A full house of Pharoahs … but Baby needs new shoes

Not all Kentucky Derbies are created equal.

Some years, the top prospects spend all winter and spring beating each other — with no one or two horses demonstrating any particular mastery over the others. By the time they arrive at Churchill Downs, the racing “form” of the field might look a little tattered. Or incomplete. The first Saturday of May might be a Date with Destiny, but some years our dates might not be all that good looking.

But not this year.

This year, it appears, the stars have aligned for a Kentucky Derby for the ages. Or at least the recent ages. All along the winter posts of the Derby trail — from Miami to Hot Springs to Los Angeles — the top shots have been winning, and winning big. And it seems as if every plane and van arriving in Louisville unloads another prospective 3-year-old thoroughbred hero, ready to write its name into history as the 141st winner of the Kentucky Derby.

I know, I know … we’re probably running a little over the top to brand this bunch as the finest cast in years. But why not? It’s horse racing. Exaggeration is permitted. And it sure does look like we’re headed for a humdinger Derby.

For sheer expectation, this scribe thinks you’d have to look back as far as the Sunday Silence-Easy Goer Derby of 1989 to find such highly regarded hopefuls facing down for the first time in the Kentucky Derby. And with a number of headliners, maybe reach all the way back to the 1957 Derby, when Iron Liege nipped Gallant Man, with Round Table third and Bold Ruler fourth.

Probably those names and Derbies are too hallowed to hail. Talk like that, they’ll probably cut me off at the Bambi Bar.

But it IS a strong Derby for 2015.

And not just excellent horses, but FINALLY some decent betting.

You know, as nicely as the top Derby horses have performed this spring, the betting has been terrible. That’s a thing you get when all the favorites win … broke. And this bunch can turn dollars into dimes in a hurry.

For example:
Three Saturdays ago, Frosted took the Wood Memorial in New York, paying $6.40 to win. A half-hour later at Keeneland, Carpe Diem bossed the Blue Grass Stakes at $2.80. Another half hour later in California, Dortmund looked like a million dollars winning the Santa Anita Derby. But he only paid $3.20.

Then the next week American Pharoah showed ’em all how it’s done, winning the Arkansas Derby by a country mile and paying — are you ready for this — $2.20. You’d have to bet $100 to win enough for one mint julep.

Which means …

1. The big horses are running like clockwork.
2. The top trainers have perfected the art of finding each of their stable’s stars their very own prep race.
3. Baby might need new shoes – but she may have to wait awhile.

Fortunately, all that should change on Derby day, May 2, at Churchill Downs. You put all those favorite-type horses in the same starting gate and only one of them – probably American Pharoah – can be favored. (And the odds on him are going to be a lot better than the 1-9 he blinked on the tote board at Oaklawn Park.) Horses that have been favored in nearly every start of their lives are suddenly going to be 7-1, 10-1 or more. Add the explosive arithmetic of a 20-horse field — with exactas, trifectas and more — and a player might consider it safe to come out and play on Derby day. In fact, the odds could plump up to the point where, if we pick ‘em right, baby might very well be in line for some snappy new shoes.

So, let’s meet some of these strong steeds, and maybe a couple lesser-regarded horses who might surprise.

A big ol‘ country-boy stride
Beginning with American Pharoah, the likely Kentucky Derby favorite, who romped to an eye-popping triumph in the Arkansas Derby. American Pharoah (that’s how they spell his name) was the 2-year-old champion of last season, and in two starts this year has stepped right back to the fore — and more.

The Pharoah broke well in the Arkansas Derby, but let a speed horse run on ahead through the early part of the race. Up the backstretch, he checked messages on his iPhone, and then, when they turned for home, simply cruised to the front like a high stepping trotter – with jockey Victor Espinoza sitting high in saddle, just steering. Then down the stretch, Pharoah gave the big Oaklawn Park crowd a look at what the talk is all about — rambling along in a big ol‘ country-boy stride that eats up huge distances of ground.

