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Ky. Derby Trail: Quality Performances

There are three ways of looking at the Florida Derby (gr. I): the best horse won, the best horse finished second, and both horses ran sensational races and established themselves as major Kentucky Derby contenders. The consensus would have to be number three.


Quality Road  and Dunkirk both came into the race with questions to answer and both came out with no questions to answer. Quality Road handled his first start around two turns with no problem and Dunkirk proved himself against stakes quality competition.


Those pretty much are the basics of the Florida Derby. But they are by no means the entire story.


Quality Road was a deserving winner and did everything expected of him. And how about Jimmy Jerkens heading to the Kentucky Derby for the first time? We’re talking about old-style training at its best, handed down from his legendary Hall of Fame father, Allen. How can anyone not root for a Jerkens to win the Derby, especially with Allen celebrating his 80th birthday on April 21. Do I hear the Derby gods starting to stir?


Quality Road has shown he can rate kindly behind horses, and seems to be getting more mature and professional with every start. With an abundance of brilliant and classy horses on the Derby trail who like to run on or near the lead, it certainly would benefit Quality Road if can be just as effective laying a bit farther back and not get caught up in a fast, contentious pace. He won’t be sitting off sprinters like This Ones For Phil and Casey’s on Call, who are going to back up after six furlongs, at Churchill Downs.


Although the track at Gulfstream was blazing-fast and speed-biased, Quality Road’s splits of :23 2/5, :23 2/5, :23 4/5, :24 3/5, and :12 2/5 nevertheless were extremely impressive. And that’s with John Velazquez sitting chilly on him until challenged by Dunkirk at the top of the stretch. At first it looked as if Velazquez had waited too long to pull the trigger, as Dunkirk had all the momentum and appeared to stick his head in front turning for home. But Quality Road kicked into another gear, as only top-class horses will do, and drew clear of Dunkirk. For a big, imposing colt to have this kind of speed and the ability to shift gears on a dime, it makes him all the more dangerous. Add to that his toughness, ability to rate, and being able to sustain fractions that will run most horses into the ground, and you have a horse you don’t want to mess with.


Todd Pletcher made his feelings about the track known on national television just seconds after the race was over, stating he would have gone to the Wood Memorial (gr. I) the following week had he known it was going to be so speed favoring. Whatever the reason, before this week, you couldn’t find a horse that broke 1:50 for 1 1/8 miles, and now they go in 1:47 3/5 on Florida Derby day, during which several track records fell. But a study of the races during the week provided a forewarning of what was to come when a six-furlong starter allowance race on Thursday was won wire-to-wire in 1:08 4/5.


Pletcher’s immediate reaction was understandable, considering the importance of this race to Dunkirk in regard to graded earnings. The $150,000 he picked up normally would get him in the Derby, but wouldn’t have last year, so you never know. But last year you basically had only one horse to beat in the Derby. With so many top-class horses this year, one would think $150,000 will be sufficient to make the field.


Dunkirk’s performance under the circumstances was sensational, as he had everything against him, dropping back to sixth, eight lengths off the lead. Of the other seven dirt races on the card, five were won by horses on the lead or a head off the lead and two were won by horses who were one length back. Not a single horse on the card other than Dunkirk came from farther back than fourth to even get second.


Dunkirk, who has no clue what a good trip is, was placed at a huge disadvantage. But regardless of whether he won or not, the move he made on the far turn, and his overall performance, stamped him as something special. If he makes it into the Derby he is going to be extremely tough, even with his having only three career starts and without running as a 2-year-old. This horse has gotten more experience in those three starts than most horses get in five or six races.


To demonstrate just what he accomplished in the Florida Derby, he went from the five-eighths pole to the quarter pole in a scintillating :34 3/5, rattling off eighths in :11 3/5, :11 3/5, and :11 2/5, making up most of the eight lengths in that final eighth, in which he charged by horses with a spectacular move to stick his head in front of Quality Road turning for home. Although he closed well, pulling six lengths clear of 7-2 Theregoesjojo, Quality Road had plenty left after a fairly easy trip and drew clear to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Even then, Dunkirk was matching strides with him in the final sixteenth and actually galloped out well clear of him before pulling up apparently exhausted from his efforts.


While Quality Road returned with more energy and as clean-coated as he was before the race, Dunkirk’s face was covered with so much mud it looked as if he were wearing blinkers.


I have to admit I think more highly of Dunkirk now than I did before the race, and have gained a great deal of respect for him.


He’s one horse who probably can use the five weeks between races. In his career debut, he showed the ability to sit and wait behind a wall of horses after making a big move into contention and then respond when steered abruptly to the outside for running room. The horse he ran off from in the stretch, Santana Six, has come back to win his next two starts by daylight. In his second start, Dunkirk was forced eight-wide into the first turn, remained wide the rest of the way, shrugged off two horses making big moves on his outside, and blew his field away. Now with the Florida Derby, he has shown even more dimensions. Who knows what this horse is capable of with a good trip?


He still does have history against him, but as we’ve seen in recent years, the history books are being burned as often as “The Catcher in the Rye.” It still is of some concern, but once again his experience goes far beyond three races. Let’s get him in the Derby first and then we can worry about Apollo and the other ghosts of the past.


The bottom line is that the Florida Derby has produced two exceptional horses, who could be as special as recent Florida Derby winners Barbaro and Big Brown, both of whom did some history book burning of their own.


