Belmont Day is upon us!

June 11, 2011

The weather is not being cooperative so far this morning at Belmont but it looks as if most of the day will be rain-free.  Click here to view my analysis for the entire 13 race card at Belmont today.  I’ll be back to recap everything tomorrow.  Here is my analysis for the six stakes races on the card:

Race 6, The GI Acorn:

#2 TURBULENT DESCENT is quite possibly the best 3YO filly in the country and her connections plan to keep her around one turn in search of the Eclipse Award. She already has a GI win this year having taken the Santa Anita Oaks back in March over a fast-closing Zazu. Upon being cut back to the 7f Beaumont at Keeneland she kept up her winning ways scoring by 5 lengths quite handily. This field has a few runners that are moderately interesting but this gal is clearly the best horse in the race and figures to be very dangerous right from the outset. Look for her to stalk and pounce when ready under jockey David Flores. #3 SAVVY SUPREME is going a route of ground for the first time as she exits a win in the Classy Mirage here on May 18. This filly is a full sister of multiple GI winner Commentator, who was victorious at distance up to and including 9 furlongs. She should be able to handle the added ground without issue and seems to have a pace advantage on paper. Clearly, this barn must be taken seriously when spotting their horses aggressively and this filly has talent. An unencumbered trip to the front end and a breather down the backstretch will greatly help her chances. #4 IT’S TRICKY was bet down to 17-10 in the Gulfstream Park Oaks last time out as she came in off of a handy stakes win at Aqueduct. The Gulfstream experiment didn’t work out well as she never fired and was beaten by more than 20 lengths. A rebound will certainly make her dangerous in this spot as she ran a big race in the Busher two starts back. There are some gaps in her workouts, which is a negative sign, but trainer Kiaran McLaughlin would not start her if she wasn’t ready.

Race 7, The G2 True North

It seems almost surprising that #3 TRAPPE SHOT has no graded stakes wins but he is going to be favored in search of his first in here. In his 2011 debut he was a sharp winner coming from just off the pace after bobbling at the start. Jockey John Velazquez hardly got to the bottom of him down the lane and he seems set up for a big effort in his 2nd start of the year. There have never been any doubts about Trappe Shot’s talent as he has been freakishly good on multiple occasions. The pace in here figures to be contested, but the majority of the frontrunners are on this colt’s outside. That should put him in a cozy stalking spot right from the outset and he’ll be very tough from there. #2 WILDCAT BRIEF is a longshot who’s worthy of consideration in here as he goes 2nd off a layoff for trainer Benny Perkins, Jr. There are a number of sprint races this 5YO could have contested at Monmouth but Perkins believes he’s graded stakes caliber. In his last try here at Belmont he wound up a fast-closing 3rd in the Vosburgh despite getting very little pace help. When he finished 2nd in the Decathlon last time out he was attempting to rally into a negative pace setup, which wrecked his chances. If the early clip gets hot in here look for him late at a very fair price. #1 D’FUNNYBONE looked like a horse whose best days were in the rearview mirror when he went postward in the Waldoboro back on May 11. He rebounded in a big way and wound up beaten by Trappe Shot by just a half-length. The post position draw did him quite a bit of harm as he’s never been successful breaking from the rail. He does, however, have an entrymate in #1A THIS ONES FOR PHIL, who exits a handy win at Monmouth Park. This son of Untuttable has been very good when on his game but needs to prove he’s graded stakes caliber outside of Florida.

Race 8, The G2 Woody Stephens

If you are of the opinion that #5 ARCH TRAVELER is better sprinting then he’s a main contender in this field. Disregarding his two route tries he is clearly a horse who has been consistent, shown versatility, and can be placed anywhere early. His local win in the Ziggy’s Boy came via a perfect rail-skimming trip and he finished very strongly to get the top prize. There’s a good bit of speed in this field and he can be on the pace or just off it. He is ready for his first big class test at a distance that he can be successful. #2 JUSTIN PHILLIP is returning from a brief layoff and cutting back in distance for trainer Steve Asmussen. He is 1-1 at Belmont having earned his maiden win over this oval and his effort in the Bay Shore two back at this distance was respectable. Jockey Ramon Dominguez had him buried on the rail in that event and it kept him from putting forth a big finish. If the pace heats up a bit then he can lay back and make one run as he attempts to rebound on the cutback in distance. #7 J J’S LUCKY TRAIN has been a very consistent horse this winter and spring and now cuts back to 7fs off a troubled effort in the Derby Trial. He was a sharp winner of the Bay Shore two starts ago and was unfazed by a negative pace setup in that affair. All signs point to this colt being the value play as he is 6-1 on the morning line.

Race 9, the GI Just A Game

The last two Belmont undercards have produced a number of longshot winners and #9 JUSTAROUNDMIDNIGHT getting the top prize would qualify as a huge upset. She will undergo the biggest test of her career today but has a few things going for her that could pay off. First and foremost, her two best races in America have both come off of freshening. After her last start trainer Patrick Biancone backed off and gave her some time away from the racetrack. He got her started again about a month ago and she’s posted four workouts during that period. In the Honey Fox last time out she was buried down on the inside much of the way and, despite being a European filly, she doesn’t like being inside. A cleaner trip from the outside in a race that has legitimate pace will make her a late threat at a huge price. #2 AVIATE broke through for a big win last time out in the Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby undercard. She benefited from a terrific pace setup and a perfect trip in that affair and drew off by almost two lengths in the end. She will try to follow the same path as Proviso, last year’s Just A Game winner who scored four consecutive GI wins between March and October of last year. This filly doesn’t need the race to come back to her at all as she has the versatility to stay close if jockey Kent Desormeaux so chooses. All signs point to her being the one to beat. #7 CHEROKEE QUEEN is returning from a brief layoff and trying this race for the 2nd year in a row. She had little go right in this race last Belmont day as she wound up trapped on the rail in deep stretch. Trainer Marty Wolfson has used the same plan this year with her that he did in 2010 as she entered off of a win in the Hollywood Wildcat. Though her last few graded stakes tests outside of Florida have not gone particularly well, she is a mare with ability who can capitalize on the expected slow pace.

