Ky. Derby Trail: Road to the Roses
Photo: Coglianese Photos
Quality Road took the Fountain of Youth by 4 1/4 lengths.

The last Saturday in November is NYRA’s farewell to grade I and grade II racing, with the running of the Cigar Mile (gr. I) and the grade II Remsen and Demoiselle Stakes for 2-year-olds. But last year, there was a buzz in the air that had nothing to do with any of those three races.

 

“I gotta big tip on Quality Road   in the fourth,” said one patron. “One of the jock’s valets came up to the pressbox to say that Quality Road can’t lose the fourth,” said a member of the press. “Richie Migliore has been working with Quality Road for the last month and said he will win first time out,” a local horseman said just prior to the fourth race.

 

Sure enough, Quality Road, sent off at 3-1 in the 13-horse field, charged out of the gate, fought off pressure for the first half-mile, then drew off under Alan Garcia to win by 2 3/4 lengths in a sharp 1:16 flat for the 6 1/2 furlongs that would earn him a lofty 101 Beyer speed figure.

 

“I just wish Richie had been on this horse,” trainer Jimmy Jerkens said in the winner’s circle. “He’s worked so closely with him and knows him so well.”

 

But Migliore had been committed to ride his Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Desert Code in the Hollywood Turf Express Handicap (gr. IIIT) the same day. Unfortunately, the horse got sick and was forced to miss the race, but Garcia had already been assigned the mount.

 

Quality Road showed up next at Gulfstream Park in a contentious seven-furlong allowance race. After breaking slowly, he was rushed to the lead, set blazing fractions while going head and head with Todd Pletcher’s runaway maiden winner Obligingly, and was unable to hold off the late charge of Theregoesjojo. Quality Road developed a cough soon after that race, and the consensus opinion was that he was brewing the infection on race day. Jerkens told Chris Baker, farm manager for owner Edward P. Evans’ Spring Hill Farm in Casanova, Va., that the colt’s coat was a bit off going into the race, making him believe he already was showing signs of the bug that was going through his barn.

 

Quality Road began training like gangbusters, prepping for the Fountain of Youth with a bullet :58 2/5 work six days before the race. This time, the colt’s coat was resplendent, and it was just a matter of how he would handle the wicked pace that was expected, and the lack of experience.

 

With John Velazquez aboard this time, Quality Road broke sharply, but rated kindly in second, tracking the front-running This Ones For Phil. When Velazquez asked him, Quality Road accelerated and blew right by the leader at the head of the stretch. What was supposed to be one of the most contentious races of the year turned into a one-horse show, as Quality Road drew off to win by 4 1/4 lengths in 1:35 flat for the mile. What was visually impressive was the way he drew away from Theregoesjojo, an exciting stretch runner with a brilliant turn of foot who had rallied from seventh with an eye-catchng move on the turn and was himself drawing clear of the pack, finishing four lengths ahead of third-place finisher Beethoven. Theregoesjojo is a serious horse with a ton of ability, and although he was running a winning race, Quality Road, after pressing a :45 2/5 half, was actually opening up on him at the end.

 

Migliore, watching from the jocks room at Aqueduct, knew at the five-eighths pole Quality Road was going to win.

 

“Although he’s got speed, he’s not a horse that wants to be rushed,” Migliore said. “When he got off slowly in his first start this year it was a perfect opportunity to take hold of him and let him get in stride, but he was gunned out of there. Today, Johnny was able to get him into that rhythm and I knew there was going to be a lot of horse there when he turned for home.

 

“He definitely touted himself early on. I worked a lot with him starting from September, so it was disappointing I couldn’t ride him. A real good horse is a combination of several things. Obviously they have that kind of stride that’s so big and efficient; they have size but are very light on their feet; they cover so much ground they’re always going faster than you feel like they’re going; and they’re very intelligent. He was all four of those things. He was extremely intelligent. Something would happen that would spook 90% of the horses and he would just stop and look at it with a quizzical look, and then drop his head and go on. That’s something you can’t teach; it’s something the good horses seem to possess. To me, from the first time I got on him I thought he was the complete package.”

 

Despite Quality Road being by the mile specialist Elusive Quality  , Migliore has no doubt the colt will stay.

