02/18/2014 10:28AM

A Big Saturday Ahead


It seems to have come upon us suddenly, but on Saturday, we will see final preps for two final preps for the 2014 Kentucky Derby.

Clearly, horsemen seem to have a full grasp the urgency of the situation. With the vast majority of the all-important Derby points still to be distributed, entries came in fast and furious for Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth, which drew 13 and is the local stepping stone to the Florida Derby, and for the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, which attracted 16, including two also eligibles, and which is the local prelude to the Louisiana Derby.

The numbers explain the flood of support for these two races. The Fountain of Youth and Risen Star will each offer 50 Derby points to the winners, five times more than the winners earned in any Derby points race run so far, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Heck, the 20 points available to the runner ups in the Fountain of Youth and Risen Star are twice as much as the winners earned in all of the Derby points races run so far.

The Fountain of Youth and Risen Star aren’t the only reasons why Saturday promises to be a very big day of racing. Gulfstream and Fair Grounds each have a few attractive undercard stakes on their Saturday programs, including two races in the Davona Dale and Rachel Alexandra that could prove to be important penultimate preps for the Kentucky Oaks

In the face of all of this, it would be easy for a couple of “mere” allowance races to fall through the cracks, but there are two Saturday at Gulfstream that should not be glossed over.

One is race 6 at Gulfstream, a route that also happens to be for 3-year-olds. There are no Derby points up for grabs in this race, but it drew a loaded field including, but not limited to: Matterhorn, a very promising first out winner; Constitution, another first out winner who showed a lot of ability overcoming a slow start; Tonalist, who, with blinkers and Lasix on, was a most impressive nine furlong maiden winner most recently; Wicked Strong, who surprisingly never lifted a hoof in the Holy Bull, but who was a close third in the Remsen two back behind to premier Derby contenders in Honor Code and Cairo Prince; and Mexikoma, who gained more than 10 lengths in the course of finishing a relatively close sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in his last appearance. The winner of this race will almost certainly go on to an important final Derby prep, and he will do so with a fair measure of support.

But it is the fourth race at Gulfstream Saturday, a one mile allowance event, that I am especially looking forward to. And that is because this race marks the return of Normandy Invasion.

I can already see people rolling their eyes. Look, I get it. Normandy Invasion is a polarizing horse. There are some who will say that he gets way more attention and respect than a horse who is still eligible to the first-level allowance condition should. And there are those who were put off Normandy Invasion because of some ill-chosen words by his owner last year, who said something to the effect that there were no meaningful races to bring the colt back for after it became clear he couldn’t make the Travers. No meaningful races. In the fall. Okaaaay.

But despite the owner’s regrettable tone deaf moment, or what allowance condition the horse is still eligible for, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that Normandy Invasion has the potential to be a major, major player in the handicap division this year, and that is said at a point in time when there is some real power at the top of that division. By virtue of his second in a quickly run Remsen at 2, and his gaining second to then king-of-the-hill Verrazano in the Wood Memorial, Normandy Invasion’s quality was already established. It was, however, his performance in last year’s Kentucky Derby, which was also his most recent outing, that indicated he might be really good.

As has been noted many times by myself and others, the pace in last year’s Derby was destructive, and it is telling how well overall the horses who were immediately involved in that pace – Palace Malice, Oxbow, Verrazano, Goldencents, and Falling Sky – subsequently performed. Where Normandy Invasion enters the discussion is, he moved at least an eighth of a mile too soon into that hot pace, and did so not with a measured move, but with a bold burst of speed. Normandy Invasion led the 2013 Derby field from the top of the stretch to inside the eighth pole. But the combination of moving way too soon, and moving with a run that drained his resources more quickly than they had to be used, caused Normandy Invasion to weaken late and finish fourth, beaten 3 1-2 lengths.

A strong case can be made that, as last year’s Kentucky Derby was run, Normandy Invasion was the best horse. That’s how I feel, and I say that as one who picked and bet on Orb. In any case, in addition to looking forward to a big Saturday, I’m particularly interested the return of Normandy Invasion, and for what that might mean going forward.