How’s this for a coincidence? Both the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby winning trainers omni-ed (finished first and third) in their races, Larry Jones with Lovely Maria and I’m a Chatterbox on Friday, Bob Baffert with American Pharoah and Dortmund on Saturday. And what a story it would have been had 52-year-old jockey Gary Stevens, second in the Derby with Firing Line, been Oaks-winning 56-year-old rider Kerwin Clark’s counterpart.
Sometimes the angle on both classics is upset and surprise; this year it was about being at the top of your game. Form held, in that the Kentucky Oaks winner, yet again, passed through the Fair Grounds. And in that the Kentucky Derby winner was the post-time favorite for the third year running. The Oaks win was the third for Jones since 2008, all with fillies owned by Brereton Jones. The Derby win was the fourth for Baffert, and for an owner, Ahmed Zayat, with a string of near-misses, including one in 2009 with the sire of this year’s winner. For Clark, the Oaks winner was his first Grade 1-winning mount, and the rider was the third to get his first Grade 1 win on one of Jones’ Oaks fillies. For Victor Espinoza, the Derby winner was his third, his second in two years.
“For me to get this opportunity at this time in my life when 15 years ago I had decided I was just going to stay in Louisiana and finish my career out there and just disappear quietly into the sunset,” mused Clark, “I got lucky.”
Espinoza knows the thrill. “I feel like the luckiest Mexican on Earth,” he exulted when Donna Brothers rode up for his first post-race interview, and then he praised his horse. “[American Pharoah] has been a special horse since the first time I rode him. He has a lot of talent and is an unbelievable horse.”
Talent enough to win the Triple Crown? We’ll find out over the next five weeks. Baffert said the plan is — of course — to continue on to the Preakness. His stablemate will do the same. “If Dortmund turns the tables on [American Pharoah], so be it,” the trainer told Jonathan Lintner of the Courier-Journal.
“You know coming in here you got that kind of horse, and he showed it today. Pharoah probably didn’t run as well as he can, but he’s such a good horse. I’m just glad he got through here.”
American Pharoah was given a Beyer speed figure of 105 for the Kentucky Derby, the same figure he earned winning his final prep, the Arkansas Derby. TimeformUS awarded him 117, a bump from his previous performance.
Fractions for the Kentucky Derby from the Daily Racing Form chart:
Looking at the chart, it’s striking how consistent the top three finishers were through the first six furlongs. It’s a very even race. Dortmund (the leader, as predicted by the TimeformUS pace projector) took the field through a moderate first quarter in :23.24, a half in :47.34, and the first three-quarters in 1:11.29, and what had been a tight group near the front the first time past the grandstand separated into the three front-runners and the rest by the final turn. For a nice illustration of how the race unfolded, compare the official chart (PDF) points of call with the Blood-Horse pictorial race sequence.
For that matter, so is Firing Line, who I unfairly and wrongly (so wrongly) discounted when handicapping. The Sunland Derby winner had finished second to Dortmund in their two earlier meetings, and the pair went to the front together in the Kentucky Derby, keeping both busy. “I not only have to turn the tables on Dortmund with Firing Line, but I’ve got to figure out a way to beat American Pharaoh,” Stevens said during a Reddit AMA two weeks ago, talking about his Derby strategy. “I’ve already figured out a way to beat Dortmund! For my plan to work, I’ve got to be in the right place at the right time.” Credit the rider with pulling off at least half his plan — Firing Line headed Dortmund turning into the final quarter and finished two lengths ahead of the previously undefeated colt. If Firing Line did anything wrong, it was that he didn’t switch leads in the stretch (via @randy_moss_TV).
No excuse for Dortmund — he just didn’t have that last furlong in him. Frosted ranged up late and almost got him for show. “He’s a really good horse and he ran like it today,” said jockey Martin Garcia after the Derby. “He always comes to run; that’s the kind of horse he is. He got beat today by really good horses. That can happen.” The question going forward is, did he reveal a distance limitation, or — with the experience — will he be able to handle 10 furlongs in races such as the Travers or Breeders’ Cup Classic?
“The state vet got there this morning to check him out and did not like the way he jogged down the shedrow. Our blacksmith took the left-front shoe off and there was definitely some heat on the inside quarter of the left-front foot. Something’s brewing in there, probably an abscess. There’s nothing major wrong with the horse whatsoever. We think we’ll probably have him ready to come back for the Preakness but time will tell.”
