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Monday Musings: Sunday Silence and the Daddy

When you watch American racing – not that I do very often these days – it is always obvious that when there is a tight outcome, any deviation off a straight line by one of the protagonists is treated with unsympathetic correctitude, writes Tony Stafford.

Memories of those middling-to-far-off evenings in the old Racing Channel studio around the corner from London’s City Road – Old Street junction, scene of my schooldays at Central Foundation Grammar School – bring back overwhelmingly-superior winners being unceremoniously and totally-expectedly taken down.

On Saturday at Churchill Downs, poor old Ryan Moore (can we call him that?) and the Coolmore team’s Mendelssohn were given such a buffeting at the start; on the way to the first turn, and apparently just at the bend, that he never had a chance to add to his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and UAE Derby (on the Meydan dirt) triumphs on a rain-drenched night in Kentucky.

Step forward Luis Saez. He and his mount, the Todd Pletcher-trained Magnum Moon, have been identified as the catalyst for the mayhem which brought Moore such initial difficulty. From a single viewing it looked as though after such a rough introduction, Ryan had battled his mount valiantly into a reasonable position quite close to the turn but then came out of it mysteriously a fair way back and was never happy thereafter.

So while one Scat Daddy colt trailed home last of the 20 – one place behind the initially-swerving Magnum Moon – another, the favourite Justify, was always in the first two; led four furlongs out and was never troubled to maintain his unblemished record.

Favouritism - he started a shade under 3-1 on the local Pari-Mutuel – was guaranteed a long way before the off. I remember on my sole trip to the Kentucky Derby in 2002 we were gathered in the paddock for at least an hour before War Emblem went out to do his stuff, gazing up at the giant odds board. For the whole of that time the prices for the 20 runners barely fluctuated.

It left such an impression on me that when I was in the studio for the following year’s race, I had cause to question the normally-erudite James Willoughby. He said with a decent while to go before the race: “The prices could still change quite a lot”. I felt qualified to suggest, rather too forcibly I fear, that like Exit Polls in UK elections, these very large samples are almost set in stone.

This re-telling of an old story is not used to imply excess knowledge on my part. Rather it is to rebuke UK bookmakers for their treatment of punters aiming to back Mendelssohn.

A year ago, almost as a mark of respect to the great statesman after whom last year’s 2,000 Guineas winner was named, I stopped off at Woodford Green, close to the statue for the area’s former MP Sir Winston Churchill, and bought a nice piece of fried fish in Churchills fish shop, having first looked in on the odds on that evening’s big race in Churchill Downs.

My interest, though not for a bet, was on Thunder Snow, also previously winner of the UAE Derby, but in his case, only narrowly, whereas Mendelssohn won his renewal by 18 lengths. In the event, Thunder Snow proved intractable, and once leaving the gate, rather than run with the others, did a fair impression of the bulls which are specially trained to test the skills of the rodeo riders in the Wild West shows.

Whatever assailed him there, Thunder Snow bounced back three weeks later to chase home Churchill in the Irish 2,000 Guineas; was third just ahead of him in Barney Roy’s St James’s Palace, and more recently won the Dubai World Cup, beating the Bob Baffert-trained favourite West Coast by almost six lengths.

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On Saturday, having dropped off Mr Taylor at his car in Loughton, I retraced my steps, satisfying my unfathomable need for further sustenance with a battered sausage in Churchills and then looking in again on William Hill’s shop across the road. I was amazed to see him quoted the 11-4 favourite.

Ridiculous, I thought, but upon asking the counter assistant whether an SP bet would be settled at “industry” or American odds, was told that William Hill prices would hold. A long time before the race, Justify was clear market leader at 3’s with Mendelssohn one of a trio around 6-1. He ended up 6.8-1 on the machine, but less than half an hour before the race, was showing 9-4 with most bookmakers on the Oddschecker facility on the Internet. Larceny of the highest order, I would call it.

What with the shenanigans, intended or otherwise, of Senor Saez and his errant mount, and the corporate “price-fixing” of the UK layers where the Ballydoyle colt was concerned, his backers were the gambling equivalent of drawn and quartered. Fortunately the boys and their trainer have seen it all before, so Aidan’s pledge that the colt will return for the Breeders’ Cup Classic back at Churchill later in the year was both reassuring and realistic.

I cannot imagine whether the identical plan for the Roger Teal-trained and Mrs Anne Cowley-owned and -bred Tip Two Win will bring too much trepidation for O’Brien, but the small grey Dark Angel colt certainly gave the awesome Saxon Warrior a race when runner-up in Saturday’s 2,000 Guineas just ahead of the favourite, Masar. Roger and his intrepid owner deserved their 30 minutes of fame and Mrs Cowley pledged once more that her little champion will never be sold. Who says racing is not for the small owner?

Like Justify, Saxon Warrior is unbeaten with four from four, and like his American counterpart, could have Triple Crown pretensions, although it’s much less likely to be attempted on this side of the pond, with an honourable mention of its closest recent attempt by Camelot, whose stock predictably are on the up. This was Saxon Warrior’s three-year-old reappearance, unlike Justify who became the first colt to win the Derby for 136 years without having run as a two-year-old. Apollo in 1882 was the last.

Justify and Mendelssohn are, as mentioned above, both from the penultimate crop of the much-lamented Scat Daddy; and as the television screens showed the deluge from Churchill – three inches fell during the day – it reminded me of a similar day’s weather when I attended a party arranged before the day at Monmouth Park 11 years ago when a broken leg tragically ended George Washington’s career. I believe the host for the party was James Scatuorchio, the original owner and latterly partner with Michael Tabor in Scat Daddy.

