Derby favorite Curlin lucked out by being able to break from the number two post position.<br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Derby favorite Curlin lucked out by being able to break from the number two post position.
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Anne M. Eberhardt

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Let the Mind Games Begin

The post position draw is history, and it is time for racing’s greatest minds to start planning strategy. Will there be a fast pace or a slow pace? Do you send or take back and see what others do? Will the outside horses break sharply and try to get to the inside or take back and hope to get lucky to find the holes? Let the cat and mouse games begin.

The central figures in the pace race are Teuflesberg, Stormello, and Liquidity, with Hard Spun, Nobiz Like Shobiz and possibly Cowtown Cat right in the thick of things, although Cowtown Cat is more likely to keep off the pace and settle somewhere in the second tier.

Hard Spun, who is coming off that much talked about five-furlong work in :57 3/5, will break from post 8, with little or no speed inside him. Liquidity is right next to him in post 9, with Teuflesberg directly to his outside in post 10. Stormello, who is being trained with the attention of getting him to relax more, will be way on the outside in post 17.

Now, the question is, which of these horses is going to commit first? Ideally, their riders would all love to see what the others are doing before committing. When you get three or four quality speed horses all looking at each other, that’s when you’re liable to get a contentious pace. It can be contentious and slow if no one wants to commit, or it can be contentious and fast if top-class horses look each other in the eye and get their blood boiling. That’s when horses get rank and keyed up and you wind with a 2001 scenario, when major stakes winners Songandaprayer, Balto Star, Keats, Millennium Wind, and Congaree  all were within two lengths of each other, resulting in suicidal fractions of :22 1/5, :44 4/5, and 1:09 1/5, and setting it up for Monarchos.

When Teuflesberg wound up in post 10, Hard Spun’s connections decided to put some space between the two horses and chose post 8. Hard Spun’s trainer Larry Jones, immediately predicted that Liquidity’s connections would choose post 9 to be right outside them, and that’s what they did. That left three of the fastest horses in the field alongside each other, setting up the possibility of all three eyeballing each other. Stormello, meanwhile, has been sharp, and Kent Desormeaux has to break well on him and try to get as far to the inside as he can.

Now, the question is, are any of the speed horses capable of establishing a clear lead and winning the Derby on the front end? Stormello definitely is quality and game speed, and he could bust out of there, but as mentioned earlier, he’s been training for stamina recently rather than speed, and he’s already had two nightmare plane trips from California to Florida, while putting on over 40 hours of travel. But getting him to settle off the pace is easier said than done. Teuflesberg loves running on the front end, and he likely will try for the lead and then see if anyone wants to try to take it away from him. If they do, he could settle just off it if he has to, especially coming off that ridiculous pace in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).

The key horse here could very well be Liquidity, who has been pressing the pace in all his races, but has managed to find a way to lose his last six starts. Some horses get used to losing and Liquidity has thrown in the towel in his last two, which has had trainer Doug O’Neill baffled trying to find ways to get him competitive again. He will take the blinkers off and add a Sure-Win strap (bit) for better control. Liquidity has actually been looking stronger in his gallops the last two days.

Horses tend to get brave on an uncontested lead, and the son of Tiznow  is fast enough and classy enough, and has more than enough stamina to be dangerous if allowed to get a clear lead. It’s a lot easier to beat a field of horses by outrunning and outstaying everyone than it is to have to look individual horses in the eye. But Liquidity still will be a huge longshot, and it probably wouldn’t be wise for anyone to challenge him too early, because he’s already given Ravel and Stormello all they can handle when they looked him in the eye. This is a very interesting horse, who could make his presence felt if things fall into place for him.

As for Hard Spun, no one really knows if that work will dictate where he’ll be, because no one knows how much it took out of him, if anything at all. He may be a better horse than people think. And as he is such a powerhouse of a colt, it’s possible that work took very little out of him and that it was something he needed coming off a six-week layoff and slow mile work on Polytrack at Keeneland. He sure bounced out of the work in great shape, and has been on the muscle since.

Nobiz Like Shobiz drew well in post 12, and should be able to survey the situation inside him. The son of Albert the Great has the natural speed, but he’s a better horse laying right off the lead. Like Hard Spun, he can make his move anytime the rider wants, and what he has going for him is his imposing presence, strength, and ability to stay. He’s not going to let anyone get too far in front of him. He also has a quick turn of foot for a big, strong stalker type, but hasn’t been using it this year, as he’s tried to overcome some greenness issues. He was on the track for the first time this morning and looked spectacular.

Looking at some other post positions, three top-quality horses drew the three outside posts. Any Given Saturday will be forced to alter his running style from post 18 and take back, which is actually the tactics he should by employing, because of his natural turn of foot. If he gets lucky, he will be very tough. Great Hunter’s connections could have gone for post 19, but chose the far outside, so not to have a horse outside of him. The son of Aptitude is another with excellent acceleration, and he too will take back and try to find a comfortable spot. Better to drop far back than get caught very wide on the first turn, because at some point he will use that rapid-fire acceleration, and has more than enough stamina to come charging into the picture. But, by choosing the outside, Corey Nakatani will have to be alert, as horses tend to duck out at the start from the outside post, and as is often the case, the gate is sprung the instant the last horse gets in.

As for Dominican, he, too, will have to take far back and hope the holes and lanes open up for him. He can roll in the stretch, so he just needs to put himself in position to have the leaders in his sights.

Morning line favorite Curlin lucked out by sneaking into post 2 after drawing the 16th selection order. Of course, the inside can be a disastrous place to be, but so can anywhere else. And if he had drawn on the outside, Robby Albarado would have had to use him to get him to basically where he’ll be anyway by coming out of post 2.

More numbers

Taking a quick look at the Thoro-Graph numbers, Street Sense, with a negative 2 in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and a 1 1/2 and a 2 1/4 (combined bounce and weirdly run race) this year, looks ready to explode on Saturday. These numbers point to a monster effort. Curlin’s numbers are amazing, running a 1/2 in his debut, followed by a 1/4 and a negative 1/2. Those are incredible numbers for a horse to run in the first three starts of his career. He will have to be the freak some think he is not to regress off those numbers.

Any Given Saturday, who I’ve liked for a while, has a great pattern going in, but any significant ground loss will hurt him. Having run a 3 1/4, 3/4, and the expected 1 1/2 bounce in the Wood Memorial (gr. I), which was actually an excellent number considering how much ground he lost on the first turn, he, too, is sitting on a huge rebound effort with the four weeks off.

Scat Daddy is very solid, with a 1 3/4 to fall back on from last year. This year’s he’s run a 4 1/2, back to a 1 3/4, and another forward move to a 3/4. He need only maintain where he is to be right there, and another slight move forward will make him very tough.

Hard Spun has established himself as a consistently fast horse, with a 2, 2, and 1 1/2 this year. Nobiz Like Shobiz’ numbers, like the Ragozin Sheets, are amazingly consistent, with no regressions or moves forward in any of his races last year and this year. He’s run a 2 1/2, 3 1/2, 2 1/2, 2 1/2, 2 1/2, and 2 1/2. He will need to make his first jump forward to match some of the others.

Circular Quay, after his 9 1/2 Risen Star (gr. III) debacle, surged to a negative 3/4 in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), so he needed some time off. It’s just a question of what kind of number he’ll throw after eight weeks, but he’s definitely fast enough to win.

Those are just a few of the horses, but enough to give you a comparison with the Ragozins.