Race 10, The GI Manhattan

Nothing went right for #7 PRINCE WILL I AM in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic last time out. Sent off as the 3-1 favorite he was well back of a wickedly slow pace through the opening six furlongs and wound up having to make his patented late run on the inside. For a long striding late runner having to rally up the inside is often an impossible feat. When you consider how the dynamics worked against him it becomes clear that he actually ran quite well in the Turf Classic. In this race he will receive a much different pace setup and figures to be towards the back of the pack again. As long as jockey John Velazquez can keep him out of trouble he will be moving well late. #4 GIO PONTI needs no introduction as he’s back for his 3rd campaign as an older horse. The winner of this race in 2009, he was beaten in 2010 as jockey Ramon Dominguez found all kinds of trouble along the way before ending up 2nd behind stablemate Winchester. The owners of Gio Ponti had an eye on the Dubai World Cup at the beginning of this year but they didn’t plan to take him to the desert without a prep race. Nonetheless, he ran in the DWC off a 120+ day layoff and finished a credible fifth. There’s no doubt that the best races Gio Ponti has run will bury this field but the list of horses who he has lost to in his illustrious career doesn’t exactly read as a who’s who of American turf stars (Debussy, Interpatation, Winchester). If #5 AL KHALI can find the late summer/early fall magic he had here and at Woodbine then it could be his turn to snag the top prize. He has had viable excuses in each of his three races this year as his seasonal debut came with Kent Desormeaux on board, a rider with whom he rarely had success. His 2nd start of the year was in an allowance race at Keeneland and he was stuck behind a glacial pace with an isolated speedster cruising along. In the Turf Classic at Churchill he ran into trouble and had to rally into a very slow pace once again. Whether Al Khali is GI caliber remains to be seen but he is good enough on his best day and will offer tremendous value.

Race 11, The GI Belmont Stakes

In an edition that’s truly worthy of being dubbed the “Test of the Champion” year-end divisional honors are seemingly up for grabs. #9 ANIMAL KINGDOM surprised when he took to the dirt and scored in the Kentucky Derby five weeks ago. Sent off a tepid 2-1 favorite in the Preakness he was asked to duplicate his tremendous run under the Twin Spires and in my opinion he ran even better in Baltimore. Though many will tell you that he ran the same race as he did in the Derby, in the Preakness he was forced to rally from well off the pace, went wide on the turns and closed with a furious rally. He finished best among the closers and ultimately had to deal with a track that played increasingly kind to speed types as the day wore on. All along I have been of the opinion that the Belmont would be ideal for the impeccably bred chestnut as he can settle into an easy stride and move when ready. Look for him to be considerably closer to the pace today, much along the same lines as his early position in the Derby. #10 MUCHO MACHO MAN is in this race for a reason. Clearly a talented 3YO, his connections have opted to press on after what looks like a disappointing Preakness effort on paper. Looks can be deceiving as his running line doesn’t capture the trouble he got into in the opening quarter-mile nor the wide trip he endured on the far turn. The perfect remedy for a horse who’s coming off a bad trip is a rider change to Ramon Dominguez and that’s exactly what trainer Kathy Ritvo is doing this afternoon. Dominguez worked this late foal on Monday and seems to fit him perfectly according to his trainer. He has always been at his best when able to stalk in slower paced races and that’s the trip he’s likely to get this afternoon. #6 NEHRO was wisely withheld from the Preakness Stakes after finishing 2nd in the Kentucky Derby and now arrives at Belmont  Park a fresh horse. The Preakness would have been his fourth race in just 8 weeks, a task that’s very daunting for a young horse. He is bred beautifully to go 12 furlongs and hails from a barn that can train stamina into their runners as well as any in the country. In the last 10 runnings of the Belmont Stakes the winner has come straight from the Derby on four occasions, most recently Summer Bird two years ago. The slower pace will not hurt this versatile colt as he has successfully adapted to basically anything thrown at him in his career.

Dozen set to go for 143rd Belmont

June 8, 2011

The post position draw for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes concluded about 15 minutes ago.  Here is the field, complete with riders and morning line odds.

1.) Master of Hounds (Gomez) 10-1
2.) Stay Thirsty (Castellano) 20-1
3.) Ruler on Ice (Valdivia) 20-1
4.) Santiva (Bridgmohan) 15-1
5.) Brilliant Speed (Rosario) 15-1
6.) Nehro (Nakatani) 4-1
7.) Monzon (Lezcano) 30-1
8.) Prime Cut (Prado) 15-1
9.) Animal Kingdom (Velazquez) 2-1
10.) Mucho Macho Man (Dominguez) 10-1
11.) Isn’t He Perfect (Maragh) 30-1
12.) Shackleford (Castanon) 9/2

In a draw for a race at 12 furlongs there are rarely any winners and losers.  If anything, Shackleford’s outside draw will make the early intentions with him even clearer.  He will be sent to the lead and figures to try to take them as far as he can.  Animal Kingdom drew an ideal outside post as both he and his rider seem to be most comfortable outside of horses.  I’ll be back tomorrow with more thoughts, full card selections, and more Belmont preview.  Only 3 more days!

This Day in Belmont history: Real Quiet’s miss

June 6, 2011

June 6, 1998

The stage was set.  For the 2nd consecutive year a Bob Baffert trainee rolled into NY in search of racing’s elusive Triple Crown.  It had been 20 years since the world was treated to what was rapidly becoming the most difficult feat in sports.

Real Quiet had won the Kentucky Derby at 8-1 five weeks earlier, emerging from the shadow of his stablemate, Indian Charlie.  With an electrifying move on the far turn he swept to the front and held sway late.  The 2nd place finisher, Victory Gallop, was in high gear late and finished a fast-closing second.  Two weeks later in Baltimore jockey Kent Desormeaux made a similar move with Real Quiet to the one he did in the Run for the Roses.  He swept to command five wide and finished strongly through the lane, setting up another Triple Crown bid one year after his trainer missed with Silver Charm.

The 1998 Belmont featured four horses from the Preakness, with Classic Cat and Basic Trainee joining the aforementioned Real Quiet and Victory Gallop.  Thomas Jo was coming in off of consecutive victories in the Tesio and Sir Barton at Pimlico.  Parade Ground had just been 3rd in the Peter Pan behind Grand Slam.  Raffie’s Majesty was coming in off of a 4th place finish behind Yarrow Brae, who was also in the field.  Limit Out had just finished 3rd in the Withers and Chilito was looking to avenge consecutive defeats in the Kentucky and Jersey Derbies.

