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Jon Stettin's Blog

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  •  Past the Wire     Tracking Tips Logo


    February 6, 2018

    Derby Fever & Derby Preps

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    Kentucky Derby fever engulfs the Sport of Kings each year around February or March, and with it comes the Kentucky Derby prep races. I imagine if you have a two-year-old or three- year old that looks to be Derby quality, the fever can set in earlier.

    Even with the Breeders’ Cup, Dubai World Cup, Pegasus World Cup and many other great races and programs, the Run for the Roses remains the anchor of our game and as they say, “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” It is one of the few times in today’s landscape horse racing crosses over and becomes mainstream.

    Picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby is challenging, exciting, and financially rewarding for us bettors. Most of us start watching the contenders early. Many contender lists are compiled early, with none more popular than Steve Haskin’s Derby Dozen. What I always found to be a flaw in these early lists was how people, both writers and handicappers included, look at the Derby preps.

    Not surprisingly, most of the lists have the same horses, albeit in different order, but the same horses who are usually the recent winners of the prep and relatively new point system races. I think that is a mistake. While the new point system has changed things a tad, in that as a trainer you almost have to tip your hand at least once to make sure you have the necessary points to make the gate, you’ll also have to have your horse peak again the first Saturday in May. The Derby is the goal, and the trainers that win it usually know how to point for a race and have their horse peak on that particular day. That does not always equate with winning big in the preps and I tend to look for horses a bit under the radar that are likely to emerge. I will get into that in a moment, but first let’s look at how I fared in some recent Kentucky Derbies.

    2017- Always Dreaming - didn’t have him.

    2016- Nyquist - liked him, respected him, but didn’t really have him good.

    2015- American Pharoah - had him but so did everybody else.

    2014- California Chrome - didn’t have him, but everyone else did.

    2013- Orb - loved him and had him good. (Shug is a master at getting a horse to peak when he wants, his Florida Derby was a progressive race, not a peak one)

    2012- I’ll Have Another - loved him and had him good. (Another that was coming to a peak)

    2011- Animal Kingdom - really loved him, great day at the windows. (Showed his athleticism at Turfway park and his work coming in along with his sire said dirt would be no problem)

    2010- Super Saver - not for me.

    2009- Mine That Bird - not for me.

    2008- Big Brown - had him.

    2007- Street Sense - loved him and had him. (His Blue Grass might be the best Derby prep I ever saw)

    2006- Barbaro - loved and had him. (Was standing by the rail on the apron at the old Gulfstream when he and Sharp Humor passed me, my first thought was Derby winner and maybe more)

    That puts me at 7 of the last 12 with two very nice prices in Animal Kingdom and I’ll Have Another. A big part of both those selections along with Street Sense was watching replays and analyzing the preps. Everyone can see the obvious, and everybody knows who won the preps, what I like to do is see who looks like they are progressing and coming to a peak.

    Before getting into exactly what I look for let’s talk about American Pharoah as he was an obvious winner, and on top of many people’s lists, but there is something about his Derby win that rarely gets talked about except by the most astute students of the game. American Pharoah was so good he won the Kentucky Derby a short horse. Yes, you read that correctly. If anyone can train up to a race Bob Baffert can, but you can’t ever get out of a workout what you do from a race. The Kentucky Derby is a grueling race at a distance longer than almost all the horses have ever run before. American Pharoah prepped for the Kentucky Derby at Oaklawn Park and was so superior to everyone he faced he ran about 100 yards combined in all his preps. That is all he had to run. He just toyed with the competition and could not have gotten much out of those races. Sure, Bob’s training helped come May, but did you before or after the Kentucky Derby, ever see Victor Espinoza use the stick on American Pharoah like he did that day. That wasn’t coincidence, and if American Pharoah wasn’t immensely talented he would not have overcome the lack of seasoning.

    Another one I’d like to mention is Street Sense and his Blue Grass. If you really want to see what a perfect Kentucky Derby prep looks like watch that race. You can see Calvin Borel measuring his horse against the rest of the field and saving his horse for when it counted. All you have to do is watch Calvin closely in the last furlong, and you will know both he and Carl Nafzger had a different race in mind.

    We saw a few Derby preps this weekend in the Holy Bull, the Withers, and the R.B. Lewis. Personally, I don’t think the horse that will emerge as the best three-year-old was in any of those races. Maybe he was in a maiden race and didn’t win it.

