Ky. Derby Trail: Dunkirk Evacuation?
Photo: Coglianese Photos
Dunkirk wins a Gulfstream Park allowance race on Feb. 19.
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Because of the lack of 3-year-old races this week, we’re going into full detail on Dunkirk  ’s race. Another reason we’re giving it a good deal of space is the big buzz it created. The question is, was it warranted?

 

After the sensational performance by the $3.7 million son of Unbridled's Song in an allowance race Feb. 19, who will stick around and face this budding star in the Florida Derby (gr. I)? Let’s wait until the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) before we start looking for mass departures. If nothing exciting emerges from what looks to be a brilliant assemblage of 3-year-olds, then the pickin’s will be slim on March 28.

 

This is getting to look an awful lot like the Big Brown   explosion of last year, and if Dunkirk should move forward in his third career start the way Big Brown did off his allowance score, one has to wonder if any of the horses in south Florida will be able to handle him in the Florida Derby. He’s already chased his stablemate Take the Points away and sent him packing for California.

 

The only major foe Dunkirk seems to have had in his first two starts is the clock, which continues to defy what we’re seeing from him on the racetrack. From a visual standpoint, his career debut was an extraordinary effort, the way he broke slowly, moved quickly through the field and then had to wait patiently in heavy traffic for something to open up. Finally, he was forced to swing seven wide and proceeded to blow his opponents away with smooth, powerful strides. He went by his opponents so effortlessly, without any urging, everyone thought: “This is the One,” until they looked at the tote board and saw seven furlongs in 1:25. Perhaps the track was dead and the time meant nothing. But then, two races later, they saw This One’s For Phil win the six-furlong Sunshine Millions Dash in a blazing 1:09. Then the Beyer numbers came out: Dunkirk 78, This Ones For Phil 116. Maybe he just beat a bad field of maidens who made him look good?

 

He showed up in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race last Thursday against a contentious field of maiden winners and stakes horses, and although he drew post 8 in a field of 10, the fans completely ignored his slow time and Beyer number and post position and bet him down to 6-5. They either were impressed by his $3.7-million price tag as a yearling or loved his first start despite the Beyer number or liked the fact that Garrett Gomez flew all the way from California, giving up a full slate of runners, just to ride him in an allowance race. Or maybe they were impressed by all of those factors combined.

 

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this horse is the trouble trainer Todd Pletcher has had lining up riders for him. In the colt’s debut, Pletcher’s go-to guy, John Velazquez, opted to ride a 5-1 shot for Tom Albertrani named Kings Village, who finished ninth. Pletcher went with Edgar Prado instead, because Gomez was booked that day to ride Georgie Boy in the Sunshine Millions Sprint at Santa Anita.

 

Then, in his second start, Prado deserted him to ride Rick Dutrow’s impressive maiden winner Alma d’Oro. Prado rides most of Dutrow’s big horses, so it was understandable why he would jump over to his main ship. But the bottom line was no one obviously recognized Dunkirk’s talent.

 

With Velazquez riding in Saudi Arabia, Pletcher turned to Gomez’ agent Ron Anderson and told him he needed him to fly out for the race and ride Dunkirk. It’s not every day that a trainer like Pletcher asks a jockey in California, even Gomez, to give up his mounts to ride his horse in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park. But the colt’s connections, Demi O’Byrne and co-owner Michael Tabor, have had good luck with Gomez and wanted him to ride the colt. And when O’Byrne, Tabor, and Pletcher want you to ride their $3.7 million horse, you don’t say no. Gomez watched Dunkirk’s debut on Racereplays.com and called Anderson and told him he was right; they definitely needed to go ride that horse.

 

At first it looked like it would turn into a big waste of time when Prado and Alma d’Oro went right instead of left going into the first turn, fanning Dunkirk about eight-wide. Horses simply do not go that wide in a 1 1/8-mile race, especially at Gulfstream, and win, unless they’re special or they’re running against vastly inferior competition. Gomez felt he was on the best horse and kept Dunkirk to the outside rather than cut in abruptly to save ground and possibly get him stuck in traffic. He was able to put him in a comfortable position in fifth down the backstretch and moved up steadily until he was in close striking range nearing the quarter pole.

 

Warrior’s Reward, an impressive maiden winner in his debut going a mile, and More Than Willing came charging up on the outside in tandem and it looked as if they were going to make a race of it, but it was the big gray between horses who emerged with a clear lead. It was just prior to his taking the lead that Dunkirk showed something extraordinary.

