Kentucky Derby Trail: Odd Man In
You know it's early when you start carving into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) before your Thanksgiving turkey, but this is a good time to start evaluating the 2-year-olds and get a jump on this week's grade II Remsen and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and grade III Hollywood Prevue.
Nick Zito is loaded this year, as is Todd Pletcher to a lesser degree, but what's this: Bill Mott with a bevy of juveniles? Could this be a watershed year for the Hall of Fame trainer, who has managed to send only four horses to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May? And, by the way, his best showing was Favorite Trick's eighth-place finish in 1998. Whether it is or not, it does add a new dimension to the Derby trail, having the new-look Mott as a potential major force.
But there is still a long way to go, and Mott already has several of his youngsters on the sidelines. Not only will we take a look at Mott's group of 2-year-olds, but Zito's powerful force as well. Pletcher is not as deep as he's been the past several years, but it's still early and he does have a few who are worth watching. We'll also take a look at several future book megabombs while they're still way under the proverbial radar, including several recent maiden winners and even a couple who are still maidens.
But to get the week off to a rousing start, we witnessed an extremely impressive performance in Sunday's Real Quiet Stakes at Hollywood Park by Colonel John, who produced a quick and powerful move to surge past the leaders in the blink of an eye. Granted, this was not a strong field by any means, but this Eoin Harty-trained son of Tiznow looks like an exciting colt with unlimited potential. It appears as if WinStar Farm is back in business on the classic scene, with Colonel John, Court Vision, and Referee to follow Bluegrass Cat, Any Given Saturday, and Cowtown Cat. Unlike the last three, who were all trained by Pletcher, this trio is with three different trainers - Eoin Harty, Mott, and Pletcher.
Now back to Mott. Although he nearly pulled off a Belmont Stakes (gr. I) victory with Vision and Verse in 1999, he has been near-invisible on the classic scene. He's hoping that will change this year, thanks in good part to the backing of the vast Zayat Stable, which has the majority of its classic hopefuls with Mott.
But Mott's presence on the 2-year-old scene goes deeper than Zayat. He pulled off a stunner in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) when Majestic Warrior, owned by the Steinbrenner family's Kinsman Stud, turned in a powerful stretch run to blow by the favorites Ready's Image, trained by Pletcher, and the highly touted Maimonides, from the Bob Baffert stable. But he came out of a dull performance in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) with a hoof injury that kept him out of the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), He's on the mend, and Mott can only hope he returns none the worse for wear. By A.P. Indy, out of Mott's and Steinbrenner's million-dollar earner Dream Supreme, by Seeking the Gold, Majestic Warrior certainly has the pedigree to go along with his ability.
Mott's “now” horse is Court Vision, a son of Gulch, out of Weekend Storm, who is a full-sister to Summer Squall and half-sister to A.P. Indy. In three starts, Court Vision has finished a fast-closing second going six furlongs at Turfway Park, broke his maiden stretching out to 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland, and came flying late to win the one-mile Iroquois Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs. He will attempt to cement his position as one of the nation's leading Derby hopefuls in either the Nov. 24 Remsen or Kentucky Jockey Club.
For Zayat, Mott has the Distorted Humor colt Z Humor, third in the Champagne (gr. I) and Sapling Stakes (gr. III) and fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile; Riley Tucker, a son of Harlan's Holiday who finished third in the Saratoga Special (gr. II) and was second, beaten a head by Wicked Style, in the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. III) before going to the sidelines; and Alaazo, by A.P. Indy, out of the stakes-winning Atelier, who broke his maiden at Monmouth Park in his only career start. He, too, is on the sidelines.
The mark of Zito
After failing to hit the board with five live Kentucky Derby starters in 2005, you can bet Nick Zito is not going to get too overconfident, regardless of how strong and deep his arsenal is. So, you don't want to go reminding him now, or even in a few months from now, what a powerful hand he's holding. He's been around long enough to know how quickly things can change when you're dealing with young horses.