Real Quiet was bet down to 4/5 and broke from post position 7 after scratches of Hanuman Highway and Hot Wells.  Rather than me narrating the race itself, click here to watch the 1998 Belmont via www.belmontstakes.com

Tom Durkin’s race call, which might be the best among his hundreds of stirring descriptions, captured the feeling soon after Real Quiet and Victory Gallop hit the wire.  It was a frenzied final furlong that left you hopeful, doubtful, then awe struck.  We could wait years for a Belmont that will be as exciting as that running and I’ll patiently wait in hopes that it happens again.

 

I’ll be back tomorrow with This Day in Belmont History.  Only four days until the 143rd Belmont Stakes!

What does it take to win the Belmont?

June 1, 2011

The longest tenured of the Triple Crown races, known to racing fans as the “Test of the Champion” is only ten days away.  For the 143rd time the Belmont Stakes will be conducted, as 3YOs aspiring for Classic glory will go once around America’s largest dirt oval.  Using the last ten years as a bit of a guide, let’s take a look at what might be considered some Belmont “rules” and some Belmont myths.

MYTH #1- Closers have an edge in the Belmont because of the distance of the race.

Annually, there is a horse who makes a relatively meaningless late move in the Kentucky Derby and that horse is immediately stamped as a Belmont horse.  The list is endless.  In the last ten runnings of the Belmont the winner has been more than 3 lengths out with four furlongs to go exactly twice.  The correlation between those two winners is pretty clear, as they were Birdstone in 2004 and his son, Summer Bird, in 2009.  Each were about 5 lengths off the pace with a half-mile to run.  Otherwise, in the last ten runnings two horses were in the lead after one mile, three more were between a head and one and a half lengths out, and the other three were between two and 2 3/4 lengths out.

RULE #1 – Horses with speed excel in the Belmont

Now, I’m not necessarily talking about frontrunning types, but clearly horses who have shown the tactical speed to stay within range of the pacesetters have an inherent edge.  Dale Romans offered this statement to Gene Kershner after the Preakness in discussing Shackleford’s Belmont hopes: “You know, Woody Stephens said a long time ago, Belmont is a speed horse’s race. Everybody’s tired at the eighth pole, so the horse on the lead can usually keep going.”  In 2007, the filly Rags to Riches stumbled badly at the start and raced wide around the first turn of the Belmont.  On the backstretch, sensing the moderate pace, jockey John Velazquez moved her towards the leaders.  A confirmed stayer and late runner, Rags to Riches had the tactical speed to move to within a length and a half of the lead with a half-mile to run.  She, of course, took over outside the quarter pole and won one of the most stirring renditions of the Belmont in the last 25 years.

MYTH #2 – Newcomers need not apply

Trainer Todd Pletcher broke a winless skid in Triple Crown races when Rags to Riches won in 2007.  In the last 10 years trainers who had never won a Triple Crown race won the Belmont in 2002, 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2010.  That goes to show you that the Belmont being much more of a “specialist” type of race, it removes the necessity for a trainer to have had past Triple Crown success. 

RULE #2 – Be VERY careful with Preakness runners

You may find it surprising but the combined record of horses who were exiting the Preakness Stakes in the last ten years is a paltry 2-27.  In eight of the last ten runnings the favorite was a horse who had run in the Preakness and the only two that obliged were Point Given in 2001 and Afleet Alex in 2005.  The ROI on all Preakness starters trying the Belmont in the last ten years is $0.34.  In a year such as this where you have a couple of very high profile Belmont entrants exiting the Preakness this statistic will be put to the test.

RULE #3 – Local preps help

Seven of the last ten Belmont winners had started previously over the strip known as “Big Sandy.”  The exceptions were Summer Bird, Rags to Riches, and Sarava.  Each of those three horses were either trained by NY-based horsemen and/or had ample training time over the Belmont oval.  This is part of the reason why trainer Graham Motion is planning to send Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom to NY for a final workout on Monday.

With the Belmont draw a week away the field remains somewhat fluid.  However, the prospects of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners being in the field is tremendous.  That would occur for the first time since 2005 if it happens.  Check back here over the next ten days for updates and more thoughts on the Belmont.

Baltimore Bound Part 2: The New Shooters

May 10, 2011

Yesterday I took a lengthy look at Dance City and Sway Away, a couple of colts who didn’t contest the Kentucky Derby but are slated to run in the Preakness.  Today’s focus will be on Flashpoint, the winner of the Hutcheson in February, and King Congie, winner of the Tropical Park Derby in January.  They are coming into the race from different directions and will both have serious questions to answer on May 21.

FLASHPOINT

OWNER: Peachtree Stable
TRAINER: Wesley Ward
JOCKEY: Cornelio Velasquez

Flashpoint showed the remarkable talent necessary to go from a Maiden Special Weight victory to graded stakes glory.  He rambled home a convincing winner in the Hutcheson, dusting Travelin Man in the process.  Owner John Fort and then trainer Rick Dutrow, Jr. talked about a variety of different races afterwards, including the Swale, Florida Derby, and Santa Anita Derby.  They ultimately decided to give the Florida Derby a try and it was not the performance they sought.  Breaking from the outside, he was out-sprinted to the lead and never made a serious impact.  The Florida Derby was run at a breakneck pace and Flashpoint started from the far outside in a group of eight, which made procuring the early lead difficult.

As the field entered the first turn in the Florida Derby Flashpoint was hung out widest of all.  With a good amount of speed on paper the riders breaking to Flashpoint’s inside had no interest in losing their early position to him.  Losing ground on the turns at Gulfstream, especially going 9 furlongs is a death sentence.

When the field was roughly halfway to the wire in the Florida Derby jockey Cornelio Velasquez had Flashpoint in a similar stalking spot to the one where he was in the Hutcheson.  However, by the time they reached the top of the stretch he was spent.  This raised serious red flags about whether he has any ability to go a route of ground.

THE BOTTOM LINE: John Fort of the Peachtree Stables opted to move Flashpoint from Rick Dutrow, Jr. to Wesley Ward and he apparently been training very well at Keeneland.  What Ward will be trying to do in getting Flashpoint to complete 9.5 furlongs while meeting early pressure appears as if it’ll be a herculean task.  I will be betting against Flashpoint taking this field wire-to-wire, especially with such a large amount of speed potentially slated to go.

