Frank Conversation doubles up in El Camino Real Derby

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

February 14th, 2016

Hailing from the same connections as unbeaten champion Nyquist, Frank Conversation is getting in the habit of being his warm-up act. On the day of the Eclipse Awards gala, he captured the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields for Reddam Racing, trainer Doug O’Neill, and jockey Mario Gutierrez. On Saturday, two days before Nyquist kicks off his classic campaign in the San Vicente (G2), Frank Conversation made another successful raid up north for the $200,840 El Camino Real Derby (G3).

Unlike the California Derby, the El Camino Real offers points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby scoring system. And by opening his account here with 10 points, Frank Conversation is now entering the Derby discussion himself.

Yet for the conversation to be truly frank, there are a couple of caveats. The most glaring is surface, for Frank Conversation has been soundly beaten in his two dirt attempts. His maiden victory and stakes placing, the November 29 Cecil B. DeMille (G3), came on turf, and with his stakes double at Golden Gate, he’s 2-for-2 on Tapeta.

Although improving 3-year-olds can acquire new skills, his pedigree tends to reinforce the turf/synthetic angle. Sire Quality Road was an outstanding dirt performer, but his pedigree is turf-friendly, and his best offspring so far is 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) winner Hootenanny. Frank Conversation is out of turf stakes-placed Rushen Heat, herself a full sister to Grade 1 winners Unusual Suspect and Golden Doc A, both turf/synthetic aficionados. Then you add in broodmare sire Unusual Heat and his all New Zealand family, and the genes seem shifted to one side of the spectrum.

The other scruple is about the El Camino Real itself, both the lack of depth in the field and a result that leaves more questions than answers. For starters, the race lost a key contender with the scratch of Mr. Coker. Sure, this would have marked a his first start against winners and a dramatic stretch-out from a 6 1/2-furlong maiden. But the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee had previously been second to highly regarded Danzing Candy.

Then the next kerfuffle came when the gate opened, and 2-1 second choice Kasseopia was dreadfully slow to go. One was even tardier, 23-1 longshot Mana Strike, but Kasseopia was a prime win candidate who frittered away his chance. The Graham Motion colt somehow worked his way into contention out wide and stayed on for third. With a halfway decent start from post 2, the British import would have had a vastly better trip, and would probably have been involved in the finish.

Adding plausibility to that argument is the fact that the runner-up, Tusk, was his less fancied stablemate at 11-1. While the Niarchos Family homebred was eligible to improve on the step up in trip to nine furlongs, he didn’t bring the same credentials as Kasseopia (both from England and from his second in the Grey [G3] for former trainer Charlie Fellowes). Tusk ran the more professional race of the Motion pair, rallying late and reducing Frank Conversation’s margin to three-quarters of a length.

Of course, Frank Conversation deserves credit for justifying his 8-5 favoritism from a potentially problematic post 11. Gutierrez settled him into sixth behind fractions of :23.73, :48.37, and 1:13.15, and he ranged up on the far turn. Delivering a potent challenge entering the stretch, Frank Conversation held Tusk safe in a final time of 1:50.64.

Tusk, Kasseopia, and 86-1 shot San Dimas earned Derby points themselves (4, 2, and 1 respectively). Notwithstanding his odds, San Dimas is a well-bred Godolphin runner from the Eoin Harty barn.

Unless any of the El Camino Real Derby principals are eager to switch to dirt, you’d have to think that the April 2 Spiral (G3) on Turfway Park’s Polytrack is on the radar. Those who bank enough Derby points there (on a 50-20-10-5 scale for the top four) can then consider an attempt on the Churchill Downs dirt for the Run for the Roses.

At least Team Nyquist has a solid understudy -- and maybe Frank Conversation will one day emerge from his champion stablemate’s shadow.

Photo courtesy of Shane Micheli/Vassar Photography.