(Street Sense x Unlimited Pleasure, by Valid Appeal)
Trainer: Todd Pletcher (Uncle Mo, Rags to Riches, Ashado)
Jockey: Javier Castellano (3rd last year on Grace Hall)
Owned by: Repole Stable
Best speed figures: 98 Beyer, 101 Equibase
Background: Try as he may, Mike Repole failed to get himself a Derby horse this year (edit: thanks Paige for noticing this goof… I guess Overanalyze is more forgettable than I thought!), but instead has a pretty good Oaks filly who is approaching the Lilies lightly-raced and undefeated. Unlimited Budget is wrapped in plain brown, but showed speed as well as distance ability from her two-year-old days and has yet to show the bottom of the barrel. With 2-time Oaks winner Todd Pletcher training, Unlimited Budget is a force worth considering.
Prep Schedule: Raced twice as a two-year-old and proved plenty then, winning her maiden special weight at Aqueduct by a commanding 9 1/2 lengths before stretching out another furlong to to take the 9-furlong Demoiselle (II) by 1 1/4 lengths wire-to-wire with minimal encouragement. She ran clear of the crowd again in her three-year-old debut in the Rachel Alexandra (III) at Fair Grounds, running away to win by 3 3/4 lengths, then showed up strong to win the Fair Grounds Oaks (II)— both at 1 1/16 miles.
Pedigree: A daughter of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, Unlimited Budget continues the steamboat line of nice fillies from her sire’s first few crops to race and offers some routing promise with the bulk of Street Senses hitting the dirt well around two turns. Unlimited Pleasure is the dam, a stakes-placed daughter of decent dirt router Valid Appeal and a half to G1 router Outofthebox. Unlimited Pleasure has had a few other good foals including Flash Stakes (III) winner and sprinter Beacon Shine (by Montbrook) and Schuylerville Stakes (III) winner and Spinster Stakes (I)-runner-up Jardin (also by Montbrook). Unlimited Budget features no inbreeding in the first five generations.
Estimated TrueNicks Rating: A Variant: 2.86
Running Style: Off-the-pace
Pros: Consistent and a filly that keeps getting better with every start, Unlimited Budget has been a clear-cut winner in every one of her 4 starts, yet will likely be ignored in favor of flashier favorites. She has also shown adaptability, winning on the front end or coming from off the pace.
Cons: Laid off since March, Unlimited Budget will have to not bounce in order to remain competitive in this deep field.
Final Word: Surprisingly wise for her 4-race winning streak with speed to burn, Unlimited Budget has done little wrong to nitpick her for in her race preparation. Todd Pletcher is looking for his second Ashado, since both the Eclipse award winner and Unlimited Budget were winners of the Demoiselle and the Fair Grounds Oaks before getting the lilies. Her chances certainly are not bad, especially from an improving angle, and she’ll be at fitting odds on Oaks Day.
Trainer: Chad Brown (Dayatthespa, Zagora [FR], Awesome Feather)
Jockey: Javier Castellano (16th last year on Gemologist)
Owned by: Fox Hill Farms
Best speed figures: 105 Beyer (allowance win), 115 Equibase (achieved as a two-year-old in the Remsen)
Background: Fox Hill Farms’ first Kentucky Derby runner since their ill-fated Eight Belles, who was runner-up in 2008, Normandy Invasion represents Chad Brown’s latest step into the Derby fray since experimenting last year with Street Life, who ran 4th in the Belmont. A big name on many people’s list after his strong runner-up effort in the Remsen (II), Normandy Invasion thrust his head in front of Vyjack’s in the Wood Memorial (I) to make the Derby points cut.
Prep Schedule: Normandy broke his maiden on his second try by an explosive 9 1/4 lengths going a mile at Aqueduct, which is the first and only time he was in the winner’s circle. He followed up that great effort with a long drive and a winning performance placing 2nd in the 9-furlong Remsen (II) behind a stubborn Overanalyze to close out his two-year-old year. Debuting in the Risen Star (II) in late February, he got a troubled trip and an outer post to reach the front too late to be 5th by just 1 1/2 lengths. Regrouping in New York, he was trafficked in tight but nearly caught Verrazano at the end of the Wood Memorial (I), missing the win by 3/4 length.
