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Kentucky Derby Trail: Party Scene

WinStar adds another Kentucky Derby hopeful in Drosselmeyer.

As the Kentucky Derby trail heads into February, the WinStar team has been as giddy as young Clara receiving the nutcracker from Uncle Drosselmeyer in the opening party scene of “The Nutcracker.”


As if having graded stakes winners Super Saver  and Rule in Florida with Todd Pletcher and graded stakes winner American Lion  heading into Saturday’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) for Eoin Harty isn’t enough of a thrill, WinStar also has the exciting Drosselmeyer, who scored an impressive victory Jan. 31 in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream for Bill Mott.


Drosselmeyer, a son of Distorted Humor , was a boy going into Sunday’s race, easily breaking his maiden by six lengths at Churchill Downs in November. But he came out of the race a man. Not only did he make an excellent transition from 2 to 3, he turned in as professional an effort as you want to see from a young 3-year-old, patiently biding his time while boxed in behind horses. When a seam opened outside the leaders, he eased out and went right on by, winning as the rider pleased.


The morning line favorite, Pulsion, was scratched from the race with a cough, so we weren’t able to get as good a gauge on Drosselmeyer as we would have liked, but he did everything the right way and is very close to being a legitimate Derby contender if he can step up one more time in stakes company.


As for WinStar’s fab four, they all come highly recommended, and all have the pedigree and talent to make it all the way.


Donnie Preston, yearling manager at WinStar, remembers all of them, but one in particular.


Rule was our LeBron James, because of his athleticism and his strength,” he said. “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.


American Lion probably was the second most impressive. He was a big, long, scopey horse, well balanced and solid, and he had a really good mind. Both Rule and American Lion were fairly easy to work with.


Super Saver didn’t have the best front end, but it wasn’t bad. He was pretty tough. He wasn’t overly aggressive or mean, but he had that attitude that you want to see that carries over to the racetrack. Whoever he was turned out with, he was always the leader of that group. You had to make sure you had a pretty good guy working with him. When he came back here for a little break, I was in charge of the layup barn, and I noticed that he was a lot easier to handle. He wasn’t a bad horse to handle before that; just a typical teenage boy. Now, he acts like he’s grown up, and is more mature. When he was here, I didn’t let him down all the way. We just let him get out in the round pen, weather permitting, and hand-walked him around the shed as much as possible. They just wanted to give him a break; there was nothing wrong with him physically.


“All three of them were in our top five. They bought Drosselmeyer at the Keeneland September yearling sale, so I wasn’t around him that much when he was being broken. But I remember that the gal who was in charge of the breaking, Jillian Lang, commented that she really liked him; the way he moved and the way he handled himself. I remember him as being a big, strong, fairly correct horse.”


Preston also liked a Tiznow  colt, In the Paint, but he could finish no better than seventh in Saturday’s WEBN Stakes for trainer Kellyn Gorder after getting bottled up in traffic early and then having to steady on the far turn. He previously had broken his maiden by 3 3/4 lengths at Turfway.


Richard Budge, who trains WinStar’s young horses at the Highpointe training center before they head to their respective trainers at the racetrack, was particularly high on one of them, and will have great interest in the Feb. 6 Lewis.


“American Lion was my favorite of the group,” Budge said. “Like all of the Tiznows, he is an exceptional mover and covers a lot of ground. A leggy, immature colt early, he needed time to fill into his giant frame. He has breezed over the dirt at Highpointe extremely well, and he reminds me a lot of Colonel John, so the dirt surface will not be a problem for him; he had great tactical speed for a big colt. He was just a pleasure to train.


“Rule was a workmanlike colt from the beginning and did everything right. Super Saver came highly touted, and was a very attractive colt. Drosselmeyer took a while to come around, but he definitely is on the improve, and has great potential.”


WinStar has been well-represented in the Derby in recent years, with 2006 runner-up Bluegrass Cat  and top-class stakes winners such as Any Given Saturday, Colonel John, Court Vision , Hold Me Back, Cowtown Cat , and Advice. But never have they been as deep talent-wise as they are this year. We all know anything can happen on the Derby trail, and you can never be too confident, but if WinStar is finally going to break through and take home the roses, this sure looks like it could be their year.


Profile of the Week


Each week we will profile one or two lesser-known horses that most people are not that familiar with, but who have the tools to make their presence felt in the near future and emerge as a legitimate Derby contender.


