Rule gave an impressive performance in the Sam F. Davis Stakes.

Rule gave an impressive performance in the Sam F. Davis Stakes.

Tom Cooley Photography

Kentucky Derby Trail: No Golden Rule

Rule, Caracortado, and Sidney's Candy dominate weekend stakes.

It is appearing with each race that Rule does not believe in doing unto others as he would have them do unto him. In fact, he treats others rather shabbily.


He either crushes them with a mighty blow, as he did in the Jean Lafitte last year, or he pretends to be vulnerable and then dashes any hopes of victory, as witnessed by his gutsy performances in the Boyd Gaming's Delta Jackpot (gr. III) and Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs.


So, who exactly is Rule and what might we expect of him in future combat against opponents superior to the ones he has been beating? After all, he has proven himself to this point to be rather one dimensional as a tactician. In his four career victories he has never had a horse in front of him. It reaches a point when that style becomes ingrained in a horse and it is difficult to get him to change. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be on the lead, and it can take you a long way on the Kentucky Derby trail. But those tactics normally turn around and bite you on the rump on the first Saturday in May, as there no doubt will be several zealous horses in the field that will be eyeballing you every step of the way.


This year, some of those zealous types might be from your own barn, as Todd Pletcher has a number of other top Derby hopefuls, like Super Saver , Eskendereya, and Colizeo, who want to be on or very close to the lead. Pletcher’s young horses normally don’t work super fast in the morning, but for whatever reason, they are intent to be right up on the pace in the afternoon. Eskendereya did not display that tendency in his three previous starts, but followed the pattern in his 3-year-old debut. He is one who definitely should break himself of that short-lived habit in his next start.


The question is can Rule? The feeling here is that he can and will, mainly because he always appears to be rating kindly, and he has a such a smooth, efficient stride, it just seems he winds up on the lead with little effort, mainly because no one else wants it. That will change when the competition gets stiffer.


He still has two more starts before the Derby and it is now time for him to show he is versatile enough to take back off the pace when facing deeper fields and classier opponents.


One thing is for sure, Rule has been able to acclimate himself to a wide array of racing surfaces, having been victorious over the sweeping Belmont track, fast and sloppy surfaces at a six-furlong bullring track like Delta Downs, and the quirky surface at Tampa Bay Downs, which has been the downfall of many a good horse venturing there for the first time.


In the Sam Davis, he once again showed his courage by turning back two serious challenges while under a vigorous hand ride a long way out. That’s not unusual for Tampa Bay Downs, which can get so deep and tiring you have to get after your horse early, because it takes a while to get going and build up momentum. He was striding out beautifully at the end, showing no signs of tiring, and he’ll come out of this race a much fitter horse.


He’s going to have to step up when he faces better horses in the Florida Derby (gr. I), but this was an excellent prep. He again showed his tenacity and would have made his uncle Funny Cide proud.


Donnie Preston, yearling manager at WinStar, called Rule our LeBron James, because of his athleticism and his strength. He was muscular, well put together, and well balanced; just what you wanted to see. He was the one yearling everyone looked at. He was a given.”


If it’s a given he’ll be able to take back off the pace, then there will be few questions left for him to answer.


Davis runner-up, Schoolyard Dreams, ran a solid race with blinkers added (following two victories), and for a brief moment looked to be a serious threat to Rule, but couldn’t match strides with the even-money favorite after turning for home. The sentimental favorite, Uptowncharlybrown , again was being pushed along on the far turn and didn’t find his best stride until the final sixteenth. For his first start around two turns, this was an excellent effort, and it was encouraging that he was able to get in gear late after spotting too much ground to Rule. It also had to be encouraging for his connections and large fan base to see him gallop out past the winner. The Derby trail is about taking steps forward–not too small and not too big–and this was a step forward that should bode well for the future.


Beware of Scarface


You know you’re in for a good time on the Derby trail when you come across a Cal-bred gelding named “Scarface,” who broke his maiden in a $40,000 claiming race at Fairplex Park and who was bred and is part-owned by his trainer.


Oh, yes, and he just happens to be undefeated five starts, having broken out of Cal-bred races to win the grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes against some of the most promising 3-year-olds in California.


If you’re looking for consistency regardless of the competition, how about winning four of his five starts by the same margin—1 3/4 lengths—and the other by 1 1/2 lengths? How about in four of those starts being in front at the eighth pole by one length twice and 1 1/2 lengths twice? That is consistency…or a more appropriate description would be machine-like.


Going by the name Caracortado, which is Spanish for scarface, he has no relationship to Al Capone or Tony Montana.


