Colonel John battles El Gato Malo to the wire in the Sham (gr. III) March 1 at Santa Anita.<br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Colonel John battles El Gato Malo to the wire in the Sham (gr. III) March 1 at Santa Anita.
Order This Photo


Ky. Derby Trail: The Cat and the Colonel

So, did Saturday’s Sham Stakes (gr. III) showcase two exceptional 3-year-olds or was it simply about two top horses running agonizingly slow early and coming home fast late over a synthetic surface? We’ll know the answer when they hit the quarter pole at Churchill Downs on May 3.

Until then, we can take a guess whether they’re legitimate Derby contenders based on style and pedigree, but that’s about it. There will be nothing else to go by. We may get a better idea if they come to Churchill Downs early following their expected rematch in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and show a distinct affinity for the track in their work or works. Even then, we still won’t know until they get the Derby deluge of dirt kicked in their face.

Here is what can be ascertained from the Sham: both colts are totally different from each other, but get the job done equally. If it appeared from a visual standpoint as if El Gato Malo was running faster than Colonel John from the quarter pole to the eighth pole it’s because he has a much shorter, quicker stride compared to Colonel John’s long, loping strides. Colonel John, based on his stride and pedigree, looks to be more of a mile and a quarter horse, but El Gato Malo is shiftier, easier to maneuver, and looks more adept at getting himself out of trouble. He also ran a more professional race in the stretch compared to Colonel John, who was drifting in and out. Garrett Gomez, who went to a flurry of crosses after turning for home, had to switch to a right-handed, then right-handed whip. It wasn’t until El Gato Malo posed a threat on his outside that Colonel John dug in and leveled off. After that it never looked as if El Gato Malo was going to catch him no matter how much farther they went.

The difference in the race looked to be positioning. Colonel John had a perfect stalking trip outside the pacesetting Victory Pete, while El Gato Malo, breaking from the rail, never was able to get in the clear until the top of the stretch when he angled out sharply several paths. With Colonel John coming home his last three-eighths in :35 3/5, that move and ground loss at a crucial point was enough to possibly cost him the race. Whether it did or not is only conjecture.

The bottom line is, El Gato Malo was beaten by a very good horse, and when you come home your last eighth in :11 3/5 and get beat, you just chalk it up to circumstances and move on to the next one. This was a major step forward for both horses, especially El Gato Malo, whose pedigree is not geared for 10 furlongs. For him to sit back off a half in :50 and three-quarters in 1:14 1/5 and then turn on the afterburners when called upon is cause for optimism.

Despite the lethargic pace, Colonel John and El Gato Malo look to be exciting colts, and if their races so far had been on dirt, they’d be considered among the top three or four Derby contenders -- without having the synthetic-to-dirt question mark hanging over their heads. They still look to be in the top five even with that obstacle to overcome. But they both likely will have only one more start before the Derby, and two Derby preps is never ideal. They only ran a little over a quarter of a mile in the Sham and better hope for a faster pace in the Santa Anita Derby and a good lung opener if they want to be toughened and seasoned enough for the Derby. Having two 1 1/8-mile races will help.

Their trainers, Eoin Harty (Colonel John) and Craig Dollase (El Gato Malo) are two of racing’s top young guns and provide a refreshing relief from the assembly line stables back east that are currently dominating the Derby trail.

With Reflect Times unable to finish better than fourth, despite making a threatening move on the far outside turning for home, the list of California Derby contenders is dwindling rapidly. Crown of Thorns is gone; stablemate Into Mischief is nearly gone; Coast Guard, scratched from the Sham due to a foot problem, needs a quick recovery to make Saturday’s El Camino Real Derby (gr. III); and California Derby winner Yankee Bravo looks to be heading to Louisiana at this point. So, unless Georgie Boy or Bob Black Jack can stretch out to two turns successfully in the San Felipe (gr. II), or Nikki’sgoldensteed, Medjool and On the Virg, and a couple of others, can make significant moves forward, the Santa Anita Derby likely will be another two-horse race. Nikki’sgoldensteed, impressive winner of the Turf Paradise Derby, will try to make it back-to-back stakes victories on the dirt when he heads up north for Saturday’s El Camino Real Derby.

Georgie Boy showed his readiness for the San Felipe with a sharp seven-furlong work in 1:23 3/5 at Hollywood Park. Although his pedigree is mostly obscure up front, he does have plenty of stamina on both sides to suggest he’ll have no problem stretching out to two turns.

