Thursday, May 5, 2011

Kentucky Derby Preview Part I: The Pretenders

The field has been entered, the post positions drawn, the jockeys assigned, and the horses have had their final workouts. Yes that's right, it's time to break down the field for the 2011 Kentucky Derby.

Here's the refrain you're going to hear over, and over, and over again this year: this Derby is wide open. And there's a fair amount of truth to that assessment. No horse ran a Gowanus Speed Figure (GSF) over 100 in a prep race. All the favorites in the final Derby preps lost. Everyone's favorite, Uncle Mo, ran horribly in his final race. While there's a pretty clear favorite for the race (Dialed In), everyone thinks that pretty much anyone can win it.

We see their point but respectfully disagree. Of the 20 horses entered, several don't belong at all (yes, I know we said that about Mine That Bird too), several seem to be out of their element, and a few others aren't going to love the shape of the race. We do think that after that bottom sector of horses it's pretty wide open, but from a group of 8 horses, not all 20.

Programming note: today we're running our preview and analysis of the horses we think are the Derby Pretenders. Tomorrow morning we'll take a brief interlude to look at the other races being run on Derby Day, then tomorrow afternoon we'll post the rest of our Derby analysis, including our pick. This should get everyone set for their Derby parties and Pick Four bets.

Enough chatter. Let's get to the countdown.

Lacks the Class

20. Watch Me Go. There were 364 horses nominated to the Triple Crown this year, 20 of which were nominated by uber-trainer Todd Pletcher. Pletcher's cast of 20 includes horses everyone knew would be contenders like Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty. It includes some promising horses that didn't quite pan out, like Brethren and Sensational Slam. It also includes horses that had won nothing more than a maiden race and would be hard-pressed to come anywhere near a Triple Crown race, like Cal Nation and Achemenes. He even nominated Imhotep, who hasn't run a race yet. Suffice to say that if you were a Pletcher 3 year old that wasn't nominated to the Triple Crown, the stable did not think much of you.

What does this digression have to do with Watch Me Go? Well, after upsetting the Tampa Bay Derby at 43-1, this obscurely bred colt ran in the Illinois Derby, where he lost by 17 lengths to Joe Vann, a Pletcher horse that wasn't nominated for the Triple Crown. So I ask you: if this guy can't come within a zip code of a horse Todd Pletcher thinks shouldn't be within a mile of the Kentucky Derby, why should we believe he'll be competitive against 19 horses actually in the Derby?

19. Twice the Appeal. We learned our lesson in 2009 about doubting horses that come out of the Sunland Derby. But at least Mine That Bird had won a graded stakes before going to New Mexico and was bred for the distance. This guy's by fleet sprinter Successful Appeal, broken his maiden in a claiming race, and was spotted well to get graded takes earnings to get into the Derby. Given the horse he struggled to beat in the Sunland Derby (Astrology) was just thrashed in the Jerome, we're not sanguine about his chances, even with Calvin Borel aboard.

18. Decisive Moment. The most interesting thing about this guy is that his owner is Just For Fun Stable, which run by some guy named Ruben Sierra. It would be awesome if it were the ex-Yankee slugger; sadly, it appears to just be a breeder in Florida.

You're Running on the Wrong Surface

17. Twinspired. We've now had 4 years to see how horses emerge from synthetic preps to come into the Derby. What have been the results?
  • 2007: Street Sense runs 2nd in the Bluegrass and wins the Derby, but it was clear to all from the BC Juvenile and Tampa Bay Derby that he was fit as a fiddle. Winner Dominican and close-up finishers Zanjero, Great Hunter and Teufelsberg do nothing in the Derby.
  • 2008: SA Derby winner Colonel John does nothing in the Derby, neither do Monba, Cowboy Cal and Visionaire, the 1-2-5 finishers in the Bluegrass, nor Adriano, who won the Spiral.
  • 2009: Bluegrass 1-2 finishers General Quarters and Hold Me Back are up the track in the Derby; SA Derby winner Pioneerofthenile runs a distant second while runner up Chocolate Candy does nothing.
  • 2010: Bluegrass winner Stately Victor is up the track while runner up Paddy O'Prado runs a decent 3rd in the slop. Sidney's Candy wins the SA Derby but runs horribly in Kentucky, as does 3rd place finisher Lookin at Lucky, albeit with a horrible trip in Kentucky.
So none of the winners of the 8 prep races have won the Derby, and only one (Pioneerofthenile) ran in the money. Others that ran a useful prep have done better, as Street Sense won and Paddy O'Prado was a decent third, and Lookin at Lucky was as hard luck a 6th as you'll ever see.

