Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Who Will Emerge Unscathed from the Kentucky Derby's Organized Chaos?

[Editor's Note: Sports Media America proudly presents this guest column by Los Angeles-based correspondent Steve Brady. Steve's become a savvy horse player in the recent era, and his stylish, catchy prose not only zeros in on the whys and wherefores of winning thoroughbreds but also makes the newbie horse-racing fan feel welcome at the track. So read and learn. But, as always, don't bet the farm. The running of the 132d Kentucky Derby takes place on Saturday, May 6; post time is 6 p.m. EST. NBC television will broadcast the race, with coverage beginning at 5 p.m. EST.]

The Run for the Roses is less than two weeks away, and it's time to "get busy choos'n, or get busy los'n."

I've been a horse-racing fan for only a short time. I first went to Hollywood Park two years ago, to bet on a "sure thing" named Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont, the final leg of the Triple Crown. I figured it was free money. The sports media were a virtual Greek chorus proclaiming his certain victory. Ol' Smarty went off at about 1-5, and was surprised by a horse with long odds and a rather undignified name: Birdstone. I learned a brutal lesson that day—blowing not only my own roll, but also a few of the C-notes my friends had put in my care. Since then, I have continued to study the game, and feel compelled to pass along my observations. Just remember: The no-sure-thing rule still applies.

I've been in love with Brother Derek (left, with Alex Solis up, at Hollywood Park) since I picked him to win the Hollywood Futurity in mid-December. He beat Your Tent or Mine by a length in that race, and current Derby hopeful Bob and John by 5. Since then, he's done nothing but impress. Next race out, he beat Merv Griffin's early Derby favorite Stevie Wonderboy by a length and a half in a wire-to-wire victory. (Merv's horse had previously crushed Brother Derek as a two-year-old in the Breeders Cup Juvenile; since then, Derek's filled out and his voice has changed.) Derek dominated the Grade 2 Santa Catalina by a length and three-quarters. He put an exclamation point on it by cruising to an easy win in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

(Note: Stevie Wonderboy required surgery after the San Rafael, and is now off the Derby trail.)

Derek has been steadily clicking off 100+ Beyer speed figures in his last four races, and, according to future Hall of Fame jockey Solis, he's had plenty of gas left in the tank each time. (Famed Washington Post horse-racing writer Andrew Beyer created his speed figure system to help handicappers evaluate a horse’s performance, taking into consideration the competition as well as the various lengths, surfaces and conditions of the race. Figures of 100 or above are expected from top-level thoroughbreds.) Derek's 1:48 for a mile-and-an-eighth is faster than anything his Derby competitors have done—including Sinister Minister's freakish Blue Grass romp at Keeneland.

Meanwhile, I must acknowledge my own "West Coast bias." It seems justifiable payback for a craven sports media that refuses to acknowledge anything happening outside a 50-mile radius of I-95. I love the thought of a Cal-bred taking the roses back to the land of the Rose Bowl. It's wonderfully impertinent.

Still, I am a handicapper. And it would just kill me to obediently pick the favorite. There are some very scary challengers for this first leg of the Triple Crown, and with its unruly crowd of entrants and its unfamiliar distance, this race is notoriously rough on top seeds. Why should Brother Derek be an exception to the rule that "favorites don't win the Derby"?

The most obvious threat is Lawyer Ron (pictured left, with John McKee up, at Louisiana Downs). Six (count 'em—6!) straight victories against some pretty rugged competition. The way he won the Arkansas Derby is a telling example. It was as if his strategy was to lay off the pace and close it out at the end, but he just got too bored jogging around with the slowpokes, and decided to take off on his own. His early-middle move was so powerful and impressive, that it would make a believer out of anyone. In fact, the horses he beat might be better than we think. He just made 'em look like circus ponies.

Then there's Barbaro (right, Edgar Prado up). Five races; five wins. The last three in graded stakes competition. His trainer, Michael Matz, is a former Olympic show jumper, and he's using an unprecedented "third way" to prep his horse. You might think he's damn near coddling his trainee, but Matz learned through his Olympic experience that the one thing you don't want is a horse that doesn't have any horse left when it counts. Barbaro's first three races were soft, cushiony routes on turf; and he's allowed plenty of vacation time between preps. If he continues to be successful, Matz may alter Triple Crown training methods for years to come. It could be either the Fosbury Flop of thoroughbred racing, or otherwise merely a blip on the radar screen. We will know before the sun goes down on May 6.

The previously mentioned Bob and John is another Cali runner—although he was bred in Kentucky. His figures aren't quite as impressive as some of these others, but he's had plenty of graded stakes experience (landing in the trifecta in his last eight), and you may dismiss a Bob Baffert-trained colt at your own risk. Still, he's got only one plus-100 Beyer fig. Unless he's going to show us something brand new, I don't think he'll be battling at the wire. Like some others here, his best hope is that the early pace is so grueling, that the favorites have nothing left in the final furlong.

Introducing this next colt, I feel a little like a gushing James Lipton from Inside the Actor's Studio: "Sinister Minister, you had already earned a respectable career, garnering praise from many in the industry since you first worked with Mr. Bob Baffert on the West Coast. But then there came [pause]…a little race [fawning smirk]…called [reverent bow]…the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. You may remember that you were ridden in that race by a gentleman by the name of [another fawning smirk]…Garrett Gomez. You bolted out of the gate and at the first call, you were leading by two lengths; by the second, you were ahead a [more smirking] mere 7. You held onto that lead for another quarter, and then decided to extend the lead to 8, until you finally tacked on an additional 4-3/4 lengths when you crossed the finish line. You took the race wire to wire, and gained national attention. It was a performance of astounding depth and passion!! And now, Mr. Sinister Minister, I'd like to ask you a list of questions first posed by Monsieur Bernard Pivot on his series, 'Bouillon de Culture…' "

All kidding aside, Sinister Minister (left, with Garrett Gomez up, at Keeneland) beat a legitimate field by 12-and-a-half lengths. How can a race like that possibly be dismissed? He earned a 116 Beyer! Speed bias, my ass! If he gets a decent outside draw—Who knows? He could do it again. Still and all, it should be pointed out that his time for 1-1/8 mile was four-fifths of a second slower than Brother Derek's time in the Santa Anita. And Keeneland is supposed to be the track for speedsters. This fact has me leaning back towards Derek.

