05/03/2014 7:11PM

Derby, Oaks Day Thoughts


Derby Day Notes:

California Chrome was the best horse going into the Kentucky Derby, and he was the best horse coming out of it.

Yes, the Derby pace wasn’t as fast as most projected it to be, maybe even slow by Derby standards, and California Chrome had a sweet trip stalking it from close range on the outside. But in a move that has become his signature, California Chrome put his field to sleep, and this Kentucky Derby to rest, with a turn of foot in upper stretch that carried him to an insurmountable lead. It’s the same kind of move California Chrome showed when he won the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. No one else in this Derby field has a move like that, particularly at that point in the race. And no one else in the field had the answer for it.

There are so many things to like about California Chrome. There are the humble beginnings and pedigree, and the down-to-earth connections. What I really like about him is, he is something of a throwback. He began his career with starts in two 4½-furlong baby races, made a field-high seven starts at 2, and he seems to just thrive on the action. He is very much the antidote to the lightly raced Derby starter that has become so fashionable lately. In several ways, California Chrome really is kind of freakish.

There were a lot of trips in this Derby, and I’ll have to watch the replay about five more times to get all of them. Candy Boy getting slaughtered on the first turn is one that jumps out, and for him, this start is a complete throwout. One trip I really liked was Ride On Curlin’s. Calvin Borel made such a show of sharply angling Ride On Curlin to the rail from the 18 hole after the start that I couldn’t help but laugh when Ride On Curlin rallied widest of all. Ride On Curlin actually finished, and ran, well. And on the other side of the coin, workout star Intense Holiday had a great trip – a little wide, but a great trip with perfect position – and he backed up because he just wasn’t good enough.

Taking nothing away from two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, who prevailed after an eventful trip in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic to make it 21 wins from 29 career starts, but I expected him to move forward Saturday off his workmanlike win in the Maker’s 46 in his first start of the year, and not by just a little. And he didn’t. Despite all that early nonsense of being rank and fighting restraint, and having to make a three-wide rally on the far turn, Wise Dan should not have had to struggle to beat this Woodford field. He should not have had to dig down deep to out-game Seek Again, who had a nondescript career in England, whose victory in the Hollywood Derby in his first U.S. start was only okay, and who was making his first start in five months.

As a barometer for how much Wise Dan moved off the Maker’s 46, in the Maker’s, he beat the surprising Kaigun by three-quarters of a length. On Saturday, Wise Dan beat Kaigun by 1 1/2 lengths. That’s not the kind of movement that was expected.

Wise Dan is good for racing. It’s funny how Horses of the Year are like that. So the hope is that now, at age 7, maybe Wise Dan might need two races to knock the rust off and reach peak form.

Whoa. That was a head-turning comeback by Midnight Lucky in the Humana Distaff. It was obvious the race was over with three-eighths still to go as Judy the Beauty and Iotapa were in all-out drives to unsuccessfully get to Midnight Lucky, and Rosie Napravnik still hadn’t even thought about asking her to run yet. If Midnight Lucky’s connections resist the temptation to stretch her out – and all indications are they will; what’s the point of going long against the likes of Beholder, Princess of Sylmar, and, to a lesser extent, Close Hatches? – we could have a female sprinter who would be a fitting replacement for Groupie Doll.

While Midnight Lucky wrested command of the female sprint division, the male sprint division continues to beg for someone to step up and take control. Central Banker was game denying Shakin It Up in the Churchill Downs Stakes for male sprinters, showing admirable improvement second start off the layoff. And on Saturday, Central Banker beat a trio of Grade 1 winners in Shakin It Up, Capo Bastone, and Sahara Sky, as well as a narrowly beaten Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up in Laugh Track.

You would think all of that would be enough to put Central Banker into the conversation, but I’m not so sure just yet. The Grade 1’s Shakin It Up and Capo Bastone won were both races that completely fell apart late, and Sahara Sky right now seems significantly removed from his outstanding 2013 form. And this was only Central Banker’s first career graded stakes score. I would like to see more from him, and, frankly, more from the whole division.

There has always been talk of an annual tradition, if you will, of a special put-over job at Churchill around Derby time. It was probably true years ago, but in recent times, not so much. Well, you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that in the third race, Masochistic was a super duper good thing flashback from the old days. This second-time starter from a low-profile barn shipped in from Santa Anita, where he had a passive (to be diplomatic) ride when fifth under the wire in his only start. Masochistic was bet long and strong, and made $6.20 look like a gift after he won by 14 easy lengths.

Oaks Day Notes:

Not to belabor the obvious, but Untapable really is a monster at the moment. My Miss Sophia is very, very good, yet Untapable made her look ordinary in the Kentucky Oaks, crushing her by a 4 1/2-length margin that had a much bigger feel to it.

There are those who believe Untapable is the best 3-year-old in the land of either sex, and there are those who want to see her take on males, and soon. I have no doubt that whatever path Untapable’s connections choose for her, it will be a sound and well-reasoned one, because that’s how they roll. I also have little doubt that My Miss Sophia will win a major race or two of her own, providing they are races without Untapable.

It is still very early in the season with a lot of major racing to go, and a lot of time for things to happen. But one or two more performances like her Kentucky Oaks to go along with her romps in the Fair Grounds Oaks and Rachel Alexandra, and Untapable might all but secure her divisional title before summer even hits full swing.

The other big race here Friday at Churchill was the Alysheba, primarily due to the participation of last year’s 3-year-old male champion, Will Take Charge. Going into the Alysheba, Will Take Charge won the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby, Clark Handicap, and Oaklawn Handicap, and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Donn, and Santa Anita Handicap, all in his last seven starts. But in what sure feels like a classic case of dancing one too many dances, Will Take Charge never lifted a hoof Friday.

The Alysheba did, however, have entertainment value. In one of the bigger hang jobs you’ll see, Golden Ticket turned what seemed certain victory into narrow defeat. Golden Ticket moved up to pacesetter Moonshine Mullin leaving the far turn like he would win by about five, only to switch gears and refuse to pass. I realize that this might be selling Moonshine Mullin short. After all, he was winning his fourth straight and has proven to be a terrific claim. But Golden Ticket’s exhibition was epic.

Back to 3-year-old fillies, She’s a Tiger, the champion of this crop last year, was dismal in the Eight Belles. She beat just two in the field of nine in the most uncompetitive performance of her career. I know last year’s 2-year-old filly division was soft. I also know it’s poor policy to write a horse off after only one bad effort following a six-month layoff. But the top tier of this group has improved dramatically this year, and unless there is a legitimate excuse to explain She’s a Tiger’s disappointing return, it’s difficult being optimistic about her going forward.

Fiftyshadesofgold won the Eight Belles, but I was left a little cold by her effort. I thought it was an inspired move to cut Fiftyshadesofgold back to a sprint after unsuccessfully chasing Untapable in the Fair Grounds Oaks, but was surprised she had to work as hard as she did to resist the unheralded Milam.

Rusty Arnold has a runner in Southern Honey, who recorded her second straight impressive win in an overnight race immediately preceding the Eight Belles.

On Fire Baby’s timing in the La Troienne proved to be very good. She was beaten a head in this race last year by Authenticity when it was still a Grade 2 event. The La Troienne was up to a Grade 1 ranking this year, and On Fire Baby proved best over a field that was, on the whole, weaker than last year’s Grade 2 La Troienne field.