Kentucky Derby Trail: Make or Break Weekend

Kentucky Derby Trail: Make or Break Weekend
Photo: Coglianese Photos
This weekend is the big chance for Interactif to prove he's much more than a turf horse.
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There isn’t a grade I stakes to be found March 13-14, but it is by far the most important weekend of the year so far for 3-year-old males, with the return of champion Lookin At Lucky  , trying dirt and blinkers for the first time in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III), and Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) winner Super Saver   in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III). Also returning and trying dirt for the first time is the hard-trying Noble's Promise   in the Rebel.

 

Caracortado will try to keep his fairy tale going in the San Felipe (gr. II), as will Uptowncharlybrown   at Tampa. Odysseus in the Tampa Bay Derby and stablemates Sidney's Candy   and Dave in Dixie in the San Felipe will try to take a major step forward. Dublin   will try to take the next step in getting D. Wayne Lukas back to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Uh Oh Bango also will be in a Rebel field that looks more like an Arkansas Derby (gr. I) lineup. And don’t forget American Lion  , with blinkers added, getting his big chance to show he’s a legitimate Derby horse in the San Felipe.

 

Of all the big-name horses, we love the way Super Saver has been training for the Tampa Bay Derby, especially his last work. Remember, he spent part of the winter on the farm, so this is a big test for him, especially with only two scheduled preps. There is little room for error (just remember Buddy's Saint). With that said, the feeling here has always been that he is an extremely talented colt, and it’s going to take a huge effort to beat him, even off the layoff.

 

Odysseus is the horse that is teetering on the edge of stardom and he certainly would catapult himself near the top of most everyone’s list with a victory. Uptowncharlybrown only needs to build off his final sixteenth in the Sam F. Davis (gr. III) when he found another gear and took off like a fresh horse. He gets blinkers on, has been training sharply, and also looks ready for a big effort. Whew!

 

The roving “I”

 

OK, this is it; the big chance for Interactif to prove he’s much more than a turf horse. The son of Broken Vow   is no stranger to the dirt, having broken his maiden in his career debut at Monmouth Park, but running in the March 13 San Felipe will tell us once and for all if he can duplicate his turf form in classic company. And this will be a tough test for him against several talented horses.

 

As we’ve discussed many times, Interactif is bred for the dirt top and bottom, so in addition to making the transition to Pro-Ride, he must return to the running style that enabled him to win the With Anticipation Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Saratoga by 4 1/4 lengths and the Bourbon Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland. In both those races, he laid back well off the pace and made a big sweeping move. In his last two starts, he drew outside posts each time and was forced to break sharply and challenge for the lead, while losing ground going into the first turn. He still was tenacious both times, battling to the end to finish a close third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and second, beaten a nose, in the Hallandale Beach, losing the lead in the final jump.

 

We just like the way this colt moves and carries himself – with a great deal of class. Pletcher is in a no-lose situation. If Interactif is not up to the task he can always go back to the turf, where he will win his share of major races all year. But he most definitely deserves this chance to be a classic contender. We had him listed in our Top 12 for several weeks. We took him off because it first appeared he would train up to the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), so there was plenty of time to put him back on. But Pletcher decided he’s ready to run now, so if Interactif runs big in the San Felipe against this field he assuredly will be back on the Derby Dozen.

 

An Awesome Act to follow

 

There were few watching the Gotham who would not agree that the race was over at the quarter pole, as Awesome Act cruised to the lead from the outside, with Leparoux almost straight up in the saddle and not moving a muscle other than to take a peek back over his left shoulder. He didn’t move his hands until they hit the three-sixteenths pole, and when he did, Awesome Act spurted clear in typical European fashion to quickly open a three-length lead at the eighth pole. European horses are not used to taking the lead that early and that easily. Most have that one quick burst, and by using his at the head of the stretch, Awesome Act idled a bit once in front and basically was able to maintain a safe margin over the undefeated New York-bred Yawanna Twist in the final furlong, winning by 1 1/4 lengths in a solid 1:43.85.

 

“He just did everything perfect,” Leparoux said. “He broke well and appeared to get a good position around the first turn, relaxed on the backside, and he was good. He was beyond good on the dirt; it didn’t matter to him at all. He just did everything on his own, he put me in the right spots, and then he just finished very nice.  I think more distance will be good.”

 

So, trainer Jeremy Noseda and owners Susan Roy and Vinery Stables got the perfect prep race they were looking for, while saving a lot in the tank for the Wood Memorial (gr. I) and Run for the Roses.

 

“We had the discussion about him possibly being a Derby horse after the Breeders’ Cup. I stood up and said ‘I believe I can do it from Europe,’” Noseda said. “Now he’s been in America and we can move forward. I will be going back to Newmarket; maybe I’ll come in for a day and watch him train. I believed in this horse today. It was a good, solid race, but there were no graded stakes winners. It’s the first hurdle out of the way, so the dream lives on.”

 

Despite the questionable talent level of his competition (we really don’t know yet how good the horses are behind him), this was a perfect race for him. He has all the attributes (talent-wise, pedigree-wise, and physical) you look for in a Derby horse, and we’ll have to see if he can move forward off the Gotham or if the so-called Euro bounce applies to him. Right now we’re looking at a horse who should be taken seriously.

 

Awesome Act’s dam, Houdinis Honey, is a full sister to French group I winners Machiavellian and Coup de Genie and a half sister to French group I winner Exit to Nowhere. For all you Rasmussen Factor (RF) fans, he is inbred to Natalma through her son, Northern Dancer (tail-male) and daughter, Raise the Standard (tail-female). He also is inbred three times to Almahmoud, twice through Natalma and once through Almahmoud’s daughter, the great Cosmah. So, pedigree-wise, there is a lot to like as well.

