Credit Michael Matz. Six years ago the Chester County, Pa. trainer unveiled his game plan to get Barbaro to the Kentucky Derby running in just two prep races over a three-month span.
Back then Matz was buried under a mountain of criticism. After all, for the longest time three-year olds raced four or five times prior to the Kentucky Derby.
Lack of racing experience would surely compromise the colt in a full field of 20 horses that impersonates a calvary charge. The pundits howled: not a smart plan. The three-year old colt would be running a daunting mile-and-a-quarter coming off a final prep race a lengthy five weeks prior to the Derby.
On Derby Day the “lightly raced” bay colt thundered home scoring an eye-popping 6 ½ length victory-- the largest margin in 60 years. Barbaro uncorked a sizzling 24.34 final quarter-mile that left the rest of the field in what was best described as freeze-frame mode.
“I’m not trying to buck the system,” said Matz with a wry smile the week after the 2006 Derby at his Fair Hill barn. “I’m trying to do the best I can. This is what the plan was when we started. Not to squeeze the lemon dry. We wanted a fresh horse for the Derby then have him as fresh as possible the rest of the year.”
Let’s face it: the game has changed dramatically and it is not going back to the days when Affirmed ran nine times as a 2-year-old in 1977 and four more times as a 3-year-old before he won the 1978 Derby on the way to the last Triple Crown.
In the aftermath of Barbaro’s dominance the “well-seasoned” mold has been smashed to smithereens. The last four colts to wear the roses all had just two starts under their belts as three-year olds.
If there is one thing clear about getting a horse to the Derby it is that there are no hard and set plans. Tried and true pathways to Louisville have been debunked in recent years. Mine That Bird, who scored in 2009, prepped at the far-flung outpost of Sunland Park in New Mexico. Lightly raced Animal Kingdom prevailed off two prep races, and the Graham Motion trainee won the 2011 “Run for the Roses” on his first trip on a true dirt track.
The one taboo yet to be shattered is the two-year old jinx. Apollo in 1882 was the last horse to win the Derby without a start at age two. The reasoning is those colts have a rough time catching up to their contemporaries in the short four month lead-up to the first Saturday in May.
If you’re handicapping the 2012 crop of three-year olds consider these harbingers. A key distinction for recent Derby winners is as a victor or close runner-up in a 1/8-mile race in late March or April. Animal Kingdom (2011), Big Brown (2008), Barbaro (2006), Smarty Jones (2004), War Emblem (2002), Monarchos (2001) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2002) all triumphed at nine furlongs. Super Saver (2010), Street Sense (2007) and Funny Cide (2003) just missed in a 1 1/8-mile race leading up to the Derby.
Pedigree suggests success as the distance of races increases. With American racing being obsessed with speed, speed and more speed, fewer stamina-oriented stallions are out there. To compensate, most breeders have a tendency to search for a female line that can boost the chances of success as distances increase to the mile and a quarter of the Derby. That royal pedigree formula played out with Animal Kingdom last year with a twist. He is the son of the grass horses Leroidesanimaux (the sire) and Acatenago, a German bred stamina specialist.
Motion has three Derby prospects this year in Howe Great, Lucky Chappy and State of Play.
“I didn’t even know I had a viable Derby horse last March,” Motion said with a laugh. “It’s extraordinary what has to go right to win that race. But having accomplished it, it becomes somewhat more realistic to think it’s feasible. But honestly, it seems crazy to think you can do it again.”
Matz got to the Derby again in 2008 with long-shot Visionaire who finished 12th.. In Union Rags the trainer has a colt that can win the “Run for the Roses.”
“He is a big rangy horse who has shown ability so far, and the Derby would seem to be right up his alley,” Matz said. “He’s grown a bit through the winter. He is pretty close to 17 hands and he’s filled out a bit more and really just grown up as a horse from two to three.
“Getting to the Derby is what you think about when you get up in the morning and go to the track. We were lucky enough to get there twice, and a third one would be something.”
The only sure-fire way of guaranteeing a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs is to have accumulated enough graded stakes earnings before May. Still, these days the Matz’s reasoning is being mimicked by most American trainers – the more races you run the harder it is on these young horses. Bottom line: a fresh horse can better tackle the rigors of the Triple Crown races.
Region’s Derby Prospects
Since last December Phyllis Wyeth’s Union Rags has topped most polls as the early favorite for the 2012 Kentucky Derby. So what’s with his regular rider of 2011 Javier Castellano? He has ditched Union Rags, opting to ride trainer Todd Pletcher’s undefeated Algorithms in the 1 1/16 mile Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 26.
Union Rags new rider is Julien Leparoux, a strong and veteran rider that has been the leading jockey at Churchill Downs nine times. The connections of Matz and Wyeth have to be confident with those laurels heading into the first Saturday in May.
