American Lion should move forward after his Robert B. Lewis performance.<br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

American Lion should move forward after his Robert B. Lewis performance.
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Kentucky Derby Trail: Reevaluations

Time to reevaluate some of the horses and races, and a look at the Sham Stakes.

There usually comes a time on the Kentucky Derby trail when you sit back and reevaluate the horses, the races, and your immediate perception of both.

With this weekend highlighted by the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita and several classy maiden and allowance races at Gulfstream, along with the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park, this is as good a time as any to take a second look at some horses that might have been overlooked originally, and also to get a good perspective on some of the talented newcomers that are playing catch-up, but have shown enough potential to at least take notice of them.

In our previous column, we mentioned three horses who competed last weekend—Stay Put, Mission Impazible , and Ice Box —that had less than ideal trips and are worth keeping a close eye on the next time they run. The more we watch Mission Impazible the more we like him. He catches your eye and has a beautiful way of moving. We don’t know how good he is yet, but even if he proves not to be Derby material, he still could be a major force in the 3-year-old picture.

Add to that list Posse Power, a steadily improving son of Posse who had a nightmare stretch run in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III), getting blocked on a couple of occasions and having to check and alter course dramatically. He still had a chance inside the eighth pole, but was sawed off by the winner at a crucial point. He still kicked in when finally clear to finish a rallying third, beaten 2 1/4 lengths. His Beyer Speed Figures, while still on the low side (add several points on synthetic), have increased with every start, and he has yet to finish worse than third in six career starts. His sire was a seven-furlong specialist at best, but his broodmare sire is Pleasant Colony, one of the leading class and stamina influences in America, and his first three dams were all major stakes horses in the U.S. Canada, England, and France.

We also watched the recent stakes races over again and came up with the following conclusions:

American Lion  ran a better race in the Robert B. Lewis (gr. II) than originally thought, breathing down Tiz Chrome’s neck the entire way, and when they turned for home it didn’t look as if Julien Leparoux ever really knuckled down on him. While the victorious Caracortado was being pushed along, Leparoux was throwing a cross on American Lion, and although he gave him a couple of taps with the whip, he never got down in the saddle and gave him a vigorous hand ride, which leads one to believe this race is going to move him way forward and help him in the long run. Leparoux will be the kind of jockey he needs when the distances stretch out. After the finish, he wasn’t quite done and galloped out past the first two finishers.

As impressive a race as Dublin ran in the Southwest (gr. III), it also was better than originally thought. His bobble at the start was pretty severe and cost him position, making him come from much farther back than he likes. Remember, this race was just an indicator of how effective his epiglottis surgery was. He’s such a big, long-striding horse, he took himself wider than normal on both turns, losing a ton of ground. And what was most impressive was the sustained move he put in from the five-eighths pole to the finish. That’s a long run to have to make and he kept coming, picking up momentum every step of the way. The fact  he didn’t catch Conveyance  after the wire in the gallop-out means nothing. He had already put in a long run and didn’t need to show any more. Catching Cardiff Giant, who was putting in a strong move himself, for second was impressive enough.

Although his dam, Classy Mirage, was basically a sprinter, it should be noted that his second dam is by Kentucky Derby and Belmont (gr. I) winner Riva Ridge and his third dam is a sister to the first ever Filly Triple Crown (Acorn, Mother Goose and CCA Oaks) winner Dark Mirage.

Weekend action

Saturday’s nine-furlong Sham Stakes should unveil one or two Derby hopefuls. Nextdoorneighbor, a horse we’ve been very high on since he broke his maiden, drew the far outside in the 10-horse field. If he loses too much ground and is not able to show his best effort, but still is right there at the finish, he will remain a horse to reckon with when trainer Mike Machowsky sends him back East for his final Derby prep. But there is a fairly long run to the first turn, so with his tactical speed and a little luck he could get a decent position, and then we’ll see just how good he is. He's been crying to go longer and should have no distance limitations. His six-furlong work in 1:10 3/5 was sensational and he followed it up with a sharp half-mile in:47 3/5. We're looking for a big effort, outside post or not.

