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After last week's Eclipse Awards dinner put the 2010 racing year to bed with some finality, everyone now seems eager to move on to the Kentucky Derby, me included. But you will have to excuse me if shifting focus to the Derby does not also mean that I have to fall in love with the first 3-year-old or two I see.
I doubt most folks would have a problem withholding their love from the pair who dominated Saturday's LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds - Wilkinson and Pants On Fire. The LeComte might be the first leg of the thoroughly viable 3-year-old program at Fair Grounds that continues with the Risen Star and concludes with the Louisiana Derby. But the field that contested this edition of the LeComte was not strong. This field previously made a combined total of 19 starts. Only one came in a stakes, and that was an unsuccessful outing in a non-graded event. And even though Wilkinson and Pants On Fire's entertaining stretch battle enabled them to spread-eagle the three opponents who struggled behind them, their efforts were good for a preliminary Beyer Figure of only 77. A number like that is just not going to get you anywhere close to the discussion of leading Kentucky Derby contenders.
Soldat, who made his 3-year-old debut Friday in a nine-furlong allowance race on dirt at Gulfstream Park, presents a more complex problem, however. Last year, Soldat was a Grade 3 stakes winner on grass and was a sharp second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, but was a soundly beaten second in both of his starts on dirt. Surface was no issue on Friday, though. Soldat won off by almost 11 lengths as the favorite, earning an eye catching Beyer of 102, and a shot against much stronger company late next month in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.
One other thing Soldat seemed to earn Friday was an instant fan club. This is not without merit. Soldat is in excellent hands - he's trained by Kiaran McLaughlin - he has a solid racing foundation acquired in five starts last year at 2, and he has clearly shown that he can run fast.
And yet, I'm still skeptical.
One issue I have with Soldat is I question the strength of the field he crushed Friday. Runner up and second choice in the betting, Cool Blue Red Hot, earned a 96 Beyer when nosed in his debut last fall at Belmont. But no one out of that race has suggested in subsequent performances that that high figure is anywhere close to valid. Cool Blue Red Hot himself got a Beyer of only 72 when he came back with his maiden win at Calder. And third finisher Beamer, the third choice in the betting who gained more than six lengths on Cool Blue Red Hot in the final furlong while finishing well ahead of the rest, lost for a tag in his first start, and came into Friday's race off a 77 Beyer earned in a maiden win at Tampa.
But the biggest problem I have with Soldat is his big figure, front-running win Friday came on a sloppy, sealed track. Handicappers know like they know their names to question the validity of of big (or poor, for that matter) performances in the slop. It's Level One stuff. But when you combine that with how inferior opposition often makes superior horses look better than they really are, you can see how Soldat's performance Friday could have been artificially enhanced by surface and field quality.
Maybe Soldat has more to him than just the glitter he showed Friday. For his sake, he'd better. This is an interesting 3-year-old crop this year with genuine quality, even if it now appeared to be mainly concentrated at the top. A horse like Soldat needs to have real substance to go along with his flash to make a meaningful dent in this division.
The word is that Frankel will stay in the UK. He'll most likely go for a prep race and then the 2,000 Guineas (on Ky. Derby Day) at Newmarket.
Mike, Have you heard anything about the connections of Frankel bringing him over for the Kentucky Derby? I made a futures wager on him, and haven't heard much lately. It's a shame that they named a horse after an American trainer and he has only run in Europe. I can't tell you how happy I am that Derby talk is starting already. JK
What I would like to see is Comma To The Top pull off winning the Triple Crown, as to me, it would be the best thing for the sport as a whole. With 10 starts as a two year old, were he to win the Triple Crown, I think it may cause trainers to re-think the way they bring horses up, getting them a real foundation at two and maybe looking at more starts at three (plus, I believe he's a gelding, so he would likely be racing for some time to come).
I agree the race competition has not proven to be anything special as of now but it was the way he won that caught my eye. He wanted to keep going after the wire, a very strong and fresh performance that should set him up nicely for the step up in class in the Fountain of Youth.
Mike - I have a sleeper for you to put on your virtual stable - Chasing Moonlight. Trained by Albertrani - he is by Grand Slam. Won first out in Tampa at 6 1/2f - nothing special from a Beyer perspective, but ran pretty green. Look for him @ GP next in an allowance race, then on to the Tampa Bay Derby.
Mine That Bird, Super Saver, Go For Gin. Nobody is a throw out out for the the Derby, even the slow Wilkinson or the off track specialist Soldat. A lot of these horses may run faster at 1 1/4 and a lot could run a lot slower
What impressed me though Mike, was that he had SO much left in the tank. No question that this horse is sharp right now.
When will you and JP commence your Derby Watch? I always enjoy the byplay, but would recommend you abbreviate the listing to 20 NLT mid-April.
Mr. W. I love your 10 top 3 year olds list, but I find it hard to believe the Derby winner is in it. It would be too easy and plus it's very early right now. My guess is that there is a special maiden who will win in February or an average one who will run a lot faster in April and May who will be the Derby winner.
Soldat is bred top (Danzig sire out of a Rubiano mare) & bottom (Coronado's Quest) for the slop. On paper he looks like a horse that moves up on a wet track and a horse that has slightly more dirt influences than turf in his pedigree.
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