Steve Haskin's Derby Report (3/25): Spiraling Upward

Steve Haskin's Derby Report (3/25): Spiraling Upward
Photo: Skip Dickstein
Perfect Drift wins three-horse photo finish in the Spiral Stakes.
You've heard it said many times: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Well, things certainly are changing each week on the road to the Kentucky Derby, but we seem to be just about where we were when we embarked on the journey almost three months ago.

This past Saturday, we saw several fresh, new faces emerge on the scene to go with last week's exciting newcomers, Medaglia d'Oro, Buddha, Mayakovsky, and Equality. But, although we have a whole new Derby picture staring at us, we're still as befuddled as we were several weeks ago. Wait, make that more befuddled.

It's been such a bizarre year, the three Derby Dynamos – D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Nick Zito – have gone through their entire roster of promising youngsters, and are in danger of getting shut out of this year's Run for the Roses, as amazing as that sounds. Only Baffert's Danthebluegrassman, and possibly turf specialist Mountain Rage, have a chance of becoming legitimate Derby contenders with a victory in the April 6 Santa Anita Derby. In the past two weeks, Zito saw High Star bleed severely in the Florida Derby and his two up-and-comers, Straight Gin and American Style, run poorly at Turfway Park. Lukas is hanging on by his fingernails with Gold Dollar, who was fourth, beaten more than 8 lengths, in the Lane's End Spiral Stakes.

But while the Derby picture is getting more confusing by the week, it's also getting more interesting, as speed figures climb and performances become more visually impressive. Such was the case this past weekend.

Drifting closer to Louisville

Normally, three-horse photos tend to make one discount the merits of that race. But that was far from the case in the Lane's End Spiral Stakes. All three horses – Perfect Drift, Azillion, and Request for Parole – ran huge races, and stamped themselves as leading Derby contenders. It really doesn't take too much to accomplish that this year. You had to love the way Perfect Drift moved up to the leaders, was taken inside a tiring Saratoga Blues, then steered back to the outside. With his big ears straight up, Perfect Drift seemed to be cruising, as he glided over the ground, with new rider Eddie Delahoussaye never even cocking his whip. It was this effortless stride that first brought this gelding to our attention in his nose defeat in the Battaglia Memorial, and he just keeps getting better with each race. Now, we have to rank him in our top 3 Derby contenders, based on style, pedigree, and an overall good feeling about him. His final eighth in :12 1/5 and the 8-length gap back to the fourth horse certainly put this race in a good light. He was also picking up nine pounds from the Battaglia. And remember, every race on the card prior to the Spiral was won by a horse on or just off the lead, so he also went against a strong speed bias.

Perfect Drift's head is full of character, and he has a bright, alert eye. And as we said, he likes to keep those big ears straight up, even when under pressure. If you look at them long enough, they start looking an awful lot like the Twin Spires.

The big question now is, what to do with him. If they run him on April 13, likely in the Blue Grass, he can afford to get beat, as long as he runs a big race. But if they go straight to the Derby, then we have to reassess his chances, as they'll be bucking history big-time, bringing a horse into the Derby off a six-week layoff. The last horse to accomplish that was Needles 45 years ago, and he had already run 13 times, including victories in the two most important Derby preps, the Flamingo and Florida Derby.

Runner-up Azillion took another leap forward with his gutsy performance. When Mike Smith took advantage of an opening on the rail, he shot Azillion through, and for a brief moment, it looked as if he were about to break the race wide open. But Request for Parole battled back, as he always does. Smith felt as if Azillion preferred to mix it up and scrap with Request for Parole, playing "cat and mouse" with him, rather than go on. But the fact that they closed so fast in the the final eighth shows that Request for Parole was far from finished, and that Azillion might not have had that much day in the matter. For Azillion to out-fight such a tenacious opponent on his home court and nose him out for second, bodes very well for the future. Unlike the Spiral, if Azillion pulled the same maneuver in the Derby, we feel, with his stamina-laden pedigree and steady maturation, he'd be extremely tough to catch. While trainer Bob Hess is considering the Lone Star Derby as a prep for the Belmont, he also is thinking about coming back in the Blue Grass Stakes and then the Derby. The other option again would be training up to the Derby, which might not be as difficult for him as the other two, being a former European horse (and used to races being stretched out) and having so much stamina, especially in his female family. But it's still a very difficult task...for trainer and horse.

Finally, you have to give credit to Request for Parole, who was taken out of his game by Pat Day in order to take advantage of the speed-favoring track. Having not been on the lead since breaking his maiden at Ellis Park last July, this was not the way he likes to run. And for him to get passed on the inside, then battle back the way he did, shows how much fight and class this colt has. Whether he'll be as effective at 1 1/4 miles no one really knows, but he certainly lost nothing in defeat.

So, in general, we came away from the Spiral with a good feeling about all three horses, and in our mind, any one of them could be right there on the first Saturday in May.

Mr. Mellon's legacy

The list of Derby contenders running on the Spiral card was not limited to the feature race. From a visual standpoint, we were very impressed with Mr. Mellon's victory in the Rushaway Stakes. In fact, if you're still searching for some monster future book bomb still out there, this could be a very live horse. The son of Red Ransom looked great in the paddock and post parade, carrying himself like a horse who knows he is good. An attractive, racy-looking colt with an alert head and resplendent coat, he reminds us a lot of his dam's half-brother, 1993 Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero, owned by his namesake Paul Mellon. He even has that same high-action stride as Sea Hero. Some may frown upon this type of action, but it didn't stop Sea Hero. If you're looking for perfection in a horse this year, you're not going to find it.. All we know is that so far he's gotten the job done.

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