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April 27, 2011

Playing the field

A rundown of Kentucky Derby contenders

Every big Kentucky Derby prep race, except one, has produced an upset winner, and frustrated turf “experts” from coast to coast are calling the 2011 Derby picture “chaotic.” Something must be wrong with the horses. The favorites aren’t winning!

Which isn’t so much of a concern for those who caught Toby’s Corner at 9-1 in the Wood Memorial, or Archarcharch at 25-1 in the Arkansas Derby. Or cracked the whip on a $622 exacta of Brilliant Speed and Twinspired in the Blue Grass Stakes. A few wise rail birds have recognized that the reason the favorites aren’t winning is they aren’t that good — and a new group of horses just now coming to the fore is better. Those who saw that coming have taken the chaos and turned it into cake.

The “chaos” of upsets has broken out everywhere: Midnight Interlude snatched the Santa Anita Derby at 13-1. Twice the Appeal was 25-1 in the Sunland Derby, Watch Me Go 25-1 in the Tampa Bay Derby, and way down yonder in New Orleans, the exacta of Pants on Fire and Nehro came in at $459.

Cake, baby.

With all those horses running in the Kentucky Derby, there is reason to believe anything might happen.

Sittin’ on a sack of seeds

All that said, there is a horse to beat in this Kentucky Derby. That’s Dialed In, the only 3-year-old thoroughbred on the Derby Trail who did exactly what he was expected to do when he won the Florida Derby as the 2-1 favorite.

What makes Dialed In special, though, is the way he does it, coming from way, way back to win. Down the backside run in the Florida Derby, it looked like two races: There was the field, and then there was Dialed In — with jockey Julien Leparoux allowing his mount to lope along as he pleased.

Nearing the far turn, Dialed In closed the gap and Leparoux merely steered his horse to the outside to pass. Only as the field turned for home did the rider finally ask the charcoal-brown son of Mineshaft to dig and chase down a horse named Shackleford that had kicked clear of the field. Which Dialed In did — laying his ears back and lowering his body into a drive that caught his rival at the wire. A tremendous performance.

In the winner’s circle after the race, trainer Nick Zito proclaimed, “Once in a while a special horse comes along, and he’s a special horse.”

Zito has won the Kentucky Derby twice, with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994. Last year, he finished second with Ice Box, who, like Dialed In, is owned by Robert V. LaPenta.

“This particular horse, I’ve become attached to,” Zito later told reporters. “I’ve had a lot of great horses, but with this particular horse, there’s something about him — the horse’s courage, the way he is.

“More importantly, you’re not supposed to be able to do what he’s done in his young career. It’s almost impossible to do what he’s done.”

Dialed In has won three times in four starts, including a maiden race victory last fall at Churchill Downs. After the Florida Derby, Zito decided to keep his horse in Florida, rather than ship right on to Kentucky.

“He’s doing well, and by keeping him here we won’t take a chance of missing any training days because of bad weather,” Zito explained, looking like a climatalogical genius given heavy rains have pelted Kentucky tracks the past two weeks. The Queens, N.Y.-bred trainer sounded like he was sittin’ on a sack of seeds as he added, “I think we’ll just hang out here for a while, where it’s dry.”

Dialed In is scheduled to van north this week, and makes his final pre-Derby workout sometime over the weekend at Churchill Downs. Many eyes, including this pair, will be focused on that work — and we’ll have a report in this space next week, along with a pick for the 137th Run for the Roses.

Rainy day

Rainy day, Easter Sunday morning at Churchill Downs.

In Barn 40, the horses merely walked the shed row, including Derby contender Archarcharch. None of the horses went to the track. Not because of the rain — the whole barn had galloped the morning before when it was really pouring — but because trainer William H. “Jinks” Fires always gives his horses, and his help, a light day on Easter Sunday and Christmas. The 70-year-old Arkansas native has run a string of horses at Churchill Downs for more years than any other trainer. “I’m not the oldest,” Fires says with a smile. “Just been here the longest.”

And now Fires has his first horse for the Kentucky Derby in Archarcharch, who two weeks ago captured the $1 million Arkansas Derby to place himself squarely amongst the contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

“He’s not afraid of anything,” says Fires, who handles Archarcharch for longtime Arkansas owners Robert and Val Yaggos. “He’s laid back. Other horses don’t bother him, and he’s pretty gritty. That’s what you want in a horse. You don’t have to be concerned with whether he’s placed inside, outside, or if he gets dirt in his face. He doesn’t have to be in a certain place to run. When you ask him to run, he runs.”

Part of Archarcharch’s poise might stem from weathering a frightening experience before the Rebel Stakes, a March prep for the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. As the field loaded into the starting gate, a horse named Alternation, who was being led into the gate next to Archarcharch, suddenly freaked out. The horse reared up, then fell in the starting stall, wildly flailing its legs.