Medjool, an impressive maiden winner on Feb. 18 and a stablemate of Coast Guard, has been steadily improving and looked good drawing off to a 4 1/2-length score going 1 1/16 miles. He is a son of Monarchos, out of a half-sister to Point Given, so the 2001 Kentucky Derby is well represented in his pedigree. He will either run in the San Felipe or ship out of town to search for graded earnings. If Coast Guard does make the El Camino Real, we at least will get to see a promising California colt attempt to make the transition from synthetic to dirt.

In summation, I’m not going to go so far as to say that the true dirt horse is heading toward extinction in California, but with the major races for older horses there (see the Big Cap) being dominated by fair to middling grass horses who have taken to the synthetic surface, let’s hope some of these 3-year-olds can show they are equally as effective on both dirt and synthetics. Then, maybe it will give some hope to trainers of dirt horses that the transition can me made in the other direction for this year’s Breeders’ Cup crapshoot.

Harvesting the crops

It’s natural to compare crops of 3-year-olds, but these comparisons seem to be taking place earlier and earlier. The consensus opinion seems to be that this year’s 3-year-old crop is far inferior to last year’s. While that may prove to be true, it is way too early to even begin making comparisons.

At this time last year, Street Sense hadn't even started. Hard Spun had just finished fourth in the Southwest Stakes as the 1-2 favorite behind Teuflesberg, Officer Rocket, and Forty Grams. Curlin had only a maiden win at seven furlongs in his only career start. Tiago had finished seventh in the Robert Lewis Stakes (gr. II) in his first stakes attempt. And Any Given Saturday had won the Sam Davis as the 1-5 favorite against a poor field.

As for the major stakes, in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II), the winner Scat Daddy, second-place finisher Stormello, and third-place finisher Nobiz Like Shobiz had been leading 2-year-olds, but were major busts in the Derby.

The Sham Stakes was won by Ravel, who got hurt and was never the same horse. The second-place finisher Liquidity was a major another bust in the Derby and never did anything after that. Of the first three finishers in the Risen Star (gr. III), Notional got hurt and disappeared, I'mawildandcrazyguy proved to be plodder who picked minor placings throughout the year, and Zanjero won a couple of grade III stakes later in the year. 
So, turning the clock forward, by the fall, Street Sense, Hard Spun, Curlin, Any Given Saturday, and Tiago dominated what was considered by most to be a sensational 3-year-old division, with no one even close to them. But, other than the fact that Street Sense had been the 2-year-old champion, none of those horses had done anything at this point last year except win the Sam Davis and the LeComte Stakes (gr. III).

Finally, looking at the respective 2-year-old crops, last year at this time we'd already seen in competition the Champagne (gr. I) winner, the Remsen (gr. II) winner, the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) winner, the Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) winner, and the Hopeful (gr. I) winner, and they all would finish up the track in the Derby.
This year so far, we’ve seen in competition the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner, Champagne winner, Remsen winner, Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) winner, Hollywood Futurity (CashCall) winner, Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) winner, and $1-million Delta Jackpot (gr. III) winner, plus the second-place finisher in the BC Juvenile and Champagne. It’s going to be very hard for those winners and one runner-up -- War Pass, Pyro, Court Vision, Z Humor, Georgie Boy, Into Mischief, and Anak Nakal -- to do any worse in the Derby than last year's top 2-year-olds who had already seen action this year.

Byrned again

Whatever has gotten into Hey Byrn, he now has to be considered for real. Whether that means Derby contender is another story. After proving himself to be nothing more than a decent colt after four starts at Calder, he suddenly has turned into a world beater at Gulfstream, winning a first level allowance race by 14 1/2 lengths going a mile and then following that up with a six-length romp over a seemingly talented field on Sunday. A blood infection halted his progress last year, but he is back with a vengeance.

The question, however, again pops up: can’t we get a race with a legitimate pace anymore or is the goal nowadays to slow these horses up as much as possible? How does Sleuse, coming off a :44 3/5 half going seven furlongs, wind up going a half in :50 and three-quarters in 1:13 4/5 stretching out to nine furlongs? How does Hey Byrn draw off at will and win under a snug hand ride coming home his last three-eighths in :38 3/5 and final eighth in :13 1/5 off those fractions? The track was playing slow, so we’ll just have to reserve judgment and look back at his previous start, in which he earned excellent speed figures.