 

“He definitely has the ability and I know he can go as far as he needs to go,” he said. “That’s not even a question in my mind. It’s only his third start of his life, but they’ve been breaking all these Derby rules lately, so maybe there aren’t any hard rules anymore. If anyone is going to get him there with a light race schedule it’s Jimmy. He’s just like his dad (Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens), and I have so much faith in the guy as a horseman. He’s definitely in the right hands. A lot can happen over the next three to four weeks but on Saturday he stamped himself as the horse Jimmy and I always believed him to be.”

 

Baker said Quality Road was one of those young horses who never did anything wrong. A tall, elegant colt, he was striking to look at, and Baker was impressed by the amount of ground he covered while training at Aiken, S.C. Then he was sent to Jerkens, who began to notice the colt’s talent once he stretched out his works.

 

“Jimmy’s not a vocal guy, but when he started working him a half and five-eighths he made it clear this horse can really run,” Baker recalled. “And when Jimmy says that you need to listen.”

 

So, once again, we have to ask ourselves, just how special is this horse, will he be as effective going two turns, and is he capable of winning the Derby off only four career starts? Remember, he was in receipt of 6 to 8 pounds from every horse in the field but one, and that was the runner-up, who carried two pounds more.

 

Quality Road’s sire, Elusive Quality, although a miler/sprinter, has already sired a Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner in Smarty Jones  , and Quality Road’s female family is loaded with class and stamina through broodmare sire Strawberry Road, and tail-female influences Alydar and Bold Bidder. Strawberry Road’s sire, Whiskey Road, is by Nijinsky out of the champion filly Bowl of Flowers, winner of the Coaching Club American Oaks. Perhaps most important, Quality Road’s dam, Kobla, is a full-sister to champion Ajina, winner of the grade I Breeders’ Cup Distaff, CCA Oaks, and Mother Goose, and runner-up in the grade I Alabama and Beldame.

 

Speaking of the Fountain of Youth, the one-mile distance drew a great deal of criticism for its placement on the schedule. Instead of a natural progression from the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes (gr. III) to the one-mile Holy Bull (gr. III) to the 1 1/8-mile Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby (gr. I), the 3-year-olds who had already run nine furlongs in the Holy Bull (gr. III) or in allowance races were asked to go a flat mile against a number of exceptionally fast horses stretching out from six furlongs. That scenario was rejected by most trainers, and as a result, only one horse -- Beethoven, whose pedigree is more geared toward a mile – made the drop back in distance.

 

Instead of providing a chance for much-needed graded earnings going two turns, the Fountain of Youth draw a field made up in good part of horses coming off huge Beyer numbers in sprints – This Ones For Phil 116, Notonthesamepage 114, Taqarub 103, and Capt. Candyman Can 101. And Quality Road had run a 101 in his career debut.

 

While that made for a wide-open, contentious race, there was a question whether it would actually serve as a useful prep for legitimate Kentucky Derby horses. As a result, several of the top horses based in South Florida changed course for the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), Gotham (gr. III), or Louisiana Derby (gr. II), with one even going to California for the Sham Stakes (gr. IIII). That raises a second question: who will be left to run in the Florida Derby, a race that likely will be headed by Dunkirk, coming off only a maiden and an allowance victory? Jerkens said he is seriously considering the Wood Memorial (gr. I) for Quality Road’s next start, but hasn’t ruled out the Florida Derby. And we’ll have to see where Kenny McPeek goes with Theregoesjojo, who could be one of the real sleepers for the Derby.

 

There is one other note regarding Gulfstream. It is time to simply ignore the fractions in one-mile races run out of the chute. In order to give horses as much room as possible behind the gate for safety reasons, the gate is moved up, so instead of having a run-up before the teletimer is triggered, the timing starts as soon as the horses break. As a result, the opening quarter in the Fountain of Youth was a sluggish :23 4/5, while the  half was run in :45 2/5. That means the second quarter was run in :21 3/5 after a :23 4/5 first quarter. Sorry, but horses simply do not do that, so pay no attention to the fractions of this race.

