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The Derby rules 1, 2, 3
Although a few early-season prep races already have been run, the road to the 2009 Kentucky Derby really does not begin in earnest until this weekend when the $150,000 Holy Bull Stakes will be run at Gulfstream on Saturday, followed by the $200,000 Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Feb. 7; the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, also on Feb. 7; the $225,000 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 14; and the $250,000 Southwest at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 16.
While many will enter the Triple Crown chase with promising resumes, it is of paramount importance to gain insight into which horses are likely to fail to handle two-turn races and/or graded stakes competition at a mile and beyond. In fact, it can be argued that more money will be made by players who anticipate the distance and/or surface questions surrounding many highly publicized classics prospects.
For this reason I tend to group Derby prospects into three relatively flexible groups:
* Horses that probably will relish distances beyond one mile around two turns.
* Horses best suited to one-turn distances, up to but not necessarily including one mile.
* Questionable prospects, with probable preferences for turf and/or synthetic tracks, as well as horses dealing with health issues.
Based on last year's 2-year-old form, Remsen Stakes winner Old Fashioned probably enters this Derby season as numero uno on most Derby watch lists, at least those focusing on horses training in America.
In Dubai, we have at least three high-profile Derby prospects - the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Midshipman, the Hopeful and Champagne stakes winner Vineyard Haven, and the Breeders' Juvenile Turf winner Donativum, all of whom are now owned by Godolphin stables and are being trained by Saeed bin Suroor. While plans are uncertain, any of these three or other Godolphin owned 3-year-olds may be pointed to the Kentucky Derby via the UAE Derby on World Cup Night, March 28.
Among the many highly regarded 3-year-olds here in America, several dozen are bred well enough to handle the added distances, while the other two groups include many who will get at least one more chance to prove they should move forward towards the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, May 2.
Among the American-based 3-year-olds that probably will relish distances beyond one mile around two turns are:
Break Water Edison, stretch-running winner of the one-mile Nashua at Aqueduct last fall; Imperial Council, a late-developing Shug McGaughey trainee bred to improve going longer; Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge, the one-two finishers in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood last fall.
California Derby winner Chocolate Candy; Giant Oak, second in the Kentucky Jockey Club; West Side Bernie, winner of the Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway Park last fall; Point Encounter, a Dec. 26 maiden winner at Santa Anita with a strong distance pedigree; Professor Z, impressive allowance winner around two turns in December; Quality Road, recently second in his season debut at Gulfstream for trainer Jimmy Jerkens; and Atomic Rain, second to Old Fashioned in the Remsen.
Hello Broadway, a good second to Break Water Edison in the Nashua; Poltergeist, runaway winner of a recent one mile allowance at Oaklawn Park; Friesan Fire, Patena, and Au Moon, one-two-three finishers in the Lecomte at Fair Grounds on Jan 11.
American Dance, a stoutly bred third in the Remsen for Todd Pletcher; Checklist, a slowly developing Pletcher-trained winner of a maiden sprint Jan 3 at Gulfstream; and Dunkirk, Pletcher's $3.7-million yearling purchase who looked terrific winning his seven-furlong debut by open lengths at Gulfstream last week.
Coffee Bar, a Woodbine winner at 1 1/16 miles, now training at Santa Anita; Danger to Society, a Ken McPeek-trained winner of a good allowance route at Gulfstream; Taqarub, a solidly bred winner of two races in New York for Kiaran McLaughlin; Silver City, easy winner of an allowance race at Churchill; and Big Drama, already a five-time winner including the 1 1/16-mile Delta Jackpot.
The Pamplemousse, a strong-looking winner over highly rated Square Eddie in the one-mile San Rafael on Jan. 17 who has a dirt pedigree; Alma d'Oro and Copper Cascade, both winners of one-mile maiden races at Gulfstream earlier this month; Heir to the Stone and Mr. Fantasy, a pair of impressive New York-bred maiden winners; and Nuclear Wayne, a distance-bred colt who won a sprint with a 96 Beyer Speed Figure.
Among the horses best suited to one-turn distances are:
Munnings, who ran well in one-turn graded stakes in New York last fall and is a son of sprint champion Speightstown; Haynesfield, also by Speightstown and proven in New York sprint stakes; Hornung, still another son of Speightstown who was a good third in a recent allowance sprint at Golden Gate Fields.
Notonthesamepage, who earned a 115 Beyer Speed Figure in a sprint stakes at Gulfstream; Captain Cherokee, who looked sharp in a recent Fair Grounds score but is a half-brother to champion sprinter Midnight Lute.
Primary Witness, winner of his debut at Gulfstream Jan. 14 and primarily bred for one-turn sprints; Azul Leon, who rallied to win the Best Pal at Del Mar last summer but failed to hold that form when sent two turns; Capt. Candyman Can, who won the one-turn mile Iroquois at Churchill last fall but faded badly when sent two turns in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club; Ask Joe, who won the six-furlong Sugar Bowl at the Fair Grounds but must prove he can handle two turns; and Musket Man, who flashed blazing sprint speed winning a small stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
In category three are horses with a known preference for turf and/or synthetic tracks, as well as horses still recovering from physical setbacks.
Charitable Man, for instance, was an impressive, stretch-running winner of the seven-furlong Futurity at Belmont last fall, but is recovering from an injury.
Square Eddie, second in the BC Juvenile and second to The Pamplemousse in the San Rafael Stakes on the Pro-Ride track at Santa Anita Jan. 17, may go to Oaklawn for the Southwest or the Fair Grounds for the Risen Star to prove he can handle dirt. The British import Ryehill Dreamer was an okay third in the San Rafael in his American stakes debut and may need a race on dirt this spring.
The stretch-running filly Stardom Bound, certain to be voted champion 2-year-old filly of 2008, may be pointed towards the Santa Anita Derby in April. Yet, Stardom Bound is likely to arrive in Louisville for the Kentucky Oaks or Kentucky Derby without a prior race on dirt.
Beethoven, a Polytrack maiden winner at Turfway Park last fall, also won the Kentucky Jockey Club stakes at Churchill but is a question mark at 10 furlongs. Giralamo, a Kiaran McLaughlin trainee, flashed promise at Saratoga last summer before going off form and is in Dubai to regroup.
Majormotionpicture looked good winning his 2008 career debut at Del Mar but was sidelined and may return at Santa Anita in February. Coronet of a Baron was a sharp second to Midshipman in the Del Mar Futurity and a good third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, but needs a dirt race at one mile or longer to confirm his Derby credentials. Jack Spratt, a winner of a turf stakes, is likely to make his dirt debut in the $250,000 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, Feb. 28.
Rocketing Returns, sharp winner of a Calder allowance sprint, may prefer distances up to 1 1/16 miles. Theregoesjojo, a Ken McPeek-trained allowance winner at Gulfstream, seems bred for grass. Top Seed, a sprint stakes winner at Tampa Bay Downs, will get his two turn test in the Sam F. Davis. Axel Foley, a British import who was second in the California Derby, also needs a dirt test.
Bittel Road, fourth in the CashCall Futurity, was more impressive in his grass races last year. Cribnote is recovering from an injury incurred when third in the Champagne last fall.
And then there is Nicanor, Barbaro's heavily hyped full brother, who has trained well in recent weeks and is nearing his career debut at Gulfstream Park for trainer Michael Matz.
At the bottom line, within a month we all should know quite a bit about the vast majority of horses mentioned in the above three groupings.