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WEEKEND DERBY PREPS: Better than a Groundhog

Pioneerof The Nile relives his narrow Cashcall Futurity to return victorious in the Bob Lewis.

Pioneerof The Nile relives his narrow Cashcall Futurity to return victorious in the Bob Lewis.

Today the weather was actually not hellatious.  It was right near enjoyable.  Perfect for a trio of Derby Preps!

Close to home at the Fairgrounds, Friesan Fire lit up the Risen Star stakes with a strong performance that shoots him into the Derby picture.  Despite being rank early, the Larry Jones trainee raced close up to an honest pace set by It Happened Again.  Jockey Gabriel Saez sent Friesan Fire to the lead at the top of the lane and the colt drew off by 3.  It was a sweet effort that proves this colt is a real contender.  And he’s the second fiddle three year old in Jones’s barn!  I have high expectations for Old Fashioned Feb 16.  

Up in NY, Haynesfield won the Whirlaway at Aqueduct in an awesome wire-to-wire parade route.  The son of Speightstown was unchallenged the whole way around and finished up about 7 in front.  I have doubts about his distance capabilites, though the Whirlaway is 1 1/6th miles, far from a sprint.  He has the class to go forward and we’ll just see how that turns out in the Gotham next month.  The biggest delight was the sunny skies and fast track up at Aqueduct, which is normally a drab scene in February.  Forget the groundhog, Haynesfield says we’re having an early spring.

Finally, Pioneerof The Nile emerged as the top Derby contender in the West with his win in the Bob Lewis Stakes.  (I’m going to start calling this colt PNiles, after Tiger bigman Pierre Henderson-Niles)  PNiles overcame horrendous traffic and closed like a jailhouse door to take the Lewis by a neck.  It was an exciting, gutsy performance by the Baffert trainee.  Though my sources say PNiles will stay out west until Derby day, it would sure be nice to see how he’ll handle the real dirt before May.  Also, if we have a TC on the line again this year, let me make my prediction now: Pioneerof The Nile will be the spoiler, just like his Dad, EMpire Maker.

I am formulating my Derby List and should have it ready to post next week sometime.  The Sam F. Davis and El Camino Real are the Valentine’s Day preps next saturday, and I will have some sweet picks for them Friday.  Also, I may be shooting up the highway to Hot Springs sooner rather than never — stay tuned!

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Filed under Aqueduct, Derby Prepes, Fairgrounds Race Course, Graded Stakes, Kentucky Derby, Santa Anita

2009 PREDICTIONS

At midnight I drank a New Year’s toast to the brand new 3yos of 2009, and the promise of glory and heartbreak on the Derby trail.  Here is the OFFICIAL Infield Derby Top 10 List, Week 1!

10) MIDSHIPMAN :  BC Juvy winner by Unbridled’s Song would have been in the top 5 were it not for the bad luck of being part of the Stonerside dispersal.  Instead of staying in CA with Baffert, the talented colt is spending his winter in Dubai.  I admire the Sheikh’s love and dedication to the sport and his magnificent training center, but his Derby tactics just haven’t been all that successful.  Midshipman could be the one to prove me wrong, but I think the #2 colt has an even better chance –

9) SQUARE EDDIE :  Raced exclusively on turf and synthetic, this son of Smart Strike began his career in Europe before joining Paul Reddam’s racing stable.  His impressive 5-length victory in the Lane’s End Futurity set him up for a tough run in the BC Juveile, where he tracked Midshipman the whole way around.  He has never raced on dirt, but his sire has gotten nice runners on all surfaces (Curlin & English Channel).  Promises to be a major player in the Cali preps, beginning with the San Rafael on Jan 17.

