Ky. Derby Trail: Cut Off at the Pass

Ky. Derby Trail: Cut Off at the Pass
Photo: Tom Cooley
Owner Bob LaPenta is still high on War Pass, despite a poor run in the Tampa Bay Derby. Big Truck (left) won the race March 15.
So, the undefeated 2-year-old champion, sent off at 1-20 in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), had a fever the week before the race and the public was unaware of it. There is nothing that can be said here that won’t be said in the weeks to come by those who bet War Pass, including the bridge jumpers, and those who had invested in him emotionally.

All we’ll say is that a 20-minute conversation with Bob LaPenta on Thursday morning produced nothing but upbeat, positive quotes from War Pass’ owner, who was excited and confident going into the race.

“He’s a monster, I’m telling you; this horse is a monster,” he said. “I don’t want to jinx our boy, but I watched every one of Seattle Slew’s races, and I’m telling you, this horse is as close to Slew as any horse I’ve ever seen. His athleticism is unbelievable; he’s poetry in motion. He’s like a machine.”

So, on Thursday morning, LaPenta didn’t appear to have any worries about War Pass’ fever, and if he did, he didn’t reveal them or give any indication that the horse even had a fever. One would have to assume that two days before the race he was aware of it.

The oddest part of it all was that War Pass had enough excuses in the race to account for a bad performance -- perhaps not that bad, but it would have at least satisfied most people. He was creamed from both sides coming out of the gate, and banged into again shortly after, and then was caught in tight quarters on the first turn, all of which could have combined to cause him to lose his air or getting a bit body sore or cut up or whatever malady that might result from such a pounding and stressful experience. That combined with Tampa’s quirky surface and not getting the lead would have been enough to possibly explain why he ran the way he did. But then, the proverbial can of worms was opened about the fever.

As for War Pass himself, it was disheartening watching him down the backstretch, never appearing to be comfortable. Even though he had been a confirmed frontrunner, the War Pass of old would have been able to blow by the two horses on the lead at will down the backstretch. To see him drop back and struggle home in last was sad to say the least. So, for now, all thoughts of the champ as a Derby contender must be put on hold. He would have to make a heck of a comeback in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) to even get back in the Derby picture.

If there is one thing we’ve learned in racing, every dream can be rudely interrupted by a nightmare, and the Tampa Derby obviously was a nightmare for War Pass and his connections, as well as the bettors and fans. Only time and a reality check will tell us where he goes from here. But he's still a special horse who, for whatever reason or reasons, had a real bad day.

The race itself was exciting down the stretch, even though Big Truck and Atoned didn’t come home very fast, which is not unusual at Tampa. And with War Pass out of the picture, they were the only two horses in the field capable of picking up the pieces. Big Truck now has two solid races over the Tampa track, which will help get him fit for the bigger prizes coming up. There is a major question mark regarding his sire, Hook and Ladder, who was strictly a sprinter. It must be noted, however, that Hook and Ladder did not have the look of a sprinter, and isn’t bred to be a sprinter. Big Truck’s broodmare sire is Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin, so there is plenty of stamina on his female side. But the jury is still out on him until he stretches out farther and steps up against better quality horses.

Atoned hadn’t run in almost four months, and had improved dramatically in Aiken, S.C. during his winter break. As was the case in the Remsen (gr. II), in which he was beaten a neck by Court Vision, he moved too early, putting in a long, sustained run, while racing wide most of the way, before opening a clear lead and getting caught late. A move like that over a deep track like Tampa, coming off a long layoff, did not help the colt’s chances. In John Velazquez’ defense, he was alongside War Pass on the turn and no doubt was concentrating on him, while Eibar Coa, on Big Truck, had the luxury of watching things unfold directly in front of him. To Atoned’s credit, he did fight back, as the pair opened up 4 1/2 lengths on the third-place finisher, Dynamic Wayne, who had made a strong move from last to reach contention.

Speed handicappers will say Atoned and Big Truck are too slow, but Atoned will keep improving as the distances stretch out. If his times and figures have been slow it could be because of his pedigree, which will eventually wind up helping him at the longer distances. Atoned’s pedigree is extremely rare in that the usual speed influences in today’s pedigrees are missing from his female family, replaced by many names of the past – tough, durable, classy stayers who normally have been relegated to fifth and sixth generation at best.

Unlike today’s typical third-generation sires and dams who were born in the 1970s and ’80s, Atoned’s third-generation parents were born in 1954, ’58, ’59, and ’63. His maternal great-grandsire is Olden Times, who was one of the most versatile horses in the country during the Kelso era, winning the seven-furlong Malibu, setting a track record at seven furlongs at Churchill Downs, winning the Met Mile, and winning the 1 3/4-mile San Juan Capistrano, among his numerous stakes victories. He’s also been a major influence as a sire. Atoned’s maternal granddam, Ambo, is a half-sister to Poleax, who won the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Derby in a near-stakes record 1:59 4/5.

