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Critiquing the Contenders: Verrazano

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With the Tampa Bay Derby (II) coming this Saturday, Verrazano will be heavily favored as the current Kentucky Derby futures favorite. It will be his third start and his first stakes attempt after crushing a good Gulfstream mile-long allowance race by more than 16 lengths under a hand ride. Doing some research of my own this week, I found that most heavy favorites in the Tampa Bay fail— likely because of the track, but I will leave that one open (It would appear that experience running on Tampa’s deep going helps a lot in its Derby).

Conformation

Research has shown that some 35% of group/graded winners have “excellent” conformation, while just 10% of non-winners had “excellent” conformation, which helps in determining how well a horse may run according to his build. For Verrazano:

  • I heard he’s tall, which is promising
  • Good strong shoulder; paired with good height means a strong reaching stride
  • His hindquarters are a lot better looking than shown in this photo, and from that vantage point he reminds me a lot of his sire.
  • The “I’ll Have Another” angle (that’s what I call it anyway): I thought I’ll Have Another had a lesser chance to win last year’s Derby because he didn’t have ideal “classic” conformation like Union Rags and Bodemeister. Verrazano is not narrow like IHA, but he is not what I would personally consider to be a classic-looking horse.
  • Quick Glance Quote: He reminds me of War Front, a talented miler/sprinter. His body also reminded me immediately of Dialed In, the favorite for the 2011 Kentucky Derby, who I also characterized as a 9-furlong-max horse who was more likely to do a mile best.

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Dialed In, left, won the Florida Derby and reminds me a lot of Verrazano. Verrazano looks to have a longer set of hind legs, which can be good or bad depending on who the judge is. Long straight hind-end can point to more power, but can also mean the horse can kick or clip himself.

TrueNicks Rating

The cross of More Than Ready x Enchanted Rock, by Giant’s Causeway is rated C, with a variant of 0.87. Just 4 foals have resulted from the “direct cross” of More Than Ready and Giant’s Causeway mares with no black-type winners.

Running Style

Tactical, effortless speed is what Verrazano possesses as he impressed many of his followers with a crushing allowance win at Gulfstream last out. The horses he beat manage to laud him further, as Eton Blue was a multi-length winner of his maiden special weight and Gunderman recently won a 9-furlong race. The final time for the mile was only about a second and change off the track record established by Commentator. However, since I mentioned that, it’s also worth mentioning Verrazano’s stablemate Graydar nearly bested that mark while Itsmyluckyday broke the 1 1/16 mile track record in just the past 2 1/2 months. Is the Gulfstream main very fast or is this year full of talent?

Background Points Worth Mentioning

Verrazano’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, has won the Kentucky Derby once before with Super Saver in 2010, and was runner-up in 2006 with Bluegrass Cat. Both of those horses also ran in the Tampa Bay Derby, and lost as the favorites.

Sire More Than Ready was a juvenile success at Saratoga and was a hot prospect for the 2000 Kentucky Derby, where he finished 4th with Todd Pletcher training. He went on to be a graded winner in sprint races like the King’s Bishop (I), and most of his progeny are at their best as juveniles and particularly turf horses. Barry Irwin, CEO of Team Valor and investor into a few More Than Readys (including BC Juvenile Turf winner Pluck), deems him a top one-turn and juvenile sire. In Australia, More Than Ready was the sire of a Group 1 winner at 12 1/2 furlongs in Benicio.

Dam Enchanted Rock also produced G2 winner El Padrino, who raced well in the Kentucky Derby preps with Todd Pletcher training and Let’s Go Stable as owners. He finished flatly in the Florida Derby (4th) and Kentucky Derby (13th), and has yet to win since the Risen Star.

No horse since Apollo (1882) has won the Kentucky Derby without making a two-year-old start.

Final Notes

Verrazano’s debut Equibase figure was an impressive 92, followed by a 103 in his second race. Many handicappers balk at a continued leap of  improvement for the third race, suggesting most horses “bounce” after performing by far their career best. With that said, Verrazano can win with a step backwards as he stretches out another half furlong in what should be a bigger field.

