Eskendereya will be a heavy favorite, but expected hot pace is wild card
With only a handful of lesser races remaining among major Kentucky Derby preps, none of which are likely to supply a legitimate contender, it’s possible to start making some observations about the 136th Run for the Roses, now only 18 days away.
Much can and will change between now and 6:15 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 1, but here is what we know or can reasonably surmise right now:
- Eskendereya will be the shortest priced Derby favorite since Point Given was sent off at 9-5 in 2001, if Churchill Downs linesmaker Mike Battaglia is accurate with the 2-1 morning line he telegraphed on NBC Sports’ coverage of the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes last weekend.
- The pace in the Derby is almost certain to be blistering. American Lion, Conveyance, Discreetly Mine, Line of David, Paddy O’Prado, Sidney’s Candy, Super Saver and Rule all have a habit of going to the front right out of the gate. Even if the jockeys try to ration the front-runners’ speed, as they most assuredly will, speedsters tend to be headstrong and competitive and may not agree to the preferred tactics of their trainers and riders. And it would only take a couple of them to hook up to set up a suicidal speed duel.
- The projected hot pace adds a big note of intrigue, as the aforementioned Eskenedereya likes to run either on the lead or right behind. As good as the son of Giant’s Causeway has looked winning the Wood Memorial (Gr. 1) and Fountain of Youth Stakes (Gr. 2), he and jockey John Velazquez enjoyed perfect trips in both races on moderate paces. Chasing an entire pack of front-runners through testing early fractions and getting dirt kicked in his face would be a new experience for him and one that he may not relish.
- Todd Pletcher is in position to saddle a record six starters in a single Derby, though he seems inclined to keep one of them — Interactif – on the sidelines. Even if he does, the “Todd Squad,” as team Pletcher is being referred to, would still be a record-tying five starters – Discreetly Mine, Eskendereya, Mission Impazible, Rule and Super Saver. But as Pletcher can tell you from previous experience, having a quarter of the field in your barn doesn’t necessarily equate to success in the Derby. Pletcher went 0-for-5 in 2007 while building his current 0-for-24 record in the Run for the Roses.
- Some very good horses will be on the outside looking in on Derby Day, with the starting field limited to the top 20 horses ranked by graded stakes earnings. But that will depend on which horses above them on the list don’t start for one reason or another. Right now, Noble’s Promise and Interactif are questionable for the race, which would open the door for Jackson Bend and Backtalk to run. Both those horses deserve a shot, but several other talented runners who could make an impact on the race will be left out unless there are several more defections, including Caracortado, Pleasant Prince and Setsuko.
There are many more tea leaves that could be read, but that’s enough for now. Reading tea leaves works much better when you let them settle to the bottom of the cup.
So let’s turn our telescope backward and check out last weekend’s races.
The Arkansas Derby (Gr. 2) was taken down by California invader Line of David, who turned in a strong front-running victory and showed a lot of determination to hold off Super Saver, who briefly stuck his nose in front in the upper stretch.
In winning his third straight, the John Sadler-trained Line of David earned a 98 Beyer speed figure in victory, 11 points below Eskenderya’s best of spring 109 in the Wood Memorial. The colt likely has further improvement in him, but given the fact he’ll likely have lots of company up front in the Derby, it’s hard to get too excited about him as a win candidate.
The same goes for Super Saver, though he probably has more room to move forward after just two starts this year.
Third-place finisher Dublin has the right running style to benefit from a hot Derby pace and is assured a spot in the starting gate. But the highly regarded D. Wayne Lukas–trained colt has yet to impress me this spring, as he’s appeared one-paced in both his starts. “The Coach” may have one more trick play up his sleeve, but I see Dublin as a candidate for the low rungs of the Derby trifecta and superfecta only at this point.
I’ll sum up the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (Gr. 1) differently, simply noting that this once-key Derby prep hasn’t been the same since Keeneland switched to its Polytrack surface in mid-2006. Check the chart below on the Blue Grass runners who went on to run in the Derby, followed by their finish in Louisville:
2009: Join in the Dance, 7th, General Quarters, 10th; Hold Me Back, 12th
2008: Pyro, 8th; Cool Coal Man, 16th; Cowboy Cal, 10th; Visionaire 12th; Monba, 20th.
2007: Street Sense, 1st; Dominican, 11th; Zanjero, 12th; Great Hunter, 13th, Teuflesberg, 17th.
My conclusion from this admittedly small sample is that the racing surface at Keeneland is not conducive to a switch to the natural dirt surface at Churchill Downs, possibly in contrast to other artificial surfaces. The only horse to make an impact in the Derby, Street Sense, was a proven top level dirt performer before he stepped onto the Keeneland track and couldn’t even beat a suspect field there. The reason that trainer Carl Nafzger pointed him there was simply to set him up for his next race – the Derby.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think any of the horses from Saturday’s rendition of the Blue Grass will make any impact in the Derby. That view is endorsed by the 94 Beyer speed figure earned by Stately Victor, winless in five straight starts before breaking through in the Blue Grass.
One more swivel to the forward position, where Saturday’s $300,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes (Gr. 3) could provide one horse with a free pass to the Derby. A field of 10 is expected for the 1 1/16-mile race, led by stakes winners Uptowncharlybrown, Workin for Hops and Exhi. Other likely starters are Call Shot, Chief Counsel, Distorted Dave, Game On Dude, Kettle River, Krypton and Prince Will I Am.
The last two races that have any chance of producing a Derby starter are the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs and the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, both of which will be run on Saturday, April 24. Given that’s just a week before the Derby, it would be highly unorthodox for a trainer to bring a horse back that fast for the toughest race of its young career.
Finally, here’s the last pre-Derby top 10 lists, both mine and my readers. I shuffled a few of the lower rungs on my list, but the readers have made some significant and interesting alterations. Biggest among them are the elevation of Lookin At Lucky to the top of the list, over Eskendereya, despite his disappointing race in the Santa Anita Derby (Gr. 1), and the introduction of the filly Blind Luck, even though she will run in the Oaks rather than the Derby. I’d put her about the same spot on my list if that wasn’t the case.
2) Lookin at Lucky
3) Sidney’s Candy
5) Awesome Act
6) Discreetly Mine
10) Mission Impazible
Originally Poste on NBCSports