MARCH 1, 2013
by Dick Powell
Saturday's prep races showed how difficult this year's Kentucky Derby prep season has become. In the past, when three-year-olds would run four or five times, a point system would have little or no effect on horse's eligibility or their trainer's plans to get them to the first Saturday of May.
But in today's modern world of only two or three prep races, the point system has backloaded the awarding of the spots in the gate for the Derby to most horse's final prep races. Instead of winning an early prep and having enough earnings to guarantee a spot in the starting gate, many horses now have to wait for their final prep to earn enough points.
The difference is that the margin of error is virtually gone. As we saw last weekend, things can go wrong in big fields due to trips or extreme post positions. In the past, you could have a bad race in the Grade 1 Florida Derby and still have plenty of time to come back in the Grade 1 Blue Grass. Trainers had the luxury of training their horses up to the Derby using the prep races for what they are -- prep races.
Now, these final prep races are not just a means to an end but an end in themselves since for many of the Derby contenders, if they run poorly in their final prep race, they ain't going to Louisville. Trainers no longer have the luxury of training through a race or experiment with tactics. They better have their horses cranked up for their last Derby prep and hope for the best.
Last weekend, the favorite in the Grade 2 Risen Star was Normandy Invasion at 3-2 odds. He was coming off a close second in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes last November at Aqueduct when his late rally fell a nose short. He had been training well at Palm Meadows for Chad Brown and was on most top 10 Derby lists.
When the gate opened, it all went wrong for him as he broke poorly, was rank early and then raced very wide. Normandy Invasion never saw the rail the rest of the trip and checked in fifth. He most likely will come back in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial next out but will still have to overcome a big field while racing behind.
Oxbow won the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes here last out and looked like a colt with a big future when he won by 11 1/2 lengths. He drew post 10 and raced extremely wide throughout. The Wayne Lukas trainee poked a head in front in the deep stretch but paid for his ground-losing trip and finished fourth in the photo. With his terrific dirt pedigree, he'll have to use his gate speed in his next start to stay out of trouble to gain a Derby berth.
Both horses will have to run their best races next out or it will be on to the Preakness for them. I say this year's Preakness will have a full field of 14 and be a terrific race.
Down at Gulfstream Park, the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth was run, and it turned out to be a pretty crazy race. As expected, Majestic Hussar gunned to the front and opened up. The 3-5 favorite, Violence, chased down on the inside as expected. What wasn't expected was the outside pressure that Cerro and Sr. Quisqueyano applied to Violence as they straightened away down the backstretch.
With Majestic Hussar cruising along in front, Javier Castellano had to move Violence earlier than he wanted to keep the two longshots on his outside from going by him and dropping down to the rail. He went up the inside down the backstretch to maintain his inside position while Majestic Hussar covered the second quarter in 22.34 seconds.
It looked like there was a strong wind at their backs down the backside and Majestic Hussar covered his third quarter in 23.40 seconds with Violence closing in. Cerro was trying to hold on and Johnny Velazquez had Orb in a drive from behind.
As they hit the top of the stretch, Violence surged to the lead but his stride looked choppy when he switched back to the correct lead. Orb was closing relentlessly and pulled even with Violence before inching away from his game rival. His final time was 1:42.24 and he earned a career-best BRIS Speed rating of 102.
Orb will be a real enigma for this year's Triple Crown season. He showed glimpses of talent at two when he was third in a very strong maiden race at Saratoga going seven furlongs behind Violence and Titletown Five. The Shug McGaughey trainee broke his maiden three starts later against the highly-regarded Revolutionary to finish up his season.
He showed up at Gulfstream Park in January and beat allowance foes going nine furlongs, then came back with his Fountain of Youth victory. Here's the problem. This is the same owner/trainer team that passed up the Triple Crown in 1998 with Coronado's Quest even after winning the Wood Memorial in sensational time three weeks before the Derby.
Orb's connections have been saying all the right things after the race but I will be surprised to see him in the starting gate at the Derby. Violence won't be there either as he wound up cracking a sesamoid, which will not only send him to the sidelines but might lead to his permanent retirement.
These upcoming prep races are going to be very special since we should see full fields of horses and trainer intent will not be a question we need to answer.
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