My biggest concern for the race though is in how he adapts to the track. Tampa Bay Downs is sandier and has eaten up favorites who could not cope with it. Gulfstream has been ridiculously fast, and considering the stretch-out as well as a third race in 3 months (plus his first time at 2 turns) might equate to wearing him down a bit.

The big concern long-term is where Pletcher intends to run Verrazano as a final prep. He appears to be scattering his pool of talent with plans to send Revolutionary to take the Louisiana Derby and Shanghai Bobby to take the Florida. What’s left? The Wood? Sounds like another Eskendereya scheme…

It’s in my personal opinion that Verrazano is more appealing as a miler with no ability beyond 9 furlongs. An impressive individual, I can’t trust Pletcher and probably not his pedigree. Careful eyes have noted his legs have already been pin-fired— which, while archaic and common, suggest he needs therapy already after just 2 starts— so I’m not about to touch him.

Touchy? Yeah probably. I swore off liking any Pletchers this year and still went for Violence late last year because I thought he’d be sturdy. Nope; out like a light…

The impressive Verrazano

The impressive Verrazano

My Eleven Months of Union Rags

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Remembering favorites from 2012. The toxins and the endorphins had to be released from my system…

While I was still sans-betting account, I would typically only watch a little bit of racing on TVG (when you live with four other people who are habitual TV mongers, it is a rare occurrence to be able to watch horse racing for an afternoon). It was August the 15th, a day after I turned 22, and I was tuning into the Saratoga races which is one of my favorite tracks. The track was soupy and the field was small for the historic Saratoga Special (II). I had scant knowledge of the competition, although obviously the Todd Pletcher trained son of Unbridled’s Song, Stat, was the favorite. Going over the field on Equibase, I immediately favored the horse with the Michael Matz connections named Union Rags because to me, if Michael thinks a young two-year-old is ready for a stakes, rain or shine, he’s going to be the one to beat regardless of the tote. I remembered Barbaro for an instance, and how slowly that star gained his power transitioning into a three-year-old. Rags was a respectable 3-1 at post time.

I was going against my aversion to rail horses in picking Union Rags for the win, and sight unseen, I was naturally pleased to see on TV that he was this big, hulking bay colt with a shock of white on his face. He went to challenge the lead and won big by 7 lengths, all despite the off track and a terrible case of swerving in the stretch. It was in that instant I knew I found my Derby horse for 2012.

Rags duplicated that awesome wide win margin in the Champagne Stakes (I), showing his ability on a fast track while coming from behind a wall of horses at the top of the stretch. If he wasn’t a favorite for the best juvenile already, his 5-length beat-up of Alpha sealed the deal.

The buildup to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (I) was slow and personally painful. Apart from the Classic and the Turf Mile, there was no greater anticipation mounting than that for the Juvenile race. Despite the non-graded status and rankness, the one I was watching out for was Hansen, another colt I was able to catch blitzing his challengers on TVG one afternoon. It felt too ironic to be true, being able to catch my two favorites on TVG without having heard or seen them before. Could Hansen keep that speed burning for another sixteenth? Between Union Rags and Hansen, I could scarcely pick which one I liked more. With Hansen, you had sheer brilliance and mythical beauty. With Union Rags, the build of a champion with the modesty typical of his Pennsylvania roots. Because of a freakish Halloween blizzard, my power was knocked out for the entire Breeders’ Cup week, but by far the Juvenile Colts had the most electrifying race. Rags swerved again and again, looking like a duck on dry land trying to catch Hansen. Failing at the wire, I was shocked soon again when Hansen won the Eclipse Award by a landslide. How? Why? Did no voter see the raw potential in Rags had he just had a better trip, or a longer distance? Had I been asked in January to rank my top three, it would have gone Union Rags, Hansen, Alpha in that order.

