04/09/2017 10:47AM

Watchmaker: Can Irish War Cry fire big back to back?

Barbara D. Livingston
Irish War Cry earned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure for Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

It says a lot about Saturday's three major Kentucky Derby preps that the strongest turned out to be the one won by a horse coming off a dismal 21 3/4-length loss as the even-money favorite. But I guess that is entirely appropriate in a Derby prep season that has featured, among other things, the unanimous 2-year-old male champion (Classic Empire) turn in a total clunker in his 3-year-old bow and then have episodes of refusing to train, and the best 3-year-old seen by far this year (Mastery) knocked out by an injury sustained literally seconds after his dazzling 2017 debut.

Yeah, it’s been that kind of year.

Getting back to Saturday, the horse referenced above is, of course, Irish War Cry. He did a 180 from a victory in the Holy Bull in his first start this year that was strong even if it was achieved with the benefit of an easy, uncontested lead, to flopping as much as a horse can in the subsequent Fountain of Youth, going from a 101 Beyer Figure to a 63.

Well, Irish War Cry did another 180 in Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial, scoring as decisively as he did in the Holy Bull and getting back up again to a 101 Beyer. That said, Irish War Cry’s Wood Memorial was in other ways a significantly better performance than his Holy Bull.

Although Irish War Cry encountered no adversity Saturday, he got no base on balls, either. He settled nicely in the initial stages before moving up soon after entering the backstretch to press the pace set by Battalion Runner. Battalion Runner might be a very good horse; his profile going into the Wood was very similar to the one Always Dreaming carried into a blowout victory in last week’s Florida Derby, a performance that, after Saturday’s events, makes him the current Kentucky Derby favorite. And the pace Battalion Runner set was strong, especially considering Aqueduct’s main track was by no means yielding fast fractions and final times Saturday, even if it was speed-favoring.

So Irish War Cry proved in the Wood that he doesn’t need an easy, favorable trip to fire big at this level. Now all he has to do is show he can fire big at this level in back-to-back starts.

The most disappointing Derby prep Saturday – not for the winning connections or the clairvoyants who somehow bet him, but for just about everyone else – was the Blue Grass at Keeneland.

On paper, the Blue Grass looked like the strongest and deepest Kentucky Derby prep of the year. Boy, did it fool us. Practical Joke, winner of the Champagne and Hopeful, McCraken, who entered the day the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, J Boys Echo, winner of the quickly run Gotham, and Tapwrit, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, all lost to Irap, who entered the Blue Grass a maiden after seven starts.

In fairness, Irap wasn’t a hopeless horse. He did finish second to Mastery in the Los Alamitos Futurity, albeit beaten more than seven lengths in a five-horse field, and he was second in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. But he was also the same Irap who lost as the favorite in the Mine That Bird Derby (the one run at Sunland), and who finished a distant fourth in the Sunland Derby. He was a maiden, for crying out loud. And it’s not like he suddenly improved explosively. Irap’s hard-fought Blue Grass decision translated to a very mediocre Beyer of 93.

As for the highly regarded group in the Blue Grass who finished behind the maiden, runner-up Practical Joke tried hard, but the fact that he couldn’t get by in a slowly run race only reinforced my belief that he’s really not a true route horse right now. And if you were a McCraken fan going into the Blue Grass, you should probably stay one, because he had a license to need the race after missing a scheduled start in the Tampa Bay Derby, and the lack of pace didn’t help his closing style. Still, his lack of punch late was cause for pause, and his third-place finish didn’t inspire me.

J Boys Echo and Tapwrit, who finished fourth and fifth, were also pace-disadvantaged, but Tapwrit, in particular, did very little running and added credence to the belief he beat a particularly soft field in Tampa.

If the Blue Grass Beyer of 93 was mediocre, what can you say about the Santa Anita Derby, won by Gormley with a Beyer of only 88

After a quick early pace, the Santa Anita Derby deteriorated into an outright staggerfest in the late stages. On the plus side, Gormley showed the ability to succeed from off the pace, but a final three eighths in 40.24 seconds gave him all day to get there. This race was contracting late like an accordion to the point that Iliad, who is no cinch to want two turns at this point in his career, actually gained a bit of ground to be beaten two lengths for all the money.

If there were one horse I would be inclined to make an excuse for in the Santa Anita Derby, it would be Battle of Midway. I don’t get why Battle of Midway was battling on the early lead, especially after he settled so well off the pace winning an allowance route last month. But at least Battle of Midway ran hard every step of the way.