It is apparent that this field, consisting of the undefeated Alaazo, who finished last, and Sleuse and Bordeaux Bandit, was not as strong as one thought, especially considering the final time of 1:52 3/5 and 23-1 shot Wonder Mon rallying for second. Then again, why did Sleuse and Bordeaux Bandit, only maiden winners, even run in this race instead of going in a first level allowance race at the same distance the day before that didn’t seem near as tough?

All that one can deduce from this race is that Hey Byrn is improving dramatically and could be a factor in the Florida Derby (gr. I), regardless of the snaillike fractions and final time. He sure looked good doing it, and had a lot more in reserve.

The aforementioned 1 1/8-mile first level allowance race Saturday was diminished slightly with the scratch of Bordeaux Bandit. Amazingly, the 4-5 favorite, Understatement, had run only once in his life and that was at six furlongs. The bettors no doubt went gaga over his 97 Beyer figure, combined with the name Pletcher, but he had no business being odds-on stretching out that far off only one career start. The winner, Nistle’s Crunch, was the logical favorite, coming off a second against the highly regarded Face the Cat in his “dirt” debut, but was a generous 3-1. He also was stakes-placed, having finished a solid third to Yankee Bravo in the Eddie Logan Stakes on grass at Santa Anita.

Trained by Kenny McPeek, Nistle’s Crunch, a son of Van Nistelrooy, proved to be a hard-knocking, versatile colt with his two-length score over the Canadian stakes-placed colt, Cool Gator. His nine furlongs in 1:51 4/5 looked slow at the time, but then Hey Byrn ran almost a second slower the following day. Nistle’s Crunch still needs to get faster if he’s going to compete with the best, and he has to correct his problem of lugging in down the stretch, but he definitely has a future.

Macho Again rebounded from an inexplicable dull effort in the LeComte with a decisive victory in a six-furlong allowance race at Fair Grounds. The main concern with the son of Macho Again is his inability to change leads and trying to lug in after turning for home. He does eventually change leads, but the rider has to get him to do it. Once he does switch to his right lead, he levels off beautifully and quickly draws clear of his rivals. It must be noted that his sire, Macho Uno, had a similar problem, and most people remember the erratic path he took winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. With this race acting as a good substitute for a long, stiff work, Macho Again is ready to step up to stakes company, possibly in the Rebel or one or two other stakes.

To read Steve Haskin's personal accounts of some of racing's most thrilling moments, check out his new book, Tales from the Triple Crown.

Macho Again has an interesting pedigree, being a complete outcross with a number of names in his tail-female family you don’t normally see. His great-grandsire Proud Birdie, who won the 1 1/4-mile Marlboro Cup (gr. I) in 1977, is a son of 1967 Kentucky Derby winner Proud Clarion. His great-granddam, Startex, is a daughter of the hard-knocking Vertex, who came along in the same crop as Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, and Round Table and still managed to win the Pimlico Special, Gulfstream Park Handicap, Grey Lag and other top races. Vertex sired Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair, who also won the Santa Anita Handicap and Santa Anita Derby, and champion 2-year-old Top Knight, who beat Arts and Letters in the Flamingo and Florida Derby.

At Laurel Saturday, Gattopordo continued his string of wins and seconds by drawing off to a 2 3/4-length victory in the seven-furlong Miracle Wood Stakes. While distance is a question for the son of Johannesburg, it shouldn’t be for runner-up Apple Special. The main question is how good the Maryland horses are. A trip to Aqueduct for the Whirlaway resulted in a poor effort for Apple Special following his score in the Maryland Juvenile Championship. Finishing third in the Miracle Wood was Cave’s Valley, who set the pace with blinkers added and just hasn’t progressed after his promising start when he defeated Atoned in a pair of stakes at Delaware Park.

Not wanting to say anything to diminish Absolutely Cindy’s performance from another planet or her victory in general over colts in the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park at odds of nearly 20-1, and having no desire to expound once again on the vagaries of Polytrack, we’ll just pretend that race didn’t happen.

In Saturday’s Texas Heritage Stakes at Sam Houston, the 2-1 Real Appeal drew off to win by 2 1/2 lengths over 34-1 shot Yes He’s Best. Finishing out of the money after encountering severe traffic problems were Texas Fever and the 8-5 favorite Devereux.

Notably Nerud

John Nerud celebrated his 95th birthday last month. Still sharp as a tack and as wise and opinionated as ever, Nerud’s legacy is conspicuous on this year’s Derby trail.

