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April 22, 2009

Horse play

A rundown of the Derby gallopers

You say it’s a handicapper’s nightmare?

Maybe.

Col. Matt J. Winn, who saw the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875 standing on the seat of his father’s delivery wagon in the Churchill Downs infield and grew up to build the Derby into the world’s greatest horse race, would no doubt be pleased that the likely field of 20 starters in the 2009 Derby includes every one of the winners, and most of the second-place finishers, of all the important Derby prep races. And that all these top 3-year-old prospects from eight states and one faraway country, when gathered together on the first Saturday in May, will produce nothing even close to a clear-cut favorite for the 135th Run for the Roses.

Col. Winn would love it that the Derby horses are coming from everywhere, representing home fans from many constituencies, and that no one can say for sure that this horse or that would win. He would look at the mountain of question marks the so-called experts say surround this year’s field and see them not as questions but mysteries. And the more mysteries, he might say with smiling Irish eyes, the merrier.

In fact, even before Winn’s 48-year (1902-1949) tenure began as the general manager and president of Churchill Downs, Kentucky Derby founder Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark had envisaged just such a scenario — a grand horse race, open to all comers, with the biggest purse money ever offered. Over 135 years the prize money has varied, and today’s $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands is no longer the richest race on the planet. It’s just one of the richest. But it remains, as the original rules of 1875 stipulated, “open to the world.”

Today the Derby has a tinge of international representation, with this year’s field including two horses from Dubai. In recent years, a handful of horses from Britain, Ireland, France, and even Japan, have flown in to contest the Derby. More are expected in the future. Global interest is one reason, and improvements in transportation another. It’s not like the olden days, when they loaded a horse on a tub in England and wore him out for three weeks playing bridge on the voyage to America. Or when Canonero II was shipped by steamer from Venezuela to Miami, endured six weeks in quarantine, then a 1,000-mile van ride to get to Louisville in the nick of time to win the 1971 Derby. Nowadays they put horses on jet planes and ship them around the world in semi-luxury, complete with their own feed and water. Upon arrival they test them for whooping cough, or whatever, and lead them almost straight into the starting gate.

But international participation is still spotty. The Derby remains primarily an American affair. The good news is all the best in the U.S. have managed to make it here this year. Nobody’s missing. The speedballs that couldn’t possibly go 1 1/4 miles have mostly been weeded out. The gang’s all here.

Which one will win?

Well, that’s the Big Question, now isn’t it?

And that question seems hopelessly complicated by the fact that the Big Horses have established their credentials on two different kinds of racing surfaces: traditional dirt and artificial (or synthetic) surface tracks.

It always was a handicapping problem that the dirt in California was different than the dirt back east. But now California has gone all-artificial, and Keeneland has, too — meaning two of the most important Derby prep races, the Santa Anita Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes, which together have four live starters in this Derby, are totally beyond handicapping.

“Until the year comes along that a horse comes from Polytrack to wear the roses, I’m going to throw them all out,” handicapper Rick Cushing says. Polytrack is the best-known brand of artificial surfaces, which are generally a mixture of oil-coated sand and rubber fibers. There are others, but because Polytrack was the first to be installed at a major track, it stuck. Like Xerox machines.

“Last year,” says Cushing, “all the horses that came from Polytrack that had good form, the highest any of them finished was sixth [Colonel John]. But mostly they finished at the back. Most of them nowhere.”

Indeed, Monba, the winner of the Blue Grass Stakes — on an artificial surface — finished dead last.

But the question of whether a top horse can succeed in transferring its form from artificial surfaces to the standard dirt at Churchill Downs does not have a definitive answer. Some say yes. Probably more say no. And some (this scribe included) say maybe really good horses can bounce right off one surface to another and win — if they’re the best.

Right now, we’ll dance around that question and talk about the Derby horses as horses. Not horses for courses.

Then, next week, after most of the Derby hopefuls have arrived, and tested themselves at speed over the Churchill surface, we’ll make a Derby pick and tab the top contenders — maybe offer a little betting advice on how to navigate those tricky trifectas and take down the superfecta. (We doubt Giacomo’s record $1 superfecta payoff of $864,254.50 is in jeopardy. $50,000 is about the norm.)

Now, with more than a week until the first Saturday in May, let’s look at the contenders to see who’s who and what’s what for the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

Florida is the traditional winter playground of the rich and famous, and the fastest racehorses in the east.

