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Brisnet Fair Grounds and Kentucky Derby notes 2/26/10

KENTUCKY DERBY REPORT

FEBRUARY 25, 2010

by James Scully

In a busy weekend with many Kentucky Derby (G1) storylines, two stood out for this observer: ESKENDEREYA's (Giant's Causeway) spectacular victory in the Fountain of Youth S. (G2), and DUBLIN's (Afleet Alex) excellent runner-up effort in the Southwest S. (G3).

Fountain of Youth

Eskendereya cruised in second until the far turn and then annihilated his competition in the 1 1/8-mile Fountain of Youth, drawing off to an 8 1/2-length victory. He was a beauty to behold with his powerful acceleration through the stretch, netting a 112 BRIS Late Pace rating as well as plenty of adulation for lies ahead.

"I was particularly pleased with the way he finished," trainer Todd Pletcher noted. "I don't think we've ever gotten to the bottom of him."

With a mouth-watering pedigree for the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance, Eskendereya vaulted up every Kentucky Derby list on Saturday. Out of the Seattle Slew mare Aldebaran Light, his female family includes the likes of Halo, a two-time Derby-winning sire, and 1974 Derby winner Cannonade. Owner Zayat Stables, who finished second in the 2009 Derby with the Bob Baffert-trained Pioneerof the Nile, has a potential gold mine in the chestnut colt.

Unbeaten in three dirt starts, Eskendereya's only losses have came over turf and synthetic. He wasn't the same performer when struggling home ninth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) on Pro-Ride -- his stride is different over a conventional racetrack. The Kentucky-bred broke his maiden by 7 1/4 lengths in the off-the-turf Pilgrim S. at Belmont Park last October and opened his three-year-old season with a 1 1/4-length victory in a one-turn mile allowance at Gulfstream Park on January 7. He finished up impressively in the latter, giving every indication that he would relish additional ground, and exceeded expectations in the Fountain of Youth.

The track favored his running style and the competition was perhaps lacking after main rival BUDDY'S SAINT (Saint Liam) lost all chance on the first turn, but take nothing away from Eskendereya -- he's got so much going for him and is developing into a star right now. His 103 BRIS Speed rating was the best of all Derby preps over the weekend and there's plenty of room for improvement in that department. It's best not to get too excited off a single performance in February, but Eskendereya looked like something very special in the Fountain of Youth.

JACKSON BEND (Hear No Evil) put pressure on Eskendereya midway on the far turn but wasn't able to keep up after turning into the stretch. After enduring a less-than-stellar journey when second in the one-mile Holy Bull S. (G3), he had no excuses Saturday and barely held second over AIKENITE (Yes It's True), who endured a terrible trip early in the race. Jackson Bend needs to show more in his next start for Nick Zito and could run better with a change in venue (the April 3 Wood Memorial S. [G1] is likely next), but he's got serious distance concerns for the Derby based upon pedigree and his effort in the Fountain of Youth. Aikenite was too keen from the start and wound up being jostled around in the logjam that doomed Buddy's Saint. He recovered to finish a respectable third, but it's difficult to envision him wanting more ground than nine furlongs.

Buddy's Saint, who ranked as a leading Derby contender following smashing victories in the Remsen S. (G2) and Nashua S. (G2) last fall, got bounced around like a pinball on the first turn, forcing jockey Jose Lezcano to take a strong hold and check out of a tight pocket, and was then rank on the backstretch. He understandably tired to ninth in a throw-out performance, but trainer Bruce Levine's scheduled two-race campaign now looks like a disaster. With the last two Derby winners receiving only two preps at three, it's a viable strategy as long as the horse gets something out of both races, but that doesn't appear to be the case with Buddy's Saint. Levine has plenty of time to regroup and get two useful preps into the colt, with three weeks until both the Tampa Bay Derby (G3) and Rebel S. (G3) on March 13 and another three-week gap to the April 3 Wood Memorial, but he sounds intent upon remaining inflexible, with only one more appearance before May 1. That begs the question: how fit will Buddy's Saint be on Derby Day?

Southwest

CONVEYANCE (Indian Charlie) shot right to the lead when the gates opened in the one-mile Southwest and after opening a 2 1/2-length advantage at the head of the stretch, held on to win by three-quarters of a length over the fast-closing Dublin. A front-running winner of the January 16 San Rafael S. (G3) in his previous outing, the Baffert-trained winner stretched his perfect mark to four-for-four while making his dirt debut and registered a career-best 102 BRIS Speed rating. He's a talented colt with lots of promise, but 10 furlongs remains a tall task going forward. There's already a preponderance of early speed lining up for this year's Derby, and Conveyance doesn't look like the type that's going to comfortably relax behind other horses.

