JC / Railbird

Quality Road

All In Fun

Tim Wilkin:

The Breeders’ Cup Classic is going to be the race of the year. Zenyatta vs. Quality Road. I like the female horses. I am a fan of Rachel Alexandra and I respect the heck out of Zenyatta. But, sorry, ladies. I am taking the boy in the Classic. Quality Road is the best horse in the country.

Based on the :13.34 final furlong he ran in the 1 1/8 mile Woodward against modest competition? I hope there are a lot of bettors like Wilkin playing this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. That means a price on Zenyatta, who will win.

3:00 PM Addendum: Quality Road “got a straightforward Beyer Speed Figure of 106” for the Woodward, the lowest since Saint Liam’s in 2005.

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.

Rachel, Quality Work

Rachel Alexandra put in her final work for the ungraded Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park on Saturday, breezing four furlongs in :49.60 over the Oklahoma track this morning. The Pink Sheet posted pre-work, post-work, and an impressionistic in-motion photo of the move, which took place shortly before 6:00 AM and looked “nice, loose and happy” to trainer Steve Asmussen. The field for the Lady’s Secret won’t be drawn until Wednesday, but Monmouth announced yesterday that Hark, Queen Martha, Stage Trick, Starship Angel, and Yes She’s a Lady were all possible. Combined, the five have won 17 of 56 starts, and none are graded stakes winners.

At Belmont Park on Sunday, Quality Road worked a bullet five furlongs in :58.69 for the G1 Whitney on August 7. He’s looking well.

It’s that time of year, when buzz babies appear. “I have a really nice two year old running today at Hollywood Park named SMASH,” trainer Bob Baffert tipped his Facebook friends on Sunday morning, but the Smart Strike colt needed no touting for his debut. Sent off at 1-2, Smash won the five-furlong maiden special by 2 1/2 lengths in :57.63 over the Cushion Track. “Look at this guy level out,” said track announcer Vic Stauffer. And he did it with such ease.

Life At Ten gets a Beyer speed figure of 98 for winning the G2 Delaware Handicap with a final time of 2:03.21. Bit of trivia: That’s the lowest since Amarillo was given a 96 in 1998. The race was the 5-year-old mare’s sixth straight victory, and a record-tying fourth for trainer Todd Pletcher, who said Life At Ten could start next in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga. (If only Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta also showed up …)

A few updates to the disabled list: General Quarters is most likely out of the Arlington Million. The one-horse-stable star exited the Arlington Handicap, in which he finished sixth, with an injury. “He came out with a bum ankle,” said trainer Tom McCarthy. (Get well soon, GQ.) There’s good news about Drosselmeyer, sent for exam after showing some soreness following a July 4 workout. “There were just several general hot spots that came up, not any one thing or any one spot.” The Belmont Stakes winner will be turned out for 60 days and return to training in the fall, reports the Thoroughbred Times, with a goal of making the Dubai World Cup. (No Breeders’ Cup, then? Too bad.)

It’s Derby Time

It's Derby time chalk drawing adorning Floyd's bar window

But first, a bit about the Oaks (“Just another pretty race“? I prefer not to think so). Post positions for the race, which grew to eight starters, were drawn this morning, with 3-5 morning line favorite Rachel Alexandra landing in stall six, just to the outside of likely second-favorite Justwhistledixie. The rest of field: Tweeter (1), Be Fair (2), Stone Legacy (3), Gabby’s Golden Gal (4), Nan (7), Flying Spur (8).

Rachel Alexandra worked a flying four furlongs in :46.40, the fastest of 26 works at the distance, then galloped out six furlongs in 1:10.60 at Churchill on Monday. “I thought she went too fast, but Calvin swears she does that every time,” said trainer Hal Wiggins, who’d been looking for something more like :48. On an earlier post, Bill, an equine exercise physiologist, remarked that he has a theory explaining the spectacular breeze — “She was properly warmed up for the first time in her life.” I am not an equine exercise physiologist, so really can’t comment, but it does seem plausible that the 30-minute walk she took before working — due, sadly, to a training delay caused by a catastrophic collision — may have had an effect.

