Kentucky Derby Trail: Defining Moments

Many times when looking back on the career of a Kentucky Derby winner, you can find one defining race or defining moment within a race that stamps the horse as a legitimate classic contender. This is the first of several attempts this winter to find such moments.

Yes, it’s a long winter, and there will be weekends such as this past one when not much is happening on the track, although we did have a pair of 3-year-old stakes. So, these are the weekends to devote to ferreting out those elusive horses who could be household names by the first Saturday in May.

First off, let’s touch on the two stakes run over the weekend. In Sunday’s California Derby at Golden Gate, Jerry Hollendorfer (who else?) put himself back on the Derby trail, sending out the impressive winner Bwana Bull, who drew off to a five-length victory for his third victory in his last four starts. The son of Holy Bull had a perfect trip with a clear outside run. The same cannot be said for the favorite, Boutrous, who was given no chance to win. Running by himself, about 10 lengths off the lead in the strung-out field, he closed ground quickly, but was kept along the rail by Kent Desormeaux. As he got closer to the leaders, you could see disaster unfolding, with a wall of horses forming in front of him. Desormeaux was forced to pull back on the throttle just as Bwana Bull was beginning his run on the outside and dashing by him. By the time Boutrous was able to split horses in the stretch and get a clear run, the winner was long gone. Boutrous ran on well, pulling well clear of the others, but was unable to get close to Bwana Bull. Watch him next time out. And if you want toughness and grit on both sides of a pedigree, his sire, Tiznow , and broodmare sire, Forty Niner, won a total of eight photos in their careers, all in major stakes, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic twice, Travers, Haskell Invitational (all gr. I) and NYRA Mile (now the gr. I Cigar Mile).

In Saturday’s seven-furlong Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay, Barcley Sound, trainer by former Nick Zito assistant Joan Scott, scored by a length for his third straight victory. The son of Dixieland Band now must step up big-time against the likes of Any Given Saturday in the Sam F. Davis if he is going to be a any kind of factor on the Derby trail.

A big disappointment this weekend was the poor effort by Pegasus Wind in a six-furlong allowance race at Oaklawn Park, in which the Wayne Lukas-trained colt finished seventh of nine, beaten 19 lengths at 1-5.

One horse to keep a close eye on is Rescue Party, who overcame a bad start to break his maiden at a mile for Shug McGaughey. This horse and his performance could very well serve as the lead-in for defining moments, as the son of Monarchos showed several dimensions in defeating a stubborn opponent in the Zito-trained Great Honor. Making his second career start, Rescue Party ducked in badly after breaking from the rail, dropping about a half-dozen lengths off the lead. He picked up a full head of steam, splitting horses, but ran right up on the leaders’ heels and had to be steadied by Javier Castellano. He quickly got back in stride, shifted gears and rallied three wide to challenge for the lead turning for home.

Great Honor, who had finished third in his career debut at Calder, put up a good fight, but Rescue Party, striding out beautifully, inched away to win by a length, with the runner-up drawing 5 1/2 lengths clear of the third horse. The time of 1:36 3/5 was two-fifths faster than the other division run two races earlier. Rescue Party, owned by Stuart Janney Jr. and the Phipps Stable, is out of the Seeking the Goldmare Search Party, an earner of over $250,000, and is inbred 5 x 4 to Buckpasser. This colt appears to have all the tools, and if he can step up against winners, he should give the McGaughey-Phipps-Janney team a legitimate contender for the classics. We need true sportsmen on the Derby trail, and they don’t come any classier than this trio.

And now for the aforementioned defining moments. It is going to sound a bit repetitious mentioning three horses trained by Todd Pletcher, but anyone who saw Any Given Saturday’s allowance victory at Keeneland last fall, Sam P.’s allowance score at Churchill Downs, and Ravel’s maiden win at Hollywood Park has to come away thinking these are three top-class colts who have Derby horse written all over them. And the last two should still be relatively decent odds in the Future Books.

Any Given Saturday, breaking from the far outside in post 9 in the 1 1/16-mile race, was forced to go seven-wide into the first turn. He unleashed an explosive a move from eighth to first on the second turn, and after going five-wide turning for home, bounded away with long, fluid strides to defeat Sam P. by three lengths. Granted, this was on Polytrack, but he did come back and nearly defeat Tiz Wonderful in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), a race he may very well have won had he not drifted out at the quarter pole and again inside the final furlong after pulling on even terms with the winner. If the son of Distorted Humor goes on to make a name for himself in the classics, this allowance race is one you can look back on.