When he arrived at trainer Mike Machowsky’s barn, he had eight stitches just above his nostrils, the result of cutting himself on a fence at the farm. After the stitches were taken out, Machowsky noticed they had left a scar, and he promptly attempted to name the horse Scarface. When that was rejected, he submitted the same name in Spanish.


Caracortado, as mentioned earlier, was bred by Machowsky, who owns the horse in partnership with Don Blahut, his longtime client who has been in racing for 40 years. And then there is the gelding’s regular rider, the little-known Paul Atkinson, who won five races all of last year, four of them on Caracortado. As Machowsky said, “He’s given this horse a flawless ride every race.


“We’ve had several lucrative offers since the race, but I told Don that he’s been good to me through the years and he deserves this shot, and Paul Atkinson deserves the shot. I told him I’m not changing silks and I’m not changing riders. Paul will remain on this horse; no discussion about it.”


Feel-good story aside, the most important thing to remember about Caracortado is that he can run. And he wins. And he does it in almost identical fashion each time.


Not many know who his sire, Cat Dreams, is, but they sure know Cat Dreams’ sire, Storm Cat. Not many have ever heard of his dam, Mons Venus, but they’ve heard of her sire, Maria's Mon, sire of Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Monarchos. And they’ve certainly heard of his maternal great-grandsire, Key to the Mint. So, although Caracortado has been branded with the Cal-bred moniker, his pedigree is predominantly Kentucky blue blood.


“Everything I ask him to do, he keeps improving and improving,” Machowsky said. “He’s a honest as they come and has that wicked turn of foot. He’s not a real big horse, but I noticed the first time I tacked him up and even around the barn, when you put a saddle on him he kind of blows up and looks bigger than he actually is.


“I’m still pretty pumped up. I woke about 1:30 (Sunday morning) and couldn’t sleep anymore. I watched the replays about 10 times and read all the articles about the race. Now we just have to keep it going.”


Machowsky said Caracortado is headed for a likely showdown with 2-year-old champ Lookin At Lucky  in the March 13 San Felipe (gr. II), followed by the April 3 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). Having broken his maiden at Fairplex, regardless of the company, he at least has a win over the dirt.


What was most impressive about his Lewis victory was the agility he showed cutting the corner turning for home and the way he accelerated right on by the battling leaders Tiz Chrome and American Lion  while still on his left lead. As soon as he went on by he switched over to his right lead and kept running strongly to the wire, coming home his final sixteenth in :06.37. He covers a lot of ground and should have no problem stretching out farther.


As for a former claimer winning the Derby, the last to do it was Charismatic in 1999. His owner: Robert B. Lewis.


Machowsky actually has a double-barreled threat for the Derby with impressive maiden winner Nextdoorneighbor also ready to make a splash in graded stakes company. The son of LidoPalace has the looks and temperament of a good horse and is crying out for distance. His maiden score at Santa Anita was one of the more visually impressive victories we’ve seen on this year’s Derby trail. He’ll make his next start in the 1 1/8-mile Sham Stakes (gr. III) Feb. 27 and then likely head out of town for either the Wood Memorial (gr. I) or the rich Sunland Park Derby (gr. III).


“I’m really anxious to get him going,” Machowsky said. “I’ve liked him from day one. I thought we’d get him started at Del Mar, but he had just a little hitch to him behind. I had him X-rayed and it showed he had a little callous starting on his tibia, so I just jogged him for a couple of weeks. I was pretty high on him even back then, the way he trained, and he has such a great mind. He’s one of those horses you can put a Western saddle on and he’ll just stand there. I’ve never been fortunate enough to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby, but I do know one thing a horse has to have is a great mind.


“I also trained his mom (Fencelineneighbor) for the Amermans and won four stakes with her and over $600,000. She won on the mud, turf, and dirt, and I really think this horse is going to improve on the dirt.”


He is a complete outcross, with a blend of Chilean, Kentucky, and California blood in his first three generations. And if you go back to his fourth and fifth generations you’ll find English, Irish, French, Argentinian, and Canadian blood.


Nextdoorneighbor indicated his sharpness by working six furlongs at Santa Anita in 1:10 3/5 Monday, the fastest of 31 works at the distance.


As for the beaten horses in the Lewis, keep a close eye on runner-up Dave in Dixie, who appears to have unlimited potential. The son of Dixie Union has an explosive closing kick, beautiful action (he really drops his shoulder and levels off), and a female family that is loaded with tough, distance-loving horses like Belmont winner High Echelon and Washington D.C. International winner Droll Role. High Echelon won his Belmont in ankle-deep slop and Droll Role won the International in a bog.