Scat Daddy’s racing career had ended with an 18th place in the Kentucky Derby that May, but he went into Ashford stud the following season for a $30,000 fee. As is normal with untried stallions, the early years are tough commercially, so by the 2011 season, when his first crop was about to be launched, the fee was down to $10,000.

From then until his untimely demise in late 2015, when the price for his 2016 matings had already been fixed at $100,000, his progeny have far out-performed those limited expectations. Had he lived, with the quality of the runners since, it would have been more like $400,000 by now.

Saxon Warrior’s emphatic win on Saturday proved yet again what brilliant and imaginative people run Coolmore. He was one of the first examples of the bold decision to send a number of Group 1 winning mares to be mated with Deep Impact in Japan. At a stroke, a much-needed outcross source for the many high-class mares, particularly daughters of Galileo, seems to have been established.

That top-class son of Sunday Silence was foaled late in his sire’s long career in Japan at the Yoshida family’s farm in Hokkaido. I had the good fortune to get a trip to Japan in the early 1990’s and saw Sunday Silence winding down at the end of his first year’s residence.

Back in 1989, Sunday Silence won the first two legs (Derby and Preakness) of the Triple Crown, but failed in the Belmont as was often the case until American Pharoah came along two years ago to end the void since Affirmed in 1979. Both times he beat the favoured Easy Goer, his major rival, before losing the argument by eight lengths in the Belmont. Finally, by defeating Easy Goer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he earned championship honours.

A disappointing four-year-old campaign left US breeders generally unmoved, but Shadai had already bought an interest and he was shipped to Japan where he became the perennial champion stallion, a position Deep Impact has inherited a decade and a half after his father’s passing.

Deep Impact might conceivably have had another European Classic winner if his diminutive daughter, September, had been able to take her place in yesterday’s 1,000 Guineas. She was very unlucky when a fast-finishing runner-up in the Fillies’ Mile over the same course and distance behind Laurens, herself runner-up yesterday behind Billesdon Brook, at 66-1 the longest-priced winner of the race.

As with Saxon Warrior, who had won the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy over a mile at Doncaster last autumn, the May Hill Stakes over that course and distance at the St Leger meeting provided the fillies’ Classic’s winner. Billesdon Brook, trained by Richard Hannon, was twice successful at Goodwood last year, showing finishing speed and determination to win a handicap and then a Group 3. After those runs, fifth at Doncaster behind Laurens was probably a disappointment. She certainly put it all together up the hill yesterday and never looked like being caught.

I’m off to Windsor this Bank Holiday Monday to see if Sod’s Law can confirm what we’ve long hoped might be above-average ability. Raymond Tooth and Steve Gilbey are coming too, so let’s hope he’ll at least go close. Apres Le Deluge has been entered for Market Rasen on Friday. As the only previous winner in the field he has to be interesting, but there are some well-connected and quite pricey newcomers to worry about. Hughie Morrison can do it if anyone can.

In between it’s off to Chester, to check whether the scoff in the owners’ room remains up to standard. For me, it’s the best anywhere.

Monday Musings: The Quest for the Roses

“It could only happen to Michael!” Those words, spoken to me by Victor Chandler after Thunder Gulch, owned by Michael Tabor, had astounded everyone in racing when he won the 1995 Kentucky Derby, were repeated many times in the days after that unlikely success for a hitherto small-scale English owner, writes Tony Stafford.

Trained by Wayne D Lukas and ridden by Gary Stevens, Thunder Gulch narrowly missed out on what would have been a first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1977 when only third to stable-companion Timber Country in the Preakness before his Belmont Stakes success.

Thunder Gulch died two weeks ago at Ashford stud, Coolmore’s Kentucky base and his home throughout his own long stud career. Before his amazing Derby triumph, any thought that Tabor would ever be teaming up with John Magnier in the Coolmore ownership group would have seemed fanciful in the extreme. Yet that Run for the Roses was the catalyst that brought the pair, joined later by Derrick Smith, together and to their unchallenged position at the top of the thoroughbred world.

Ashford is also home to American Pharoah, the horse that finally ended the 38-year US Triple Crown drought three years ago. By the time he had completed that feat and long before his Breeders’ Cup Classic victory at the end of the 2015 campaign, he had been partially acquired by Coolmore. He shares with their outstanding European stallion Galileo the distinction of a “private” stud fee for the 2018 covering season.

One of the enduring oddities of the international racing calendar is that the first Saturday in May is the traditional date for both the Kentucky Derby and the 2,000 Guineas. In the days of Concorde it would have been theoretically possible to attend both – the five-hour time difference more than making up for the three and a half hour Mach2.5 Atlantic crossing - but you would have needed some heavy duty transfers.

But after Mendelssohn’s UAE Derby extravaganza on Saturday night at Meydan, there can be little doubt that Tabor, John Magnier and especially Smith, in whose colours the $3million colt runs, will be unlikely to forego Churchill Downs for the Rowley Mile, however compelling the prospects of unbeaten Saxon Warrior, or any one of half a dozen Ballydoyle colts that might pitch up for the Qipco-sponsored Classic.

The Coolmore story, and especially the last 20-odd years of it, is one of continuity. When Demi O’Byrne paid $200,000 on Tabor’s behalf for a yearling colt by Hennessy in Kentucky in September 2000, he was beginning a process that was to culminate in those astonishing events on Saturday night in Dubai.

Johannesburg won all six of his races as a juvenile in Europe, starting at Fairyhouse; going on to Royal Ascot for the Norfolk – the only time he started odds against – before winding up domestic and UK operations with an easy Dewhurst victory.