8) PIONEEROF THE NILE : Baffert’s replacement for Midshipman, this colt won a hard-fought running of the CashCall Futurity on Dec. 20.  The Zayat Stables runner by Empire Maker has always been charging at the final furlong, and seems to be on the improve.  Surface questions also surround him: though he broke his maiden on Saratoga’s dirt, he has only run in synthetic stakes.  Trivia: His damsire is Lord At War, the same as Baffert’s ’02 Derby winner War Emblem.  And just as an aside, I hate the preposition dangling off of “Pioneer”  in his name…

7) IMPERIAL COUNCIL : Impressive maiden winner also sired by Empire Maker.  Out of a Thunder Gulch mare, he promises to only get better as distances stretch out.  He is owned by newish partnership Sequoia Racing Stable, headed by longtime racing pro Reynolds Bell Jr.  In Shug McGaughey’s barn, Imperial Council has a expert conditioner plotting his runup to the roses. 

6) BEETHOVEN :  John Ward got Monarchos to the ’01 Derby and is using that  experience to train this son of Sky Mesa.  The colt has a win over the Churchill Downs surface, in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at 1 1/6 miles on Nov. 29.  He toughed out the win in a three-way duel down the stretch, showing a lot of guts for a 2yo.  There are a few questions however– dam Moonlight Sonata is by sprint sire Carson City, and both parents had short, injury-plagued careers.  Ward is a careful, old-school trainer, though, and the colt has had no problems so far.

5) BREAK WATER EDISON : Such a cumbersome name for a very talented colt.  This son of Lemon Drop Kid has taken his time finding the winner’s circle in stakes, finally getting some Gr3 money in the one mile Nashua on Nov. 2.  The trainee of John Kimmel stayed close to a hot pace in that race, yet found enough in the tank to draw away impressively and finish in 1:35.8.  Break Water Edison should stretch out nicely as the races do on the Derby trail.  I only wish he had a more palatable name…

4) WELL POSITIONED : Another promising maiden winner, this one owned by Paul Pompa, Jr. of Big Brown fame.  The son of Awesome Again broke his maiden by a devastating 14 lengths, which lit up Pompa’s phone with offers from many looking for Derby prospects.  The aptly-named colt is trained by Pat Reynolds.  The colt’s final time in the mile maiden race was 1:38 3/5, while older horses running in the Discovery Handicap later that day ran 2 seconds slower in covering the same distance.  Pompa appeared well-positioned once again for classic success, though there hasn’t been any major announcement about ownership changes or future plans for the colt since the big win, which leads me to believe there might be an issue somewhere. 

3) CHARITABLE MAN : A favorite of mine from the summer, this son of Lemon Drop Kid pulled away strongly to win the 7f Belmont Futurity. Like father, like son.   Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, this gorgeous dark bay out of a Saint Ballado mare figures to relish the added distances on the spring classics.  An injury knocked him out of the fall juvenile races, but I’ve heard he seems to be doing well and will be dangerous in the Derby preps.

2) VINEYARD HAVEN : He was Bobby Frankel’s best 2yo since Empire Maker, winner of the Gr1 Champagne Stakes and Gr1 Hopeful and early favorite for the BC Juvy.  The supplemental entry fee of $180,000 kept him out of the big race, but not out of the sight of Sheikh Mohammed.  This son of blog favorite Lido Palace was snatched up for an undisclosed (read:ungodly) sum just after the juvenile.  He, too will be in Dubai for the runup to the Derby, but of all the horses sent there for training over the past several years, Vineyard Haven seems to be the one who could pull off the impossible.  He’s fast, he’s bred to go long, and he can win on dirt.

1) OLD FASHIONED :  He is a grey colt by Unbridled’s Song, trained by Larry Jones and owned by Fox Hill Farm.  How poetic would it be for a half-bro* to Eight Belles to win the Kentucky Derby?  In all seriousness, the Fox Hill Farm crew have come dangerously close to winning the roses the past several years, with the unlucky Rockport Harbor, whose injured foot kept him off the Derby trail in ’05;  the tough, speedy Hard Spun, who set the pace in the ’07 Derby and hung on for 2nd; and of course, Eight Belles, the only horse who came close to Big Brown in the ’08 Derby.   Old Fashioned ran a lights out Remsen at 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.33, by a stunning 7 lengths.  Of course, the soundness issue will be talked to death, as will the strength of the bottom side of his pedigree.  But Old Fashioned looks like a Derby winner to me, and he has the connections to make it all the way. 