Pedigree: Tapit is represented by a new G1 winner nearly (if not every) year at stud. A Wood Memorial (I) winner himself, he keeps the A.P. Indy sire line going strong siring strong juvenile contenders and a small pool of good older horses on every surface. Tapit also represents that growing force of blue blood backed by Unbridled as a damsire. Normandy’s own dam brings the most questions into the equation, being by Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (I) winner Boston Harbor with a lot of European breeding on the bottom. Will that give Normandy’s early talent some distance reach? Also worth noting is the heavy Native Dancer influences with multiple traces to Raise a Native and Northern Dancer.
TrueNicks Rating: A++, Variant 13.40
Running Style: Closer
Pros: No one has come as close to beating Verrazano as Normandy Invasion has in the Wood Memorial (I), where the bay colt shook loose late to miss the favorite by a short 3/4 length despite a pace that helped Verrazano more. For those looking at peak form, Normandy is going to be keen on his 3rd start back and was talented enough to keep the highly-requested jockey Castellano committed. Physically, he also looks like a horse that will celebrate the distance.
Cons: Chad Brown is more of a turf trainer than a Derby trainer, so Normandy’s finish will be reflective of what he can do with young horses on dirt and outside his comfort zone of New York racing. As a closer, Normandy may also be disadvantaged with Derby traffic and frequently finishes well, but not well enough to win. His pedigree is also still worth questioning as the stuff of distance.
Final Word: I have few doubts that Normandy Invasion is not a worthwhile horse to watch come Kentucky Derby Day, but he does have his detractors: 1) I think he’s too skinny as though he is going through another growth spurt like Mucho Macho Man did, 2) He may or may not be mentally ready enough yet to match the ability that is obviously there. Despite the maybes, I definitely like what I saw on Wood Memorial (I) day.
Conformation buffs, unite! Normandy Invasion was a big “downhill” yearling.
Sure Todd Pletcher has an excellent shot at winning the Derby this year. He always seems to have the best two and three-year-olds leading up to the first Saturday in May, and Verrazano looks to be the best horse in his barn. The hunk of muscle by More Than Ready is following the same path as past Pletchers Super Saver and Bluegrass Cat running in—and winning— the Tampa Bay Derby (II) in style.
But, where there is a favorite there is often a price. Past readers of my blathering know that while I acknowledge Verrazano’s brilliance, I do not like him as a Derby horse. I do however like Normandy Invasion a great deal.
Naysayers (neighsayers?) and doubters have showed up already to shake their heads at Normandy’s three-year-old debut in the wonky Risen Star (II), which was won by Ive Struck a Nerve at 135-1. The race was very weird, with many top horses suffering bad trips or off performances, and the winner certainly took advantage of a fast pace to lock up the win.
Examining the race again, Normandy stumbled out of the gate and was off to an awkward start. The first turn, like many of this year’s preps, was crowded and hectic, forcing him 5-wide to an even greater disadvantage. He was 6 or 7 paths wide by the time he hit his stride in the stretch, and by then it was too late. A snap shot of his loss margin:
Really, it wasn’t a bad loss, but a bad trip. Racing wisdom also dictates that the gallop out is pivotal, especially for horses who look to stretch out in the future. Let’s look at the Risen Star gallop out:
Looks like he was rolling pretty well late! Both Normandy and the #10 horse Oxbow ran better than the winner in the gallop-out, and Oxbow ran a winning race next out in the Rebel. I consider Code West and Oxbow to be pretty good horses at minimum, so with this and a few other things, I think Chad Brown can bring home a great contender at Aqueduct in the coming weeks. Watch the full Risen Star race
Sire Tapit won the Wood Memorial.
Off a long layoff, Normandy Invasion lost the Risen Star, which was won with a BRIS speed figure of 99. His close Remsen runner-up was a 104, and his maiden win before that was a 92. He could very well power off that loss.
The Risen Star is beginning to look even wonkier and dismissable after Oxbow’s head loss in the Rebel Stakes (II) this past weekend. Oxbow was the pacesetter for the Risen Star and went wide like many others did into the first turn. Both Normandy and Oxbow broke from disadvantaged outer posts.
