04/09/2012 12:39PM

Kentucky Derby 2012: Under the Radar - Optimizer

Barbara D. Livingston
Optimizer is trained by four-time Kentucky Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas.

Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas is a four-time Kentucky Derby winner and is tied with legendary trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for most Triple Crown race victories (13). He has won 18 Breeders’ Cup races, owns four Eclipse Awards for outstanding trainer and was the first trainer to earn more than $100 million in purse money. Simply put, Lukas is one of the greatest conditioners of high-quality Thoroughbreds of all time.

At 76, Lukas could be forgiven if he decided to slow down his training operation, but the man’s work ethic won’t allow him to take a break. In 2011, he won the Oaklawn Park training title and he is always on the prowl for another 3-year-old that can take him back to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby.

If Optimizer runs well in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, Lukas may have yet another Kentucky Derby starter.

Optimizer was foaled in Kentucky on March 8, 2009. He is from the first crop of English Channel, the champion turf male of 2007. English Channel raced exclusively on turf during his 23-race career. He won at distances ranging from 1 1/16 miles to 12 furlongs and prevailed in such Grade 1 races as the United Nations Stakes (two-time winner, established course records on both occasions), the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational Stakes (two-time winner), the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes, and the Breeders’ Cup Turf (established a course record). English Channel received 15 triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures from his 22 starts in North America. His career-best number was the 111 earned in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

At stud, English Channel has also sired Star Channel, a stakes winner on turf. Blueskiesnrainbows, another son of English Channel, finished third in last week’s Santa Anita Derby.

Optimizer’s female family boasts some strong dirt runners. His dam, Indy Pick, won twice on dirt and was able to stretch her ability to nine furlongs. Indy Pick is by A.P. Indy, the winner of the Belmont Stakes at 12 furlongs and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at 1 ¼ miles. She is also a half-sister to Finder’s Fee, the winner of the Grade 1 Matron Stakes and Grade 1 Acorn Stakes, both contested around a one-turn mile at Belmont; New Way, stakes-placed at five furlongs at Prairie Meadows; and Treasure Island, a multiple Grade 2-placed router on the NYRA circuit. Another of Indy Pick’s half-siblings, Tax Ruling, won three Grade 1 events going long over hurdles.

Optimizer’s second dam, Fantastic Find (by Mr. Prospector), won the Grade 1 Hempstead Handicap on dirt. The third dam, Blitey (by Riva Ridge), won the Grade 2 Maskette Stakes and Grade 2 Test Stakes. This is the female family of Grade 1 winners Dancing Spree (Breeders’ Cup Sprint) and Furlough (Ballerina Handicap).

Optimizer made his career debut in a maiden special weight on turf at Saratoga on Aug. 6, 2011. Dismissed at 27-1 in the field of 10, Optimizer raced greenly. He was far back while in the two path on the backstretch and was blindswitched entering the final turn. He advanced five wide late on that bend and spun widest in upper stretch. Ridden that afternoon by Robby Albarado, Optimizer rallied down the center of the course to win by a neck. Sabercat, the eighth-place finisher, would eventually win the Delta Jackpot.

Since that debut, Optimizer has yet to win. He made his first start against winners in the Grade 2 With Anticipation Stakes at the Spa, but couldn’t overcome the slow pace set by gate-to-wire winner State of Play. Optimizer gave a bold challenge in upper stretch only to fall a half-length short. As in his debut, Optimizer was a bit late to make his final lead change, but he still finished ahead of Dullahan, the next-out winner of the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.

Optimizer also started in the Breeders’ Futurity, his first start on the main track. He was outsprinted in the early going, made a three-wide bid entering the far turn and was in contention as the field turned for home. Optimizer was in behind horses in midstretch and was forced to angle to the far outside, but he didn’t make his final lead change until past the sixteenth pole. He rallied over the Keeneland polytrack to finish third, 2 ¼ lengths ahead of Take Charge Indy, the recent winner of the Grade 1 Florida Derby.

Optimizer made his first start on dirt in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5, but never got involved, finishing eighth after an awkward beginning. He did finish ahead of three next-out winners, however, in Alpha (recently second in the Wood Memorial), Daddy Long Legs (winner of the UAE Derby), and Prospective (recent winner of the Tampa Bay Derby).

Optimizer kicked off his 3-year-old campaign with off-the-board finishes in both the $100,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park and the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.

Undaunted by the disappointing efforts, Lukas soldiered on and was rewarded with a runner-up performance in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 17. In the Rebel, Optimizer saved ground in midpack for the first five furlongs before angling out on the final turn. He was widest turning for home and rallied well for second behind favored Secret Circle despite failing to switch leads in the stretch.

Optimizer doesn’t have the swiftest break from the starting gate and he is often at the mercy of race and pace luck. If he does start in the Kentucky Derby, he would likely have to weave his way around the majority of the field. His lead changes aren’t smooth and that’s something he must work on if he is to beat top-class competition at classic distances.

Still, Optimizer received a career-best 91 Beyer Speed Figure in the Rebel and looks to be rounding into his best form. Lukas has always maintained that Optimizer will improve as the distances increase and the Arkansas Derby will be his first start at nine furlongs. We all know that Lukas wants nothing more than to get back to the Derby. If Optimizer has enough graded earnings, he’s going, perhaps even as an “Under the Radar” contender.