05/11/2012 10:00AM

Countdown to the Crown: Week 19, May 11, 2012


Countdown to the Crown returns for a seventh season online as one of the most comprehensive handicapper’s scouting reports of the 3-year-old scene. Posted each Friday at DRF.com from Jan. 6 through the Belmont Stakes, Countdown keeps you apprised of the rising stars of the 3-year-old class from the maiden ranks through the Grade 1 stakes. You can access daily updates and interactive features at Countdowntothecrown.com as well.

3 things you won’t read anywhere else

Opinions are like Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw visiting eventual Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another last week before his run to the roses. The good ones often come in pairs.

1. The amount of late money on Bodemeister to drop from 7-1 to 4-1 favoritism in the final minutes pre-Derby was mind-boggling and so surprising it went unnoticed by most. Two days after the race, many media outlets, including Pimlico itself, still was calling Union Rags the beaten favorite in the Derby though he drifted from 9-2 to a 6-1 price that wound up nowhere near Bodemeister.

2. Take it back, Mike Battaglia haters. You were in full force crowing last Wednesday when he installed Bodemeister the Derby favorite over Union Rags, and guffawed at a price as low as 4-1. Score one for Mikey B., who nailed it on the money, and remains one of the game’s last, true really good guys.

3. Trivia time: The last time we had 1-2-3 Derby finishers who all exited Grade 1 victories? 1989 when Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, and Awe Inspiring parlayed victories in the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, and Flamingo. Turned out to be a pretty good Preakness, don’t you think? How does the superfecta matching the winners of the Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, and Spiral pay $48,000? What a race this was this year! Heck, it was the first Derby in a decade where the top three all came off of final prep wins, at any class, for that matter.

Everyone’s a Critic

We jet ahead right to the review section this week in Countdown as we look back at all 20 starters in Kentucky Derby 138 with notes on what went right, what went wrong and what could/should be next.

Daddy Long Legs (20th): I have never seen a European router on the dirt break with such speed as Colm O’Donoghue niggled out of Daddy Long Legs at the start of the Derby. From the rail break, it was imperative that he got away quickly, and he sure did. Anyone have him fourth under the wire the first time in your Fantasy Pace League? Didn’t think so. Unfortunately, his early gas left him looking like a smart car climbing the Rockies the rest of the way. Someone toss Al Gore the keys and ask for a push! This was an impossible assignment, one that probably would have been scratch-worthy had he already not been flown here and quarantined by the time the post positions were drawn.

Take Charge Indy (19th): He got an absolute dream trip in fourth along the rail, exactly what Calvin Borel told me a few days prior to the race that he wanted. Take Charge Indy rejected the trip, however, and plummeted back through the field quick and ugly on the far turn. Trainer Pat Byrne reported the colt to be off in his front left after the race, and the wonder becomes just when did he go wrong? A horse whose past performances screamed “no lead, no pass” ran just like it appeared, though he was training way too strong in the days leading up to the Derby to think that this final result wasn’t part and parcel to the injury as well. Any way you slice it, a real disappointment for the 2012 Florida Derby champ.

Prospective (18th): The most dangerous trip of any horse in this year’s Derby, within the first sixteenth a mile Prospective clipped heels badly when squeezed and nearly dropped jock Luis Contreras. The rider avoided a cavalry/stampede disaster, but Prospective never recovered after a great week of training. I would expect trainer Mark Casse to aim for some of the lesser 3-year-old stakes the rest of the year with Prospective as long as he wasn’t left hurting from the bad Derby deal.

Trinniberg (17th): He reportedly could wind up in the Preakness if Bodemeister doesn’t go, but this sprinter would be much better-suited in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens on the Belmont undercard. His Derby performance was predictable and he did what it appeared he would: He pushed the speed along faster than they wanted to go. If he isn’t breathing fire behind Bodemeister, the runner-up may have gone in 46 seconds, not 45.39, and you most likely would see a different name painted on the side of Churchill Downs. But that’s racing; you play vs. those who line up, and it was everyone’s difficult task of dealing with this pace gnat.

Gemologist (16th): I talked to a deflated Elliott Walden about an hour after the Derby and disappointment was the word of the night. Gemologist just didn’t bring it. His performance wasn’t totally unforeseen by paper handicappers. He didn’t look nearly fast enough to lead with the front brigade, wound up chasing in fifth, and understandably tired. Gemologist raced a bit rank when having to stalk and resented it. When you see can write “no lead, no pass” on the past performances, 99 of 100 times you will find yourself with a horse you can eliminate. Like many, I got sucked into using him underneath in some gimmicks lacking a true conviction to stand 100-percent against that perfect record.