KING CONGIE

OWNER: West Point Thoroughbreds
TRAINER: Tom Albertrani
JOCKEY: Robby Albarado

Trainer Tom Albertrani figured King Congie’s synthetic surface debut would occur in the Vinery Racing Spiral on March 26 at Turfway.  After coming up with a minor injury he was re-routed to the Blue Grass, where he was an outsider in a bulky and contentious field.  Only Twinspired and his stablemate separated this son of Badge of Silver away from a victory that afternoon at Keeneland as he ran another typically strong race.

Since being moved to turf, King Congie’s fortunes have changed dramatically.  Taking a closer look at his past performances it is clear that saying he’s unproven on dirt is an understatement.

Though he had the misfortune of running into a couple of awfully sharp horses in his two dirt starts (Eclipse Award winner Uncle Mo and stakes winner Fort Hughes), King Congie offered very little each time.  He is clearly a better horse on synthetics/turf and that is a major concern moving forward to the Preakness.  Badge of Silver has proven to be a useful sire as his 2nd crop gets ready to hit the races. Both King Congie and Silver Medallion are stakes winners from his first crop.  The damside of King Congie’s pedigree is full of dirt winners, including his dam, Wise Ending and her most accomplished sibling, Grand Champion, who was a 6 time winner and took the 2007 Fall Highweight Handicap at Aqueduct.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A good horse can run on any surface.  Animal Kingdom proved that to us on Derby day as he roared by the field at better than 20-1.  King Congie’s stablemate, Brilliant Speed, ran a surprisingly good race in the Derby to narrowly miss in a photo for fifth.  That is encouraging given that Brilliant Speed previously had negative dirt form as well.  I am not high on King Congie’s chances but would hardly be surprised if he cracks the intra-race exotics.

Tomorrow I’ll be back to take a closer look at a couple more potential new shooters in the Preakness, Astrology and Concealed Identity.

Baltimore Bound Part 1: The New Shooters

May 9, 2011

Over the next 13 days I will be focusing on individual things pertaining to the Preakness Stakes on May 21.  I will be on-site for the Preakness and the focus of my attention will be there for the fortnight (or a tad less) that separates us from the 2nd jewel of racing’s Triple Crown.  Each of the next 3 days I’ll be looking at two horses that are “new shooters” in the Preakness.  Today’s are Dance City and Sway Away, the 3rd and 4th place finishers from the Arkansas Derby.

DANCE CITY

OWNER: The Estate of Ned Evans
TRAINER: Todd Pletcher
JOCKEY: Javier Castellano

Dance City was a colt that trainer Todd Pletcher might not have had high hopes for when his career began as he debuted in a maiden special weight race on the inner track at Aqueduct.  The quality of that effort prompted Pletcher to send him to Florida for a try against MSW company at 9 furlongs.  After winning he landed in a N1X at Gulfstream that was supposed to be a simple exhibition for Cal Nation, a flashy debut winner for Pletcher who was facing winners for the first time.  No one told Dance City that he was supposed to be a valiant runner-up as he battled tooth and nail through the stretch to score a nose decision.

In a year where horses were able to strattle the lines of class repeatedly in graded stakes races, this son of City Zip handled the jump to Grade I company with a tremendous effort at Oaklawn Park.  All the talk before the Arkansas Derby centered on The Factor, the fleet-footed son of War Front who had turned heads with a devastatingly easy win in the Rebel at Oaklawn one month earlier.  Let’s take a look at the Arkansas Derby in pictures, with particular attention paid to Dance City.

As the field rounded the first turn of the Arkansas Derby Castellano positioned Dance City in 2nd, just off the leader JP’s Gusto.  The most surprising element of this scenario is that Dance City was ahead of The Factor, who was out-sprinted to the lead and subsequently wrangled back by jockey Martin Garcia.  In this shot the field is just shy of completing the opening quarter mile, which was done in a spritely 22.54 seconds.  As you will see in the pictures going forward, this pace would take its toll on Dance City’s early rivals.

At the mid-point of the backstretch Dance City is still stalking from 2nd and the opening half-mile has been completed in :46.53.  This was the exact same split as the Northern Spur, an undercard race for 3YOs run two races earlier.  The difference, of course, as you’ll see in later photographs is that the Arkansas Derby field finished much quicker, as the late runners made their moves in the stretch drive.

As the field approaches the quarter pole, Dance City has been asked to collar the frontrunner.  In the meantime, Sway Away is in the midst of a wide and premature move under jockey Patrick Valenzuela.  Dance City has done all the running to this point and is now going to tackle a final quarter-mile after being seriously softened up.  The stiffening resolve that he shows is truly remarkable.

As the field straightens away two of the four who were battling outside the 1/4 pole are finished.  The Factor was simply not himself in the Arkansas Derby and JP’s Gusto never gave the appearance of being a horse who could go two turns.  Sway Away is now in command with Dance City battling to his inside.  With the pace gradually collapsing Archarcharch is making his move and is 3 horses off the rail in the 2nd flight.  Nehro, the eventual 2nd place finisher, is still approximately 5-6 lengths back as he unleashes his stretch kick.

At the finish of the Arkansas Derby Dance City moved away from Sway Away.  He wound up 3rd beaten just under two lengths by two rivals who enjoyed tremendous pace setups.  While Sway Away’s trip was far from ideal, Dance City was asked to go above and beyond by jockey Javier Castellano, and if not for a solid bump in mid-stretch he might have pulled off a huge upset in what would have been the best performance in any prep on this year’s Derby trail. 

THE BOTTOM LINE: With horses like Flashpoint and Shackleford slated to run in the Preakness the pace is sure to be very strong.  However, one thing that Dance City has going for him is that he has participated in quick early tempos in 3 consecutive starts and come out of them with two wins and a 3rd place finish.  He is a major player in the Preakness and a horse I will use prominently in my wagers.