Sam P. was still an immature kid when he tackled Any Given Saturday, but he grew up fast in his next start, a one-mile allowance race at Churchill. Trapped on the rail the whole way, he lost his position at a crucial point and had to wait for something to open up. Nearing the eighth pole, John Velazquez was still looking for an opening, and thought about trying to squeeze his way between horses. But he saw a small opening on the rail and abruptly steered Sam P. to the inside. The son of Cat Thief slipped through and quickly opened up, winning by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:35 3/5, defeating the highly promising Michael Matz-trained Chelokee, who was coming off a 13 1/4-length maiden score at Delaware Park. Sam P. is a tough, hard-running colt who seems to have inherited those traits from his broodmare sire Affirmed.

Ravel still has question marks, because he has only run on synthetic surfaces and hasn’t beaten winners, but this good-looking son of Fusaichi Pegasus has a presence about him that suggests he is a top-class colt. In his maiden victory, he also displayed a quick-fire acceleration on the far turn, eased wide off the turn and drew off under a hand ride to win by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:41 4/5 for the 1 1/16 miles. Garrett Gomez never touched him with the whip and was gearing down in the final 70 yards, something you don’t often see in a maiden race. We’ll know a lot more about him when he steps way up and takes on Liquidity and other good horses in Saturday’s Sham Stakes (gr. III) over his first ever “dirt” track.

Then there was Bold Start’s allowance victory at Gulfstream this year, in which he was stuck on the rail before cutting sharply to the outside and taking off after the Pletcher-trained Meritocracy. With one of the quickest bursts of speed seen all year, he wore down Meritocracy, who was running a super race himself, finishing 8 1/4 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher. The final time for the mile was four-fifths faster than the other division, indicating this was a powerful all-around effort by the winner, as well as the runner-up.

Finally, we have the maiden victory at Santa Anita by Exhale, who looked awesome striding away from his field to win by five lengths in a swift 1:15 4/5 for the 6 1/2 furlongs. This was a visually striking performance, and with his pedigree, there is no reason why the son of Millennium Windshouldn’t stretch out. But he is playing catch-up, and if he’s given only two more starts, he will be up against it come Derby time.

Delaware Dynamos

Year after year, Delaware Park keeps churning out top-class Derby horses, yet most people pay little attention. Despite the number of prominent Derby horses who broke their maidens at Delaware the past three years, how many people actually are aware that the list includes Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Barbaro; Preakness, Belmont (both gr. I), and Arkansas Derby (gr. II) winner Afleet Alex; Wood Memorial (gr. I) winners Bellamy Roadand Tapit ; and Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner High Limit?

So, who will be the big Delaware-spawned horses to make an impact on this year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I)? We’ve seen several exciting candidates already.

Adore the Gold, a son of Formal Gold,  broke his maiden by 10 3/4 lengths at Delaware in a $50,000 claiming race and has gone on to win the Dover Stakes and the H. Steward Mitchell at Laurel. In the former, he defeated the promising Todd Pletcher colt Air Lord, who had won the Whirling Ash Stakes at Delaware; Kong the King, who went on to finish third in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II); and Kong’s Revenge, who had finished third in the Belmont Futurity (gr. II). Adore the Gold has since turned in back-to-back five-furlong bullet works in :58 3/5 and :59 1/5 at Gulfstream Park. This colt is a runner and bears watching on Saturday.

As mentioned earlier, Chelokee, trained by Michael Matz, romped by 13 1/4 lengths in a Delaware maiden race, and then finished an excellent second to Sam P. in a Churchill Downs allowance race, having to go five-wide at turning for home. The son of Cherokee Runhad a minor setback, but is back on the Palm Meadows work tab and will be dangerous wherever he shows up.

Arcata, from Graham Motion’s barn, broke his maiden by 11 1/4 lengths at Delaware before finishing second to the Pletcher-trained Our Sacred Honor in a Gulfstream maiden race, in which he, too, lost a good deal of ground at the top of the stretch, but ran on well in the stretch.

And, last but not least, there is top Derby contender Hard Spun, who broke his maiden at Delaware by 8 3/4 lengths, won an allowance at Delaware by five lengths, and then romped in the Pennsylvania Nursery at Philly Park and the LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds for Larry Jones.