If this horse wins the Kentucky Derby, one of the first things they’ll want to do is measure his stride. See how the Pharoah stacks up against the legends of the past. Secretariat’s stride, for example, was measured at 24 feet, three inches. Man o’ War’s was said to be 28 feet. Today, we imagine there are ways to do that with digital photography and maybe tiny sensors mounted on hooves. Some years ago, we saw a group of harness horsemen measure the stride of the champion pacer Niatross. The horse was sent in a time trial over a freshly harrowed track at the Red Mile, in Lexington. As soon as Niatross flew past, trainer Gene Riegle and some others raced out on the track and located the hoof prints, then stretched out a tape measure. It was cool to see. Of course, that won’t be possible to do in the Kentucky Derby because of the cacophony of hoof prints made by a 20-horse field.

The point is America Pharoah has this long-traveling stride. That much we could see in his races on TV. But in person, at Churchill Downs, it’s a little different experience. Starting with the fact we hear American Pharoah before we see him.

I’ve got my eye on another horse, when I hear these “hoomphs” of air, snorts, coming up the track behind me. Seeing it’s American Pharoah is kind of disconcerting, because you’d generally want a horse to make no sounds breathing. It is so important for racehorses to get their air through open air passageways. Sometimes I make a note of horses that make noise breathing, and don’t bet them later.

But I guess this is normal for American Pharoah. Probably just the way he is, and perfectly fine. He’s not wheezing on the track, and “wouldn’t blow out a candle,” as they say, when the rider pulls him up. Just a big horse, kind of like a big steam locomotive, heaving big “hoomphs” as it barrels down the line. He doesn’t have his head cocked at an angle, or anything like that. Plus he’s got a happy look as he dances over the Downs dirt. You want happy horses.

Back at trainer Bob Baffert’s barn, American Pharoah is getting a bath, and as he’s standing still, you can see why there’s such a ton of power in his stride. The son of Pioneerof the Nile has thick powerful legs. He’s a long horse, built with hickory-post pistons. Ballplayer legs. Like you’d see in a pro locker room.

Yet, the mighty Pharoah has only half a tail. The story we get isn’t that he got it caught in a fence or something when he was a yearling. Maybe just born that way. But it looks OK. Girls will still like him.

Tall timber
In an interesting twist, trainer Bob Baffert is also the conditioner of the probable second choice in the Derby – Dortmund, which blew through the Santa Anita Derby like a cyclone, a week before American Pharoah won in Arkansas. The two have different owners, and have never faced each other in a race. That might prove interesting as the Triple Crown proceeds, with one horse in the barn having a chance to wreck the other’s Triple Crown try.

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But that’s getting too far ahead.

The Dortmund story begins with his height, and long legs. He’s a redwood-sized chestnut that leaves most other horses looking like mere trees in a forest. He does have kind of a small head, a little like a sea horse head, but he can run.

Owner Kaleem Shah named Dortmund for a top-league soccer club in Dortmund, Germany, as he named his Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern after another German team. Shah is on a roll these days, with yet another horse named Luminance going in the Kentucky Oaks. And he has clearly come down with a case of Dortmunder Union … No, wait! Dortmunder Union is the beer. What the owner has come down with is a case of is Derby Fever.

“I was looking (for Dortmund) to do what Seattle Slew did when he went to the Derby 6-for-6, Smarty Jones went there 6-for-6,” Shah told New York Times racing writer Joe Drape after Dortmund ran his record to the prescribed 6-for-6 with his Santa Anita Derby triumph. “It was critically important that he move forward, not regress.”

Horses always look terrific in California sunshine, but Dortmund simply radiated for the Santa Anita Derby. And then ran like it.
“I didn’t do anything,” said winning rider Martin Garcia. “He just dragged me around there.”

Finishing with his legs underneath him
In New York, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, said he’d made some changes with Frosted (he’s an icing-white gray) before the horse won the Wood Memorial. In a previous start, Frosted had “stopped” at the head of the stretch. In fact, McLaughlin changed everything — beginning with minor throat surgery to free Frosted’s breathing. Then he switched the horse from Florida to New York, added blinkers and changed jockeys to Joel Rosario.

“This has been a special project for our team, my brother, the grooms and so on,” said McLaughlin. “We know he has a ton of ability and the last race really made us scratch our heads, asking, ‘Why?’ He would go to the lead and throw up his head and stop. We did everything we could to change everything we possibly could that we thought went wrong, including the jockey, just because we were changing everything.”

