In what was the biggest weekend of the year for Derby preps, we saw a wide variety of top-class performances, such as Lookin At Lucky turning near-disaster into a gutsy, thrilling victory in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III); Odysseus’ return from the dead to snatch victory in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III); and Sidney's Candy stretching out to two turns for the first time in the San Felipe (gr. II) and coming home in swift fractions. Even several of the losing performances were memorable, with Interactif, making his synthetic debut, cutting into Sidney’s Candy’s lead, despite the outrageous closing fractions; and the explosive turn of foot on the far turn demonstrated by Schoolyard Dreams, only to get nipped right on the wire.
In a year where most of the victories have been on or near the lead, any big effort from off the pace is a welcome sight, and we saw enough of them on March 13 to put a different perspective on the 3-year-old picture.
The highlight of course, was Lookin At Lucky, who was trying dirt and blinkers for the first time. Garrett Gomez had him in a comfortable position down the backstretch when Corey Nakatani, on Dublin, came charging up on his outside, pinning him down on the inside. Gomez tried to extricate himself from the box, but as he attempted to slide between Dublin and Noble's Promise , he clipped the heels of Dublin and broke stride, hopping in the air, sending Gomez flying straight up in the saddle. To his credit, Gomez didn’t panic and let Lookin At Lucky gather himself and settle back in stride.
Turning for home, Dublin and Noble’s Promise hit the front together, with Noble’s Promise eventually inching away. Lookin At Lucky was now in full gear, passing Dublin, and began to bear down on Noble’s Promise, who was digging in gamely as he always does. But Lookin At Lucky, relentless as usual, managed to find a way to win, just getting up at the wire to nose out Noble’s Promise.
Although Dublin tired, switching back to his left lead near the finish, he had every right to after going five-wide into the first turn and then making that premature move through rapid fractions of :23 1/5 and :24, much too fast that early in the race.
All three should get a lot out of this race and continue to progress toward Louisville.
The same can be said for the first three finishers of the Tampa Bay Derby, which was an oddly run race to say the least. Although Super Saver had every opportunity to take back off the pace, he was sent to the front by Ramon Dominguez, tracked by Odysseus, while setting a fairly solid pace of :23.52 and :47.02. Local favorite, Uptowncharlybrown, also was in the mix after an eventful run into the first turn, in which he had to check briefly.
Super Saver looked strong passing the three-eighths pole, as Odysseus, surprisingly, was being asked and going nowhere. Then, in a flash, here came Schoolyard Dreams with a quick, dramatic move, passing Odysseus and Uptowncharlybrown, and taking the lead from Super Saver.
At that point, it looked as if Schoolyard Dreams had the others beaten. Super Saver, stuck on his left lead, tried to battle back, but Schoolyard Dreams always was in control. Odysseus also was on his left lead and trying to get back into the mix, but couldn’t make up any ground on the leader. Then, as if a switch had gone on, he changed to his right lead, kicked into another gear, and charged through a narrow opening between Super Saver and Schoolyard Dreams. It appeared as if his sudden late move had fallen short, but the camera showed the tip of nose in front at the finish. Super Saver hung tough to beaten a half-length.
The final fractions of :25.68 and :6.89 were slow, and the entire field was separated by only 3 3/4 lengths, but this is Tampa, which always has been a quirky surface. The first three all ran big and have a lot improvement still left in them.
Odysseus showed a new dimension after his 15-length romp in an allowance race, and this race should give him a great deal of experience and toughness.
Schoolyard Dreams never runs a bad race, and his explosive move on the far turn was the most impressive we’ve seen on dirt this year. It would have been nice to see him finish off his opponents after having them all beat, but this was a new running style for him and second race blinkers on, and if he can make that same kind of move and sustain it, he will be tough to beat wherever he runs.
He is one of several horses on the bubble for the Top 12 who look to have the potential to evict many of those currently on there. We just need to see one more similar effort from Schoolyard Dreams and another slight move forward to move him up. Odysseus, Schoolyard Dreams, and Super Saver also all have the pedigrees to suggest 10 furlongs will not be a problem.
In the San Felipe, Sidney’s Candy added his name to the growing list of top-class speed horses on this year’s Derby Trail. The son of Candy Ride has sprint speed, but showed he can carry it two turns, although the 1:13.53 three-quarters certainly helped. He was able to open up on his field, throwing in extremely fast closing fractions (although Pro-Ride does greatly enhance closing fractions). Still, he galloped out strongly as if he was ready to go around again.
Interactif, making the disadvantageous cross-country trip West and trying synthetics for the first time, was a bit aggressive early on, but relaxed beautifully under Rafael Bejarano and kept coming at Sidney’s Candy, cutting his 2 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole to a half-length at the wire, coming home in :22 1/5 and then under :06 for the final sixteenth. American Lion and Dave in Dixie were the big disappointments.
Caracortado ran well, and had every chance, but couldn't make a dent on Sidney's Candy's lead, as Interactif drew clear of him late. His performance, while not up to the Robert B. Lewis (gr. II), was good enough to keep him moving forward. He could very well bounce back and improve stretching out another sixteenth.
So, all in all, it was an exciting afternoon of racing on the 3-year-old front, with the champ continuing his winning ways on dirt and several new stars emerging on the scene.