Jockey switch from Jose Lezcano to Javier Castellano, a very wise move indeed.
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.
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.
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.
The moment I lost my mind when I saw that blaze pop through…
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.
I think it was the passing of the Forego (I) a few weeks back that reminded me of what Aikenite might be doing, and then over the weekend I saw his ad on Blood Horse about his upcoming start as a sire in 2013. He missed the 2012 season and is doing a race at Keeneland sometime this fall before he gets put away forever. His last start was a fourth place in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (I). (Photo by Alex Evers)
The Travers winners could meet again in Pennsylvania Derby!!!!… No one gives a f—k, or certainly at least not me.
RIP Theatrical [IRE], a really underrated sire.
Could someone please name a good Empire Maker baby Empire Strikes Back?
I was told that the Stanley Cup made an appearance where I work. No one was apparently allowed to hold it, and I couldn’t help but remember that Go For Gin was allowed to drink from it.
Can you imagine how empty D. Wayne Lukas’s stable would be if Bluegrass Hall pulled their runners? At least to me it feels like they’re his only client!
Archwarrior… I do love the baby Arches, but with Todd Pletcher training them to the Derby I might have to flake out when deciding my fantasy Derby stable. That guy bruised my standings two years in a row with his fragile brilliant runners.
FREDERICKSBURG! Early choice for the Juvie Turf!
Who is worthy of a 17-way shake? Apparently Lime Rickey, who was much the best winning R3 at Del Mar yesterday downgrading a ways to the claiming ranks.
When is Super Saturday going to get here?
The Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic is looking like potentially the best race so far if everyone makes it… Awesome Feather, Questing [GB], Royal Delta, It’s Tricky, My Miss Aurelia…
Javier and Abel Castellano both had new baby boys born an hour apart on August 28. Both jockey dads must have been pretty disappointed their sons weren’t in a lighter weight percentile.
Good to see an old favorite of mine will be going to a high profile farm once he retires. Brilliant Speed, one of the longest shots I’ve ever picked to win in last year’s Blue Grass (20-1), takes sire Dynaformer’s place at Three Chimneys.
I’m glad to see Rudy Rodriguez get another nice filly with My Happy Face.
New favorite horse name to be added to the ranks: Giacomo Strap. (Thanks Reinier)
With 12 horses slated to challenge I’ll Have Another’s bid for the Triple Crown, the champ’s chances are looking slimmer and slimmer by the day. With Union Rags’ acquisition of John Velazquez and Dullahan’s training strategies, Doug O’Neill is really going to have to step things up if he wants the Flower Alley colt to reach immortality.
Had Went the Day Well not bombed the Preakness (I would have preferred him to pass on that race) and Creative Cause decided to skip, IHA would have two more big names to worry about. While I’ve obviously been in the Union Rags camp, preparation goes a long way in determining how good a horse’s chances are in this race. I haven’t been overly enthusiastic in the past how Dale Romans chooses battles for his horses, but he’s got a live shot at the stallion-making race with Dullahan.
While his PP’s are overall unimpressive and he clearly does best on synthetic, there’s no question he is by far the best closer in the field. Had the Kentucky Derby been just a bit longer, we’d be rooting for Dullahan right now instead of I’ll Have Another. Perhaps the most encouraging sign is a planned final work over Belmont after some longer-than-usual galloping done at Churchill.
We’ve been changing the small things. Like instead of a mile-and-half, we go on two-and-a-half-mile gallops with him and galloping him before we breeze, just little things to try to teach him to go a little further, mentally and physically.
Normally, I wouldn’t take the word of most trainers too seriously, but this is also the same guy who upset Animal Kingdom last year in the Preakness with Shackleford and he managed to get a turf horse to place third in the Derby (Paddy O’Prado). I’m also liking the jockey switch to Javier Castellano, who need I remind you almost won last year’s Belmont with the struggling Stay Thirsty.
At the moment, I think Dullahan has the best chance to upset I’ll Have Another, but there are definitely a few good birds in this flock. We’ll get to those soon enough.