03/07/2011 2:06PM

2011 Kentucky Derby: Under the Radar - Mr. Commons

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Benoit & Associates
Trainer John Shirreffs is tentatively pointing Mr. Commons for the Santa Anita Derby.

John Shirreffs’s name will forever be connected to Zenyatta, the 2010 Horse of the Year and one of the most popular horses of all time.

It’s a blessing and somewhat of a curse.

While Shirreffs certainly wouldn’t trade his time with Zenyatta for anything, his exploits with the magnificent mare have unfairly surpassed his other excellent training feats.

Zenyatta’s female shadow of 2009, Life Is Sweet, scored in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic. Harmonious took a pair of Grade 1 races last season, but hardly anyone noticed. Zardana upset 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes at Fair Grounds. All were trained by Shirrreffs.

Yes, Zenyatta-mania ran wild over the past several seasons and few seem to recall that Shirreffs has already conquered the Kentucky Derby, the one race that all horsemen dream of winning. He took an unheralded Holy Bull colt, Giacomo, to racing immortality as the 50-1 surprise package of the 2005 Run for the Roses.

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While it’s extremely unlikely that Shirreffs will ever have another Zenyatta in his care, who’s to say that there isn’t another Giacomo lurking under the shed row?

Enter Mr. Commons, a Shirreffs-trained 3-year-old colt who won his second straight race on Feb. 26 at Santa Anita, and is being tentatively pointed to the Santa Anita Derby on April 9.

Mr. Commons was foaled on Jan. 29, 2008 in Kentucky. He is from the first crop of Artie Schiller, a top turf performer who won the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont in 2005 with a 110 Beyer Speed Figure. Artie Schiller was winless from three starts on dirt, but did win at distances up to nine furlongs.

Both of the dam’s victories came on grass, including the Natalma Stakes at one mile on turf at Woodbine. On dirt, she finished a well-beaten third in the Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes at Saratoga.

She has already foaled Jungle Fighter, a three-time stakes winner on grass who also won three races on dirt. Jungle Fighter won at distances ranging from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles.

The dam, Joustabout, is a half-sister to 24-time winner Ruskin, who scored in the nine-furlong Laplander Handicap over the main track at Laurel. Ruskin also prevailed in a 1 1/4-mile race on dirt. Another half-brother, Smoke’n Review was stakes placed sprinting on dirt while half-sibling Wartoendallwars was stakes placed at a mile on grass.

Mr. Commons was purchased for $70,000 by D. M. I. Racing at the Fasig-Tipton summer yearling sale in July 2009, but he races in the name of his breeder, St. George Farm LLC.

Making his career debut on Dec. 18, 2010 in a maiden special weight at 6 1/2 furlongs over Hollywood’s Cushion Track, Mr. Commons was dismissed at 10-1 odds in a field of seven. Equipped with a shadow roll, Mr. Commons broke a half-length slowly before settling along the inside at the tail end of the field. He finished evenly along the rail while failing to threaten the debut winner, Sinai. Mr. Commons did gallop out nicely after the race, perhaps indicating a fondness for additional distance down the road.

Considering Mr. Commons’s strong grass pedigree, it was only natural for Shirreffs to consider a maiden special weight on turf, and the bay colt was entered in a downhill turf sprint at Santa Anita on Jan. 15. This time, Mr. Commons was sharp from the gate, and jockey Mike Smith hustled him along the inside to contest the early lead. Mr. Commons was in front after a half-mile in 43.72, and was never threatened en route to a 5 1/2-length victory. Mr. Commons earned a 92 Beyer, and the race was flattered when three of his vanquished opponents returned to graduate next out.

Shirreffs now had a bit of a dilemma on his hands. He knew he had a solid turf prospect, but could Mr. Commons successfully transfer that form to the dirt? The trainer could have taken the easy road, and kept his charge on grass, but he entered Mr. Commons in a first-level allowance race at one mile on the Santa Anita main track on Feb. 26.

Mr. Commons again broke well, and he responded kindly to Smith’s rating hold. The pair tracked the moderate pace while three wide before gearing up on the far turn. Mr. Commons had to dig deep in the stretch, but he was up late to defeat Hollywood Heist by a head.

Although Mr. Commons received an 89 Beyer for his dirt and two-turn debut, he will have to significantly improve quickly while facing stronger opposition. He is a professional sort, however, blessed with tactical speed and staying power, and is handled by a master horseman. It is quite possible that he’ll eventually wind up stronger on grass, but he deserves a chance to earn his way to Louisville via graded stakes.