 

Wild Bull of the Pamplemousse

 

Apologies to all those who have never heard of the noted heavyweight fighter of the 1920s, Luis Firpo, who was nicknamed “Wild Bull of the Pampas,” but the description was too good to pass up. Firpo, lacking the grace and natural skills of a Jack Dempsey, would come charging at his opponents like a bull, flailing away with wild haymakers. He once knocked Dempsey to the canvas seven times in the first round, one time knocking him clear out of the ring.

 

Anyone who has seen The Pamplemousse   run and the way he charges at his opponents with legs going off in all directions can understand the comparison. Of course, both Firpo and The Pamplemousse’s trainer, Julio Canani, were born in South America, so there is another admittedly offbeat and useless connection.

 

The Pamplemousse does not possess the smooth, graceful strides you look for in a Derby contender. But his strides, as rough around the edges as they are, are enormous and allow him to seemingly lope along on the lead at an easy clip, when in reality he is rattling off rapid fractions and running his opponents into the ground. He comes charging right at you from the start, and no one is going to want to challenge him when he’s taking one stride to their two. He takes so little out of himself, he has plenty left in reserve and is able to draw away from his foes with relative ease.

 

With a pedigree laced with speed in his tail-male and tail-female families, one has to wonder where this reserve comes from. His sire, Kafwain  , was a tenacious bulldog on the track, and Kafwain’s sire, Cherokee Run, has sired a number of hard-knocking horses.

 

In any event, The Pamplemousse looks to be a horse you do not want to tangle with, especially in races with no early speed, as was the case in Saturday’s 1 1/8-mile Sham Stakes (gr. III). Other than the second- and third-place finishers, Take the Points and Mr. Hot Stuff, respectively, the Sham was a pretty weak group. Take the Points traveled cross-country, arriving two days before the race after his original flight was canceled, and was running on a synthetic surface for the first time. Mr. Hot Stuff, although impressive in his previous start, still was coming off a maiden race, in which the proverbial light bulb finally went on after four mediocre-to-dismal performances.

 

While The Pamplemousse’s time of 1:47 4/5 earned him a strong 103 Beyer, the track was producing fast times all afternoon in sprint races. So there are no distance races to use as a comparison. As mentioned earlier, The Pamplemousse has a stride that from a head-on view makes him look like a car in need of a wheel alignment. He swings both his front legs way to the left, with his right front lined up between his back legs and his left front out in another path. But with that said, it hasn’t affected his performances, and from the side, where most people see him, he’s actually quite entertaining to watch, with that big high leg kick and bounding stride. If you like watching horses who are different from other horses, then The Pamplemousse is your kind of horse. And if you like trainers who are different from other trainers then you’ll have two reasons to root for him.

 

There are several interesting videos of the horse on Youtube, where you can get a good look at him in action and just walking to and from the track. If he and the colorful Canani make it to Churchill Downs, he will be an instant fan favorite, especially with the Alex Solis Sr. and Jr. connection and the often-told story of his name, which is French for “The Grapefruit” and the name of a popular eatery across from Del Mar.

 

In the meantime, if anyone has hopes of beating this horse in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), they better come prepared to double-team him or hope someone on a kamikaze mission shows up.

 

Credit must be given to Take the Points, who not only had to travel thousands of miles to face the rampaging bull, he found himself in a no-win situation having to chase him the whole way on a foreign surface after breaking from the outside post. He was able to put in a strong, but short-lived, run to move into close contention at the head of the stretch, but everything caught up with him in the final furlong and he became a bit leg weary. Still, he was able to finish second, nearly two lengths ahead of Mr. Hot Stuff, and should get a lot out of the race. His effort was similar to Giacomo  ’s 6 1/2-length drubbing by the speedy Consolidator in the 2005 San Felipe (gr. II), run in a blistering 1:40 flat. Giacomo was able to use that race as a step toward Kentucky Derby glory. We’ll see if Take the Points can do the same.

 

It is not known at this time whether he will remain in California, where he’d have to look at that big gray butt again, or head back to the friendlier dirt confines back east.

 

Mr. Hot Stuff, a full-brother to Colonel John  , ran well enough in his first start against winners and is at least moving in the right direction. But he’ll have his work cut out for him in the Santa Anita Derby.