On the work tab

Hollywood Prevue (gr. III) winner Belgravia is getting sharp quickly for trainer Patrick Biancone with half-mile works in :47 4/5 and :47 2/5 and a bullet five furlongs in :59 1/5, fastest of 34 works at the distance. Nick Zito looks to have a runner in former European Forefathers, winner of his last two, who drilled five furlongs in a bullet :58 3/5 at Palm Meadows. Watch out for exciting maiden winner Soaring By, who has had four five-furlong works, including a bullet five furlongs in :59 1/5 at Palm Beach Downs for Pletcher. Another of Pletcher’s top horses, Scat Daddy, also has had four five-furlong drills, the last being a 1:00 2/5 breeze.

Last year’s champion 2-year-old Street Sense made his first appearance on the work tab Jan. 29, breezing a half in :53 at Palm Meadows. Remsen winner Nobiz Like Shobiz is wound tight as a drum for his 3-year-old debut in Saturday’s Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III), with six works this year, including a bullet five furlongs in :58 3/5 and six furlongs in 1:11 4/5. Also working like gangbusters is Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) and Norfolk (gr. II) winner Stormello, who drilled five furlongs in :59 4/5 at Hollywood and followed that up with six-furlong works in 1:13 2/5 breezing and 1:13 handily. Steve Asmussen lost Tiz Wonderful, but he still has a potential Derby hopeful in Remsen runner-up Zanjero, who breezed a bullet six furlongs in 1:13 at Fair Grounds.

The exciting prospect, Longley, winner of his only start at Saratoga in brilliant fashion, has had two works at Palm Meadows, both bullets – five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 and six furlongs in 1:14 2/5. He’s pretty far behind the others, but he’s got some toughness in his female family – his dam made 63 starts, her broodmare sire also ran 63 times, and her great-grandsire and great-granddam made 77 starts and 61 starts, respectively. The Bobby Frankel-trained Les Grands Trois, a nine-length maiden winner before getting hurt, has had three works at Hollywood, including a pair of half-mile drills. Back on the work tab is Best Pal (gr. II) winner and Norfolk runner-up Principle Secret, who went three furlongs in :38 2/5 at Hollywood. The consistent, late-closing Cal-bred Pirate’s Deputy appears to be ready to run after a pair of five-furlong works in :59 2/5 and a bullet six-furlong work in 1:11 3/5.

In Other Derby News

Rick Trontz, owner of Hopewell Farm in Midway, Ky., has himself a possible Derby hopeful in Major Pleasure, who was extremely impressive breaking his maiden at Santa Anita Jan. 21 for trainer Mike Puype. The son of Officer, making his second start after dropping a head decision in his career debut, showed brilliance and professionalism as he split horses in the stretch to win going away by two lengths in a sharp 1:22 2/5 for the seven furlongs. He had been tearing up the work tab at Hollywood Park with a :58 4/5 drill followed by six-furlong works in 1:12 4/5, 1:12 flat, and 1:12 2/5. He looks like a classy colt in the making, and now it’s just a question of how far he wants to go.

There is a horse at Oaklawn Park worth mentioning named Richland Creek. After breaking his maiden impressively at Turfway Park, he stretched out from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles and finished second to the Wayne Lukas-trained Starbase, while putting in a good rally on a dead rail. But it was not his performance that is worth mentioning as much it is his trainer. If anyone is not familiar with the name Tom Bohannan, he was one of the top trainers in the country in the ‘90s before personal problems interrupted his career. He is best known for having won back-to-back Preakness Stakes with Loblolly Stable’s Pine Bluff and Prairie Bayou in 1992 and ’93, respectively. Prairie Bayou also finished a fast-closing second in the Kentucky Derby, while Pine Bluff was a close third behind A.P. Indy in the Belmont Stakes. Bohannan is back and  training again for former Loblolly owner John Ed Anthony, who now races under the name Shortleaf Stable. It’s good to have Bohannan back with another Derby hopeful.

Although Air Commander is still a maiden after two starts, including a head defeat going a mile last time out, the son of Point Given has been making his presence felt in the mornings with a five-furlong drill in :59 2/5, six furlongs in 1:11 1/5, a half in :47 3/5, and most recently, five furlongs in :58 4/5.