In the Lewis, he had way too much ground to make up in a five-horse, strung-out field. He swung almost six wide at the top of the stretch and lost a good deal of ground while getting floated out a bit by Tango Tango. He switched leads on cue, but it wasn’t until the final sixteenth that he found his best stride and began reaching out with authority. He almost ran up the winner’s back galloping out and Joel Rosario had to steer him to the outside.


This was only his third career start. He broke his maiden at Del Mar going six furlongs in a powerhouse performance and then had to come from last in the 11-horse Norfolk Stakes (gr. I), split horses in the upper stretch, and was beaten only 2 1/4 lengths by Lookin At Lucky. Trainer John Sadler put four long works into him leading up to the Lewis and was thrilled with his performance.


“This horse will run all day,” Sadler said. “I skipped the Breeders’ Cup with him and gave him more time and he’s really come back strong.”


This was a perfect first race back that should set him up beautifully for his next start, whether it’s the San Felipe or an out of town race. Watch out for this one.


Third-place finisher American Lion  ran well enough in his two-turn debut after dogging Tiz Chrome the entire way, but will have to improve in his next start. Bob Baffert said Tiz Chrome “looked soft” in the paddock and definitely needed the race, with only two sprints under his belt and almost a two-month layoff. Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride is not the surface you want for a front-runner, especially going two turns for the first time. Baffert is considering sending him East for the Gotham Stakes (gr. III), which would be more conducive to his style of running. Baffert is also looking for an improved effort next time from Concord Point, who finished fourth at 1-2 in a six-furlong allowance race Feb. 12. That race was won by the Doug O’Neill-trained High Success, who came from the clouds to get up in the final strides, covering the six panels in 1:09.05.


Candy is The Man


If he runs like a sprinter and is as fast as a sprinter, he must be a sprinter, right? Not necessarily, if he has all the attributes of Sidney's Candy, who simply was in a different league than his opponents in Monday’s seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II).


By Candy Ride , out of a daughter of million-dollar earner Exchange, Sidney’s Candy has every right to keep stretching out successfully. Candy Ride, of course, set a new track record winning the Pacific Classic (gr. I) and Exchange won stakes at 3, 4, 5, and 6, and was a grade I winner at 5 and 6, including the 10-furlong Santa Barbara Handicap.


In the San Vicente, Sidney’s Candy shot to the lead and just seemed to be toying with his opponents, including two fast Baffert runners–Tiny Woods and Quiet Invader. He kept rattling off :23 and change quarters and then came home strongly under a hand ride by Joe Talamo to win by  4 1/4 lengths in 1:20.91. This colt is so athletic you can barely see him change leads, he does it so quickly and so smoothly.


His next start will be two turns, so we’ll find out soon enough if he can carry his speed longer distances. He showed he can rate off the pace when breaking his maiden back at Del Mar, earning a 99 Beyer Speed Figure, and you had to love the way trainer John Sadler brought him up to this race with six furlong works in 1:12 4/5, 1:12 2/5, and 1:12 1/5.


So, are we looking at something special here? His next race will go a long way in answering that.


Blind ambition


It’s way too early to even consider Blind Luck a Kentucky Derby hopeful, and there wasn’t a lot to learn in that respect from her desperate nose victory in the Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I). This performance was reminiscent of Zenyatta’s win in last year’s Clement Hirsch (gr. I). She had to overcome a slow pace, while racing in last in the five-horse field. Unlike her last race, she switched leads right on cue and closed relentlessly to nose out a horse (Evening Jewel) who had just taken the lead in the shadow of the wire. And she had to come home her final eighth in :11 flat and final quarter in :22 1/5 to get the job done, although final splits on Pro-Ride are more like turf and allowances must be made. As of now, she is still being considered a Kentucky Oaks filly and would have to do something extraordinary to change those plans.


More weekend action


Baffert called a surprising audible by putting Macias in the 6 1/2-furlong Baffle Stakes Saturday on the downhill turf course instead of entering him back in the rescheduled Robert B. Lewis Stakes. But Baffert is strongly convinced the son of Purge is a far better horse on the grass, and Macias apparently proved him right by drawing off to a 2 1/2-length victory. So, we can assume he has been officially booted off the Derby trail.


In other performances of note last week, Tiz the One, a son of Tiznow , launched a powerful bid from between horses and then drew off to an impressive 2 3/4-length victory in his career debut going six furlongs. At Oaklawn on Saturday, Wayne Lukas sent out Wow Wow Wow to a front-running 4 3/4-length score in a 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claimer. The son of Broken Vow , owned by Marylou Whitney, was coming off a 20-length shellacking in the Smarty Jones Stakes. He appears to be a different horse when allowed to set his own pace.