Ky. Derby Trail: What Foot Forward?
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The coveted Triple Crown Trophy has not been awarded since Affirmed claimed it in 1978.

It used to be so simple. Every step horses took on the Kentucky Derby trail was on good old Mother Earth. Now, we have no idea what some horses are putting their feet into. Unless horses racing exclusively on synthetic tracks can at some point establish form on dirt, they’ll be nothing more than question marks on the first Saturday in May.

Not only are synthetic surfaces a world apart from dirt surfaces, they are a world apart from each other. When our equine stars run like plow horses over Del Mar’s heat-sensitive Polytrack and consistently break or flirt with track and world records over Santa Anita’s supersonic, problematic Cushion Track, how is anyone supposed to know how talented and fast these horses really are?

Because of the confusion caused by synthetic surfaces, this year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) preview will take on a different look. It is senseless to include horses racing in California on the same list as horses racing on dirt back east. Due to the fact that we have no idea what we’re dealing with, this first Derby preview will be separated into two sections—horses that have never raced on dirt and horses that have. Obviously, the former will be a much shorter list, but it’s better than attempting to mix the proverbial apples and oranges.

In addition to the synthetic surface dilemma, we also have to deal with the bizarre stakes schedule at Gulfstream Park this year. With no stakes at a mile or longer until the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), many trainers with top-class horses are trying to figure out how to get to the nine-furlong race without a legitimate non-sprint prep. The race they used to count on—the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III)—for some reason is now hanging like an appendix at the end of the meet, apparently serving no useful purpose.

Bill Mott, for example, who has established stakes stars such as Court Vision, Majestic Warrior, Z Humor, and Riley Tucker, admits he’s befuddled. Where does he run these horses? Court Vision, who at least has a good 2-year-old foundation, will have to debut in the Fountain of Youth. The three most important words for many Florida-based trainers could very well be Tampa Bay Downs, especially after the show Street Sense and Any Given Saturday put on in last year’s Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), and what they went on to accomplish. Also, look for more Florida horses to ship to Fair Grounds for the Risen Star (gr. III) and Louisiana Derby (gr. II), and the newly graded Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn.

So, with all the excess baggage this year, here is one person’s still-muddled view of the 2008 Derby hopefuls. Weekly rankings can be found on the Triple Crown Mania page of bloodhorse.com and in The Blood-Horse magazine.

This year’s crop looks to be dominated by Nick Zito, Todd Pletcher, Mott, Steve Asmussen, and Barclay Tagg. So far, the stakes horses that have made an impression, in addition to champion War Pass, are Court Vision (Mott), Monba and Cowboy Cal (Pletcher), Pyro and Z Fortune (Asmussen), and Tale of Ekati (Tagg).

My No. 1 and 2 overall would have to be Court Vision and Monba. It may seem strange putting a horse on top who ran an extremely slow time in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) over a sub-par field, but Court Vision is one of the most determined young horses we’ve seen in quite a while. He’s battle-tested, relentless in the stretch, and overcomes adversity. And he’s won three straight—over Keeneland’s Polytrack, Churchill Downs, and Aqueduct. He is by Gulch (sire of Derby and Belmont, gr. I, winner Thunder Gulch), and his dam is a full-sister to Summer Squall and a half-sister to A.P. Indy. He just needs to step up against better-quality horses.

Simply put, I just like what I’ve seen of Monba. The son of Maria’s Mon was game winning a mile allowance race at Churchill Downs with a final quarter in :24 flat, then lost all chance in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) when he was slammed into at the start, dropping far back in 10th. Appearing to be hopelessly out of it, he closed like a rocket to finish fourth, beaten 2 1⁄4 lengths, galloping out well clear of his rivals. And I love his inbreeding to Buckpasser.

Tale of Ekati turned in one of the most impressive perform­ances by a 2-year-old with his explosive dash up the rail to win the Futurity Stakes (gr. II). If he can handle the 1 1⁄4 miles, he will be a major contender. Pyro has had to chase War Pass on three occasions and will get better as the distances stretch out. Z Fortune was impressive in the Lecomte and keeps improving with each start. And Cowboy Cal, although a monster on turf and a dud in his only dirt start, still looks to be a top-class horse who runs more like a dirt horse—he puts his opponents away on the far turn and just keeps going. He has a big, beautiful stride, and the feeling here is that his career debut was an aberration, and that he will make a successful switch back to the dirt. But Pletcher said he’ll debut on turf and then possibly run in the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) on Polytrack, so, like the Californians, we’ll have no idea what to expect if he makes it to the Derby. Also watch for stablemate Why Tonto’s return to the dirt. Second to Cowboy Cal in the Tropical Park Derby (gr. IIIT), the son of Indian Charlie has a predominantly dirt pedigree, but did run poorly in his first two dirt races at Saratoga.

As for War Pass, he is still in a class by himself, talent-wise and speed-wise. But the big question is whether the son of Cherokee Run can carry his speed classic distances. Many feel he is more of a miler who will be effective up to 1 1⁄8 miles, but until someone beats him, he still is the top gun.

Sure, we can keep going and mention quality stakes horses such as Anak Nakal, Majestic Warrior (who had his first breeze Jan. 19), Z Humor, Turf War, Blackberry Road, Smooth Air, Ready’s Image (who is in light training in Ocala), Cave’s Valley, Kodiak Kowboy, The Roundhouse (who is still at Ashford Stud), Atoned, and Racecar Rhapsody, or the desert-dwelling Etched, but there are a number of less-accomplished horses who have caught the eye and are worth following closely.