SWAY AWAY

OWNER: Batman Stable, Olsen, Wallace, Et Al.
TRAINER: Jeff Bonde
JOCKEY: TBA

A sway-back colt by Afleet Alex, this guy’s career began with a splash as he crushed a field of MSW runners at Pleasanton before finishing 2nd as the 3/2 favorite in the Best Pal at Del Mar.  After being given some time to grow he returned to the races with a fast-closing 2nd place finish behind The Factor in the San Vicente.  Viewed by many as a one-run sprinter, he was sent to Oaklawn for his first try at two turns.  One month after shipping in Sway Away had run two races, had two horrible trips and what looked to be insufficient earnings to make the Derby field.  He was one spot away from getting into the Run for the Roses but wound up excluded and will make his Triple Crown debut in Baltimore.

Much like Dance City, there are many elements of Sway Away’s trip in the Arkansas Derby that have to be highlighted.

As the field rounded the first turn this shot gives you a great perspective on the wide trip that Sway Away endured right from the outset.  He is angled out at least four paths off the rail here, just outside of Brethren, who earlier carried him out at the entry to the Clubhouse turn.  Wearing blinkers for the first time he was much sharper early and the natural speed everyone knew he had was much more on display.

You could probably fit a football field, if not seven horses, between Sway Away and the rail as the field approaches the half-mile pole. He was extremely wide the entire way down the backstretch as Valenzuela made no attempt to save ground whatsoever.  Still very keen with the blinkers added, he is ready to roll at any point in time.

Approaching the top of the stretch Sway Away has launched a four wide move and soon after this image he grabbed the lead.  The troublesome part of this trip is that the race was not unfolding in such a way where a premature move would be effective.  The pace was rather quick and the winner was almost certain to be a horse moving well in the stretch drive.

THE BOTTOM LINE: While the possibility still exists that Sway Away is a one-turn horse who will always struggle at a route of ground, he is worthy of another chance.  His Rebel was a nightmare from the start as he hit the gate, lost a tooth, was carried out on the first turn, then forced to rally into a pace-dominated race.  The Arkansas Derby did not go much better, leading you to believe Sway Away will never be seen at Oaklawn Park again!  He is another major contender and one with a big chance of knocking off Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.  Should a more patient rider like Joel Rosario, who this barn has used with success, get the call then he will be even more dangerous.

Part 2 of my Baltimore Bound series will focus on a couple more new shooters for the Preakness, as Flashpoint and King Congie will be the topic.  See you tomorrow!

Images courtesy of DRF and Horse Racing Nation

Derby Day Wrap-Up; Who’s Baltimore bound?

May 8, 2011

The 137th Kentucky Derby is in the books and there were a lot of “firsts” in this particular running.  It was the first win for Barry Irwin’s Team Valor, the first win for trainer H. Graham Motion, and the first win for jockey John Velazquez.  The particularly interesting element of the win is that both the trainer and jockey lost what were widely considered to be their best chances earlier in the week.  Wood Memorial winner Toby’s Corner was declared on Tuesday while Uncle Mo, the reigning 2YO champion was scratched Friday morning.  Perhaps Motion still knew what he had lurking in a beautiful chestnut colt by Leroidesanimaux.  Here are some general observations from Derby weekend and a peek at my Baltimore Bound series leading up to the Preakness in just 13 days.

1.) I have been as critical of Kent Desormeaux as any person out there.  He had a phenomenal weekend.  His rides on Victoria’s Wildcat and Diva Ash on Friday were perfect.  His ride on Aviate in Saturday’s Distaff Turf Mile was even better.  When on his game, Desormeaux is still as good as any rider out there.

2.) It took a couple of months but it seems like Bob Baffert has First Dude figured out.  He is now a handy pace stalker who has grit and determination.  What if Baffert had him in his barn last year?

3.) Of all the Kittens that Ken Ramsey held on to, do you think he wishes he could still have Banned?  He sold this colt at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky sale in 2009 and he’s now a G2 winner.

4.) Plum Pretty is a good example of what a trainer can accomplish when he alters course and gives his charge a bit of confidence.  She went to Sunland, scored a tremendous win, then showed up at Churchill a horse ready to explode.  Her Kentucky Oaks win was very strong and she’s now the division leader among 3YO fillies.

5.) With most of the racing world watching, jockey Rosie Napravnik gave St. John’s River a perfect ride in the Oaks.  Continuing to ride like that on the big stage will ensure Rosie is draped in roses in the future.

6.) With all due respect to Rosie, the connections of Bind need to change a few things up.  Either he needs to be cut back to sprints or he needs to be given a free rein early traveling two turns.  Twice in a row he’s fought with his rider and come up empty going a route of ground.

7.) Look out for Tom Proctor’s Snow Top Mountain when she returns to graded stakes company.  She was GI placed last year and has run two very strong races against allowance company to kick off her 2011 campaign.

8.) There’s a new leader in the Turf Sprint division (if there even is such a thing).  It’s Regally Ready.  Who knows how he’ll hold up to the rigors of a lengthy campaign, but at this point it’s him then everyone else.

9.) Bill Mott had a tremendous 2010 with Proviso and Aviate could be headed down a similar path.  She has a long way to go but tipped her hand as a serious turf distaffer yesterday.

10.) It was not a good weekend for Calvin Borel.  In fact, it was horrible.  His ride on Capt. Candyman Can was terrible.  Who knows whether it was a decision made by trainer Ian Wilkes or by Borel himself, but there was no reason to move Capt. Candyman Can at the 3/8ths pole of a fast-paced race where the frontrunners were retreating.  Anyone who doesn’t think Capt. Candyman Can was miles the best in that race must re-acquaint themselves with race watching/trip handicapping.

11.) I still don’t know why Little Mike was scratched from the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic but it certainly helped Get Stormy.  Ramon Dominguez made all the right decisions and sent him straight to the lead early before backing the pace down.  There aren’t many times where Get Stormy will get 9 furlongs, but isolated on an easy lead is one of them.

12.) A friend of mine has always said to me, “One of these days a synthetic horse is going to win the Derby.”  Little did we know it would be 2011 as the first “synthetic” horse got the job done.  How could you have known Animal Kingdom was capable of jumping up and winning the Derby?  His workout a week prior showed that he could handle dirt quite easily.  If you’re not watching programs like HRTV’s Pursuit of the Crown or reading Mike Welsch’s DRF workout reports before the Derby and Breeders’ Cup then start doing so, it’s extraordinarily helpful.

13.) Is Nehro the 2011 version of First Dude?  He has now run 2nd in Derbies in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Kentucky.  Still eligible for a N2L, he is sure to stay on the Derby trail but I hope his next stop is in Elmont, not Baltimore.