“That horse flipped over in the gate, and kicked our horse all over,” Fires recalls. Alternation was ordered scratched by the stewards, and Archarcharch was checked for injuries.

“They took him back behind the gate, and the state vet said he was shaking and trembling all over. But he jogged him a little ways, and said he felt like he was OK to run, so he went ahead and he was considered a starter.”

Fires says he talked to the vet later and assured him he had done the right thing. But the incident did have an effect on Archarcharch.

“It really had him stirred up,” Fires says. “He left there running ‘rank’ for Jon (jockey Jon Court), because he’d gotten kicked up in the starting gate.”

Archarcharch finished third. Cuts and bruises suffered in the incident healed, and the colt made several reassuring morning visits to the starting gate. Four weeks later in the Arkansas Derby, Court — who is Fires’ son-in-law — was able to work out a more ideal kind of race, finding a spot to relax off the lead early, then come running.

“He’s got some tactical speed, and he was really able to utilize that at any point in time I asked for it,” Court told Blood-Horse writer Robert Yates. “We’ve been working with him in the mornings to sit easy. (In the Arkansas Derby) he had a clean break, and we were able to pick our spots. He was just waiting to turn it on.”

Walking the shed row that rainy morning, Archarcharch looks like a happy horse. A son of Arch, he’s a big, strong, man-sized looking colt — who loves peppermints.

Fires hails from a big family brought up in the flat farmland country along the Mississippi River, in Rivervale, Ark. Many of his relatives are in racing, including Jinks’ brother Earlie Fires, a Hall of Fame jockey. One who is not in racing is Fires’ son William D. Fires, who is pictured on a poster in the trainer’s office — a cobra helicopter pilot who has done two tours of duty in Iraq, and is back in the United States from Afghanistan — in time to attend his first Kentucky Derby.

Coming fast

Not that many years ago, a horse that looked as sharp as Brilliant Speed did in winning the Blue Grass Stakes would automatically vault to the top echelon of contenders for the Kentucky Derby. But since Keeneland switched from a dirt surface to a Polytrack synthetic surface, most trainers have steered away from the race, going elsewhere to prep for the Derby. And most handicappers feel that synthetic track “form” seldom translates to natural dirt form. They skip the synthetic track horses when picking the Kentucky Derby.

But it’s hard not to like Brilliant Speed, the way he flew from off the pace to just catch Twinspired in the final nod of heads in the Blue Grass. He’ll again have top young California rider Joel Rosario aboard.

Before he won on the synthetic surface at Keeneland, Brilliant Speed’s best races were on grass.

“Whether he will take to the dirt we don’t know,” says trainer Tom Albertrani. “There’s nothing in his pedigree that says he’s definitely a turf horse. I think it is maturity that has made the difference in him.”

Indeed, Brilliant Speed’s pedigree is headed by the powerful Hail to Reason line of stallions, through Roberto and Dynaformer. That’s the strong stamina line of prominent Derby winners Sunday Silence and Barbaro. Archarcharch is in that line, too. If one knew Brilliant Speed would just love the Churchill Downs dirt, he’d have to be a strong contender for the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby.

Silver threads

The horse Brilliant Speed just nipped at the wire in the Blue Grass Stakes is Twinspired, a nicely named gray owned by a partnership that includes more than 20 owners — headed by Louisvillians Dr. Harvey Diamond and Jim Shircliff. If Twinspired makes the earnings cutoff to qualify for the race, it will be the first Run for the Roses for all.

Diamond and Shircliff have been in the horse game for years, with Shircliff’s interest going back decades to inexpensive claiming horses at the old Louisville Downs harness track. Twinspired was selected for the owners and developed by trainer Mike Maker.

Shircliff won’t forget the moment Twinspired strode into the lead at the top of the stretch.

“As they turned for home, I could hardly look at the race, hardly hope that our horse would keep on running to win the Blue Grass,” Shircliff says. “I looked over at our daughter — and she wasn’t looking at the race. She was watching me.”

Last fall, this scribe was at Keeneland when Twinspired won his very first start. Keeneland is the only major racetrack in North America in which the grandstand faces west, and the sun was setting behind the horses as they loaded into the starting gate. Twinspired was No. 12, and the last to load. He broke on top and the brilliant autumn sun blazed through his flying mane and white-streaked tale — a silver horse, dazzling in shades of gold.

Uncle Maybe Mo

Funniest thing about Uncle Mo: Before he ran in the Wood Memorial in New York three Saturdays ago, the “experts” were unsure whether the horse would win by 10 lengths or 15. We were hoping for more. The Mo the better. With people tossing Uncle Mo’s name around in the same sentences with horses like Secretariat and Affirmed, the thinking of this turf investor was the more fabulous Uncle Mo looked in New York, the harder he would be bet in Kentucky. And while the money was pouring in on the next coming of Man o’ War, we could count Uncle Mo out in print right here in LEO, and bet against him in the Kentucky Derby. After all, no matter how much he won by at 1 1/8 miles in New York, there’s no way Uncle Mo’s speed pedigree would carry him 1 1/4 miles against good horses in the Kentucky Derby.