Back to Castellano. It was obvious he was not a good fit. He encountered all kinds of problems aboard the colt in his last three races of 2011. In the $1 Million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Union Rags was caught four and five wide the whole race, but battled back and lost by a short head to front-running Hansen. The Trakus system showed Union Rags ran 78 feet more than the winner.
He also veered out in mid-stretch in the Juvenile just as he did the Saratoga Special, losing valuable ground. Juvenile Ragozin speed figures, which take into account ground loss, calculated that Union Rags earned a figure of 3 1/4, while Hansen was given a 6 1/4. With Ragozin Speed Figures the lower the number, the better.
“Those Ragozin numbers are pretty good. I think they do say something,” Matz noted.
Leparoux was aboard Union Rags for the first time during an early morning workout on Feb. 13 when the colt worked impressively over five furlongs in 1:03.03, going in hand under his new rider. Union Rags worked in company with stablemate Rihanna.
“It was a nice long work and he did it very easily,” Matz said. “It wasn’t real fast but he sat behind another horse and when they hit the wire he just pulled away. I think we’re right on schedule for the Fountain of Youth.”
Another highly touted 3-year old is Jonathan Sheppard’s Ever So Lucky. But the Hall of Fame trainer had pundits scratching their heads when he pulled the colt from his much-anticipated 3-year-old debut in the seven-furlong $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 11.
A combination of a week’s worth of bad weather, an uninspiring work the week of the race and the prospect of a wet track on race day prompted the trainer’s decision. Ever So Lucky, who was the favorite for the Hutcheson, is owned by Chester County’s George Strawbridge, Jr.
“I discussed it at some length with George, “Sheppard related. “I might just wait for the Swale Stakes (March 10) at Gulfstream-- same distance, same purse. Most of the other graded stakes are all too long. I don’t particularly want to bring him back at a longer distance. But we’ll see.”
It’s only early March, but pushing back the colt’s 3-year old debut by a month doesn’t bode well. As it stands now Ever So Lucky will have a seven furlong sprint in the Swale and just a single two-turn prep (possibly the Bluegrass Stakes) instead of two. For a horse with only four career starts before the Derby that is a tall order. Also, can the colt accumulate sufficient graded stakes earnings to qualify for the Derby off only those two races?
Eight winters ago John Servis packed up his barn at Philadelphia Park and took an unbeaten, smallish chestnut colt to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Smarty Jones swept the Southwest, Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby en route to collecting a $5 million bonus for also winning the Kentucky Derby.
Servis is back at Oaklawn with Adirondack King and so is Smarty’s jockey Stewart Elliott who has the mount in the $250,000 Southwestern Stakes on Feb. 20. Adirondack King is a son of Lawyer Ron, the winner of the 2006 Arkansas Derby, and the $1.3 million earning Jostle, a multiple Grade 1 winner who Servis trained for Rick Porter. The 3-year old has won three races at Parx, including a restricted stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs.
Adirondack King enters the one-mile Southwest off a third-place effort in the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs where the bay colt rallied strongly to finish third to Prospective and Wildcat Creek.
“The big thing is the distance,” Servis said. “I thought if we could creep him along it would be a lot better than going right into a mile and sixteenth or a mile and an eighth. If he runs real good in the Southwestern, then I’m going to keep him here for the other Derby preps.”
Larry Jones will have two starters in the $300,000 Risen Star on Feb. 25 at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans with Mr. Bowling and Mark Valeski.
Mr. Bowling snapped off a hard fought victory in his 3-year-old debut in the $175,000 Lecomte Stakes Jan. 21 at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Z Dager drew up to Mr. Bowling's flank in the deep stretch but the winner refused to yield and turned back the late thrust to win by a head. A Breton Jones homebred, it was the third triumph in the Lecomte for Jones over the past five years. A couple hours earlier Believe You Can (also bred and owned by Breton Jones) went wire-to-wire winning her 3-year old debut by 1 ½ lengths in the $120,000 Silverbulletday Stakes at the Fairgrounds. The Risen Star (Grade-2) on Feb. 25 was Mr. Bowling’s next target with the $1 million Louisiana Derby on April 1 as the final prep on the road to Kentucky Derby. The next leg of Fair Grounds’ 3-year-old filly series for Believe You Can was the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (gr. III) on Feb. 25. Ultimate goal is Kentucky Oaks.
When State of Play made his first start on dirt in the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 4, owner Team Valor International and trainer Graham Motion were hoping for the same path as Animal Kingdom switching to dirt after racing on either turf or Polytrack.
It didn’t happen. State of Play, by War Front, a Grade 2 winner on turf, set the pace from his spot on the rail but heading into the stretch State of Play gave way and finished a disappointing seventh. He is pointed to the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes on March 3 at Turfway Park. Motion’s Howe Great won the Kittens Joy Stakes at Gulfstream in January and Motion is targeting the Palm Beach Stakes on March 11. Lucky Chappy finished second to State of Play in January and will run in the El Camino Real Derby on the Tapeta surface at Golden Gate Fields on Feb. 18.