This week’s profile is on Soaring Empire , a royally bred son of Empire Maker , out of the A.P. Indy mare Flying Passage. His third dam is Maskette (gr. I) winner and Alabama (gr. I) runner-up Too Chic, a granddaughter of Monade, winner of the English Oaks and Prix Vermeille, and runner-up in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. This colt is inbred to Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, and In Reality, and has Buckpasser and Aspidistra (dam of Dr. Fager) three times in his first six generations.


Owned by Rick Pitino’s Ol Memorial Stable and C.E. Glasscock and trained by Cam Gambolati, Soaring Empire has had to battle back from a series of setbacks, starting with cracked heels and bruised frogs as a 2-year-old. He made his debut going 5 1/2 furlongs at Monmouth Park and came flying late with a powerful run to win going away by 3 1/4 lengths in 1:04 3/5. He came right back in the one-mile Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs and had a troubled trip, getting caught in tight quarters at the five-sixteenths pole. Uh Oh Bango kept him trapped between horses and jockey Eddies Castro had to stop riding him just as he was making his run. He was in so tight, he got banged around pretty badly. At the eighth pole, after getting clear sailing, he appeared to be laboring and it looked like would be no better than fourth or fifth. But he found another gear at the sixteenth pole, and although he wound up third he was drawing well clear of the remainder of the field.


He came out of the race body sore and Gambolati decided to pass the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) and bring him down to Palm Meadows to let him shut down for a while. After finally getting his feet in good shape with the help of aluminum heel plates, he breezed him a half in :50 3/5, but the colt came down with a fever the next day. He was back on the work tab Sunday and turned in a sharp half-mile in :48 2/5 with Castro aboard.


Gambolati would love to be able to make the Derby with Soaring Empire on the 25th anniversary of his victory with Spend a Buck.


“I don’t want to leave Palm Meadows, but we have a time factor, and I don’t like the Florida Derby (gr. I) being moved to six weeks before the Derby,” Gambolati said. “I’m not that much of a genius that I can train a horse for six weeks without running him. I want to place him in a good spot where he can get some graded earnings. It’s a long year, but if the Derby is in his range I gotta go, because I really believe he’s the second best horse I’ve ever trained, I really do. He’s just so talented.


“He loves competition. When he gallops alone he just cruises along, but when I gallop him in company it’s like he goes from Clark Kent to Superman. He’s that competitive. We’re a little bit behind everyone, but at least were in the hunt.”


Work of the week


With Todd Pletcher giving his top 3-year-olds fairly easy works Sunday morning (Super Saver :48 4/5 breezing, Rule 1:01 4/5 handily, Eskendereya 1:02 2/5 breezing, and Interactif 1:03 2/5 breezing, as well as the promising maiden winner Overcommunication :49 breezing), here came Discreetly Mine to rip off a bullet five furlongs in a Bob Baffert-like :59 1/5, handily.


So, what was that all about? It certainly wasn’t your typical Pletcher work, especially with star older horses Quality Road  breezing a half in :49 4/5, Munnings  breezing in :49, and Take the Points drilling five furlongs in 1:01 4/5, handily.


Discreetly Mine has been a forgotten horse, possibly getting lost in the Pletcher arsenal after being turned over to him several months ago and finishing a distant fourth in the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes (gr. III) in the slop. But this is a proven stakes horse with class, having finished second in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) and Futurity (gr. II). Although some may feel he will be better at shorter distances (Pletcher started him out at six furlongs), his pedigree actually shouts stamina, especially through his tail-female family, which is all Rokeby Stable. And he is inbred to Tom Rolfe and three times to Buckpasser. Throw out his horrible trip in the slop in the Spectacular Bid, and he could actually be a sleeper in his own stable. This latest work shows he is on top of his game and ready for bigger and better things.


More weekend races


There was a great deal of interest in Afleet Express in a six-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream Saturday. Although the son of Afleet Alex  was beaten as the 6-5 favorite, finishing second to the New York-bred speedster General Maximus, he did enough to indicate he’s a good horse. After breaking badly and getting bumped, he made a big middle move to reach contention, a tactic that normally never works, but jockeys still do it all the time after getting left.


Afleet Express appeared to have emptied out after his move, but despite racing greenly, he managed to level off in the stretch, and was moving beautifully in the final furlong as he rallied to get second, 1 3/4 lengths behind the winner in a sharp 1:09 2/5. So, we know now that he is a colt with a good deal of promise, but the fact is, he still has had only two six-furlong races in his career. You can bet trainer Jimmy Jerkens will push all the right buttons and we’ll just have to see what kind of strides–physically and mentally—he makes in his next start.


