JC / Railbird

Triple Crown

Pletcher’s Dream Derby

The field charges past the grandstand in the 2017 Kentucky Derby
Photo: Churchill Downs/Coady Photography

When I said that I was looking for Thunder Snow to surprise in the Kentucky Derby, I didn’t expect that the surprise would be him bouncing out of the gate and giving the grandstand a bucking bronco show. (Good work, Christophe Soumillon, staying on.) The colt is okay — he spent the race in the paddock, checked out sound by the vets, and walked back to the barn, where he presumably enjoyed a bath and dinner.

Thunder Snow might not have liked the muddy track or the crowd. It could have been that his saddle pinched or that he was channeling his sire. “All I can say at this moment in time Thunder Snow is fine,” tweeted his exercise rider, Daragh O’Donohoe, afterwards. “We are totally dumbstruck at what’s happened, sorry.” Hey, no apologies needed — if anyone has a right to feel badly about what happened, it’s the team that traveled with him this week.

So, about the Kentucky Derby winner — Always Dreaming went to post as the 9-2 favorite, paying $11.40 to win the Derby with a final time of 2:03.59 on a track officially described as “Wet Fast (Sealed).” He earned a Beyer speed figure of 102 and a TimeformUS figure of 123 for the effort.

The start was poor, at least for Irish War Cry and the other contenders he bumped hustling for position coming out of the auxiliary gate. “Irish War Cry bore in at the break initiating a chain reaction of trouble,” says the chart (PDF). “J Boys Echo forced in and jostled between foes soon after the start … Irap was bumped when a victim of the melee soon after the break.”

Always Dreaming avoided all of the trouble, breaking well from stall five. You can see in the replay that rider John Velazquez puts him in a plum spot from the start, although the Churchill Downs camera crew unfortunately cuts away to a shot from behind the gate at exactly the moment the bell rings. State of Honor, the second-longest shot at 54-1, set the early pace, running the first half in :46.53, with Always Dreaming settling in just behind. He takes the lead by a head at the six-furlong mark and wins by 2 3/4 lengths:

Velazquez described the trip like so:

He got into a good rhythm right away. Once I was going forward, for the first time, I was happy where I was. And so the other horse, obviously, showed some speed. So I let him go into the first turn … he was going really well. That’s all I did, just waiting for the competition. They were pressing a little bit. After that, the quarter pole, when I asked him, he switched the lead and got down. And he started running really nice. I was very happy when he switched down. And I felt the way he was running, I said, “They will have to run really fast to get him.”

Lookin at Lee, 33-1, finished second after getting a decent trip on the inside, while Battle of Midway, 40-1, came in third. Classic Empire, the 7-1 third favorite (the 4-1 morning line favorite), was fourth.

Always Dreaming giving his rider a workout

I admit, I didn’t know what to make of Always Dreaming in the days before the Derby. The Florida Derby winner was headstrong and fresh in his first gallop at Churchill Downs on April 26 (GIF above). He showed more control under Velazquez in his final work on April 28, breezing five furlongs in :59 3/5, but when he reverted to bad behavior during the following mornings, Pletcher switched in a new exercise rider and draw reins (this photo by Alex Evers offers a good view of the draw reins on him). Daily Racing Form clocker Mike Welsch noted after the tack change that Always Dreaming (DRF+):

… was clearly more subdued and cooperative during his 1 3/8-mile gallop than he had been on Monday … Always Dreaming had his head tucked and appeared resigned to the fate of training in the restrictive equipment … it was a good and much-improved morning for the highly regarded 3-year-old, whose demeanor from now through post time could go a long way in deciding the outcome of this year’s Derby.

Asked about the equipment change before the Derby, trainer Todd Pletcher said, “He’s been much more aggressive since he’s been here and I’m hoping it’s a sign he’s just ready to rock.” Well, now we know how that turned out.

Always Dreaming gave Pletcher his second Kentucky Derby win, making him one of 19 trainers to win the race more than once, and in the post-race press conference, he talked about what it meant to win with Velazquez:

I felt like Johnny and I needed one together as well.

We have had a great relationship for a long time now, and we have won a lot of races together. This one we hadn’t, and this is the one we wanted to win together. And I’m glad we could do it.

The trainer and rider have been partnered for 24 years; they shared a jubilant hug in the winner’s circle. And here’s another touching story related to Always Dreaming’s win, written before the colt was born: It’s about the saddle that has now been cinched onto five Kentucky Derby winners.

Always Dreaming will go to the Preakness. He ships to Pimlico on Tuesday.

Recaps:

Always Dreaming true in Kentucky Derby (Blood-Horse); Always Dreaming wins Kentucky Derby 2017 (Courier-Journal); On muddy track, Always Dreaming separates from pack to win Kentucky Derby (Sports Illustrated).