 *Eight Belles and Old Fashioned share a sire, and for my purposes on today’s blog, I used the human definition of “half brother”.  However, the two horses are not technically considered half-siblings because they are not out of the same mare.

Happy New Year!  

Happy Birthday Thoroughbreds!!!

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Filed under Derby Prepes, Kentucky Derby, lists

Plenty to be Thankful For

Happy Thanksgiving!

With all of the craziness in racing, from ADW controversies to breakdowns to auction slumps, it’s good to think about the good things on a day like today.  Also, a list is an easy way to blog on a holiday… now before I get angry e-mails from family & friends, this is just a list of thoroughbred-related things I am thankful for.  I won’t be listing “breakdown-free Breeders’ Cup” at the family dinner tonight!

1) CURLIN!  Though he did not start out as my favorite horse, he has raced and won his way into my heart.  Thanks to sportsman Jess Jackson (and a little help from the jailed part-owners) Curlin got to prove himself over and over again as an older horse.  He broke a legendary earnings record, raced on all surfaces and met all comers.  His retirement ceremony at Churchill on Saturday will mark the end of an extraordinary career.  Thanks for the ride, Curlin!

2) SAUHBR!  Thanks to The Borderland Totalisator (whose blog has mysteriously vanished, humm…) for an awesome summer of handicapping.  The first of many victories in the game, I hope.  I also hope BT gets back online, because he was a great competitor and gracious in defeat.  Thanks!

3) Larry Jones!  Trainer of the ill-fated Eight Belles handled the ultimate tragedy with grace and compassion.  When nutty PETA accused him of all sorts of horrific abuses, his level-headed replies revealed the activists for the slime they really were.  Amid the turmoil, he sent the filly Proud Spell out for an amazing season, as well as the sprinter Kodiak Kowboy. 

4) Breakdown-Free Breeders’ Cup!  Despite all of the questions surrounding the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita this year, the track was successful in its ultimate mission: an injury-free Championship.  Every horse, every race, on poly or turf, came home sound.  This is the first time in several years that no horse was severely injured.  The track also levelled the playing field for the Euro contingent, which is always nice in a so-called “world championship” series.

5) JIM GAFFNEY!  Exercise rider for the Superhorse Secretariat and a close personal friend of this blogger, Mr. Gaffney has been a joy and privelege to know.  I have attended 2 KY Derbies with the man and his lovely wife, Mary, and have gained so much more knowledge of the racing business from him.  Thanks Jim!

6) TVG!  Not a day goes by that I don’t flip channels to TVG.  I love love love watching live racing with the hosts Todd Schrupp and Matt Carothers.  They are an irreverent bunch and their picks are pretty good, too.  I have learned a lot about handicapping watching TVG and am eternally thankful for the first all-racing channel.  Plus, I won an Eclipse Awards official program from them back in January.  Schwag always keeps my attention!

7) At The Races with Steve Byk on SIRIUS!  Every day I listen as Steve chats with the top names in racing, does a little handicapping, and has a good-old time talking to regular Joe horseplayers.  His show is a blessing for a sport that gets so little coverage by the MSM, and when it does, it’s usually dumbed-down *cough*ESPN*cough*  From ATTR, I have learned how top trainers condition their horses (pre-Derby shows) and have gotten a greater appreciation for the Pick 4 ticket and Super High 5 ticket.  Bob Baffert before the Breeders’ Cup was a big treat, too!  Thanks Steve!

8) MY LITTLE CONNOR!  This horse is the best little allowance horse in the world.  I hope he comes back to Oaklawn next year. 

Next up, Santa better be reading my Christmas list!

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Filed under Jim Gaffney, lists, rants, SAUHBR