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Monday, April 18, 2005

Grouping the Contenders

- With the dust settling from the past weekend’s action, I think we can group the remaining contenders into four groups, though I’m not exactly sure how two of those groups should rank in the scheme of things:

- Group A – This is the “Fab Five” for the Derby. These are the horses who won by the major Derby preps by comfortable margins, plus the runner-up in the Florida Derby, Noble Causeway. The others, obviously, are Bellamy Road, Bandini, High Fly and Afleet Alex. Whichever way you toss them around, any rational handicapper must surely have one of these at the top of his/her list, right? However, by historical standards, all but one have at least one major flaw. Bellamy Road and Afleet Alex will come into the race off of only 2 races this year. High Fly and Noble Causeway will have had five weeks off since their last race.

That leaves Bandini, who has had three races, and comes in off the traditionally optimal three weeks since his last, though it was an injury that made it that way. He also hails from the Mr. Prospector sire line that has been so successful in recent years. But Bandini has some precedent to go against as well.

The past six Derby winners and nine of the last 10 finished the last eighth-mile of their final 11/8-mile prep in under 13 seconds.

Almost all those winners also finished the last three-eighths in under 38. [Louisville Courier-Journal]
Bandini’s last eighth went 13.40, and the last 3/8ths in 39.60. High Fly and Noble Causeway would also not qualify under this standard, as the Florida Derby finished in 13.36 and 39.51 seconds.

There were no other 9f dirt races at Keeneland Saturday, and the pace of the Blue Grass was much faster than the other distance races that day, so there’s nothing really to contrast the race against. Pletcher has his own theory:
"It kind of follows through for the way all the two-turn races have been going here…..Horses have been slowing down in the stretch. I think the race was probably solid, (but) I don't think the numbers are going to blow anybody away." [Courier Journal]
No, they’re not. In any event, if any of the Fab Five wins the Derby, they’ll be breaking one kind of precedent or another.

- Group B (or C): My next grouping is other horses from those preps that finished credibly enough to still make some kind of case for. In this group, I’d put High Limit and Flower Alley, and, stretching a bit, Survivalist and Andromeda’s Hero…and that’s it, and no, I didn't forget Closing Argument. Flower Alley is included partly because of his potential to improve and how highly he’s regarded by Pletcher. I’ll throw Andromeda’s Hero in because of how fast Afleet Alex came home; I’m much more willing to give a pass to those who tried and failed to close against him in a 36.02 second last 3/8ths, than those who lagged behind in a Blue Grass that more or less fell apart. Survivalist is pretty consistent and barely included here as a nod to those who feel that the Aqueduct track was heavily favoring speed that day (which I don’t agree with).

From listening to Bobby Frankel, it sounds like High Limit came out of the race an extremely tired animal.
Bobby Frankel isn't even sure about his own horse, High Limit, who suffered the first loss of his four-race career in the Blue Grass.

"There's no pressure on me now," Frankel said. "But I don't know if he'll go forward or backward off this race. The way he's acted afterward, it tells you that he ran in one very tough race."

High Limit, as he has done before, jumped the tire tracks from the starting gate as he ran through the stretch. Frankel may add blinkers for the Derby. [LA Times]

- Group C (or B): The next group is those who impressed coming out of other races, ones which can be considered of questionable quality: Buzzards Bay, Wilko, Blues and Royals, and Greeley’s Galaxy. The Santa Anita Derby would usually be grouped with the major preps, but not this year in my opinion, given the awful performances around the country (as well as in the race itself) of the California horses considered the main contenders, and the improbable result of the race. Nonetheless, Buzzards Bay makes this grouping based on his gameness and improvement; he is quite the battler – check out even his tough 3rd in the El Camino Real; and Wilko showed enough with his troubled third – one of these days he’ll be 100% healthy and get a clean trip. Greeley’s Galaxy is obviously improving and hopefully he’ll get into the race so we can see how much. On the other hand, I hope Blues and Royals changes his mind, goes back to Europe, and leaves us alone. If he comes and wins, I think a lot of people who have put so much time and effort into following and deciphering the march to the Derby here will be extremely frustrated and disappointed.

- Group E: The final group are horses that one needs to establish a solid excuse for his last race in order to make a case he can win on May 7; so I’ll skip ‘D’ and call this Group E, for Excuse. Sun King, Consolidator, and Greater Good head this list, which can also include just about anyone else who still intends to go on – Spanish Chestnut, Going Wild, etc., Lukas and Zito were not happy with the rides their horses got, but, again, does that explain how they could have been so empty in the stretch? Bill Handleman of the Asbury Park Press has some very interesting questions about Sun King.
Watching the race, especially from the head-on angle, it looks like Prado did everything in his power to make sure the colt got as much dirt as possible kicked in his face. This is not how Edgar Prado got to be a prominent rider, orchestrating trips like this.

So you have to wonder what the plan was going in, particularly since Sun King was dead on the board. Settled in last early, moved five wide while still last, seven wide in the stretch, then eight wide, pushed out farther and farther on the track by Closing Argument — what was that all about? [Asbury Park Press]
Well, he was dead on the board, I think he opened at 5-1! So, was this just merely a schooling session for him? Seems unlikely, especially since we heard on ESPN Zito instructing Prado to “make a left turn” and save ground. But perhaps he’ll benefit from the experience.

As for Greater Good, who probably had no shot closing into those fractions even under optimal conditions, "He was washed out pretty bad before the race then he got hung wide and there was a lack of pace," Holthus said. "It just wasn't his day. But he'll be back. That's all we can hope for." [TwinCities.comvia Albany Law School]

- So, I forgot someone, right? Rockport Harbor is in a class by himself at this point, and we’ll know more after the Lexington, though I’m not holding my breath.

So there you go. Pick one from Column A, or one from B, or….