Dublin stumbled two jumps after the break and was rank entering the clubhouse turn, tossing his head as jockey Terry Thompson tried to get him to settle. He made up some ground while traveling wide on the far turn, but the chestnut didn't find his best stride until straightening into the short stretch run at Oaklawn Park, closing with a rush to just miss. It was a very encouraging sophomore debut for the long-striding colt, who established himself as a serious contender for three-time Derby victor D. Wayne Lukas.

A good-looking winner of the seven-furlong Hopeful S. (G1) at Saratoga, Dublin rounded out 2009 with a pair of dull efforts in the Champagne S. (G1) and Iroquois S. (G3). He had surgery to correct an entrapped epiglottis following the latter and returned to the worktab with a flourish this winter, recording four bullet works at Oaklawn prior to the Southwest. Lukas knows how to get a three-year-old ready for his best on the first Saturday in May, and Dublin figures to keep moving forward off Saturday's effort. He's got the pedigree to thrive at classic distances, and earned career-best BRIS Speed (101) and Late Pace (100) numbers last weekend.

Risen Star

Saturday's Risen Star S. (G2) didn't answer many questions as the top four finishers basically stuck in their positions through much of the paceless race. DISCREETLY MINE (Mineshaft) surprisingly sprinted clear at the start and slowed it down through a tedious opening quarter-mile in :24 3/5, with TEMPTED TO TAPIT (Tapit) and NORTHERN GIANT (Giant's Causeway) galloping along behind him in second and third, and when DROSSELMEYER (Distorted Humor) moved to fourth after a moderate half-mile in :48 3/5, the order of finish remained unchanged the rest of the way in the 1 1/16-mile event.

Considering how favorably Fair Grounds was playing toward early speed on Saturday, it's an understatement to say that the winner had everything his own way on the front end. However, Discreetly Mine must be given his due for a commendable performance in his two-turn bow. A 6 1/4-length maiden scorer at Saratoga, the bay colt concluded last year with runner-up finishes in the Futurity S. (G2) and Champagne. He's out of Alabama S. (G1) winner Pretty Discreet and counts Grade 1-winning millionaire Discreet Cat as a half-brother, so the pedigree is there for the Kentucky Derby, and Discreetly Mine is eligible to keep improving for Pletcher. He received a decent 97 BRIS Speed rating for his 1 1/2-length decision, and it will be interesting to see what happens when he likely reverts to stalking tactics in his next engagement.

Tempted to Tapit ran a big race off a runaway maiden special weight victory at Aqueduct on January 18, and the gray gelding appears to have a nice future for Steve Klesaris. Out of a mare by 1996 Belmont S. (G1) winner Editor's Note, he's got the pedigree to stretch out effectively, but he's still playing catch-up to more seasoned rivals and must continue to move forward in his final Derby prep. Northern Giant is another possible up-and-comer. An 11 1/4-length maiden winner in the slop at Oaklawn in his previous start, the Lukas trainee out-finished the highly-touted Drosselmeyer in deep stretch and missed second by only a neck. He was 53-1 on Saturday, but Northern Giant now merits respect.

Drosselmeyer was favored at 2-1 off a convincing allowance tally at Gulfstream that netted him a 105 BRIS Speed rating, but he didn't corner well last time prior to kicking on strongly in the stretch. The Bill Mott colt came under a vigorous ride once again from Kent Desormeaux on the far turn Saturday, but this time he lacked the same finishing kick, giving up third-place honors after passing Northern Giant between calls in midstretch. With only $12,000 in graded earnings, Drosselmeyer must rebound with a much-improved performance next time.

I'm willing to significantly upgrade the performances of late runners STAY PUT (Broken Vow) and RON THE GREEK (Full Mandate), who were 10th and 11th, respectively, after the opening half-mile in the Risen Star. Both passed a lot of horses in the final five-sixteenths of a mile, with Stay Put finishing a length behind Drosselmeyer in fifth and Ron the Greek another 1 1/2 lengths back in sixth, and they earned BRIS Late Pace ratings of 109 (Stay Put) and 114 (Ron the Greek) for their commendable rallies. The pace/track didn't play to their strengths, and circumstances could be much different next time.

