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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

JB in the House

With tax season still looming here for me and being the Commish for the annual office NCAA Calcutta starting tonight I've enlisted my guest blogger dude, JB, to provide us with some in-depth analysis over the next few weeks on the Road to Louisville. Let's give him a warm Space Station welcome, grab a little JB and diet and enjoy...

It's that time of year again when racetrackers from across the country catch Derby fever. I, for one, suffer from a more advance malady I like to call Triple Crown hysteria. So for the next few weeks I will be examining the horses getting set to run in the most exciting two minutes, or 1:59 if you're Secretariat, in sports. With the First Saturday in May still more than seven weeks away, which can either be an eternity or not enough time, depending on the condition of your horse, we'll have plenty of time to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Let me start out by saying the last two three year old crops have produced two racing freaks; Jess Jackson's magnificent Curlin and IEAH Stables Derby phenom, Big Brown. Compared to their respective Derby fields, both these horses were very lightly raced coming into the Triple Crown series, yet Big Brown, breaking from the 20 post and running wide the entire way, threw an anchor on the field at the top of the stretch and won VERY IMPRESSIVELY. Curlin ran a miraculous third in tight quarters behind a Churchill Downs loving Street Sense and dead game Hard Spun. So despite their lack of traditional Derby prepping both horses stepped up significantly on Derby day.

So is there a a proverbial freak in this years crop? Well if you're a tote board watcher (and who isn't) the odds-on favorite at the close of Derby pool #2 is the lightly raced, Todd Pletcher trained Dunkirk. Clearly he is not taking a traditional path to the Derby. Pointing to the 1 1/8 mile Florida Derby on March 28th, and with $0 in graded stakes earnings, he'll need to step up huge to even make it into the field. If you're one of those accountant types [Editors Note: I think he just took a shot at me] who like to follow the money, even early money, you have to take notice. Speaking of taking notice, a trainer with great recent success in the 3YO colt (the aforementioned Hard Spun) and filly (Eight Belles and 3YO Filly Champ Proud Spell) divisions has decided to put off retiring and train two very capable Derby bound colts. Larry Jones is loaded and now we all know it. He is training both the royally bred (AP Indy) Friesan Fire, fresh off a sweep of Louisiana's Fair Grounds 3YO series; and a 5-6 lifetime speedball Old Fashioned (named after everyone's grandmother's favorite drink), ridden by the very talented and under-rated Ramon Dominquez. I love Friesan Fire. He is battle tested, running against fields of quality and size. He is bred for the Derby and Triple Crown distances. He can rate and relax off the pace, changes gears on command for stable rider Gabriel Saez and will get over 7 weeks rest before the Derby. I hold that he is the best and most proven of all the east coast runners on the triple crown trail. Old Fashioned is fast, very fast. But his last race, after chasing a very hot pace and making the lead, he was hooked by a bomb down the lane, handing him his first career defeat. Larry Jones said post race "the track was heavy." But with the game's most patient jock on his back, Old Fashioned must learn to to settle down right quick. Stay tuned for his next start in the Arkansas Derby on April 11th. I Want Revenge's breakout performance in the 1 1/16 two turn Gotham on the Big A's inner track was a head turner for sure. But my head was turned before he entered the gate. Revenge's trainer J-Mull aka Jeff Mullens shipped his first time dirt starter from the left coast with hot shot rider Joe Talamo. That was news. I can't remember the last time J-Mull shipped in a 3YO to Aqueduct. And I know I've never seen Talamo in a winter/spring stakes race in the Big Apple. So what gives? Revenge is a solid, mature race horse who was in complete control from the first call, making legitimate fractions while leaving plenty in the tank for his stretch run. Maybe it wasn't the most stellar field, certainly not compared to the Lousiana Derby, but there was one horse who caught my eye. Imperial Council, trained by Shug McGaughey, took a lot of money that day, maybe because everyone in New York gets excited when Shug shows up in the spring with a 3YO (we all loved Easy Goer). But Shug isn't the kind of trainer to bring a horse to Churchill unless he thinks he has a legitimate shot to make some noise. He closed very well in the Gotham. Maybe there will be a hotter pace for him to close into when he faces Revenge again in the Wood Memorial on April 4th.

Two very impressive California based runners are now on a collision course to lock horns in the Santa Anita Derby on April 4th, following Pioneerof the Nile's win (he was giving the field 5-7 lbs.) in the San Felipe and The Pamplemousse's 6 length victory in the Sham. Top notch trainer Bob Baffert and the world's #1 jockey Garret Gomez combine to make Pioneerof the Nile the west coast's best chance for meeting Kentucky's governor. Garret Gomez is riding like Jordan played in the Finals -- he is in the zone. So if Gomez is up on a horse with a shot, and Baffert, who is very well known for getting horses ready for Kentucky's annual rose party, Pioneer will be ready. The Pamplemousse has looked like a world beater in his 2009 season, taking down 2008 BC Juvenile runner-up Square Eddie and running comfortably on or near the lead in all his starts. But he has yet to be looked in the eye and go belly down in the stretch. A lot of horses look uncatchable when running up front. But inevitably, another horse will look them in the eye and reveal what's inside. The Pamplemousse has yet to show this dimension. As far as Cali horses going from synthetics to dirt, Colonel John's (Garret Gomez up) performance in last year's midsummer derby at the Spa demonstrated that a horse who runs big on synthetics with a legitimate dirt foundation in his pedigree, can win anywhere.

JB's Baker's (1/2) Dozen Derby List:

1. Friesan Fire - Resting and Right
2. Dunkirk - Key him the Florida Derby
3. Pioneerof the Nile - Hasn't run his best race yet
4. Old Fashioned - Needs to discover patience is a virtue
5. I Want Revenge - Not going to get an easy lead in Wood
6. The Pamplemousse - Gut check next time out
7. Imperial Council - I wish there was a Derby Show pool. Belmont calling

Next Entry: Handicapping the Race


Unknown said...

I stand by Dunkirk---but live in fear of Quality Road being unchallenged on a FLorida Derby lead. At the very least, Dunkirk MUST get second, to reach Kentucky.

Anonymous said...

I too live in fear of James Jerkens horses hovering under the top echelon radar, especially with a courageous riding Johnny V. on his back. But Quality hasn't yet been two turns. Asking him to do it for the first time under grade 1conditions might be a little much. But if he finishes in the top 2 in a well paced Florida Derby, he'll crack my Derby Baker's 1/2 Dozen.

Anonymous said...

The early pace for this year's Derby is setting up to be pretty intense. Can they go 22 and 45 early on and still keep the pace for 10 furlongs...seems to be setting up nicely for a hard closing Friesan Fire.



Anonymous said...

Ramon Dominquez loses his mount on Derby hopeful in Arkansas Derby. Trainer Larry Jones announced Teery Thompson will replace Domninquez on early prohibitive derby favorite, Old Fashioned. Ramon said he pushed the horse too early in the Oaklawn and could have given him a better ride. Apparently, Jones thinks Old has a better chance in The Arkansas Derby with lesser known jockey Terry Thompson in the saddle. More to come....


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