In hindsight, it seems crazy that he could have been allowed to start at odds of 36-5 for his juvenile swansong in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on the dirt at Belmont, but that was entirely because of the reputation – I would have been talking it up, for sure – of the Thoroughbred Corporation-owned Officer, trained by Bob Baffert and a 4-6 shot after easy wins in Californian and then the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont.

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He flopped on his big day, however, and so on balance did Johannesburg the following May. After a soft-ground comeback defeat at home, he was only eighth of 20 behind War Emblem, Officer’s stable-companion also owned by Prince Ahmed Salman’s Thoroughbred Corporation, in the Derby. That remains my only time to attend America’s greatest race and, as I was part of the TC’s entourage, it remains one of my best memories in racing.

Johannesburg was promptly retired and with his pedigree and Grade 1 dirt win, it was pretty obvious he would be based in the US. It didn’t take too long for Scat Daddy to arrive. Todd Pletcher was the buyer when he came up at the same Keeneland September sale, five years almost to the day that his daddy went through the Lexington ring; and for a similar sort of price, $250,000.

The new owner was Joe Scatuorchio and his colt was campaigned at a high level, winning the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont before finishing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Gulfstream, Florida, behind wide-margin winner Street Sense. Pletcher also had Circular Quay running in the Tabor colours and this Doreen Tabor homebred started favourite, having upset the odds-on Scat Daddy when they met earlier in the season.

Both colts turned out for the Derby the following May, Circular Quay again faring better, albeit only sixth behind Street Sense, who completed the Juvenile - Derby double with an emphatic win from Hard Spun and subsequent champion, Curlin.

Presumably with the Johannesburg element to encourage him, Tabor bought into Scat Daddy and the immediate success of such as Caravaggio and Lady Aurelia quickly promoted his status within the Ashford stallion hierarchy. He had been upgraded to a $100,000 fee before a fatal accident curtailed what subsequent events show might have been a career in the Galileo mould.

Until Saturday night, that comment may have seemed over-doing it a touch, as equally might the $3million paid by M V Magnier for Scat Daddy’s yearling colt out of Leslie’s Lady, back at Keeneland’s September sale, 10 years and two days after the sire’s acquisition and 15 years and four days on from granddad’s.

But then Leslie’s Lady had already produced Beholder, whose racetrack earnings after 18 wins from 26 career starts were a touch short of four million sterling. She won three Breeders’ Cup races, from age two to six, all at Santa Anita, and Mendelssohn has already emulated the first of those, winning the Juvenile Turf last November.

Aidan O’Brien wisely brought him out for an all-weather prep at Dundalk early last month when Threeandfourpence and Seahenge were also in the field before both joined him in Dubai. The margin over the former was a modest three-parts of a length at Dundalk, Mendelssohn conceding 5lb. It would probably not have mattered if he had been giving five stone on Saturday as once Ryan Moore got him to the front, there was nothing Gold Town, favourite after two home wins for Charlie Appleby and Godolphin, or anything else could do to prevent the Irish horse’s lap of honour.

It is still easy to picture Arazi’s spectacular Juvenile win around the outside of his field all those years ago, but equally his Kentucky Derby defeat. In Mendelssohn’s case, the ever-widening gap had stretched to more than 18 lengths by the line, and was achieved in a time more than two seconds better than ever previously recorded in the race’s history as a nine and a half furlong affair.

O’Brien senior already has umpteen Derby’s and untold Group 1’s in his locker while elder son Joseph is the Melbourne Cup’s youngest winning trainer. Just what will Donnacha, and sisters Sarah and Ana have in store for us in the coming years?

Now the Kentucky Derby beckons. Johannesburg begat Scat Daddy; Scat Daddy begat Mendelssohn. It’s Easter and there’s almost a biblical theme to it all. If any family was destined to achieve yet more history and become the first Irish-based trainer to win the race, Aidan O’Brien’s undoubtedly is. As is Johannesburg’s!

Pin-Stickers’ Pal: 2016 Kentucky Derby

This Saturday sees the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby, hosted beneath the iconic twin spires of Louisville's Churchill Downs race track. Here in Blighty, we think the track is over-crowded when Royal Ascot shoehorns in 60,000 socialites and revellers for Ladies' Day; but the 2015 Durrby in Kentucky welcomed a whopping 170,513 race fans through its gates!

To this year's contest and, if you're playing catch up in terms of which horses have done what; where you need to be drawn; and, crucially, who might win, this post is your shortcut salvation. In it, you'll find links to some great articles on the relevance of the draw, stamina questions, form insights and some betting odds.

It may or may not help you find the Kentucky Derby 2016 winner, but you'll be able to place a more educated wager than otherwise might have been the case, at the very least. Let's get started...

Kentucky Derby Post Position Statistics

Most US races comprise single-digit fields. The maximum field size for the annual Breeders' Cup jamboree is generally 14 runners. But all of twenty aspirants are scheduled go to post for the 2016 Ky Derby. That's been the case in recent times, so what bearing has draw, or post position, had?

In this post by the America's Best Racing website, an argument is put forward that a wide draw may not be the negative it first appears.  With starting stalls first deployed for the race in 1930, the 86 winners in that time were divided in to quartiles thus:

Stalls 1-5: 34/430 - 7.9%

Stalls 6-10: 29/417 - 7.0%

Stalls 11-15: 16/330 - 4.8%

Stalls 16-20: 7/149 - 4.7%

Whilst the all time data points towards an inside draw being favoured, more recent evidence is less supportive of that notion. The 17 renewals since 1999 have gone thus:

Stalls 1-5: 4/85 - 4.7%

Stalls 6-10: 4/85 - 4.7%

Stalls 11-15: 4/85 - 4.7%

Stalls 16-20: 5/66 - 7.6%

Remarkable uniformity between the inside three quartiles - a function of coincidence as much as an even distribution - gives way to a clear top performing quarter of the draw to the outside. From 19 less runners, the widest drawn horses have notched five wins. And, moreover, stall 15 - at the outer limit of the third quartile - has unleashed the winners of two of the last three Runs for the Roses.

