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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Derby Outlook Shifts a Bit West

- Well, first of all, what a day Saturday was, eh? There's enough to talk about for the rest of the week, and just based on the events from Gulfstream, no less those at Santa Anita, and even the Big A. The Derby picture is perceived to be different this morning. It took only portions of two races on opposite coasts to change the outlook - Nobiz Like Shobiz floundering through a slow stretch run in the Fountain of Youth as Stormello, tiring after setting a demanding pace, staggered home through a final furlong of 13.75 seconds. The last 3/8ths took 39.22 as Scat Daddy took advantage of the tiring leaders to get the win.

And at Santa Anita, Great Hunter made a mockery of the Bob Lewis with a startling burst of speed as he flew wide around four helpless opponents as they turned for home. It was only a matter of how much he'd win by, and, in fact, Pletcher's Sam P ran a pretty fine race himself for second just 1 1/2 back. The last 2 1/2 furlongs went in 31.55, a pace of about 25.25 for a quarter, and Great Hunter made up almost four lengths in that time while losing ground on the turn. So I think it was a pretty impressive move.

Now, let's try to put the races in proper perspective. In the case of Great Hunter, I think his race was pretty impressive any way you look at it. You can certainly quibble about the quality of the field; he's a Grade 1 winner who was facing a crew that didn't have a graded-stakes placed horse among them. But it was his first race in four months from a trainer who doesn't necessarily have them fully cranked - and indeed, Doug O'Neill indicated before the race that he wasn't 100% there. And the way he did it, after having lost some significant ground on the first turn, was exactly what you want to see. "The plan today was to kick clear and gallop out strong," [jockey Corey] Nakatani said. "He did just that." [AP]

This horse has some nice foundation - this was his 8th career start and he's never been out of the money - yet seems fresh and fit. The two-prep strategy doesn't seem quite so outrageous with this one; the Derby would be his 10th start. As I've mentioned, I like his pedigree. The only question is his slowish figs, but we'll see what he produced on Saturday.

As for the Fountain of Youth, Barclay Tagg, who was extremely confident about Nobiz Like Shobiz leading up to the race; he seemed rather despondent afterwards:

"I think he's a good horse....I don't know why he ran like that. The jock said he was lugging in at the top of the stretch, and you lose a little ground when you straighten him out. The whole thing surprised me. I thought he'd lay third, then go to the front and win. I thought we'd go to the Wood Memorial (gr. I on April 7), but now I don't know." [Bloodhorse]
What does that mean? It sounds like he's considering abandoning the Trail altogether. And just maybe, that would be the best long-term course for a horse that's still learning the game.

On the other hand, I thought there were ample explanations for why "he ran like that." He broke poorly, raced solidly three wide around the first turn, advanced towards the leader as that leader was blazing his second quarter in 22.85, third quarter in 23.83, and was again three-wide on the turn - wider than than turning for home. Then he once again proved to be green, bearing in behind Adore the Gold and having to be taken back off his heels, again checking out the grandstand as if in disbelief of what Stronach has done to it, and finally getting settled on his right lead and mounting a late burst to miss by a half length.

So what was so bad? What he needs most is education and racing experience, and he should have gotten plenty of that. Next time he's faced with some stubborn foes in front of him and closing outside of him, he'll be like, 'oh, I've done this before.' There's nothing wrong with losing if the horse gets something out of it, and it's fair to surmise that he did. The problem as far as the Derby goes, is that I don't know if just one more prep is going to get him where he needs to be. I think that Tagg, who was very casual about the prep schedule, at one point stating that he could go into the Derby off two races, has boxed himself in here. With eight weeks to go, it's too long in my opinion for just one more prep, and too short of a period to get in the two more races that I think would be to his ample benefit. He's a big boy, this Nobiz Like Shobiz, a magnificent specimen, but one with lots to learn, and maybe Tagg has babied him too much.

Turning to the winning Scat Daddy, the incredibly dominant Pletcher's fifth winner of the day (plus a sixth that lost by a nose), the trainer seems to have a real bug up his ass about this horse, doesn't he?
"I never questioned [if he would go two turns]....It was everyone else. The horse wins the Champagne and comes back three weeks later and doesn't fire on what is now, hopefully ... everyone recognizes how Churchill was [speed biased] on that day [of the Breeders' Cup]. And I didn't have enough time between the Champagne and the Breeders' Cup." [Sun-Sentinal]
This is after he won the race! Yeah, everyone else doubted his ability to go two turns sooo much that they made him the 7-2 second choice in the Juvenile! And why should this now make us recognize that Churchill was speed biased? The proper perspective of this race is that Pletcher's colt had the most perfect setup he could possibly get, yet still was life and death to nose an exhausted Stormello at the wire. And he's still complaining about the three week gap before the Juvenile, one that was of his doing? It's not like they suddenly moved the Juvenile up a week. All in all, not a very gracious reaction from a guy that's sitting on top of the racing world.

- Seems as if the California contingent needs to be taken quite seriously this year. Stormello and Notional have now proven to be major factors when shipped outside of the state. Last year, the only West Coaster to succeed out east was Bob and John, and that was in the fluky mud of the Wood Memorial. Could the explanation be that both of these colts have been training regularly over the Cushion Track surface at Hollywood?


Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with your observations about Nobizlikeshowbiz, after his race yesterday in the Fountain of Youth. He has a lot to learn.

This is the challenge of The Derby Trail. All these colts are young and inexperienced and the "trail" can take so much out of them. Some are ready at this young age, some are not.

Nobiz is a good one, who may not show his gifts by Derby Day. We need to be patient with these "kids".

Anonymous said...

Congrats to 9 year old Evening Attire who scored at better than 8-1 in a mini-stake race at the Big A.

El Angelo said...

I'm not sure I agree on the West Coast shippers proving themselves---Stormello rode a bias and clean trip to 2nd yesterday, while crawling home through pedestrian fractions. Notional did look pretty good in Louisiana, but his Beyer was light, and the only top-flight contender he beat was Circular Quay, who almost fell. Yes, Great Hunter looked super, and I would take him seirously. Unsure about the other two.

Also liked the performance of Bold Start yesterday in the Hutch, but I'm not sure that a Jump Start son wants 10 furlongs. And I agree on Sam P---I'd play him next out.

Alan Mann said...

>>>I'm not sure I agree on the West Coast shippers proving themselves..

You have a point there to say that neither has yet proven themselves to the point that I'd consider them in the upper echelon of contenders. (Though who really is at this point?) But I think they've been able to at least reproduce their California form out east, and that in itself is an improvement on recent years.