Whatever the reason, the work had DRF’s Mike Welsch gushing:

Rachel Alexandra’s final Oaks prep was one of the most eye-catching Derby Week drills witnessed here in recent memory…. The move was reminiscent of, if not even better than, Street Sense’s final Derby prep, right down to the presence of Borel in the saddle…. Rachel Alexandra has been a joy to watch training here all week, and off this work would have been my pick had she taken on the boys in the Derby.

If only she had been nominated to the Triple Crown … instead, she should run away with the Oaks, a prospect that gives me less a case of “Oaks Blues” than “complacent chalk syndrome.” Rachel Alexandra is an exciting sophomore; she’s on the path to 3-year-old filly champion honors. Eventually this year, she’ll meet competition — such as Zenyatta, making her first start of the year on the Oaks undercard in the Lousiville Distaff — that gives her something to do other than cruise down the stretch. It just won’t be in the Oaks.

In Derby news: Two defections, one major, one minor, both sensible. Amid the Twitter discussion regarding trainer Jimmy Jerkens’ decision to pull likely favorite Quality Road from the trail after his second quarter crack trickled blood following a Sunday gallop (“It’s not terribly bad; it’s just not right,” said the disappointed conditioner) Nick Kling pointed me to a column he wrote last year about horses who either never ran again or never returned to their previous form after the Derby. Pulling together data on 78 starters over four years, Kling found a startling percentage essentially ruined by the experience:

A staggering total of 14 came out of the race either never racing again, or starting just a handful of times, unable to regain anything resembling decent form. That is 18 percent of ALL horses who started in the race.

Considering just the horses who had zero, one, or two starts after the Derby, the rate came down to 12.8% — still pretty shocking — strongly suggesting that a Derby start can have a negative effect on an unqualified, under-prepared, or delicate horse, as many observers believe. Not that that’s going to keep a few connections from entering their horses — who realistically have no shot — on Wednesday.

Square Eddie would have been among that group in my handicapping, but the colt developed heat in his previously injured left shin this morning and has been ruled out. “We are extremely disappointed but at the same time extremely grateful that he’s sound,” said trainer Doug O’Neill. It worried me, after reading about Square Eddie’s seemingly rushed convalescence and then the two-week Lexington turnaround, that he’d be pulled up during the race because of a problem. Consider me grateful that he won’t be starting on Saturday.

Odds and ends: So that you don’t miss any Derby coverage, Saratoga Spa has helpfully put together a TV guide for the week. And pay attention to the weather: Rains and thunderstorms are possible through the weekend in the Louisville area. (By the way, did you know that Derby winners on an off track historically pay an average shorter price than those on fast?) New Churchill Downs track announcer Mark Johnson calls Pioneerof the Nile ugly:

I may get told off for this, because I’ve had one or two discussions with people who totally disagree with me, but I think that Pioneerof the Nile has got to be the ugliest horse in the field. It looks like a gawky teenager. It’s got a really thin tail, it looks as though it’s only got half the hair in the tail that it should. It’s got a really long neck and a really small head, and it looks like if it were a human being, it would be a really spotty teenager.

I didn’t notice, watching his Monday work — all I saw was an easy stride and peak form. I did catch, though, General Quarters’ odd gait — his right foreleg appears to have an eggbeater action, which Kerry of Thoroughbred Brief suggested could be because he “looks base narrow and/or toed in.” If ‘Quarters does win the Derby, as Billy Reed says he needs to, that would be another quality he shares with Seabiscuit. Finally, if you’re a New Yorker subscriber, or near a newsstand, check out the profile of trainer Larry Jones in this week’s issue. Also, the notice for a Brooklyn Derby party.

