04/13/2014 1:02PM

Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, and Other Notes


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.