 

Watching the replay over and over, we never could actually see Dunkirk change leads. One of the reasons is that he switched to his right lead while still on the turn. But the other is that his lead change was so smooth and effortless and so quick, you could not see him do it. One stride he was on his left lead and the next stride he was on his right lead. It was a thing of beauty to see…or in this case not see. By the time he burst clear of the field after turning for home, the others behind him still were on their left lead. The natural lead change actually should not come until the horse turns into the straightaway, which is what he did in his first start, and just as smoothly. This is all strictly a matter of observation and nothing more.

 

In the stretch, Gomez hit him once left-handed and Dunkirk drifted out noticeably, so he switched to one right-handed whip and the colt drifted back in. As he was drifting out Dunkirk had his head turned slightly to the inside, something he didn’t do in his debut, so it wasn’t an ideal picture from a head-on angle. Chalk it up to greenness; it was only his second start and he’d overcome so much already in the race. Once he straightened himself out, Dunkirk ran straight and true the rest of the way, drawing off to a 4 3/4-length victory over Warrior’s Reward, who looks like a colt with a future. Sincero, who was carried almost as wide as Dunkirk on the first turn, ran on well in the stretch to finish third, an effort that went unnoticed. Alma d’Oro tired badly to finish fifth, nearly a dozen lengths behind Dunkirk

 

Another observation is that Gomez must have gotten a major bicep and forearm workout, pushing very hard on Dunkirk passing the five-sixteenths pole and down the stretch. Gomez had to scrub so hard, horse and rider did not seem in sync. Again, this was completely the opposite of his debut when he blew past horses with no urging. But in his defense, he was going nine furlongs and had probably run about that far already after losing so much ground. It is no surprise that he labored more in this race than he did in the sprint. All in all it was a sensational performance, and who knows what this colt is capable of with a clean trip where he didn’t get hung so wide on either turn?

 

As a point of interest, Santana Six, the Nick Zito-trained colt who finished second to Dunkirk in his debut, broke his maiden in the 10th race Saturday, winning wire-to-wire by 1 1/4 lengths in 1:37 3/5, with the runner-up finishing 11 3/4 lengths ahead of the third horse. The time was three-fifths faster than the earlier division, won by another Zito horse, Just a Coincidence.

 

Once again, Dunkirk’s final time of 1:50 and a final three-eighths in :38 were nothing to rave about on face value, but 1:50 actually is a solid time at this meet. There were no other two-turn races on the card to which to compare it, but despite that, the Beyer number came back an excellent 98.

 

The following morning, Anderson was besieged with phone calls from trainers, friends, and family members asking him how he wound up with one of the livest mounts of the year. His answer was simple enough: he had no idea. Somehow, Velazquez and Prado had passed up opportunities to ride the horse and the Pletcher/Coolmore camp went looking for the leading rider in the country. Ironically, Gomez was on the other end two years ago when he committed to ride Hard Spun   in the Belmont Stakes, believing Rags to Riches, his regular mount, was not going to run. By the time Pletcher decided to run her it was too late to get off Hard Spun, and Velazquez rode the filly to victory.

 

Now comes the catch. If Dunkirk runs next in the Florida Derby, as Pletcher stated, he, like Big Brown and Curlin   the past two years, will have to go into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) off only three career starts. Curlin needed to be a sensational horse at that point in his career to finish third. Big Brown needed to be a freak to win, especially from post 20. Unlike Big Brown, Dunkirk did not race as a 2-year-old, so he has the dreaded Apollo curse hanging over his head. You’ve heard it many times before – no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without having started at 2. Make of it what you wish. It seems one curse/historical trend after another is falling by the wayside every year, so who knows? It’s obviously a brand new game, and things are not the way they were. So, is Dunkirk a sensational horse or a freak? We’ll have a better idea after the Florida Derby when he steps up against better quality horses. At this point, he has the potential to be something special.

 

Mott Revisits the Nile

 

There has been a good deal of debate as to whether Pioneerof the Nile   can make the transition to dirt or whether’s he’s mainly a synthetic/turf horse. Of course, no one will know for sure until May 2. The colt’s detractors claim if he were a dirt horse his former trainer, Bill Mott, would not have started him off in turf races. But Mott had a good reason for doing so.

 

“I put him on the turf so I could get him a distance of ground,” Mott said. “Anyone who’s seen him knows he’s not a sprinter, so I wanted to start him off at two turns. And the only way to get a two-turn race in a horse in August at Saratoga is to run on the turf.