Notes for 2009-04-13

– Few changes to the top 10 this week, with all adjustments in the second tier. Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem, who’s been bumping around the lower third since February, moves to #6, replacing runner-up Old Fashioned, now off the Derby trail and likely done with racing due to a slab fracture of the knee. General Quarters appears at #8 following his win in the Blue Grass, making him the second to come out of the Tampa Bay Derby and take a stakes. I had trouble coming up with a tenth prospect, narrowing the possibles down to Chocolate Candy, Musket Man, and West Side Bernie, all on the cusp. Although Twitterverse sentiment was 4-to-1 for ‘Candy, I settled on Musket Man, who followed up on his Tampa win with another in last week’s Illinois Derby.

Top 10 for 4/14/09 PDI: 1. I Want Revenge 2. Quality Road 3. Pioneerof the Nile 4. Desert Party 5. Friesan Fire 6. Papa Clem 7. Dunkirk 8. General Quarters 9. Regal Ransom 10. Musket Man

– Chocolate Candy worked yesterday morning with new rider Mike Smith up, going five furlongs handily in :59.20 at Santa Anita. “I was happy with the work, said trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Of course he was. Trainers are almost never quoted as anything but thrilled with their charges, especially three weeks before the biggest 3-year-old race of the year. The colt does look pretty good in this video of his Sunday move, though.

Dunkirk and Quality Road also worked over the weekend, with Dunkirk breezing four furlongs in :49.06 at Palm Meadows, and Quality Road doing the same in :48 at Belmont Park. He then galloped out five furlongs in 1:01.85 (according to DRF; Belmont clockers credited Quality’ with a five furlong breeze in 1:02.19). NYRA posted a short video of the work, showing the Jimmy Jerkens-trained colt going fine, apparently untroubled by the quarter crack found earlier in the week.

On the distaff side, watch mail brought notice that Music Note, third in her final 2008 start, the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Classic, is back in training. The 4-year-old filly breezed three furlongs in :37.40 at Keeneland on Saturday. No news yet on where she might debut this year. Possibly Belmont, in a race such as the June 13 G1 Ogden Phipps Handicap?

– It might be too early to start speculating on possible Derby pace scenarios, but with Old Fashioned and The Pamplemousse out, who goes to the front? There’s not a lot of early speed among the remaining probables.

– BSFs: 99 101 (upgraded) for Papa Clem, 95 for General Quarters.

Shaping Up

Barring any surprises in the Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass Stakes, my list of top 10 Kentucky Derby prospects is pretty much settled (although adjustments are likely over the next three weeks to accommodate changes in status, hoof issues, training problems). I Want Revenge is now #1, moving up from #3, off his stupendous Wood Memorial win, which only grew more impressive watching the replay. Something I failed to notice during the race was that Joe Talamo doesn’t go to the whip at any point — after patiently guiding IWR down the backstretch, saving ground and not hustling to make up for the poor start, then splitting horses to get out of traffic coming into the stretch, Talamo handrides IWR to the wire. Amazing.

Quality Road drops to #2, a move I made before hearing the colt has a quarter crack, which is being treated by Ian McKinlay. Imperial Council drops off completely, while Terrain creeps into #10. We’ll see how the under-the-radar colt, third in the Louisiana Derby, does in the Blue Grass on Saturday.

Top 10 for 4/7/09 PDI: 1. I Want Revenge 2. Quality Road 3. Pioneerof the Nile 4. Desert Party 5. Old Fashioned 6. Friesan Fire 7. Dunkirk 8. Regal Ransom 9. Papa Clem 10. Terrain

How about Rachel Alexandra in the Fantasy Stakes? The embodiment of easy:

Calvin Borel starts mugging on the backstretch, but I can’t blame him. She’s just galloping, the other four fillies totally at her mercy, lolling through unhurried fractions to a final time of 1:43.35, finishing more than eight lengths ahead of Afleet Deceit. On to the Kentucky Oaks …

Odds and ends: Old Fashioned worked five furlongs in 1:00.6 at Oaklawn on Monday. Trainer Larry Jones was pleased with how the colt went around the turn. “That was the big thing.” I’m nonchalantly ignoring Musket Man for now, even though he’s definitely heading to the Kentucky Derby after winning the Illinois. And The Pamplemousse is out, for at least six months, possibly longer. “Our goal is the Pacific Classic [at Del Mar] next year.”

