Great Hunter, 1 of 3 O'Neill Derby Hopefuls on Track Friday.

Great Hunter, 1 of 3 O'Neill Derby Hopefuls on Track Friday.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Trio's Works Ideal for O'Neill

Doug O’Neill ruled the Derby roost Friday morning, sending out seven workers at Keeneland, including his three starters for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). When it was over, O’Neill and exercise rider Tony Romero were all smiles.

O’Neill, who had four Derby starters before the injury suffered by Notional two weeks ago, is looking for a rebound performance from his three horses, all of whom failed to finish in the money in their last start.

But there was still a good deal of optimism in the O’Neill camp, as they realize a big performance in the Derby is just an adjustment here and there away. O’Neill was looking for different things from each horse in their six-furlong works, depending on what they will need to do to be a force in the Run for the Roses.

When it was over, O’Neill was more than satisfied with the results, and now just has to maintain what he has over the next eight days.

Cobalt Blue was the first of the Derby workers, coming out in the second set at around 7:15. The son of  Golden Missile has the most to prove following his disappointing seventh-place finish in the Illinois Derby (gr. II). O’Neill felt the colt was unable to handle the deeper track at Hawthorne after running all his races over the harder Southern California tracks.

Cobalt Blue is an amazing physical specimen. He’s a powerful, long-bodied chestnut with a huge girth who carries a great deal of flesh, so it would make sense that a horse such as this would have trouble with a deep, tiring racetrack. But with that said, having to bounce back from an 18-length defeat is not what you want for a Kentucky Derby horse.

The colt was not given too long a run to the six-furlong pole, and broke off evenly. He picked it up in the second quarter to get the half-mile in :47 4/5. Passing the three-eighths pole, a horse broke off in a work about six lengths in front of him. The final quarter was very deceiving, as the other worker put more distance between him and Cobalt Blue, who was under pressure from Romero, and appeared to be either losing interest or getting a bit tired in the final furlong, despite the urging of Romero. Although he looked to be shortening stride in the final sixteenth, he somehow managed to come home his final quarter in :24 2/5, stopping the clock in 1:11 4/5, and then galloping out seven furlongs in 1:26.

It is obvious this horse covers so much ground that he can be deceiving, because it sure looked as if he were slowing down at the end. He did come off the track blowing pretty good, so the work helped get his fitness level up.

Following three other O’Neill horses, it was Great Hunter’s turn. It was evident right away that the son of Aptitude is flourishing physically. He looked fit, and his coat was bright, with dapples bursting out on his hind end and under the girth. He is a racy-looking colt whose looks back up his stamina-laden pedigree. There is no doubt he will run all day.

O’Neill was looking to give him a solid six-furlong work in about 1:13, with the emphasis on a strong kick at the end. This colt has demonstrated a rapid-fire acceleration, which he wasn’t able to use in the crazily run Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), in which he was forced to stalk the ridiculously slow pace set by Teuflesberg. Those tactics were completely out of character for him, but being fresher than closers Street Sense and Dominican, he wasn’t able to take back and run his kind of race.

O’Neill sent him into that race with only two moderate works in six weeks, and he had to be dead-short going into it. This was by design, as O’Neill wanted to use the Blue Grass to propel him forward into the Derby. Unfortunately, the weird dynamics of the race prevented him from doing so, as did the severe interference he suffered in the final furlong when Teuflesberg came out sharply into his path. Although he finished fifth, he was beaten only 1 3/4 lengths.

Because he didn’t get as much out of the race as his connections had hoped, O’Neill decided at the last minute to change his work from a maintenance half-mile drill to a stiffer six-furlong move. With three weeks between the Blue Grass and the Derby, O’Neill had Romero break him off slow and let him come home on his own without doing too much with him.

As instructed, Romero let him amble away from the pole through an opening quarter in :25 2/5. The colt began to pick it up with his next quarter in :23 2/5, while being pushed along. He was three or four wide turning for home, and, unlike Cobalt Blue, he was never asked down the stretch and was striding out smoothly on his own to the wire, coming home his final eighth in :12 3/5 to complete the six panels right on the button in 1:13 flat, and then galloping out an additional eighth in :13 1/5.

Also unlike Cobalt Blue, Great Hunter was not blowing hard at all coming off the track, and was barely taking a breath by the time he returned to the barn. It must be added, however, that he was not asked to do as much. After walking the shed, he was brought outside and looked a picture. This is just what you wanted to see from the colt, who could surprise a lot of people May 5.

Finally, there was Liquidity, the enigma of the O’Neill barn, who has O’Neill and his brother Dennis at their wits end trying to unlock his talent and get his competitive juices flowing again.

Today’s work was designed to sharpen his early speed and get him to maintain that speed to the end. With his pedigree, and the way he’s been running lately, he could be sent to the lead if no one else is intent on getting it. If he does get the lead, he would only have to worry about outrunning the field as a whole rather than outrunning one or two individual horses looking him in the eye. This way, he could use his three biggest attributes – his speed, strength, and stamina – without having to get a gut check turning for home. And if he was able to get a clear lead, it would be foolish for anyone to take him on early.

O’Neill told Romero to give him a sharp opening eighth in about :12 and then keep after him in the stretch. Liquidity, another powerfully built colt, broke off at a good clip, getting his opening eighth in :12 2/5. Nearing the quarter pole, where he has thrown in the towel in his last two starts, Romero gave him a good smack with the whip right-handed and then continued to ride him hard down the stretch, hitting him again at the sixteenth pole. Liquidity passed the eighth pole in :59 4/5 for the five furlongs, and then came home his final eighth in :11 4/5 to complete the six panels in 1:11 3/5. Clockers caught him “galloping” out seven furlongs in a strong 1:24 and pulling up a mile in 1:40. What was impressive is that he did gallop out on his own and kept going at a good clip.

Although you always like to see a horse work without being urged to the extent Liquidity was, perhaps this is what he needs. So, while it wasn’t as visually pleasing a work as Great Hunter’s, you never know what it’s going to take to get the colt out of his current afternoon malaise. O’Neill has tried taking the blinkers off in his works and adding a Sure-Win strap (bit) to give the rider better control. He also was equipped with a shadow roll. How all this, and today’s work,  will equate to his performance in the Derby there is no way of knowing. We do know the talent is there, as evidenced by some of his earlier races, but getting it out of him is another matter. The fact that he was able to close fast in his work, even with being hard urged, it at least gives his connections something to hang on to.

Back to Churchill tomorrow and a final return visit to Keeneland Sunday when Todd Pletcher works Any Given Saturday, Scat Daddy, and Circular Quay.