14.) Trainer Kathy Ritvo should be awfully proud of Mucho Macho Man.  Clearly an immature colt, he is steadily improving and I say with complete confidence that there’s a graded stakes race out there with his name on it.

15.) Shackleford has developed into a nice horse.  He set a comfortable pace in the Derby but showed the courage that we’ve now grown accustomed to seeing from him.

16.) Master of Hounds ran a race that surprised me.  I figured him to be a complete non-factor but he made a nice late move to finish fifth and is reportedly a possibility for the Belmont in five weeks.

17.) Pants on Fire was the 2nd choice in the Derby.  Further proof that a good story can prompt people to bet.

18.) I hope that your Derby day was all you hoped for and have good news for you.  At this particular moment we’re only 13 days, six hours and about ten minutes from Preakness 136.

As a part of the lead-up to the Preakness I’ll be writing an entry each of the next 13 days in my Baltimore Bound series.  For those of you that will be in attendance at the Preakness, let me know, and I’ll see you there.  Good racing luck!

Derby Day is upon us

May 7, 2011

It’s time for the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby and a huge afternoon at Churchill Downs awaits.  The weather forecast is iffy, but that’s hardly a surprise.  Here’s a look at my stakes analysis for the card:

Race 6, The Twin Spires Turf Sprint, Post Time: 1:19 EDT (5-7-2-8)

Defending Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner #5 CHAMBERLAIN BRIDGE is looking to rebound from a disappointing effort at Keeneland 3 weeks ago.  He was put right on the lead that afternoon on a boggy course and ultimately weakened in the final furlong.  At this stage of his career this veteran son of War Chant doesn’t have the speed to go coast to coast and trainer Bret Calhoun said shortly afterwards that he didn’t handle the yielding turf.  He’s now back on his favorite course and figures to get a phenomenal pace setup with two fleet-footed speedsters set to spar early.  You can easily spot this gelding in crunch time with his big white blinkers and he should be moving best of all late.  #7 EARLY RETURN ran a much better race in the Bonapaw back in December at Fair Grounds than it looks on paper.  He was shuffled back badly heading into the far turn and wound up wheeling out widest of all before commencing a rally.  There’s no shame in being outfinished by a horse like Due Date, who was this gelding’s entrymate that afternoon.  Like ‘Chamberlain, this old war horse is going to do his best running late and will benefit from the expected hot pace.  #2 REGALLY READY showed signs of being a serious turf sprinter last fall when he won his grass debut by over 7 lengths on this course.  He had a tremendous winter in Southern California as he rattled off consecutive stakes wins on the Hillside turf course.  He is going to be in the pressure cooker from the start with a serious speedster drawn on the outside, #8 BRIDGETOWN.  If those two can avoid a ridiculous speed duel then one or both could hang around for a major share. SELECTIONS: 5-7-2-8

Race 7, The Humana Distaff (G1), Post Time: 2:08 EDT (7-3-5-1)

It seems foolish to spend a great deal of money trying to beat #7 HILDA’S PASSION, who has rapidly become one of the best female sprinters in the country.  She manhandled five overmatched rivals in the Inside Information back in mid-March at Gulfstream and that win was preceded by a routinely easy score in the Hurricane Bertie one month earlier.  No horse in this race can match her early speed and that should lead to another frontrunning gambit under Javier Castellano.  Though trainer Todd Pletcher’s Florida shippers must always be handled with care, this gal has won on three different dirt tracks already and has handled adversity with devastating ease.  #3 EVENING JEWEL is moving back to dirt after a dull effort in the Madison last time out at Keeneland.  She has run two positive races on this track, including a heartbreaking nose defeat in the 2010 Kentucky Oaks.  The quicker the pace gets the better for this gal, but there’s no doubt that she has to improve in order to give the top pick a serious scare.  #5 SHOTGUN GULCH flew down the middle of the Polytrack to win the aforementioned Madison at Keeneland.  She is G1 placed on dirt already and should be moving well in the waning stages once again.  Jockey Garrett Gomez, who piloted her to the win in Lexington, is back aboard and he is the best rider in the country with off the pace types.  If ‘Hilda gets pushed at all early then this gal might find herself in position to reel them all in once again.  SELECTIONS: 7-3-5-1

Race 8, The Distaff Turf Mile (G2), Post Time: 2:59 EDT  (8-6-11-9)

#8 AVIATE is out to improve on a 3rd place finish in the Honey Fox at Gulfstream a couple of months ago.  Trainer Bill Mott entered her in the Jenny Wiley at Keeneland three weeks ago but scratched, presumably to avoid a heavy turf course that afternoon.  In her first North American outing she attempted to rally in a pace-dominated race on a course that was very fast.  Moving to a more lush course that figures to be playing fairly she rates a serious chance to rebound in a big way.  Mott has shown signs of breaking out of the winter doldrums which plagued him at Gulfstream as his top distaffer, Unrivaled Belle, narrowly missed in Friday’s La Troienne.  This Juddmonte homebred could help the rebound move along at a more rapid clip.  When #6 ARUNA won her North American debut last September at Saratoga she showed stakes caliber potential.  Trainer Graham Motion obviously felt that way as he entered her in the Pebbles, which she won easily, before trying a graded stakes event, the Mrs. Revere over this course.  She has been training like a lunatic in both South Florida and Maryland (going back to February) and should benefit from a positive pace setup this afternoon.  Jockey Ramon Dominguez won this race a year ago with Phola and seems to be on a very live mount once again.  When is the bubble going to burst for #11 NEVER RETREAT?  She just keeps putting up big efforts and has suddenly developed a great deal of tactical speed.  Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan should be able to keep her in a good stalking spot today, much like he did in her Jenny Wiley victory 21 days ago at Keeneland.  Any Pick 4 that’s missing this gal is one fraught with peril. SELECTIONS: 8-6-11-7