But for now, it is worth mentioning all the promising 2-year-olds he has ready to embark on the Derby trail.
Of course, Zito's army is led by Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Champagne winner War Pass, who is a sure thing to run away with the 2-year-old championship. But is he is best Derby hope? With his pedigree and running style, there are question marks, so we'll just have to wait and see how he progresses at 3, and whether he's adaptable enough to settle off the pace if the occasion warrants. We know he's brilliant, now let's see how far he can carry that brilliance.
After War Pass, Zito has several promising colts who do have the pedigree and running style to get classic distances with no problem. It's just a matter of finding out how good they are.
We should find out about one of them for sure in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes when Cool Coal Man makes his stakes debut. Like War Pass, Cool Coal Man is owned by Robert La Penta, racing's providential pinhooker, who has been testing the gods' benevolence for years by putting up for sale all the yearlings Zito picks out for him, most purchased at bargain-basement prices. So far, he hasn't gotten burned, and has had the good fortune to either buy back or be forced to withdraw horses such as War Pass, The Cliff's Edge, and Andromeda's Hero.
Cool Coal Man, a son of Mineshaft who has won his last two starts impressively, was bought back for a whopping $850,000. Once again, La Penta got lucky, but another could come back to haunt him, as early as this Saturday. The aforementioned Court Vision, whom Zito bought for him for $180,000 as a yearling, was pinhooked for only $350,000, not even double the original price. Both NYRA and Churchill Downs have Court Vision listed as probable for the Remsen and Kentucky Jockey Club, respectively. If he runs at Churchill, then La Penta will have his first major head-to-head confrontation between one he kept and one he let get away.
La Penta also has two other promising colts. One, Stevil, a $110,000 yearling purchase and $300,000 buy-back, broke his maiden first time out at Belmont before finishing a strong fourth in an allowance race at Churchill Downs after getting hung seven-wide turning for home. Another, Web Gem, a $170,000 yearling purchase and $600,000 buy-back, broke his maiden in the slop at a mile at Aqueduct following three poor efforts.
But La Penta isn't Zito's only client with promising colts. There are two that have really caught the eye and bear watching. Paint, owned by Len Riggio's My Meadowbrook Farm, is a striking son of Include who looks to have a bright future. He had no business winning his career debut at Saratoga after getting left cold at the gate. But he made a steady move outside horses the whole way and drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths. He went right into the Futurity Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont, stretching out from 5 1/2 to seven furlongs. Again he was forced to take the outside route, losing ground all the way, which is usually disastrous at Belmont. He made a big move to reach contention turning for home, but couldn't quite sustain it, finishing fourth, beaten only two lengths by the brilliant Tale of Ekati, with the top-class Kodiak Kowboy second. He was sidelined with shins after that, but it is on his way back. Watch out for this one.
Another one to watch out for is Live Oak Plantation's He's Solid Gold, a half-brother to Florida Derby (gr. I) winner High Fly, by Seeking the Gold. Anyone who saw him break his maiden at Aqueduct Nov. 8 had to come away feeling as if they had seen an enticing Derby future book prospect. Stuck behind horses on the inside most of the whole way, He's Solid Gold came around one horse at the top of the stretch. With no room to get through between horses, he was steered to the inside by Joe Bravo. When the rail closed up, he came back outside looking for an opening, but again there was nothing there. Bravo tried one more time on the rail, but it was still closed off. He steered his colt back out again, and this time there was room. He's Solid Gold charged to the lead, winning by a length in a sharp 1:22 4/5 for the seven furlongs. All this meandering in and out occurred in a matter of a few seconds. You don't often see a young, inexperienced horse that shifty and willing to go wherever his rider steers him, and as many times. Now, let's see what happens when he faces winners. But that kind of performance is what you look for from a 2-year-old.
