04/02/2012 1:32PM

Kentucky Derby 2012: Under the Radar - Isn't He Clever

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Tommie Morelos/Coady Photography
Isn’t He Clever may try to cement his status for the Kentucky Derby in the Arkansas Derby.

It’s around this point on the Kentucky Derby trail that we separate the men from the boys, at least from a graded earnings standpoint. Potential is sometimes eclipsed by cold hard cash.

One of the “bubble” horses for this year’s Derby could be Isn’t He Clever, a Smarty Jones gelding that has banked $188,000 in graded money, most of it by way of a runner-up finish in the Sunland Derby on March 25. That run prompted his connections to pony up the $6,000 late nomination fee necessary to make Isn’t He Clever eligible for this year’s Triple Crown series.

Isn’t He Clever received a career-best 99 Beyer Speed Figure for his Sunland Derby effort and could be pointed to the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 14 in an attempt to cement his position in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.

In the Sunland Derby, Isn’t He Clever, a New Mexico “local,” tracked a fierce pace duel that burned Bob Baffert’s Castaway and Todd Pletcher’s Ender Knievel. Isn’t He Clever advanced three wide on the tiring leaders entering the final turn and soon opened up a clear lead under a confident Luis Contreras, but he began getting weary at the sixteenth pole and was outfinished by Steve Asmussen’s Daddy Nose Best, winner of the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate in his previous start. It could be argued that Contreras moved a bit too soon to grab a clear advantage and that Isn’t He Clear may have prevailed under more patient handling.

In 2004, Smarty Jones rocketed into Louisville as an undefeated Kentucky Derby favorite. He dominated the Arkansas branch of the Kentucky Derby highway by sweeping the Southwest Stakes at one mile, the Rebel Stakes (112 Beyer) at 1 1/16 miles, and the then-Grade 2 Arkansas Derby at nine furlongs. He turned the racing world on its ear after winning the Derby and Preakness in handy order. In the latter, Smarty Jones ran off and hid by 11 1/2 lengths to the tune of a 118 Beyer. Victorious at distances ranging from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, Smarty Jones failed in his bid to become the first American Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, faltering in the final furlong of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.

Retired following the Belmont loss, Smarty Jones must be considered somewhat of a disappointment at stud. Among his graded/group winners are Backtalk (Grade 2 Sanford Stakes sprinting at 2), Rogue Romance (Grade 3 Bourbon Stakes on turf), Sunrise Smarty (Grade 3 Fall Highweight Handicap sprinting on dirt), and Gilded Gem (Grade 3 Las Flores Stakes sprinting on dirt).

Isn’t He Clever’s dam, Sharp Minister (by Deputy Minister) was unplaced from two starts, but is a full sister to Flag Down, a multiple Grade 2 winner going long on the grass. One of Sharp Minister’s half-siblings, Golden Silk, finished third in the Grade 2 Oak Leaf Stakes at 1 1/16 miles.

Isn’t He Clever, himself, is a half-brother to multiple stakes-winning router Sharp Writer (effective on both turf and dirt, won the Walnut Creek Stakes at 11 furlongs on turf at Golden Gate) and Dijeer, a Group 3 winner going seven furlongs on turf in England.

Purchased for $45,000 by Kirk and Judy Robison at the 2010 Keeneland September yearling auction, Isn’t He Clever was then sent to trainer Henry Dominguez in New Mexico.

On Sept. 13, 2011, Isn’t He Clever made a successful debut, taking a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight at Zia Park by 9 3/4 lengths. Breaking from the inside post, Isn’t He Clever rolled to the front, but was pressured by 1-5 favorite King of Swat through a sizzling opening quarter in 21.61. Isn’t He Clever swatted away the chalk on the turn before pulling away over a next-out maiden claiming winner.

The following month, Isn’t He Clever was sent away the 1-10 betting choice in an entry-level allowance race at 5 1/2 furlongs at Zia. He broke somewhat awkwardly under Alejandro Medellin, but soon was contesting the pace along the inside. After two furlongs in 21.38, Isn’t He Clever looked to be in some trouble. He was passed by pace challenger Brickmaker and was a bit late to change leads in upper stretch. Once Isn’t He Clever did switch, however, he re-rallied to take Brickmaker’s measure by 3 1/2 lengths.

Following a game runner-up performance in the $100,000 Clever Trevor Stakes going seven furlongs at Remington Park on Nov. 11, Isn’t He Clever returned to New Mexico for the $104,000 Riley Allison Futurity at 6 1/2 furlongs on Dec. 30. The even-money favorite in the field of seven, Isn’t He Clever showed a new dimension. He broke on the lead, but was rated to a prompting position while three wide. Isn’t He Clever moved to engage the pacesetter from the outside entering the turn and poured it on the stretch, winning by 11 3/4 lengths with a 97 Beyer.

Dominguez sent Isn’t He Clever to Santa Anita for a stiff test in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 4. This was Isn’t He Clever’s first start around two turns, and he seemed a bit eager and green going into the first turn. Isn’t He Clever set the pace, but tired when the real running began. He finished fifth, two positions ahead of next-out turf stakes winner Chips All In.

Dominguez decided to tinker with Isn’t He Clever’s equipment in an attempt to get his gelding to relax better in the first few furlongs. He switched to a smaller French-cup blinker for the $150,000 Borderland Derby at Sunland on Feb. 25, and Isn’t He Clever responded. Although still anxious leaving the stalls, Isn’t He Clever settled into third position along the inside on the first turn. Eased to the three path on the turn, Isn’t He Clever moved to the fore and wasn’t really threatened in the stretch, winning the 1 1/16-mile test by 1 3/4 lengths.

An unbiased critique would point out some obvious flaws. Isn’t He Clever is very questionable to last the 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby as he failed to gain ground from the stretch call to the wire in all three route starts. It could be argued that he raced with the grain of a Sunland Derby racetrack that favored outside stalkers or closers and that his big Beyer should thus be taken with a grain of salt. Also, Isn’t He Clever must prove that he can be as effective outside of his adopted home state. His three top Beyers all came at Sunland. Isn’t He Clever pulls hard leaving the gate and must learn to relax better if he is to stay the course in longer routes, and he does have a tendency to drift out in the stretch.

Still, Isn’t He Clever is improving race by race and has learned to rate and finish in his last few starts. He will need another forward leap in order to be considered among the big names of a quality division.