JC / Railbird

Lookin at Lucky

A Lucky Classic?

Well, I suppose it’s possible:

A defeat for dirt leader Quality Road and a sub-par success for all-weather leader Zenyatta were two further indications that Bob Baffert may be about to get lucky in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The first clue came last week, when his stable star ran away with the Haskell Invitational, posting the best performance by an American three-year-old this year.

But with the leading older horses having the chinks in their armour exposed on the weekend, it now looks increasingly likely that the elite division could be set for a changing of the guards in November.

Although, I’m not sure what chink is being referred to re: Zenyatta. The sub :24 final quarter? Or maybe the final sixteenth in :5.94?

Related: Eight reasons Pull the Pocket likes Zenyatta. Point #2, right on.

The Place to Be

That’s Monmouth, this weekend and next. Rachel Alexandra arrived at the track on Tuesday morning for the Lady’s Secret Stakes on Saturday (she may paddock school on Friday, reports Monmouth), and the likely field for the Haskell on August 1, which already included Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver and Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky, gained Derby runner-up Ice Box. “It’s everything you hope for,” Monmouth general manager Bob Kulina told the Star-Ledger. “It’s shaping up to be the premiere 3-year-old race after the Triple Crown, after the Derby.” (And what about the Travers, the mid-summer Derby? “… we will just have to wait and see what happens in Jersey.”)

Not to slight glorious Saratoga, which opens Friday and drew 127 entries for its 10-race card. Seven are entered in the Schuylerville Stakes, including Belmont maiden winner Stopspendingmaria, one of the buzz babies I’m following here, and Rick Dutrow trainee Le Mi Geaux, one of the first winners for freshman sire First Samurai. He did quite well at Saratoga in 2005, winning an allowance and the Hopeful Stakes.

Speaking of juveniles attracting buzz, Date With Destiny, the only foal of the late champion George Washington, is pointing to the Group 1 Meon Valley Stud Fillies’ Mile on September 25 after her impressive maiden win. The Fillies’ Mile is a Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In Challenge race, but even if Date With Destiny does win, she’s a longshot for the Breeders’ Cup. Trainer Richard Hannon, addressing talk of sending his star milers to the event, said last month, “I am not interested in what they have to offer across the pond.”

Getting back to Monmouth, somehow I missed Dick Jerardi’s DRF+ column of last week. Per the Beyer speed figure makers, “Monmouth is getting faster (and better) horses at this meet than it got over the same period last year.” The only group not running to higher pars? Jersey breds.

Preakness Notes

The best horse won,” writes Andrew Beyer, who picked Lookin at Lucky for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes and must have been pleased when the colt took the second leg of the Triple Crown by three-quarters of a length in a time of 1:55.47, good for a Beyer speed figure of 102 (replay). Trainer Bob Baffert certainly was, telling Claire Novak after the race:

“This was a different kind of win,” he said. “This was a redemption win. This horse is such a warrior. He wants to win. He tries so hard. So I wanted to win it for the horse, you know, because he tries so hard every time. It’s easy to lose a little faith in him … I heard people say he gets in trouble because maybe he’s not that good. So today, when I saw Martin hit that wire, I was so happy for that horse.”

Sweet vindication, and not only for believing in his horse after all the troubles of Lucky’s last three races, but for making a rider switch from Garrett Gomez to Martin Garcia. “They have been winning at a steady, phenomenal 32 percent clip,” writes John Scheinman of the Baffert-Garcia combo, “and whatever magic the two have between them is alchemic.”

There was no magic for Gomez in the Preakness, riding Dublin for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Post position 12 proved as disastrous as Lukas anticipated when entries were drawn. Explained the rider:

“The first three jumps were not good. He tried to go into the gap and made a right turn with me. When I straightened him, they were all gone and we were pretty much out of it.”

Dublin finished fifth after he exited the gate veering outside. You could say the break cost him the race; he ran the first quarter more than 18 lengths off the lead in a dismal :26 flat. He then ran the second in :23.29, the third in :23.73, and wrapped up in :43.44. All of those times were faster than Lookin at Lucky’s (faster, in fact, than any of the top four finishers). Lucky closed in :43.81 after running splits of :23.45, :23.87, and :24.34. What most struck me, though, looking at the fractions, is how much Dublin’s Preakness run looks like Ice Box’s Derby run, and that the difference in how their finishes are being perceived is a great example of the strength of the visual impact made by a runner-up appearing to close swiftly on a leader in the final yards of a race, compared to an also-ran finishing out of the money.

