1-2 Finishers Are Headed to Churchill Downs
After the major Kentucky Derby preps got off to a wild start last weekend with a pair of unexpected winners the trail did a 180 when this weekend’s top contenders came to do battle down the stretch. The Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby lived up to their expectations as the top two finishers in both G1 Preps solidified their Kentucky Derby Contender status. All four returned to their barns in good condition and will return for the 138th Running of the Kentucky Derby on May 5th.
We’ll begin with the Wood Memorial – Replay – where the headliners were undefeated Gemologist trained by Todd Pletcher and Alpha trained by Kiaran McLaughlin. Both horses have been tracking very well along the trail in 2012 but were still in need of a solid performance in the Wood in order to secure the required graded stakes earnings needed for qualification into the Kentucky Derby. They were highly regarded compared to the rest of the field but were in a position not to let a surprise long shot steal the spotlight on Saturday. If either of them were to fall into 3rd place or worse, their expected derby entry would have been in jeopardy.
So it was up to them to make it a two-horse race and that’s exactly what we got. Breaking from the 6 post Gemologist, the 6/5 favorite, got away clean and found a comfortable spot in 3rd under the guidance of Javier Castellano. Gemologist stayed in 3rd through the opening three-quarters before moving 3 wide through the final turn and taking over the lead before reaching the top of the lane. The only question was if a hard charging Alpha could close in time to spoil his chances of remaining undefeated.
With regular Jockey Ramon Dominguez up, Alpha, a close second choice at 2-1, broke from post position 1 and was tucked in along the rail in 4th by the ½ mile marker. When Gemologist made his move to go 3 wide is when Dominguez called on Alpha. Picking up that there wasn’t a window to get by the pace setter Lumber Guy on the rail, Dominguez made the necessary adjustment and followed Gemologist’s path 3 wide into the stretch. With 1 furlong to go Alpha had also cleared the field and had his eyes set on Gemologist. At that point it didn’t look like he had much of a chance but he closed hard and made a stubborn Gemologist earn the win by a neck.
So Saturday was off to a thrilling start as the attention shifted to the next race: The Santa Anita Derby – Replay. On the West Coast it’s been hard to talk about the Kentucky Derby without saying Creative Cause. Trained by Mike Harrington, Creative Cause’s progression along the trail has been on point. However, one other horse had also made an impression in California his last time out in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Trained by Doug O’Neil, I’ll Have Another entered the starting gate at 4-1, the closest any horse came to Creative Cause at 4/5. The bets were in, the odds were set and the field was ready to break from the starting gate.
Breaking from post position 3 I’ll Have Another nestled into 2nd heading into the first turn where he hooked up with Longview Drive on the rail. Both Jockey’s were content with keeping about a 2 length distance between them and the pace setter Blueskiesnrainbows but through the final turn Blueskiesnrainbows wasn’t giving.
Breaking from the 1 post, Joel Rosario elected not to take Creative Cause off of the rail and it paid off big time. When making his move through the final turn he found perfect running room once he hit the stretch and pulled just in front of I’ll Have Another to his near outside. After taking dead aim at the leader things got even tougher because I’ll Have Another didn’t let him go. By the final furlong marker all three horses we’re locked in for a thriller. In the end I’ll Have Another was declared the winner by a nose over Creative Cause.
The number one thing that people will be looking at and talking about in the Wood Memorial is the final time of 1:50.96. The reason is pretty simple: not that impressive. The weather was great, the track was listed as Fast and both the start and the race was pretty smooth for the entire field. The fractions: :23.04, :47.57, 1:12.54, 1:37.74.
While I understand this argument the counter I have doesn’t make too much of the pace and the final time. Both Alpha and Gemologist had very similar running styles in their wins against Graded Stakes competition; Stalk close to the front – take the lead at the top of the stretch. Not only have these styles mirrored each other in those wins, they were riding almost the same exact race in the Wood Memorial: Gemologist in 3rd, Alpha in 4th and 1-2 at the top of the stretch.