    The horse that caught most people’s eye and picked up a bandwagon and a spot on most people’s early Derby lists was Audible in the Holy Bull. He didn’t wind up on my Derby Radar.

    Audible ran very good in the Holy Bull and drew away from a nice-looking field in his two-turn debut. While he drew a lot of raves, and not to take anything away from him, I looked at it differently. I saw a Todd Pletcher horse run big at Gulfstream. We should all be used to that and that is not intended to take anything away from Todd. I saw a fast horse win in a short stretch race with the finish line at the sixteenth pole. I saw a horse with recent races beat horses coming in off layoffs. None of that jumps out and screams Kentucky Derby to me.

    Again, I look for horses who are improving. Horses who look like they will want more distance. I look for athleticism and the ability to take dirt in your face, go wide or face some other adversity and still show guts. I look for heart. I don’t look for easy winners per se, not that they can’t or don’t win, but when trying to find those Animal Kingdom’s and I’ll Have Another’s you have to look outside the box and the obvious. You also do not need a lot of them for it to pay off. I like to focus on trainers who point for races and get their horses to peak for those races.

    The horse who caught my eye this weekend was Once on Whiskey. This may not have been an official Derby prep, as it was only a maiden race, but this horse showed me what I like to see in a Derby contender. He obviously needed his first start, which came against a fast sprinting type named Curly’s Rocket, who also happens to be trained by Bob Baffert. Curly’s Rocket lost by a nose to the well-regarded Nero, also trained by Bob in his last start. Once on Whiskey was making his debut. So, while Curly’s Rocket ran away and hid, Once on Whiskey went wide, finished strong and full of run looking like he was crying for two-turns and more distance. He galloped out well and looked like he got a lot out of the race.

    Timing wise it might be tough for Once on Whiskey to make the Derby, as he would have to likely break his maiden next out, win a prep and then be doing good enough for Bob to send him to Louisville. That may be just a bit too much to ask for, but if anyone can do it Bob Baffert can. If Once on Whiskey is in the gate for the Kentucky Derby, Apollo should be watching with concern. If not, he might be making a lot of noise down the road.

    Published in Jon Stettin's Blog
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    January 31, 2018

    Gun Runner, A True Throw Back Horse

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    People talk a lot about growing the game and returning it to the glory days it has seen in the past. There were indeed glory days and a big part of that was twofold; large crowds at the races, and stars on the racetrack. That is what the crowds came to see. Horses stayed in training longer, and that created rivalries. The Sport of Kings was a game of rivalries for many years. Today we long for rivalries between great horses to the point we are willing to call even two races against each other a rivalry at times.

    The just retired Gun Runner was a breath of fresh air to those of us who remember the old rivalries and the excitement they produced. He would have fit just fine in that era. Commercial breeding, different philosophies, a new landscape, and of course money has changed all that.

    Great rivalries were not just great for attendance, they were great for the player as well. It poses a handicapping challenge to know which day Easy Goer might beat Sunday Silence or Alydar might beat Affirmed. You were rewarded if you knew Hedevar was the one who could get Dr. Fager beat by Damascus. He proved it not once but twice. The great Kelso had a few rivalries, there was Beau Purple, Gun Bow, and Carry Back.

    If for no other reason, the Pegasus World Cup is a success for keeping at least some horses in training longer. The breeding industry gobbles up the three-year-olds who are successful in the Kentucky Derby faster than a world class sprinter runs their first quarter mile. This is just when fans and bettors alike are getting to know these horses well. It is good for breeding but bad for racing.

    Today the economic reality is a horse like American Pharoah becomes too valuable to race. He is worth much more at stud. Most of us know horses really come into their own at four and five years of age and that only leaves us to imagine how good American Pharoah might have been. It is a safe assumption that despite our witnessing him win the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic, we likely never saw the best of what American Pharoah had to offer. Racing lost him to breeding at three-years old, like so many others who would have and could have been great. You really can’t fault the connections; how do you take a chance with that kind of money at stake?

    We did get to see how good Gun Runner was, and how great he became. This was a special racehorse for many reasons, his talent was only one of them. In today’s game, horses, especially the top ones run sparingly. Not Gun Runner, he danced all the dances. He was top tier throughout his career and went out the best in training at five-years old. You just don’t see that in today’s game. He was a great example of how horses develop and get stronger and faster at four and five years of age. Another example I love to mention is Forego. Most people believe Sham, a very good and fast horse in his own right, was the best horse behind Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Have you ever heard of Forego I’d ask? Forego went on to become a true great of the game. True he was gelded, but he also stayed in the game and matured and became one of the most versatile and best. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do on the track.

