04/14/2013 11:05AM

Blue Grass, Arkansas Derby, and Other Notes


We will find out for sure when it all plays out three weeks from Saturday at Churchill Downs, but the sense is Saturday’s Blue Grass at Keeneland and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park will fall well short of being the most impactful final Kentucky Derby preps we have had this year.

In recent weeks, it was immediately apparent that the Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, and Florida Derby were top-level preps for this Derby because they either featured horses of obvious quality, or were strongly run, or both. But the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby? Not so much.

The Blue Grass has, for me, always been a strange race. You would think a final prep run a little more than an hour’s drive away would have a profound impact on the Derby. But for years, the Blue Grass was run on a dirt track that was heavily biased toward speed, and now it’s run on a synthetic surface that bears no relation to the dirt surface on which the Derby is run beyond the fact that both are some version of the color brown. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the last major Derby prep run in the state of Kentucky hasn’t produced a Derby winner since Street Sense six years ago, and hasn’t been won by a colt who went on to win the Derby since Strike the Gold 22 years ago.

As for this Blue Grass, my problem isn’t with the merits of the winner, Java’s War. Even if the Blue Grass’s final time of 1:50.27 resulted in a poor preliminary Beyer Figure of just 89, the final three furlongs was run in a robust 37.51. And Java’s War came from dead last of 14 and gained almost nine lengths into that fraction, which is some very good work. So I believe Java’s War is better than his Blue Grass Beyer might suggest.

My problem with Java’s War is with what he does, or specifically, what he no longer seems to do, which is leave the gate in any sort of timely fashion. Java’s War walked out of the gate when a fine second to Kentucky Derby favorite Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby in his first start this year, but he was worse on Saturday. Java’s War borderline dwelt at the start, and was able to overcome it only because his opposition wasn’t especially strong. This is a habit, however, that Java’s War’s connections need to fix right now because this colt can’t expect to spot 19 stronger Derby opponents a head start and still win. He’s not that good.

As for the Arkansas Derby, Overanalyze drew off through the stretch to win by more than four lengths. Yet despite being clearly much the best, the clock was not nearly as flattering to Overanalyze’s performance. The final three furlongs, into which Overanalyze gained just over three lengths, was a painfully slow 39.37, and his final time was 1:51.94. That was a full 2.27 seconds slower than older males went in the Oaklawn Handicap two races earlier despite comparable initial fractions, and resulted in a preliminary Beyer of only 88.

If that isn’t enough reason for reservation, there is also Overanalyze’s good race, bad race pattern that has prevailed throughout his career. Overanalyze won his first start, delivered a dud in his second start, won his third start, was dull in his fourth start, won his fifth start, was empty in his sixth start, and won Saturday in his seventh start. If this pattern holds true, his people are going to wish they found a way to squeeze one more start in before the Derby.

In other matters, I really liked Horse of the Year Wise Dan’s comeback Friday in Keeneland’s Maker’s 46 Mile. It’s not often that a Grade 1 event like the Maker’s 46 is used as a means to knock the rust off, but that’s what this looked like with Wise Dan as he won with what appeared on several levels to be an eye on future engagements. Also, the horse Wise Dan beat on Friday, Data Link, is very, very good, and had a big recency edge.

Conversely, Fort Larned’s non-performance in the Oaklawn ‘cap was shocking. You have to think a legitimate excuse for him will surface because this was not the Whitney and Breeders’ Cup Classic winning Fort Larned we came to know last year. At the same time, you can’t take anything away from Cyber Secret, who ran huge in victory to make it 4 for 4 at the Oaklawn meet. The one cause for pause regarding Cyber Secret is he is now 5 for 8 at Oaklawn, and just 1 for 6 elsewhere. But four of those six other track starts were not on dirt, so they can be forgiven.