So why is this important to note? To me it’s because both horses and their connections knew exactly what was at stake in the Wood Memorial – Qualify for the Kentucky Derby. With graded earnings of $103,855 Gemologist was ranked at #30 and with $180,000 Alpha was ranked at #22. Both positions could not afford anything less than 2nd place in order for them to breathe easy and stay away from the bubble. So with that in mind there’s no chance either of these trainers were open to the idea of pressing the pace or trying to go wire to wire. Instead they probably instructed their Jockeys to stay with what has worked so far – Stay close, make the move when needed. So when adding this element to the equation, I can’t disregard that they didn’t care that the pace was stagnant. 1st and 2nd place is all that mattered and they were not going to let anything get in the way of it.
Between them right now I will have to give Alpha the advantage in the distance category. I was impressed with his stretch duel and I think that if they were going the full Kentucky Derby distance of 1 ¼ Mile, Gemologist would not have been able to hold him off. I remain impressed with his performances at Aqueduct in his 3-yr-old season and consider him to be in very good hands with Kiaran McLaughlin. He’s got my attention so I’ll have to keep an eye on him as I narrow down my Kentucky Derby picks over the next few weeks.
Maybe it’s because of the connections, WinStar Farms and Todd Pletcher, or that they ended their 2-yr-old seasons with a win in the Jockey Club Stakes wins at Churchill Downs. So I don’t know if I’m drawing too much from these comparisons but Gemologist and Super Saver are awfully similar to me. They both like racing close to the pace and had the maturity to hold in that position before having enough to finish the deal. Between the two at this stage of the trail however, Gemologist has the slight advantage. It’s premature and his peak performance may have just happened but it’s still something to think about going into the Kentucky Derby.
On the other side of the coin the Santa Anita Derby pace was much hotter and the final time benefited: 1:47.88. How fast is that? Fastest since 2001 when Point Given scored in 1:47.77. Leave it to Bob Baffert to come out of nowhere with an unknown, non graded stakes tested horse to steal the show. The little known and long named Blueskiesnrainbows was ready so he gets a lot of credit for almost making it happen. But 3rd place keeps him out of the Kentucky Derby picture. If we are to see him on the Triple Crown my guess would be the Preakness Stakes but it’s still too early to tell so we’ll just have to wait and see.
But let’s turn our attention to the heavy weights. I can tend to favor the horses out West so I can’t help but give these two horses the clear advantage over our 1-2 finishers in the Wood. Creative Cause made his debut race without blinkers and I think his connections saw enough to keep them off for the Kentucky Derby. Overall, I didn’t consider this race as a must win for Creative Cause. I think that Mike Harrington has been smart to do his best in keeping Creative Cause from peaking too early. He would have loved to get his nose in front but I think that he is very pleased because that peak performance may still be on deck and waiting for the Kentucky Derby.
I’ll Have Another – what a name for the Kentucky Derby. Creative Cause was nowhere near the Kentucky Derby qualification bubble but I’ll Have Another was. After $150,000 was awarded in the Robert B. Lewis and that was all he had to his name, I’ll Have Another needed a big showing to keep his derby hopes from being dashed. Nothing to worry about it, I’ll Have Another made it clear that he is Derby ready. Jockey Mario Gutierrez should also get a lot of credit for not letting his horse give in after Creative Cause began his charge and move to pass. Instead he got the result he was looking for: a ride in the 138th Kentucky Derby. The lightly raced colt (2 starts in 2012) should still be fresh on the first Saturday in May so expect for his name and this win to attract quite a fan club.
What an outstanding day of nationally televised Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Preps. Two races and two outstanding finishes by four horses that are moving on to Churchill Downs in attempt to score the ultimate prize. The 1-2 finishers in both races are going to be getting a lot of attention over the coming weeks. As for their connections, they are most likely pleased with the performances on Saturday and confident with their chances of improving before the first Saturday in May.
What an outstanding day of nationally televised Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Preps. Two races and two outstanding finishes by four horses that are moving on to Churchill Downs in attempt to score the ultimate prize. Expect the 1-2 finishers in both races to receive a lot of attention over the coming weeks. As for their connections, they are most likely pleased with the performances on Saturday and confident with their chances of improving before the first Saturday in May.
Written by: Little Brink