2012 reeked of redemption, and originally, I thought it was going to be all Union Rags to take back his top spot without dispute. Hansen endured a tough beginning to take second in the Holy Bull (II), setting up early doubt for Rags’ comeback in the Fountain of Youth (II). Between the long layoff, his infamous swerving, and an unexpected jockey change to Julien Leparoux, he would receive a brickload of scrutiny. Sure enough, he was sent off a relatively soft 6-5 at Gulfstream Park. With $20 of my own on his nose to win, favored Discreet Dancer folded early as Rags took his patented loop around the wall at the top of the stretch. Never asked, he won by 4 lengths and unofficially vindicated himself post-Eclipse awards.

After that winning ride, it seemed the patient Leparoux was perfect for Rags. An unhurried, top rider on the grass in Kentucky, he didn’t seem to feel too concerned about any of Rags’ opposition, taking to Twitter that the horse was incredible and that he would make everyone proud on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Seated in Stella Artois-sponsored pants, Leparoux would spoil Rags’ second chance at a $1 million first prize in the Florida Derby (I), getting caught immediately behind a wall of horses while making little to no effort from there to get away. Ex-rider Castellano pinned them inside the entire time in a move Leparoux should have anticipated— Castellano knew Rags and was on the second-choice El Padrino. Making up ground late, he was unable to catch front-runner Take Charge Indy and a modest stretch run from Reveron kept him in third. His reputation was soiled, and not a single person in the Rags trench loved Leparoux that day. It was a greenhorn incident that should have never happened.

Despite the loss and the rise of new stakes winners— Dullahan, Bodemeister, I’ll Have Another— Union Rags was named the second-choice betting favorite for the Kentucky Derby, just behind Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister. His conquerors in the field were sent off at surprisingly lesser odds; Hansen was 10-1 on the morning line while Take Charge Indy took in 15-1 odds. The reasoning behind the odds wasn’t just fan-inspired mania, for a Union Rags nod seemed to have its appeal to even the most discriminating gambler: He had never been passed in the stretch, had never shown his full measure, and physically looked the part of a Derby winner. The drawbacks, however, were just as obvious: he’s been too frequently plagued by bad luck and jockey error (while retaining Leparoux) and wasn’t fast enough at the break to be safe from the #3 post. The odds bounced around from a few dollars for a five to 6-1 on and off Derby day, settling on 5-1 at post time. I was uneasy the most at the sight of the #3 spot— no matter what the connections said at the time, I hated hated hated his chances that close to the inside despite being a leisurely runner at the break. Sure enough, Rags was shoved out of contention early at the break. It was difficult to watch the rest of the race, but impossible to dismiss the top 3 runners with winner I’ll Have Another biting down hard in the stretch once again to overpower Bodemeister. The California invader would do it again in the Preakness, and perhaps out of blind infatuation, I was unable to fully appreciate IHA because I was so distracted by Union Rags.

Come June, I was ready to admit that I’ll Have Another was a fine horse. He had won two classics over a very good horse in Bodemeister, all after having an excellent California campaign over tough competition. Considering how much I liked a similar underdog in Funny Cide after he defeated my favored Empire Maker, I’m still not sure why I didn’t replicate that love for I’ll Have Another, who always ran with his heart on his shoulder and his ears forward. Plans were made to go to the Belmont Stakes for the first time, and while I felt guilty about it, there was no question that I was going to be rooting for Union Rags, who once again, wore the unlucky #3.

Was he a blind favorite? Yes, considering my history. But was he was a valid favorite? I certainly thought so. He had the correct build of a distance-seeking Belmont horse and made his best moves late. Plus, he was getting one of the smartest jockeys around with John Velazquez. Dullahan was scary coming into the race fresh as well, and I admit now that I dismissed Paynter as a “too much, too soon” entry. I thought Street Life had a good chance as well… the rest of the field had something to prove. I swore if I’ll Have Another won, there would be no more senseless personal grudges. There would be no longshot winner this year, of that much I was certain.

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Optimizer balked before jetting to what would become his new favorite spot in a race— the lead!— in the Belmont Stakes.

