04/14/2012 6:42PM

Initial Thoughts on the Ark. Derby, Blue Grass, and Other Stakes

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If I had a vested interest in the Kentucky Derby or Churchill Downs, I would have let out a huge sigh of relief after Bodemeister obliterated his field in the Arkansas Derby.

Before the Arkansas Derby, Bodemeister had no chance to start in the Kentucky Derby because he didn’t have nearly enough graded stakes earnings to crack the starting gate. Even before Saturday, this was a very unsettling fact. And that is because Bodemeister, in only his second and third (and most recent) career starts, proved he was one of the best members of his generation by being the only prominent Kentucky Derby candidate to have paired up triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures.

But after collecting sufficient graded earnings in the Arkansas Derby, I suspect everyone can now see what a crime it would have been for Bodemeister not to have had his chance at the Kentucky Derby, the most important race for members of his generation. I don’t know what Beyer Figure Bodemeister got Saturday (I’m posting this shortly after the race), and he didn’t beat the deepest Derby prep field we’ve seen this year. But Bodemeister put on a display of jaw-dropping talent in Arkansas. And the initial impression is, he took a significant step forward off his near miss to Creative Cause in last month’s San Felipe, which was previously the fastest Derby prep of the season, while Creative Cause took a step backward, Beyer-wise, when he was nosed in last week’s Santa Anita Derby.

Dullahan’s effort to catch Hansen and win the Blue Grass was big, and part of the reason for that was the trip Hansen had. Hansen didn’t rate with, or off, the pace Saturday like I thought he might. He went to the front, but he’s so fast that even the solid pace he set still seemed a very comfortable one. In other words, Hansen was just cruising, and he had an easy trip. But Dullahan, far back early, improved markedly in his second start of the year and easily overwhelmed Hansen late to prove best.

Dullahan looks very much like a Derby colt peaking at precisely the right time, and he is a prime win threat at Churchill. But if you were on the Hansen bandwagon before the Blue Grass, you should not get off now. Yes, the Derby distance is a question for Hansen, but honestly, it is for every Derby starter. The thing to keep in mind here is, Hansen ran big off the synthetic track-to-dirt move last fall when he went from Turfway Park to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. He will be repeating that same successful surface switch when he goes in the Derby, which was a major reason why Hansen’s connections chose the Blue Grass for his final prep in the first place.

The Oaklawn Handicap was textbook stuff. Give a good horse an easy lead over a track he loves, and he is going to win pretty frequently. In this case, Alternation set the easy lead over an Oaklawn track he was previously 4 for 5 over, and the result was a decisive score in the Oaklawn Handicap. But don’t be too quick to discount Alternation’s big win Saturday. Although circumstances were in his favor, he is still a very good horse who is getting better. And Ron the Greek, the Big Cap winner, ran well to rally into an unfavorable pace to finish second. Hymn Book, the Donn winner, was also pace compromised, but did not run as well.

Ramon Dominguez and Javier Castellano seemed to be so totally concerned with measuring themselves at the back of the pack during the early running of the Jenny Wiley on the 2-1 Aruna and the 7-5 Zagora, respectively, that they seemed to completely miss the fact that Daisy Devine was in the process of stealing this Grade 1 up front with slow early fractions. Daisy Devine is now 4 for 4 on turf. And while handing out excuses to Aruna and Zagora for these performances doesn’t exactly feel right, even in view of the pace implications (they did, after all, finish last and next-to-last in the field of six), we do know they are both better than that.

Odds-on It’s Tricky did indeed look like she was in trouble when she was put under heavy pressure on the far turn of the Distaff Handicap. But sprinting in a seven furlong race like this is a new game for It’s Tricky, who last year won the Grade 1 CCA Oaks at nine furlongs (in addition to the Grade 1 Acorn at a mile), was second in the nine furlong Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, and who won the 8.5 furlong Top Flight in her recent 2012 debut. And when it really mattered in the stretch of the Distaff, It’s Tricky’s foundation and class showed, and she went on to win decisively.

When you think about it, the possibility of It’s Tricky focusing on seven furlong to mile races this year might be an inspired idea, what with Havre de Grace, Awesome Maria, and Plum Pretty (who was very good winning Friday’s Apple Blossom in her first start of the year), not to mention Royal Delta and Awesome Feather, out there to dominate the big middle distance races for older females. Of course, if It’s Tricky stays in races at around a mile or just under, she will have to eventually deal with a good one in Groupie Doll, who was dominant winning Thursday’s Vinery Madison.