Winners & Losers In February Prep Races

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TwinSpires Staff

February 27th, 2015

There have been six Graded Stakes route races for three-year-olds run so far in the month of February: the final four races of the Kentucky Derby Prep Season and the first two races of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series.

Here’s how I saw them:

The Withers Stakes on February 7 at Aqueduct.

Far From Over lived up to his name after overcoming an eye-catching bad stumble at the start and rallying from ten lengths back to prevail. It was a stunning performance from a horse who was only making the second start of his career.

Immediately after the race, many observers praised the performance, but also commented how they believed the Withers must have been a slow race that fell apart.

Of course, we all know our first impressions immediately after watching a race aren't always proven to be correct, once proper analytical study is added to the eye-test. The Withers wasn't quite a staggerfest. Far From Over earned a 96 on both the Speed Rating and Beyer Speed Figure scales.

Indeed, the more I studied Far From Over's performance, the more impressed I became with it. His late rally was certainly not setup by a fast pace. Every pace figure product that I'm familiar with had the early pace rated as a sensible and average pace for the class level. The track surface wasn't especially kind to 'rally wide' closers either, in fact, the horse leading after the first call won five of the days other eight races, with two second place finishes.

Simply put, Far From Over ran a spectacular race. It was an ultra impressive performance from a May 9 foal making just his second lifetime start. The pedigree for Far From Over also shouts out for a classic distance. His sire Blame was a late developing sort who won the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. His dam is out of an A. P. Indy mare and the tail female family goes back to the legendary broodmare Courtly Dee.

While you have to heap praise on the winner, the rest of the Withers horses don't have much luster going forward. Second place finisher El Kabier spotted the entire field six pounds and was clearly second best. In terms of classic contenders, you can forget about the rest.

The Robert B. Lewis on February 7 at Santa Anita Park

This was a two-horse race on paper between Dortmund and Firing Line -- and it lived up to the expectations. Firing Line appeared to have this race won on the far turn, but Dortmund's long gigantic stride is a greater asset when running in a straight line, than cornering around a turn, so he was able to recover and prevail after seemingly being put away.

The top two finishers were so dominant, that you had to go back 21.5 lengths to the third place finisher. The race also aced the figure test, as it came back fast on everyones numbers.

Dortmund and Firing Line were both horses who performed exceptionally well in their drills at 2-year-old sales. In Dortmund's case, he came from the Fasig Tipton Timonium sale. This was the same sale where stablemate Bayern was purchased last year. A son of Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, Dortmund drilled his furlong in 10.20 seconds as you can see here:

The Timonium sale isn't a small sale, it had 580 horses cataloged last year, and only two horses managed to work faster than Dortmund. In fact, those two horses who worked faster both had sprinter pedigrees on top and bottom. Dortmund is sired by a dual Classic winner and is out of a stakes winning Tale of the Cat mare. The second dam of Dortmund, Ropa Usada, is an unraced Danzig filly who brought $900,000 as a yearling in 1990.

Besides his speed, the other area of the Timonium sale where Dortmund stood out was with his stride length measurement. His stride length measured a monstrous 26.62 ft. Generally speaking, horses with unusually long strides perform best running a straight line. I base this theory because they often seem to do their best in seven furlong races or one-turn miles. Having a huge body and an insanely long stride is less of an advantage when you're cornering around a turn. For those who don't know, Timonium is a bullring. Simply put, Dortmund was awesome at Timonium and Baffert was surprisingly able to buy him for just $140,000.

When I asked a couple of trainers who were at the Timonium sale and looked at Dortmund, why he sold so cheaply, one said "he looked like a horse who was just too big and would be a challenge to keep sound" and the other said "Big Brown was a cold name. I guess Dortmund just fell through the cracks"

Firing Line was also a 2-year-old sale graduate. He worked a quarter mile in 20.20 seconds at the Keeneland April two-year-old sale. The time seems incredibly fast, but they make the track faster than the Bonneville Salt Flats for the Keeneland April under-tack show.

Only one horse worked the distance faster than Firing Line, and that was the $770,000 purchase Ludicrous, who tragically broke down at Saratoga in his career debut for Chad Brown on Travers Day of last year. Firing Line is another horse with a route oriented pedigree. His sire Line of David won all of his races around two-turns and pulled off a wire-to-wire upset of Super Saver in the 2010 Arkansas Derby. The dam of Firing Line was Sister Girl Blues, she won her career debut going a mile on turf. By only her third career start, she competed in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks, which was run at the distance of 1 1/2 miles. Sister Girl Blues finest moment came when she finished second to the great Azeri in the 2003 Vanity Handicap.

Firing Line was also a relatively light purchase at just $240,000 considering his Grade 1 placed dam and under-tack performance, but his sire Line of David only stands for a $2,000 stud fee, and this was probably another case where having an unfashionable sire didn't help a promising athlete sell for optimal money.

El Camino Real Derby February 14 at Golden Gate Fields

All this race did was further cement my opinion that Bolo is clearly the best 3-year-old turf horse in California. In a race that seemed entirely up for grabs on the far turn, Metaboss dominated late with a powerful surge to victory. This is a promising colt on turf and synthetic surfaces -- but I do not see any appeal to him as a dirt horse. In his only career dirt start, he ran very evenly when beaten almost nine lengths in a stakes race that was rained off of the turf. The dam of Metaboss also preferred turf and synthetic surfaces. She regressed sharply and was beaten more than ten lengths at 3/1 odds in her only career dirt try, and was never attempted on the surface again.

