04/19/2014 12:23PM

Grading The Final Derby Preps

Email

It’s all over now but for the training and the waiting. All the important final preps for the Kentucky Derby are in the books, so this is as good a time as any to assess them. Here’s one man’s final Derby prep report card:

SANTA ANITA DERBY – Grade A

Winner – California Chrome, winning Beyer Figure – 107

If you think a prep other than the Santa Anita Derby merits a higher grade this year, then you are either the world’s biggest contrarian, or you haven’t been watching. In the weeks following his head-turning romp in the San Felipe, California Chrome had closed in on, and eventually became, the future book favorite for the Kentucky Derby. But with his 5 ¼ length domination of the Santa Anita Derby, and by earning a Beyer that was the highest of all final preps this year, California Chrome not only cemented his status at Derby favorite, he became favorite by a substantial margin. Any prep that launches a clear-cut Kentucky Derby favorite has to be the highest ranked one, but this Santa Anita Derby also carries great impact as a source for quality numbers for the Kentucky Derby. Santa Anita Derby runner up Hoppertunity has a vocal group of supporters who believe he can close the gap on California Chrome at Churchill Downs. And third-place finisher Candy Boy, who was arguably California’s highest ranked Derby aspirant early in the year, will be making his second start back off a designed two month layoff, and has a license to improve.

WOOD MEMORIAL – Grade A-

Wicked Strong, 104

Despite what his 9-1 closing odds might suggest, Wicked Strong was the universal wise guy play in the Wood. After a dismal effort in the Holy Bull in his 3-year-old bow, Wicked Strong showed a sneaky move forward when fourth in his last start in that hot allowance race won by Constitution at Gulfstream on Fountain of Youth Day, a day when closers like Wicked Strong were compromised by a speed bias. And in the Wood, Wicked Strong was returning to the track and distance at which he was a gaining third in the ridiculously slow-paced Remsen. You know how it is with universal wise guy horses. They hardly ever win. So that Wicked Strong proved a rare exception and became one who actually did win, he deserves extra points. More than that, however, Wicked Strong put all the pieces together in the Wood and delivered a huge effort. He drew off impressively in the late stages to leave reeling a formidable pair in the tough Samraat, and Social Inclusion, who showed in his hard-trip third that he is indeed a genuine runner, and his adjusted final time was also strong in comparison to other Kentucky Derby preps this year. All of this has propelled Wicked Strong to the status of perhaps the most feared closer in a Derby that projects to have a contested pace.

ARKANSAS DERBY – Grade B+

Danza, 102

If you took this race at purely face value, then it would merit a grade of A, or A- at the worst. But no race is run in a vacuum, and you do have to consider the extenuating circumstances. Yes, he got as clear rail run (and no, I don’t think the rail was dead at Oaklawn on Arkansas Derby Day, although here are many other days at Oaklawn when the rail is best avoided), but Danza was terrific in this spot. He rallied and drew off powerfully late, a style that is a sweet fit for a Kentucky Derby with a good amount of pace, leaving in his wake, among others, the very highly regarded Bayern, and Tapiture, who, up until a disappointing fourth in this race, was considered one of the ones in this crop. On the other hand, Danza’s performance really came out of nowhere. His first three career starts were so mediocre that he was let go at 41-1 in the Arkansas Derby, and how many times do you see a Todd Pletcher-trained horse go off that that kind of price in a big spot? Danza’s Arkansas Derby effort was so out of line with what he had done before that it seems the only reasonable position to take is to ask him to do it again, to prove it wasn’t an aberration. That’s why I gave this prep a slightly lower grade than I would have under different circumstances.

FLORIDA DERBY – Grade B-

Constitution, 99

Constitution will unfortunately miss the Kentucky Derby because of a stress fracture that surfaced after a workout subsequent to this race. So will fourth place finisher Cairo Prince, due to an ankle injury that was revealed Saturday morning. But the second and third finishers in the Florida Derby are Kentucky Derby-bound, making this a noteworthy prep, if not quite as important by usual Florida Derby standards. While narrowly beaten runner up Wildcat Red turned in another admirably game performance, and probably would have won had Constitution not slipped up the rail on him, he got away with a slow and largely uncontested early pace. For that reason, and because he capitalized on a speed-favoring track when he won the Fountain of Youth in his first attempt around two turns, Wildcat Red’s real capabilities going long remain in question. Distance is a question for General a Rod, too. In the main, there is very little between Wildcat Red and General a Rod. But the Florida Derby was General a Rod’s first attempt at as far as nine furlongs, and he really didn’t stay on, perhaps revealing distance limitations.

