Derby road a rugged one

| February 17, 2011

So you want to run your horse in the Kentucky Derby?

No matter how talented your 3-year-old Thoroughbred might be or appear to be, the days leading up to America’s greatest race – and there are now fewer than 80 – are filled with story upon story. Most are humbling.

For proof, let’s glance back at the last week. At a time when owners of these young horses awaken each day with hope of good news on their Derby hopes, three horses, all perceived to be major players at this still fairly early stage of the road to Louisville, suffered significant setbacks.

Out of the picture completely for Derby 137 is Boys at Tosconova, winner of Saratoga’s prestigious Hopeful and runner-up to unbeaten champion Uncle Mo in last fall’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.,  Trainer Rick Dutrow, who won the 2008 Derby with the tender-footed but enormously talented Big Brown, had pulled that colt from a planned run in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park a couple of weeks back. He said the colt simply did not look right in his training.

Derby minus “˜Boys’

Boys at Tosconova looked no better in the ensuing days, despite thorough medical exams. Last weekend, Dutrow’s colt was sent to a Kentucky farm for rest and relaxation and there will be no once-in-a-lifetime bid for the Kentucky Derby.

Two other horses with big reputations saw air rush from their respective balloons with poor efforts in weekend preps. Tapizar, who had appeared to many to be a top-level contender after back-to-back romps in a November maiden race at Churchill Downs and the Sham Stakes in January at Santa Anita, finished an out-of-gas fifth as the 3-to-10 favorite the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.

Fights jockey

The headstrong Tapizar fought jockey Garrett Gomez from the break, rushed to the early lead in fast fractions, and had nothing left for the run to the wire as Anthony’s Cross and Riveting Reason ran past on their way to a 1-2 finish in which they were separated by a nose. Word arrived on Tuesday that Tapizar had suffered a chipped knee in that effort that would require surgery, and he is also off the Kentucky Derby trail.

Well north at California’s Golden Gate Fields, Comma to the Top was also an odds-on favorite when he carried a five-racing winning streak into the El Camino Real Derby. The Florida-bred gelding turned for home with the lead, but bore out into the middle of the track and finished a tired fourth as Silver Medallion, also trained by Asmussen, rolled by to pick up the victory.

The one high profile Derby candidate that did not disappoint last weekend was WinStar Farm’s homebred Brethren. The half-brother to 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver rolled to an easy victory in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Florida’s Tampa Bay Downs.

But even the unbeaten Brethren had his critics as he won for the third time for trainer Todd Pletcher. Proponents of speed figures were uninspired by the “numbers” generated by the start, and many cannot wait to wager against him should he step into deeper waters against more accomplished company next time out.

But Brethren remains a compelling story because of his connections and his pedigree. He’s a major player for Pletcher, along with unbeaten juvenile champion Uncle Mo, in the trainer’s bid for a second straight Derby win following a well-document run of frustration prior to last year’s rainy first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

And in 136 years of Derby history, no brothers have won the race. A win by Brethren would make his dam, the A.P. Indy mare Supercharger, the first to produce a pair of winners of the Run for the Roses. Supercharger is the only mare with a colt or filly on this year’s roster of 364 early nominees to the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown.

As for last week’s upset winners, both Silver Medallion and Anthony’s Cross earned spots in the field for Pool 1 of Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which starts its three-day run at noon (Eastern) on Friday, Feb. 18.

Both are interesting horses coming off solid efforts, but both have much to do to move closer to the upper ranks of contenders for this year’s Derby. But that doesn’t mean much. The three-member team that picks the 23 individual wagering interests (and I have been a member of that group since the wager was introduced in 1999) failed to include eventual Derby winners Charismatic, War Emblem, Smarty Jones, Big Brown and Mine That Bird. All were members of the mutuel field betting interest, or “all others”, in the opening Derby Future Wager pools in their respective years.

First pool payouts for a $2 Derby future bet have included such enticing returns favored 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus at $27.80, the dominating Barbaro at $40.20 in 2006, favored Street Sense at $22.80 in 2007 and Super Saver’s Pool 1 payout of $43.20.

Those numbers should provide some reassurance to backers of Comma to the Top that it’s still relatively early and much could change before the big race on May 7 at Churchill Downs. But his margin for error has diminished considerably following last week’s misfire.

Three prep races

This weekend, as in each year since its introduction in 1999, the Derby Future bet offers fans a chance to find a gem like Funny Cide at a bargain price in the year’s first Derby Future pool. Three significant prep races are set for the coming weekend: the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, the San Vicente at Santa Anita and the Southwest at Oaklawn Park, with the first two being run during the pool, but the latter set for a Presidents Day card on Monday.

To Derby Future fans, the best of luck to you in your search for betting bargains. Two more pools – March 11-13 and April 1-3 – await, and the race picture will continue to shift and change on the road to Kentucky Derby 137.

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