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Dunkirk needs to finish first or second in the Florida Derby to have any chance of making it into the Kentucky Derby.
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Ky. Derby Trail: Rabbit Punch

On several occasions in the past, Todd Pletcher has pulled a rabbit out of his hat.

On several occasions over the past few years, Todd Pletcher has reached into his hat to pull out a rabbit, and in most cases the trick didn't go quite as planned. Despite some bad hare days, Pletcher has decided to try his luck at prestidigitation once again in Saturday’s Florida Derby (gr. I).


In this case, it could be a wise move, as he offers up his $2.6 million maiden Europe as a sacrificial lamb to make sure the speedy Quality Road  does not take an easy stroll on the lead in a race where Pletcher’s Dunkirk needs to finish first or second to have any chance of making it into the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) field.


There is still a possibility that Pletcher may change his mind and scratch Europe on race day after he assesses the field. But for this column’s purpose, let’s go on the assumption that Europe will run, at least for the time being.


If he does, Pletcher has to make sure the horse is utilized the right way, if there is a right way. With one dull fourth in a five-furlong maiden race in his career, and never showing the slightest amount of speed, Europe could cave early in the race, making his presence virtually useless. But Pletcher told Daily Racing Form that Europe has worked in :58 4/5, holding off older horse The Roundhouse in the process. Pletcher needs Europe to stick around for a while and make Quality Road work up a sweat. There is already a horse in the race named Casey's on Call who has shown good speed sprinting in a high-priced claiming race and led for the opening half-mile in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III), in which he ran the half in :45 3/5 before stopping abruptly. So, there likely will be two horses backing up rapidly in the Florida Derby, either at the same time or one right after the other, and it’s imperative that one or both don’t back up right in Dunkirk’s face, especially his own stablemate.


The rabbit strategy has backfired before for Pletcher, who only needs to go back to his prior attempts at preparing hasenpfeffer before he serves up the dish again on Saturday.


In the 2005 Kentucky Derby, Pletcher used Coolmore’s sprinter/miler Spanish Chestnut to kill off the brilliantly fast Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Bellamy Road , even though Spanish Chestnut was trained by Patrick Biancone. Because Coolmore also owned the runaway Blue Grass (gr. I) winner Bandini, trained by Pletcher, they willingly obliged. But Bandini was a horse who liked to run fairly close to the pace, as did Pletcher’s other Derby entry Flower Alley, who had recently been equipped with blinkers. As it turned out. Spanish Chestnut not only killed off Bellamy Road with a blistering :45 1/5 half and 1:09 2/5 three-quarters, he killed off everyone within five or six lengths of him, with the exception of 71-1 shot Closing Argument. That included both of Pletcher’s horses, as Bandini faded to 19th and Flower Alley finished ninth. The rapid pace set it up for the 50-1 shot Giacomo to come storming home late for the upset victory.


But Pletcher’s worst experience with a rabbit came later that year in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) when he put his sprinter Bishop Court Hill in the race to soften up California invader Lava Man and set it up for Flower Alley, who was coming off a victory in the Travers (gr. I), in which he sat second the whole way behind Bellamy Road, on his own. But in the Gold Cup, it was Flower Alley who got keyed up and wound up going head and head with his own rabbit. Lava Man was never himself and dropped out of it early, leaving the two Pletcher horses eyeball to eyeball through a brisk half in :46 3/5. Here was John Velazquez on Flower Alley looking over at Chantal Sutherland on Bishop Court Hill as if pleading with her to do something, anything, to get away from him. But once you wind up the Energizer bunny you can’t just turn him off. The pair continued to battle with each other for six furlongs, setting it up for another California horse, Borrego, who blew by everyone to win eased up by 4 1/2 lengths. The 3-2 favorite Flower Alley faded to fourth, beaten 15 lengths.