The surplus that was guaranteed to fill Belmont to the rafters vanished on Saturday, as I’ll Have Another was scratched two days prior to his magnum opus. A modest 85,000 came to the race, and those wise enough to bring rain gear were rewarded, as it drizzled on and off all day. My winners for the day were few and far between, and as the race drew near I began to get a little nervous. Am I going to jinx him by being here? Or worse yet, telling everyone that asks that he’s going to win? Unstoppable U was the wise guy pick, Dullahan the favorite alongside Union Rags. A family friend who frequently hit the Belmont trifecta every year was going with Paynter. How much nervous energy was I wasting on all this, possibly to pan out to disappointment? I hadn’t slept the night before, and was already exhausted from the elements, the excitement, and the arduous ride over the Throgs Neck to Long Island. I reminded myself again: Never passed in the stretch.

The post parade began after what felt like an eternity. Street Life, the apple of my eye for the latter half of the Triple Crown trail, was adorable in person, as was my dearest underdog of the trail, Atigun. Optimizer was being a brute and refused to go into the gate. Five Sixteen was docile under Rosie Napravnik. Guyana Star Dweej was placid and homely. Unstoppable U shined, his gray coat matching the overcast skies. Ravelo’s Boy was long in body and low to the ground. My Adonis, the smallish chestnut, was last to go in to his outside post. A breath later, they were off and the long wait began for the horses to come back around again.

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Photo ops of Rags were few and far between in the post parade, but he looked ready!

Disheartened to see Street Life get away poorly, my attention shifted nervous to Union Rags who yet again was behind horses on the inside, but was optimistically farther up than usual. Paynter setting the pace… Optimizer’s up front? That’s weird… Dullahan is far back… Not a whole lot changed during the race, but as they approached the far turn, Rags began crawling closer to the leaders. I readied my camera as they moved towards the homestretch, taking my eyes off the monitor as I settled in for a good clean shot. As they came nearer, the crowd began to rumble and I zoomed in as far as my focal length would allow. Through my viewfinder, I could see the blue-and-yellow silks of Paynter… Atigun was trying hard to keep up on the outside… and THE BLAZE FACE OF UNION RAGS WAS COMING THROUGH ON THE INSIDE!

The excitement was too much of a rush to handle. It felt like the entire grandstand was standing behind me, shouting for one or the other to prevail, the vibration humming through the fabric of my clothes. Rags drew even with Paynter within leaps of the wire and I dropped the camera.

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The moment I lost my mind when I saw that blaze pop through…

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Aaaaaand there goes my camera…

So I didn’t get a very good, clear shot of Union Rags. But I did get to cash a win bet that day, and experience one of the most amazing moments ever as a fan. Getting to go to Belmont Park was an experience in itself, but I felt all my work and faith was validated that day. Using your heartstrings isn’t a viable betting strategy in the long term, but betting the horse with the most heart often is.

While there was no chance I was ever going to miss going to that race, the memento of it became doubly important after what happened next. In July, Union Rags was injured and off for the rest of the year, and then retired permanently shortly after that announcement was made. I can count on one hand the number of moments that caused me to need to take a day away from the sport, and that instance cost me a day of seclusion. I had only known him for 11 months though I got to see his final and greatest moment. The way it ended so abruptly all felt extremely unjust.

Unfortunately, like many sports, horse racing is a business and its athletes are exposed to serious injury even in the simplest of warmups. Just as I expected, the 2012 Triple Crown trail was memorable, though not in the same way I expected. I missed seeing Rags quite a bit for the rest of the year, but if I was to be honest with myself, I don’t think he could have won the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year. He went out on a high note, and I trust he will have a successful future as a sire. Not too many are going to be able to creep by Paynter at his best!

In the meantime, I’m still watching the Matz barn like a hawk.

Sophomore Sinkhole

El Padrino was impressive on the Triple Crown trail, but has been MIA since the Run for the Roses.