Why might this be? Well, again, it may be coincidence, to some degree at least. It may also relate to the uneven distribution of fancied runners to the outside posts. American Pharoah, Big Brown and Fusaichi Pegasus were all hot favourites when winning from trap 15 or wider. But... those outside gates also housed winning bombers at 15/1, 21/1, and 31/1.

Ultimately, without deeper data - for instance incorporating at least the first four home - it would be dangerous to make confident statements. But what we can say is that it is a least probably not a disadvantage to be posted wide.

That will come as a relief if you're a fan of Nyquist (13), Mohaymen (14), Outwork (15), Mor Spirit (17), Brody's Cause (19) or Danzing Candy (20), all of whom are at least fairly well fancied in the Kentucky Derby betting.

Kentucky Derby Dosage Profiles

As well as the outlandish field size, the Kentucky Derby is also run over a distance - ten furlongs, or a mile and a quarter - over which few of the young three-year-olds will have raced previously. So how can we know if they'll flourish or flounder for the final furlong?

The answer, according to many, is in the pedigree charts, and especially in dosage profiles. Dosage is about much more than establishing the stamina credentials of Derby contenders either side of 'the pond' - it covers five different characteristics including speed and class, as well as stamina - but it tends to be a tad typecast as a barometer of staying power.

The conventional wisdom is, or at least was, that a dosage index (DI) of 4.00 or less was evidence of the requisite stamina to get the Kentucky Derby job done. However, in 2005 and 2009, a pair of long shots prevailed with DI's above the historical ceiling.

Those high profile reverses were claimed as the death knell for dosage usage in forecasting the Derby. And yet, in this excellent piece on chef-de-race.com, author Steven Roman argues that only in sub-standard renewals of the Kentucky Derby has a horse whose profile leans more towards speed than stamina passed the post in front.

The below table, taken from that article, shows the 26 Ky Derby's since 1990 ranked by the winners' Beyer Speed Figure in the race.

 

RANK YEAR   DERBY WINNER DI    BSF
1 2001 Monarchos 1.4 116
2 1990 Unbridled 1.12 116
3 1997 Silver Charm 1.22 115
4 2002 War Emblem 3.4 114
5 1994 Go For Gin 1 112
6 1996 Grindstone 1.44 112
7 2006 Barbaro 1.81 111
8 2007 Street Sense 2.14 110
9 2003 Funny Cide 1.53 109
10 2008 Big Brown 1.67 109
11 2000 Fusaichi Pegasus 3.67 108
12 1995 Thunder Gulch 4 108
13 1999   Charismatic 5.22 108
14 1992 Lil E. Tee 3 107
15 2004 Smarty Jones 3.4 107
16 1998   Real Quiet 5.29 107
17 1991   Strike the Gold 9 107
18 1993 Sea Hero 1.12 105
19 2009   Mine That Bird 5.4 105
20 2015   American Pharoah 4.33 105
21 2010 Super Saver 3 104
22 2013 Orb 3.21 104
23 2011 Animal Kingdom 1.67 103
24 2012 I'll Have Another 2.11    101
25 2005   Giacomo 4.33    100
26 2014 California Chrome 3.4 97

 

He closes by saying,

There is only about a 2% likelihood that the difference we see in the BSFs is the result of chance.

 

That begs the following questions

  1. Is this likely to be an above average renewal, where stamina will truly come into play?
  2. What are the DI scores for this year's runners?

The answer to question 2 is found on that same excellent website in this article.

Rather than 'sponge' off Dr Roman's work any longer, you're strongly encouraged to take a look at the link above. What I will tell you is that, of the twenty runners this year (excluding reserves), 17 have a DI of 4.00 or less. Interestingly - very interestingly - clear favourite, the unbeaten-in-seven Nyquist, has a DI of 7.00, higher than all bar 1991 winner, Strike The Gold, from the above sample. All fifty of the winners prior to 1990 had a DI of 4.00 or less!

To spell that out, Nyquist has a higher Dosage Index than every single Kentucky Derby winner since 1940, with a single exception. Interesting, as I said.

It's also worth noting that eight of the top ten Kentucky Derby-winning Beyer speed performances were achieved by horses with a Dosage Index score of 1.81 or below. In this year's field, only five horses fit that bill: Mo Tom, Gun Runner, Destin, Mor Spirit and Brody's Cause. One more, Lani, has a DI less than 2.

The answer to question 1 is hard to answer without the benefit of hindsight. After all, last year American Pharoah's Derby win looked moderate on the clock, but he improved throughout the season to plunder the Triple Crown, the first since 1978 to do that, and topped it all off with a win in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

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Kentucky Derby Odds

Below are the latest odds with the British bookmakers. They're compared with the US Morning Line (predicted odds) and latest Vegas odds (live shows).

 

Compare best Kentucky Derby 2016 Odds

Compare best Kentucky Derby 2016 Odds

 

The two right hand columns show the variance between UK odds and the Morning Line (forecast post time odds), and between the UK and Vegas live books (i.e. prices you can bet).

In all cases, the best UK price is better than the Vegas show. In the highlighted cases, the UK top offer is at least 50% higher than the Morning Line, and/or at least 33% better than the Vegas line.

If you simply want to bet a horse that might be the wrong price without looking at the form, then any or all of Whitmore, Shagaf and Danzing Candy are your friends.

