Ky. Derby Trail: Monba King
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) winner Monba.
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Well, should we talk about the vagaries of Polytrack form for the umpteenth time or concentrate on the weekend’s racing? Considering there were only a few horses worth analyzing, it looks as if we have to begin by addressing the stunning form reversal in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and its resulting Kentucky Derby implications.
 
If having the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) winner, the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) winner, and the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner and one of the top two choices for the Kentucky Derby, finish 9th, 10th, and 11th in the Blue Grass Stakes, and the only other graded stakes winner in the field finish 5th, is a true representation of what the Blue Grass and some other Derby preps have turned into, then we have to accept the fact that Thoroughbred racing (and breeding) in America has begun to mutate into something the sport has never encountered before. To see some of our leading Derby contenders plod through Polytrack and not run a lick not only was a sad sight, it made handicapping the Kentucky Derby as inexact a science as flipping a coin.

It must be noted that these comments refer only to form and performance and not safety. The latter can be determined by the recent studies that have been made. We’re just talking about synthetic surfaces in relation to handicapping the Kentucky Derby and what purpose they serve as prep races, which has been good for some and terrible for others.

The connections of Pyro, Cool Coal Man, Big Truck, and Visionaire chose their own poison by running in the Blue Grass, believing they, like Street Sense last year, would get a good prep race over a safe surface that would enable them to bounce out of the race in good shape for the Derby, win or lose. But they couldn't have predicted what transpired…at least to this extent. Visionaire actually ran a big race to finish fifth, considering all he was up against, which will be discussed later on. What may hurt him is the meager purse money he earned, placing him in jeopardy of not making the Derby field.

It seems as if the Blue Grass has become either a safe haven for trainers of top contenders just looking to get to the Derby in one piece, or a last-ditch attempt to qualify for the Derby with the aid of Polytrack. To Monba’s credit, he handles both surfaces equally well. But for Stonerside Farm, owner of runner-up Cowboy Cal, a confirmed turf horse, this was like a birthday present in the form of a free ticket to the Derby.

It’s fine to try to emulate what Street Sense did last year, but Street Sense, despite his inability to handle Polytrack as well as dirt, had already run well enough over Polytrack in the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I). The four big horses this year had never run on Polytrack, and their connections could only hope they would handle it enough to get something out of the race. Apparently they didn’t. And now they have three weeks to make a miraculous comeback. How miraculous? The last Derby winner to finish worse than fourth in his final Derby prep was Iron Leige in 1957, and he finished fifth, not 9th, 10th, or 11th.

The bottom line is, you can’t blame any of the trainers and owners for attempting to use the Blue Grass as a prep for the Derby, as long as they were willing to accept the consequences. The timing was right for their horses, and all the trainers involved – Steve Asmussen, Barclay Tagg, Nick Zito, and Michael Matz – are as good they come getting a horse ready for a big race. But in this case, they were venturing into virtually unknown territory.

Even more troubling with Pyro is that he never tried.  You would think a horse this classy and talented should have at least put in some kind of run even if he didn't like the surface. But, as War Pass showed at Tampa, each horse reacts differently to adversity, and you can't get into their heads. So, you can either ignore the race or you can dismiss him in the Derby, feeling he got nothing out of his first attempt at 1 1/8 miles.

The California horses showed in the wide-open Arkansas Derby (gr. II) that going from synthetic surfaces to dirt can have the opposite effect of going the other way, which does not bode well for the Eastern and Midwestern dirt horses who no doubt will be at a disadvantage going to the Breeders' Cup this year. But at least the California Cushion Tracks or Pro Ride or whatever they’re using seems to have more dirt qualities than Polytrack.

OK, enough about that. We still have a Kentucky Derby to try to decipher, as difficult as that may be, and none of the Polytrack talk should take away from Monba's victory over stablemate Cowboy Cal.

Credit trainer Todd Pletcher for having Monba ready for a big effort after his debacle in the Fountain of Youth Stakes back on Feb. 24, in which just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. And he was able to do it with only four half-mile breezes. Monba was always cut out to be a good horse, and has crammed an awful lot into a few races, having won over Polytrack at Keeneland and dirt at Churchill Downs. He’s won from just off the pace and came flying home from 10th to finish a close fourth in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I). He’s won by daylight and he’s won twice in hard-fought stretch battles. In his allowance score at Churchill Downs, he came home his final quarter in :24 flat, and in the Blue Grass, he closed his final three-eighths in :36 2/5. You can’t ask for a horse to come home much faster than that, regardless of the surface.

