Anne M. Eberhardt

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Post Trauma

It was 11:15, and the 11 a.m. post position selection draw at the racing office still had not begun, as owners and trainers of Kentucky Derby horses paced back and forth or just stood anxiously waiting to see if all their hard work was about to be nullified by some random, ominous-sounding number.

The largest group in attendance represented the Cinderella horse Dominican, and their heads dropped simultaneously when their horse drew the 20th selection. One contender had been delivered a tough blow, and there were more to come, as Great Hunter drew 19 and Any Given Saturday 18.

Meanwhile, longshot Storm in May drew the coveted No. 1 draw. Then the smile on trainer Larry Jones’ face broadened when Hard Spun nailed down the third selection. Carl Nazger, trainer of Street Sense, was standing off by himself near the exit, and he had to feel a sense of relief when every selection number from 11 to 20 was drawn. Finally, Street Sense drew No. 6 and Nafzger quickly turned and left.

When it was all over, Todd Pletcher had done fair, drawing selection numbers 7, 8, 12, 13, and 18 with Cowtown Cat, Scat Daddy, Circular Quay, Sam P., and Any Given Saturday, respectively. Steve Asmussen also could have done better, drawing 16 for Curlin and 10 for Zanjero.

The one person leading a charmed life the last few days is Jamie Sanders, trainer and co-owner of Teuflesberg, who didn’t get into the race until the day before. Sanders stood right up front and listened to every horse’s name called but hers. With only selection order No. 2 remaining, she was already beaming.

So, there we have it. Now, it is time for the strategies to be plotted out. Of the three potential pacesetters in the race, Teuflesberg and Liquidity, with the 4th selection, will be in good shape, while Stormello will either wind up way on the inside or pretty far on the outside with the 15th selection. Hard Spun, you can bet, will stay as far away from Teuflesberg as possible, but could wind up with Liquidity sitting right outside him.

Of course, this is all speculation. We’ll go over the post positions tomorrow and try to figure out tactics and how the race sets up for many of the entrants.

Wednesday marked the arrival of a number of Derby owners to the Churchill backstretch. Activity finally is reaching fever pitch, as large crowds of media gathered at the various barns of Derby horses.

Of course, the Pletcher horses were the first ones on the track at 6 o’clock, with Circular Quay, Any Given Saturday, and Cowtown Cat testing the Churchill surface for the first time since arriving Tuesday afternoon. Scat Daddy made his first tour of the track immediately after in the second set. All looked good from what can be seen in the dark. Cowtown Cat was on the muscle and looking for action. He is not your prototypical distance horse based on conformation, in that he’s not a long-bodied horse and packs a good deal of  muscle in his shoulders and hind end. Scat Daddy also was feeling good, as he usually does, which may be why he went out later when there was more light.

On Wednesday afternoon, Larry Jones took Hard Spun out to graze, but that didn’t last very long after the colt proved to be too much of a handful, constantly trying to buck and rear. And you could hear him several blocks away. “Maybe we should have done more with him yesterday,” Jones joked, referring to the colt’s :57 3/5 work, which apparently has taken very little, if anything, out of him. This morning, he had brisk gallop with Jones up, and was moving powerfully across the track, his mane standing on end as he jogged back at a strong clip.

Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Tiago had a strong gallop as well, taking in all the sights, as owners Jerry and Ann Moss and jockey Mike Smith watched from the trainer’s stand. Tiago, a half-brother to 2005 Derby winner Giacomo, has a wide girth and packs a lot of muscle, and should be something with several mores races under him.

Great Hunter, who likely will wind up in either post 1 or 19, continues to flourish physically, and he looked good galloping again today. The son of Aptitude appears to be coming into the race ready to peak, and it’s unfortunate that he’ll have to overcome an undesirable post. But you never know how the Derby is going to unfold.

Numbers game

Here is a quick rundown of how the Ragozin Sheets and Thoro-Graph numbers shape up. The two fastest races this year on the Sheets are Circular Quay’s 2 1/2 in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and Scat Daddy’s 2 1/2 in the Florida Derby (gr. I). Circular Quay, who topped off at a 6 1/4 last year, opened the year with a 12 3/4 in the aborted Risen Star Stakes (gr. III) fiasco. So, with a huge jump to a 2 1/2, which was four points faster than he had ever run, he needed some extra time off. Whether eight weeks is too long we’ll know on Saturday. The five weeks off obviously will help Scat Daddy, who did run a 5 1/4 last year. He’s been steadily progressing this year, with a 5 1/4, 3 3/4, and 2 1/2. So, he looks as solid as anyone.

Street Sense, who ran a blistering 1 3/4 in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), has basically paired off this year, with 3 3/4 in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) and a 3 1/2 in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). He looks ready to throw in a huge number after that bizarre race in the Blue Grass.

Also ready to fire big is Any Given Saturday. Closing out the year with a 5 1/4 in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), he opened with a 5 1/4 in the Sam F. Davis, ran a career best 3 in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), and then, coming back in three weeks and going 4-5 wide on the first turn, he regressed to a 5 in the Wood Memorial. But with four weeks off now, he could very well rebound and better his 3, which should out him right there. But let’s see how much he can salvage from the 18 post selection. The feeling here all along has been that he needs to take back to midpack and make one run. If he winds up way on the outside and can make his way toward the inside enough to get a decent spot in the middle of the field he could be OK. The key is not to ask him too much early and risk getting hung way out on the first turn. I’d rather see him running in 12th or 13th and finding a good spot than being in striking position out in the middle of the track.

Curlin ran a 5 3/4 in his career debut, and then paired up 3 1/2s, so it’s difficult to know just where he’s going to go from there.

An interesting note on Hard Spun, he has never regressed off a race, with an 11, 9, 8 3/4, 7, 6 1/4, and 5 1/2. He will have to make a significant jump again to get down to the 2-3 it’s likely going to take to win the Derby. Also sitting on a big race if he can take another step forward is Dominican, who has run a 9 and a 5, and has a 7 1/2 last year. With his running style, he could escape unscathed from the 20 draw if he can just drop back and pick his way through the field. He needs luck, obviously, but it can be done if the Derby gods are smiling down on him, as they were Thunder Gulch in 1995.

Great Hunter has run a 5  and a 5 1/2 this year, but his second number would have been much faster had he not had to steady once and take up in the stretch in the Blue Grass. The more one looks at that race, especially the head-on, the more astounding it is that there was no stewards inquiry. Not even to post the inquiry sign and look at it boggles the mind. I have not spoken to a single person who didn’t think there should have been a disqualification. Teuflesberg clearly ducked out sharply from a left-hand whip and not only interfered significantly with Great Hunter, he even forced Street Sense out, causing him to lose valuable momentum. In any event, Great Hunter was short going into that race, and should be ready to run a much-improved number in the Derby if he can get lucky.

So not to inundate everyone with numbers, we’ll look at the Thoro-Graph figures tomorrow.

A quick word about Street Sense's work Tuesday. This horse is a machine. You just can't ask a horse to work any better. Once again, he hugged the rail turning for home, hugged the rail galloping out into the clubhouse turn, and still was hugging the rail pulling up into the backstretch. And once again, he was not blowing in the slightest coming off the track.