Sabercat (15th): Two horses visually jumped off the racetrack during the walkover, this one  and I’ll Have Another. Last year it was Derby Kitten and Animal Kingdom. As you can see, visual handicapping can be feast or famine, but there’s certainly something to be said for an animal brought into a contest in peak physical and mental shape. Sabercat was hung wide on the first turn and covered the second-most ground of any horse in the race, according to Trakus. But when it came time to close, he ran to his past performances and just wasn’t that brilliant to keep sustaining a move against top-quality horses. Expect him to be a typical Steve Asmussen charge capable of winning big Derby pots in smaller locales this summer.

Done Talking (14th): While he didn’t break particularly clean, the trip wasn’t bad at all for the Illinois Derby winner, who stayed about three paths off the rail most of the way and actually had a decent inside alley move at the quarter pole if he was good enough to pick up runners. He only passed a few and simply wasn’t fast enough for the elite in this race. Afterward, trainer Hamilton Smith told me they would consider the turf, and given his success at Colonial Downs over the years, Smith may have a decent Virginia Derby hopeful here by summertime.

El Padrino (13th): Stirred in the paddock for the third time in his career and leaping off the ground when attempting to be saddled, El Padrino’s head didn’t seem to be in racing or training in the days leading up to the Derby. Lethargic at the start, he broke last and didn’t settle nicely at that. While he ran into some backstretch traffic issues, he didn’t do nearly enough to make any dent while being drubbed by 20 lengths. This is a very talented horse who obviously started going the wrong way after two brilliant early season efforts. Rest up and maybe this is one worth watching for the Travers, but until he regroups, time will be his only friend.

Alpha (12th): The Wood runner-up left his race in the paddock and failed to handle the big-race hub-bub just like he did on Breeders’ Cup Day. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he knew his race was over before the post parade. While Alpha did run well over the winter and spring at Aqueduct under far less hectic conditions, you just can’t simulate the big-day experience too well in many places outside of the Arkansas Derby. After a murky break, Alpha never settled into any striking position, instead racing in the fore of the second half of the field the entire way with no real excuses. I’m not sure I want him around a huge crowd in the Haskell or Travers either by summer. I don’t think the missed training time did him any real damage or favors after the Wood, as this wasn’t a case of a horse who ran out of steam. He never had any steam once he blew it in the paddock.

Optimizer (11th): For a closer glued to the wood through the stretch the first time, he had one of the cleaner trips you will see in a full-gate Derby. Typically these kinds are bounced off the rail a few times when farthest inside among a four-deep pack, but that didn’t happen to Optimizer. He had a dream trip and simply didn’t do anything with it in an even, but uninspired effort. He held his margin of about 12 lengths back the entire trip. D. Wayne Lukas will move on to the Preakness, but Optimizer will need a total meltdown anywhere to be effective at the highest levels. He moves better on Polytrack and turf, bottom line.

Daddy Nose Best (10th): The Sunland Derby winner secured a nice position going into the clubhouse turn and had room to breathe as the field made the first bend. Garrett Gomez had him in perfect position at the top of the stretch and he appeared to have a shot to hit the board and make some noise. But Daddy Nose Best totally emptied out over the final three-sixteenths of a mile and offered no run, giving away nearly five lengths in ground through the lane. As good as the Scat Daddy offspring have been, just like dad, you wonder if they can truly get more than about 1 1/8 miles. The jury will be out on Daddy Nose Best, who certainly handled second-tier horses at nine furlongs in style this spring.

Hansen (9th): Perhaps no horse’s stock dropped more in the 72 hours leading up to the Kentucky Derby than the reigning 2-year-old champion. Rank and unmanageable in his morning gallops once he arrived at Churchill from the nearby Trackside Training Center, you got the intense feeling things were not going well for white lightning. Then, by the time the post parade crooned My Old Kentucky Home, he was so washed out that his curiously colored white coat turned a funky shade of pink. He surprisingly was out broke by Gemologist just to his outside and that rival forced him in some in the run through the stretch the first time. Before they hit the wire, Hansen already was throwing his head around in disgust behind Bodemeister and Trinniberg, just as he had done in his morning gallops. From there, he got a dream trip in third behind Bodemeister and Trinniberg, who was doing his dirty work keeping the favorite on the accelerator. He briefly appeared in second in upper stretch before hitting the invisible distance wall. Questions about his ability at 1 1/4 miles came back with a negative answer as he rejected a perfect drip and wound up 10 1/4 lengths behind the winner. He deserves a shot in the Preakness at the shorter trip, but his head better straighten out in two weeks.