The second dam of Metaboss is sired by none other than Bien Bien. One of my favorite horses growing up, Bien Bien was an outstanding multi-millionaire grass marathoner for Paco Gonzalez. He could run all day on the lawn, as best evidence by his easy win in the 1 3/4 miles Grade 1 San Juan Capistrano of 1994, where he spotted the field weight all around and absolutely toyed with them.

Metaboss was purchased out of the Barretts May two-year-old sale. He worked a furlong in 10.20 during his sales drill, as you can see here:

Barretts May is definitely not a high profile juvenile sale, and 9.80 seconds was the fastest work of the sale, but for a horse with a ton of stamina and grass in his pedigree, I thought Metaboss did as good as you can reasonably expect for such a horse in a 1-furlong speed drill on a dirt surface. Originally just a $10,000 November yearling purchase, Metaboss brought $60,000 and proved to be a successful pinhook. He'll be a fun one to follow on turf and synthetic, but I'm dubious of his chances as a Derby prospect until able to prove himself on dirt.

Risen Star Stakes February 21 at Fair Grounds Race Course

This race was supposed to feature a showdown between Calculator and Texas Red, but after both horses were sidelined by physical setbacks, the race certainly lost its sparkle. International Star was able to work out a ground saving trip under Miguel Mena and he got the job done in the Risen Star. Fellow closers War Story and Keen Ice completed the trifecta in a race that was fairly cleanly run. Imperia, the 3/2 post time favorite for Godolphin, ran a very flat race while making his first start since November. Imperia not only finished fifth, but it's never a good sign when a closer is beaten home easily by three other horses who share his same style.

International Star is an improving sort for Mike Maker, but his final time of 1:43.82 was only marginally faster than the 1:44.10 that 3-year-old filly I'm a Chatterbox needed to win the Rachel Alexandra one race earlier. What's more, I'm a Chatterbox completely reversed her running style, and this time came from way off of the pace with a 5-wide far turn sweep, which was in complete contrast to her wire-to-wire 8-length romp, last time out, in a Silverbulletday field that included Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies second place finisher Top Decile, way up the track.

It's hard to get excited about International Star or anyone in the Risen Star Stakes for that matter, when I'm of the opinion that the best performance by a 3-year-old on that card was turned in by the filly I'm a Chatterbox.

Fountain of Youth February 21 at Gulfstream Park

What a difference a year makes in regard to the speed of the racing surface. Last year, the Gulfstream Park dirt surface was so lightening fast, that Normandy Invasion ran a mile in 1:33 flat on the Fountain of Youth undercard. This year, Ghostzapper in his prime would've been lucky to go a mile in 1:35 over this surface. All weekend long, the final times of Gulfstream dirt races were so slow, you could've timed them with a sundial.

The tendency of Rick Violette Jr. trained horses is to run big races fresh, are rarely do they improve. So the question going into the Fountain of Youth for odds-on favorite Upstart was whether or not he could maintain the form he demonstrated in his impressive 5.5 length romping win in the Holy Bull, a win which he accomplished with a wide trip.

Upstart did have to overcome another wide trip and he got to the wire first while 2.75 lengths in front, but his performance graded out well below his impressive Holy Bull win. He was also disqualified from the victory for an incident at about the 1/16th pole when he drifted outward into the path of Itsaknockout and caused interference.

The mirage performance came from third place finisher Frammento, who saved all of the ground on the turns, and benefited from a pace that was much faster than people think, because a slow racing surface impacts fractional time too, not just final time.

Itsaknockout does get credit for winning this race in only his third career start, and he is a son of Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid. But, I don't think he's demonstrated a high level talent and it's hard to get excited about Todd Pletcher trained horses who have only raced at Gulfstream Park, because they don't always translate their good form elsewhere.

Southwest Stakes February 22 at Oaklawn Park

This race was originally scheduled six days earlier, but that card was cancelled, forcing its rescheduling to last Sunday. To quote Yogi Berra "it was deja vu all over again" as Far Right came knifing up the inside to capture another two-turn stakes race at Oaklawn Park. Far Right has made quite a transformation as a race horse. I recall him dumping the rider in the post parade and running off before his debut at Keeneland. During that debut, he blasted out to the early lead in one of those Spring Meet baby races. Now, the reformed Far Right, is a deep closer who reserves his speed and uses it to make a decisive rush when needed.

Hardcore pedigree nerds will note that Far Right is from the same tail female family as last years Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome. In fact, both horses share the same 5th Dam Princess Ribot. Strangely enough, both horses also started their careers by debuting in 4.5 furlong maiden races in April of their 2-year-old season. However, the comparisons end there. California Chrome demonstrated immensely more talent in last years prep season than Far Right has so far, this year.

The second place finisher The Truth or Else ran a tremendous race off of the bench in his first career start with lasix. He made a dramatic wide sweeping move and looked like a certain winner on the far turn, but proved understandably unable to sustain it in the stretch. The dam of the The Truth or Else was a daughter of Belmont Stakes winner Colonial Affair, and she was a bleeder during her racing career. Not only did she perform much better with lasix, but she also improved rapidly from ages two to three and three to four. The Truth or Else is an intriguing horse if he's able to build on his form going forward.

Finally, Mr. Z continues to do everything but get the job done. He had to overcome a wide post, and he did run clearly best of the non-closers in the Southwest, but I was confident he'd finally get the job done, but he left me and my wallet with grievance, especially considering The Truth or Else was on the board. The one nice thing I can muster to say about Mr. Z is that he does have a tremendous amount of foundation. Seven of his ten career starts have come in two-turn dirt races. Still, it's hard to believe that this is the same horse who was right there with both Dortmund and Firing Line, just two months ago. Foundation can be a double-edged sword. Dortmund and Firing Line had way less of it than Mr. Z when they met two months ago, and that usually means that they have more room for improvement, as they both have apparently demonstrated.