Kentucky Derby Trail: We've Got Ourselves a Derby

Kentucky Derby Trail: We've Got Ourselves a Derby
Photo: Benoit
Jockey Alex Solis crosses the finish line aboard Brother Derek after an easy victory in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby.
Finally, after months of picking, probing, and doubting, we've uncovered the mother lode. And that's with the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) and Arkansas Derby (gr. II) still to be run. No matter what happens in those races, we already have the nucleus for what promises to be one of the most competitive Derbys in years.

Then again, it could all be an illusion. Maybe the Derby scriptwriters have had this one written up for a long time, and we're just now seeing the previews. Not having had the benefit of being in California and seeing Brother Derek in the flesh on a regular basis, one could only judge the colt by watching his races on TV and studying his past performances.

But on Saturday, ABC showed the son of Benchmark working, walking, saddling, parading in the paddock, and going to the gate. It was during those moments that it became crystal clear that we're not dealing with any ordinary horse. If the term "look of eagles" still was used today, that would be an apt description, as evidenced by the class he radiates, and the way he struts along with a slight arch in his neck as if in a zone. And, yes, he has that look in his eye.

With that said, let's get back to reality. Sure, Brother Derek's effortless 3 1/4-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) was impressive, but he didn't do anything he wasn't expected to do. If he hadn't won like that, cruising along on an uncontested pace, the detractors would have been out in full force. In fact, if there is a question mark surrounding him it's that he's had everything his own way every race and has not faced any adversity. And he did sweat up a bit going to the gate.

So, this is not a proclamation of victory on May 6. It is merely an observation, belated as it may be, that Brother Derek - aided by the accompanying feel-good stories of Dan Hendricks and Alex Solis - could very well be this year's headline-grabbing equine hero, just as Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and Afleet Alex were.

Many feel his running style will be compromised in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) presented by Yum! Brands, where he will encounter traffic for the first time and at least a half-dozen major stakes winners who have the same running style he does.

But there is no way to predict how the Derby will be run, or how Brother Derek will adapt. Exceptional horses find a way to win, and the feeling here is that Brother Derek is exceptional. He is machine-like in the way he rolls along at a high cruising speed and then kicks in from the half to the three-quarters. In his last four victories, he's gone that third quarter in :23 2/5, :23 3/5, :24, and :23 4/5. And in the Santa Anita Derby, he came home his final three-eighths in :36 4/5, so he's not exactly a pushover in the stretch. Now it's just a question of whether he can kill off a Kentucky Derby field in the same manner he's been killing off his opponents in a small field. If the Derby draws a full field of 20, that means he will be facing two more horses than he's faced in his last four races combined.

Saint's alive

Speaking of exceptional horses, we most assuredly saw one in Saturday's Illinois Derby (gr. II). Some will no doubt question the quality of the field that Sweetnorthernsaint destroyed by 9 1/4 lengths, but this race had a number of promising horses who didn't look so promising after Sweetnorthernsaint got through with them. This was not a bad field at all. It simply was a case of one horse running a monster race. If you question the final time of 1:49 4/5, allowance horses went 1 1/16 miles in 1:48 3/5 and 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:19. And the two six-furlong stakes – the Lost Code and the Meafara – were run in 1:11 1/5 and 1:11, respectively.

The truth is, we really don't know just how special this gelded son of Sweetsouthernsaint really is. All that we do know at this point is what is right there in front of us. And that is plenty.

Very few horses can boast the credentials that shout out from Sweetnorthernsaint's past performances. Going six furlongs at Laurel over a deep, slow track, he came home his final quarter in :24 flat. Going six furlongs at Aqueduct, he closed his final quarter in :23 2/5 en route to a blistering 1:09 six furlongs. In the one-mile Miracle Wood Stakes over a sloppy track at Laurel, he came home his final quarter in :24 3/5, winning by 10 lengths. In the 1 1/16 Gotham (gr. III), despite breaking from post 10, going wide on both turns, and being eased late, he still closed his final five-sixteenths in :31 and his last sixteenth in close to :06 flat. And in the Illinois Derby, he came home his final eighth in :12 1/5 (more precisely :12.08 or :12 flat) over a dead track, while under mostly a hand ride.

In a year that has seen mostly mediocre final fractions, it is refreshing to see a horse close this consistently fast, regardless of the distance or the surface. In the Illinois Derby, Sweetnorthernsaint had his head cocked to the inside and seemed to be looking at the grandstand. When Kent Desrormeaux gave him a few cracks of the whip to get his mind back on business, he took off and quickly left his field staggering up the track.

No matter how you look at it, this is one exceptional racehorse that probably is a lot better than most people think. And if he has anywhere near the toughness, tenacity, and staying power of his broodmare sire, Waquoit, then we are in for a lot of fun years with this horse. And that fun could begin May 6.

The favorite, Cause to Believe, was a bit closer to the pace than expected, and did not show his usual kick. Racketeer and My Golden Song moved as a team, but ran out of gas. Runner-up Mister Tiester had been beaten 8 1/4 lengths by Brother Derek in the Santa Catalina (gr. II), but he was coming off a maiden race and was more seasoned and tested going into the Illinois Derby.

