10/07/2016 3:25PM

Road to the 2017 Kentucky Derby: FrontRunner Stakes analysis

Benoit & Associates
Gormley, making just his second lifetime start, earned a 93 Beyer Speed Figure for his FrontRunner victory.

Grade 1, $300,690 FrontRunner Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Santa Anita, Oct. 1, 2016

 (10 Derby qualifying points for a win, 4 for second, 2 for third, 1 for fourth)

 Winner: Gormley

 Trainer: John Shirreffs

 Jockey: Victor Espinoza

 Owner: Jerry and Ann Moss

 Beyer Speed Figure: 93

 GORMLEY, making only his second start, his first in a stakes race, and his first around two turns, improved significantly off his debut win at Del Mar with this victory, one that stamped him as a potential major player in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 5, a race run at the exact conditions – 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita – as the FrontRunner.

 It also stamped Gormley as one to watch on this very early part of the road to the Kentucky Derby, for it is quite rare that trainer John Shirreffs has a 2-year-old who wins his debut, let alone jumps right into a stakes race and prevails. Gormley obviously is very precocious, but the solid Beyer Figure he got in this race – a big jump off the 64 he got winning his debut at Del Mar on Sept. 4 – was legit.

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 In addition, Gormley beat the top three finishers from last month’s Del Mar Futurity, with KLIMT, STRAIGHT FIRE, and MIDNIGHT PLEASURE taking the next three spots, in that order.

 Gormley did take advantage of a fairly moderate pace and a bit of mayhem at the start. He broke just a tad slowly from the rail, but moved up into the first turn to secure the lead, as both Midnight Pleasure and Straight Fire were rated, Straight Fire in part to avoid SECRET HOUSE, who emerged from the gate without his rider and was briefly in front of everyone through the first furlong.

 Gormley set fractions of 23.72 seconds for the quarter-mile, 47.18 for the half, and 1:11.48 for six furlongs, with Midnight Pleasure just behind and to his outside. Espinoza started asking Gormley aggressively with a little less than three furlongs to go, but I’m of the belief it’s because Gormley was starting to goof off, as his ears were forward most of the time, as if he was waiting for competition. Espinoza gave Gormley several right-handed smacks through the lane, and Gormley held a safe advantage throughout, with Espinoza taking him in hand late. Even on the gallop out, no one got by Gormley. He had more left.

 Klimt, who finished second, had a three-race win streak come to an end, but ran well considering the position he was put in the first part of the race. Usually one who stalks, Klimt was only in front of PLUM DANDY into the first turn and was last of the six runners with riders into the backstretch. Rafael Bejarano asked him with urgency three furlongs out, but his poor position and the moderate pace left him with too much to do. He rallied steadily to be a clear second, but never threatened the winner. He can do better if put into the race from the get-go.

 Straight Fire, who finished third, broke sharply but had to be cautiously handled coming under the wire the first time owing to the riderless Secret House just to his inside. By the time Secret House got out of the way, Straight Fire was three paths wide, just behind and outside of Midnight Pleasure. He stayed in that spot into the far turn, quickly moved past Midnight Pleasure to take aim at Gormley, but was turned back in upper stretch and faltered in the final furlong, offering no resistance as Klimt moved past him. He showed quite a bit of talent at Del Mar earlier this year – I thought he might even be the best 2-year-old in the state in August -- but at this stage of his career he doesn’t appear to want to go this far.

 Midnight Pleasure, who was fourth, ducked to the inside of the riderless Secret House soon after the start, conceded the lead to Gormley into the first turn while being rated, remained just behind and outside Gormley down the backstretch, had to be asked with three furlongs to go as Gormley started to edge away, surrendered second to Straight Fire before the quarter pole, and steadily faded. Considering his early position, this was a disappointing effort.

 VIBE, who finished fifth, was cleverly angled from his outside post down to the rail within a furlong of the start and wound up in a gorgeous, ground-saving position, just behind Gormley. He was a bit keen initially while racing in that spot, subsequently settled, remained just behind Gormley into the far turn, but began to lose ground three furlongs out and was outrun thereafter.

 Plum Dandy, who was sixth -- and, officially, last -- broke a step slow and trailed early, became rank racing inside of Klimt into the first turn and ran up on the heels of Vibe, stayed inside while near the back of the pack into the backstretch, checked while outrun near the three-furlong mark and showed nothing thereafter.

 Secret House was declared a non-starter after leaving the gate without jockey Santiago Gonzalez, who stepped off the colt, onto a small platform in the stall, just as the gates opened. All wagers on him were refunded. And, fortunately, he got out of the way of his rivals going into the first turn and caused, all things considered, minimal disruption to the race.