Rousing Sermon (8th): This horse ran one of the more notable and intriguing Derby races of the horses you probably didn’t bother to watch. Jose Lezcano made a bold middle-move going down the backstretch and he was picking off horses nicely going into the far turn. Unfortunately, this time, following Calvin Borel up the rail turned out to be a rare mistake as Take Charge Indy stopped in front of Rousing Sermon with about three furlongs to go and broke the Californian-based horse’s momentum. Rousing Sermon wasn’t brilliant enough in the stretch to make a major placing, but rather workmanlike through the lane. He’s probably not a 1 1/4-mile horse anyway, but I tell you with his natural body build and ability to make that mid-race move, I really want to see this horse as a turf miler this year. Look for him at Del Mar in the Oceanside and/or Del Mar Derby.

Union Rags (7th): Julien Leparoux will take a lot of heat for the troubles that follow Union Rags, and his Derby trip no doubt was troublesome. But before we deport the kid to France, let us not forget Javier Castellano and Union Rags had troubled trips last year in the Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. At some point, you have to point the finger at the horse. In this case, it appears Union Rags simply is too big and too un-athletic for his own good. Trip handicappers worried before the Derby if he would find trouble, and in a field of 20, it tends to find you. No horse had a worse start in Derby 138 than Union Rags’s rendition of bumper cars. His run through the lane the first time didn’t get much cleaner or easier. Then just when you think it is going better for Union Rags, Daddy Long Legs drops the anchor in front of him and all momentum again is stymied. Through the stretch, Union Rags tossed his head around and never really reached out at any point to get rolling. By then, he was sick of this nonsense. The good news is he was seventh of 20 and beaten a modest 7 1/2 lengths after a nightmare trip where he literally never got into any high-end gears. The bad news is you knew a nightmare trip was likely, given his style and natural skill set. His best race will be in a smaller field size and at a place where he can extend out on the turns. The Belmont Stakes should be next, and don’t be surprised if he’s draped in white carnations in a scenario that fits him best. A bigger surprise would be if Julien Leparoux were still aboard to see it. Michael Matz will have his pick of riders come the final jewel.

Liaison (6th): Perhaps no placing in this race underscores the strength of the Californians more than this one. Sure, SoCal ran 1-2-5 ahead of him, but Liaison was 19th choice in the betting and deservedly so after being outrun three times by the West’s top 3-year-olds. From post 20, this should have been an easy toss. Instead, the Bob Baffert trainee showed surprising stalker’s speed and held an even position throughout despite racing wide. The only two horses to pass him from the quarter pole home were Dullahan and Went the Day Well. Baffert likely continues him on the Triple Crown trail and he deserves some credit for a solid Derby performance.

Creative Cause (5th): He covered the most ground according to Trakus (6,709 feet), 70 feet more than Bodemeister, 29 feet more than I’ll Have Another. Creative Cause was sitting third in the stretch and appeared destined for a top three placing at worst, but flattened out late after being taken wide off the far turn by the once-again, bad-cornering I’ll Have Another. You wonder if his light training Derby week after his final workout added up to the late wilt? No gallop out of significance in the work, two days of walking the shed row and a very soft gallop after that. The rumor vultures swirled that this horse was bound to scratch, but he obviously wasn’t as worse for the wear as the drones thought. But he certainly may have been a tiny bit softened up for the rigors of all 10 furlongs. Combine that with the ground loss and being beaten three lengths, this performance doesn’t look too bad. I will very much want to put my eyeballs on him at Pimlico more so than any other horse to see how he appears to have come out of the race. If he’s relishing the surroundings, he is a Preakness player. But he quite obviously could go the other direction as well. Stay tuned.

Went the Day Well (4th): No horse traveled better late in the Derby than this Graham Motion trainee, and he galloped out best of all after the Derby. That and five bucks will get you a foot-long at Subway, I understand, but it does speak to a horse who not only handled the distance, but relished it. He was bumped soundly by Prospective at the start, which put him farther back than expected. He then had the misfortune to follow Prospective’s rodeo through the lane the first time and twice had to swerve and give John Velazquez something to worry about. A couple hundred yards later, he was sawed off going into the clubhouse turn. He was finally able to find a decent stride down the backstretch and Velazquez did a nice job conserving a bit of ground on the far turn before tipping out for a clear run at the quarter pole. Through the stretch, he clearly had the best visual look to him, head down, trying and legs extending while others were floundering. Trakus agreed with the visuals, clocking him with the fastest final furlong and quarter-mile splits. There’s no doubt in my mind this is a serious Preakness threat, and to that point, the Belmont as well. If healthy, there are big wins in this horse’s future.

