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Friday, January 05, 2007

A Look Back Not Long Ago

- I suppose I should have posted the following comments by Kiaran McLaughlin concerning Jazil before today's race.

"We want to finish one-two-three....If the track is speed biased and we finish second we will all understand that. Hopefully, he's running late and moves forward from the race." [Daily Racing Form]
But similar remarks were in all the pre-race stories, so hopefully you'd read that and didn't contribute to the money that sent him off at .45 cents to the dollar. I know the field wasn't impressive. But here the trainer was basically telling you not to bet him in the win spot; and the horse did fine, though Fernando Jara didn't really appear to ride him with victory in mind.

This brings to mind the comments by John Ward in 2000 prior to the Wood; I don't recall his exact words, but they were similar in tone to that of McLaughlin's. He more or less told you that Monarchos was using the race as a prep and that they'd be happy with a good finish. I used that to cash a nice ticket on him in the Derby, and that's been my last score in the race. However, I touted Smarty Jones to everyone I knew. Really. I didn't like him to win at 4-1, but I didn't like Lion Heart, who split the exacta with Imperialism, which was my top choice for second. I would have had a nice score; he was the sixth choice at almost 11-1.

Don't believe me? As I noted above, I'm going away and this will be my last post of substance until next Saturday. Plus, when I get back it will be right around the two year anniversary of LATG. So I thought I'd take this occasion to leave you with this blast from the past. This is actually pre-Left at the Gate. It's the Kentucky Derby preview I sent out to everyone I know in 2004, in what was an annual and usually fruitless enterprise. Besides me obviously bragging - and Derby bragging rights never expire - it's interesting to look back at some of the names. It seems much longer ago than it was to me; I guess that what's happens when the sport's stars all retire at 3 and 4. I don't believe that any of these horses raced in 2006 other than Imperialism, who was out of the money in two starts, and they were only five years old after all. Also, at least one of the Derby handicapping theories I spoke about is already starting to change. But anyway, without further adieu, I bid you adieu until next Saturday, the 13th. And here is how I saw the Derby in 2004.
With no big name star nor clear-cut favorite set to start in Saturday’s 130th running of the Kentucky Derby, and with the big horse race in November and the continuing events surrounding and confounding it continuing to heat up, this year’s affair seems a bit subdued. In fact, perhaps the biggest news to come out of Louisville in the days leading up to the race has been the legal battle between the jockeys and the state of Kentucky over the riders’ right to wear advertising on their silks. A judge ruled in favor of the jocks on Thursday. Don’t expect any poitical ads, as the available space on the pint-sized men is far too little for Kerry to explain all his Senate votes, or to accommodate nearly enough lies to make it worthwhile for Bush-Cheney.

In fact, the full field of 20 colts, the largest field since 1984. is kinda like the Democratic primary field - all the contenders have some kind of flaw; so we’ll try to pick one based on his selectability, and separate the Kerrys from the Kucinichs (is he still in the race?) Racing luck will be key - the track will be more congested than a mob of oil company executives trying to get into a meeting of Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force - so this year more than ever, betting value is the key factor in making your selection.

Here’s a look some of the contenders:

THE CLIFF’S EDGE is the morning line favorite at 4-1, and the logical favorite as well. He comes off a smashing victory in the Blue Grass Stakes and his style of closing from far back is the kind that gets Derby bettors all excited. He’s 2 for 2 on the Churchill Downs track, and has thrived in his workouts there this week. He’s trained by the popular New York native Nick Zito, who has won the Derby twice, and has a very high voice. He has a lot of things going for him. But he will be far back early, and will need more racing luck than his odds will probably justify.

SMARTY JONES is undefeated in six lifetime starts. He’s this year’s unfashionably bred, little guy story, having started his career at miserable Philadelphia Park. He comes to the Derby off two wins at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, most recently a tough win from a bad post in the Arkansas Derby. Although he is being lumped in by many with a group of speedy types that are supposed to burn themselves out and set it up for the likes off The Cliff’s Edge, he, in fact, has shown the ability to sit closely behind the pace and from his outside post, his rider Stewart Elliot should be able to survey the situation and position his charge accordingly. A Pennsylvania-bred in the Derby winner’s circle seems as out of place as the Republican Convention in New York City, but this one has a shot.