Race 9, The Churchill Downs (G2), Post Time: 3:41 PM EDT

After a lengthy trip to the sidelines, #6 CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN has come back with a vengeance.  After winning a soft stakes race at Tampa Bay Downs he came back in the Sir Shackleton on the Florida Derby undercard.  He is 5-5 at 7 panels and seems to have a remarkable amount of versatility.  It seems reasonable to think that a return to his prior running style of laying back to make one run will work well.  Trainer Ian Wilkes narrowly missed winning this race in 2010 with Warrior’s Reward and will be represented by a major player once again.  If you isolate the race #10 NOBLE’S PROMISE has run off of 80+ day layoffs you have to like what you see.  Those include his maiden win way back in Septembe 2009, a narrow miss in the Rebel last year and an impressive win in the JimmyV on Breeders’ Cup weekend.  His trainer, Ken McPeek, is on a tear right now as he’s hit at  37% clip over the last 30 days and his record with dirt starters returning off of 100-200 day breaks is tremendous (31%, $2.32 ROI).  This colt should be in a favorable spot from the outset.  #2 SMILING TIGER is one of the best sprinters in the country.  He has quickly restored the luster lost in a surprising defeat in the Palos Verdes earlier this year.  You have to be mildly concerned that he has somehow lost his gate speed in his last two with a couple of slow breaks but he finished quite strongly in the Count Fleet last time out and showed versatility in doing so.  The inside draw will be difficult as he is winless when breaking from the 1 or 2 post going back to his maiden win in 2009.  That being said, excluding him is quite dangerous.  SELECTIONS: 6-10-2-3

Race 10, The Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (G1), Post Time: 4:46 PM EDT

The scratch of #1 LITTLE MIKE had to thrill trainer Tom Bush as his charge, #7 GET STORMY, figures to be on the lead from the outset.  Whether he can stay 9 panels against such an accomplished field remains to be seen.  #5 PRINCE WILL I AM will deal with the opposite kind of distance issue as some are still unsure that 9 furlongs is enough for him.  He exits a poor effort in the Pan American (G3) where he was one-paced late after being given little help pace-wise.  His Jamaica victory last year at Belmont shows that 9 panels is enough for him as he unleashed a furious late kick that afternoon to blow by them all.  If jockey John Velazquez can keep him clear of trouble then he’ll be tough to hold off late at what should be a fair price.  #9 AL KHALI has been somewhat disappointing in his career but things could be on the verge of turning around.  He has run 3 of his best races in the last two years with Alan Garcia aboard, the pilot who will guide him today.  He also exits a narrow miss in a race where there was no pace whatsoever.  Those that see a defeat in an allowance race as an effort that keeps him from being a contender in a Grade I stake are ignoring the very strong effort he put forth that afternoon at Keeneland.  Even if Get Stormy procures an easy lead there’s going to be more pace in here then he got in Lexington and that’s enough to give him a big chance to win.  The aforementioned Get Stormy looked as if his best days were behind him but then Bush and jockey Javier Castellano gave him a chance to do what he has always done best.  In the Maker’s Mark Mile he made a clear early lead and kept on finding, pulling clear late to win by almost three lengths.  Castellano has landed elsewhere but Ramon Dominguez is on board and he is more than capable of nursing a frontrunner along through moderate fractions.  They’ll have to catch this guy to beat him.  SELECTIONS: 5-9-7-13

Race 11, The Kentucky Derby (G1), Post Time: 6:24 PM EDT

After losing two horses that were considered major contenders it’s difficult to find a horse to land on as a Derby pick.  However, #13 MUCHO MACHO MAN is a horse who I’ve gradually warmed up to in the time since he was last seen in New Orleans.  His 3rd place finish in the Louisiana Derby included a lost shoe and down the stretch it appeared as if he lacked that same punch we had grown to expect from him.  Trainer Kathy Ritvo immediately hatched a plan to have him fit off a 42 day break and it included long, steady workouts and consistent gallops.  It seems to have worked to perfection thus far as Mucho Macho Man was considered the picture of healthy by most on-track observers later in Derby week.  The question of running style is a legitimate one as he has never been able to rally from well off the pace and the early clip in here will be very strong.  While that is a concern, he also seems to be very handy and can be placed anywhere along the way.  If jockey Rajiv Maragh can rate with him and make one run he’ll be dangerous as a mid-range longshot.  #15 MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE would break one of the oldest Derby “rules” as the last horse to be blanketed in roses who didn’t run at two was Apollo in 1882.  This son of War Chant is from the top notch Bob Baffert barn, who has won three Derbies during his Hall of Fame career.  Whether the Santa Anita Derby was a particularly strong prep is up for debate but this guy showed some real gumption in that victory.  He rated comfortably after going to the lead in his prior start and continued to rally in the stretch drive after angling in while green at the eighth pole.  There are few horses in here who have moved forward in recent starts and if you’re going to gamble that a horse like this can move forward in this situation, Baffert’s the right guy to have in your corner.  #1 ARCHARCHARCH was on the verge of being the 3rd choice in here prior to drawing the inside post on Wednesday evening.  That really should not disqualify him from contention as the two rivals just to his outside have little early speed and that will help him get a good spot down the stretch for the first time.  The Arkansas Derby was the strongest prep on the Derby trail and this guy was very game in winning by a head.  He is plucky, versatile, and has push-button acceleration.  Those are the kinds of things you like in searching for a Derby horse.  SELECTIONS: 13-15-1-19

In the $0.50 Pick 4, let’s play: 6,7,8,11 with 2,3,6,10 with 5,7,9 with 1,3,8,13,15,19  TOTAL: 144

Best of luck with your wagers!

Keeneland and Oaklawn take center stage

April 16, 2011

By about 7:15 PM EDT today we will hopefully have a better idea of just who the main players will be in the Kentucky Derby, which will be run three weeks from today.  The Blue Grass at Keeneland today might not give a great indication as it will be run over a synthetic surface for the fifth time today.  However, the Arkansas Derby features The Factor, a speedy colt who many see as one of the two or three favorites in the Run For the Roses.  He exits a scintillating win in the Rebel where he was allowed to coast on an uncontested lead and pulled clear late.  Here are my selections for the stakes events at Aqueduct, Oaklawn, and Keeneland today:

DISTAFF HANDICAP (AQU R9): 5-3-2

SHAKERTOWN (KEE R6): 6-8-4

COMMONWEALTH (KEE R7): 2-4-1

JENNY WILEY (KEE R8): 12-10-4

BLUE GRASS (KEE R9): 11-1-4

INSTANT RACING (OP R8): 6-2-4

NORTHERN SPUR (OP R9): 1-4-3

ARKANSAS DERBY: 3-4-6

Good luck!  I’ll be back tomorrow night to recap the week that was and look forward to the final Derby prep, the Coolmore Lexington one week from today at Keeneland.

