04/13/2014 12:02PM

Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, and Other Notes

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Saturday was proof that just because there are three weekends of major final Kentucky Derby preps, not all of them are equally important.

Last week, we saw California Chrome strengthen his status as the clear-cut favorite for the Kentucky Derby with another devastating score in the Santa Anita Derby. We also saw Wicked Strong emerge as one of the most dangerous closing threats in this Derby with a going away score over good colts in the Wood Memorial.

Two weekends ago, the results weren’t as clear cut, as Constitution was fortunate to find an opening on the rail in his narrow decision in the Florida Derby, and Vicar’s in Trouble capitalized on an easy early lead in the Louisiana Derby. But at least we learned that Constitution has courage beyond what his limited experience would suggest, and that Vicar’s in Trouble knows what to do when circumstances are in his favor, even if circumstances don’t figure to be nearly as favorable in Louisville.

By contrast, Saturday’s Derby prep cupboard was on the bare side. The Blue Grass, which will regain its lofty status as a critical Derby prep next year after Keeneland switches back to a dirt main track this fall, was won decisively by a colt in Dance With Fate whose trainer seemed in his post-race comments to want no part of going on to Churchill Downs. And the Arkansas Derby was won by a colt in Danza whose performance was as implausible as it was stunning.

For me, and I’m sure many others, the Arkansas Derby was a whiskey-tango-foxtrot moment. I know that lightly raced 3-year-olds can improve by leaps and bounds literally overnight, but even in hindsight, I still have no idea where Danza came up with that performance. After getting a dream run up the rail – it was Constitution all over again; what is it with riders giving up the rail in big races like this? – Danza ran away from his field late like they were running in quicksand, and completed the nine furlongs only 13 one-hundredths of a second slower than last year’s champion 3-year-old Will Take Charge needed to win the Oaklawn Handicap in the race before.

Maybe Danza just suddenly improved by 15 to 20 lengths, or fell instantly in love with Oaklawn’s main track, but keep in mind, he was 41-1 for a reason. How often do you see a Todd Pletcher-trained horse win a Grade 1 race at that price? That’s just an indication of how thoroughly non-descript Danza’s first three races were. And if ever a horse was tasked going forward with having to prove that a surprising performance was not a fluke, it’s him.

As for others in the Arkansas Derby, Ride On Curlin ran okay finishing second after a wide trip, but his effort really had a picking-up-the-pieces feel to it. I’m not down on Bayern even though he was a tired third as the favorite. He missed a scheduled start last month due to a minor foot issue, and was given a tough assignment. Bayern came out of Saturday likely without enough points or non-restricted stakes earnings to start in the Kentucky Derby, and that is probably best for his long-term career.

Tapiture’s fourth in the Arkansas Derby was a disappointment. He seemed to resent being rated early, and unlike Danza, he didn’t save an inch of ground. Still, Tapiture was empty. We know he can run a lot better than that. But even if you’re inclined to allow Tapiture the benefit of the doubt and afford him the chance to rebound, you also have to consider that his meek effort Saturday might have signaled a loss of form.

Dance With Fate was in good form in the Blue Grass, and he is currently third on the Derby points list. But his connections, in a refreshing bit of realism, noted that Dance With Fate is a better horse on synthetic surfaces and turf, and aren’t crazy about the three week turnaround into the Derby, either. In any case, it would be a fitting conclusion to the Polytrack era at Keeneland if the winner of the last Polytrack Blue Grass did not go on to the Derby by choice.

Medal Count wheeled back on eight days rest in the Blue Grass after winning the Transylvania on opening day at Keeneland in an attempt to collect enough points to secure a Derby berth, and he succeeded with a solid second place finish. But Medal Count’s effectiveness on dirt is in question, too. You can make excuses if you want to for his fifth in the Fountain of Youth (against a speed bias), and 11th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (no Lasix). But I doubt you would want to hang your hat on Medal Count’s dirt capabilities off a win in his debut in his only other dirt start in an off-the-turf race at Ellis run in slow time.

Other weekend notes:

Count me in the camp who believe Wise Dan wasn’t nearly fully cranked up for Friday’s Maker’s 46, and won because he’s just so good. I anticipate a big step forward in his next start.

I think leaving Will Take Charge up in the Oaklawn Handicap was the right call, albeit a tough one. And to those who would have disqualified Will Take Charge, realize that to be consistent, you would have had to take runner up Revolutionary down, too (which would have made Carve the winner!). Revolutionary, who ran very well, was just as much at fault for the way he came out in upper stretch. But I think both bothered a horse in Golden Lad who was in the process of backing out of it, anyway.

I wonder, though, what was up with Will Take Charge lugging in through the entire stretch run? I don’t recall him doing that before.

Close Hatches, winner of Friday’s Apple Blossom, is a very nice filly, and she deserves her chance against Beholder (yes, she is supposed to come) and Princess of Sylmar in the Phipps on the Belmont Stakes undercard. But when all are on their games, Close Hatches is only third best in that trio.

Wesley Ward has been around a long time, and many folks were happy that he finally got his first Grade 1 win in the Madison with Judy the Beauty, who was tons the best.