Both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners will skip the Belmont Stakes, which is lousy news for NYRA, an organization that could use a little financial boost. Baffert said that Lookin at Lucky would be prepped for the Haskell Invitational Stakes on August 1, while trainer Todd Pletcher indicated that Super Saver would be freshened for a late summer return. The Derby winner, apparently looking drawn on Saturday, finished eighth as the 9-5 favorite. “What are you gonna do? It was the two weeks,” said Pletcher.

Or is it that this crop of 3-year-olds isn’t so hot? “You have to wonder about the quality of the group,” says Michael Veitch. Yes, you do, when watching the juvenile champion grind out a short lead over a maiden winner to take the Preakness, and the Derby winner wilts at a mile to finish worse than any other at Pimlico since Monarchos in 2001. Two-thirds of the way through the spring classic season, it’s hard not to think about what could have been: “[I]f Eskendereya had stayed sound,” speculates Steve Crist, “we might well be looking at a runaway Derby-Preakness winner going for a Crown this year.” Watch the Wood Memorial replay if you doubt.

Odds and Ends

After racing twice this year in blinkers, Lookin at Lucky will start without on Saturday; Devil May Care, who’s been training in blinkers, will start with. Horses that have gone blinkers-on or -off haven’t done well in the Derby, with Aptitude, second at 12-1 in 2000, the last such starter to even finish ITM. That few horses make equipment changes on Derby day surely explains part of the lack of impact, and those that do aren’t usually well-bet contenders. Atswhatimtalknbout, fourth in 2003, was the best supported in recent years, going to post at 9-1. Lookin at Lucky will have the added distinction of being the first favorite, since at least 1991, to start blinkers-on or -off in the Derby. A knock? Well, it’s not just Derby day equipment changes that haven’t done well. Blinkers-on or -off at any point during a Derby contender’s 3YO prep season hasn’t been a positive sign over the past couple decades. The exception is 1991 Derby winner Strike the Gold, who had blinkers removed in his second start as a 3-year-old.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas believes Dublin was unfairly portrayed as skittish after the colt attempted to bolt while galloping last Saturday upon seeing thousands of marathoners in the infield:

“The publicity on that is totally, totally wrong,” he lectured a member of the Churchill Downs notes team. “This horse is very manageable. But if you’re going to send 4,000 screaming marathon runners out of the tunnel, he’s going to take a look at that. My pony shied from that. The horse in front of him shied from that. He was the only one who got the publicity, [and] that’s ridiculous!”

Foolish Pleasure is concerned Dublin might shy again on Saturday.

Arkansas Derby winner Line of David will start on Saturday missing one thing found in every other runner’s record: A layoff line. The Lion Heart colt has been in training since he made his first start in November 2009. Combined with the new career-high Beyer speed figure he earned at Oaklawn, it seems likely the John Sadler trainee may have peaked last month. His final Derby work at Churchill certainly suggests as much.

The Louisville forecast calls for rain Saturday: Lane Gold has wet track Derby pointers, Steve Haskin recommends Stately Victor. The top Tomlinson — 463 — belongs to Noble’s Promise, who has yet to start over an off surface.

Andrew Beyer’s Derby exacta: Ice Box, Lookin at Lucky.

Following up on surface switches:

Interesting numbers from Dean of Pull the Pocket, who was inspired to do some data mining on 2009 synthetic-to-dirt/dirt-to-synthetic moves in JCapper after reading the post “Surface to Surface” earlier this month:

Going synthetic-to-dirt may indeed be an easier move, as measured by win percentage. It is more predictable, as evidenced by the lower average win mutuel and the post-time favorites percentage. But, as Dean pointed out to me when we talked about his findings, the JCapper data isn’t limited to horses making their first starts on either surface, it isn’t broken out by class (which doesn’t address the question of whether horses are more likely to move to a synthetic surface for increased purse money or black type, resulting in more negative performances), and there’s no way to account for trainer intentions (a poorly running horse may start on synthetic in “a last-ditch effort” to find something that will work for it).