 

Kentucky Derby 2016 Pace Projection

The 2016 Derby field may fall into the following early pace groups:

On the lead: Nyquist (Post 13), Outwork (15), Danzing Candy (20)

Prominent: Gun Runner (5), Destin (9), Exaggerator (11), Mohaymen (14), Shagaf (16), Majesto (18)

Mid-Division: Oscar Nominated (7), Lani (8), Whitmore (10), Tom's Ready (12), Mor Spirit (17)

Held Up: Trojan Nation (1), Suddenbreakingnews (2), Creator (3), Mo Tom (4), My Man Sam (6), Brody's Cause (19)

It is always possible - likely even - that a no-hoper or two will be rushed up for a glory call from the commentators and a palpitation for its owners. Despite that, favourite Nyquist has a sound chance to get from trap thirteen to the rail before the first turn. Outwork and Danzing Candy will be attempting to track his course to the head of the field.

Five of the inside six stalls will be briefly occupied by horses that are generally late runners, so the early dash could be very interesting. Destin, Mohaymen and Shagaf could get trapped a little wide, especially the latter pair, which would be sub-optimal.

Meanwhile, Exaggerator usually races handily but has been campaigned more patiently on his most recent two outings, and with some success. A middle draw and a versatile run style give him options.

Brody's Cause should be able to tack across from the cheap seats after the early pacers have got out of his way, but he'll have to pass plenty of parked cars down the back straight and around the home turn. He'll need a goodly dollop of luck to get the job done, I fear.

 

Who is going to win Kentucky Derby 2016?

At the end of the day, it boils down this. "I don't know".

Nyquist is seven from seven and probably hasn't got the credit that a Breeders Cup Juvenile winner should. He's game and keeps finding. He's also a short price and has stamina to prove (don't they all?)

Brody's Cause was an improver for a longer trip and a patient ride when winning a nine furlong G1 last time, but he'll need the luck from post 19. There is also the niggle that his best three runs have all come at Keeneland which, although nearby, is not Churchill Downs. Luis Saez has taken over from the frequently inept Corey Lanerie - more shortly - and looks a far better option.

Mohaymen has plenty to prove after losing his unbeaten record to Nyquist - and allowing another two horses, and eight and a half lengths, to pass him. He'd previously been going away at the end of his mile-and-a-teeny (1m 1/2f) runs, but this is another 330 yards.

Exaggerator has a lot going for him - top speed figure (albeit on a sloppy oval), consistently high class form, versatile run style - and looks more likely than many to run his race. That's factored into his price too, at a top quote of 10/1, which is solid but unspectacular, much like this chap.

The first three home in the Arkansas Derby - Creator, Suddenbreakingnews, and Whitmore - all re-oppose and all run late. Creator got the best splits last time, but Suddenbreakingnews' late rally was the 'notebook run'. I'm not sure any of them can step forward enough to win a Kentucky Derby, mind. Whitmore has been running well but getting beaten and he's not an obvious improver for a longer trip.

Gun Runner is a nice uncomplicated horse, with talent. He got a perfect trip in the Risen Star Stakes, and a perfect trip in the Louisiana Derby, and he won them both. Drawn five, with over-sleepers from the gate all around, he should be able to amble to his preferred stalking position as the likes of Nyquist charge across and, presumably, in front.

In other words, he's set to get another perfect trip. He stayed well last time, pulling further clear in the last half furlong, and has one of the best jockeys in the region in Florent Geroux.

Compare that rider with Corey Lanerie, whose bungled efforts on Mo Tom in the same pair of races as Gun Runner above, have seen that animal no better than third since winning a Grade 3 three back. He might have got to Gun Runner had Lanerie not gone inside and been checked in the Risen Star; but he wouldn't have got to that one when again going inside and again getting checked in the La. Derby. He'll be finishing fresher than many, but the bird is expected to have flown by then.

And what about fly in the ointment, Lani? This Japanese globe-trotter won the UAE Derby last time over a trip 100 metres shy of the Ky Derby distance. That's further than any of his rivals have run. And... he bobbled badly out of the stalls that day, conceding five lengths off what was, granted, a slow early gallop. He has less to find than many and is unbeaten on a dry dirt track (both dirt defeats on a muddy track).

Destin was a good winner of the Tampa Bay Derby - Brody's Cause never able to get into it under that man, Lanerie - but he looked all out over the extended mile, and might not get home.

The San Felipe Stakes is worth a watch: Danzing Candy gets an uncontested lead throughout, from an inside draw, while Mor Spirit is a little outpaced, and Exaggerator sits quietly at the back. Come the home straight and Candy has skipped clear having had the total run of it, Exaggerator has gone a clear second with Mor Spirit seemingly beaten off.

But into the final furlong and Mor Spirit finishes with gusto, suggesting the extra range at Churchill will fit him well. Box 17 won't be the beating of him, even though it is the hoodoo stall - no horse has EVER won the Derby from that gate, the only one without a win. I think he might well come out in front of that trio.

The bookmakers make Exaggerator the clear pick of the three, based on his next time out/last day win, beating Mor Spirit, in the Santa Anita Derby. But that was on a sloppy track and, with two dry days forecast before the Derby, it is expected to be a fast dirt surface on Saturday afternoon.

Earlier in the season, I was quite taken by Shagaf in the Gotham Stakes, but he was very flat on his only subsequent start, the Grade 1 Wood Memorial, where he was sent off the 19/10 favourite. Perhaps it was the muddy track that did for him there. If it was, odds of 40/1 could look tasty (I took 33/1 before that reversal, sigh); if it wasn't he won't be troubling the judge.

And still there are more runners, though it's hard to make a credible case for any of them on what we've seen so far.

 

Come on! WHO is going to win the Kentucky Derby?