Kettle River, Alphie's Bet, and The Program all look solid in here, but another horse that could bust out is Setsuko, based on his last two races, in which blinkers were added. He was impressive breaking his maiden at Hollywood Park, and in his last start on grass, he showed several things that suggest good things to come. Turning for home after laying back in fifth behind a dawdling pace, he could have fanned wide for his run, as most horses coming from off the pace do on the grass. But he cut the corner with great agility and sat right behind the horse in front of him. It took him a while to find his best stride, as his action was high and he was almost leaping off the turf. But around the sixteenth pole, you could see him lower his shoulder and level off, and when he did he kicked into another gear, reaching out with long, powerful strides to get up for second, beaten a half-length, while coming home his final eighth in about :11 2/5. If he can run back like that in the Sham, he will be tough.

Here comes Zito

Trainer Nick Zito finally has opened the vault, unleashing a steady of stream of up-and-coming 3-year-olds. We saw two of them last weekend in Ice Box and nine-furlong allowance winner Fly Down. This weekend, Zito has entered five more–four in maiden races and one in an allowance race. One that we have been waiting for since seeing him finish an impressive second in a Saratoga maiden race is Our Dark Knight, a son of Medaglia d'Oro  who goes in the second race and has been training sharply. Zito also has entered Scuba Diver (second race), Quick Ride and Thomas Got Even in the third, a tough one-mile allowance race, and Mahfouz in the fourth, a particularly strong maiden race.

Zito also sends out 7 1/2-length maiden winner Latigo Shore in a tough allowance race Thursday (today) that includes our recent profile feature, Soaring Empire , as well as Afleet Express, Allez Reef, and several other promising 3-year-olds.

Of course, Zito still has Jackson Bend, who runs hard every race and will win his fair share of stakes. He ran well in the Fountain of Youth, holding Aikenite  at bay for second, but ran into a monster performance from Eskendereya.

Also entered in Saturday’s allowance race are Champagne (gr. I) winner Homeboykris, looking to get back in the winning groove; his stablemate, Radiohead, scratched from the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II), and undefeated New York-bred General Maximus, who has run 90+ Beyers in both his starts.

Westward ho

One ownership that has been all over the place recently is Gary and Mary West. In addition to having promising colts Best Actor, recent maiden winners Day of Destiny and Tiz the One, they sent out another colt we’ve been waiting patiently for since taking notice of his third-place finish at Belmont Sept. 12. His name is Unbridled Fury and he finally returned last Saturday, winning a seven-furlong maiden race by a length after being jerked back and forth and appearing to be out of it.

This weekend, the Wests send out three more–Upgrade in the second race, Call Shot in the third, and Marching Tune in the fourth. Their horses, with the exception of Best Actor, are all playing catch-up, but several look like they have a bright future. Another colt, Aspire, second in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I), is just now coming back from ankle chip surgery.

In other news:

Todd Pletcher said El Camino Real Derby winner Connemara likely will be pointed for the March 27 Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II), having already won at Turfway Park, while Interactif could train up to the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). Super Saver  likely will wait the extra week and run in the March 13 Rebel Stakes (gr. III) instead of the Gotham (gr. III). Aikenite , third in the Fountain of Youth, will head back to the synthetics in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).

In the aforementioned fourth race at Gulfstream Saturday for maidens, keep an eye on Forward Harch, who is coming off a half-length defeat to the much talked about Odysseus. Bushwacked and Miner's Reserve are coming off good efforts against Mine N Gems in a fast-run maiden race. The second-place finisher in that race, Game on Dude, runs in the second race. Also worth watching is Nadal, third to Odysseus and then a disappointing fourth behind Day of Destiny, in which he may have bounced coming back in three weeks off a good number and a subsequent :59 4/5 bullet work.