In 2007, Pletcher used Icy Atlantic as a rabbit for English Channel  in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT). But the field that year came up so weak, and Icy Atlantic’s pace of :51 1/5 and 1:16 1/5 on a firm course was so slow, he was not needed at all, as the victorious English Channel, who was sitting right in behind him the entire race, would have romped with or without him.


But Pletcher decided to use the same tactics next time out in the John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT), only this time Icy Atlantic went out there in :47 4/5 and 1:12 2/5. English Channel, again sitting right behind him, got caught up in the faster fractions, and although he was able to get a short lead at the eighth pole, he was unable to hold off the late-closing Red Rocks  and Better Talk Now.


If Pletcher is going to use a rabbit this time, Garrett Gomez aboard Dunkirk has to make sure that his horse is actually helped by him and not have him too close to Quality Road. If you’re targeting someone for a hit you don’t want to be anywhere near him when it comes down. In this case, a wrong move could set it up for an explosive late closer like Theregoesjojo, who will be a force to reckon with if he handles two turns as effectively as he’s handled one turn.


The son of Brahms has demonstrated the kind of explosive turn of foot you love to see in a Derby horse, and he’s been able to sustain it. Now, we’ll see if he can deliver the same kind of knockout punch going two turns.


For all those who feel running a rabbit is not the sporting thing to do, it’s part of the sport, even more so in Europe where they’re called pacesetters, and Pletcher has every right to run one, especially with so much on the line. Betting and connections aside, does anyone really want to see Quality Road get an uncontested lead, slow the pace down to a crawl, and wire the field? In racing, that’s called stealing, and you can’t blame Pletcher for not wanting the Derby stolen right out from under him. He just has to firm up his battle strategy and make sure Dunkirk and Europe are on the same map.


Now, if Pletcher is confident that Casey’s on Call and one or two others can put enough pressure on Quality Road and he decides to let Dunkirk take his chances alone, then never mind. But either way, stay tuned. This should be interesting.


Derby trail shuffle continues


So far, we’ve got Take the Points, originally scheduled to run in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), now going in the Blue Grass Stakes; Mr. Fantasy, originally scheduled to run in the Illinois Derby (gr. II), now going in the Wood Memorial (gr. I); Musket Man, originally scheduled to run in the Wood Memorial, now going in the Illinois Derby; Lime Rickey, originally scheduled to run in the Blue Grass Stakes, now going in the Wood Memorial; and Al Khali , originally scheduled to run in the Wood Memorial, now going in the Illinois Derby.


With earnings so important to all the above horses with the exception of Musket Man, every trainer is trying to give his horse the best possible chance to pick up enough earnings to get in the Derby field, and that often requires a change of plans, depending on which races they feel best suits their horse and which looks to be the easiest spot.


The following are some of the horses who need to finish first or second in their next start to have enough earnings to make the Derby field: Dunkirk, Theregoesjojo, Imperial Council, Take the Points, Flying Private, Patena, Hello Broadway, Mr. Hot Stuff, Mr. Fantasy, Join in the Dance, Cliffy’s Future, Lime Rickey, Nowhere to Hide, Captain Cherokee, Masala, Al Khali, Omniscient, and Just a Coincidence. And, remember, there is one less spot open this year.


Lukas looks to get flying


Wayne Lukas said he hasn’t decided yet where Lane’s End (gr. II) runner-up Flying Private will make his next start. The son of Fusaichi Pegasus, who has had some dreadful trips this year, ran a huge race in his first start on a synthetic surface, pulling four lengths clear of the two local stars Proceed Bee and Parade Clown.   


“I don’t know where he fits on everyone’s lists, but this horse has got some talent and he’s getting better,” Lukas said. “He’s a big, powerful, gorgeous colt who’s just finding himself. He switched leads awkwardly (in the Lane’s End) and when he got to lead he didn’t know quite what to do. He might have won had he not raced so greenly. No one knows we’re even alive here, but, watch out, that rascal is getting good.”