Odds and ends:

The top four were hard to separate before the Derby and that was reflected in the pools. Mike Battaglia made the 2016 juvenile champion, Classic Empire, the 4-1 morning line favorite coming into the Derby off a win in the Arkansas Derby, Always Dreaming and McCracken the 5-1 co-second favorites, and Irish War Cry the 6-1 third favorite. Bettors made Irish War Cry the 5-1 second favorite, then narrowly preferred Classic Empire over McCraken (6.80 to 6.90).

Wagering on the Kentucky Derby topped $137.8 million, a new record.

What?! The story behind Pletcher’s Derby beard:

He arrived sporting a goatee as steel gray as his close-cropped hair. When asked why, he told a story about being stared at by a woman at the airport.

“I know you,” he recalled her telling him. “You are D. Wayne Baffert.”

Mike Watchmaker on the Derby results: “Always Dreaming was tons the best winning the Derby. He was as deserving a winner as you will see … and all it takes to understand that is a simple consideration of pace.”

Last word on Thunder Snow’s Derby, from Godolphin executive John Ferguson: “One of the most extraordinary things any of us have ever seen.”

3:00 PM Addendum: Hindsight, etc. Insights from Pete Denk at THT into the split between Always Dreaming’s excellent work and his headstrong gallops:

Derby Day 2017

Kentucky Derby card picks are now up on Hello Race Fans. I’m all alone on the grid with Thunder Snow, who’s 17-1 in the early wagering. Contenders coming out of the UAE Derby don’t have a great record at Churchill Downs, but I like his post, his running style, and even that Godolphin didn’t ship him from Newmarket until last Sunday. He’s also getting Lasix for the first time. Every Derby trainer says they’re confident in their horse(s), and Saeed Bin Suroor is no exception, telling the Racing Post:

“I am very excited,” said Bin Suroor. “I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time to bring a horse with a big chance to run in the greatest race in America.”

I was also thinking a bit about the UAE Derby and why form in it hasn’t successfully translated at Churchill in the past. It used to be an outlier, timing-wise, being six weeks before the Kentucky Derby. But everyone is getting pushed back now — the Sunland Derby (Hence) and Spiral Stakes (Fast and Accurate) are six weeks out, the Florida Derby (Always Dreaming) is five weeks, and the rest of the final preps, with the exception of the Arkansas Derby, are four weeks. Horses entering the Derby on two preps have also become more common. I suspect that in terms of fitness, the UAE Derby’s place on the schedule is no longer quite as detrimental to Derby chances.

Look, it’s the Derby, and as Eric Banks writes in the New York Times today:

… no Derby seems to come out exactly as they expected in advance, which is the one, somewhat counterintuitive lesson provided by repeat exposure, year after year.

There’s something about every Kentucky Derby result that surprises. Maybe the contender from Dubai can deliver a little shock this year.

Rivalry

Exaggerator crossing the wire first in the Preakness
Exaggerator wins the 2016 Preakness ahead of Cherry Wine and Nyquist.

Corey Lanerie on runner-up Cherry Wine gives jockey Kent Desormeaux a pat on the back after Exaggerator wins the 2016 Preakness
And Corey Lanerie on the runner-up gives winning jockey Kent Desormeaux a pat on the back as they gallop out after the wire.

Exaggerator gets a Beyer speed figure of 101 for his Preakness Stakes win over Pimlico’s sloppy track on Saturday. TimeformUS gives him a speed figure of 122, the same number assigned Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist for running third, quashing a Triple Crown bid. The two go on to the Belmont Stakes for a rematch in three weeks, and now that Exaggerator has finally beaten Nyquist — in the fifth race featuring the two of them — we have a rivalry.

So, what about the mud? “Thank the good Lord for raining on us today,” said a member of Exaggerator’s ownership team in the winner’s circle. “You have to think that the track means a lot to his performances, but his fast-track performances are not bad, either,” said rider Kent Desormeaux.

And what about the pace? Pretty similar to the Kentucky Derby, with the slight difference that Nyquist pushed to the lead and moved into the front early. He ran the first quarter with Uncle Lino in :22.38, the first half in :46.56, and the first three-quarters in 1:11.97. Here are the DRF incremental fractions:

DRF incremental fractions for the Preakness
View the official Equibase chart (PDF).

Nyquist won the Derby despite chasing a quick first quarter and running his final quarter three seconds slower; it was an impressive performance. In the Preakness, he was tired, and Exaggerator, tracking on the rail, was in place to take advantage. “The colt shimmied up the backstretch like a seal, utterly enjoying it,” and Desormeaux rode with confidence. Watch the Preakness replay, and see how he angles out and into the lead in the stretch:

5/24/16 Update: Nyquist spikes a fever, will skip Belmont Stakes.

