The early weeks of the run-up to the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands has been notable for the high regard in racing circles and Derby fandom bestowed upon several promising horses that are very light on experience.
But two races on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” preps/points system last weekend provided strong evidence that at least a couple of those young stars possess the right stuff to be major players at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. That’s important, as we are now just over 50 days from this year’s “Run for the Roses” and it should be time for fine-tuning, not for proving.
Unbeaten Verrazano validated his promise in victory in the Tampa Bay Derby in Florida, while previously unbeaten Flashback displayed a runner-up finish in the San Felipe at Southern California’s Santa Anita. Defeat did not tarnish the glow surrounding the latter and both appear to be major players for the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 4 at Churchill Downs.
The stylish victory at Tampa Bay Downs by the Todd Pletcher-trained Verrazano sent him to the top of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands Power Rankings at www.KentuckyDerby.com. He has taken major steps forward in each of his three races and his three-length win in the 1 1/16-mile contest at Tampa Bay was impressive both in the ease of his victory and the patience the son of More Than Ready displayed before jockey John Velazquez asked for a run on the far turn.
Verrazano clearly possesses an immense amount of talent, but if he was a college basketball player looking to step to the NBA, the scouts and insiders would be raving about his “upside.”
Pletcher’s colt violates perhaps the last unshakeable tenet of the conventional wisdom of what it takes to win a Kentucky Derby. His first start came on Jan. 1, and most Derby fans know – or will be reminded soon – that the last 3-year-old to win the race without the benefit of a race at the age of two was Apollo.
He won Kentucky Derby 8 – yes, eight – on May 16, 1882.
But the late start could actually work to Verrazano’s advantage as he is scheduled for a fourth pre-Derby run in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 16. That 1 1/8-mile race would put additional foundation under the colt and would go a long way in easing lingering concerns over lack of seasoning for a colt that did not race at two.
He has an interesting pedigree that leans toward grass, but suggests versatility and a possible affinity for the distinctive sandy loam oval at Churchill Downs. More Than Ready, Verrazano’s sire, has produced many good grass horses since he moved to the breeding shed, and broodmare sire Giant’s Causeway was a champion in Europe, where most of the racing is on the turf.
But one of More Than Ready’s best races was a fourth-place run behind Fusaichi Pegasus in the 2000 Kentucky Derby, and Giant’s Causeway’s one run over the Churchill Downs course was an unforgettable loss to American champion Tiznow in the Breeders’ Cup Classic run beneath the Twin Spires later that fall.
On a personal level, I love some grass blood in the pedigree of horses running on the dirt at Churchill Downs – especially in the Kentucky Derby. In this corner, the blood coursing through Verrazano’s veins make him even more attractive as a Derby candidate.
The result of the San Felipe introduced the victorious Hear the Ghost as a stretch-running contender for the 2013 Derby. He’s a gelded son of Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, so pedigree is not a major concern. Hear the Ghost is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, a recent inductee to racing’s Hall of Fame who is way overdue for some good news in the Kentucky Derby.
But the story of the San Felipe was Flashback, who appears to be the most talented of a good group of Derby hopes trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert. Flashback’s Derby stock rose after his runner-up finish behind Hear the Ghost.
While he seemed to settle just off the early pace in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe, jockey Julien Leparoux moved the favored Flashback early on the backstretch and engaged in a battle for the lead with Goldencents, the second choice of the bettors. The pair dueled through sharp fractions for the half-mile and three-quarters – a perfect set-up for a horse like Hear the Ghost who was well behind the leaders.
Flashback put Goldencents away at the top of the stretch, but suffered in the late going as the toll of speed duel left him with little in the tank as Hear the Ghost appeared to rush by. While the winner ran well, he benefitted most from the fact that he had a tired horse in his sights on the run to the wire.
The effort by Flashback, like that of Verrazano, came in just his third career start. If all goes well, he’ll run in the Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles in his final Kentucky Derby prep and that will solidify his foundation for the Derby’s mile and a quarter.
While any loss is disappointing, Flashback learned much from the San Felipe and the guess here is that Baffert learned some things about his colt and liked what he saw.
While Hear the Ghost emerged as a solid Kentucky Derby 139 contender, last weekend’s races might have revealed a longshot hope in an unlikely place. The Private Terms Stakes at Maryland’s Laurel Park rarely has an impact on the Kentucky Derby picture and usually identifies the best of the Maryland-based horses that could emerge as new shooters to take on the Derby winner in the Preakness.
But Mr Palmer (no period after the Mr) sure looked like a horse with some kind of future after he rallied seven-wide from more than 10 lengths off the lead to win that 1 1/8 mile race on Saturday.
He’s a nicely-bred son of Pulpit, the outstanding Claiborne Farm sire who passed away recently, and is trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, the all-time win leader at Churchill Downs who continues to chase his first victories in the Louisville track’s biggest races, the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks.
It took Mr Palmer six tries to win his first race, but now he has won two in a row for owners Mike Lauffer and Gegory McDonald.
Lauffer, you might recall, is the gentleman who bought a share of Rachel Alexandra before the eventual 2009 Horse of the Year won the Kentucky Oaks by 25 lengths and was sold for more money than one could imagine. He also bred Shackleford, who finished fourth in the 2011 Derby and won that year’s Preakness and finished a wonderful career last fall with a magical moment beneath the Twin Spires in a farewell victory in the Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Health Care.
Mr Palmer is a colt who has a good (but bittersweet) pedigree, trained by a master who is overdue for success in the signature event at the track he once called home and is owned, in part, by a guy who has been more than a little lucky in his relatively brief time in the horse racing game.
There’s a lot to like in Mr Palmer’s story line and sometimes it’s a good idea to handicap the best story when it comes to searching for the winner of America’s greatest race.
Here’s the personal Top 10 from this week’s Power Rankings at www.KentuckyDerby.com:
- Shanghai Bobby
- Super Ninety Nine
- Normandy Invasion
- Hear the Ghost