By Atoned having such an old third generation, that moves up names into his fourth generation you never see that close up – Nearco, Relic (a grandson of Man o’ War), and Ambiorix, one of the top sires ever of durable, classy horses. His top 20 offspring, the vast majority of whom were equivalent of grade I winners today, made an average of 70 starts, with several making over 100 starts and one making 216 starts. He also sired two of the Phipps family’s top broodmares, High Voltage and Sarcastic. And Atoned has the Rasmussen Factor, being inbred to Ruffian’s dam Shenanigans through her sons Icecapade and On To Glory. So, before anyone knocks Atoned for having slow speed figures, just be patient and give him time. If you long for the stamina and durability of the horses of old, this is the horse you’re looking for.

Having only two starts before the Derby is always a concern, but he does have a strong 2-year-old foundation, with five starts at a mile or longer, and having a tough race over the Tampa track will help, as it did Street Sense last year. After making two premature moves on him, Velazquez, if he sticks with him, should know him better next time and time his move properly. With another Dogwood Stable Derby hopeful, Blackberry Road, possibly headed to the Illinois Derby (gr. II), Atoned could return to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial (gr. I) the same day or wait a week and run in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II).

Georgie and company

We really didn’t learn too much from the San Felipe (gr. II), Rebel (gr. III), and WinStar Derby other than the winners of the last two had been soundly beaten by Denis of Cork in the Southwest Stakes (more on Denis of Cork later). Also, we learned that Georgie Boy can stretch out to two turns, but so can runner-up Gayego and third-place finisher Bob Black Jack, both of whom ran big races, along with the winner. So, if three sprinters (the three top choices) all run well and finish within two lengths of each other going 1 1/16 miles for the first time, does that mean they’re all two-turn horses or merely better than the other horses in the race?

Georgie Boy just keeps running big races and has handled four totally different types of synthetic surfaces. Whether that means he can handle the dirt or not no one knows, nor will they until May 3 if he makes it to the Derby. Georgie Boy no doubt is a talented horse who knows how to win in many different ways. After yet another slow pace at Santa Anita, he flew home in :23 2/5 and then under :06 for the final sixteenth, but only marginally faster than Gayego and Bob Black Jack. He’s not the smoothest of runners – he didn’t change leads in the San Felipe, and he has a tendency to paddle and to drift through the stretch. Yet he keeps winning. He’s an exciting horse to watch because he can beat you from anywhere on the track, so we’ll just have to wait and see if he can continue his winnings ways against proven two-turn horses like Colonel John, El Gato Malo, and Yankee Bravo in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) if that’s where he shows up next. Another thing he has going for him is Kathy Walsh, a top-class trainer and astute horse handler who deserves to finally get a horse of this caliber.

As for Rebel winner Sierra Sunset and WinStar Derby winner Liberty Bull, second and third, respectively in the Southwest, they sure flattered Denis of Cork with their clear-cut victories. But the competition directly behind them wasn’t that strong, so they still have to step up in their next start. Sierra Sunset looked good winning off by three lengths over the improving maiden winner King’s Silver Son, who rallied from last to finish 2 3/4 lengths ahead of third-place finisher Isabull, a 26-1 shot. The runner-up has been one we’ve been following closely since last November, and if he can overcome his greenness he should keep improving at the longer distances. Z Fortune, the 3-5 favorite, and Anak Nakal were the big disappointments, neither being a factor at any point.

Sierra Sunset has now made 11 starts, which is refreshing in a way these days, and he’s handled dirt and synthetic surfaces, although he seems to be much more effective on dirt. He has good tactical speed and has finished first or second at five different tracks. He’ll be tough again in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II), but he’ll likely have to close his final three-sixteenths faster than he did in the Rebel.

Peaking

The decision to skip the Rebel Stakes with Denis of Cork and wait for the Wood Memorial (gr. I) will turn out to be either an inspired move or a major blunder. Kentucky Derby history and logic say it will be the latter. But perhaps times have changed and we’re dawning in a new era of Derby preparation, where most of the horses will go into the race lightly raced and untested in battle. Then anyone can win it, no matter how conservatively they go about it.

Because Denis of Cork’s connections – trainer David Carroll and owner William K. Warren -- fear (based on speed figures) that he will peak the race after his next one, they have thrown the book away, and instead of sending a horse to the Derby who has been battle-tested and seasoned, and has a solid foundation under him, they are going by his speed figures, which often do not apply in the Derby. The Derby is unlike any other race, and it is difficult to equate speed figures to it.

