BY DICK POWELL
Getting a horse ready for the Kentucky Derby (G1) has become a bit more complicated in recent years. Combine fewer prep races and fewer opportunities to earn eligibility points and you have to have a lot of things go right to make it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
Last year, because of injuries, Bob Baffert did not get AMERICAN PHAROAH (Pioneerof the Nile) to the races until six weeks before the Derby. He used two prep races at Oaklawn Park, three weeks apart, in order to give him three weeks until the Derby. This was more out of necessity than preference.
But mostly, trainers want more than a month between races to get ready for the Derby and the schedule can present problems. If you want to go with two prep races, which is becoming more common, you have to commit to a late start for your 3YO campaign. If you are willing to have three prep races, your options are more open.
This year, Kiaran McLaughlin had some decisions to make with MOHAYMEN (Tapit). Winner of all three starts at two including two graded stakes, the gray colt came out at the end of January and won the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) going 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park in a good time after sitting off a slow pace.
McLaughlin was faced with the decision of how many more prep races Mohaymen would need. If he skipped this Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2), Mohaymen would then go to the Florida Derby (G1) off a nine-week layoff. If Mohaymen runs in the Fountain of Youth, which he will do on Saturday, he then has three prep races.
For McLaughlin, it gives him a schedule of a race a month. McLaughlin is one of the shrewdest trainers in the game and well versed with performance figures and form cycles. He knows that a big effort could set him back so a regular effort every month should not only have him fit for the Derby but will avoid a final prep race that is too fast.
But, any chance of having an easy win on Saturday went by the wayside when entries were drawn. Mohaymen will only have to face five rivals but three of them are serious horses.
ZULU (Bernardini) has won both career starts for Todd Pletcher. He beat allowance foes by seven lengths going seven furlongs last out here on a sloppy track and now takes on stakes foes in his two-turn debut.
Zulu has a terrific pedigree for two-turn success and Pletcher wins 29% first time going long. His grandsires are the half-brothers A.P. Indy (Seattle Slew) and Summer Squall (Storm Bird). Their dam is by Secretariat (Bold Ruler) so Zulu is inbred 4 X 4 to the great Triple Crown champion that is a terrific source of stamina in today’s pedigrees. Johnny Velazquez will ride back from post two.
AWESOME SPEED (Awesome Again) has won his last three starts for Alan Goldberg including a stakes win at Gulfstream Park going a one-turn mile in fast time. He stretches out to two turns with a stout pedigree being by Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner Awesome Again (Deputy Minister) and out of a dam by Aptitude (A. P. Indy) who won the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). My question is not that is he is bred for the distance but why is he only now stretching out? Awesome Speed’s’ win in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes earned a BRIS Speed rating of 98 which puts him right on the cusp of being a major contender this year.
A surprise entrant is AWESOME BANNER (Awesome of Course) who looked like he might stay in sprint races for now. Undefeated and untested in three career starts, he romped in the Swale Stakes (G2) last out going seven furlongs in fast time and now will take a look at trying two turns. He could not have found a worse spot to do it since the field is loaded with speed.
By Awesome of Course (Awesome Again), who is known as the sire of champion filly Awesome Feather, Awesome Banner’s broodmare sire, Zamindar (Gone West), is certainly not a household name but he has produced some high-quality runners.
A full-brother to champion Zafonic, Zamindar stood in Florida for a few undistinguished years before going back to Europe at the Aga Khan’s stud. Back home, he sired Darjina, winner of over $2.4 million and four Group 1 stakes, and the immortal Zarkava, undefeated winner of seven races including the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe Stakes (G1) against males.
So there might be more stamina in Awesome Banner’s pedigree than it looks.
As much as I raved about MSHAWISH’s (Medaglia d’Oro) win in the Donn Handicap (G1) and his chances in the Dubai World Cup (G1), it all applies, and then some, to CALIFORNIA CHROME (Lucky Pulpit), who might have been more impressive Thursday at Meydan in his prep race for the World Cup.
At the age of five, he looked as good as ever with an enormous, athletic stride that just chewed up the ground in a handicap race going 2,000 meters. Chrome carried 132 pounds to an easy victory which should set him up perfectly four weeks and two days from now when a $10 million jackpot is on the line.
Second in the World Cup last year, he now has the advantage of a race over the track and is already acclimated to his surroundings.