Fla Derby kicks off 35 day march to Kentucky

April 3, 2011

The Florida Derby (Race #10) is being run on a Sunday for the first time in its storied history and Gulfstream Park has assembled a terrific 12 race card.  Also included are three other graded stakes, the Swale as Race #3, the Appleton as Race #9, and the Skip Away as Race #9.  Let’s take a closer look at these graded stakes races along with the ungraded Sir Shackleton, a phenomenal overnight stake that features 3 graded stakes winners in an expected field of 8.

Race #3 – The Swale (G2) Post Time: 1:55 EDT

#6 TRAVELIN MAN looked to be the next superstar from the Todd Pletcher barn after cruising to a debut win back in January.  His ascent to the top of the 3YO sprint ranks was de-railed by Flashpoint in the Hutcheson and he’s now back to make amends for that failure as a heavy favorite.  Flashpoint hounded this colt from the start in the aforementioned Hutcheson but there is simply no horse in this field that can keep him honest early.  Look for him to take them wire-to-wire, and I’ll use Little Drama underneath as he should be wound a bit tighter in his 2nd start off a layoff.

Race #6 – The Sir Shackleton Post Time: 3:28 EDT

#8 CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN was the best 3YO sprinter in the land back in 2009 as he took the King’s Bishop at Saratoga via disqualification in a campaign where he won multiple graded stakes races.  A chip in his knee kept him sidelined in 2010 and trainer Ian Wilkes is focused on getting him back to top form slowly, hence a start in this overnight handicap race.  His 2011 debut came in the Super at Tampa Bay Downs a couple of months ago and it was a workmanlike victory as a heavy favorite.  He certainly gained from that outing and will be very tough in the stretch today.  #6 SAFE TRIP ran a very strong race last time out to get the win after a sluggish beginning.  He has clearly improved for trainer Chad Brown after previously showing some potential.  Tactically he has an edge on a horse like ‘Candyman as he can stay a bit closer early and this is a great spot for him to be tested for class.  I’m going to use both in multi-race plays and box them in the exacta along with playing trifectas with Coffee Boy, Regal Ransom, Ibboyee, Our Edge, and Nathan’s H Q.

Race #8 – The Appleton (G3) Post Time: 4:33 EDT

Where did the great race #7 SUCCESSFUL MISSION ran last time out come from?  He was absolutely sensational from start to finish as he won a pace battle and hung around to win the war.  He has been successful in the past from off the pace, so if #1 LITTLE MIKE and #5 COMMANDEERED mix it up early this guy can make a move from a few lengths back.  #2 CHEROKEE ARTIST finished 2nd to Successful Mission in his last start and now goes 3rd off a layoff for trainer Graham Motion and jockey Ramon Dominguez.  He had no visible excuse in his latest outing but should be set for a big effort today given the expected pace scenario.  I’ll bet Cherokee Artist to win if he is at or around his morning line of 8-1 and play exacta boxes with Little Mike, Successful Mission and Riviera Cocktail.

Race #9 – The Skip Away (G3) Post Time: 5:06 PM EDT

It’s never fun to take the favorite in a bulky field like this but #4 COLIZEO looks like he’s going to be very tough in this field.  He stalked a solid pace in the Challenger last time out at Tampa Bay Downs before driving clear leaving the far turn.  Jockey Ramon Dominguez, who rode him to victory last fall at Belmont, is back aboard and he should have this guy close from the start.  #5 RON THE GREEK is an interesting horse to me as trainer Tom Albertrani has given him some time since he ran a dull race in the Donn two months ago.  He was a tad rushed to get into that race and ultimately proved that he is not Grade I caliber, something that matters not when dealing with a Grade 3 race.  There’s a good bit of speed in here and that could play into this guy’s hands, especially going 9.5 furlongs.  I’m going to play a main Colizeo-Ron the Greek exacta, reverse it for a bit less then play a $0.10 Super 4,5 with ALL with 4,5 with ALL (Total: $14.40)

Race #10 – The Florida Derby (G1) Post Time: 5:42 PM EDT

The complexion of this race changed a bit when trainer Rick Dutrow, Jr. opted to start #8 FLASHPOINT here rather than the Swale on the undercard.  Flashpoint is a very talented colt who has shown tremendous sprint speed in a couple of starts in NY and here at Gulfstream Park.  He has drawn the outside post and will likely clear the field going to the backstretch.  Whether jockey Cornelio Velasquez can get him to relax and negotiate a half-mile that’s slow enough to help him stay the course remains to be seen.

My pick is #7 DIALED IN.  He’s another who has shown plenty of ability and I am not among those who jumped off the bandwagon after he failed in a N2X allowance race last month vs. older horses.  That prep was truly ideal as he was forced to race a bit closer to a sluggish pace before rallying down the lane.  He came up short to a solid older stablemate and lost nothing in defeat.  Today he’s back in against 3YOs and figures to get a tremendous pace setup thanks to the aforementioned Flashpoint as well as #1 SOLDAT, #2 TO HONOR AND SERVE, #3 ARCH TRAVELER, and #5 SHACKLEFORD, all of whom have some early zip.  Provided jockey Julien Leparoux can keep him interested early, just like he did in his last start, this colt will make serious noise in the lane.

To Honor and Serve is a candidate to rebound in here off of a poor effort in the Fountain of Youth as his dull run epitomized the meet trainer Bill Mott has had at Gulfstream.  This guy showed that he’s a good horse in consecutive graded stakes wins last November at Aqueduct and he probably needed a race the last time he went to the post.  I’m going to include him in my plays in the hopes that he will turn things around.

All-Stakes Pick 3 (Races 8-10): 2,7 with 4,5 with 1,2,7,8 (TOTAL: $16)

$0.50 Pick 5: 1,2,7 with 4,5 with 1,2,7,8 with 1,7,11 with 10 (TOTAL: $36)

$0.50 Pick 4: 4,5,10 with 1,2,7,8 with 1,7,11 with 6,8,11 (TOTAL: $54)

Best of luck with the Florida Derby day program at Gulfstream!  I’ll be back during the week in advance of Wood Memorial day at the Big A, the annual highlight of the spring meet.  Click here for my Sunday analysis for the 9 race card at Aqueduct.