Dual Derby prep winner Curlin waits to take his turn on the Polytrack surface during a busy work slate Monday at Keeneland.

Dual Derby prep winner Curlin waits to take his turn on the Polytrack surface during a busy work slate Monday at Keeneland.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: My New Kentucky Home

Greetings from…Keeneland? That’s right, Keeneland, home of the Kentucky Derby horses. Well, at least for many of them, and at least for a while. Although several trainers will begin shipping their horses to Churchill Downs this week, Todd Pletcher and Doug O’Neill will complete their works at Keeneland, with Pletcher staying put until next Tuesday.

On a mild, breezy Monday morning, Steve Asmussen watched with great satisfaction as Curlin and Zanjero turned in solid five-furlong works in 1:00 4/5 and 1:01, respectively. Larry Jones, looking to give Hard Spun a good stiff lung opener, worked the son of Danzig a mile in 1:42 2/5 with jockey Mario Pino up, and felt the colt got just what he needed.

Curlin worked soon after dawn, with the sun just beginning to rise. A powerfully made chestnut, the son of Smart Strike did everything on his own, without the slightest bit of urging. The most impressive part of the work was the way the colt dropped his head and shoulder in the stretch and leveled off. He just glides over the ground, while generating a great deal of power. Once he got into that long, efficient stride, he came home his final eighth in :12 flat.

Asmussen said before the work he was looking for around 1:02, and was happy with the way the colt got over the ground. Based on his brilliant record and his physical presence on and off the track, it’s now just a question of how much seasoning and battle toughness he has. He’s never been tested and hasn’t faced any of the top contenders, but there is no doubt watching him he has the potential to be something special.

If there was one horse who rivaled Curlin in his action it was his stablemate Zanjero, whom Asmussen calls “the forgotten horse.” Likely to be overlooked, despite his narrow defeat in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), Zanjero looked great physically and was most impressive coming down the stretch. The son of Cherokee Runmade much more of an impression than one would have expected from a horse who, although consistent in top-class races, is winless in his last four starts, and is only two-for-eight lifetime.

He’s built like a stayer, and is simply a classy-looking colt. What really caught the eye was the way he was reaching out in the stretch, again under no urging whatsoever, while flying home his last quarter in :23 2/5 and final eighth in :11 2/5. Like Curlin, he just floated over the ground. It will be interesting to see how Curlin’s and Zanjero’s works at Churchill Downs next week compare to these works over Polytrack. If Zanjero duplicates this work there, and displays the same kind of action and finishing kick, he could prove to be a real sleeper in the Derby.

Asmussen also sent out Illinois Derby (gr. II) runner-up Reporting for Duty for a six-furlong work in 1:12 2/5. The son of Deputy Commander does not have sufficient earnings at this point and needs some help to get in the Derby.

All three colts were scheduled to move to Churchill Downs this afternoon (Monday), and will work again next weekend.

As for Hard Spun, his work was entirely different. He’ll be coming off a six-week layoff, compared to three weeks for Curlin and Zanjero, and Jones felt he needed something that would get him tired. And that it did.

Pino asked him throughout the stretch run and showed him the whip in the final sixteenth, while giving an open-handed smack or two across the neck. Jones realized he was venturing into virtually unknown territory, Hard Spun a mile over Polytrack, which tends to tire horses out the farther they go. He admitted he could have sent him to Churchill, but with such a long, important work, he wanted to make sure the colt worked over a safe track, and that their would be no glitches. And he instructed Pino to keep after him down the lane. So, in that respect, the time of 1:42 2/5 didn’t bother him. He was just glad to see the colt come home his last eighth in :12 flat and gallop out strong. Now, he’ll ship to Churchill for good on Saturday or Sunday and get his final work over the track next Monday or Tuesday.

Pletcher power at its best

Todd Pletcher worked three of his Derby horses on Sunday, and demonstrated why he is one of the smartest trainers in the game. Pletcher knew exactly what each horse needed, and worked them accordingly, orchestrating all three moves like a maestro.