The standout horse is Quality Road, who seized the sunshine by winning the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in track-record time — sizzling the 1 1/8 miles distance in 1:47 3/5.

Quality Road, a son of Elusive Quality, who sired speedy 2004 Derby victor Smarty Jones, is also a horse of high speed, who seemed to love the stretch-out to 1 1/8 miles in the Florida Derby, decisively turning back a bid from a highly-touted horse named Dunkirk.

Quality Road is owned by prominent owner-breeder Edward Evans, whose father Thomas Mellon Evans won the 1981 Derby with Pleasant Colony. The horse is trained by Jimmy Jerkens, son of Hall-of-Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, and ridden by elite rider John Velazquez. This is the Eastern Establishment of American racing — and that force has triumphed many times in the Derby.

And what of Dunkirk? Here is a gray son of Unbridled’s Song, who was purchased as a yearling for a whopping $3.7 million and was the talk of the backstretch all winter in Florida. Dunkirk has started just three times, leading to a lingering suspicion that he is not quite sound. Many of the Unbridled’s Songs aren’t. But he’s fast, and many saw his bold sweep at Quality Road as a portent of the future. Others, including longtime Louisville racing fan Dick Shinneman, now residing in Florida, who was there that day at Gulfstream, and saw it differently.

“It was the same big move you’ve seen a hundred times from 2-year-olds turning three,” says Shinneman. “That big move where they fly around the turn, then flatten out in the stretch. Everyone gets all juiced up about it. But it usually doesn’t mean a thing.”

We’ll see about Dunkirk on the First Saturday in May.

Right now the critical issue about Quality Road is the quarter crack of his hoof. This is a common injury, similar to a long split in a human fingernail — except people don’t run on their fingers. The patch has seemed to hold strong since Quality Road shipped to the trainer’s home base at Belmont Park in New York. After Quality Road turned in a solid workout April 10, Jerkens told New York Times writer Joe Drape he was still cautious.

“With a big race coming up, this gives us something to go by,” Jerkens was quoted as saying. “You just can’t keep guessing and kidding yourself, ‘Oh, he’s all right, he’s all right.’ Everyone says he’s dead fit. Sure he’s dead fit, but you want to see it with your own eyes.”

On to Arkansas, where, if you like stereotypes, Papa Clem sounds just like the name of an Ozark horse who might win the Arkansas Derby. Picture Daisy Mae chasing Lil’ Abner around the barn, with a guy named Clem out in the woods guarding the still.

But Papa Clem is actually a California horse, owned and trained by California guys who shipped east to chase a Derby dream. Owner Bo Hirsch named the son of Smart Strike for his father Clement Hirsch, a famous racing figure in California. Trainer Gary Stute is the son of California trainer Mel Stute. In March, Papa Clem finished second in the Louisiana Derby, then vanned to Oaklawn Park, in Hot Springs, Ark., where he looked sharp knocking off the speed horse Old Fashioned in the Arkansas Derby. Now he’s in Louisville, seeking to replicate the work of past Arkansas Derby runners Sunny’s Halo, Lil E Tee and Smarty Jones, who all won the Kentucky Derby.

With those good races over traditional dirt surfaces, Papa Clem erased any guilt-by-association with the artificial surface tracks he left behind in California. An additional plus is jockey Rafael Bejarano, a past riding champion at Churchill Downs who just swept the riding title at Santa Anita.

It rained on Louisiana Derby Day in New Orleans, and The Fair Grounds track came up sloppy — which was just fine for Friesan Fire, who zipped to a seven-length victory over the aforementioned Papa Clem. Winners often open up multiple-length victories when the track is wet. But this horse was going to win no matter how wet the track was that day. Top-class horses generally step easily from fast tracks to sloppy ones. And Friesan Fire looked like a top horse that day.

Trainer Larry Jones elected to train Friesan Fire up to the Kentucky Derby — not racing in the seven-week interval between his March 14 Louisiana race and the May 2 Kentucky Derby. A decade ago or so ago that would have been unheard of. Nowadays horses race less, with longer gaps between their races.

Last week Friesan Fire worked an easy half mile at Keeneland, followed with a sharp 1-mile work clocked in 1:39 — which shows Jones’s plan might be working well.

NBC analyst Mike Battaglia notes that two years ago Jones trained Hard Spun six weeks between his final prep in the Lane’s End at Turfway and the Kentucky Derby, and the horse ran a hard-spun second.

