Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Race Shape and History Collide in 133d Kentucky Derby

[Editor’s note: SMA’s Los Angeles correspondent and ace handicapper Steve Brady returns for an in-depth look at this year’s Run for the Roses. Steve is a devotee of Pace Pals, a handicapping system using cuddly cartoon figures—Rabbit, Fox, Hound and Turtle—that offers bettors a smart, speedy and useful method for sizing up the pace scenario of a race. Steve first described how to use Pace Pals in last year’s SMA column assessing the Belmont Stakes. The 2007 Kentucky Derby is May 5 at Louisville’s Churchill Downs. Race coverage begins on NBC Television at 5 p.m. ET. Post time is 6:04 p.m. ET. Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, will attend the Derby as part of a six-day trip to the U. S. that includes visits to Virginia and Washington, D.C.]

In 2006 Barbaro dispelled the myth that no horse could win the Derby off a five-week layoff. This year, Street Sense and Curlin are confronting some powerful history when it comes to how contenders are handled as two-year-olds.

Despite its reputation as a group “lacking speed,” more than half of the 20 entrants like to run towards the front of the pack. By my count there are eight Rabbits, four Foxes, five Hounds, and three full-on Turtles. Following are descriptions of the running styles of the entrants, listed in order by post position:

1. Sedgefield (trained by Darrin Miller) is a Rabbit with a ‘tude. Look at the comments in his past performances. “Dueled,” “bumped,” “brushed”—Is he running in horse races or playing hockey? So far, he’s only raced over turf or Polytrack; the Derby will be his first traditional dirt course. With Rafi Bejarano on Dominican, Julien Leparoux (one of the hottest young talents in racing) takes the mount for the first time. Uncertainties make him a longshot.

2. Curlin has a short but very impressive resume. This Steve Asmussen trainee is undefeated in three races, and in each one he showed his versatility and power. He wired a maiden race by 12-and-a-half lengths his first time out at Gulfstream Park at a very tricky seven furlongs. He then moved up in class and stretched out to a mile-and-sixteenth and stormed to a five-and-a-half-length victory in the G-3 Rebel at Oaklawn Park. He then followed that with a 10-and-a-half-length victory in the G-2 Arkansas Derby. He’ll be the morning line favorite at about 3-1, but his price will drift up when the public thinks about the history he’s battling. It’s been 125 years (Apollo in 1882) since a horse that never raced as a two-year-old won the Derby! He’s a good horse, but it’ll be a different story when he realizes he’s not alone at the one-eighth pole. He’s shaping up as a Fox and a bet-against.

3. Zanjero (another Asmussen contender) has employed different tactics over his eight career starts. In the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, he stayed close to the pace—but that was on Polytrack. His record over dirt tracks seems to show more Turtle-like habits. He’s come close in some big races, but he would need to step up big to grab all the marbles in the Derby.

4. Storm in May is a William Kaplan entry. His running style is a little hard to pin down. In his turf races, he’s run as a Rabbit, but on dirt, he seems to run more as a Hound. In the Arkansas Derby, he made a nice middle move, but in the end he was decimated (like the rest of the field) by Curlin. He evidently had an unimpressive workout. Plus, in a case of redefining the term "handicapped access," it turns out that Storm in May is blind in his right eye.

5. Imawildandcrazyguy (also trained by Kaplan) is a Turtle. The comments lines in his PPs don’t inspire much confidence: “mild rally,” “slow start,” “no final kick,” “gave way,” “awkwardly,” “veered into foe,” “swerved stretch.” Is he ready to enter the Kentucky Derby or a rehab facility with Lindsay Lohan? He breezed three furlongs on Wednesday just to stretch the ol’ muscles. The turtle thing gives him a chance to finish in the top 10.

6. Cowtown Cat (the first of five Todd Pletcher entrants) is a Rabox hybrid (part Rabbit/part Fox). He has won from off the pace, but in his last (G-1 Illinois Derby) he wired the field of nine, earning a 98 Beyer in the process. He’ll have a tough time using that game plan on Saturday.

7. Street Sense is the standout of his generation. He won the G-1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (for two-year olds) in November with an impressive 108 Beyer figure, topping several of the leading candidates for the Derby. That might sound like a good thing, but it’s where the history comes in. No winner of the BC Juve has ever gone on to win the Derby. In fact, the Derby record is poor for horses that have even run in the BC Juve. Still, it is hard to overlook Street Sense’s accomplishments, and he did win the BC riding the rail on this same Churchill Downs track. He followed the BC win with a gutsy performance in the G-3 Tampa Derby, edging out Any Given Saturday for the win (see photo, above). He then lost a close call to Dominican in the G-1 Bluegrass Stakes over the Polytrack at Keeneland. That’s a far cry from the Churchill dirt, and it still sets him up well for the Derby. He’ll be stalking the pace and finishing like the Hound he is. He’ll be 4-1 on the morning line, but when the bell goes off he’ll be the favorite. If it weren’t for the history books, I’d pick him first, but history’s a heavy thing. I’m picking him to come in second.