Top 10 Shuffle

Kentucky Oaks-bound Rachel Alexandra drops off my PDI Derby top 10, while Quality Road zips from #7 to #1 on the strength of his Florida Derby win. It wasn’t that long ago I would have dismissed Quality Road for the five-week layoff between his final prep and the Kentucky Derby and for being too lightly raced, but Big Brown and Barbaro have nullified those concerns, and the Jimmy Jerkens-trained colt does meet what I’ve come to consider the minimum-required historical criteria: He started as a 2-year-old, has made three starts as a 3-year-old, and has raced around two turns and in fields of more than 10 starters.

Dunkirk, an impressive second to Quality Road, moves from #8 to #7, a slight bump that reflects my dislike for how he’s being prepped, tempering my enthusiasm for his potential Derby ability. That he’s on the earnings bubble with $150,000 and may miss the Derby is a shame, but then, trainer Todd Pletcher shouldn’t have treated the Florida Derby as a Win and You’re In race for his talented gray. A little jiggering of the schedule could have had Dunkirk start in two graded stakes before May.*

I dropped Friesan Fire to #6 from #2 (and it’s possible he’ll fall further after the Santa Anita Derby and Wood) since trainer Larry Jones’ plan to train the colt up to the Derby seems a little out there the further away we get from the Louisiana Derby — I’m ready to concede a five week layoff is no longer a problem, but seven weeks off seems still too much.

Desert Party drops one spot, to #4, after finishing second to Regal Ransom, who reappears at #8, in the UAE Derby. I didn’t reverse the two, for reasons similar to Steve Haskin’s assessment:

If Desert Party had run the exact same race in one of the final preps in America, I would consider it a solid effort that should set him up for a peak performance on May 2…. Desert Party was the only non-speed horse to make up any ground late, and he finished 15 lengths ahead of the third horse …

Regal Ransom and Desert Party will ship to Churchill Downs early in April. Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford said a decision would be made closer to the Derby as to whether both will start or whether one will be held back and pointed to the Preakness.

Top 10 for 3/31/09: 1. Quality Road 2. Pioneerof the Nile 3. I Want Revenge 4. Desert Party 5. Old Fashioned 6. Friesan Fire 7. Dunkirk 8. Regal Ransom 9. Imperial Council 10. Papa Clem

*The annual graded earnings debate flares anew, this year with a twist in Mafaaz scoring a guaranteed spot as the winner of the Kempton Kentucky Derby Challenge. “And so it has come to this,” Gary West fulminates,

The horse who won an insignificant stakes on an artificial surface at a minor racetrack in England has a reserved spot in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby, and the horse who ran second in the Florida Derby may not even get a chance to race for the world’s most famous roses.

While I don’t agree with West that Mafaaz taking up a spot is a problem, I’m with him and almost every other observer in believing that using graded earnings to allocate precious Derby stalls is a flawed method. Dunkirk isn’t going to be squeezed out by a stunt winner, but by colts such as Square Eddie (#2 on the earning list with one start in 2009), West Side Bernie (#12 and showing no progression this year), or possibly Charitable Man (tied at #21 with Dunkirk and making his first and only pre-Derby start in the Blue Grass Stakes). A points system, such as the one Mike Watchmaker proposes in his latest DRF+ column (similar to Handride’s scheme), would not only have the benefit of weeding out the pretenders who racked up stakes monies as 2-year-olds or in winning minor stakes with inflated purses, but would discourage connections from making the sort of all-in gamble that Pletcher did with Dunkirk. It would give trainers reason to prep their charges through a series of races, making the Kentucky Derby more sporting all around.