Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Spunrise at the Downs
by Steve Haskin
Date Posted: 4/30/2007 2:55:31 PM
Last Updated: 5/1/2007 11:35:38 AM

Hard Spun delivers a bullet in the morning
Derby Works Photos

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
It takes a lot to steal the spotlight from Curlin, but at approximately 8:35 Monday morning, Hard Spun made Curlin’s half-mile work two hours earlier seem like a distant memory. That’s when the Lane’s End (gr. II) winner went out and worked five furlongs in :57 3/5, all but leaving sparks as his feet hit the ground.

The work just added more questions to an already confused race, as reaction to the final time was divided between those who just shook their head and all but tossed the son of Danzig from consideration and those who were dazzled by the work.

Trainer Larry Jones, who had told jockey Mario Pino to go in about :59 and keep after the colt, was in his usual great spirits following the work and tried his best to convince everyone that Hard Spun bounced out of the work in great shape, drank very little water, and seemed bright, alert, and happy. Some bought it and some didn’t. Fast works have cooked others before the Derby, and those that didn’t buy it simply felt it was too fast a work five days out.

Not knowing how Hard Spun will eat tonight and how he’ll be in the morning, it’s difficult to know for sure if this work will help or hurt his chances or not have any bearing on them at all. We also have no idea how good this horse is and how much effort he actually puts into a work like this. We do, however, have an idea how fast he is. And we do know he has a pedigree that will easily carry him the mile and a quarter.

As for the work itself, Jones needed to see several things. First and foremost, he needed to see how the colt handled Churchill Downs again after turning in a bullet five-furlong breeze in 1:00 1/5 on April 12. Following that work, he returned to his barn at Keeneland, and 11 days later drilled a taxing mile in 1:42 2/5 over Polytrack, after which he came back blowing hard. It wasn’t a pretty work, but, with a six-week layoff into the Derby, he needed a lung opener, and horses normally do not work a mile over Polytrack, which becomes more demanding the farther you go. So, Jones also needed to see how much that work took out of Hard Spun, and if the colt could bounce back and turn in a sharp move at Churchill.

So, in that respect, Jones got satisfactory answers to both questions. There is no doubt whatsoever that the colt loves this track. Now, it’s just a case of how much this work took out of him. We’ll have a better idea tomorrow.

Hard Spun made an impressive appearance as he headed to the track following the renovation break, along with grade I winner Wildcat Bettie B, who would be working in company with him. Owner Rick Porter (who arrived just prior to the work on a private plane), his son Scott, his friend Bob Carver, and Tom Ludt, general manager of Vinery, hopped in their SUV and headed to the grandstand to watch the work, while Jones watched from the backside.

The target was :59, so they had a good idea what to shoot for. It was expected that Wildcat Bettie B, winner of the Prioress Stakes (gr. I) and an earner of nearly $425,000, would make Hard Spun work up a sweat and give him the tightener he needed. As they galloped to the five-furlong pole, Hard Spun was a half-length in front, but as they broke off, the filly established a half-length lead, with Hard Spun dropping his head and shoulder and quickly leveling off. They went that way through a torrid opening eighth in :11 flat, and then followed that up with another :11 flat eighth.

By then, Wildcat Bettie B must have known what she had gotten herself into. Jones had hoped she would stay with Hard Spun for as long as possible, but that wasn’t going to happen. Hard Spun was on a roll and he forged past the filly passing the three-eighths pole. Approaching the quarter pole, he had already left Wildcat Bettie B some four lengths behind him, getting the three-eighths in :33 2/5.

He took the turn a bit wide, which was to be expected from a horse running that fast. Remaining out in the middle of the track he continued to pour it on, despite tossing his ears around, as if he were doing it with little effort or encouragement. Pino said he wishes that Wildcat Bettie B could have stayed with him longer, because Hard Spun started looking around after putting her away, and at one point the colt even became distracted when some birds flew past him.

“I tried to stay with her as long as I could, but she couldn’t stay up with him,” Pino said. “He was just too strong.”

With his right ear sticking out horizontally and his left ear pointing straight up, Hard Spun continued strongly past the eighth pole, the filly now well behind him. In the final furlong, he eased a bit back to the inside, as Pino kept the wrists flicking and threw a single cross on him. Hard Spun, still tossing his ears around, came home his final quarter in a solid :24 1/5, and even slowing down in his gallop out, he still went out in 1:12 2/5 for the six furlongs. This was a much smoother work than his mile work at Keeneland.

Porter, who had no idea how fast he had gone, asked, “It wasn’t less than :59 was it?” Uh, yeah, it was.