Can we draw a conclusion from this? Sure. Street Sense really doesn't apply because everyone knew he was a beast on the dirt and his trainer just wanted to use the Bluegrass as a prep. The other three horses, though, all did well because they ran in the slop. And it's not odd for a turf horse to do well in the slop, and it wouldn't be a surprise if synthetic giants did well in the slop as well.

Which brings us back to the stupidly named Twinspired. This guy lost his only dirt start by only 11 1/2 lengths, flopped on the turf, but seems to be at home on the plastic. Sort of. He's only in because he lost a photo in the Bluegrass (in which he was 24-1) and it's his only start where he looked like a horse that belonged in a graded stakes race. He'll be a longshot on Saturday for a reason. Unless it rains.

16. Brilliant Speed. The horse that beat Twinspired by a nose, his dirt starts were even worse, as he ran GSF's of 40 and 32 while losing by a combined 40 1/4 lenghths. He's made himself useful on the grass and was a bit of a surprise in the Bluegrass, but probably should be running in the turf stakes on Friday afternoon.

15. Derby Kitten. Drew into the field at the last moment because Toby's Corner came down with an injury, this is a horse who's run a lot and never made a dent on the dirt. In his first 8 starts, he ran on the turf seven times, only finally breaking his maiden when he was dropped to a claiming race. He ran decent seconds in some overnight turf stakes in Florida, which prompted his connections to ship him to the Lexington, where he pulled off the upset and suddenly his connections became interested in the Derby. They should have been interested in the Hill Prince, as there is zero in this horse's pedigree, ability, or prior start on the dirt to indicate that he can be competitive here.

14. Animal Kingdom. While he's never been out of the exacta in four starts, his only dirt start was nothing to be proud of (an off the turf maiden race that was painfully slow), and was followed by 3 decent turf and synthetic stats. He's bred up and down as a grass horse, and his trainer, Graham Motion, has exhibited zero enthusiasm about running him. Which isn't surprising, because we can't muster much enthusiasm about seeing him run either.

13. Master of Hounds. It's such a wide-open year, why not take a shot with a European, right? Well sure, except this one isn't any good. It took him 4 starts to break his maiden on the grass, then he ran credibly in a Grade 1 in England last October, before flopping in the BC Juvy Turf. Aidan O'Brien started his year in Dubai's "Derby prep", where this colt ran a close second...wait for it...on a synthetic truck. Now he's coming to Kentucky. So we've got another horse bred up and down for turf who seems to be just taking a stab. Given that we've never seen a horse that's actually bred for the dirt ship from across the pond and do anything in the Derby, why should we just a horse that has never won above the maiden level and has never seen a dirt track?

Speed, Speed, Speed

12. Shackleford. It's unclear whether this horse is named after a quaint town in Surrey, England or a seafood and sushi restaurant in the middle of Virginia. Either way, he's here only because he was one of only two horses that decided to run when the gates opened in the Florida Derby, allowing him to hang on for second and earn enough graded stakes money to qualify for the Derby. This guy has "cheap speed" written all over him.

11. Comma to the Top. This horse would be an absolute hoot to own. He's run 13 times so far, has always been healthy, and is a front runner with a little more staying power than his breeding suggests, and will likely be knocking around in good sprint and mile races for a while. That said, he's a pretty intractable front-runner that carves out fast fractions and slows down considerably when the distance meter hits a mile. In fact, he's pretty clearly his the "stop" button in the stretch of his last two races. His connections once recognized this, saying before the Santa Anita Derby that he wasn't on the trail for the Kentucky Derby. They changed their mind after he was gasping for air at the end of the SA Derby and finished second. We haven't.

10. Soldat. Originally thought to be a turf horse, he ran a huge race in the slop at Gulfstream in January, followed by a strong win in the Fountain of Youth when he had his way on the lead. When he didn't make the lead in the Florida Derby, he was nowhere to be found, and his trainer noted that the horse didn't like getting mud kicked in his face. So chances are, to the front he'll go. Where he'll likely get fried and fade.

9. Pants on Fire. The one speed horse that we could see sticking around late if he gets a good trip. This guy won the Louisiana Derby last out in front-running fashion with a couple of caveats: the favorite threw a shoe and didn't run well, and the pace he set was fairly moderate. That said, he held of closing Nehro through the long Fairgrounds stretch and ran a new GSF top in the race. But we think this guy has "bounce" written all over him, and the presence of multiple other speed horses won't help his chances. And the Louisiana Derby was the only race (other than his maiden over a sloppy track) where he didn't fade late. There's a chance this guy has taken a step forward to the next level, but we're not buying it for now, and think he's out of the picture when the serious running begins.

Coming up tomorrow: the contenders, plus a look at the Derby undercard.

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