LOUISIANA DERBY – Grade B-

Vicar’s in Trouble, 97

Horse goes to the lead, horse repels all challenges, horse draws off through the stretch with a quick turn of foot, and horse scores decisively. And in the process, horse improves his career dirt record to three runaway wins and a troubled trip third from four starts. That, in a nutshell, describes Vicar’s in Trouble, and his win in the Louisiana Derby. So what’s the problem, and why didn’t I assign a higher grade to this prep? I actually bumped the grade on this up a notch from an initial C+, but still I have two issues here. First and most importantly, I have serious questions about the quality of the field in this year’s Louisiana Derby. I think that if not all, then most of the horses Vicar’s in Trouble walloped in this race are painfully average. My other reservation is, after Rise Up missed his break, Vicar’s in Trouble fell into a very comfortable early lead. If you give a capable horse a relatively easy lead against marginal opponents, you’re supposed to get the result that happened here. But it would be hoping for way too much for Vicar’s in Trouble to get as lucky pace-wise on Derby Day.

SUNLAND DERBY – Grade C

Chitu, 102

No prep on this list had a bigger disparity between visual impression, and its measure against the clock, as represented by Beyer Figures. The Sunland Derby got a very healthy winning Beyer; in fact, it tied for third best on this list of preps. But visually, it felt completely different. It looked like both Chitu and runner up Midnight Hawk were struggling down the stretch, a view supported by the fact that the final furlong was run in a pedestrian 13.30 seconds. We might get a push on which way to lean here with how Midnight Hawk performs as a formidable favorite in Saturday’s Illinois Derby. In the meantime, what is known is this prep came six weeks before the Kentucky Derby. We have had a few recent Derby winners who had their final preps five weeks out (Orb, just last year, for one). But as for those who final prepped six weeks out and then won the Derby, well, Animal Kingdom is pretty alone in recent history in that regard.

BLUE GRASS – Grade C-

Dance With Fate, 97

Though it was announced on Friday that Dance With Fate will compete in the Derby, his connections have stated very plainly that their colt does better with more time between starts than the three weeks he’s getting in this instance, and is better on synthetic and turf, even if he was a reasonably decent second in the FrontRunner Stakes on dirt last fall. Medal Count, who is also going on to the Derby, was running his second good race on Keeneland’s Polytrack in eight days when second in the Blue Grass, has won on the turf in the past, and has dirt form that is so wildly open to interpretation (Was it the speed bias that compromised him in the Fountain of Youth? Was it the lack of Lasix that did him in in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile? Did he win his debut on dirt at Ellis only because the race was so slow?), that there is no real way of knowing his true abilities on dirt. All of this underscores the disconnect between a race on Polytrack that in a prior incarnation was once a premier Derby prep, and the Derby itself, which is, of course, run on dirt. That’s the reason for the middling grade here. Dance With Fate and Medal Count have closing styles that mesh nicely with a Derby that seems to have a good bit of speed, but we don’t know if they can produce top efforts on dirt. Thankfully, this is the last year we’ll have these concerns with the Blue Grass, as Keeneland is going back to a dirt main track in the fall.

SPIRAL – Grade D

We Miss Artie, 85

Like the Blue Grass, you could argue the merits of this race as prep for the Derby in the most fundamental sense because, despite what Animal Kingdom did three years ago, what real link does a Polytrack race at Turfway have with a dirt race at Churchill Downs? This race received a lower grade than the Blue Grass for three reasons: The overall quality of the field was significantly lower than the overall quality of the Blue Grass field; the race was, from a Beyer perspective, much slower than the Blue Grass; and unlike Dance With Fate, We Miss Artie was soundly whipped in all three of his prior attempts on dirt. When all those matters are taken collectively, it seems like We Miss Artie, or anyone else who might get into the Derby out of the Spiral, will have a very hard time emulating Animal Kingdom.

CALDER DERBY – Grade D-

Our Caravan, 88

I know some people will say I’m being soft for giving this one even only a barely passing grade, and they might be right. Others will wonder why I even listed it. Those folks may have a point, no pun intended, because this ungraded race didn’t offer any Derby points, and the winner is not Derby-bound. I listed it because it was the final prep for one intended Derby starter, although how much of a prep it was is open to debate. Ring Weekend, upset winner of the Tampa Bay Derby in his start before, thought he was going to have a nice, easy tune up in this race. Instead, he got his head handed to him, finishing a distant second, and earning a puny 73 Beyer. That’s no way to go to Louisville.