What concerns Battaglia, however, is Friesan Fire will go into the 1 1/4 miles Kentucky Derby never having run in a race longer than 1 1/16 miles. “Now, I’ve been to the last 38 Kentucky Derbies,” says Battaglia, “and I’ve never seen a horse win who hasn’t had a mile-and-an-eighth under him yet.”

Me neither.

Meanwhile in Kentucky, the feel-good story of the year came when General Quarters won the Blue Grass Stakes.

General Quarters is the one horse in the one-horse stable of owner-trainer Tom McCarthy, a retired Louisville high school principal. McCarthy is not alone as a small-time guy who runs a horse or two because he likes the game. Plenty of people get out to the track before the crack of dawn to feed, water and exercise a horse or two — then head to a regular job that supports the hobby.

In 1983, trainer David Cross, who had a small stable of ordinary horses at Woodbine Racecourse in Toronto, came up with a star horse named Sunny’s Halo. Seeking warmer climes to train over the winter, Cross put all his eggs in one basket, left the rest of his stable in the hands of another trainer and shipped his horse, his wife and himself to Santa Anita Park in California to prepare for the Kentucky Derby. Where it rained. And rained. So Cross vanned to Arkansas and finally got the better weather he wanted. After taking the Arkansas Derby, Sunny’s Halo won the Kentucky Derby — and a little guy’s dream came true.

If McCarthy’s gray horse General Quarters does it too, that will be wonderful. But shed no tears if he doesn’t. McCarthy already has won the famous Blue Grass Stakes and its $465,000 first prize. He and his horse have made the trip into the Keeneland infield winners’ circle, where the Big Horses go when they’ve won the Big Races. That’s already a dream come true.

Finishing second in the Blue Grass was Hold Me Back, who previously captured the Lane’s End with an electrifying sweep from way back to win going away. Hold Me Back couldn’t catch General Quarters in the Blue Grass, but was rolling smoothly through the lane. Others have run similarly in the Blue Grass, then liked the long lane at Churchill Downs.

“If the pace is right in the Derby, he’ll have a big chance,” says Elliott Walden, racing manager for owner WinStar Farm. Hold Me Back, a son of Giant’s Causeway, is trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott and ridden by Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux, who has three Derby victories, including last year on Big Brown. Competent hands.

But Keeneland and Turfway have synthetic-surface tracks, and Walden, a former top trainer in Kentucky, understands there are questions about horses shifting from one surface to the other.

“I’d say he’s got about a 70 percent chance,” says Walden, who notes Hold Me Back was rated in the Rogozin sheets as fast on dirt as on artificial surfaces when he was two. “Now he’s improved quite a bit,” says Walden. “He’s faster now. He just hasn’t had the chance to run on dirt. So, hopefully, he’ll run big at Churchill Downs.”

Hold Me Back will work twice at Churchill, so the horse could show his hand before Derby Day.

But handicapper Cushing says he’ll wait to be shown.

“I don’t know what it is about Polytrack,” Cushing says. “Supposedly it favors the horses who like turf — get hold of it like turf, run across it like turf. And turf horses don’t win the Kentucky Derby. Not saying they’re not great horses — you know I’ve always liked turf racing better than dirt racing. But the Kentucky Derby is run on dirt.”

Battaglia, who faces the challenge daily of handicapping horses moving from one surface to the other, says top horses are awarded greater speed figures on dirt tracks. This year the two top Beyer Figures, which are published in the Daily Racing Form, are the 113s recorded by Quality Road and I Want Revenge. “And that’s who they’ll bet in the Derby,” says Battaglia, who will make the “morning line” for the race — forecasting how the expected crowd of 150,000 at the Downs, and thousands more wagering at simulcasting sites across North America, will wager their money. “They bet the horses with the top figures.”

Which brings us to I Want Revenge. The nicely named son of Stephen Got Even is the best horse from New York’s prep races, and will certainly get a big share of the action when the New York money comes pouring in on the Derby.

Like Papa Clem, California-based I Want Revenge was sent East in March, and flew over the Aqueduct dirt in winning the 1-mile Gotham Stakes and the 1 1/8 miles Wood Memorial. In the Wood, I Want Revenge was left at the gate, but caught and flew past the field under 18-year-old riding sensation Joe Talamo.