Ron the Greek isn't in a bad spot with $63,000 in graded earnings, but Stay Put ($12,000 graded earnings) has little room for error.

Hutcheson

D' FUNNYBONE (D'wildcat), who made headlines last year with convincing sprint victories in the Futurity and Saratoga Special S. (G2), returned to a comfortable seven-furlong distance in Saturday's Hutcheson (G2) and was never threatened en route to a one-length decision. The Richard Dutrow trainee will get the opportunity to stretch back out to a route next time in the March 20 Florida Derby (G1).

There's no doubting his talent in one-turn events. After registering century-topping BRIS Speed ratings in his aforementioned stakes victories, the chestnut colt received a 100 Speed figure on Saturday. He relaxed a couple of lengths off the stiff early pace, moved smoothly into contention on the far turn and was always going well as he powered home under Edgar Prado. However, it's difficult to take much out of his performance in terms of the Kentucky Derby.

Dutrow is willing to write off the colt's last-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to the synthetic track at Santa Anita, but D' Funnybone must still prove that he can handle two turns. It will be no surprise to see him better-suited to distances up to a mile.

El Camino Real Derby

With his 1 1/4-length victory in the El Camino Real Derby (G3), CONNEMARA (Giant's Causeway) provided Pletcher with a hat trick on Saturday. After breaking slowly and trailing during the early stages of the 1 1/8-mile prep, the well-bred colt was in full stride while widest off all on the far turn and appeared ready to slingshot past the leaders at the top of the stretch. The chestnut had to work hard to get past, though, and eventually drew clear late.

He didn't face any legitimate Derby contenders at Golden Gate and came home pretty slowly, netting only a 85 BRIS Late Pace rating. His 85 BRIS Speed rating was even more disappointing. That equaled the career-best number he earned when coming up short as the 3-5 favorite in the January 16 California Derby over the Tapeta, and Connemara doesn't look fast enough to topple better competition at this juncture in his career.

A half-brother to multiple Grade 1 hero and 2004 Derby runner-up Lion Heart, Connemara still has time to improve before the Derby and would be eligible to move forward on dirt next time, but the Coolmore-owned colt figures to remain exclusively synthetic until arriving at Churchill Downs a couple of days prior to the Derby. Connemara can't be viewed as one of the top prospects in a deep Pletcher stable that is seeking to end a zero-for-24 skid in the Derby.

Upcoming

Saturday's Sham S. (G3) is the lone graded event for three-year-old Derby hopefuls this weekend, and the well-regarded SETSUKO (Pleasantly Perfect) will make his graded debut in the 1 1/8-mile race for Richard Mandella. NEXTDOORNEIGHBOR (Lido Palace [Chi]), who broke his maiden by four lengths when stretching out to a route on January 24, is an intriguing prospect for Michael Machowsky, and recent allowance winner THE PROGRAM (Harlan's Holiday), who finished fourth in the CashCall Futurity (G1), will merit serious consideration from the Baffert barn.

Rachel Alexandra breezes six furlongs

Rachel continues preparing for her 2010 debut (Lou Hodges Jr./Hodges Photography)

Horse of the Year RACHEL ALEXANDRA (Medaglia d'Oro) had her farthest workout yet Wednesday in advance of the March 13 New Orleans Ladies, breezing a businesslike six furlongs in 1:14 over a fast main track at Fair Grounds with regular exercise rider Dominic Terry aboard. The four-year-old filly recorded splits of :13, :25 1/5, :37 3/5, :49 4/5 and 1:02, and galloped out seven furlongs in a strong 1:27.

Rachel Alexandra's two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen, who observed from horseback, called the work "ideal" and "way easier" than her last move on February 18, when she breezed five furlongs in 1:01 1/5 but was noticeably keen early on.

Asmussen said Wednesday's work was just what they were looking for as Rachel Alexandra prepares not only for the New Orleans Ladies, but her showdown with champion older female Zenyatta (Street Cry [Ire]) in the April 9 Apple Blossom Invitational (G1) at Oaklawn Park.

Rachel Alexandra and Terry stepped onto the track from the half-mile gap at 6:15 a.m. (CST), accompanied by assistant trainer Scott Blasi aboard his pony. Unlike past works when Rachel Alexandra would walk or jog "the wrong way," clockwise, before starting her serious exercise, she took a right-hand turn onto the track and jogged around the far turn toward the finish line. Asmussen said that minor change was because Rachel Alexandra was breezing a longer distance on Wednesday.