8. Hard Spun (like Curlin) has not faced any of the top-level contenders in this race. He did break a 100 Beyer in the Lane’s End in late March. His dad is Danzig, and his granddad is Northern Dancer, so he’s got some real horseblood running through him, and he had an impressive workout on Wednesday. Still, he might have a tough time dealing with all the other frontrunners in this race. It’s not easy to be a Rabbit in the Kentucky Derby.

9. Liquidity is one of two Doug O’Neill contenders. He’s another Rabox. Frankly, he was a little more impressive earlier in his career. He has the earnings to go to the Derby, but unless he’s able to revive his teenage vigor, he’ll be looking at the same view for the entire mile-and-a-quarter.

10. Teuflesberg is on the bubble. Still, as one of the key Rabbits, he could play a big factor in keeping the pace honest up front.

11. Bwana Bull has, as of this writing, no rider assigned to him. I don’t know why. (Does Russell Baze have golf plans this weekend?) The horse came in fifth in an unspectacular Santa Anita Derby. He’s got one thing going for him: he’s a Hound. But that alone is not really enough to rate a trip to Kentucky. If the race breaks down, maybe he lands in the superfecta.

12. Nobiz Like Showbiz is not on my ticket, and I will probably live to regret it. He’s a baaaaad muther—hush your mouth!! But I can’t pick everyone who looks good, can I? And he’s a Rabbit, isn’t he? And I’m picking against early speed, right? But, yes, he has faced tough competition and come out on top. Gawd, as I write this I’m thinking I’ve got to start adding him to my tickets. (You have no idea how much pressure I’m under!!)

13. Sam P. is another Pletcher. He runs like a Fox, but to me, it looks like he’s just a failed Rabbit. I mean, if you’re trying to get the lead, and you end up running second, does that make you a Fox or a lame-ass Rabbit? In this case, I pick the latter, and my money goes elsewhere. Yes, I understand that he beat Chelokee and Wham in an allowance race at Churchill Downs, but this is a much tougher (and much larger) group.

14. Scat Daddy is yet another of the five (count ’em, 5) Todd Pletcher hopefuls, and another of the Raboxes. For the most part, he stays within one or two lengths of the lead, and then goes in for the kill. In the G-1 Champagne Stakes in Belmont, he laid in wait in seventh place before closing the deal, but that was a tight pack and still only a few lengths off the lead. He doesn’t yet have a 100 Beyer, but he’s consistently in the 90s, and he could move up after five weeks of rest.

15. Tiago’s connections are hoping he’s a carbon copy of his half brother (Giacomo) who shocked the world with a longshot Derby victory two years ago. Same owner, same trainer, same Hall of Fame jockey, same hard-charging closing style. It’s ridiculous to think that lightning could strike twice. Except he is a Turtle, and the word on the street is that there’s still more horse under the hood. He’s in my trifecta.

16. Circular Quay (pronounced “key”) is another Pletcher. He plays the role of Turtle to the hilt. Except for the ill-advised strong performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juve (jinxes are unforgiving), he looks like a strong Derby contender. He’ll have the advantage of closing strong, like he has every other race of his career.

17. Stormello is a complete wild card. He’s a Rabbit of the first order. His breeder/owner/trainer Bill Currin must be trying to rack up frequent-flyer miles on this horse, ‘cuz he keeps sending him cross-country to run in ill-advised races. Kent Desormeaux is vocally excited about this prospect, and that alone makes me think he has a chance. Kent knows how to squeeze every bit of gas out of the tank. Still, it’s tough to wire a Derby field.

18. Any Given Saturday (Pletcher #5) is my kind of Fox. He’s also my pick for the Derby. His off-the-pace running style will allow him to stay out of traffic problems and also stay within striking range of a moderate pace. Plus, he’s got two Beyers of 100 or above. I think the shape of the race will allow him to turn the tables on his adversaries. Meanwhile, while he’s not carrying any of the historical baggage of Curlin or Street Sense, he is carrying the sharpest jockey in the nation: Garret Gomez. I expect him to go off at no less than 10-1.

19. Dominican is coming off a win in the Bluegrass. He rated a few spots behind the leader and kicked past the leaders in the final furlong. Trained by Darrin Miller, he’s sort of a soft Fox, and that’s not a bad running style for this race. The conventional wisdom is to throw out the Polytrack preps. Maybe, but he put in a beautiful breeze at Churchill on Sunday, and he might be for real.

20. Great Hunter is the second O’Neill trainee. He’s a Hound, which is to his advantage here. He also got totally screwed in the Bluegrass. He was cut off while he was making his move in the stretch. I don’t see how a foul was not called in that race. Still, he was in an iffy position at that point. He’s not the best horse in the race, but if he steps up and gets lucky, he could make a nice showing.

The Picks:

1. Any Given Saturday
2. Street Sense
3. Tiago
4. Circular Quay

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