 

“To me, he always looked a little bit smoother going over the turf than he did on the dirt. He worked well over the dirt as well, but the surface he looked exceptionally well going over was the synthetic, even better than he looked on the turf. Just from watching him work and gallop, I would have rated him synthetic number 1, turf number 2, and dirt number 3, with more to find out on the dirt. He trained at Keeneland on the Polytrack for a month and had a race at Keeneland (finishing third in the grade I Breeders’ Futurity). It wouldn’t surprise me if he handled the dirt well. Most of his dirt works were on the Oklahoma training track, so it was a little bit deeper surface.

 

“I’ve always loved the horse. I didn’t like him, I loved him. I said that before he ever ran. I just loved the way he worked, and he had a wonderful disposition around the barn. He was like a pony horse to work around. I’m sure he’s matured physically from the last time I saw him.”

 

When asked if he was surprised to see Pioneerof the Nile breeze six furlongs 1:10 3/5 and work five-eighths in :57 3/5, Mott said, “He could do it, and over that track it didn’t surprise me. Good horses will do that, and Baffert uses light riders and let’s them run away from the pole and roll along pretty good. That’s his style of training, and nobody can say he doesn’t know how to get a horse ready for the Derby.”

 

Watch out for Ryehill Dreamer and Theregoesjojo

 

With most of the attention in Saturday’s Sham Stakes (gr. III) likely to focus on The Pamplemousse  ; the much talked about Mr. Hot Stuff, a full brother to Colonel John  ; and the Todd Pletcher shipper Take the Points, don’t ignore Ryehill Dreamer, who is coming off a third to The Pamplemousse in the San Rafael Stakes (gr. III). He’ll be a big price and could surprise a lot of people.

 

Several weeks ago, it was mentioned here that he had been out for five months since his second-place finish in the group II E.B.F. Futurity at the Curragh. He made a big move between calls on the far turn, going from about six lengths back to a length off front-running The Pamplemousse. He had every reason to get a bit tired in the stretch after chasing fractions of :45 4/5 and 1:10 flat in his first race on anything other than grass. He was beaten 4 3/4 lengths, while keeping pace with Square Eddie. He has the stamina to run all day, but it is a turf pedigree.

 

He has turned in three solid works – a half in :48, six furlongs in 1:14 4/5, and seven panels in 1:25 3/5. That last work impressed trainer John Shirreffs.

 

“He wasn’t really ready to run last time, but we had to if we had any hopes of possibly making the Derby,” Shirreffs said. “He really wasn’t fit to go a mile, so I thought he ran very well. When he worked seven furlongs, after his opening eighth he went every eighth in :12 and change. He was very steady the whole way around and did it really well.

 

“He’s not real big, but he’s husky and a bit of a bully, so it wouldn’t seem like he’d be intimidated by dirt. He’s the independent, bruiser type with a mind of his own. We have to careful if we want to get a rider on his back in the morning. Once the rider is on he’s OK. Before, he used to rear and buck and do all those kinds of things, so we just put the rider up in the stall and let him sit on him for five minutes before bringing him out in the shedrow. That’s just his personality. If you push him he pushes back.”

 

With a race under his belt and stretching out to nine furlongs, the bruiser could be ready to knock some heads around in the Sham.

 

As for Theregoesjojo, his seven-furlong allowance victory in 1:22 2/5 was one of the most impressive races this year by a 3-year-old. Since his brief setback that prevented him from running in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III), trainer Kenny McPeek has let roll home in his works, and in his five-furlong breeze on Saturday he sat behind two workmates, including the quick Fitzaslew, and ran by them with a :12 flat final eighth. He doesn’t have to win the Fountain of Youth to be considered a live Derby contender, just finish strongly and be competitive against some exceptionally brilliant horses.

 

In other Derby news:

 

-- The Baffert-trained even-money favorite Mayor Marv, who had been improving with every start, went to the front and outran the 9-5 Hidden Bounty to win Saturday’s Turf Paradise Derby by 4 1/2 lengths.

 

-- In the dirt to synthetic department, Perfect Song took his 89 Beyer at Philly Park to Turfway Park’s Polytrack and was outrun and out-fought in an allowance dash by He Ain’t Right, who was coming off a 58 Beyer in a claiming race. Perfect Song had trained over the Tapeta surface at Fair Hill, but wasn’t quite the same horse over Turfway’s Polytrack.

