doubt is one of the most popular horses with the future book bettors.
And speaking of Check it Twice, the What a Pleasure winner, formerly trained by Kathleen O’Connell, is now in the barn of Todd Pletcher.
Darley Stable’s talented but green Barrier Reef, trained by Tom Albertrani, took a major step in the right direction with a game half-length victory over Roman Emperor in the Feb. 2 Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct. The son of Mizzen Mast , who was coming off a disappointing fourth-place finish in the Count Fleet Stakes, demonstrated a quick turn of foot in the Whirlaway, going from fifth to first on the turn without being asked, and then out-gamed Roman Emperor, who also improved off his third in the Count Fleet.
Both horses, however, never switched leads in the stretch, and the Todd Pletcher-trained Texas Wildcatter closed in on them, making up some five lengths in the final furlong to be beaten 2 1/2 lengths.
At Gulfstream, Eaton’s Gift set blazing fractions in the 6 1/2-furlong Swale Stakes (gr. II) and then drew off to win by 3 1/2 lengths over 56-1 shot Surrealdeal and 3-2 favorite Wincat in what looked to be a sprinter’s race.
Kenny McPeek had a good day at Gulfstream Feb. 2, saddling Ling Ling Qi to a game score in a seven-furlong allowance race, in which he beat the Pletcher-trained Referee by a neck and Juicy Point to a nose victory in a 1 1/8-mile maiden race, in which the son of Point Given closed from far back, making up five lengths in the final furlong.
One performance worth remembering was the wire-to-wire score by Face the Cat in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Jan. 30. After coming from eighth to break his maiden in his previous start on Jan. 4, the son of Tale of the Cat dashed to the front stretching out from six furlongs and turned back a pair of strong challenges by Web Gem and Nistle’s Crunch before drawing off to a four-length victory in 1:35 1/5. Among the others he defeated were the Nick Zito-trained Stevil, coming off a second to Visionaire in an allowance race, and Mythical Pegasus, third in the Futurity Stakes (gr. II) last year behind Tale of Ekati. He has a strong female family that should allow him to continue stretching out with no problem.
Another impressive performance on Feb. 1 was the five-length victory by Sleuse in a seven-furlong maiden race, run in 1:21 3/5. Trained by Pletcher, the son of Grand Slam is owned by Starlight Stable, Donald Lucarelli, and Paul Saylor, the same partnership that owns classic hopefuls Monba and Why Tonto.
At Turfway Park, the Frank Brothers-trained Big Glen, a son of Cactus Ridge, captured the one-mile WEBN Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths over the fast-closing Your Round, who was coming off a solid third behind Monba in a Churchill Downs allowance race on Nov. 24. Both colts look to have a future, with Your Round having already run well on dirt, Polytrack, and grass.
Bill Mott, who already has Court Vision, Majestic Warrior, Z Humor, and Riley Tucker hot on the Derby trail, added another on Feb. 4 when he sent out the A.P. Indy colt Alaazo to a 3 1/2-length victory in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream. Out of the top-class mare Atelier, Alaazo, owned by Zayat Stables, is now two-for-two, having broken his maiden at Monmouth Park last August. So it was quite an accomplishment for both horse and trainer to win a nine-furlong race coming off only one career start and a 5 1/2-month layoff.
Cowboy on the trail
Pletcher has stated that Laurel Futurity and Tropical Park Derby (gr. IIIT) winner Cowboy Cal will run on turf again in his next start and then possibly Polytrack in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). But the son of Giant's Causeway indicated he may have caught up to the dirt with a bullet :47 2/5 breeze at Palm Beach Downs Feb. 3. With his ability to open up on the turn and keep going, it seems like dirt would be an equally good fit for him, despite his lone poor effort in his career debut last August at Saratoga. The feeling is that this is a talented colt, regardless of the surface. But if he stays off dirt until May 3 and runs in the Derby, we won’t know for sure what to expect.
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