You can be sure it will be standing room only on Visionaire’s bandwagon after the Michael Matz-trained colt turned in his second explosive victory in a one-mile allowance romp at Gulfstream, after which majority interest in the colt was purchased by Team Valor, for whom he will debut Feb. 9 in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III). In his previous start at Laurel, the son of Grand Slam out-closed the Barclay Tagg-trained Elysium Fields, who looked like a world-beater winning a nine-furlong maiden special weight race at Gulfstream Jan. 19 by eight lengths with the addition of blinkers. What is intriguing about the son of El Prado is that he is inbred to Tom Fool without being inbred to his son Buckpasser.

If you liked Visionaire’s last race, you might also want to keep an eye on runner-up Stevil, who was forced to go six-wide turning for home, while Visionaire was able to skim the rail. Stevil, trained by Zito, also had to go six-wide in his previous start, and the rider lost his whip in the colt’s career debut victory. The son of Maria’s Mon has a distance pedigree and just needs a decent trip, which he may get in a mile allowance race Jan. 30.

Speaking of Zito, his best colt may turn out to be Bordeaux Bandit, who was extremely impressive breaking his maiden by 5 1⁄2 lengths at Gulfstream Jan. 12. The son of Vindication covered the mile in a sharp 1:35.41 and looks like he wants to run all day. If you like inbreeding with a real classic twist, he is inbred to Hail to Reason, Round Table, and Buckpasser. You rarely see a horse inbred to all three of those classic sires.

Bordeaux Bandit is owned by Len Riggio’s My Meadowview Farm, which also owns the promising Paint, who is back working after bucking shins. The son of Include overcame a ton of trouble when winning his career debut at Saratoga in impressive fashion, and then ran a bang-up fourth, beaten two lengths, in the Futurity Stakes after making a long, sustained move and having to go very wide at the top of the stretch. Zito is taking it slowly with him.

Zito has a slew of promising 3-year-olds in addition to War Pass, Anak Nakal (who has been working brilliantly), Stevil, Bordeaux Bandit, and Paint, including recent winners Cool Coal Man, Fierce Wind, and Da’ Tara, as well as Coal Play and Aquarian.

Wire-to-wire allowance winner Make the Point looks like a good one for Kiaran McLaughlin. If you’re a fan of Repent, you’ll sure want to follow his sons Check It Twice, impressive winner of the What a Pleasure Stakes at Calder, and Crown of Thorns, who romped in a seven-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita for Richard Mandella (he went in 1:20.65, but who cares?). Both are bred by Clover Leaf Farms II, which owns the former. A promising maiden winner at Gulfstream to watch is the Mr. Greeley colt Kentucky Bear, who came from off the pace to win by 6 1⁄2 lengths at a mile for Reade Baker in his career debut. Two promising colts, Jedi Code and Legacy Thief, were disappointing in allowance races over the Jan.  26-27 weekend, but deserve another chance.

Another potential bandwagon horse is Denis of Cork, who turned in as impressive a maiden score as we saw all last year, and then came back to gamely win a two-turn allowance race at Fair Grounds Jan. 19 over the far-more experienced Unbridled Vicar. Trained by David Carroll, Denis of Cork (by Harlan’s Holiday) appears to have a world of talent.
 

Others to watch are the undefeated Canadian colt Miner’s Claim; undefeated New York-bred Giant Moon; runaway New York winner Mint Lane, who romped with first-time Lasix; the Tagg-trained Jockey Ridge; the Pletcher-trained Texas Wildcatter; and Macho Again, who is far better than he showed in the Lecomte. I’ve been waiting since October for the immature King’s Silver Son to break his maiden, and he finally did so in impressive style at Fair Grounds. I just love this colt’s pedigree. Wishful Tomcat, who looked absolutely awesome breaking his maiden at Aqueduct, is off the Derby trail with a chipped knee.

And now for the horses that have raced exclusively on synthetic surfaces. The five standouts in California are El Gato Malo, winner of the San Rafael (gr. III) and Gold Rush; Into Mischief and Colonel John, the one-two finishers of the CashCall Futurity; the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) winner Georgie Boy, who has been training brilliantly for his return, and the undefeated California Derby winner Yankee Bravo, who possesses a monster closing kick.

El Gato Malo is all racehorse and has a look of class about him. The athletic son of El Corredor is not inundated with stamina, but there is enough that it would not be surprising to see him stretch out to 10 furlongs effectively. He certainly has the talent. Although Into Mischief defeated Colonel John in the CashCall Futurity, the latter did not have the cleanest of trips, and his explosive turn of foot when winning the Real Quiet Stakes, combined with his pedigree, suggests that he will be a force when the distances lengthen. Into Mischief also should have no problem stretching out. These two should continue to provide fireworks on the Derby trail.

Other stakes horses who have only proven themselves on synthetic surfaces are Wicked Style, Salute the Sarge, and Shore Do, none of whom could handle the slop in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I)., and Dixie Chatter, who still has an outside shot of making the Derby after suffering an injury. Also keep an eye on up-and-­comers Reflect Times (phenomenal female family and what a stretch kick; watch out for him stretching out in the grade II Robert Lewis Feb. 2), Coast Guard, Signature Move (won back-to-back two-turn races and bred to run long), and On the Virg.

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