 

Rating the Kentucky Derby preps

 

With the big Derby preps getting closer, and so many variables to consider, such as surface, timing, and proven record, this is a good time to rate them, with the ratings being: excellent, good, fair, and proves little.

 

Louisiana Derby: Good -- It’s on dirt, it’s a relatively fair track, and there’s a long stretch run, but horses for some reason still find a way to get in trouble at Fair Grounds. This is a good steppingstone to a horse’s final Derby prep.

 

Tampa Bay Derby: Good to fair – Good because of the Street Sense  --Any Given Saturday battle two years ago, but the surface is quirky and many talented horses can’t stand up to it. Excellent for fitness purposes, but it’s hard to tell whether a horse is going to handle it.

 

Lane’s End Stakes: Proves little -- Yes, Derby runner-up Hard Spun   won it and Derby fifth Sedgefield was second in 2007, but last year’s winner, Adriano, looks to be more the type of winner this race will produce. The winner still needs to come back in a dirt race to shows if he’s a legitimate Derby horse.

 

Florida Derby: Excellent to good – Only gets this high a rating because of Barbaro and Big Brown  . But they were superstars who were gifted enough to overcame the five weeks to the Derby. The majority of horses coming out of this race will not be as fortunate, having to wait that long to the Derby…unless they’re another Barbaro or Big Brown. Other horses who ran big in this race, such as Sharp Humor, Scat Daddy  , High Fly, Noble Causeway, and Smooth Air  , ran poorly in the Derby.

 

Santa Anita Derby: Good to fair – This race used to be “excellent,” but it leaves too many question marks if the horse involved has never raced on dirt. That’s not to say he won’t be as effective on dirt, but there is no way of knowing if he is until he runs in the Derby. It’s not only a question of handling dirt. Synthetic horses must go into the Derby having never experienced dirt kick-back…and in a 20-horse field, no less. The only gauge so far is Colonel John and Bob Black Jack last year, who finished sixth and 16th, respectively, in the Derby. In fact, five of the bottom six finishers in last year’s Derby were coming off a synthetic surface.

 

Wood Memorial: Excellent – I liked this race better when it was three weeks before the Derby, but it still offers horses a solid, classy 1 1/8-mile race on dirt over a track that usually plays very fair. It’s a good final stop for horses coming out of the Louisiana and Tampa Bay Derbys, as well as horses shipping from California looking  for a dirt prep. But you won’t get too many of those. The majority of trainers in California who are intent on getting to the Derby don’t want to know if their horse can handle dirt. In this case, ignorance is bliss, and why burst their and the owner’s bubble when they’re so close to making the big dance?

 

Illinois Derby: Good – This race has a tendency to produce impressive winners and high Beyer numbers. But, with the exception of War Emblem when it was held at Sportsman’s Park, those big performances haven’t carried over into the Kentucky Derby. Ten Most Wanted, Pollard’s Vision, Greeley’s Galaxy, Sweetnorthernsaint, Cowtown Cat, and Recapturetheglory all were disappointments in the Derby after rousing victories at Hawthorne. But you have to think that could change with the right horse.

 

Blue Grass Stakes: Proves little -- This race is OK as a Derby prep for proven dirt horses like Street Sense who have already shown they can at least handle Polytrack. Street Sense used defeats at Keeneland to prep for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby. He was a shell of himself on Polytrack, but good enough to get something out of the race. But for Derby starters Pyro, Cool Coal Man  , Visionaire, and Big Truck last year, this race proved a disaster and did nothing to help get them to the Derby – none of them finished better than eighth. And the one-two finishers in last year’s Blue Grass both were up the track in the Derby. Unless you have a horse who has run well on Polytrack and dirt this race is a crap shoot as a Derby prep.

 

Arkansas Derby: Excellent – Yes, we all know deep down this is really a grade I stakes, but the powers that be refuse to acknowledge it for some reason known only to them. Having produced Smarty Jones (Kentucky Derby winner),, Afleet Alex   (third), Curlin   (third), and Steppenwolfer (third) in the past five years, as well as Derby winners Grindstone and Lil E. Tee, there is no doubt this has been the most influential Derby prep of the last decade. And Eight Belles prepped at Oaklawn for her second in the Derby.

 

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

 

 

 

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