 

Yawanna Twist ran a big race stretching out to two turns for the first time and running strongly in the final furlong, as did third-place finisher Nacho Friend, who hadn’t run since finishing a close fourth in the Sanford Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga and hung on well after stalking the pace. He is bred to run long, so expect improvement from him.

 

What’s it all about?

 

Like the Gotham, Alphie's Bet didn’t beat a top-class field in the 1 1/8-mile Sham Stakes (gr. III), but like Awesome Act, he did it the right way. Coming off a strong second to Caracortado in the California Breeders Championship and an impressive come-from-behind maiden victory on the grass, Alphie’s Bet overcame a wide trip on both turns and simply overpowered his rivals in the stretch, drawing off to 2 1/4-length victory over favored Setsuko, coming home his final three-eighths in a sharp :36 flat.

 

The son of Tribal Rule   is a big strong colt who is just now starting to figure everything out.

 

“This fellow is still just a big old baby who doesn’t know what he’s doing,” said exercise rider Andy Durnin, who was the regular exercise rider for Fusaichi Pegasus and Borrego among others. “He’s putting on pounds every day and is getting stouter in the neck and withers. He’s just developing right now. I took him to the gate a couple of days ago, and when they opened the front of the gate he just strolled out of there like he had never been in there. Usually, they’re all anxious and rank to run out of there, but like I said, he’s just a big baby who doesn’t know what the heck is going on yet.

 

“He walks out of the barn every day, and I’m riding John Wayne-length on this sonofagun, and it’s like it’s his first day ever going to the track. I’m having to smooch at him; I’m having to coax him. Don’t get me wrong, I love riding him, but it’s like ‘Come on you big ol’ lug.’ When you gallop him, he only takes up the riding as much as you want to take it up. He’ll give you whatever you ask of him.

 

“When I ran out to the track after the race, I asked Alex Solis if he thought he could get a mile and a quarter, and he said to me, ‘This colt wants two miles.’”

 

Durnin also exercises stablemate Make Music For Me, winner of the Pasadena Stakes for trainer Alexis Barba, and he knew both horses were sitting on big races.

 

“After they scratched the Sham Stakes last Saturday, Solis and I went around the track last Sunday. He was on Alphie’s Bet and I was on Make Music For Me. We went around there just pretty much galloping and talking, and they still worked in 1:00 and had the co-fastest works of the day. It was unbelievable, and then to see them go off at 6-1 and 8-1 (Alphie’s Bet) on Saturday was unreal.”

 

Make Music For Me, who wore blinkers for the first time, was already a proven horse, finishing second to Lookin at Lucky in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) and Best Pal (gr. II) and third to the champ, beaten 1 1/4 lengths, in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I).

 

Barba likely will keep both colts separated. Make Music For Me could run next in the Santa Anita Derby, with Alphie’s Bet heading to the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), which means both horses would be untested on dirt if they make it to the Derby.

 

‘Men’ in blue

 

Godolphin had thought all along that if it was going to make it to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands! it would be with Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner Vale of York. But following the Al Bastakiya, the second leg of the Dubai Triple Crown, they must turn their attention to Mendip, who is now undefeated in three starts following his runaway victory. Two of his victories have come on Meydan’s Tapeta surface and his other on the Polytrack at Kempton. By Harlan's Holiday, out of a Coronado’s Quest mare, Mendip certainly is bred for the dirt, so if he can be competitive against a tough Southern Hemisphere older horse in Musir in the UAE Derby (UAE-II), you would have to consider a legitimate Derby contender.

 

Although his time in Al Bastakiya was slow compared to other times at the distance, it was due mainly to the lethargic pace. So, we definitely should know more about him after the UAE Derby, which likely will be more contentious up front. From strictly a visual standpoint, Mendip looked the part and did everything the right way.

 

As for Vale of York, he was way too on the muscle before the race and never settled during the race. He made a threatening move, but couldn’t sustain it, winding up fifth. He’s still a quality horse and deserves another shot in the UAE Derby.

 

St. Paddy’s Day

 

Nice lead-in to St. Patrick’s Day, with the maiden Paddy O'Prado   winning the Palm Beach Stakes (gr. IIIT) on the grass. The son of El Prado battled on the front end all the way through solid fractions and still had plenty left for the stretch run, drawing clear to win by 2 1/2 lengths in 1:45.40 for the 1 1/8 miles. This was a deceptively strong performance by a horse who may be a lot more than just a classy turf horse. He likely will try the synthetics in the Blue Grass. The only blot on his record was a terrible performance in his career debut in his only start on dirt. But that was only six furlongs and in the slop at Churchill Downs.

 

Paddy O’Prado’s broodmare sire, Prized, it should be remembered, did the unthinkable by winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) in his grass debut. On the dirt, he upset Sunday Silence in the 1 1/4-mile Swaps Stakes (gr. II) in a race where the Kentucky Derby and Preakness stakes (gr. I) winner had a four-length lead at the eighth pole.

 

And you can’t ask for a more versatile stallion than El Prado, who sired major turf horses Kitten's Joy   and Artie Schiller   and major dirt horses Medaglia d'Oro   and Borrego.

 

New face for the Louisiana Derby

 

Another race of interest last week was the impressive allowance victory at Fair Grounds by Fast Alex, who settled into a nice position in fifth, then swung out for his move and mowed down the leaders in the final furlong to win by 1 1/2 lengths over the highly regarded Steve Asmussen colt Island Soul. This was the second straight victory by the son of Afleet Alex   (out of an Unbridledmare), and he has shown enough in his three starts to suggest he could be a sleeper in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), at least to pick up a piece of it.

 

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