Who wants some stats? Everybody loves stats, probably as much as they love Raymond. We saw one of the most talented crops of juvenile take the stage in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (I), and while a whopping 10 out of 13 of them won stakes leading up to the Derby, we’ve since seen one of the worst injury/retirement rates hit the sophomore male crop:

  • Out of 20 Derby runners, 6 of them have been pronounced retired.
  • Out of the top 5 finishers of the Derby, only Dullahan is still currently active.
  • Out of all 20, only Alpha is being [definitively] considered for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (I).
  • 5 of them suffered some type of injury ranging from minor to career-ending between the 3 TC races.
  • Trinniberg is a possible for the BC Sprint, Dullahan a probable for Turf or possibly Classic.
  • Daddy Nose Best, Optimizer, and Dullahan are now career turf/synth horses.
  • 5 of the 20 runners have not made a start since the Triple Crown wrapped.
  • Post-Triple Crown stakes winners: Optimizer (G3 Kent on grass), Dullahan (G1 Pacific Classic on synthetic), Alpha (G2 Jim Dandy and G1 deadheat in Travers), Prospective (G3 Ohio Derby), and Trinniberg (G2 Woody Stephens, sprint).
  • The only horses to have raced against older horses so far this year: Dullahan, Prospective, Daddy Long Legs. Only Dullahan has won against them, and by a nose.

Looking back, was this one of the best years or one of the worst years for three-year-old talent, or should we blame the temptations the breeding industry offers?

Weep with me! The stars from Todd Pletcher’s stable of three-year-olds that either faded from view or were injured: El Padrino, Spring Hill Farm, Algorithms, Discreet Dancer, and Stat (who is now apparently a gelding!). Remind me next year to never put a Pletcher trainee in my Derby fantasy stable…

Racing Beat: May 13

The Racing Beat is back after a Derby-influenced hiatus! And Winter Memories won her first start of the year!

Reason #12000 why I would make a good horse racing spokeslady: I’ve been around Spanish communities and people long enough to know how to pronounce the jockeys’ names properly and understand their broken, heavily-accented English. It’s not Mar-tin Garcia, it’s Mar-teen Garcia.

The Derby broadcast was not as delicious as I felt it could possibly be. Couple that with the obvious lack of expertise by NBC Sports (camera pans to talk about a specific contender and films El Padrino getting his tongue tied) and I feel slighted.

I keep hearing that people supposedly all supported Union Rags because they thought he was the next Barbaro. Nope, not for me anyways. I supported him on paper, sight unseen, because I have such tremendous faith in Matz as a trainer. He doesn’t have a super popular pedigree i.e. Bernardini, A.P. Indy, Giant’s Causeway, Empire Maker. He was bred in Pennsylvania on a small-scale farm. He’s big, magnificent, and always tries hard. Barbaro had nothing to do with it.

I am absolutely crushed that Pluck is not returning to racing, even more so they’re sending him to stand in Australia.

GO BODE GO!

One more month until the mighty Belmont Stakes and I could not be more excited about going. Possibly Union Rags and AlphaDullahan… I really wish Team Valor had saved Went the Day Well for this specific race, as well.

Tweet O’ the Week:

Stanley Gold is back at his stomping grounds at Calder doing what he does best: winning! Great job to a horse who had a rough spring, Fort Loudon!

Mark Valeski has a new fan: me! Rosie’s going to have her best year yet with Larry Jones’ horses.

Yummy With Butter has some competition as the best racehorse name ever: Hastings standout Spaghetti Mouse.

I’m in the process of reading as much as I can about the usage of furosemides (Lasix/Salix) in horse racing. As of right now, I am all for a gradual pull-out from race-day medications, but would like to learn as much as possible as I continue to form a personal opinion on the matter.

yup bc pletcher has no idea how to get a horse fit

Asked by Anonymous

Pletcher so cray cray… I don’t know how he can win everything that isn’t nailed down at any other time but when the big championships are on the line. As stated before, El Padrino has his work cut out for him if he stays on, and Gemologist… well… he’s an undefeated mild longshot for this shindig.

