03/06/2011 11:57AM

Stay Thirsty, and the Wacky Big Cap

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Stay Thirsty ran well winning Saturday’s Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. The Gotham was far from the strongest Kentucky Derby prep run so far this year, and with a preliminary Beyer Figure of 89, it was also far from the fastest. But Stay Thirsty deserves credit for winning as decisively as he did around two turns in his first start in four months off of only five published workouts.

Now, Stay Thirsty is primed for a step forward in what will be his final Kentucky Derby prep, which initial comments from his connections indicate will come in either the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park or the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

Stay Thirsty’s two prep schedule for the Kentucky Derby is the same his champion stablemate Uncle Mo is in line for. Uncle Mo, the undefeated winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, is to make his 3-year-old debut Saturday, most likely in the Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream. He will then have his final Derby prep in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, which is why Stay Thirsty won’t complete the New York road to the Derby.

Todd Pletcher, who trains both Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty, has become one of the leading practitioners of the two-prep route to the Kentucky Derby. Obviously, Pletcher knows what he’s doing, and the “fresher is better” approach does seem to be the one that many other horsemen feel fits best in today’s game. Nevertheless, it is still a bit of a surprise how horsemen seem so willing to embrace an approach like this when the margin of error that comes along with it is so much smaller.

Putting aside the graded stakes earnings implications that can be a major consideration for Derby aspirants opting for the fewer preps approach (Obviously, not in Uncle Mo’s case, however), consider the following scenario: What would happen if, for example, Stay Thirsty, in his final prep for the Kentucky Derby, catches a muddy track that he refuses to extend himself over, or dumps his rider coming out of the gate? If something untoward like that happened, it would then put an extreme premium on Stay Thirsty’s subsequent workouts for the Derby to have him at his best, far more so than if he had one additional outing earlier this year that would have contributed significantly to his fitness foundation.

I am sure all of these considerations are carefully measured by horsemen who adopt the two-prep approach to the Derby. It’s just interesting how in a trade to keep their charges fresh, several high-powered barns seem willing to operate without a safety net.

I just wanted to throw in my two cents about Saturday’s highly controversial Santa Anita Handicap. The way I saw it, and this is just one man’s opinion, Game On Dude was the aggressor, and I think he actually started the whole chain of events when he drifted out a path turning for home. I think Game On Dude should have been disqualified, and I think he should have been placed behind Twirling Candy. I also think, and I sense I might be in the minority here, that Game On Dude and Twirling Candy took the worst of all the bumping, and not Setsuko. Setsuko was bumped hard, but he didn’t have his hind end knocked out from under him like Game On Dude and Twirling Candy did.

What should not be overlooked in all of this is, Twirling Candy was struggling at the time of the bumping in upper stretch, and was already beaten. He might have finished closer than fifth, but he wasn’t going to win. It should also not be overlooked that Game On Dude was nothing but game Saturday, attending the solid pace from the outset three to four wide and simply refusing to give in to Setsuko in the late stages. Finally, that the hard hitting but clearly limited Quindici Man should finish a fast closing third at 69-1, beaten a half-length for all the money, says that when it comes right down to it, this Big Cap wasn’t nearly as strong a race as it promised to be on paper.