JC / Railbird

Triple Crown

Royal Mo Settles In at Pimlico

It’s quiet at Pimlico, and that’s why Always Dreaming shipped in early for the Preakness. Royal Mo did too, getting his first tour of the place on Wednesday morning, as captured in the very peaceful short video below that acted (for me) as a delightful antidote to all the recent non-racing news:

His exercise rider is 17-year-old Taylor Leatherman, who would like to be a jockey. “He’s a super cool horse,” she said of her new ride:

5/14/17 Update: An unfortunate development — Royal Mo suffered a right front sesamoid fracture while working at Pimlico early on Sunday morning. Jockey Gary Stevens heard a pop; he pulled the colt up and held the leg. Royal Mo has been transported to the New Bolton veterinary hospital.

5/15/17 Update via Jeremy Balan on Twitter: “John Shirreffs just got an update on Royal Mo. Surgery @ New Bolton successful. A long way to go to recover. Racing career officially over.”

5/18/17 Addendum: She didn’t ride him for long, but Leatherman’s time with Royal Mo has had its rewards. The aspiring jockey credited trainer John Shirreffs with some of her newfound skills; he praised her work as “perfect.”

Empire Maker, Bodemeister, and Always Dreaming

Bodemeister before the 2012 Kentucky Derby
Bodemeister awaiting the walkover for the 2012 Kentucky Derby.

Always Dreaming is now at Pimlico and trainer Todd Pletcher has sketched out a light training regimen for the Kentucky Derby winner, reports David Grening:

Pletcher said Always Dreaming would simply jog Wednesday morning at Pimlico before beginning to gallop on Thursday. He reiterated Tuesday what he said Sunday morning — that the horse would not have a workout before the Preakness.

“I’m not going to breeze him no matter what,” Pletcher said. “He’s fit, that’s not an issue. Two mile-and-an-eighth races and the Derby and now back in 14 days, I don’t see any reason to do anything.”

His win last Saturday sent me searching for things to read about both his sire, Bodemeister, and grandsire, Empire Maker, a son of Unbridled. Bodemeister finished second as the post-time favorite in the 2012 Kentucky Derby to I’ll Have Another after flying through the first six furlongs in 1:09.80, pressed by Trinniberg. Pat Forde recounts how he finished the race:

Yet instead of hitting the cardiovascular wall, Bodemeister actually opened up the lead in the stretch, threatening to shatter the barriers of equine endurance and defy more than a century of established Derby precedent.

“What kind of horse is this?” wondered Churchill Downs executive and resident Derby authority John Asher.

“The term that came to my mind was ‘Freak,’” said former trainer Elliott Walden, now president and CEO of WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky. “To run those fractions and then open up at the top of the lane, it was just incredible.”

(Bodemeister stands at WinStar.)

It was the way Bodemeister re-broke that flashed into my mind when Always Dreaming crossed the wire 2 3/4 lengths ahead of Lookin at Lee after chasing State of Honor through a swift first four furlongs in :46.53. It wasn’t that his final fraction was impressive (not at :26.32), but rather the stamina on display — it reminded me of American Pharoah, who’s by Pioneerof the Nile, another son of Empire Maker, and it was no surprise that in my searching, a relevant, prescient post by Sid Fernando popped up. Writing about owner Ahmed Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert, and the Unbridled line, Fernando observed:

Perhaps all of this will coalesce in a Derby victory for the owner, trainer, and sire line.

Spoiler! It did — American Pharoah was just two months old and three years away from winning the Triple Crown when Fernando wrote this piece in 2012.

It was via Fernando that I read this 2008 Jack Werk column about Pioneerof the Nile that included this detail about the 2009 Kentucky Derby runner-up:

“I’m really high on this colt,” he said. “The big thing with this colt is his tremendous lung capacity, and that’s really important for the Derby. In fact, I’m so high on the sire that we’re sending Indian Blessing and some other top mares to Empire Maker.”

Empire Maker is now the 15th stallion to sire two or more sons who would produce Kentucky Derby winners, according to Blacktype Pedigree. “I think we can now officially refer to Empire Maker/Unbridled (also sire of Unbridled’s Song)/Fappiano as a hot two-turn Classic dirt sire line,” writes Bill Oppenheim.

It’s all an interesting fulfillment of the promise that Lauren Stich saw in Empire Maker back in 2007, at the beginning of his stud career:

Like A.P. Indy, Empire Maker not only has an impeccable pedigree, he also should be an important source of stamina in this country, a rare commodity in this era. While runners by Empire Maker should only improve with age and distance, some will certainly have tactical speed. Unbridled may be revered as a strong source of stamina, but he did thrash champion Housebuster going seven furlongs in the Deputy Minister Handicap at Gulfstream Park. And, thus far, the brilliant Unbridled’s Song has been Unbridled’s best son at stud, and is more of a speed than stamina influence.

Empire Maker’s offspring should not be as precocious as those of Unbridled’s Song, but they will be more effective at distances longer than one mile. Empire Maker’s runners should relish 1 1/4 miles and beyond, and I expect we will eventually see many of his 3-year-olds succeed in all of the Triple Crown races, possibly even in 2008, and every year thereafter.

It also seems like a good reason to trust Always Dreaming’s fitness for May 20, and that the qualities Kerry Thomas and Pete Denk discerned in the colt in their Brisnet Kentucky Derby analysis will likely hold up for the Preakness:

When rider John Velazquez let him go turning for home, Always Dreaming poured every ounce of emotional energy into his forward drive. He lengthened his stride and pulled away from the field to win by five lengths. This was a more determined, stronger version of Always Dreaming. This is a colt on a serious growth pattern.

His internal fractions of :47.34, :23.59, 24.02, :12.53 show an excellent mix of speed and stamina. His sensory system was still way out in front of his body at the wire (as a horse tires physically, that emotional extension shrinks). We think Always Dreaming is well equipped to get 10 furlongs.

Always Dreaming is a talented horse just coming into his own, getting stronger every race.

Related: Empire Maker’s profile on American Classic Pedigrees. See also, this story about Empire Maker returning to the US in 2015 after standing in Japan.

(Thanks to @superterrific and @jenmontfort for inspiring this post.)

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.

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