I still don't know! But, here's what I think. Nyquist deserves to be favourite. He has a good chance of bagging the rail despite trap 13, and he wasn't stopping in the nine furlong Florida Derby.

Against that, he doesn't have form lines with many of these, except the normally-beaten Exaggerator. That gives him little in hand on collateral evidence, and the clock also makes him only one of a number in the front rank.

Better value options, with similar credentials (barring the unbroken string of 1's in the form column), might be Gun Runner and Brody's Cause.

The former is four from five, his only defeat coming on a sloppy track. He's by Candy Ride out of a Giant's Causeway mare, a perfect cross for this sort of challenge, and he looks like getting a 'no excuses' trip, something many others will not. 12/1 is a solid play.

Brody's Cause has a very wide draw in 19 to overcome, but improved for his ring-rusty seasonal bow to blitz the G1 Bluegrass in sizzling last-to-first fashion. If the splits come at the right times, he'll be an exciting voucher to be holding. If they don't, he'll be a frustrating one. But Skybet are going a fantastic fifth the first FIVE places, and they're top priced 14/1 about BC. That's too good to miss.

At bigger prices, I retain faint hope for Shagaf, though no more than that; and I think Mor Spirit could be a big improver for the trip.

2016 Kentucky Derby Pick: Gun Runner 12/1 (1/4 1-2-3 bet365)

2016 Kentucky Derby Alternative: Brody's Cause 14/1 (1/5 1-2-3-4-5 Skybet)

2016 Kentucky Derby Mild Outsider: Mor Spirit 16/1 (1/5 1-2-3-4-5 Skybet)

Good luck!

Matt

American Pharoah primed for one last Hurrah

An American Hero

An American Hero

The Breeders’ Cup guest of honour continued to shine during his final work at Santa Anita.

American Pharoah was the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Yesterday he ‘breezed’ four furlongs before a gallop over five under the watchful eye of trainer Bob Baffert. Saturday’s $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic will be his final race before he starts his career as a stallion based at the Coolmore America Ashford Stud in Kentucky.

An emotional Baffert spoke of his equine hero with that final race drawing near: “He fulfilled a goal for me that I wanted but thought was probably unreachable, and that was to win the Triple Crown. It was emotional for me because unfortunately my parents weren't around to see it and they were always my biggest fans.“

Of that historical final leg of the Triple Crown he added: "The Belmont is the first time I've run a horse and never rooted for it. I just watched in amazement, and that's really rare. I always root and scream my lungs out, but watching him, I just knew he was going to do it. There was something about him that's so special. We finally did it and we did it with a horse that was just so incredible.”

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The exceptional colt has won eight of his 10 career starts, accumulating earnings of almost $6 million.
The trainer appeared more than pleased with his stars recent work, saying: “It went really well. I was debating whether to work him in company—like, maybe put a target in front—but we just wanted to cruise around there, and it was nice that we had the track to ourselves. He looked like Pharoah.” Ridden by his regular work rider Martin Garcia, the gallop proved a little faster than anticipated.

“He did it the right way,” Baffert said. “I just told Martin to keep him in hand and let him cruise around there. That's what he did. He could have slowed him down a little bit, but he was doing it the right way. I was pretty impressed. Going into this race, he's ready to roll.”

It was also American Pharoah's last run at the Santa Anita track, a place that has become home for most of his career. “Walking up here, I was getting a little bit emotional,” Baffert said. “I was excited to watch him work, and got a little bit nervous. It was great the way he was doing it, but a little piece of me said, 'it's a little bit sad.' We now have to ship and the ship has to go well. It doesn't matter where he goes. He's handled it very well so far. He's used to everything—the crowd, the paddock—he's just that kind of horse. It makes my life so much easier, but that's because he's so great. He can handle it mentally.”

Three-year-olds have a decent record in the Classic but by no means outstanding. Horses that have found success in the Triple Crown events rarely shine at the Breeders’ Cup. Curlin back in 2007 was the last horse to win both the Preakness Stakes and the Classic in the same season, whilst Drosselmeyer won the Belmont in 2010 and a year later won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The effort of a Triple Crown campaign is notoriously testing for a young horse, and Pharoah’s last run, when beaten in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, is cause for concern. Despite all this, the bookies have him as a short-priced favourite. He slipped up at Saratoga, but given a break since and seemingly on the back of a smooth prep there’s every chance America’s latest racing sensation can finish on a high.

“It’s going to be a sad, but a happy day when he leaves because he put us way up there,” Baffert said. “He gave us the biggest thrill you could get in racing.”

It would be a fitting final act, if he could give his trainer and connections one last thrill on Saturday night.

American Pharoah set for Travers outing

Sensational American Pharoah

Sensational American Pharoah

It’s been announced that US Triple-Crown winner American Pharoah will next head for the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga. The race takes place on August 29 and will be his last prior to the Breeders’ Cup at the end of October.

After another stunning piece of work at Del Mar, his owner Ahmed Zayat confirmed the colt will head to New York. He is set to fly to Saratoga on August 26. Trainer Bob Baffert confirmed his star’s wellbeing on Sunday, saying: “He always works well, but we wanted to see if he still has that energy level. It was a pretty incredible work, and he's a pretty incredible horse.”

With seven Grade 1 victories to his name, American Pharoah is fast becoming one of ‘American Dirts’ all-time greats. A hard fought victory in the Kentucky Derby was followed by a romp in the Preakness Stakes. This was arguably surpassed when he took the Triple-Crown in stunning fashion, destroying the field in the Belmont Stakes. Some may question the opposition but his strong performances have been backed by the clock.

His latest Grade 1 victory at Monmouth Park in the Haskell Invitational proved to be no more than a training session. In front of a record crowd he led from the off cruising clear before being heavily eased nearing the post.

