Steve Haskin's Derby Report (4/23): Ten Furlongs or Bust

Steve Haskin's Derby Report (4/23): Ten Furlongs or Bust
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Jockey Chris McCarron was a busy, happy rider Tuesday morning.
Pedigree vs. Performance. That is the battle within the battle that may very well decide this year's Kentucky Derby winner. Came Home is not bred to go a mile and a quarter, nor does he have the physical appearance of a mile and a quarter horse. But the more we see of the colt, the more we keep thinking that maybe, just maybe, he can overcome all that on the first Saturday in May.

On a picture-perfect morning in Louisville, Came Home turned in a picture-perfect work. It was the kind of move you love to see before the Derby. Another leading contender, Medaglia d'Oro, also turned in a solid work Tuesday, although it bore no resemblance to Came Home's drill. The only other worker was Ocean Sound, who was given a lung-opener by trainer Jim Cassidy.

It must be said that over the next week and half, you're going to be reading mostly about good works. Remember, these are Kentucky Derby horses, and the majority of them are supposed to work well. But there are always a few whose works will stand out, suggesting that these horses are flourishing at the right time and ready to peak on Derby Day. Some simply are not good enough to win the Derby or are not what you'd call typical Derby horses.

It would have easier, in a handicapping sense, if Came Home showed nothing in his works and his physical appearance to suggest he was capable of proving the so-called experts wrong. That way, we could simply say he's a talented miler who is in over head in the Derby. And that still may very well be the case, but the little dynamo is doing everything in his power to convince us otherwise.

Anyone who has observed his aggressive gallops and the professional way he goes about everything should not have been surprised by Tuesday's work. Earlier in the day, trainer Paco Gonzalez said he'd like to see him go his six furlongs in about 1:13. Gonzalez still was amazed at how uncharacteristically aggressive Came Home was in his gallop the day before. "He'll take a little hold of you," he said, "but I've never seen him pull that hard."

With regular rider Chris McCarron aboard, Came Home came out shortly after the renovation break. As he galloped to the six-furlong pole, you could tell the colt was in the zone. He was leveled off and striding out beautifully before hitting the pole and got right into the work. Many jockeys love describing a horse's smooth action by saying that if you put a glass of water on his hindquarters he wouldn't spill a drop. Well, if you can picture what a horse would look like in that obviously exaggerated scenario, then you'd have an idea what Came Home looked like striding out around the far turn.

There was no wasted movement in the slightest, and it looked like the only things moving were his legs. It was as if you could draw a perfectly straight line from his head to the top of his rump. And he's extremely light on his feet, gliding over the track. With McCarron just sitting on him, and not asking him in the slightest, Came Home cruised down the stretch with his ears pricked and just kept pouring it on. With a final quarter in :23 2/5 and final eighth in :11 3/5, the son of Gone West hit the wire in 1:12 3/5. McCarron, who clocks his horses, also timed him in 1:12 3/5. Trainer Neil Howard caught him in 1:12 4/5, while Gonzalez clocked him in 1:13 1/5. We feel the gallop out is almost as important as the work on many occasions, and Came Home never let up after hitting the wire. He kept his head down and continued to motor around the turn, with his ears still up. The different gallop-out splits ranged from :12 2/5 to :13, and probably was somewhere in between. The gallop-out time of about 1:25 and change was quick, but if he can rate kind kindly in the Derby, he will make his presence felt.

This is a horse who in on top of his game, who is relishing what he's doing, and who no doubt is much sharper and fitter than he was in the Santa Anita Derby. In the four days we've seen him, he has been nothing short of perfect in every detail, except for throwing his head around in yesterday's gallop. But that was simply the result of him feeling good in the colder weather and wanting to do something. This horse is the consummate pro. Whether or not all of this equates to a Kentucky Derby victory, it is looking more and more apparent that the Derby winner will have to go through Came Home, and based on what we've seen so far, that will not be accomplished without a major struggle.

While Came Home needed a good stiff work, Medaglia d'Oro needed anything but. Trainer Bobby Frankel looks at works very simply: you tell the rider how fast you want him to go, and then see how close he comes. Frankel does not use a stop watch, and at Churchill, does not even bother to go to the frontside to watch the work. Instead, he casually watches from the trainer's stand, from which all you can see is the horse galloping to the pole and pulling up after the work. "What good does it do to watch the work?" Frankel says. "The rider (Marco Ramirez) has been with me for 20 years. He knows what I want, and once he gets out there there's nothing I can do."

As Medaglia d'Oro left the barn after the break, Frankel told Ramirez to go in "1:01 and change." Ramirez, like McCarron, carries his own watch, so he usually is able to nail it pretty much on the nose. And today was no different, as he completed the five furlongs in 1:01 2/5, with a final eighth in :12 2/5. Medaglia d'Oro is the complete opposite of Came Home in every way. A big, powerful dark bay, he is an imposing figure out there. Unlike Came Home, he runs with his head up a bit, and keeps his ears back. And he gobbles up ground with long, sweeping strides.

After the work, when Frankel heard the final time, he said, "See, what did I need to go up there (to the frontside) for? I have confidence in my rider. He knows what I want."

Frankel, who handicaps races and follows the speed sheets, looks at the Derby differently. "If it were a six-horse field, and I could handicap it, I can tell what's going to happen," he said. "But anything can happen in the Derby, so why worry about it? It's in the hands of the gods. I have confidence in my horse, so we'll see what happens."

After Came Home's work, McCarron drove up to Barn 42 and immediately hopped on Ocean Sound. The improving Irish-bred son of Mujadil was not as focused in his work as Came Home and Medaglia d'Oro, as he constantly threw his ears around and just seemed to lope around there through a half in :50, five-eighths in 1:03, and three-quarters in 1:15. Down the stretch, McCarron kept tossing the reins. Ocean Sound came home his final eighth in :13 1/5 to complete the seven furlongs in 1:28 1/5. McCarron said the colt was a bit too relaxed early, but did seem to respond at the three-eighths pole when he asked him to pick it up.

Essence of Dubai keeps looking better by the day. He was more professional today, although he did give another buck and kick coming off the track. He looks the proverbial picture and his gallop was smooth as silk. You can barely see his feet hit the ground.

An interesting scenario is developing with the Aidan O'Brien-trained Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo, regarding schooling from the gate. Churchill starter Roger Nagle is willing to let Johannesburg pass the gate schooling, being he was fine in the Breeders' Cup. But Castle Gandolfo will have to be schooled, either at Churchill or Keeneland. Because there will be no schooling at Churchill on Friday, Oaks Day, and because it looks as if the two horses will not ship to Louisville from Lexington until Friday, Castle Gandolfo likely will have to school at Keeneland.

USS Tinosa is scheduled to arrive in Louisville via a Federal Express plane on Thursday or Friday.

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