Dullahan (3th): He leaned on Union Rags coming out of the gate, but his rival took far worse the brunt of the contact. Dullahan took a lot of dirt and already was covered less than three-sixteenths of a mile into the Derby. When Dale Romans compared him to a Ferrari earlier in the week because of his gears and athleticism, I wasn’t sure I had seen that yet in a race. But going down the backstretch of the Derby and into the far turn, you can see jockey Kent Desormeaux accelerating and decelerating Dullahan on several occasions to get in and out of spots. That’s a quality most racehorses don’t have, the ability to stop and start moves. Dullahan passed five horses in about 10 to 12 strides as they approached the quarter pole, but was very wide on the track, and carried even wider by Creative Cause, who was carried out by I’ll Have Another on his way by them all. His stride didn’t reach out on the dirt in the lane, and hasn’t to date, as he continues that piston-like action that left him just a tad short of the big prize in the Derby. I truly feel this horse isn’t as good on dirt as other surfaces, which is a testament to how good he is that he could run so well in the Derby and not be tremendously fond of dirt. He’s capable on dirt as we’ve seen, without a doubt, but he wasn’t attacking the ground and still beat 17 of these.

Bodemeister (2nd): Much will be made of one of the great front-running performances in Derby history. Depending how you slice the fifths of a second in the old days, the opening quarter, half, three-quarters, and mile splits of this Derby are among the five fastest of all-time. That’s heady stuff. But it’s also fair to wonder how a horse three lengths up in the lane can give it back when crawling to nearly 27 in the final quarter-mile. Trakus had his final furlong in slightly less than 14. Bodemeister got tired, and probably deservedly so. With only four career starts under his belt, his 1:09.80 for six furlongs provided enough probable cause for a collapse. But he ran on and came only one horse away from etching his name alongside the likes of Spend a Buck among the Derby’s great, front-running knockouts. His final Derby workout and gallop-out were something to behold and he ran to that. I was skeptical that a horse with no deep foundation could withstand pace pressure from Trinniberg and Hansen and stick around to talk about a placing. I underestimated Bodemeister’s raw talent, and admire the way they tried to just take the race to the competition. That’s how you handle a front-runner. The Preakness looks like a logical place for him to vie for favoritism and be his last big enchilada for a while. Remember, he didn’t start until this year and has been cramming races on top of races in recent months. If he’s got another big-time 1 3/16 miles in him, we’re in for a Preakness treat.

I’ll Have Another (1st): One of the freshest Kentucky Derby winners in history, his Triple Crown aspirations are interesting banter if nothing else. By Preakness day, he will have raced a grand total of three times in 257 days. So while the quick turn-around might be of concern given his spread-out campaign to date, and it’s a fair debate, the flipside is that he could develop even more. The Derby trip could not have worked out any better, even from post 19. But let’s not forget one of my cardinal rules of trip handicapping. Most perfect trips are made by the horse who gets them, not given to that horse. Flip 14 or 15 other horses in the Derby into post 19 and they would not have had the physical skills to get that trip. Sure, I’ll Have Another had a dream trip in the Derby; but he made that trip with good gate presence, tactical early speed and an ability to lay off the throttle once hustled up into that better spot. My only knock on this horse going into the race was his repeated inability to corner turns very efficiently. The thought was that post 19 (with his cornering habits) could be enough to cost him four to five lengths and be the margin that puts him off the board even if he ran to his fantastic morning training looks. I’ll Have Another handled the clubhouse turn perfectly, which kept him in the hunt, and even when he blew the far turn, he was able to right the ship in upper stretch and re-break like a Quarter Horse like he has in the upper lane in his previous starts. This was a textbook I’ll Have Another run that we have seen this year. It’s going to take a big effort to beat him in the Preakness if he maintains his form.

Quick Hitters

New shooters to next Saturday’s Grade 1 Preakness are expected to include TIGER WALK (Ignacio Correas), PRETENSION (Chris Grove), and BRIMSTONE ISLAND (William Campbell) from Maryland, as well as New Yorkers ZETTERHOLM (Richard Dutrow Jr.) and TEETH OF THE DOG (Michael Matz), and Kentucky shippers PAYNTER (Bob Baffert), COZZETTI (Dale Romans), HIERRO (Steve Asmussen), and ISN’T HE CLEVER (recently moved to Steve Asmussen) ... If you will be in Baltimore, be sure to come out to Pimlico’s Wagering 101 Tent in the infield on Preakness Day and say hello. I will be there with my cohorts from Horseplayernow.com with a special Night School Live Fan Education seminar all day. See you there!