Now it’s just a question of how much foundation he has for the Derby, coming off just the Blue Grass and a race in which he virtually was eased. What he has going for him is the fact that many of the leading contenders also are going into the race with only two starts this year, including the two favorites, Big Brown and Colonel John. And several others, such as War Pass, Tale of Ekati, Pyro, Cool Coal Man, Big Truck, Adriano, Z Fortune, and Denis of Cork, all have thrown in clunkers along the way.

Another thing Monba has going for him is his pedigree. He’s by Maria’s Mon, sire of Derby winner Monarchos, out of an Easy Goer mare. He’s also inbred to Buckpasser, one of the great classic influences. His dam, Hamba, is a half-sister to two-turn graded stakes winners Secret Hello and Silent Account, and his fourth dam, Pillow Talk finished first or second in the Kentucky Oaks, Delaware Oaks, and Black-Eyed Susan Stakes.

As for the overall Derby picture, coming up with a Top 10 or 12 or any number is not an easy task. Rather than attempting to use logic in putting this perplexing puzzle together, it was decided to use a simple formula, which is to go back to late January, when all seemed so simple, and use the top seven horses on the initial Derby Dozen, and add Big Brown, Smooth Air, Adriano, Gayego, and Visionaire to complete the Top 12.

A look back at that original Derby Dozen revealed that the first seven on the list have since gone to finish 1-2-3 in the Wood Memorial (gr. I), win the Blue Grass Stakes, win the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), win the Louisiana Derby, and finish a close second in the Arkansas Derby. So, sometimes, when things become cloudy and muddled, it’s best to go back to see where you were in the beginning and start all over again.

This discovery of the first Derby Dozen at least prevented a severe case of brain crunch trying to analyze this year’s race. Having Monba ranked No. 2 on that initial list with only a fourth-place finish in the CashCall Futurity and an allowance win to his credit, there is no reason not to return him right up near the top once again. In fact, why not stray from the herd and put him No. 1, despite his barely having two starts this year and a 92 Beyer figure (Hey, Street Sense got a 93 in last year’s Blue Grass). And we still haven’t given up on our original No. 1, Court Vision, who, despite having slow speed figures, is looking better as each prep race quietly passes by without producing many mile and a quarter horses.

The return of Z Fortune to the Top 12 after his game runner-up performance in the Arkansas Derby is interesting because he turned in that typical second-place finish in the final Derby prep we’ve seen so many times before. Remember Lil E. Tee, Grindstone, Funny Cide, Silver Charm, Monarchos, Real Quiet, Go for Gin, etc? His performance, in which he couldn’t get by Gayego and was beaten three-quarters of a length, mirrored the performances of Lil E. Tee and Grindstone in the Arkansas Derby.

And he did it breaking from post 11 and getting caught 4-5 wide on both turns, so this was an excellent Derby prep. If he can handle the extra furlong he could be a real live longshot on Derby Day.

As mentioned earlier, Visionaire ran a terrific race to finish fifth. After breaking from the 12-post, showing more speed than usual and getting hung wide, he closed from 12th and last after swinging some 10-wide turning for home. And he was able to close through fast closing fractions over a surface he likely didn't care for. To do this, he had to run his final three-eighths in a rapid :35 4/5. But, as we also mentioned earlier, his paltry fifth-place earnings have him teetering on the edge of not making the 20-horse cut. He has a little breathing room, but it all depends on what happens in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) and the final decision of Eight Belles’ connections.

After the Top 12, you can take your pick among the other speed horses, Bob Black Jack, Recapturetheglory, and Cowboy Cal. Between those three, Gayego, and War Pass, Big Brown could be as far back as fifth or sixth or risk getting caught up in what promises to be a hotly contested pace. Of course, whenever you say that, some horse opens up by three.

Finally, there is Gayego, who has already outrun his pedigree, considering his sire Gilded Time’s best offspring have excelled from sprint distances to 1 1/16 miles. But it’s worth noting that Gayego’s pedigree has a number of big-name horses who were front-runners that could carry their speed classic distances. In addition to being inbred to Count Fleet and Bold Ruler, he also has Ack Ack and Lost Code in his female family. His trainer, Paulo Lobo, has done a terrific job getting this colt to where he is. Two races back, he was winning the San Pedro Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs. His final three-eighths in the Arkansas Derby was run in :38 3/5, while Z Fortune, racing in sixth most of the way, came home in :37 4/5.

With fellow California shippers Tres Borrachos and Indian Sun finishing third and fourth at odds of 37-1 and 24-1, respectively, it certainly has to make Colonel John’s supporters feel confident he will be able to make the transition to dirt with no problem.


 

To read Steve Haskin's personal accounts of some of racing's most thrilling moments, check out his new book, Tales from the Triple Crown.

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