Horse Racing's Final Four
by Dick Powell
Like the regional finals in NCAA Men’s Basketball, we are getting down to our Final Four heading to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May.
Two major preps were run last Saturday, three more are scheduled for this Saturday and then the only major left will be the Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park next week. That will be it and we can then move on to digging into the Kentucky Derby (G1).
The $1 million Florida Derby (G1) was run last Saturday at Gulfstream Park and it was not the most stellar renewal. Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) winner GUNNEVERA (Dialed In) was the 11-10 favorite and when Todd Pletcher decided to ship BATTALION RUNNER (Unbridled’s Song) to New York for the Wood Memorial (G2), his ALWAYS DREAMING (Bodemeister) took a ton of money and went off at 27-10.
When the first race of the day went in 1:20.71 for seven furlongs, you knew it was going to be hard for Gunnevera to make up much ground from an outside post on a track that played fast.
Going into the clubhouse turn, Johnny Velazquez wound up in a jam aboard Always Dreaming when THREE RULES (Gone Astray) came over on him midway on the turn and he had STATE OF HONOR (To Honor and Serve) on his inside. Velazquez had to sit down on his saddle to get off Three Rules’ heels but his colt never got rank and settled in for the run down the backstretch.
With Gunnevera far behind in last, it looked like it was just a matter of time before Always Dreaming would turn the Florida Derby into reality and he showed up at the top of the stretch loaded for bear. Despite a fast pace, Always Dreaming took off and pulled away to win by five lengths. State of Honor held on grimly for second and Gunnevera rallied to be third, beaten 6 1/2 lengths.
It was the third straight blowout victory for Always Dreaming since switching to the Todd Pletcher barn, all going two turns. His sire finished second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (G1) in 2012, so there is more than enough pedigree to think that he will go on from here. He’s now Always Dangerous.
Gunnevera did make up ground in the last three furlongs but even if the track was against him, he did not show the same explosiveness that he showed previously. The question that must be answered is was his finish due to circumstances or was it a sign of a declining form cycle? The only way we can answer it is how he works in the next four weeks.
Down in New Orleans, a field of nine lined up for the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) and GIRVIN (Tale of Ekati) was made the 6-5 favorite off his win in the Risen Star Stakes (G2) last out for Joe Sharp. Professional beyond his years, he raced a bit closer to the pace and took over in the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths. He earned a career-best BRIS Speed rating of 99 and, while it doesn’t vault him to the top, it was another incremental sign of improvement; nothing about his win indicates to me that he will regress off it.
Pletcher sent recent Gulfstream Park maiden winner PATCH (Union Rags) to Louisiana and he was a very good second. Sitting off the pace while stuck down on the inside, he saved ground but when asked to move out three wide, he chased the leaders before diving back to the rail and getting second. It was his first start going two turns and he handled it beautifully. Not saying he is ready for the Derby but Patch is going to be a serious horse.
This Saturday, the Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) will be run at nine furlongs on the Aqueduct main track and it looks like Pletcher again with Battalion Runner. They took a risk skipping the Florida Derby but the heavy rain that hit New York on Thursday should be gone and Battalion Runner should get a fast track. There is a decent amount of early speed in the field but Velazquez should be able to settle him from post three. He won his two-turn debut and comes back here nine weeks later.
Behind Battalion Runner, CLOUD COMPUTING (MacLean’s Music) broke his maiden going six furlongs first time out then came back with a good second in the Gotham Stakes (G3). Any improvement from him and he could be tough, as will horse for the course MO TOWN (Uncle Mo).
Keeneland begins its spring meet on Friday and the action gets hot and heavy on Saturday with the $1 million Bluegrass Stakes (G2). It attracted a select field of seven and in March Madness palance, this might be the strongest regional final.
MCCRAKEN (Ghostzapper) is undefeated in four career starts including three last year at Churchill Downs. He won his seasonal debut at Tampa Bay Downs in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) while beating subsequent Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner TAPWRIT (Tapit). The third-place finisher that day was Florida Derby runner-up State of Honor so it was a key race.
Ian Wilkes is in a tough spot since he needs to run well but not too well four weeks before the Derby. McCraken drew post two and will be ridden again by Brian Hernandez Jr., who is also the regular rider of Girvin so he and his agent have some decisions to make.
Facing McCraken will be Gotham Stakes (G3) winner J BOYS ECHO (Boys at Toscanova), Tapwrit and PRACTICAL JOKE (Into Mischief), who won two Grade 1s last year as a juvenile and was second in the Fountain of Youth.
Out at Santa Anita, MASTERY (Candy Ride) is injured so 13 sophomores show up for the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (G1). Doug O’Neill, trainer of last year’s Kentucky Derby winner NYQUIST (Uncle Mo) has four starters, Bob Baffert has three and John Shirreffs has two.
I’ll go with longshot KIMBEAR (Temple City) at 12-1 morning-line odds. Four of his six career starts came on turf but he was a decent second in his dirt debut going six furlongs. He missed by a length back on the turf next out, then graduated by 4 1/2 lengths last out on Santa Anita’s dirt going seven furlongs in 1:22 and change coming from just off the pace.
Since then, all he had done is work five furlongs four times in :59.40 or better. Joe Talamo rides back from post seven.