As for General Maximus, he no doubt is a very fast horse and only time will tell how far he can carry his speed. Right now, he looks like a formidable foe for the grade II Swale and/or Hutcheson Stakes, unless his connections decide to stretch him out.


In a one-mile maiden race later on the card, First Dude , by Stephen Got Even was impressive stalking the pace and then drawing off to a 2 3/4-length victory over The Director, who ran well after squeezing through a narrow opening. Trained by Dale Romans, First Dude has a solid pedigree top and bottom and looks like a horse with a future.


The :24 opening quarter and :45 4/5 half showed once again that people should pay little attention Gulfstream’s fractions. It is obvious that, for whatever reason, their timing mechanism often fails to register the correct opening quarter, which in this case resulted in opening splits of :24 and :21 4/5. This has been going on for the last couple of years, so all anyone can do is ignore what they see on the tote board and in the chart.


While we’re on a rant, they ran the WEBN Stakes at Turfway Park Jan. 30, and although we have nothing against the wire-to-wire winner, Kera’s Kitten, there is not much to write about this race, except that it was a reminder of how unpleasant it is watching that unsightly kickback at Turfway. There were 12 horses in the race, and all of them looked like jets giving off a vapor trail. Turning into the stretch it was as if someone had pelted the track with smoke bombs. Whether this has any effect on the horses we have no idea, but it sure isn’t pretty to look at.


Prince Will I Am, trained by Todd Pletcher's former exercise rider Michelle Nihei, parlayed a bullet :59 3/5 work at Palm Meadows into a fast-closing second-place finish to Drosselmeyer at odds of 42-1. It's hard to know what to make of his son of Victory Ride, but he is bred to run all day, and he can close..


Cinderella story unfolding


Let the fairy tale stories begin. We already have the feel-good story of Uptowncharlybrown  developing at Tampa Bay Downs, and now there is the story of Caracortado, a Cal-bred gelding who was bred by his trainer , Mike Machowsky, and brings a four-race unbeaten streak into Saturday’s Robert Lewis Stakes.


Caracortado, who was a late foal (May 7) is by Cat Dreams, who made one start in his career, out of an unraced mare named Mons Venus. Typical obscure California breeding, right? Well, you just have to go back one generation to see that Cat Dreams is a son of Storm Cat, out of million-dollar earner J J’sdream, and Mons Dreams is by Maria's Mon, out of a Key to the Mint mare.


Caracortado won his debut for a $40,000 claiming tag going four furlongs. He then won a six-furlong starter allowance race in 1:08 4/5. He continued his winning ways in an allowance race by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:16 1/5 for 6 1/2 furlongs. Stretching out to 1 1/16 miles in the Dec. 26 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes, he rallied in the final furlong after splitting horses to win in hand by 1 3/4 lengths.


Since that race, he has turned in four exceptional works–a half in :47 1/5, six furlongs in 1:13 1/5, seven furlongs in 1:26, and six furlongs in 1:12 1/5 this past Sunday.


On Saturday, he tackles open company and makes his graded stakes debut, taking on Hollywood Prevue (gr. III) winner American Lion, the undefeated Tiz Chrome, and Dave in Dixie, who has been training lights out for his return.


Dave in Dixie is extremely intriguing in here, especially coming off a six-furlong drill in 1:11 flat and then a sharp seven furlongs in 1:26 1/5. Following a sensational debut last year, in which he came flying to late to win by 3 1/4 lengths over the top-class Get My Fix, he was highly touted for the Norfolk Stakes (gr. I), despite stretching out from six furlongs to 1 1/16 miles. Sent off at 4-1, he dropped back to last, a dozen lengths off the pace, and rallied between horses along the inside. Although he finished a bit one-paced in the final furlong and could do no better than sixth, he still was beaten only 2 1/4 lengths by 2-year-old champion Lookin At Lucky , and was beaten only a half-length for second in a blanket finish.


By Dixie Union, his female family is inundated with stamina, so distance will never be a problem for him. The way he’s been working, he definitely bears watching in the Lewis.


Baffert also may run Eddie Logan winner Macias in the Lewis, so this is shaping up as tough race. Baffert said on "At the Races with Steve Byk"  Monday that Kaleem Shah, who has lost two top 3-year-olds this year in Clutch Player , who succumbed to pneumonia, and Take Control, who is out with shin problems, has purchased the promising maiden winner Concord Point, who is pointing for the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II).