The first reaction to the :57 3/5 was that maybe it would help take some of the edge off him, which it definitely should. “Well, he did level his head down a little better,” Porter said. Right again.

Back at the barn, as hordes of media converged on Barn 41, many still buzzing over the time, Hard Spun was on the muscle and feeling good, as if the work had no immediate affect on him. He was bright and alert and showed no ill effects from it. Jones said he was blowing coming off the track, but got his air back quickly and was back to normal by the time he got back to the barn.

So, back to the question: what does one make of this work? The immediate choices are 1) it was too fast this close to the Derby, and 2) maybe, just maybe, this horse has superstar potential, much like Curlin. After all, he’s won five of his six starts by an average margin of almost 6 1/2 lengths, and although he has not run against anything close to the horses he’ll be facing on Saturday, he just might be that good, and this work was not as taxing on him as one would think.

People will have strong opinions both ways, and that’s the way it should be, because we won’t know the answer until May 5, or possibly before that, which should make things even more intriguing.

Jones was in good humor after giving Hard Spun his bath, especially after Pino told him the colt did everything on his own. It’s difficult to tell how fast this colt is going, because of his action and his stride, and the only way anyone without a stopwatch knew that he was going fast was the way he blew Wildcat Bettie B away so quickly and so early. As it turned out, she was clocked in :59 3/5, which was the third-fastest work on the tab. The second fastest was :59 2/5, nearly two seconds slower than Hard Spun. So, there’s no doubt this was one fast work.

Jones said he was hoping that both horses would stay in the bit and work together for as long as possible, but as he put it, “Bettie realized that she had bit off more than she could chew.” Her rider, Joe Johnson, said he’d never seen a horse “work that easy that fast.”

How does Jones think the fans and handicappers will react to the work? “The cowboy blew it,” he joked, with a big grin on his face. “The cowboy absolutely had Derby pressure and he went out and worked him way too fast.”

Knowing Jones, however, this cowboy don’t blow nuthin,’ and when asked if he were happy, he replied, “I don’t know how I could be much happier. I’ve had Mario work a lot of horses, and I’ve never had him draw off from a horse like that unless he’s just sittin’ on a ton of horse. So, right now, we’re very happy, and if his legs are cool in the morning and he eats everything tonight, and if he wants to abuse me a little tomorrow walking him, then we’re gonna be just tickled as can be.”

Jones, who weighs 180 pounds, gallops Hard Spun, and he’ll have a good idea how he’s doing when he gets him back to the track on Wednesday. He has five days to play with, and will act accordingly, depending on how the horse is doing.

Asmussen pair right on target

Oh, right, forgot about Curlin and Zanjero, both of whom turned in solid half-mile maintenance works in :48 2/5 for Steve Asmussen. Curlin, who commands so much attention because of his physical prowess and the contempt he’s shown for his opponents, was raring to go as he galloped to the pole. When a horse came up on his inside, he turned his head in and got on the muscle, pulling exercise rider Carmen Rosas. He quickly settled in stride, going evenly throughout, and came home his final eighth in :11 4/5 to complete the half in :48 2/5 before galloping out an additional furlong in :13 flat.

The son of Smart Strike   is a long-bodied horse who even covers a lot of ground walking. His biggest attribute, however, is his mind. Everything he does, it’s as if he’s done it a hundred times before. He’s like a 5-year-old disguised as a 3-year-old, which should help him in his quest to tear the history books to shreds.

The one horse who is starting to look enticing at a big price, but who could become the wise guy horse, is Zanjero, one of the handsomest horses in the field who has now turned in two impressive works, not so much time-wise, but the manner in which he’s done it. He is such a beautiful-moving horse, with a long, gorgeous stride, and it was enjoyable just watching him gallop to the pole this morning with his neck bowed. In his work, he had his ears up throughout and was on a loose rein down the stretch. Whether it’s on Polytrack or dirt, he glides over the ground with smooth, effortless strides. He may be overshadowed by his stablemate, but based on how he’s looked on the track, here and at Keeneland, he could be a serious factor on Saturday.

In other works this morning, Bill Kaplan sent out Storm in May for a three-furlong work in :35 4/5, while stablemate Imawildandcrazyguy went in :36 1/5.

Sedgefield turned in a half-mile work in :48 2/5, and Bwana Bull looked good working six furlongs in 1:14 2/5. The son of Holy Bull went smoothly all the way and came home strong.

Street Sense and Great Hunter looked great galloping, and both are doing as well as can be coming into the Derby.

Street Sense’s work on Tuesday will be covered in Wednesday’s report because of a live chat yours truly is doing on Bloodhorse.com tomorrow.

 



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