The other reason given for skipping the Rebel and going into the Derby off one race in 11 weeks is that Denis of Cork is a big horse who does not carry a lot of flesh. But that doesn’t bode well in such a demanding race to have a horse whose physical constitution is such that racing twice in 11 weeks is going to hinder his chances.

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So, whether it is the speed figures that are dictating their strategy or the colt’s physical make-up, or both, the bottom line is Denis of Cork will go into the Derby with only one race since Feb. 18 and only four career starts. The last horse to win the Derby with only four career starts was Exterminator in 1918.

With that said, is Denis of Cork still capable of winning the Derby? In this day and age, yes. If he’s not going to be able to stand up to the rigors of the Derby trail by having two more starts, as his connections believe, then it is understandable why they want to try it this way. If the horse is going to peak in two starts, as the sheets indicate, then they’re playing the hand they feel they were dealt and hope his peak performance does come on Derby Day and is good enough to win off such a light campaign.

Using ThoroGraph’s figures as an example of their thinking, by running a “6 3/4” in his first start this year and then a “0” (1/4 to be exact) in the Southwest, all indications are that he would have “bounced” in the Rebel and then come back and run a big number in the Arkansas Derby or wherever they decided to run as a final prep. They obviously want that big number to come on May 3, not April 12.

Denis of Cork has looked to be a special horse from day one, and has been highly regarded in this corner since he broke his maiden. He has all the attributes one looks for in a Derby horse. Now, he’ll have to go out and prove it in a less than ideal manner. If you’re a fan of Denis of Cork, you just have to hope his connections know the horse and are doing the right thing, and if it turns out they are, then hats off to them. Times indeed are changing. But, for now, the book says Denis of Cork should have been in the Rebel. You can drive yourself crazy trying to over-analyze numbers and “bounce” and leap your way to the Derby as if on a statistical pogo stick.

Yes, there have been horses who may have cost themselves the Derby by peaking too soon, such as Point Given in the Santa Anita Derby, Bellamy Road in the Wood Memorial, Skip Away in the Blue Grass, Holy Bull in the Florida Derby, Unbridled’s Song in the Florida Derby, Sinister Minister in the Blue Grass, Afleet Alex in the Arkansas Derby, and Empire Maker in the Florida Derby. But Denis of Cork’s Southwest victory, which he won by 2 1/4 lengths, earning a 96 Beyer and closing through a slow final quarter, hardly fits in that category -- especially with him having only three career starts and one grade III stakes under his belt. But we’ll see what happens. If he wins, we can toast the beginning of a new era on the Kentucky Derby trail, as well as two of the classiest gentlemen you’ll ever meet, both of whom are Derby gods worthy.

In other Derby news:

A new horse to pop onto the Derby trail is Jazz in the Park, who rallied from last off yet another dawdling pace to defeat favored Riley Tucker by a length in a one-mile allowance race at Fair Grounds. Since stretching out to two turns and having his blinkers removed, the son of Ecton Park is two-for-two, both times demonstrating a powerful stretch kick. The next logical spot would be either the grade II Illinois Derby or Arkansas Derby.

Hey Byrn, runaway winner of his two starts this year, breezed a mile in 1:46 at Calder March 15 for the Florida Derby. More on him next week. Elysium Fields indicated his sharpness for the Florida Derby, working five furlongs in a bullet :59. A sneaky horse to watch there is Smooth Air, who followed up a pair of slow mile breezes at Calder with a snappy seven-furlong drill in 1:23 3/5, so there is little doubt this colt is sharp and dead-fit. Denis of Cork was kept on edge with a six-furlong drill in 1:13 4/5 at Fair Grounds. Monba had his first breeze -- a half in :50 1/5 -- since his disastrous trip in the Fountain of Youth. Pyro returned to the work tab for the first time since the Louisiana Derby, breezing an easy half in :53 1/5. Halo Najib, prepping for Saturday’s Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II), zipped five furlongs in :58 4/5 at Turfway Park.

Here is how the Florida Derby is shaping up: Elysium fields, Hey Byrn, Big Brown, Fierce Wind, Smooth Air, Face the Cat, Tomcito, Cool Gator, and B B Frank, with Da’ Tara a possibility.

Pointing for the Lane’s End are Halo Najib, Turf War, Medjool, Macho Again, Racecar Rhapsody, who’s been working brilliantly, and Adriano, Chitoz, and Cannonball. The last three are most effective on grass, but grass horses, as everyone knows, usually can handle Polytrack just as well.

An interesting horse to watch in the Rushaway Stakes is the unbeaten Canadian colt Miner’s Claim, who’s been in steady training since early January. Also going in the Rushaway is the unbeaten New York-bred Ichabad Crane, who’s demonstrated a strong closing punch in his two victories.

 

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