 

-- Interesting allowance race Gulfstream next Saturday, featuring Checklist, who we still feel has tremendous potential and will be heard from, and the McGaughey-trained Gone Astray  , fourth in the Champagne Stakes. Champagne runner-up Munnings   is eligible for this race, but don’t know if he’ll show up or not.

 

-- Back on the work tab after long absences are Futurity (gr. II) winner Charitable Man and Hopeful (gr. I) runner-up Cribnote.

 

Top 15

 

1--Old Fashioned  /Larry Jones/Unbridled’s Song – Collect Call, by Meadowlake

 

According to Jones, he wasn’t even blowing after the Southwest. It’s obvious Jones has left a lot in the tank, so one shouldn’t fret too much over his 93 Beyer. He defeated a brilliant horse in Silver City who should also improve. Still trying to come to terms with his pedigree.

 

2--Pioneerof the Nile/Bob Baffert/Empire Maker—Star of Goshen, by Lord At War

 

He’s already secured his spot in the Derby; he’s had his gut-check; he came back strong off a brief layoff; and he has the 2-year-old foundation. Baffert can now use his next two as preps and then bear down on him at Churchill. Works won’t tell all, but may give a hint whether he handles the track.

 

3—Patena/Rick Dutrow/Seeking the Gold—Handpainted, by A.P. Indy

 

Turned in an impressive 6-furlong breeze in 1:14 2/5. Dutrow was looking for about 1:17 and thought he went in 1:20, he did it so easily. Three weeks still to go to Louisiana Derby. Sit tight; should be worth the wait.

 

4--Desert Party  /Saeed bin Suroor/Street Cry  —Sage Cat, by Tabasco Cat

 

Moved him up because his last race in Dubai looks more impressive each time I watch it, combined with his pedigree, his versatility on all surfaces, and the fact he’s already a graded stakes winner in the U.S. Love the way he was striding out at the end. But it’s a long trip back home; would love to see him return as early as possible.

 

5—Dunkirk/Todd Pletcher/Unbridled’s Song—Secret Status, by A.P. Indy

 

Why can’t we get freaky horses like this who don’t have to go into the Derby off only three career starts? First Curlin, then Big Brown, now him. Welcome to European racing. This horse finally provided the ‘Wow’ factor that’s been missing this year, but he’s way behind the eight ball time-wise and we still have no idea what’s he’s beaten.

 

6—I Want Revenge  /Jeff Mullins/Stephen Got Even  —Meguial, by Roy

 

Decision to run him next on dirt prompted his big move back on the list. There is something about this horse I like a lot, mainly his impressive stride and a female pedigree that’s loaded with Argentine/English stamina on dirt. Didn't handle the wet Pro-Ride, described as spotty, in the Lewis. Talamo giving up grade I’s to ride him in Gotham. Can’t wait to see him on dirt.

 

7--Hello Broadway/Barclay Tagg/Broken Vow  —Nightstorm, by Storm Cat

 

Several passed him with their big efforts, but if he passes his first two-turn test and wins the Tampa Bay Derby, or at least runs a big race, he will catapult right up near the top of the list. I still think very highly of this horse; just want to see him rate again and close like he did in the Nashua.

 

8--Friesan Fire  /Larry Jones/A.P. Indy—Bollinger, by Dehere

 

He’s done nothing wrong, but it must be noted he has been running every 3-to-5 weeks since his debut in August and will go into the Derby off eight starts in eight months. Jones knows the horse, but it’s still worth mentioning.

 

9—Capt. Candyman Can/Ian Wilkes/Candy Ride  —Stormy Way, by Storm Creek

 

By having only one two-turn race this year prior to the Derby, there isn’t much room for error. He’ll be forced to take back in hotly contested Fountain of Youth, but will he relax off the pace going two turns in his final prep? Love the way he took back off hot pace in last after going head and head; shows he’s very tractable.

 

10—Giant Oak  /Chris Block/Giant's Causeway  —Crafty Oak, by Crafty Prospector

 

Too much happening with other horses to keep him high up, but still feel he’ll run big in the Louisiana Derby with a clean trip. He finally had his first breeze since the Risen Star; 5 furlongs in 1:02. Just playing the waiting game like the others.

 

11--Imperial Council/Shug McGaughey/Empire Maker—Jaramar Rain, by Thunder Gulch  

 

Heading up to the Gotham for his first two-turn race. McGaughey is just looking for a good effort that will move him forward and set him up for the Wood Memorial. If he gives that good effort, he will be a major threat not only in Wood, but the Kentucky Derby.