Big Macher and Wild Dude, just a nose apart when 1-2 in the Potrero Grande, may not be the best sprinters California has ever seen, but they are an entertaining duo.

The Jenny Wiley was another head scratcher as Hard Not to Like, who upset at what I thought was an underlayed 13-1 (shows you the power Javier Castellano has on win pools right now), was hard to make. But I will be happy to give another chance to Stephanie’s Kitten, who finished eighth as the favorite. She had no chance with the trip she had.

Forego137 More than 1 year ago
Danza ran just as fast as WTC but WTC was lugging in the length of the stretch which is not a good sign, all that racing might be catching up w/him????
Stuart Hill More than 1 year ago
The good news for Danza is...he will be very fit come Derby Saturday and the 3 weekend turnaround (see Super Saver). The bad news is Pletcher trains him, which means he will be worked rather tepidly if history is any indicator, and Pletcher despises 3 week turnarounds for big races (although again, it worked with SS in the Ark Derby). It is almost like a cure for Pletcher's habit of having horses not fit and not ready to run well at CD, that and the numerous charges he brings each year make that task hard to begin with no matter how big your barn is. But I digress... I am with Mike as to how Danza jumped up that many lengths...all I can say is Pletcher and he has to have them cranked to win every grade 1 since they cannot all win the Ky Derby in his barn (usually the Pletcher barn does terribly in the Derby). Now, having said all of that, Danza did look good... I agree with the BGS winner. Why not, for once, sit out the Derby and point for a grade 1 turf in several weeks if that is the best thing for the horse? There is a reason many of these run on Poly and not dirt...they couldn't even qualify for the Derby on dirt in many cases.
Cemi Farkell More than 1 year ago
I was really impressed with the way Danza won his Mdn at Sar last year and made him my Derby Horse. The 41-1 odds that I got in the Ark Derby were a gift and I made over $18K with the win/place bet
JeanK More than 1 year ago
did not beak his maiden @ Saratoga, Belmont, going 5 and !/2 furlong. as for the rest of your story go see a qualified dr.
Pom DeTerre More than 1 year ago
sore loser huh JeanK? I wasn't - just like I wasn't after the FOY, where I had Wildcat Heir and the straight exacta, while everyone else was drooling over Top Billing & Commissioner. Don't take out your frustrations of not being able to read a racing form & losing on Cemi, simply because he got the MSW venue wrong. Ha- bet you're playing Game On Dude over Moreno tonight at Charlestown. It's you who needs to go attend a handicapping clinic.
Forego137 More than 1 year ago
You don't even know where the horse broke his Mdn at just like you don't know where you missed placed your 18k you made on your W/P bet on Danza. I have sea side property in the desert you might be interested in when you find your 18k.
Pom DeTerre More than 1 year ago
You should stick to betting the #5 horses Forego- the green becomes you.
Pom DeTerre More than 1 year ago
Danza ran 3rd in a G2 at Saratoga, Cemi-still a very impressive display for 2nd start. As for JeanK 's suggestions to see a dr. cuz you hit him, just ignore her, I had him too- thanks to all the people blinded by both Tapiture and the ridiculous Stephens/ Baffert odds given to Bayern, upon whose PP's should have been 8/1. The info was all there in the PP's, but some people just hate a winner unless it's them. Street Boss colt out of a Tank's Prospect mare, one of the hottest jocks in country right now, great works... Congrats to you for seeing the things that the people dissing you totally overlooked!
Cemi Farkell More than 1 year ago
Danza was my Derby Horse after he won mdn at Sar last summer.
Lost Code More than 1 year ago
Mike, I read today, where the owner of 'Toast of New York' is trying to sell him to potential buyers in the U.S.. If that happens and the new owners decide to enter him in the Derby, that would change things in the points standing again. Have you heard anything about this move by the owner of this horse?
James Woodrum More than 1 year ago
Just curious why you chose the name lost code because he was one of my favorite horses of all time winning five derbys in 1987 and was top four year old in 1988 before his injury forced him to retire
Forego137 More than 1 year ago
He chose the name because he can duh
Jordan Sickman More than 1 year ago
Really hope Dance with Fate goes in the Derby. His move reminded me of Animal Kingdom's move in the Spiral. This is a talented colt sitting on three high 90s Beyers. And his dirt form is fine. Applaud the connections for not necessarily catching Derby fever. But this horse has a big chance.
Ken Herlich More than 1 year ago
hey Mike,horses that you think are turf [medal count] will run on the dirt at CD, a good horse runs on anything
Ken Herlich More than 1 year ago
the rebel was a very hard race,what a smart move by the connections of Hoppertuniy to use the santa anita as a prep race
Darrin More than 1 year ago
Bottom line is that this years 3 yr olds are not a bunch of pigs,but more like some goats....just not the same as 10 years ago.
Pom DeTerre More than 1 year ago
another year, another Derby and another round of the old "This year's horses are garbage; weak field" junk. 2004...ah, let's see... oh yeah, that's right... smarty jones @1/5 loses the Belmont (AND the TC) to 36/1 Birdstone.... and you call this year's field "goats"?
worldsbiggest lie More than 1 year ago
I suppose that's where speed figures will tell the tale. Thank you!