TAPIT is trained by the eccentric Englishman Michael Dickinson, who is known for his unorthodox training methods. He maintains his horses at his own training Center, and brought his own grass along to Kentucky so Tapit could graze as usual. Tapit comes into the Derby off of an amazing last to first win in the Wood Memorial here at Aqueduct which shocked even Dickinson, who was only looking for a tuneup; an attempt to duplicate that here would require much luck. The horse appeared to be distracted by the crowd while coming down the stretch, but he was really just looking for Governor Pataki to confirm their dinner appointment for later that night. Note that physical problems meant a late start in 2004, and this is only his third start of the year. Only one horse in the last 50 years has won the Derby under those circumstances.

LION HEART is a speedy type who will break from the inside 3 post. In order to get clear and get out to the lead, he’ll have to break out there faster than a family of ducks at a Dick Cheney hunting trip. He finished second, only a half-length behind The Cliff’s Edge in the Blue Grass, and appears to me to be the horse who should have the lead heading into the backstretch, but he should be challenged by Smarty Jones as they approach the final turn. And he too is only making his third start of the year. History in this race has always proven to be a formidable handicapping tool.

All-world trainer Todd Pletcher sends out two colts: POLLARD’S VISION is blind in his right eye, so he can’t see horses coming up to the outside of him in the stretch. (He’s named after Red Pollard, Seabiscuit’s jockey, who was also blind in that eye.) This did not stop him however from holding off a challenger (SONG OF THE SWORD, another entrant here) in his front running victory in the Illinois Derby, the exact same way War Emblem won that race before his Derby win in 2000. He’s versatile and can also sit behind the front runners and rally in the stretch. This colt has progressed very well and should offer good betting value. LIMEHOUSE breaks from the rail, and with all the action going on outside of him, will be unlikely to be able to establish a cozy spot a couple lengths off the pace as he likes to.

ACTION THIS DAY’s approval rating has gone down faster than that of President Bush. It seems as if his surprise win in last year’s Breeders Cup Juvenile was an exception rather than the rule. He’s finished no better than fourth in three 2004 starts, but his trainer Richard Mandella insists that he’s had excuses: He wasn’t ready in his first race back. He had a bad back. He was distraught and disturbed over Passion of the Christ. Would be a surprise, as well as the first horse to win the Juvenile and the Derby.

FRIENDS LAKE and READ THE FOOTNOTES, a pair of New York-breds, both last raced in the Florida Derby seven weeks ago and have been trained up to the Derby. Friends Lake held off The Cliff’s Edge in that race, which was run in a slow time; Read the Footnotes ran the fastest race any of these have run this year in his start prior to the Florida Derby, but then disappointed. No horse since 1956 has won the Derby without having run in his last 28 days, including many highly regarded contenders. Speaking of NY-breds, last year’s popular winner Funny Cide will be on hand to help Sackatoga Stable promote their latest marketing deal, having announced that the gelding will star as Rocky Balboa in the highly anticipated remake of Rocky III.

IMPERIALISM is trained by 21 year old Kristin Mulhall, who would become the first woman and the youngest ever to train a Derby winner, quite a remarkable story in itself. The horse has improved markedly since she assumed training duties three races ago, and comes into this race off of three really solid stakes tries in California. Seems hard to imagine this young trainer knocking off the game’s best conditioners here, but could be part of a big exacta or triple. And if you like Imperialism, you have to like CASTLEDALE, who rallied to beat the former in the Santa Anita Derby.

That’s the problem in handicapping this race, you could really make a case for almost anyone. WIMBLEDON is trained by Bob Baffert, who has won this race three times. He won the Louisiana Derby, but disappointed behind the aforementioned pair in the Santa Anita Derby. (He's a late scratch this morning) MASTER DAVID is trained by all-universe Bobby Frankel, and ran a nice second behind Tapit in the Wood. BORREGO closes well and finished a nice second to Smarty Jones in his last, and wouldn’t be a shock if he finds a clear path.


SMARTY JONES - Oh man, it’s the cheesy “little guy” type pick. But recall we mentioned the flaws of the contenders, and this one’s flaws are only the perceived ones of supposedly inferior bloodlines and class. He’s undefeated, and has trained brilliantly over the track this week. Sits behind Lion Heart, takes over the lead going into the final turn, and they’ll have him to catch turning for home.

IMPERIALISM - Improved and consistent, can get a big piece of the purse for his young trainer.

POLLARD’S VISION - Could win this if able to rate behind the leaders.

THE CLIFF’S EDGE - Figures right there, running style is his only flaw.

BORREGO - Live longshot is extremely consistent and on the improve.