"Got into it," Asmussen exclaimed. "It's time to do something."

As with previous works, Blasi stayed with Rachel Alexandra aboard his pony through the stretch before sending the star filly and Terry off approaching the clubhouse turn. Rachel Alexandra worked from the three-quarters pole to the finish line.

Asmussen complimented Terry's execution of this morning's plan, and the exercise rider could be seen smiling as Rachel Alexandra pulled up on the backstretch. 

"Dom split off 'the right way' with her, galloped her around the pole and let her work," Asmussen said. "Dom did it to a 'T' and if I wanted something different I should have asked him."

FAIR GROUNDS NOTEBOOK

FEBRUARY 25, 2010

by Frank Cotolo

A fast and clear week at Fair Grounds presented 40 races in four programs.

The public was sharp every day except Saturday, the big stakes day, when only one public choice surfaced a winner. The other three days made up for the poor public-betting record; when the smoke cleared, the public-choice toll was back up to recent heights, with a 43-percent figure.

On the surface

Twenty-six races were sprints and routes on the main course last week, with 14 going on the green. Speed made a good impression on the main track, with 27 percent of the winners going wire to wire and 38 percent winning from close to the pace.

Together, wire-to-wire wins and close-to-the-pace speed made up 65 percent of the wins. That left 35 percent to be won from off the pace, though few of those were wins from far back. Though no particular figures have been calculated, a general look at the come-from-behind dirt races doesn't say much for last-to-first winners. Midpack closers, still relatively close to the pace, make up most the off-the-pace stats.

On the grass, however, off-the-pace winners came home 57 percent of the time in the 14 races offered, 10 of which were at a mile or longer. There was only one start-to-finish win, a 5 1/2-furlong affair, and that was the first race on the green since February 8.

Trainers

Steve Asmussen led the pack in raw wins this week with only three. One was a first-time starter. Michelle Lovell had a first-time winner along with another for the week. Other doubling conditioners on the week were Eric Guillot, David Carroll, Bret Calhoun, Cody Autrey and Morris Nicks.

Todd Pletcher recorded two winners, both shippers from South Florida in stakes events, and won the big race for Kentucky Derby (G1) hopefuls, Saturday's Risen Star (G2), with DISCREETLY MINE (Mineshaft).

Stakes

This Saturday, the Allen Lacombe Memorial H. goes a mile on the grass for $60,000. Four-year-old-and-up fillies and mares compete.

Last week we challenged the obvious choices in stakes and lost. We are still impressed with BRAVO WHISKEY (Smart Strike), though his first stakes effort in the Risen Star fell short to wire-to-wire winner Discreetly Mine.

Our "Silverbullet" pick, AGE OF HUMOR (Distorted Humor), was third, and our Mineshaft longshot, GOOD AND LUCKY (Wild Rush), was last. We had the right idea trying to beat the favorites in both spots, as JODY SLEW (Slew City Slew) and STONEHOUSE (Chester House) each recorded upsets.

Horses to Watch

Our Watch lists produced the following winners since our last update: TENSAS CAT (Cat Thief), $6.80; LACY TO) (Autocracy), $6; ABELIA (Southern Image), $4.40; SNAKEBITE KIT (Sky Classic), $5.80; and WALL OF WORRY (The Cliff’s Edge), $5.60.

Friday (2/19)

6TH -- LIGHT WIND (Storm Passage) was slow to start but charged late to make up for it and finished fourth.

Saturday (2/20)

2ND -- ROLL ME AWAY (Evansville Slew) had to battle four wide early and was three wide on the turn, being used hard at 11-1 to get fourth money.

5TH -- IN JACK'S MEMORY (Malibu Moon) grinded to the lead by the stretch and was with two at the wire to get third.

13TH -- CANON MAN (Mingun) made a strong maiden special weight appearance, winning first out to warrant a bet back.

Sunday (2/21)

3RD -- HITCH YOUR WAGON (Wagon Limit) had a good late kick for a change and may be perfecting the move.

7TH -- MY HOMETOWN GAL (My Friend Max) was far too wide around the turn to make obvious speed worth the trip.

Monday (2/22)

2ND -- JENNI JENNI JENNI (Devil His Due) delivered a commanding win in this maiden claimer and should step up and perform well.

4TH -- PLEASANT CHIEF (Pleasant Tap) was on top confidently at 9-1 in this route until tiring.

6TH -- METER MAIDEN (Hold That Tiger) was flaming until the stretch, a first-time starter with guts at 59-1.

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