Questions remain, but, “if you dig down, there are patterns that work,” said Dean. Just one example: Connections matter. According to the JCapper algorithm (which combines trainer and jockey stats), the win rate was 30.31% on dirt for horses with the highest-rated connections, 23.28% on synthetic.

The Return of Dublin

Dublin, dropped from my PDI top 10 after the Arkansas Derby, returns this week at #1, a move driven by Eskendereya’s withdrawal from the race and a few hours with the past performances. Last week, when the field was looking set, I was intent on figuring out who would run behind Eskendereya — I know, I should feel more embarrassed to admit that. Every wise guy out there has been complaining about how with the loss of Esky, all the odds on the horses they were really planning to play have plunged. Whatever. The colt had the two best Beyer speed figures of this bunch, a perfect prep season, a fitting pedigree. He’s also physically impressive — watching at Aqueduct on Wood Day, I was struck by how much more mature and robust he looked than the other starters (check out his chest and shoulders in this photo by Sarah K. Andrew). Watching the Wood replay, what grabbed my attention was how much he reminded me of Big Brown (and I wasn’t even a Big Brown fan), exhibiting a similar control and ease as he took the lead and drew away. I was going to bet the chalk on Saturday, and happily.

As for Dublin, I still have some concerns he won’t relish the Derby distance, but then, ten furlongs seem questionable for several of this year’s expected starters, who, for the most part, haven’t made much of an impression on me. His track work this weekend could also suggest problems: After attempting to bolt during a Saturday gallop, Dublin drifted out around the final turn in his Sunday work. What’s more, DRF clocker Mike Welsch noted, “the failure to gallop out with any serious energy cannot be taken as positive signs less than one week out from the big event.” A factor in his favor, though, is the relative toughness of the Oaklawn preps, in which Dublin ran well. Off a second in the Southwest, a third in the Rebel, and a fast-closing third in the Arkansas Derby,* he could be poised to move forward.

Devil May Care, coming into the Derby with a competitive profile and a slightly faster time in G2 Bonnie Miss Stakes than Ice Box in the G1 Florida Derby on the same day, moves to #2 and Sidney’s Candy to #3. Lookin at Lucky remains at #4, despite his exceptional qualities. I would rate him higher, but for his tendency to find trouble, and he’s only had two preps this year. There’s also the matter of blinkers-on, blinkers-off: Trainer Bob Baffert is still trying to figure out the colt, and he’s running out of time. But then, the new Derby favorite worked brilliantly this morning. (Trying to sort it all out this evening, Bill Finley’s see-no-works, hear-no-works approach to Derby week suddenly seems a very sensible one.)

PDI top 10 for 4/27/10: 1) Dublin 2) Devil May Care 3) Sidney’s Candy 4) Lookin at Lucky 5) Endorsement 6) Awesome Act 7) Jackson Bend 8) American Lion 9) Discreetly Mine 10) Stately Victor

Call it the Twerby? The 2009 Derby was the first in which Twitter played a real role, even if it was mostly to inspire an ongoing debate about the usefulness of the service. This year, however, Twitter has been a source of fast-changing news (see Ed DeRosa’s tweets Sunday on Eskendereya skipping work, doubtful for the Derby, out of the Derby), close-ups of contenders (see Frances J. Karon’s pictures of Dublin and Devil May Care), as well as workout times. Thanks to Dana Byerly of Green But Game for pointing out this Blood-Horse article on Monday’s Derby works, which cites tweets from Churchill’s media department. Observed Vic Zast, by tweet of course,

Not amazing that Esky out of Derby. Favs can drop out in last week. What’s amazing is how fast social networking sites passed news along.

How much a scene can change in just a year, and for the better.

*I was asked last week about column 15, “Key Derby Preps,” on the historical criteria spreadsheet. The numbers that appear there are simply how many such races a horse started in while prepping. Qualifying races were determined by the total number of Derby starters that emerged from each race, as well as the total number that finished ITM in the Derby, 1998-2008. A dozen races rated highly on both counts. It’s a quick measure of contenders’ preps, based on recent trends. Kevin Martin of Colin’s Ghost has done much deeper research on Derby preps: I recommend his work for more insight into using historical trends for judging prep races.

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