Any Given Saturday looks as if he’s going to have different tactics in the Derby, whether it is planned that way or not. The son of Distorted Humor  likely will be racing farther back, which in one person’s opinion is the way he’d be more effective, enabling him to use his turn of foot and closing kick.

In his five-furlong work on Sunday with Garrett Gomez aboard, Any Given Saturday broke about two lengths behind stablemate Pleasant Strike, who actually extended his advantage at the five-sixteenths pole and turned it on coming into the stretch. He came a bit wide turning for home, forcing Any Given Saturday to go three or four wide, which is nothing unusual for him. Although Pleasant Strike still was going strong in the stretch, Any Given Saturday pinned his ears, dug in, and seemed determined to catch him. He dropped his head nicely and cut into Pleasant Strike’s lead with every stride, finishing a head in front in :58 4/5, while shading :23 for the final quarter. This was a near-perfect work for this colt, and it’s always reassuring to see a horse bounce out of a disappointing race with a sharp work such as this.

It would be ideal to see him have his final work at Churchill Downs, but that’s not going to happen, Off this work, however, Polytrack or no Polytrack, Any Given Saturday’s stock has gone up to the point where he again looks like one of the horses to beat in the Derby.  You had to love the way he came home, making up several lengths through a blistering final eighth. This colt is looking stronger by the day, and he may turn out to be the wise guy horse by Derby Day. I actually put him on top in the Derby Dozen this week, and feel even more secure in the decision after seeing this work.

Scat Daddy, who is the consummate pro, worked five furlongs by himself in 1:00 4/5 with Edgar Prado up, and as usual, did everything perfectly. The son of Johannesburg basically just cruised around there with his ears up, ran straight as an arrow in the stretch with Prado sitting motionless on him, and finished up nicely. It’s really difficult finding any flaws in this colt, who is all business.

Circular Quay worked five furlongs in company with Rags to Riches, with Angel Cordero aboard the son of Thunder Gulch. Going to the pole, Cordero had to wait for a galloper who was in his path to get out of his way, and when he finally made room for him, Circular Quay quickly joined Rags to Riches, and the two raced as a team all the way around the turn, with the filly actually dwarfing her mighty mite stablemate. Circular Quay ducked in for an instant after turning into the stretch, possibly attracted to the beautiful femme fatale next to him. Once he got back in rhythm, he moved along with a nice fluid stride, with the pair finishing up on near even terms in 1:00 1/5. Rags to Riches might have stuck her nose in front at the wire, but Circular Quay galloped out past her in what was his third straight sharp work since skipping the Wood Memorial (gr. I).

So, Pletcher got exactly what he wanted from all three works. He got Any Given Saturday, previously a stalker, to come from several lengths back and close determinedly. He got Scat Daddy to do his thing and get a good solid work out of it. And he got the stone closer Circular Quay’s competitive juices flowing by hooking him up with a classy horse from start to finish.

Pletcher is holding a strong hand for the Derby, and, regardless of what schedule these three horses are on, he couldn’t be going into the race any better.

Meanwhile, over at Churchill Downs Monday morning, Pletcher sent out Sam P. for a sharp five-furlong drill in 1:00 3/5, the second fastest of 39 works at the distance. Along with Cowtown Cat, Pletcher has a quite a quintet heading into the Derby.

In other Derby news:

Trainer Michael Matz is resigned himself to the fact that he may not get in the Derby with Chelokee, who lacks the graded earnings at this point. Matz said Monday morning that, with all the trouble the son of Cherokee Run had in the Florida Derby (gr. I), which likely cost him at least second-place earnings, and the colt’s reins breaking the other morning, which forced Matz to abort his work, perhaps someone is trying to tell him something, and that it wasn’t meant to be. But we’ll see what transpires over the next 10 days.

Darrin Miller said Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) winner Dominican will ship to Churchill Downs on Thursday, and likely will have his final work on Sunday.

Doug O’Neill’s three Derby hopefuls, Great Hunter, Liquidity, and Cobalt Blue are scheduled to work at Keeneland on Friday.

Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Tiago turned in a sharp seven-furlong drill in 1:25 at Hollywood Park Sunday. The son of Pleasant Tap will fly to Louisville next Monday, along with Stormello.

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