Fountain of Youth (gr. II) winner Cool Coal Man; Southwest (gr. III) winner Denis of Cork; Nashua (gr. III) winner Etched, who was a decent fourth in the UAE Two Thousand Guineas (UAU-III); and Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) winner Anak Nakal, who disappointed in the Fountain of Youth, all trace to Nerud’s legendary creation Dr. Fager through Fappiano, who Nerud owned and bred. Nerud also bred Fappiano’s son Unbridled, who is the broodmare sire of Denis of Cork.

In addition, the highly promising Face the Cat, winner of his last two starts, and Mountain Valley Stakes winner Ferragamo trace to Dr. Fager through the mare Obstetrician and the stallion Dr. Blum, respectively.

Finally, Whirlaway Stakes winner Barrier Reef’s paternal grandsire is Cozzene, the Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) winner who was owned and bred by Nerud.

In other Derby news:

Peruvian superstar Tomcito, who defeated 3-year-olds as a 2-year-old at 1 1/4 miles and 1 1/2 miles, went from a half-mile work in :46 to a mile drill in 1:42 3/5 on Feb. 26, and then came back with a sharp five-furlong drill in 1:00 2/5 March 3 as he prepares for either the Florida Derby (gr. I) or UAE Derby (UAE-I). Several parties have shown an interest in purchasing the son of Street Cry, but no deal has been made as of now.

Tale of Ekati continues to progress nicely for his 3-year-old debut in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby (gr. II), working a sharp five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 and following it up with a bullet drill in 1:00 1/5. Denis of Cork bounced out of his Southwest score with a solid five-furlong breeze in 1:01 3/5. Racecar Rhapsody, a fast-closing third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) and a close fourth in the Delta Jackpot (gr. III), drilled a bullet half in :47 1/5 at Gulfstream for his 3-year-old debut. Smooth Air, who has had numerous long works in the past, continued on that program, breezing a mile in 1:47 at Calder. The stretch-running Stevil continues to come around for Zito after a brief absence from the work tab, drilling a half in :48 2/5. Signature Move, back in California after his thrashing in the Risen Star (gr. III)  in his “dirt” debut, worked a solid five furlongs in 1:00 2/5. He is one who no doubt is happy to get back on a synthetic track.

Monba, who reportedly displaced his palate after a troubled trip in the Fountain of Youth, could come back in either the Lane’s End Stakes or Toyota Blue Grass, both run on Polytrack. His stablemate, Hallandale Beach winner Why Tonto, like Monba owned by Starlight Stable, Don Lucarelli, and Paul Saylor, is a possibility for the Florida Derby after six straight turf races. The son of Indian Charlie began his career with two poor efforts on dirt in sprints, but the feeling here is that he is a much more mature and improved horse now, and with his pedigree and running style will make the transition back to dirt with no problem. He turned in a solid half-mile breeze in :48 2/5 Sunday.

If Wayne Lukas has any shot of making the Derby this year it likely would be with the Marylou Whitney homebred Stone Bird, winner of his last two starts at Oaklawn. The son of Grindstone worked a sharp six furlongs in 1:13 3/5 for a possible start in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III). Also working for the Rebel was Z Fortune, winner of the LeComte and second in the Risen Star, who drilled six furlongs in 1:13 3/5. Stablemate Pyro tuned up for the Louisiana Derby with a six-furlong drill in 1:14 in company with 4-year-old Zanjero, then breezed an easy :50 4/5 half on Monday. Asmussen also will run J Be K, who worked six furlongs in 1:13 2/5.

Saturday’s Gotham Stakes (gr. III) looks to be a competitive affair with Giant Moon, Visionaire, Eaton’s Gift, Roman Emperor, Texas Wildcatter, Saratoga Russell, Ling Ling Qi, Holidaze, and either Larry’s Revenge or Coal Play from the Nick Zito stable. Visionaire, who has defeated Elysium Fields, would benefit from a fast pace, and if he gets one, this could be a breakout race for the son of Grand Slam.

The Louisiana Derby drew from the rail out, Stevil, My Pal Charlie, Pyro, J Be K, Unbridled Vicar, Tale of Ekati, Blackberry Road, Yankee Bravo, and Majestic Warrior.

If Japan’s Casino Drive, 12-length winner of his career debut Feb. 23 at Kyoto, emulates his half-brother Jazil and half-sister Rags to Riches and wins the Belmont Stakes, could it be that his dam, Better Than Honour, actually is Woody Stephens reincarnated and he’s trying to emulate his own feat of five straight Belmont wins as a broodmare?