by Jerod Dinkin
Early April is the time of the year that separates the legitimate Derby contenders from the pretenders. The speculation and questions that arise from early season preps, most of which are run at 1 1/16 miles, are very quickly answered as precocious three year olds stretch out. On Saturday, three important 1 1/8 mile prep races were run that helped sort out the mess of questions created by the previous issues of distance, class, and professionalism differences of the January, February, and March prep races. Let’s look at the contenders with this new information in hand:
War Pass: The racing press loves nothing more than an undefeated two year old champion. It’s great for the sport in the sense that it builds optimism when there is so much to be negative about, but it also spawns unrealistic analysis/excuses.
He started his three year old campaign against a solid field of mules from the Northern California Fair Circuit–oops I meant, “Allowance” foes at Gulfstream Park and put on a glorified workout. He then tackles two decent animals and four sleds and gives up after failing to get his customary front running position. The media began the barrage of excuses such as the predictable, “Tampa is a quirky surface” and “he had a bad trip” and “sometimes horses have off days”. All the above are true, but instead of being objective, the excuses just kept piling on. Someone fed him a bad peppermint, he had a headache, his normal pony was out sick, he had a hangnail, he was bothered by the traffic on the drive from Hallandale; the list goes on and on.
The real question and only apt conversation from the very start about War Pass is can this animal out of Cherokee Run get the Derby distance? The question of his ability to rate was answered emphatically in the Tampa Bay Derby and the distance issue was put to rest with the Wood now in the books.
I admire this colt tremendously for his effort in the Wood, but finally, he has been fully exposed and hopefully this puts to rest the “debate” about him. He wants no part of 1 ¼, absolutely positively must have the lead at all costs, and despite his immense talent, has no shot in the Derby. He fired off heated fractions in the Wood and had the heart to grind it out; but that final 1/8 was so slow you could actually see it. And what does it say about the rest of the field that after insane fractions, only Tale of Ekati could get by War Pass? Granted, the second half of the AQU card was all about speed, but that is a hollow excuse.
The Grade III Excelsior for older horses run prior to the Wood at the same distance produced a 6F time of 1:13.65 versus War Pass at 1:11.50 The final time of both races: Excelsior = 1:51.13 Wood = 1:52.35. Ouch.
War Pass will still be an absolute star at 6F – 8.5F, assuming he is able to make the lead. However, the Derby bandwagon stops here. He will still likely head to post on May 3rd, but he’ll be a gigantic underlay, as will Tale of Ekati.
Colonel John: With the proliferation of synthetic surfaces, it was only a matter of time before handicappers would be faced with a strong contender that has never run on dirt. Colonel John is just that horse. You can’t help but admire the colt that shows many of the same attributes of his father, the incredibly talented and gritty Tiznow.
On the positive side, this horse fires each and every race. He finished the last 1/8 in 12.06, which is very impressive in defeating Bob Black Jack. On the flipside, the Santa Anita Derby, sadly, has lost a lot of its luster over this decade and rarely figures in the Kentucky Derby picture. This year is likely to be no different as the depth and talent of the Southern California crop is suspect. Bob Black Jack, a modestly bred sprinter just about held him off and the third place finisher, Coast Guard, is hardly a top Derby prospect or threat to wear the Roses.
It would be prudent to note how well Colonel John works at Churchill Downs prior to the Derby, but I believe, if he fails to win the Derby, it will have nothing to do with the surface. The synthetic question marks will be an overrated topic of discussion in the next 3 1/2 weeks.
Recapturetheglory: This colt came out of nowhere to defeat six rivals as the second longest shot on the board. His front running effort was quite impressive and the final time of 1:49.01 was extremely fast. Another colt out of Cherokee Run, he surprisingly showed no signs of distance limitations at 1 1/8. For those dosage disciples, the index of 5.00 is hardly inspirational with regard to the extra Derby furlong. Moreover, the Derby should have faster pace entrants in War Pass and Bob Black Jack. He will not inherit a fairly moderate early pace as he enjoyed at Hawthorne. Denis of Cork clearly disappointed by not firing. Although I firmly believe the, “who did he beat” issue is overrated, the talent of the Illinois Derby was thin at best.
Several recent Illinois Derby winners have become “wiseguy” type horses. Sweetnorthernsaint, Cowtown Cat, Greeley’s Galaxy, Ten Most Wanted, and Pollard’s Vision are some examples. His performance was impressive, but his Derby prospects remain that of an outsider.
With the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass approaching this weekend, most of the puzzle pieces will be in place. I’m headed to Lexington for the Blue Grass at beautiful Keeneland, and will report back next week on that tilt as well as the marquee event at Oaklawn.
(Jerod Dinkin is a New Jersey-based handicapper and former Canterbury Park Handicapper of the Year.)