Deciphering the Derby by Renee Hakim

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Allow me to introduce myself. The name is Renee, but friends call me Ren. I grew up on a Thoroughbred horse farm and, though currently residing in the metropolis of Los Angeles, still breed and own racehorses. It goes without saying that every breeder is hoping to produce greatness. It also bears repeating that the number of foals born every year is staggering when compared to how many actually race successfully. In 2011, 23,558 live foals were reported to the Jockey Club. Of those, 413 have been nominated to the 2014 Triple Crown series. 42 of the nominees are trained by Todd Pletcher. Just 20 horses will enter the Kentucky Derby starting gate and, unless there’s a dead-heat, only one will be blanketed in roses. This time of year brings out the Bond in me. Yes, James Bond.  Information gathering is key. I begin by researching the mark’s background - their family and associates.  Movements are tracked, body language observed. Inside scratch from sources is assessed for validity. Sooner or later, however, my suave spy adventure turns into the Usual Suspects. Who is Keyser Soze?! Who is the next Derby winner?! I look to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard for focus. The system of accruing points in designated races for berth into the Derby was introduced last year and, I gotta say, I’m a fan. It gives priority to class over precociousness, and allows for a more honest pace scenario when the big day arrives. As we have not yet entered the Champion Series phase on the path to the Derby, a horse whose distance abilities I question tops the chart. Pletcher’s Havana, while undoubtedly talented, is out of a mare whose maximum winning distance was 6 ½ f. He earned his 14 points with a win in the 1 mile Champagne and a second place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, wherein he could not hold off New Year’s Day in the 1 1/16 contest. To be fair, the fatigue is excusable due to the torrid pace he helped set, so perhaps he will prove me wrong. He put in a 3f work at Palm Meadows last Saturday and is pointing toward the 7f Swale (G2) as his next start. Pedigree is leaving me doubting the stamina/surface suitability of a couple of otherwise game horses. Smarty Jones (G2) winner Tanzanite Cat is by Graeme Hall and out of a Mt Livermore mare. Vicar’s in Trouble’s dominating 6 ¾  score in the LeComte (G3) was certainly impressive, however, he is a son of Into Mischief and out of a mare whose maximum winning distance was 6f. Eclipse 2-year old Champion Shared Belief has not run in 2014 or had a work since January 3rd, having suffered a foot abscess. This undefeated son of Candy Ride (ARG) has yet to race on dirt, either. More appealing to me are Cairo Prince and Honor Code, who currently rank 2nd and 3rd on the leaderboard, respectively. The former’s recent triumph in the Holy Bull (G2) was the largest margin of victory in the race’s past 19 years, and only two ticks off the track record. The win looked easy, the horse was bright and alert  Some seem to be skeptical about his dosage rating of 7.00, but I find these numbers can be misleading.  There are many  genetic influences unaccounted for when simply looking at patriarchal dosage numbers. So, until he proves he can’t get the classic distance of a 1 ¼, I will just take Kiaran McLaughlin’s word for it that this is the best Derby horse he has had. Honor Code, trained by Shug McGaughey, was definitely flattered by Cairo Prince’s win, though this son of A.P. Indy was already held in high esteem. To me, the Remsen (G2) is the most significant official Derby prep run thus far. After stumbling at the start, Honor Code managed to get himself back in the race, hanging just off the pace. At the quarter pole, it appeared Cairo Prince was on track to blowing right by, but Honor Code dug in. That final eighth was a battle of wills and a testament to a horse “persevering with his heart”. You can’t breed that. You can’t teach that. It’s intangible. Unquantifiable.  A horse either has it or not, and watching this then-2 year old fight back while in close quarters on the rail, without losing his nerve, was a sight to see - and respect. Honor Code has not raced since the Remsen. A minor setback in the form of bruised back ankles sustained during training on a deep track has left him without a work since January 18th. However, he has since been moved to Shug’s stable at Gulfstream and has been out galloping. His next start should be the Gotham, where he will most likely face off against Withers (G2) runner-up Uncle Sigh. Undefeated Withers champion Samraat may train up to the Wood Memorial (G1). Should all systems be “GO”, is Honor Code our Derby winner? I don’t know. If I had to bet today, he would be my pick. Beyond Honor Code and Cairo Prince, the horses I find the most interesting haven’t won an official prep yet. Commissioner, one of Pletcher’s boys, has won two 1 ⅛ races in a row, the last beating next-out winner Top Billing. Top Billing, a McGaughey trainee, is also a noteworthy horse being pointed toward the Fountain of Youth (G2), though I find he runs with his head a wee-bit high for my liking. Then, there’s Christophe Clement’s Tonalist, who LOOKS like a Derby horse. He has a big, open stifle, large girth, solid bone, and an anvil of a neck. He broke his maiden in his second start, going a 1 ⅛ at Gulfstream and in fine form. The trademark Tapit-stride was on full display as he came bounding around the final turn, covered in kickback and wearing it like war paint. He had a lone rival left in Pletcher’s Global View, but after an eye-to-eye stare down, he went on to win by 4 lengths. His final time of 1:50.21, while not scintillating, did equal that of Sweet N Discreet, who won the Florida Sunshine Millions Distaff in the next race. The path to Kentucky through Florida has been a well-traveled one. Out of the last ten Derby winners, half raced at least once in the Sunshine State. So, perhaps we are still looking at the Usual Suspects...but what of the UNusual? In the past ten years, three horses entered the Derby with undefeated records.  All went on to brave the 20 horse cavalry charge and return to the Winner’s Circle victorious. All were favored to win the Triple Crown. Two began their careers on turf. While not flawless at battle, could grass-runners Bobby’s Kitten, Storming Inti (both from Chad Brown’s barn), or the Pletcher duo of Gala Award and Edison follow the hoofprints of Barbaro and Big Brown off the turf and onto the dirt?  Edison, in particular, put in a monster performance his last time out, going a 1 1/8th on the turf in 1:49.22 - after being pressed through an opening quarter of 23.68, a half in 47.95 and 6f in 1.11.82.  He won by 4 ½ lengths and this son of Bernardini looks like he’s only going to get better with maturity. Another angle which intrigues is the European contingent. With the UAE Derby worth a whopping 100 points, will we see a return of BC Juvenile Turf runner-up Giovanni Boldini? The Aiden O’Brien charge is nominated. So is stablemate Michaelmas, a son of Elusive Quality, out of Ashland Stakes (G1) winner Christmas Kid. So many horses… 23,558 live foals reported. 413 horses currently nominated. 20 starters. 1 winner. Just who is this mystery horse? Is his name listed somewhere above?   Will he be a late nomination? Is he currently considered too weak against the contenders we’ve already deemed viable? Is he a “Keyser Soze”, just waiting to get into stride and run off? Is he a SHE? Perhaps our winner is slated to start this weekend in the Robert B. Lewis (G2) at Santa Anita.  Only time will tell. Until then, the detective work is fun  ;)


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