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KENTUCKY DERBY REPORT
MARCH 11, 2010
by James Scully
Bob Baffert could've played it safe with LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Smart Strike) by keeping him at home in Saturday's San Felipe S. (G2), but he decided to ship to Oaklawn Park for Saturday's Rebel S. (G2), where the two-year-old champion is set to make his seasonal and dirt debut. Grade 1 winner NOBLE’S PROMISE (Cuvee), last seen finishing second to Lookin at Lucky in December's CashCall Futurity (G1), will also try a dirt track for the first time in the 1 1/16-mile event, and Southwest S. (G3) runner-up DUBLIN (Afleet Alex) will be waiting for them in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
The San Felipe won't suffer much without the champ. Unbeaten California-bred gelding CARACORTADO (Cat Dreams), a former maiden claimer at Fairplex Park who exits an impressive victory in the February 13 Robert B. Lewis S. (G2), will take the next step on his remarkable journey toward the Kentucky Derby (G1), and AMERICAN LION (Tiznow) looms as a major player in his second start of the year for WinStar Farm. Trainer John Sadler will be double-loaded with the well-regarded duo of DAVE IN DIXIE (Dixie Union) and SIDNEY'S CANDY (Candy Ride [Arg]).
The Tampa Bay Derby (G3) also figures prominently into the dynamite slate of three-year-old stakes action this Saturday. Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) romper SUPER SAVER (Maria's Mon) will make his highly-anticipated 2010 bow for Todd Pletcher, and we'll get a better gauge on stakes debuter ODYSSEUS (Malibu Moon), who looked freakishly talented when rolling to a 15-length allowance score in his latest outing.
Last weekend, English invader AWESOME ACT (Awesome Act) took a big step toward the Kentucky Derby with his convincing win in the Gotham S. (G3) at Aqueduct, and recent maiden winner ALPHIE'S BET (Tribal Rule) flattered Caracortado when scoring a mild upset in the Sham S. (G3) at Santa Anita.
The Gotham hasn't made a significant impact upon the Kentucky Derby in a long time, but Awesome Act is a candidate for change in 2010. The well-bred colt came to the United States without dirt experience, arriving Wednesday morning from trainer Jeremy Noseda's Newmarket, England, stable with only a Goodwood turf maiden race in his win column. However, he delivered a wonderful effort nearly 24 hours after clearing quarantine.
He settled comfortably in midpack behind a solid early pace and advanced smoothly into contention on the far turn while under restraint from jockey Julien Leparoux, who appeared to have a ton of horse left turning for home. Looks were not deceiving as Awesome Act quickly accelerated clear when given his cue, and the Kentucky-bred threatened to win by a huge margin at the eighth pole before cruising to a 1 1/4-length decision.
Awesome Act didn't beat a strong group over the inner track, but he netted an excellent 102 BRIS Speed rating that compares favorably with any three-year-old stakes winner in 2010. Noseda also received the perfect prep to build upon over the next eight weeks. He didn't need a runaway victory on Saturday and Awesome Act got a little tired in deep stretch, but common sense dictates that Noseda left plenty in the tank.
One can find reasons to dismiss Saturday's performance -- inferior competition, the race's poor track record or the fact that we never see European-based horses win the Derby -- but I'll take a different approach: Awesome Act established himself as a serious Derby contender in the Gotham. He's a natural for 1 1/4 miles on dirt with his breeding and further improvement can be expected as Noseda tightens the screws.
Awesome Act will remain at Aqueduct to prepare for the April 3 Wood Memorial S. (G1).
Gotham runner-up YAWANNA TWIST (Yonaguska) ran a big one while stretching out to a route for Richard Dutrow, but he's a not a legitimate Derby prospect with his pedigree. Third-placer NACHO FRIEND (Friends Lake) still has much to prove, but give him credit for a solid effort off the 219-day layoff. Unraced since a fast-closing fourth in the six-furlong Sanford S. (G2) last July, the Kelly Breen pupil was a little eager from the start and traveled wide most of the way in a one-paced effort that fell only three lengths shy of the winner. He's eligible to show more next time, especially if Breen finds the right spot to avoid heavy hitters like Awesome Act.
After finishing second to Caracortado in the December 26 California Breeders' Champion S., Alphie's Bet broke his maiden in a Cal-bred maiden special weight turf affair on January 15. He jumped straight from that spot to the Sham and unleashed a wicked late run to win going away by 2 1/4 lengths. Dismissed as the 8-1 sixth choice among 10 rivals, the improving colt registered a 94 BRIS Speed and a 109 BRIS Late Pace, both career-best numbers.
Trained by Alexis Barba, who also has Make Music for Me (Bernstein) aiming for the Derby, Alphie's Bet was making his first start against open rivals but didn't face any graded winners in the Sham. However, he displayed a turn of foot that few expected to see and must be given his due for an outstanding effort.
Alphie's Bet doesn't own much of a pedigree for the Derby, and the fact that's he's proven proficient on turf gives pause to the notion that his form will transfer to dirt. But the improving colt loves synthetic and appears set for another strong performance in the April 10 Blue Grass S. (G1).
The late-running SETSUKO (Pleasantly Perfect) could not match strides with the winner in the stretch but still ran well to finish a clear second. A maiden winner two starts back for Richard Mandella, he looks like a late-blooming colt that isn't close to reaching his potential yet; he just needs more racing experience. With his pedigree, Setsuko rates as a better Derby prospect than Alphie's Bet.
Sending Lookin at Lucky to Oaklawn is a shrewd move on Baffert's part. He's taking the element of surprise out the equation by giving the early Derby favorite a chance to get acclimated to dirt racing, as well as the rigors of shipping, and nobody is better at preparing a horse for the Derby than the Hall of Fame conditioner.
There doesn't appear to be much speed lining up for the Rebel, which could work against a late runner like Dublin, but Lookin at Lucky owns plenty of tactical speed. He'll be accompanied by regular rider Garrett Gomez and will add first-time blinkers.
The San Felipe looks very contentious, and I'll be paying close attention to both Sadler runners. Dave in Dixie offered a visually stunning late move in the Bob Lewis while never seriously threatening the winner and that kind of rally is sometimes deceiving. Sidney's Candy, a spectacular wire-to-wire winner of the seven-furlong San Vicente S. (G2) on February 15, benefited from one of the most speed-favoring tracks of the Santa Anita meet last time. He's bred to run long, but the San Felipe will be his first attempt around two turns.
Super Saver has been idle quite a while and figures to show speed from the start of the Tampa Bay Derby. He'll take plenty of betting action along with Odysseus, but I won't be surprised to see one of the locally-based horses, SCHOOLYARD DREAMS (Stephen Got Even) and UPTOWNCHARLYBROWN (Limehouse), the respective two-three finishers in the Sam F. Davis S. (G3), upstage the Gulfstream shippers and flatter the form of Rule (Roman Ruler) in the process.
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