Zito also has Anak Nakal for Four Roses Thoroughbreds. The son of Victory Gallop broke his maiden first time out at Belmont with a powerful stretch run before finishing a distant second to the brilliant Etched in the one-mile Nashua Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct. He's inbred three times to Dr. Fager and has top-class European stamina in his female family through Margouillat, third in the Prix del l'Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I), and Margouillat's sire Diatome, winner of the Washington D.C. International and third to Sea-Bird in the Arc. So, that's at least eight promising 2-year-olds in Zito's barn.
Everyone it seems is looking for maiden winners, ready to spend outrageous sums of money for a potential classic horse. Well, as usual, we've had plenty of them, and a few on the verge of breaking their maidens.
Sometimes, a young horse catches your eye, and it's fun to follow his progress to see if he can duplicate that effort and continue rising through the ranks. Breaking ones maiden going six furlongs at Aqueduct is a far cry from being a stakes-caliber horse, but if you're looking for near-perfection in a young horse's career debut, then you have to love what you saw from National Pride in his maiden score at the Big A on Nov. 17. The son of Macho Uno, trained by Gary Contessa, not only came from seventh to run down a tough opponent in the speedy Saratoga Russell, who had opened up by nearly four lengths in midstretch, he came home his final quarter in a shade under :23 4/5 and final eighth in just under :11 4/5 to win going away by almost two lengths. To demonstrate how big a race the runner-up ran, he finished eight lengths ahead of the third horse in a field of 11.
You could tell when National Pride kicked into gear leaving the three-eighths pole that he was going to run a huge race. And that he did, showing a combination of power and determination. And if you have any questions regarding his stamina, keep in mind that in his first five generations there are six Travers (gr. I) winners - Holy Bull, Corporate Report, Damascus, Key to the Mint, Buckpasser, and Sword Dancer. He also is inbred on his dam side to Buckpasser, one of the great classic influences in American breeding. Buckpasser has been a tremendous influence, mainly through his daughters, and National Pride is inbred to him through two of his most successful daughters - Numbered Account and Passing Look. Yes, it's early to get excited over a six-furlong maiden winner, but he is worth keeping an eye on.
Other recent maiden winners who have caught the eye are Graeme Hall colt, Lieutenant Ron, an 8 1/4-length winner at Aqueduct for Kiaran McLaughlin; the Ian Wilkes-trained Jedi Code, a son of Empire Maker with a devastating stretch run; Limestone Edge, a son of Cat Thief who broke his maiden second time out at Santa Anita for Bob Hess; the Tom Albertrani-trained Numaany, an A.P. Indy colt who won his second start going 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct; and the Millennium Wind colt, Wind's Legacy, a two-length winner going seven furlongs at Hollywood Park for Jennie Green.
On Sunday at Hollywood Park, Gayego and El Gato Malo both were impressive breaking their maidens in phony-fast Cushion track time, but both are questionable to get 1 1/4 miles. The latter, a big, long-striding gelding by El Corredor, overcame a slow start and wide trip and still dominated his opponents. He looks like a flat-out runner, and it will be interesting to see how far he goes. The same for Gayego. Congaree's half-brother Sangaree, by Awesome Again, ran well enough to finish second to El Gato Malo, but is still a bit green about changing leads. His trainer, Bob Baffert, has a promising colt in Massive Drama, a son of Kafwain who won first out at Monmouth Park on Breeders' Cup Friday and runs in the seven-furlong Prevue Stakes on Thanksgiving.
