01/07/2018 11:02AM

Watchmaker: Nice to see Derby prospects racing in January

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Benoit & Associates
McKinzie wins the Sham Stakes on Saturday at 1-5 odds.

In a point in time when there seems to be a contest to see how infrequently good horses can race, it is a welcomed development that legitimate Kentucky Derby candidates are competing in these initial days of January, some four months out from the first leg of the Triple Crown.

This Saturday’s Lecomte at Fair Grounds has got to be the best Lecomte ever, and by many miles. Principe Guilherme, a Tapit colt who won his first two starts by more than six and almost 12 lengths, and from the same people who brought you certain 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, and Instilled Regard, a close third in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity after being buffeted about between horses in the stretch, an incident that saw him moved up to second via disqualification, make this Lecomte a Kentucky Derby prep far more serious than the race’s Grade 3 status, or its relatively paltry 17 Derby points, would suggest.

And this past Saturday, we were treated to two victories by two other important Kentucky Derby prospects. One, McKinzie, was already well known. The other, Mask, is newly emergent.

McKinzie won Saturday’s Sham Stakes at Santa Anita the way a 1-5 shot should. Without the blinkers he wore in his first two career starts, McKinzie relaxed early and drew off after his button was pushed turning for home to score with total authority. He earned a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 97, just two points shy of the number he received in his debut victory last fall that was arguably the best first-out win by a 2-year-old anywhere in North America last year.

If there is one cause for pause right now when it comes to McKinzie, it concerns his second-start performance in the Los Alamitos Futurity. McKinzie was placed first in that race on the (I believe) controversial disqualification of Solomini. If Solomini came in enough in the stretch to bother Instilled Regard to the point warranting a disqualification, then a good case can be made that McKinzie came out in the stretch and did the same and should have been disqualified, too.

I think there should have been no disqualification in the Los Alamitos Futurity, and I also think McKinzie was demonstrably the third-best horse in that race on that day. In fairness, that was only McKinzie’s second career start and first attempt going two turns, and he was a better colt in the Sham. But while McKinzie is technically now 3 for 3, he is not unbeaten, and he does not carry the aura that term infers.

As for Mask, while he was off the radar in comparison to McKinzie, he was still a Tapit colt to keep an eye on after a solid score at Belmont last October in his first and only other start before he made a show of his field in Saturday’s Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream. Mask made all the running in the Mucho Macho Man and, despite not being asked, racked up a 6 1/4-length victory.

Mask is obviously very talented, and he wowed a bunch of people with his performance Saturday. But I’m taking a more reserved approach with him, at least for now.

Here’s why: There was zero early speed in the Mucho Macho Man, and Mask wound up in control of the pace purely by default. And not surprisingly under those circumstances, the pace Mask set of 24.43, 48.13, and 1:12.92 was very slow even by Gulfstream one-turn-mile standards, equating to an enormous base on balls. While that slow pace had to have a dragging effect on Mask’s final time, his winning preliminary Beyer of 91 was still only okay.

Certainly, Mask’s 3-year-old debut was ideal as a prep and was an effort he can build on. But taken strictly on its own, I’m not at all sure it was the jaw-dropping performance many feel it was.

Notes:

• I want the Pegasus World Cup to work. I really, really do. The sport now is mainly about big events and boutique race meets, and we need all the big events we can get. But the Pegasus has issues. Unlike, say, the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup, which are all about getting the right horses, the construct of the Pegasus puts the emphasis on getting horses, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the right ones. The Breeders’ Cup Classic can be perfectly fine with the right field of eight horses, but the Pegasus with only eight horses would be a failure because of its construct.

As a result, there was a lot of filler in last year’s inaugural Pegasus, and it looks like there will be more of the same in this one. Giant Expectations and War Story, who are offered just for starters, are useful horses, but they aren’t in the same league with legitimate Grade 1 performers. The presence of Gun Runner ensures this Pegasus World Cup will be an event. But is it an important race if half the field or more goes off at 70-1 or higher?

And all of this Pegasus filler is an issue because we are talking here about a 1 1/8-mile race at Gulfstream. I would much prefer the Pegasus to be a 1 1/4-mile race because that’s the distance of the world’s best dirt races, and it would afford a longer run to the first turn, mitigating the profound disadvantage attached to outside post positions going nine furlongs there. That said, I can see that 1 1/8 miles for the Pegasus could be appealing for some horses who haven’t raced since the Breeders’ Cup almost three months ago, and might be a lure for an occasional miler or two.

Nevertheless, what happens if, because of all the other sketchy horses entered, Gun Runner pulls post 12 and loses the Pegasus at the draw just like California Chrome did last year? Would that mark the end of this still potentially worthwhile experiment?

The latest Pegasus odds from the Race and Sports Book at Wynn Las Vegas has Gun Runner at 3-5, Collected at 9-2, and West Coast at 5-1. If those odds prove accurate in the Pegasus parimutuel win pool and the race does indeed attract nine other entrants, those nine entrants would have average odds of 40-1 if, that is, they were of equal ability. But when you add in potential starters like Sharp Azteca, Seeking the Soul, and, say Gunnevera, who would all figure to be under 40-1, it would change the percentages enough where half of a 12-horse Pegasus field could easily be more than 100-1.