Saturday notes:
In stark contrast to the nonsense that occurred last week, Aqueduct and Keeneland did not have one instance of overlapping races Saturday. And while I didn’t see every race from Santa Anita, there were no overlapping races from the Santa Anita races I saw, either, once they joined in. Of course, that’s the way it should be, and it’s a sad commentary that you feel compelled to compliment tracks when they employ what should be standard policy. But that’s the way it is.

** It would be difficult to throw too many compliments in the direction of Paradise Woods after her freakish romp in the Santa Anita Oaks. If you want to nitpick, she did get away with an easy early lead. But still, Paradise Woods drowned her field by almost 12 lengths, rendering questionable strategy on the part of runner-up Abel Tasman moot, and earning a 107 Beyer that was a staggering 19 points higher than the Santa Anita Derby figure.

** It’s also time to show Miss Sky Warrior some love. The knock on her has been she’s beaten weak opposition in slow times, and it has been a justified criticism. But all Miss Sky Warrior does is win, and win she did for the fifth time in six starts with a 13-length blowout in Aqueduct’s Gazelle, earning a 94 Beyer that was easily her best to date.

** Sailor’s Valentine is an exponentially more valuable filly today in the wake of her 22-1 upset in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland. I’m sure it doesn’t matter to her connections that she only had to run fast enough for a 77 Beyer to get that Grade 1.


David Duncan 20 days ago
I guess Watchmaker had to write this because he is unhappy that IWC beat the horse he bet on. He did the same thing when AP kept beating the horses he selected.
john gardner 20 days ago
Just when I think I'm getting a little confidence in my early pick, the outcome of a prep throws it all up in the air once again. This years crop looks average, and wide open. 
Joel Firsching 20 days ago
War cry should wait for the preakness.  Taking him back for the first half mile was a good idea.  Motion has another large, athletic star.  
Leslie Burke Fernandes 21 days ago
The Arabs might just be good enough this year with Thunder Snow. It is the best horse they have ever sent.

Gunner 21 days ago
So Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves sweep into Louisville to swipe all the Roses?

Better get good odds on that happening.
Jack Armstead 21 days ago
This is one very diluted 3 year old crop of horses (with the noted exception of Mastery).

I took a serious beating yesterday in all my Multi-race wagers.  Bad day... the #12 horse in Santa Anita's last race (had I put him in for another $2.40) would have made it a "good day."  

At least the OTB was firing on all cylinders... they had Internet access from 8:30 AM all day... uninterrupted.  That's the same as saying "Kudos" to the "Tracks" for not having "timing problems" with the "start times" of races.

I didn't feel nearly as bad as the guy behind me.  He was alive in the Pick 5 at Aqueduct and had "pressed ALL" in the race won by Green Gratto.  He was alive to the #1 & the #3 in the last race.  The #3 was taken down and Rajiv was put up on the #5.  Rajiv had lodged an objection to the "cut off" job by Miss Sky Warrior (in the prior race) and had a valid point.  However, Miss Sky Warrior won so convincingly that they didn't consider taking her down.

Mike... do you believe that they put that #5 up in the last race because they didn't want to screw Rajiv in two consecutive races?  He wasn't passing that #3... no way... and (the #5) had quit in every other prior race.  That poor guy lost over $4800.00 on that "take down" of the #3.

This is a very tough game we play. 
gallopingtom 21 days ago

All these trainers want 5 weeks into the big race. Next week's Arkansas Derby is probably gonna be a toss race for me. Especially if someone runs a huge BSF. These trainers want everything perfect and the Arkansas Derby only affords the trainers 3 weeks to get there horses turned around and ready to run in the KY Derby. We shall see.

From a gambling perspective I'd love to see Classic Empire run a huge race. I won't touch him coming back in 3 weeks.
Jim Fields 21 days ago
What a bunch of anti loafers, cause not one of these Derby preps has said anything, with the exception of Mastery's mastery of all.  and he ain't gonna be there, and maybe that Empire horse will screw up again, and the two plus best three year olds are out of the show.  I'm lookin forward to it!!!
Don Haake 21 days ago
It all sets up for Classic Empire to run a big race in Arkansas and be the favorite by default.  Just saying.
John Smith 21 days ago
I still think the derby winner is coming out of the Blue grass race (except for practical joke). Maybe the Arkansas derby. 
joseantoniocc 20 days ago
According what we have seen so far, the winner could come out from Nicaragua.