In search of a Derby hero
Gary West, ESPN
The search hasn't quite reached the needle-in-haystack level of futility, but trying to identify the Triple Crown contenders this early, four months in advance of the Kentucky Derby, has become more difficult than ever. And the likelihood that the Derby winner will begin his roseate campaign inconspicuously has become greater than ever. At this very moment, the next Derby winner could be lurking quietly, disguised as a mild-mannered maiden, waiting for the perfect opportunity to leap out of a phone booth of a barn -- or, given the times, over the Genius Bar -- and brandish the "S" blazoned across his chest.
Last year, 424 horses were nominated to the Triple Crown, the largest number since 2008. (Of those, 10 were late nominees.) Even with the foal crop shrinking every year, more and more horses are getting nominated simply because there's more uncertainty. If recent Derbies can be taken as instructive, if they've taught anything, it's that the winner can come from anywhere. He might be a Cal-bred or a New York-bred; he could be a gelding; he might even be racing in New Mexico or hiding on the turf.
But instead of discouraging an early search, the increasing uncertainty simply means the search has to become broader and deeper. It also means the old a priori thinking has to be jettisoned, along with Jay Leno, Spike Lee, Philip Roth and all those R.E.M. albums.
Anyway, the search actually began months ago, but with early Triple Crown nominations due Saturday, the time has arrived for the search to become more formalized and focused. And given the inconspicuous provenance of some recent winners, perhaps this formalized approach should begin with a few horses that might go unnoticed on all but the most perceptive radars.
Conquest Bigluck E is just such a horse. After winning his debut last summer at Churchill Downs, he returned to competition in October at Keeneland, where he rallied while four-to-five wide, getting up to win by a half-length. That was at 6-1/2 furlongs, a distance that would seem altogether too short to bring out the best in the large, grand-looking son of Lookin At Lucky. Conquest Bigluck E appears capable of making dramatic improvement when he stretches out as a 3-year-old.
"What was surprising to me," said his trainer, Mark Casse, "was that he was able to win going short. He's a big, beautiful horse, and he acts like he wants to run all day."
Conquest Bigluck E was aimed at the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes when he became ill and had to miss 10 days of training. But he has recovered fully and is doing well as he prepares for his seasonal debut, according to his trainer.
We all want to win the Kentucky Derby, and it's still my number-one priority. You need a lot of luck. … I feel like if it's going to happen, it'll just happen, but I'm not going to push a horse to make it happen.
”-- Mark Casse, trainer Conquest Bigluck E
"We all want to win the Kentucky Derby, and it's still my number-one priority," Casse said, and then, waxing philosophical, he suggested the price of trying to get a horse to the Derby can be too high, unless it's the right horse. "You need a lot of luck. … I feel like if it's going to happen, it'll just happen, but I'm not going to push a horse to make it happen."
Could Conquest Bigluck E be the right kind of horse? Maybe. Casse said he was uncertain where or when the colt would make his first start of the year, but it'll probably happen in Florida. In addition to Bigluck E, Casse has at least three lightly raced youngsters in his stable with the potential to put themselves on the most celebrated road going to Kentucky: Conquest Hiosilver and Curlino, who already have won around two turns, and Danzig Moon, a maiden who ran second at Churchill after walking out of the gate and rallying six-wide.
And if it seems that more Triple Crown possibilities than ever are lightly raced as they start the year, that's probably because today's trainers are taking a more cautious approach with their 2-year-olds, especially with youngsters that have classic potential. That, of course, is another reason for the rise in uncertainty.
The trend began with Fusaichi Pegasus, who entered his 3-year-old season as a maiden, after one start as a juvenile, where he finished second. From Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 to California Chrome last year, the Derby winners had a total of 46 races as 2-year-olds. California Chrome was an exception, having seven races at 2, but even he began the year as something of an enigma since his only start on dirt, which also happened to be his only effort around two turns, was disappointing. Like Fusaichi Pegasus, Monarchos also started his Derby season as a maiden. Big Brown had but a single start at 2; Monarchos, Smarty Jones, Barbaro and Animal Kingdom had only two juvenile races. And so over the last 15 years, the typical Kentucky Derby winner had only three races as a juvenile.
But in the 15 years prior to Fusaichi Pegasus, the Derby winners had a total 77 races as 2-year-olds. In other words, from 1985 to 1999, the typical Kentucky Derby winner had five races as a juvenile. That's a profound difference: Today's Derby winners -- and, by extrapolation, potential Derby winners -- are racing 40 percent less as juveniles than they did only two decades ago.
Trainers Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher, of course, have many of the most prominent Derby possibilities in their barns. The Triple Crown remains the sport's biggest stage, and Baffert and Pletcher continue to be the most prominent players. Baffert, of course, trains American Pharoah and Dortmund, and Pletcher has Carpe Diem, Blofeld, Daredevil and Competitive Edge -- they're all starting the year in that elite cohort that is the vanguard on the road to the Triple Crown. But Baffert and Pletcher also have their share of lightly raced, but promising youngsters. Given their connections, they're unlikely to escape any radar's notice for long, but, still, they deserve noting.
Punctuate, for example, flashed his potential when he rallied from far back to win his debut at Santa Anita for Baffert in September. A long-striding son of Distorted Humor, Punctuate is the first foal from Peppers Pride, the sensational New Mexico mare that retired undefeated, her career a nacreous string of 19 victories. With two recent five-furlong workouts, Punctuate would seem close to a return.