Bobbing for Big Apples

Let's face it, if you're looking for a horse with a Kentucky Derby ring to it, Bob and John is not going to be high on your list (with due apology to Bob McNair and John Adger). But you do have to admire their chutzpah (that's brass in Texas) for naming a horse after themselves. And if he wins the Derby, people will at least have a choice whether they want to call him plain old Bob or John or simply B.J. And you can even add another Bob in there if you want to get his trainer, Bob Baffert, into the act.

Name aside, Bob and John solidified his position as a leading Derby contender by venturing out of California, running into a sticky, sloppy track, and pounding through it to wear down a stubborn Keyed Entry in the Wood Memorial (gr. I). The son of Seeking the Gold has now finished in the money in eight of his nine career starts, with a good fourth in his debut last year. He's not going to dazzle you with his speed, but he quietly has crossed the wire first five times with an average winning margin of five lengths (he was disqualified from one victory in a controversial ruling).

And he's still immature mentally and physically, being a May 17 foal, so it's hard to tell just how much more room for improvement there is. He certainly will have no problem with the mile and a quarter.

With victory seems to come critique, and, yes, there will be an issue with the final time of 1:51 2/5 and final furlong in :14. There was no doubt Bob and John was a tired horse at the wire, as evidenced by the way runner-up Jazil went whizzing by him after making up 20 lengths from the five-sixteenths pole to the finish.

But this race was not about time over a track that was laboring after two days of rain. It was about overcoming adversity and showing just what you're made of. Bob and John lost valuable position early when Keyed Entry and Marco's Tale pulled the old squeeze play on him going into the first turn. He then was snatched to the outside by Garrett Gomez and sat right behind Keyed Entry, who was setting testing fractions of :23 and :46 1/5. He dug in turning for home and wore down Keyed Entry after a stiff battle. This race will put a lot of bottom and grit into him and should prepare him well for the Derby.

Keyed Entry, who had already shown an affinity for the slop, was game in the stretch and put up a good fight, being beaten only two lengths. In a year like this, the Derby doesn't look like a particularly inviting spot for a horse with his running style, but no decision will be made regarding his status until his connections can assess the situation. He no doubt is a talented colt, but there is a question about whether he's ready to go 1 1/4 miles in this company.

Jazil, who seems to turn into Silky Sullivan whenever he runs at Aqueduct, had a rail-skimming trip and came flying home with a final three-eighths in :36 4/5 after appearing hopelessly beaten. Normally, one would consider a horse that runs like that merely a plodder. But Jazil, another son of Seeking the Gold, is much more than a plodder. He is a regal-looking stayer type who has a look of class about him and is more than capable of running a big race from much closer.

Don't give up on A. P. Warrior

Most everyone looking for another Derby horse to come out of the Santa Anita Derby, in addition to Brother Derek, will latch on to Point Determined for his fast-closing second. And they'd be right to do so, considering the room for improvement the son of Point Given   still has.

But the real live horse coming out of this race is A. P. Warrior, despite what appears on the surface to be a disappointing third-place finish, 4 3/4 lengths behind Brother Derek.

This race did not set up well at all for the son of A.P. Indy, who is just now learning the game and how to relax off the pace, and do it consistently. Just when he had it figured out in the San Felipe, he found himself on a suicide mission in the Santa Anita Derby. With only five starters, one of whom (Sacred Light) lost all chance at the start and the other not having any business being in the race, it became nothing more than a three-horse race.

Brother Derek was the lone speed, which pretty much eliminated anyone else from winning, unless something out of the ordinary happened. What the race boiled down to was A. P. Warrior and Point Determined both tried to close in on Brother Derek going into the far turn, which is where Brother Derek does his best running. When Point Determined began losing touch with the other two, it left A. P. Warrior to do all the dirty work. He had to put in a testing third quarter in :23 1/5 just to get to within a length of Brother Derek. He still kept trying through a :24 1/5 quarter, but his effort finally took its toll. Point Determined, who desperately needed a second-place finish to be assured of a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby, played it safe. He was able to regroup and came on in the stretch to pick up the pieces in what proved to be a perfect race for him.

A.P. Warrior came back to the barn afterward and was feeling good and diving into his feed, according to trainer John Shirreffs. This horse showed his best style last fall when he closed from seventh in an eight-horse field to finish second to Brother Derek in the Norfolk Stakes (gr. II), beaten only three-quarters of a length. That is the A. P. Warrior you're going to see in the Derby. He has a good strong move, but it has to be held up and timed correctly. You cannot use it too soon, or he'll starting playing around and losing focus as he did in the San Felipe. You can be sure in the Derby he will be well back in the pack, and with his talent and closing punch, look for him to be flying in the final furlong.

It was mentioned earlier about the number of Derby contenders with similar running styles. Try figuring out which of these horses are going to be running anywhere from fifth to 10th in the early running: Brother Derek, Sweetnorthernsaint, Barbaro, Lawyer Ron, First Samurai, Bluegrass Cat, Sharp Humor, Keyed Entry (if he runs), Strong Contender, Bob and John, and Like Now (who runs in the grade II Coolmore Lexington).

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