Fans of three-time rail-riding Kentucky Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel got bad news on Friday: It was announced that El Kabeir would scratch from today’s race with a foot abscess. El Kabeir was in post 7; the horses before him will shuffle in from the rail, leaving post 1 open for the third year in a row. (Not that the move improves Ocho Ocho Ocho’s chances, at least from this corner’s view. He’s one of my tosses, along with Materiality, Itsaknockout, Keen Ice, Frammento, Bolo, War Story, and Firing Line.)
In wagering on this particular Kentucky Derby, the approach of betting against American Pharoah in the intra-race exotics is advisable. Protecting with him in multi-race exotics is feasible, and profit can be maximized by him missing the top slot in trifecta and superfecta wagers.
Haskin suggests another approach:
[I]f you’re looking for good exacta with American Pharoah, I’ll go with Frosted, Firing Line, Bolo, and Danzig Moon, and if you want to be really daring, you can box the last four just in case.
Dortmund is a huge horse, 17 hands tall. (The same as … Zenyatta.) There’s thinking among handicappers that he is too big to adjust as the Derby chaotically unfolds. Baffert disagrees vehemently. “He’s quick, he’s an athlete,” the trainer says. “And he’s got an incredible stride.” Some experts have compared Dortmund to Point Given, who was also huge, but Baffert says, “[Point Given] took a while to get going. That’s not Dortmund.”
Less than 24 hours out from the Kentucky Derby draw, and there’s already a change to Saturday’s line-up: Stanford has scratched, also-eligible Frammento is in. Here’s the brief statement from the Churchill Downs press office:
Kentucky Horse Racing Commission stewards were informed Thursday that #11 Stanford would be scratched from Saturday’s Kentucky Derby 141. The defection means #21 Frammento has drawn into the field.
Stanford drew post 11. All the horses after him in the gate will move one over, and Frammento, wearing a #21 saddlecloth (lavender — pretty), will break from post 20 (mercifully bringing an end to the jokes about Far Right breaking from the far right). “That is a lot better than Post Zero!” said trainer Nick Zito.
Randy Moss, the NBC commentator and a member of the team that calculates Beyer Speed Figures, argued persuasively that Prince Bishop’s winning figure should be 112.
His reasoning: California Chrome had earned a 113 in the best race of his career, 108 in his second-best effort. In Dubai, he had a difficult trip, parked wide on both turns, and surely didn’t run his best number; 108 would make sense for him. If Prince Bishop got a winning figure of 112 — four points higher than California Chrome — the numbers for the third- and fourth-place finishers would make sense, too. In the U.S. Candy Boy often earned figures around 100; if the winner of the World Cup had a figure of 112, Candy Boy’s would be 99.
Give or take a point or two, the figure of 112 is right for Prince Bishop. And because Mubtaahij was 15 points slower, his winning figure was 97.
Make of that, and Mubtaahij, what you will — there hasn’t been a Kentucky Derby starter coming out of Dubai since 2009 when the 1-2 UAE Derby finishers Regal Ransom and Desert Party ran eighth and 14th. Contenders via Dubai are always a wild card — how will the travel and a mere five weeks between the two races affect the horse? It’s a lot to ask — California Chrome, luxuriating in Newmarket since finishing second in the Dubai World Cup, was just ruled out of an anticipated start in the Lockinge Stakes on May 16.
Mubtaahij appears to be handling the experience. The Dubawi colt went for an three furlong breeze in :37.40 this morning with rider Christophe Soumillon up. “It was a very easy work just to stretch his legs,” said trainer Mike de Kock. “It just gets them breathing a little bit deeper, gets the blood oxygenated, lets them stretch and get the circulation going into the muscles.”
“I looked at the last 30 Derbies a couple times to see how you win it, but what I learned is there is no sure way,” Soumillon said Wednesday after taking Mubtaahij on a measured tour of the Churchill main track. “You need to be a good judge of pace, but you also need to respect your horse and ride for him. You need to be confident and clever — I saw some favorites that took the lead in the backstretch and stopped late. It’s more easy to lose this race than win it, for sure.”
That last sentence is so true, for handicappers as much as riders.
When it comes to early season maiden races, Ward’s record is pretty close to off the charts. Since 2009, there have been 47 2-year-old maiden events at the Keeneland spring meet. Ward has had starters in 45 of them. He won 22 of them or 48.9 percent.
… in the late 1990’s John Shirreffs was the most brilliant debut trainer in the land. In 1998 and 1999 he trained 24 first-time starters and a mind-boggling 14 of them won their debut and another four finished second. In those days, the Southern California circuit was unquestionably the toughest year-round circuit in horse racing, and Shirreffs won at a 58.3% clip with first-time starters and 75% of his debuters finished first or second.