04/07/2014 2:28PM

Derby Prep Thoughts


*Let's take a look back at the two major Kentucky Derby preps contested last Saturday.

WICKED STRONG improved his career-best Beyer 17 points to a 104 while showing greater stamina than his rivals in the Wood Memorial. Ridden by Rajiv Maragh, Wicked Strong saved ground in midpack for the first half-mile before being taken to the far outside on the final turn. He was hard-ridden with five-sixteenths of a mile to run and appeared to be in a bit of trouble while four wide, but rallied resolutely to wear down the leaders. He didn't change leads until inside the eighth pole and still appears a bit green, but this form seems more trustworthy than the two previous losses at Gulfstream, a track that probably didn't play to his late-running strength.

"I thought he was training well enough in Florida, but he didn't show up in the afternoon for some reason," winning trainer Jimmy Jerkens told NYRA Communications after the Wood Memorial. "The horses that come from behind in Florida, the kickback really bothered him down there. When I saw him laying five lengths off the lead, just galloping, I really felt we had a big shot. He was really comfortable laying relatively close behind a pretty fast pace."

"He ran awesome in the Remsen, but he was a little green and that might have cost him the race," winning jockey Rajiv Maragh remarked to NYRA Communications. "I felt like I had, probably, the horse to win that day. Today, he was really more mature, more settled, and it made him have a lot more to finish with, I think."

Wicked Strong is by Hard Spun, a Grade 1 winner at seven furlongs that finished a game second to Street Sense in the 2007 Kentucky Derby. According to Formulator, Hard Spun has had nine North American starters at distances longer than 9 1/2 furlongs. Those foals have earned four wins from 12 starts (33%).

The dam (by Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero Charismatic) notched her only victory at 1 1/16 miles on turf at Pimlico and is a half-sister to multiple Grade 3 turf winner Gulch Approval. The second dam, Classic Approval (by With Approval), was stakes-placed on both turf and dirt.

While there are a bunch of turf influences in this family, Wicked Strong can obviously run on dirt and he seems stout enough to last the 10 furlongs at Churchill Downs. I'm not in love with him, but the Wood was obviously a step in the right direction.

SAMRAAT ran his usual solid race. He broke well and settled beautifully in between horses just behind the leaders. He went after SOCIAL INCLUSION when the favorite attempted to break the race open on the turn and finished gamely to nail that one for second despite failing to switch leads until the final 100 yards. He's a deserving Kentucky Derby entrant with a record of 6-5-1-0, but I believe he's going to have to move forward if he is to win at Churchill Downs.

"It's his best race," trainer Rick Violette remarked to NYRA Communications. "It's the first time he's been surrounded and covered up, and he handled it. He came back three times. I thought he was going to be fourth the entire [stretch run] and he kept finding more, finding more. Other than win, he got a huge education. We kind of did it the hard way. We made the first charge against the horse on the lead and did everybody else's work, and [Wicked Strong] - who's shown signs of talent - came and ran everybody down."

Social Inclusion was the "buzz" horse coming into the Wood Memorial following two eye-popping wins in South Florida and he lost nothing, save a Kentucky Derby berth, in defeat. He seemed a bit hot going to the gate and broke outward from the far outside post position. Forced to hustle with a short run into the first turn, Social Inclusion battled with eventual 4th-finisher Schivarelli while racing in the two path. Perhaps jockey Luis Contreras moved for home too soon as Schivarelli backed out on the turn and Social Inclusion took a clear lead into the stretch. He battled hard all the way down the lane and showed moxie for a 3-year-old making only his third lifetime start.

"I had so much horse before the quarter pole, I just tried to open up, and he just kind of ran flat," Contreras told NYRA Communications. "He was trying hard. Today he was so nervous in the post parade."

Despite the loss, trainer Manuel Azpurua retained supreme confidence in Social Inclusion.  "It was very good. Next time he'll win; he'll kill them," he told NYRA Communications.

Before we proclaim the Wood Memorial an ultra-key race, it must be noted that Schivarelli, a beaten horse on the turn, was only defeated five lengths for all of the marbles and 1 1/2 lengths for second money. With the exception of Wicked Strong, none of the others were making up meaningful ground in the stretch.

*After his smashing 107-Beyer win in the Santa Anita Derby, CALIFORNIA CHROME is justifiably the flavor of the day and the Kentucky Derby favorite. He's won his last four races by a combined 24 1/4 lengths and absolutely obliterated two nice horses in CANDY BOY and HOPPERTUNITY. If there is any knock, it's that he's grabbed his last two races in pace-pressing style over speed-favoring tracks. But, boy, was he visually impressive yet again.  His excellent natural speed put him in the two path on the first turn, just off longshot pacesetter DUBLIN UP. When it was time to go on the final turn, he went. In the blink of an eye, the race was over with California Chrome gliding away under a mere hand ride. He is a very talented horse, but I just can't get past this feeling that it's not going to be as easy going an additional eighth of a mile at Churchill Downs.

Nonetheless, wow, what an effort.

"I got a little spooked leaving the gate," winning trainer Art Sherman told track publicity after the Santa Anita Derby. "He got banged around pretty good, but I really think he’s a better horse stalking. When he won the San Felipe, he was on the lead all the way which is something new to me, but I really prefer this type of race where he’s right off the lead."

I know that some folks are going to question California Chrome's pedigree as his sire never won past 5 1/2 furlongs (0-8 in routes, has only had two runners make three unsuccessful starts past 1 3/16 miles) and the dam's lone win came in an $8,000 maiden seller over Tapeta at Golden Gate. The second dam is a half-sister to a nice turf mare named Amourette (won a couple of times at 1 3/8 miles), however, and the third dam was a multiple stakes-winning router in New York for Wayne Lukas. I'm thinking California Chrome is more of a freak that's outrun his pedigree than a horse that's going to be hampered by the bloodlines.

While my opinion will probably change a million times between now and the first Saturday in May, I really think HOPPERTUNITY is going to move forward off this race. He was tracking the pace along the inside, was in behind horses on the final turn, and was easily second best. I really liked the way he galloped out after the race and distance shouldn't be a problem. He's a true Derby sleeper and may simply need a track that's a bit kinder to stalkers and closers.


What Beyer did WICKED STRONG get?

Wicked Strong earned a 104 Beyer Speed Figure
Later gator


*Just want to thank everyone for sticking with me as I begin to blog more often. The links to the previous blogs (and blog comments) are listed below.





You can follow me on Twitter @DRF_DanIllman


Congrats to Biggar W for finishing first in last week's Wood Memorial HandiGambling race.

Rick M's scoresheet is available at the bottom of this blog post.

On tab 2 you will see each HG Race we've held and they are color coded to denote if the race was run on Turf, Dirt or Poly.




Copy of Formblog Wood Memorial 4-5-14.xls71.5 KB