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Bob Baffert trained the sire, Pioneerof the Nile, a Kentucky Derby runner-up in 2009. It comes as no surprise to see that Northern Dancer appears on both sides of the pedigree, though admittedly going back a fair few generations. Both owner and trainer have hinted at their star’s standout quality. “We felt that he had brilliance in him,” said Zayat, “his demeanour, his aura, his conformation, and the way he moved.” Baffert added: “I've never had a horse that moves or travels over the ground like he does.”

His greatest test is likely to come at Keeneland, Kentucky, in the Breeders’ Cup at the end of a long arduous campaign. However, his trainer is sure to be a little nervous taking in the Travers Stakes. The only previous Triple Crown winner to find success in the race was Whirlaway in 1941.

Affirmed did cross the line ahead in the Travers of 1978 having already secured the Triple Crown, but was disqualified and placed second after interference with the runner-up Alydar. Baffert himself has a poor record in the race with just one win in five attempts. “I was looking for a reason not to run in the Travers but he didn’t give me one,” the trainer said. “I feel confident that he’ll run his race. If I saw he was a little flat he wouldn’t be on that plane.”

It’s hard to envisage anything other than another impressive victory for the great horse, assuming he arrives in New York fit and well. It will then be full steam ahead Kentucky for a thrilling season finale, before retiring to his duties as a stallion. He will stand at Ashford Stud, a division of Coolmore, after breeding rights were sold by Zayat.

It is estimated that his stud fee could reach $200,000. He looks set to be a star long after his sensational track exploits are over.

American Pharoah – The Triple Crown in his sights

American Pharoah

American Pharoah

Once again we sit on the cusp of a US Triple Crown, but as so often in the past, is this year’s bid set to end in glorious failure.

American Pharoah is the latest equine star seeking his place in the history books. In the United States, the ‘Triple Crown’ consists of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes all run in a frantic five week period.

Only eleven horses have had the class and durability required to win all three, and none have managed the feat since 1978. The first to do so was Sir Barton in 1919. In 1973 the mighty Secretariat became the first in 25 years to complete the Triple Crown. Considered by many to be one of the greatest thoroughbreds, he set the fastest race time in all three, records that still stand today.

In 1977 and 1978 Seattle Slew and then Affirmed managed the treble. The latter was ridden by Steve Cauthen, and won the last two legs, The Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, in thrilling finishes by a neck and a nose.

Since ’78 many have come close but all have found the size of the task to be just beyond them. Silver Charm came agonisingly close in 1997 when having won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes he failed by just half a length to hold off Touch Gold in the Belmont. Funny Cide also headed to the Belmont with history in sight, but he could only manage third after a day of torrential rain left the track more stamina sapping than anticipated.

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Smarty Jones and Big Brown fell short in similar fashion in recent times, and last year it was the turn of California Chrome to head to New York with the hopes of the nation on his back. An interrupted preparation due to an injury was far from ideal, but the trip in the Belmont appeared to be the defining factor. The final leg of the Triple Crown is run over 12 furlongs as opposed to the 10 furlongs of the Kentucky and Preakness.

And so to this year’s attempt from Bob Baffert’s American Pharoah. A stunning victory in the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes on May 16 before a record crowd of 131,680 at Pimlico Racecourse has ensured that the Triple Crown remains a realistic possibility. Indeed the style of victory at the Baltimore track will have filled connections with confidence as they head to New York.

Ridden by Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah set a searching pace before pulling clear to win by seven lengths. “He's just an incredible horse,” Baffert said immediately after the race. “What he does is amazing. Great horses do great things, and I think he showed that today.” He added: “I don't even want to think about the Triple Crown right now. I want to enjoy this. I've been there and I don't want to think about it for another couple of weeks. We'll just see how the horse comes back.”

Owner Ahmed Zayat was more willing to discuss the Triple Crown possibility: “We could be talking about history,” he said. “How could I be happier than that?”

It was Baffert’s sixth Preakness victory, and he now has his fourth shot at a Triple Crown. Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem all failed to win the Belmont Stakes after success in the first two legs.

Signs are that the Preakness took less out of American Pharoah than his efforts in winning the Kentucky Derby. But several horses skipped Baltimore after their exertions in the ‘Kentucky’, to freshen-up before a shot at the Belmont Stakes. “It’s something you can’t control,” Baffert said of the presence of fresh horses. “It makes it exciting.”

The trainer knows he has the best in the race, but can he have him 100% fit when it matters? We’ll all know the answer to that on June 6.

Gary Stevens’ Emotional Return

Gary Stevens

Gary Stevens

Gary Stevens will ride in the Breeders' Cup on Friday, just three months after having right knee replacement surgery.

The 51-year-old hasn't ridden in a race since the operation on July 25. Stevens rides Sivoliere in the Juvenile Fillies Turf.

It’s an incredible return for the jockey who won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic on Mucho Macho Man. He also won the Distaff on day one of last year’s event. He’s been quoted as saying that nothing could top last year's Breeders' Cup success. However, on getting the call to ride Sivoliere for Chad Brown he said: "I always hoped I would be able to ride in the Breeders' Cup this year, but I knew that I wasn't going to do it unless I was 110% fit. I'm so grateful to have owners and trainers that believe in me.”

Stevens has almost 5,000 career victories. He became a jockey in 1979 but has had several periods of retirement due to on-going knee problems. Such issues have not prevented him from being incredibly successful.  In 1993, Stevens became the youngest jockey to surpass $100 million in earnings. In 1997 he fell agonisingly short of winning the Triple Crown. Having ridden Silver Charm to victories in the Kentucky Derby and the ‘Preakness’, the horse could only manage second in the Belmont Stakes. He has won the Santa Anita Derby a record nine times and has won ten Breeders’ Cup races.