Pletcher trainee El Padrino may have his work cut out for him come Saturday. I was high on him up until the Florida Derby where he went wide the whole trip and managed to just hang on for fourth, but my worries deepened when he went a slow :53 and change at Palm Meadows over 4 furlongs. I wouldn’t be that surprised if he was the horse to scratch; he’s likely not ready to go at all. (Photo by Gulfstream Park)

Pletcher trainee El Padrino may have his work cut out for him come Saturday. I was high on him up until the Florida Derby where he went wide the whole trip and managed to just hang on for fourth, but my worries deepened when he went a slow :53 and change at Palm Meadows over 4 furlongs. I wouldn’t be that surprised if he was the horse to scratch; he’s likely not ready to go at all. (Photo by Gulfstream Park)

How Far Do Excuses Run?

Post-Florida Derby hysteria has set in much like a million-dollar G1 race should: with excuses pouring in from everywhere from practically all those connected with the race. Many of the losers agree that Take Charge Indy was a false winner, crediting their own poor performance and a speed-soakin’ track to the A.P. Indy colt’s upset win.

How much reputation does Take Charge Indy have now with an extra $600,000 in the bank? Still not much. While the naysayers are reconsidering their attitudes concerning trainer Pat Byrne’s decision to keep his horse out of the Tampa Bay, they’re still not giving the colt full points for the win this past Saturday seeing as Union Rags remains the Kentucky Derby favorite. Big Brown faced similar skepticism in 2008, running only three times (but undefeated) before winning the Derby and the Preakness, but even with the might Calvin “Bo-rail” aboard, it’s not likely T.C.I. will start as a hot favorite: he did not win by a romp, won on a biased track, and sported an unimpressive 95 Beyer speed figure in a race that normally spits out triple digits.

Obviously, Union Rags did not have the ideal trip from the get-go. Jockey Julien Leparoux guided him to the caboose of the early leaders and was pinned inside by Javier Castellano on second-choice El Padrino nearly the whole way. He made three separate attempts to gun to the front, but could only muster third. His third place is regarded better than Take Charge Indy’s first since it was nearly overtaking second-place Reveron and was well away from the shorter-trip rail.

With El Padrino notching a “no excuses” fourth for many, trainer Todd Pletcher is still insistent he’s got Derby potential. The horse endured a wide trip around Union Rags the whole race, and according to Trakus stats, the trainer states El Padrino could have easily beaten Union Rags due to the fact he traveled 68 feet further than the favorite, and to many, the deserved winner. While the Pulpit colt did not improve much off his Risen Star (II) speed figures and fell off the tote board for the first time, I’ll let you think what you want to about this one.

With barely a month left on the calendar until the first Saturday in May, it seems that the Derby picture has been jostled but not unsteadied. Union Rags is likely going to start as the favorite or co-favorite with Take Charge Indy being taken lightly for a conqueror.

WOW…

109-1 HERO OF ORDER won the $1 million Louisiana Derby (II) today. Who saw that one coming?

I was personally thinking the Risen Star (II) probably took too much out of Mark Valeski for him to win, and the fast pace would set up for a closing horse like Rousing Sermon, but wow, this is just too funny. Hero of Order walloped Mark Valeski by a bigger gap than El Padrino. Me thinks all these jockeys were too lax this weekend watching only one or two horses they *thought* could beat theirs. That’s what the longshots are expecting them to do when they pull one over on them!

Now, not saying I think Hero of Order has a real shot at the Kentucky Derby, but I can’t stop laughing at the fact he’s won $600,000 at such enormous odds. Kind of wish a few more better horses were in the field today that could have used those earnings…

Going to the Thoroughbred races, keeping "track" of the memories. Obsessively providing a comprehensive and personal glance at the sport of kings through original photography, handicapping analysis, editorials, and much more.

Tracks visited: Calder, Saratoga, Belmont, Suffolk, Aqueduct.


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