Talamo recently starred in a reality series about jockeys at Santa Anita, which aired on the Animal Planet channel. Talamo is also tweeting on Twitter. (Can you imagine Bill Hartack tweeting?)

But that storyline will be overshadowed by a focus on I Want Revenge’s trainer Jeff Mullins, who has been sanctioned for a series of prohibited medication infractions. One wag calls Mullins the “Cowboy Chemist.” An obviously talented trainer, Mullins has started four horses in the Kentucky Derby. But he’s also been slapped for numerous infractions, especially involving detention barns — special areas some tracks employ to sequester horses before races, to slow down the “milk-shaking” and other pep-up schemes.

Most recently, on Wood Memorial Day, stewards scratched a horse Mullins entered (not I Want revenge) after the trainer was caught squirting an over-the-counter cough remedy called Air Power into the horse’s nostrils in the detention barn. Judging by its list of ingredients, the stuff seems similar to the Vick’s your mother might have rubbed in your nose when you had a cold. The makers of Air Power brag that the potion will not come up positive in post-race testing.

Geez.

The other horse in the betting favorite mix with Quality Road and I Want Revenge will be Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile. (By the way, that’s not an editing error: Pioneer and of are runtogethertofit into the 18 characterandspaces limit on horse names.)

If it wasn’t for the fact that Santa Anita now has a bettor-averse artificial surface, Pioneerof The Nile might be the betting favorite for the Derby. After all, he’s won four straight stakes, banked $1.2 million in winning five of eight starts, and dominated all opponents on The Coast. He’s ridden by North America’s No. 1 jockey Garrett Gomez, and trained by three–time Derby-winner Bob Baffert.

And Pioneerof The Nile’s bloodlines should fit the Derby dirt to a T. He’s by the young sire Empire Maker, who finished second in the 2003 Derby and won the Belmont Stakes — and hails from the primo Derby-winning Raise a Native sire line. Pioneer’s dam is Star of Goshen, a very tough cookie at Churchill Downs in her racing days.

“What I like about him,” says Baffert, “is his big leap.” What the trainer is talking about is this: Horses don’t run 1-2-3-4 on their feet but “leap” forward off their hind legs, stretching out with their forelegs off the bound. “He jumps a long ways, and has a fluid, efficient stride,” Baffert says. “That’s one of his biggest assets.”

Sure to be overlooked is Chocolate Candy, who finished second to Pioneer in the Santa Anita Derby. The son of Argentine-bred stallion Candy Stripes is out of a mare named Crownette, who is a granddaughter of Won’t Tell You, dam of 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed.

Horse people always hope to have a “happy horse” that enjoys training and cleans up its feed tub. We haven’t seen Chocolate Candy on the track yet, but back on the grass behind Barn 41, he looks like he’s enjoying himself. Sort of gangly and a little adolescent, maybe. A happy horse.

But if you want a horse that looks good on the track, that would be Desert Party, who flew around the Churchill oval in his first workout under the Twin Spires on Saturday.

Desert Party and Godolphin stablemate Regal Ransom are owned by Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and one of the world’s leading racing figures. Sheik Maktoum has previously shipped horses from Dubai to contest the Kentucky Derby — so far without success. But this time might be different. Both horses campaigned at age 2 in the U.S., with good success, and the 16-hour trip from Dubai, which seems to knock out some horses, might not have been so tough on these two.

“They flew first class in the Sheik’s big plane,” explains Rick Mattee, assistant to Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor. “Horses usually ship via air in narrow individual stalls. But the big plane has big ‘boxes’ that allow them to move around. They can even stretch out for a nap.”

Desert Party certainly looked fresh as a daisy working five furlongs in a minute and a “tick” over the Churchill strip.

In contrast to most workouts, Desert Party didn’t come up to the five-furlong pole under strong restraint, then be slanted suddenly to the rail to “break off.” He was already humming along at a neat little gallop when he passed the five-eighths pole, and it didn’t look like he was accelerating as the clocking began — but he was.

This horse glided over the track, not so much by his speed as with a smooth stride. Around the turn he flew inside one horse going slower and right past another going quicker without even appearing to change course. Down the quarter-mile homestretch, we clocked Desert Party in a swift 23 2/5, with a last eighth about 11 seconds.

Then, after the work, we caught Desert Party in the binoculars, head on, dancing along with feet prancing perfectly. Clippity, clippity, clippity ...

Lookin’ good.