Pletcher said he essentially has two groups of promising 3-year-olds: those that were accomplished as a 2-year-olds and those that have yet to prove themselves. Those in the first group have resumed training after taking a break and will probably return to competition, he said, in the March. Those in the second group, horses such as Blame Game and Overcontrol and Far From Over, are preparing for the next step. And then there's Itsaknockout.
A debut winner, he began the year with the unproven group, but with a five-length victory at Gulfstream Park in his second outing, he has, Pletcher said, insisted on joining the more accomplished youngsters. The son of Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid will return in next month's Fountain of Youth Stakes.
"For a colt that wants to stretch out, he showed impressive tactical speed and put himself into the race behind a fast pace," Pletcher said about Itsaknockout's more recent win. "That's what you want to see. He'll have to step up [in the Fountain of Youth], but that was an impressive race, and he has impressed us in the mornings."
He could be the one, or maybe it's Conquest Bigluck E, or Punctuate. But almost certainly there's somebody out there, lurking quietly, just waiting to jump out of the shadows, or burst from a phone booth, or leap over the Genius Bar to announce to the world what that big "S" on his chest means.
Lexie Lou a finalist for multiple Sovereign Awards
Alex Campbell, DRF
Trainer Mark Casse could win his seventh Sovereign Award for outstanding trainer, and a number of horses from his stable could win divisional titles, as the Jockey Club of Canada released the finalists for the 40th Sovereign Awards on Tuesday.
The Casse contingent is led by Woodbine Oaks and Queen’s Plate winner Lexie Lou, a finalist in the 3-year-old female and turf female divisions who also will garner plenty of consideration for Canadian Horse of the Year. The three finalists for Canadian Horse of the Year will be revealed during the Sovereign Awards ceremony at Woodbine on April 10.
Patrick Husbands, who was aboard Lexie Lou in the Woodbine Oaks and Queen’s Plate, will look to win his first Sovereign Award since 2009 and is joined by Luis Contreras, Eurico Da Silva, and Rico Walcott in the outstanding jockey division.The Casse contingent is led by Woodbine Oaks and Queen’s Plate winner Lexie Lou, a finalist in the 3-year-old female and turf female divisions who also will garner plenty of consideration for Canadian Horse of the Year. The three finalists for Canadian Horse of the Year will be revealed during the Sovereign Awards ceremony at Woodbine on April 10.
In all, 10 horses trained by Casse were named finalists in their respective divisions. Joining Lexie Lou are Conquest Harlanate (2-year-old female), Mississippi Delta (2-year-old female), Conquest Tsunami (2-year-old male), Conquest Typhoon (2-year-old male), Florida Won (3-year-old male), Hillaby (older female, female sprinter), Spring in the Air (older female, female sprinter), Sky Captain (older male), and Dynamic Sky (turf male).
Coltimus Prime and Ami’s Holiday, the other two Canadian classic winners in 2014, will do battle again in the 3-year-old male division, but Heart to Heart made a case for divisional honors with a strong finish to the season that saw him win three straight stakes on turf, including a pair of Grade 3 victories at Churchill Downs in the Jefferson Cup and Commonwealth Turf stakes.
Calgary Cat, claimed for $25,000 by trainer Kevin Attard and owners Stephen Chesney and Cory Hoffman in November 2013, led all horses with five wins at Woodbine in 2014, two of which came in graded stakes. He is a finalist in the male sprinter division, along with Excaper, Phil’s Dream, and Sharp Sensation.
Calgary Cat (male sprinter, older male), Excaper (turf male, male sprinter), and Lexie Lou are among seven horses to be named a finalist in two separate divisions. Others include HIllaby, Spring in the Air, Executive Allure (female sprinter, turf female), and Heart to Heart (3-year-old male, turf male).
To be eligible for a Sovereign Award in each divisional category, horses ages 3 and up must have raced in Canada at least three times in 2014, and 2-year-olds must have raced in Canada at least twice.
Brooklynsway, Conquest Harlanate, London Tower, Mississippi Delta
Conquest Tsunami, Conquest Typhoon, Decision Day, Phil’s Cocktail
Executive Allure, Lexie Lou, Paladin Bay, Sweater Weather
Ami’s Holiday, Coltimus Prime, Florida Won, Heart to Heart
Hillaby, Silent Star, Spring in the Air, Strut the Course
Calgary Cat, Lukes Alley, Sharp Sensation, Sky Captain
Deceptive Vision, Executive Allure, Lexie Lou, Royal Fury
Dynamic Sky, Excaper, Heart to Heart, Sharp Sensation
Cactus Kris, Executive Allure, Hillaby, Spring in the Air
Calgary Cat, Excaper, Phil’s Dream, Sharp Sensation
Cruising Kris, Eye of the Sphinx, Star Guest, Uproar
Adena Springs, Paradox Farm Inc., Sam-Son Farm, William Sorokolit
Gary Barber, Conquest Stables LLC, John Oxley, Sam-Son Farm
Josie Carroll, Mark Casse, Brian Lynch, Greg Tracy
Outstanding apprentice jockey
Damario Bynoe, Sheena Ryan, Erika Smilovsky, Nick Webb
Luis Contreras, Eurico Da Silva, Patrick Husbands, Rico Walcott