I was always aware of the history of horse-racing in the rolling hills of my home state of Maryland. Pimlico Racetrack in Baltimore is home to the second leg of the Triple Crown, and Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall were stars for the Baltimore Colts (a pro football team whose name was inspired by the region’s horse industry), before that organization slithered off to Indianapolis in the dead of night in 1984. Jack Germond, the political columnist for the Baltimore Sun, always liked to mention the ponies between debating points on The McLaughlin Group. In recent years, I had heard stories of a death knell to Maryland racing. Evidently, the state legislature is not promoting the game the way they used to, perhaps not approving of the mindset of Maryland's track owners—following the misguided notion that they are in the business of booking comedians and installing one-armed bandits, and not in showcasing absolutely gorgeous animals that run around in circles at breakneck speed.

That all said, I have some minor sentiment for Sweetnorthernsaint. He's a Maryland-bred gelding who's certainly shown speed and versatility. His last four races, he posted plus-100 Beyers, and in the most recent of those—a dominant win in the Illinois Derby—he earned a monster 109 Beyer, second only to the Minister's freak show at Keeneland. The Saint has certainly dominated at Laurel, but his third-place finish at Aqueduct in the Gotham raises a skeptic's eyebrow, particularly when those Benjamins are on the line. Aaaah, hell, I just can't root for him. He's a gelding. He can pursue a long, profitable career for years to come, while the studly Derek and Ron and Barbaro and the Minister retire upstate to replenish the nation's bloodlines for the 2010 Derby.

Those are the major players in my eyes. I'll just grant a speedy analysis to a few of the remainders, zipping past them the way Barbaro and Lawyer Ron will at the 1/4 pole. Any of the rest of these will have a chance only if the speed battle up front is so brutal that the race breaks down and becomes wide open.

If that scenario does happen, my first choice to pick up the pieces is Point Determined (left). He showed tenacity in the Santa Anita Derby against Brother Derek. He lost ground, then gained ground, then lost a little, then gained a little more at the finish. Who knows what might have happened with another 1/8-mile to go. (Point Determined is one of three Baffert-trained horses in the Derby.)

A.P. Warrior was in that same race with Derek and Determined. He also hung in there, but he might not be able to go the extra furlong.

Private Vow is a good, solid horse. He's also spent a lot of time looking at Lawyer Ron's rear end. Yes, yes… perhaps he'll have a different result at the longer distance. We can say that about a lot of the guys in here. If it happens, it'll surprise a lot of people—while a comparatively few others will make a very sweet return on their investment.

The latest word is that Victor Espinoza will be riding Sinister Minister in the Derby, as the aforementioned Gomez has opted to take the mount on Bob and John. It's a very surprising choice, and certainly raises questions about my predictions. Still, Espinoza's a great rider, and for whomever takes the mount, the game plan won't be hard to remember: Break clean, take an early lead, and see how fast and far the Minister can go.

I highly recommend this Derby preview site: kentuckyderby.com. It's amazingly informative. Look all the way over to the upper right side. Click "Enlarge Video" and you'll see a whole list of key Derby prep races. You can scroll down and watch any of them. It's streaming, so you don't have to download anything.

If you watch the California Derby on March 11, I think you'll see that Sinister Minister (#1) had a very unusual race, which can be excused. He ran blistering quarters, and then he totally spazzed out at the top of the stretch. He bumped into the rail a couple of times for no apparent reason (perhaps he got spooked by shadows on the ground; perhaps he had trouble changing leads???), to the point where he practically stopped, allowing Cause to Believe to pass him in the stretch. Just rewind the part right after he makes the turn. Cause to Believe did not win that race, Sinister Minister handed it to him.

Then check out Minister's ride in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 15. A total longshot, he just blows away the field. I guess it's possible that the Blue Grass was a fluke and that he has no chance in the Derby, but I think he just had something go wacky in the California.

Anything can happen on May 6. Brother Derek has never faced a crowd anywhere near this big, and he could easily get intimidated. The only race he ever ran with more than 10 horses, he came in 4th. Still, he's matured since then, and going with the raw numbers, I don't see a way around him. Nevertheless, those Minister odds could be tempting. One early line suggested they would be around 20-1. (Right now, Brother Derek’s are projected at 4-1.)

With 20 horses in the Derby field—and given Churchill Downs' improvised gate set-up—if either of those two gets a post between 13 and 16, that's who I'm going with. I may even go with the Derek/Minister "speedball" boxed exacta.

Predicted Finish:

1. Brother Derek
2. Sinister Minister
3. Barbaro

Steve Brady is a fresh new voice in the horse-racing industry. He can be reached at stevebrady@hotmail.com.


Anonymous said...

Steve, just want to say I found your article highly informative to this new reader and deftly written. I hope we all see more of your work in the near future!

Anonymous said...

steve, hope your predictions come true.

Anonymous said...

I'm new to the sport and found this article to be great: informative, thorough and theredaed with a wonderful sense of humor. Thanks, Steve, you rock!

Anonymous said...

Steve - this was awesome. Will you marry me? ;)