Shore Thing

Alert! American Pharoah has arrived at Monmouth Park for Sunday’s Haskell. Let the beautiful, absurd hoopla begin. Fans were there to greet him at the Atlantic City airport, and an even bigger crowd awaited him at the barn. The Triple Crown winner is about to make his first start since the Belmont Stakes. He looks sculpted, and if possible, even more of a beast than he did just seven weeks ago. Trainer Bob Baffert has worked him three times in 10 days. Tuesday, he breezed four furlongs in :48.80 at Del Mar. July 23, he worked six furlongs in 1:11, more than three seconds faster than the other 11 workers at the distance (a group that included 5-year-old Grade 3 winner Bal a Bali). “He keeps getting stronger,” Baffert said in Tuesday’s NTRA teleconference.

The likely field for the Haskell is Competitive Edge, Keen Ice, Mr. Jordan, Tekton, Top Clearance, Upstart, and War Story. Competitive Edge and Upstart are cross-entered in the Jim Dandy; Tekton is another whose connections are hedging their bets. The decision may now be easier for them — Monmouth announced today that the Haskell purse has been raised to $1.75 million:

Monmouth Park Racetrack has announced a $750,000 purse increase to the William Hill Haskell Invitational, which is to be renewed for the 48th time this Sunday, Aug. 2.

“The Haskell has been called the fourth jewel of the Triple Crown,” said Bob Kulina, president of Darby Development LLC, operators of Monmouth Park Racetrack. “With the Derby purse at $2 million and the Preakness and Belmont going to $1.5 million, it’s only fitting that we join in that mix for our race, which has proven itself the next logical step for 3-year-olds following the Triple Crown.”

The Haskell runner-up will earn more than about as much as the Jim Dandy winner ($350,000/$360,000). Trainer Rick Violette was swayed by the added money, telling David Grening that Upstart will go to New Jersey.

Of course, the purse increase also:

… recognizes the prestige of a Triple Crown winner running at Monmouth.

Ah! The prestige.

The Marvel

From Tim Layden’s Triple Crown epilogue:

… Pharoah’s performance in his recent resumption of training would seem to indicate that he remains at the top of his game. “The only time he’s ever come back to the barn blowing and tired was after the Derby,” says Baffert. That race, according to Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza, remains a marvel. “He was empty with a half mile left in the race,” says Baffert. “I mean empty.” Espinoza says, “I started riding him at the half-mile pole and I’m like ‘Holy s—! What’s happening here?” Says Baffert, “You got a horse that’s empty, and wins the Kentucky Derby, that’s a great horse. People told me, ‘You’ve got to run against older horses.’ Trust me, I’m not worried about older horses. Not with this guy.”

It’s begun — as the legend of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win grows, it’ll be the Kentucky Derby that increasingly stands out as his greatest challenge, the race that defines his accomplishment.

Jersey Pharoah

The expected is official. American Pharoah will make his first start post-Triple Crown in the Haskell, and Monmouth is planning a blowout:

“We are ecstatic to know American Pharoah will be running in the Haskell,” Monmouth president Bob Kulina said. “This will be the biggest day ever in the history of racing in New Jersey. We’ve been racing for 70 years and this is the first time we will have a Triple Crown champion here. I didn’t think I would ever say this, but this will be even bigger than 2007 when we hosted the Breeders’ Cup.”

I don’t know where they’ll put all the people,” said trainer Bob Baffert (DRF+).

Owner Ahmed Zayat says the Travers remains a possibility for Pharoah, but Saratoga’s double-edged history is on his mind: “I am aware of the historic perspective of Saratoga. I am also aware that Secretariat got beat there.”

Pharoah Planning

American Pharoah worked three furlongs in :36.40 at Santa Anita on Monday (photo) and negotiations re: his next race are ongoing. Monmouth Park wants the Triple Crown winner for the Haskell on August 2. Owner Ahmed Zayat wants a few things too if he’s going to commit:

Earlier Monday, word from the track was that they were still waiting for direction from Zayat as to whether he wanted them to increase the Haskell purse or put together some kind of lucrative package for winning multiple races, including the Haskell and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

That’s not what Zayat’s looking for, however, and he said he indicated that in a conference call with Monmouth Park leadership last week.

“I want to make it a festival,” he said. “Where it’s best for the prestige of this horse. Something that is appropriate for a Triple Crown winner. I want to excite the fans. I want to make it a festival that they will always remember. A great day for the sport. And whoever is going to deliver that, that’s what’s good for me. That’s where I’m going to go. That was my message to them.”

And what about Del Mar, where the colt will be training this summer?

… officials are trying to come up with a plan on how to deal with having racing’s superstar housed on the backstretch. Baffert made it clear that the colt is getting back to work, and surely Del Mar will respect those wishes. At Del Mar, it’s almost certain there won’t be nearly the fuss made over the colt’s arrival as there was at Santa Anita, where he was welcomed back as a conquering hero by adoring fans, TV stations and every form of media. As much as Del Mar would like to see it, this won’t be Cigar coming in for the 1996 Pacific Classic. Talk about a zoo.

All Del Mar can hope for is that American Pharoah’s scheduled works will be announced ahead of time to allow San Diego’s horse racing fans to attend them in the morning as they did for California Chrome last year.

If you’re not already planning to be there August 22, don’t rush to book a trip.

← Before After →