    We all knew Gun Runner was a good horse when he was two, and that he was Kentucky Derby caliber when he was three. He ran well in the Derby and even looked like he had a shot to win it at one point. I personally didn’t know how special he was however until he ran in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Although top tier, The Breeders’ Cup Mile, like the Met and Cigar Miles is run more like an elongated sprint. Gun Runner seemed to prefer longer distances and in addition to thinking it was a curious spot for him, I thought he had never seen the types of fractions he would in there. It was questionable if he was fast enough to be competitive in that type of race. The two-turn configuration helped but he still had to run fast.

    I had the chance to ask Steve Asmussen about it a few months ago and I saw firsthand what a truly great horseman Steve is. Steve thought at the time of year, with the next year’s campaign in mind, that the mile would be easier on him, and take less out of him than the Classic at a mile and a quarter would. He felt he was indeed fast enough to compete, but more importantly would leave him a stronger better horse the following year. Talk about knowing your horse, you won’t find many better examples. Gun Runner ran a bang up second in the Mile and showed he had speed enough to hang with sprinters and could also carry his speed as well.

    Steve campaigns his horses aggressively. Gun Runner was no exception. After the Breeders’ Cup Mile effort, he pointed to the inaugural Pegasus World Cup, but due to quarantine issues at the Fair Grounds he had to miss the race. He went to Dubai where like Seattle Slew and Zenyatta before him ran one of the best races of his life in defeat. Gun Runner’s effort in the Dubai World Cup was over shadowed by the herculean effort of Arrogate who was left at the start and made up a ton of ground to win. Gun Runner on the other hand set the pace in the desert, sans Lasix, on a track where all the winners came from off the pace. Gun Runner held on for second without much fanfare for his effort against the bias, whereas Arrogate was lauded for his effort that was bias aided. Taking nothing away from Arrogate and his spectacular race and tear of 4 incredible races, both horses ran huge that night in Dubai.

    Gun Runner would not lose another race after Dubai, nor would he duck anyone, including Arrogate who spotted him a pole and ran him down.

    Gun Runner went on to win the Stephen Foster, the Whitney, the Woodward, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic reversing his losses to Arrogate in the Travers and Dubai World Cup. All Grade 1’s all won easily with speed carried from a mile and an eighth to a mile and a quarter. Jockey Florent Geroux rode like he had the best horse every time and he did. This was an old school campaign, fit for an old school horse. From the start of his campaign at four at Oaklawn Park in the Razorback, to the trip to Dubai, to the Breeders’ Cup Classic romp, Gun Runner never tailed off, never bounced or regressed, and actually got better with racing and maturity. Keeping horses like this in training and racing when they are able just might be a big part of the solution all the racing shot callers are looking for with concerts and the like. This is when you see the true ability, not with babies. This is what creates rivalries and maintains interest of fans and bettors. This is what racing needs more of.

    It was only fitting Gun Runner would get his chance at the world’s richest race, the Pegasus World Cup, a race he missed the year before due to no reason of his own. He deserved it. He earned it. Racing deserved it as without Gun Runner the Pegasus was just another stake. With him it was the sendoff of a true champion and Horse of the Year.

    The biggest questions going into the Pegasus were, would the wide 10 post hurt the champ, no way, and would he finally regress or tail off? That nobody knew.

    If you listened to Gun Runner you might have known. You can watch below Gun Runner walking back to Steve Asmussen’s barn a few days before the race and walking into the paddock to be saddled on race day. This is a horse touting himself and looking more like a budding star three-year old than a five-year old making their final start.

    Gun Runner stalked the pace in the Pegasus under a firm hold by Florent Geroux. When given his head he showed us all the heart of a racehorse, he did the Pegasus name proud and will be missed. We can only hope these inflated purses, regardless of how they are funded, keep more of our stars around longer...and in the near future we see a race with a few Gun Runner’s in it, like the old glory days.

    Watch Gun Runner heading back to his stall

    Watch Gun Runner arriving at the paddock to be saddled for the Pegasus 

    Published in Jon Stettin's Blog