 

12-- Chocolate Candy/Jerry Hollendorfer/Candy Ride—Crownette, by Seattle Slew

 

Whether you like him or not, you have to respect his record, having won four of his last five, and six straight top efforts. Just feel he’s moving steadily in the right direction, and hasn’t taken a backwards step yet. Deviated from his normal running style and still won.

 

13--Stardom Bound/Bobby Frankel/Tapit  —My White Corvette, by Tarr Road

 

She wasn’t even close to being 100% fit for Las Virgenes. She should win the Santa Anita Oaks, but then gets a big test against colts in Santa Anita Derby. If she passes that she’ll have an even bigger test when she has to run on dirt for the first time in a crowded, contentious Derby field. But she is getting to be machine-like in her performances.

 

14—Flying Pegasus/Ralph Nicks/Fusaichi Pegasus  —Lilly Capote, by Capote

 

Lowered him only because he hadn't worked in 23 days since the Risen Star, and, of course, he shows up on the work tab today, breezing 5 furlongs in 1:02 1/5. So his #14 ranking is too low. He'll move back up next week. Still think he could be a major Derby contender, and is going to be tough in the Louisiana Derby.

 

15—General Quarters  /Mark Miller/SkyMesa—Ecology, by Unbridled’s Song

 

Everyone’s favorite Cinderella story so far. Even if he doesn’t regress and wins the Tampa Bay Derby, we still have to see how he’ll run outside Tampa. But there’s no knocking his Sam Davis win; he looked awfully good doing it.

 

Comment on this Column on Steve Haskin's Blog: Hangin' With Haskin.

 

Knocking on the Door

 

Theregoesjojo – Big upset chance in the Fountain of Youth

Ryehill Dreamer – Ditto for Sham Stakes; could be a real sleeper

Midshipman  Big win in Al Bastakiya March 5 would be huge

The Pamplemousse – Will be tough in Sham if he gets loose on the lead again

Papa Clem  Gets big dirt test in Louisiana Derby

Vineyard Haven  Time to send him back to the U.S.

Flat Out  Consistent closer, ran big in Southwest after horrible start

Big DramaGlad to finally see him back on the work tab; has solid foundation

This Ones For Phil – Should keep stretching out in FOY, but in against much tougher

Mr. FantasyUndefeated NY-bred must face tougher, but has tons of potential

Haynesfield  Will tackle Mr. Fantasy for NY-bred supremacy in Gotham

Mr. Hot Stuff – We’ll find out in Sham if the light bulb stays on

BeethovenHave to wonder if he’s fast enough to handle FOY foes

West Side BernieSteady closer with class, but distance still a question

Silver CitySouthwest stretch-out second should have him primed for Rebel

Take the Points – Not typical move going cross-country to run on synthetic, but has potential to be a good one

Captain Cherokee – Midnight Lute’s brother is improving; can win inside or outside

Fierce Thunder – A bit behind but has a good deal of potential

TerrainHad setback, but always dangerous to pick up a piece of it

SumoSam Davis runner-up should keep improving; handles all dirt tracks; sleeper

Quality Road  Razor-sharp for Fountain of Youth, should make presence felt

TaqarubSpeedster with a ton of stamina in female family

Nowhere to HideZito colt, 4th in Risen Star, is on the upswing

MasalaRan well behind Take the Points; Gotham will be big test

Naos – Another Pletcher dark horse to watch in Gotham

Notonthesamepage – Let’s see how far he can carry his speed

Bear's Rocket – Second in Holy Bull on the front end

Buzzin n DreaminSurprising third in Southwest from Lukas barn

Warrior’s Reward – Solid second to Dunkirk

Bittel RoadHe’s run well enough to earn another shot on the synthetic

Rachel AlexandraIf they decide to take the Derby route, she should run all day

Charitable Man – Back on work tab, but way behind

Brave Victory – Looked good closing in 7f allowance, but distance a question

New Bay – Back-to-back sprint wins, but traces to Little Current’s dam

Santana Six -- Good-looking maiden winner stretching out

Cribnote -- He's had two works, including solid half in :48 2/5

 

Needing to rebound off poor efforts:

 

Break Water Edison, Checklist, Poltergeist, Free Country, Danger to Society, Atomic Rain, A.P. Cardinal. Alma d’Oro, American Dance.

 

 

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