Lukas said he may consider the Blue Grass Stakes for Hamazing Destiny, who didn’t handle the deep, heavy track at Oaklawn in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III), finishing a well-beaten eighth. “This is a very talented horse,” Lukas said. “They’re talking about 14 horses for the Arkansas Derby (gr. II); I don’t know where they’re all coming from. I’m taking a look at the Blue Grass, but I’m not crazy about running him on the Polytrack at Keeneland.”


Lukas’ other talented 3-year-old, Buzzin and Dreamin, who finished third in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at odds of 64-1, has been sidelined with a stress fracture.


In other Derby news:


-- Papa Clem, unable to get to Hawthorne for the Illinois Derby, will run instead in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). In his last three races, a maiden win and second-place finishes in graded stakes, he has shown a great deal of grit and courage. Even in his 7 1/4-length defeat in the Louisiana Derby, he dug in when challenged by Terrain at the sixteenth pole and refused to let him get by him. Like other tenacious sons of Smart Strike, Curlin  and English Channel, this colt has a lot of fight in him, and those types are always dangerous.


-- Santa Anita Derby hopefuls Pioneerof the Nile, The Pamplemousse, and Chocolate Candy turned in solid works at Santa Anita Wednesday. Pioneerof the Nile drilled six furlongs in 1:11 2/5, The Pamplemousse went six furlongs in 1:13, and Chocolate Candy worked a mile in 1:38 3/5.


Following are comments from Horseplayerpro.com clocker Toby Turrell on the three works:


THE PAMPLEMOUSSE: “The Pamplemousse had regular pilot Alex Solis aboard for a key six-panel drill this morning at Santa Anita, and the signals were mixed for the big grey.  On the plus side, Solis never really put him into gear most of the way. However, he still wanted to get a bit too aggressive early going (:47.20 to the top of the lane) en route to a 1:13-flat clocking -- with an even more pedestrian gallop out time of 127.60.


“This drill was a bit backwards on the watch, and when Solis ‘clucked’ to the horse inside the eighth-pole, The Pamplemousse did not give much response visually over a pretty deep surface. The Pro-Ride was renovated on Monday afternoon as part of the track’s normal maintenance.

“It certainly appears at this stage that the connections are just going to have to let The Pamplemousse sail on the lead and hope for the best.”


PIONEEROF THE NILE: “With just over a week to go until the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Bob Baffert wanted a stiff drill out of his charge and he got it with Joe Steiner piloting Pioneer Of The Nile to a co-bullet of 1:11.40 for six panels.  The splits of this drill were :35.60 and 59-flat, then a final furlong of :12.40 past the wire, working down to the clubhouse turn. Baffert told me that he was extremely happy with the colt and it went according to schedule. There is no doubt he will get a lot out of this drill, fitness-wise, over a deeply renovated surface that played a bit on the heavy side this morning. 


“Anytime a 3-year-old can go the last three-eighths in :35.40 with a real swift final clocking, you have to deem him on course to go the ultimate distance of a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May. I personally believe that this colt’s most impressive drills are when he shows his class in team drills, where he usually blows by his stablemate with ease through the last quarter-mile. Today, working solo, Pioneerof The Nile was professional, indeed, responding to the urging from his regular exercise rider from top of the lane to the clubhouse turn without having a target in front of him to keep him aggressive.”


CHOCOLATE CANDY: “Chocolate Candy worked a mile in 1:38.60 at Santa Anita under Joel Rosario, completing the final five furlongs in 1:01.60, which is very respectable on the watch given the fact that the surface was a bit on the deep side after undergoing its normal deep harrowing on Monday afternoon. 


“This colt stamped himself as a serious contender to win the Santa Anita Derby with this notable drill. He jogged back to the barn seemingly un-fatigued and certainly dead-fit. Perhaps the most important question that this son of Candy Ride  answered was an affinity for the Pro-Ride surface. With trainer Jerry Hollendorfer on hand at Clocker’s Corner to witness the work, the connections have to feel confident from all aspects that are key at this stage of the game.

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