Local Experience Pays Off for Runaway Ghost in Sunland Derby

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

March 26th, 2018

Never underestimate the advantage of local experience when horses square off in a major race at an unfamiliar track.

Familiarity with the sometimes quirky racing surface (and the high elevation) of Sunland Park certainly paid off for Runaway Ghost in Sunday’s $800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. III). Conditioned by the successful local trainer Todd Fincher, Runaway Ghost was one of just two horses in the field with experience over the track, and that experience—though a subtle advantage—may have made the difference as Runaway Ghost cruised to an easy victory in the nine-furlong Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race.

Runaway Ghost usually races on or near the lead, but employed a stark change of tactics in the Sunland Derby, rating back in eighth place early on while racing wide in a large field. Fortunately, the early pace was quick—the talented California shipper All Out Blitz lived up to his name and ran the opening half-mile in :45.80—and after gradually advancing down the backstretch, Runaway Ghost rolled past the tiring leaders with complete authority, striding to a four-length lead passing the eighth pole.

In the final furlong, the late-running Dream Baby Dream cut into the margin a bit, but Runaway Ghost was under something less than an all-out drive at that point and came home in :12.88 seconds to win by 2 ¾ lengths and stop the timer in 1:49.20.

While it’s fair to question the quality of the field that Runaway Ghost defeated, he certainly did it the right way, and Dream Baby Dream finished six lengths clear of the third-place finisher in a strung-out field, suggesting that Runaway Ghost’s victory was thorough and decisive. For his effort, Runaway Ghost received 50 Kentucky Derby qualification points, in all likelihood securing him a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.

The bigger question is whether Runaway Ghost can be competitive against the best horses of his generation. In his lone previous start at the Grade 1 level, Runaway Ghost faced off against the likes of McKinzie, Solomini, and Instilled Regard in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity (gr. I), a race in which he faded to finish a distant last after dueling for the lead.

As for Dream Baby Dream, he earned 20 Derby qualification points and could proceed on to the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park, where a third-place finish could earn him enough points to continue on to the Kentucky Derby. Trained by Steve Asmussen, Dream Baby Dream entered the Sunland Derby off of three straight third-place finishes in Oaklawn allowances races, but the addition of blinkers in the Sunland Derby seemed to make a difference as he ran a much sharper race.

What are your takeaways from the Sunland Derby?