As a side note, how exciting has this year’s Derby trail been for Lane’s End Farm, who as agent, consigned Quality Road and Dunkirk to the Keeneland September yearling sale, as well as Imperial Council, who runs next week in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) against I Want Revenge , a son of Lane’s End stallion Stephen Got Even. Lane’s End also stands top Derby contender Friesan Fire ’s sire A.P. Indy, who happens to be the broodmare sire of Dunkirk and Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) hopeful Patena.


As for Theregoesjojo, many times when you take a horse with an explosive turn of foot going one turn and you put him up close to the pace going two turns, you take his main weapon away from him. That was the case in the Florida Derby when Theregoesjojo, who had blown by Quality Road going seven furlongs and had put in another electrifying move to finish second to him in the Fountain of Youth, was placed right off Quality Road’s flank from the start. Unable to use that quick burst from back in the pack, he flattened out and was pretty much done by the time they turned for home.


Desert Dilemma


Ok, so you can now remove Desert Party  from the list of Derby contenders, right? Not so fast.


Once again, here is an endorsement for a runner-up, with another look at the stopwatch. There are several factors to take under consideration before dismissing Desert Party. I believed going into the UAE Derby (UAE-II) that Desert Party had to win and look impressive to still be considered a major Derby contender. Well, he didn’t win, and according to jockey Frankie Dettori, he was “flat,” as he struggled to close the gap on stablemate Regal Ransom, whom he had defeated twice already this year.


If Desert Party had run the exact same race in one of the final preps in America, I would consider it a solid effort that should set him up for a peak performance on May 2. For a horse who had never been farther than a mile, it sure got him plenty fit, as did the Florida Derby for Dunkirk. Now is the time you say, but look at who beat him. And there sure weren’t any grade I horses behind him.


But here are the positive factors you can take out of the race:


-- The track, wet from a week of heavy rains, was speed-favoring, as evidenced by the emphatic victories by front-runners Well Armed and Two Step Salsa , who simply were uncatchable. Sound familiar? And like in the UAE Derby, the closers were all floundering up the track. In fact, in the three above mentioned races, Desert Party was the only non-speed horse to make up any ground late, and he finished 15 lengths ahead of the third horse, just as Dunkirk finished far ahead of the third horse. As you can see, there were several parallels with Desert Party and Dunkirk.


-- If anyone is put off by the final clocking of 1:50, I have to take issue with the accuracy of the time, having timed the race several times from the moment the horses left the gate, with no run-up. That should have made for a slower clocking. Each time, however, I got 1:48 1/5, with the most spot-on being 1:48.37. If that was from the opening of the gate, how could the official final time be almost two seconds slower? It should have been faster. I did the same thing for the Dubai World Cup, and got a final time of 1:59.47 (1:59 2/5), not 2:01.01. Once again, where did those additional two seconds come from? I mention this at the risk of sounding ignorant in case there is something about the timing in Dubai of which I am not aware.


 -- I also clocked the final eighth and final quarter a number of times, starting and stopping beforehand until I got the poles down pat. This is much more clear-cut than timing the entire race. The final quarter was run in :24 1/5 and final eighth in :12 2/5. Desert Party probably shaded :24 and came home his final eighth in :12 1/5. Dettori rode him confidently to the two-furlong marker and when he asked him he drew well clear of the others, but Regal Ransom had too much left on this kind of track. Remember, Kiaran McLaughlin thought so highly of Regal Ransom last fall he sent him to Santa Anita for the Norfolk Stakes (gr. I) off one seven-furlong maiden victory, but the colt couldn’t handle the synthetic surface.


Now, many are going to say all this timing nonsense is a waste of time, and perhaps it is. The bottom line is that Desert Party was beaten in a race he should have won. Well, lots of Derby winners lost their final prep in races they should have won or were supposed to win. Secretariat couldn’t catch his stablemate Angle Light in the Wood Memorial (gr. I); Grindstone couldn’t get by Zarb’s Magic in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) after beating him handily in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II). Monarchos couldn’t catch Congaree in the Wood Memorial. Those are just a few examples.


Nad al Sheba often favors horses with tactical and front-running speed, and this track was even more quirky than normal after being sealed for several days and packed down by all the rain.


No one is saying that Desert Party is going to win the Kentucky Derby. The only point being made here is that it might be premature to give up on him. He’s still on a good progression and is now dead-fit. It all depends on how he bounces out of this race and handles the trip back to America.


As for Regal Ransom, the son of Distorted Humor has sufficient stamina in his own right, but his running style is not as conducive to the Kentucky Derby as Desert Party’s is, as he appears to be more one-dimensional. And this is not the year to send a one-dimensional pace horse to the Derby. The Preakness looks to be a better spot for him. He was blowing pretty hard walking into the winner’s circle, and right now, 1 1/4 miles looks a bit beyond his reach.


In Sunland Derby Sunday, the hard-knocking Kelly Leak swept to the front turning for home and held off the maiden winner Mythical Power, who is a horse you should be hearing a lot from in the upcoming months. KellyLeak is a seasoned stakes horse who handles any surface and has now finished in the money in six of his eight starts. He was disqualified after finishing first in last year’s Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) at Del Mar and has placed in two stakes this year, on the turf at Santa Anita and on the dirt at Gulfstream.


Mythical Power has always been highly regard by trainer Bob Baffert, and he kept pounding away after seemingly beaten at the quarter pole to finish 1 1/2 lengths behind KellyLeak. Borderland Derby winner Scorewithcater finished third.


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