By Mike Curry
Making the Grade, which will run through the 2016 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) , focuses on the winners of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the next Triple Crown. We'll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
Gray or Roan Gelding
Sire: Holy Bull
Dam: Lignum Vitae, by Songandaprayer
Owner-Breeder: Dennis A. Drazin (N.J.)
Trainer: Jason Servis
Road to the Kentucky Derby Points: 18 (Ranked No. 3)
A stakes winner as a 2-year-old who also finished second in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) and $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III), Sunny Ridge picked up his first graded stakes victory in the Withers. From the final crop of 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull, Sunny Ridge emerged as a threat on the Road to the Kentucky Derby with the Withers victory. Let's evaluate his chances to make an impact.
Ability: Progress is especially important when evaluating hopefuls for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), because timing is everything. Miss a planned workout or start and suddenly a horse and its connections are looking at an uphill battle. With Sunny Ridge, the gelding has consistently improved since his stakes debut in the Sanford Stakes (gr. III) last July at Saratoga Race Course.
Sunny Ridge looked green, like many 2-year-olds making their second career start do, in the Sanford and finished seventh, but was beaten by less than four lengths. He bounced back with a dominant win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth Park before a second to Greenpointcrusader on a sloppy track in the Champagne. Second by a neck to highly regarded Exaggerator in the Delta Jackpot to close his 2-year-old season, Sunny Ridge looked like a completely different horse than we saw in the Sanford when he ran in the Withers. The 2-year-old who appeared uncomfortable between horses early in the Sanford and then fought his rider before finishing eagerly has developed into a professional racehorse at 3. He settled into second in the Withers and waited for jockey Manny Franco's cue before putting away pacesetter Vorticity in the stretch.
Similarly, if you go by Equibase Speed Figure, Sunny Ridge has improved his figure in every race from a 72 earned in his debut to the career-best 106 he earned in the Withers.
You'd like to see a bit more explosive acceleration in the stretch from Sunny Ridge, but he is more of a grinder. He has consistently run against stakes competition since his second start and definitely is improving.
Running style: Sunny Ridge rallied from fifth, 3 1/2 lengths back after a half-mile, to win the one-mile Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in September. He was sixth through a half-mile when second in the Delta Jackpot—but he raced within two lengths of the pace. He was much closer to a slow pace in the Withers and a fast pace in the Champagne, where he lacked the punch to stay with Greenpointcrusader in the stretch.
Sunny Ridge has enough speed to stay within striking distance early and looks best when he has a target, but he's shown versatility and his grinding style can be effective as the races get longer. He probably is not best suited to try to match strides with a speedy pacesetter early in races if he can avoid that type of scenario on the Derby trail.
Connections: Dennis Drazin is an attorney who is the chief manager for Drazin and Warshaw P.C., a firm founded by his late father Louis. His two younger brothers, Brian and Ronald, also practice at the firm. Drazin is a longtime Thoroughbred owner and breeder who has served as president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and now assists the group as an adviser.
Jason Servis took out his trainer's license in 2001 and has amassed 772 victories, including 38 stakes wins, through Feb. 1. Servis has trained four graded stakes winners, including Tightend Touchdown, the runner-up in the 2013 GEICO Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (gr. IT). He has not had a starter in the Kentucky Derby.
Servis is the brother of John Servis, who trained 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Smarty Jones .
Jockey Manny Franco guided Sunny Ridge to victory in the Withers, which was his first race paired with the gelding, who has had five different riders for his six starts. A Puerto Rico native, Franco also won the Withers in 2015 aboard Far From Over.
Franco, who took out his jockey's license in 2013, amassed a career-best $9,353,812 in purse earnings in 2015, which ranked 14th in North America among all jockeys. He finished 17th in the 2015 Kentucky Derby on Tencendur, who was his first starter in the race.
Pedigree: Sunny Ridge is from the final crop of 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull, a brilliant runner who won five grade I races during his banner campaign and showed incredible determination when he won that year's Travers Stakes (gr. I).
Count 2000 champion 2-year-old male Macho Uno and 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo among Holy Bull's top runners amid 53 stakes winners and 17 graded stakes winners through Feb. 1. For fans of Holy Bull, myself included, it would be especially nice to see another elite runner sired by one of racing's all-time greats.
As a sire, Holy Bull has been effective if not as dazzling as he was on the racetrack. Many of his top runners have been better at sprint distances, as evidenced by his average winning distance of 6.79 furlongs (a little less than seven-eighths of a mile).
It would be reassuring to see some stamina in the bottom half of Sunny Ridge's pedigree when assessing his chances for the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby.
His dam, Lignum Vitae, finished third for her best effort in two lifetime starts, both at one mile. Lignum Vitae was sired by the dazzling Songandaprayer, a grade I winner perhaps best known for setting the fastest pace through a half-mile (:44.86) in Kentucky Derby history before fading to finish 13th of 17 runners in 2001. Sunny Ridge is Lignum Vitae's first runner to reach the track.
Sunny Ridge's second dam Slewdacious, by 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, was unraced and did not produce a stakes winner.
The most notable name in the first four generations of this pedigree is Sunny Ridge's third dam, Bodacious Tatas, a three-time stakes winner who won the Molly Pitcher Handicap (gr. II) at 1 1/16 miles in 1989 and was owned by Dennis Drazin and John Kimmel.
There is no doubt Sunny Ridge is on the rise on the Road to the Kentucky Derby and he's shown enough to be excited about, but a little more class and stamina in the pedigree would make me feel more confident in his chances on the Triple Crown trail.
For now, Sunny Ridge is one to keep an eye on, especially for fans of Hall of Famer Holy Bull.