Steve Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: Composure Hits the Derby Trail

Steve Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: Composure Hits the Derby Trail
Photo: Benoit
Composure's victory in the Las Virgenes put her into the Derby fray.
"Put her on your list!" Just those mere words from a trainer are not sufficient enough to get a horse on the Derby Watch list, especially a filly. But when they burst out of the mouth of Bob Baffert with the enthusiasm and excitement he displayed following Composure's victory in Sunday's Las Virgenes, then we have to take him seriously.

Even at last fall's Breeders' Cup, the initial impression of the daughter of Touch Gold was that this is one big, rugged filly. If you were looking for a filly who was built and bred to handle the boys on the first Saturday in May, this was the one. That ruggedness, and a major dose of grit, enabled Composure to overcome a bad start and traffic problems in the stretch and wear down a stubborn and talented filly in Elloluv. And she had to turn in a :23 4/5 final quarter and a :12 flat final eighth to do it.

Immediately after the race, Baffert told owners Bob and Beverly Lewis, "This could be your Derby horse." Baffert, knowing what kind of filly this is, convinced the Lewises to nominate her to the Derby.

"I'm telling you, she's a monster," he said. "She is for real."

Composure stumbled at the start, but Jerry Bailey quickly got her in the hunt. In the stretch, she was trapped on the inside with nowhere to go. Bailey steered her to the outside for running room and took off after Elloluv, who had opened up a clear lead and was sailing toward another victory. But Composure was relentless, and wore down Elloluv to win by a neck, reversing their finish in the Hollywood Starlet when Composure was not at her best, coming off a grueling effort in the nine-furlong Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. The gaps after that, were three, eight, and nine lengths.

By Belmont winner Touch Gold, out of a mare by two-time Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Alleged, you can't ask for a much stronger distance pedigree. Composure's real strength from a pedigree standpoint is her 5 x 5 inbreeding top and bottom to War Admiral. Plus, you have class in the dam, as Party Cited won the grade III Yerba Buena Handicap and placed in two grade I stakes in America and one in England.

How ironic is it that Baffert and Lewises have a grade I winner and possible Derby contender by Touch Gold, who cost them a Triple Crown when he ran down Silver Charm in the final yards to win the Belmont Stakes.

Baffert said he'll keep Composure with fillies for now, but that he's definitely considering her for the Kentucky Derby. "Now that Vindication is gone, it's a whole new deal," he said.

At Santa Anita on Friday, Man Among Men upset the heavily favored and way overbet Empire Maker in the 1 1/8-mile Sham Stakes. With Vindication out of the picture, and questions surrounding Toccet and Sky Mesa, it doesn't take much to make a horse a top Derby contender. But the Sham turned out to be a legitimate race, regardless of who sits atop the contender's list.

As for Empire Maker's defeat, if you were fan of the horse before the race, certainly don't give up on him. The colt still isn't focused the way he should be, and he again ran a spotty race. If ever a horse looked like he needed blinkers, it's this one. He's not sharp coming out of the gate, and he doesn't sustain his runs. Bailey had him on the inside, then came charging up with a bold move nearing the half-mile pole. As soon as he reached Man Among Men's hindquarters, he was left in the dust, as Man Among Men spurted away from him, and Spensive charged by him on the outside. Then, he put in another mover to reach contention at the quarter pole, but was in heavy traffic. As Man Among Men bounded clear, Bailey cut to the inside, but he couldn't get to the winner.

Considering he made up a length in the stretch through a :12 2/5 final eighth, and the final time was a sharp 1:48.39, to be exact, this was a good learning experience for the colt, who never should have been 2-5. This was all hype money, and made the defeat seem more of an upset than it really was. Empire Maker simply is a green colt who still acts studdish at times. He was bouncing all over the paddock area and through the tunnel and during the post parade as if he were wound tight. He is a beautiful, elegant colt, who looks more like a European stayer. When he shows up for the Florida Derby with blinkers, there's a good chance you'll start seeing the real Empire Maker.

Man Among Men, on the other hand, already has his act together. He was a little keen to go on early in the race, but settled nicely in third. When Alex Solis asked him near the three-eighths pole, he demonstrated the kind of push-button acceleration you like to see. When he collared the leaders, Truckle Feature and Ten Most Wanted, at the quarter pole, he just ran right on by them and quickly opened a clear lead. In the stretch, Solis only had to resort to a few back-handed taps of the whip. The big chestnut changed leads on cue and ran a straight course to wire, coming home strongly. With one ear back and one forward, you could sense he was looking around for some competition. At the wire, he threw his ears straight up, knowing his job was done.

A son of Gentlemen, Man Among Men was coming off three straight grass races after a dismal debut on the dirt going 5 furlongs, in which he broke slowly from the one-hole and never showed much interest after that. The race was way too short for him, and trainer Gary Mandella stretched him to a mile on the turf, which he won easily before winning the Pinjara Stakes, also at a mile. He then finished a disappointing fourth as the 2-1 favorite in the Generous Stakes. He developed a few minor problems, and, combined with the wet weather, he was forced to miss the Santa Catalina. He still wasn't himself, and Mandella babied him with a couple of slow works. When he began to blossom, Mandella turned the screws, and the colt turned in two super works of 1:25 1/5 and 1:00 4/5, setting him up for his return to the dirt in the Sham.

What is most impressive about this horse is the way he lowers his shoulder and gets great extension in his stride. He generates a lot of power up front, and simply looks like a good horse. Mandella isn't sure whether he'll stay in California for the San Felipe, or ship to Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby, which would give him an extra week for the Santa Anita Derby. Right now, he seems to leaning toward Fair Grounds.

For all you dosage followers, Man Among Men has a very low DI of 0.85. He's bred purely for the grass on his dam's side, which is 100% European, and includes 2,000 Guineas winner Nonoalco and one of the all-time greats, Sea-Bird. But Gentlemen, who is inbred 4 x 4 to Graustark, provides plenty of class on dirt.

At Golden Gate, the Neil Drysdale-trained Ministers Wild Cat came off a maiden win to score a workmanlike, but erratic, victory in the Golden State Mile. This was a good spot for the son of Hollywood Wildcat, the Eclipse-winning filly of 1993, whom Drysdale trained to win the Breeders' Cup Distaff. He was able to win by 1 1/4 lengths despite lugging in and jumping the tire tracks down the stretch, switching back to his left lead. Jockey Kent Desormeaux had to get into him pretty good with the whip to get his mind back to business. With this race under his belt, he should now have the experience and foundation to step up in company and show what he can do when he's got his act together. He's obviously a talented horse. Drysdale said he has not decided where the colt will run next.

Continued...

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