Meanwhile, on a gorgeous spring day at Keeneland, 2-5 shot Carpe Diem took the Blue Grass Stakes in style. Placed up close by jockey Johnny Velasquez, Carpe Diem surged to the lead turning for home … and was gone! He’s won four of five starts and $1.5 million for Win Star Farm and trainer Todd Pletcher.

Pletcher noted that Carpe Diem “finished up with his legs under him,” meaning there’s likely more in the tank for the Derby.

His pedigree, however, gives one pause. Carpe Diem is by Storm Cat’s son Giant’s Causeway, a line that has had no impact on the Kentucky Derby. The average winning distance of Giant Causeway offspring is 7 ½ furlongs. The Kentucky Derby is 10 furlongs.

Another Pletcher prospect, Materiality, is undefeated, with three victories, all since January, including the Florida Derby. Materiality was surprisingly professional in style in the Florida Derby, grinding out a hard-fought win over Upstart.

The Gulfstream Park track was wind-dried and dull that day, and a question might be how much the 1 1/8 miles race took out of such a lightly raced horse coming to the Kentucky Derby. It’s a lot to ask for a horse to go 1 ¼ miles without much racing foundation. All the other contenders raced at two. On the other hand, Materiality surely benefits from the riding services of leading jockey Javier Castellano, who is looking for his first Kentucky Derby victory. Castellano always seems to “present” his mount at just the right time in the stretch run. He’s deadly in photo finishes.

Deeper on the tote board
International Star won the Louisiana Derby coming late up the rail after starting on the outside. Observers have noted International Star’s maneuverability and determination, which could be useful in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. We saw him on the track the other day, and he was completely relaxed, quietly handling a workout as just another day on the job.

Finding that kind of imperturbable quality, and a bit of stamina to go with it, is crucial for betting the Kentucky Derby exacta, trifecta and superfecta – the so-called “exotic” bets that pay off big in the Kentucky Derby.

The primary reason for the box-car payoffs, is, of course, the arithmetic of multiple-horse wagers in a 20-horse field. Finding the ones who will take down the second, third and fourth spots behind the Derby winner is an art in itself.

What you’re looking for, usually, is not speed horses that hang on, as in most races, but sturdy, hard triers, who come along at the end to pass the speed horses. Every once in a while, and not very often, the late arrivals even win the Derby — such as Giacomo, in 2005, or Gato del Sol, in 1982. The horses that were running 18th, 19th and 16th the first time past the grandstand in 1982 ended up first second and third at the finish.

Sifting through the field, a horse to keep an eye out for might be Itsaknockout, a son of Lemon Drop Kid owned by Starlight Partners, which includes a raft of Louisville owners. Itsaknockout didn’t run much in the Florida Derby, but he did in the Fountain of Youth. He looks like a horse that will relax early and run late. Way up at a huge price might be Bolo. Just a hunch at 90-1.

And then, there’s the mystery horse. Every Derby should have one.

Flying in from 7,000 miles away is Mubtaahij, winner of the 1 3/16th miles United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) Derby in Dubai – the only Kentucky Derby points qualifying race run outside the U.S.

Unlike some past hopefuls from overseas, top international trainer Michael de Kock has expressly pointed Mubtaahij for the Kentucky Derby. Mubtaahij (pronounced moob-tah-heege) has been racing on dirt, rather than the usual European-style grass, with Churchill Downs in mind. With French riding star Christophe Soumillon aboard, Mubtaahij sizzled in the U.A.E. Derby, sitting behind the leaders, then rocketing away.

Right before the running of the U.A.E. Derby, de Kock was asked if he was still thinking about the Kentucky Derby. “If he’s first or second, we’ll go,” said de Kock. After the race, reporters rushed back to de Kock to ask him about the Kentucky Derby.

One interviewer asked, “Do you know the words to ‘My Old Kentucky Home?’”

“Well,” said de Kock, “I’ll have to learn the words … and I think I’ll be having one of those mint juleps, too.”

To handicap a Derby this difficult, we’ll also try one of those mint juleps. See if it helps. Most of the top horses will be turning in final workouts this weekend through Monday, and we’ll come with an Official LEO Weekly Derby Pick in this space next Wednesday. Going for four-in-a-row, which would be something for the ages.