And here are three who are still maidens that have shown enough to suggest good things to come. Despite four seconds in as many starts, the Steve Asmussen-trained King's Silver Son, by Mizzen Mast, has had more than his share of bad luck and should prove to be a top horse once he matures and gets rid of some of his greenness. He also has a second to Court Vision going 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland. Inbred to Ribot, he has as much stamina as you'd want to see in a classic horse through Dynaformer, Graustark, Roberto, and His Majesty, and can only keep getting better. Another one to watch is the Dave Hofmanns-trained Medjool, a son of Monarchos who ran a huge race finishing second by a half-length to the aforementioned Limestone Edge after encountering a ton of trouble in the stretch. He also is one who should keep improving, and likely will be odds-on next time out. And finally, there is Barrier Reef, another son of Mizzen Mast, who had almost as eventful a stretch run as He's Solid Gold when finishing third to the Zito-trained colt. Trapped along the rail with no place to go, he displayed a good kick after being switched to the outside and was running strongly at the wire. Watch out for all three of these colts.
Now Pletcher knows what it's like to have five live Kentucky Derby starters all finish off the board. Between him and Zito, is it actually possible to have too many horses in the race? Not according to Wayne Lukas, who finished first and third with five starters in 1996, and first and third with three starters the year before.
In any event, you can bet Pletcher, like Zito, will try to get as many to the gate as possible. This year, he doesn't have the numbers, as evidenced by his quiet Saratoga meet and lack of a single starter in the BC Juvenile. But, you know several latecomers will emerge on the scene.
Pletcher's main Derby hope could be The Roundhouse, a son of Fusaichi Pegasus who turned in big efforts in the grade II Sanford and Saratoga Special, closing strongly both times. He came out of a disappointing effort in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) with an injury and is recuperating at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky. If he returns in good shape he should be a major factor at the longer distances. This is a very good horse, and if you're willing to take a gamble, this could be the right time to get him in the future book.
Then there is Referee, another WinStar-owned colt, who romped by 7 3/4 lengths in his debut at Turfway Park before getting beaten badly in the Breeders' Futurity. But he had a rough trip in tight quarters over that quirky Keeneland Polytrack that he appeared to be struggling over, and he was stretching out from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles. Brought back in a seven-furlong allowance race at Churchill Downs, he was in traffic every step of the way, got shuffled back in the stretch, and then kept moving his way out looking for an opening. When one finally did, he came flying late to finish second and was just getting going at the wire.
A $1.2 million yearling purchase, he's by Distorted Humor, out of a Deputy Minister mare, and his second and third dams made 46 starts and 77 starts, respectively, so there is durability on his female side. Referee, National Pride and He's Solid Gold are three so far who have shown the kind of toughness, professionalism, and determination to be considered live longshot plays at this early date. Referee's Breeders' Futurity will be an ugly blot on his past performances, but he ran so badly you can certainly make a case for throwing the race out. And it'll boost his future book price considerably.
Pletcher's most brilliant colt is Ready's Image, who was spectacular winning the Tremont and Sanford Stakes before finishing second in the Hopeful. He, too, has been sidelined after suffering a bone chip in the Champagne Stakes, so we'll have to wait to see how quickly he mends from that. Also, distance is a question mark for the son of More Than Ready.
Pletcher will have the hard-knocking Atoned, winner of the Continental Mile Stakes at Monmouth and second to undefeated Cave's Valley in two stakes at Delaware, going in Saturday's Remsen, and the son of Repent should fit well in that spot. Owned by Dogwood Stable, he is inbred top and bottom to Ruffian's dam Shenanigans through Icecapade and On to Glory. There is the versatile Chitoz, who has proven himself on grass and Polytrack, and The Leopard looks to be a good turf horse in the making, despite his seventh-place finish in the bog-like Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. A return to dirt is always a possibility for this $2.5 million son of Storm Cat.
Looking ahead, watch out for an unraced Pulpit colt named On the Virg, who has turned in some big works for Pletcher at Keeneland and then Hollywood Park. After two fifth-place finishes at Saratoga and Belmont, look for Forest Prince, by Mineshaft, to improve on Cushion track after a pair of strong works at Hollywood.
That's it for first time out of the box, but we're just getting warmed up. There are dozens more to discuss at a later date.
Steve Haskin, BloodHorse
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