But Uncle Mo got beat.

Ran third with no apparent excuse except he just got tired. Had an easy lead, turned for home on top — and got outrun by two previously undistinguished horses.

Suddenly Uncle Mo was Seattle Slew no more, but, rather, the equivalent of a high-flying Internet stock suddenly downgraded to Sell Fast!

But, like we said, it’s a funny thing. Uncle Mo didn’t actually stop. He got tired, but he didn’t put his head down and bow out easily. About halfway down the Aqueduct stretch, as Arthur’s Tale and then Toby’s Corner caught him, Uncle Mo practically jumped up in the air, trying to wrest a little more out of his weary legs. Not wanting to give up. In fact, Uncle Mo might have “needed” that race after being babied along all spring. So instead of laughing at Uncle No Mo, the contrarian in us kind of thinks those who believe in the horse are going to get a tremendous improvement in odds in the Kentucky Derby. Instead of maybe 4-5, Uncle Mo might be 8-1. You might be wrong, but you have to bet. Because what if he won? How stupid would feel if you were thinking about taking a $3.60 mutuel, but passed up $17.60?

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who put over Super Saver in the Derby last year, says Uncle Mo was found to be under the weather after the Wood with a gastro-intestinal infection. That’s common with young horses shipping around in the spring, and he’s being treated.

“With that type of thing, I don’t think you expect an overnight miracle. I think it’s something that we’ll see gradual improvement,” Pletcher told the Daily Racing Form. “The next 19 days are absolutely critical. You have horses that move forward a lot in that amount of time, or they can be off the trail on any given day. That applies to everybody.”

But Pletcher hasn’t forgotten the spectacular Uncle Mo that breezed to victory in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup last fall at Churchill Downs.

“I think if he trains accordingly, I still feel he’s the best horse that’s going to run in the Kentucky Derby, if we can get him back to his best performances. I haven’t seen anybody who has run a better race than his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. We just have to get back to that level.”

Who is the Master of Hounds?

Jeez, what a name: Master of Hounds. Sounds like some joker in a red coat with a bugle and a trust fund.

But the horse didn’t pick his name. Presumably, Master of Hounds was dreamed up by owner Susan Magnier, whose husband, John Magnier, owns Coolmore Studs of Ireland, the world’s leading horse farm. The Coolmore horses often are named for composers, like Stravinsky and Beethoven, or the artist Jan Vermeer — who may be on the same plane from Ireland with Master of Hounds. He’s nominated to run in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, on Derby Day. The horse, not the painter.

Anyhow, what we want to know is: Can Master of Hounds step off the plane and into the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs?

Don’t bother looking for quotes from trainer Aidan O’Brien. Whereas American trainers all talk — some don’t say much, some will talk your ear off, some lie like a rug — that’s not the case across the pond.

What we do know is Master of Hounds was just a sharp second in the $5 million U.A.E. Derby in Dubai — at 1 3/16 miles. The Master is also the only horse in the race from the Raise a Native sire line, which has produced an incredible 11 of the past 18 Kentucky Derby winners. Master of Hounds is by Kingmambo, from a Sadler’s Wells mare, bred in Kentucky. He has the strongest stamina pedigree in the race.

Don’t forget …

The list of possible winners doesn’t end with the aforementioned horses. It’s a wide-open Derby.

Nehro finished a fast-closing second in both the Louisiana Derby and the Arkansas Derby, and has a following that believes the horse could certainly move up as the distance increases to 1 1/4 miles. Maybe.

Toby’s Corner is another possibility. After all, he’s the winner of the race that knocked Uncle Mo off his high perch. Toby’s Corner reminded us of a turf horse, scooting between horses with a burst to the wire.

And, uh-oh, did we say the Florida Derby was the only prep won by a favorite? Well, Toby’s stable-mate, Animal Kingdom, was the 3-1 second choice when he ran through the jungle for a convincing victory in the Vinery Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. Looked very good. Give him a chance.

Also on the possible list is the Bob Baffert-trained Midnight Interlude. Just galloping on the track Sunday in the slop, Midnight looked pretty sharp. And who doesn’t like the name Pants on Fire?

Or Stay Thirsty, a stable-mate of Uncle Mo’s, also owned by Mike Repole. The one thing this horse has on his side is history. The Kentucky Derby is rich with instances in which the lesser-regarded stable-mate rallies to save the day. To mention a few: Swale, Cannonade, Iron Liege, Exterminator and Aristides, who won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875.