Stevens had a terrific start to 2014, with 31 wins in just 145 races. But his knee problems became just too severe to continue. In July he decided to take a break so that he could get the knee replacement operation. He appeared confident that he would return to the saddle saying; “In my mind, I’m not finished." He returned to work riding in mid-October and was thrilled to accept the ride in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

It would come as no surprise if the great man was to ride Sivoliere to victory on Friday. The French import was last seen finishing third in a Group 3 at Deauville. An Irish-bred daughter of Sea The Stars, she is not without a chance.

California Chrome – ‘Super Sharp’ for Breeders’ Cup Classic

California Chrome

The Sensational California Chrome

He came so close to becoming the first horse in 36 years to Read more

I’ll Have Another’s trainer facing doping charges…again

I’ll Have Another took the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of America’s Triple Crown of races on Saturday. In what was almost a re-run of the Kentucky Derby, race favourite Bodemeister set out to make all, but was caught by I’ll Have Another in the last half furlong. Read more

Kentucky Derby: Preview and selections

Churchill Downs - hosts Kentucky Derby

It isn’t just Newmarket that has the attention of the racing world this weekend. Across the Pond, there’s a renewal of one of the older races on the calendar there. Read more

Horse Racing’s January…

As many racing commentators have observed, dear reader, this is a very funny time in the racing year. The jumps season officially ended on Saturday, with the Bet365 Gold Cup; and the flat season really gets underway this weekend with the 1000 and 2000 Guineas meeting at HQ.

Factor in that Punchestown will stage their NH Festival meeting this week - probably the best Festival in the Irish racing calendar - and it's certainly a week of transience for us racing fans.

The aforementioned Bet365 Gold Cup, formerly the Whitbread, was a pretty shabby affair if truth be told, and it's not hard to see why this 'feature' race has had so much flux in terms of the sponsor in recent years. Despite the relatively low quality of the field, there can be no doubting that it was a tremendous spectacle.

That man A P McCoy, whose horses became 'never lay' material after the imperious 'never say die' ride aboard the late Wichita Lineman at Cheltenham in March, underlined and emboldened the case for not opposing his mounts with a further peerless performance of potency, power and panache aboard Carl Llewellyn's Hennessy.

The beast was well backed, but also looked well beat down the far side second time around. No matter, for SuperMc nipped into a phonebox in a quiet corner of Esher, pulled his underpants over his breeches, fastened his red cape and rallied his reluctant steed to new heights. Mostly metaphorically, of course. (Not sure where this is going, so I'll just truncate the Superman metaphor at this point, and move on...)

On the same card at Sandown, we saw this year's Breeders Cup Mile winner in action. Paco Boy had been something of a 7f specialist prior to Saturday's authoritative win (always holding the placed horses, and brought to the front soon enough, in my opinion). But in taking the Group 2 Bet365 Mile on Sandown's stiff oval, Paco has show he has what it takes to win in Santa Anita.

Of course, it's a long old way to SoCal in late October from here, and the proximity of Longchamps' Prix de la Foret may scupper my transatlantic wagering hopes. But, if he gets to Santa Anita, he'll be fair tough to beat!

Over at Navan yesterday, the legend that is Yeats put in a rare stinker in the Listed Vintage Crop Stakes. He was apparently blowing very hard after the race, meaning he likely will come on for the race. At eight years old now though, it's not impossible his legs have gone. That being the case, and assuming his seeds have not, the old boy - who is still in possession of his meat and two veg - may make up into a spectacular NH sire. You heard it here first... (Unfortunately, I'll probably have to wait at least five years to crow about this particular piece of clairvoyancy!)

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To this week, and what a week! Punchestown's punting and drinking marathon starts tomorrow, and those that plan to be there for the duration had better ration their powder if they've any hopes of survival. It's truly a test for a thorough stayer, and many will pull up / fall / unseat rider / run out long before Saturday's 5.05 race has concluded. (Incidentally, for the 'iron man' marathoners out there, I note that the racecourse will be showing the Munster vs Leinster Heineken Cup semi-final after racing, and the bars will still be open. Good grief!)

I'll be offering some insights into the trends for some of the Punchy races, with a big thank you to Tony Mac for kindly sharing his research on the cards.

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Of course, here in UK, where we've put the jumps season behind us, we're looking forward to the first two classics of the season, and they offer the usual conundrum of last season's 2yo form against this season's 3yo trials. Chuck in the Irish vs English relative form imponderable, and the waters are well and truly muddied.

But fret not, for I'll endeavour to take a view on these affairs towards the end of the week as well, in what is likely to be a bumper bloggathon.

As if all that wasn't enough, there's also the biggest drinking session of them all, the Kentucky Derby, this Saturday. I was lucky enough to go to Louisville a couple of years ago for the Breeders Cup, and all the locals told me that the Derby (pronounced 'dur-bee' - heathens!) absolutely dwarfs the BC meet.

Cheltenham's Gold Cup day boasts crowds of around 65,000... The Derby at Epsom plays host to a staggering 120,000... Wembley holds 90,000... Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May will play host to over 160,000 baying, drinking, wagering sports fans for its 'Run For The Roses'.

Wow! And boy, do they like to party? I was told the college kids will be in town all week drowning themselves in booze. In many ways, I wish I was there. But I'm not sure my liver could survive the pounding... maybe next year!

As for who's going to win... it's almost an irrelevance. Apparently. But of course, I'll be having a crack at this one too. Much more to follow later this week then...

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With so much great sport later in the week, I'll be maintaining a watching brief only today - Mondays being my least favourite betting day in the week at the best of times.

Matt