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Apr 03, 2009

Quality Road - A Track Record Victory

By: by Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Florida Derby winner has won the Kentucky Derby three times in the last nine years, with Monarchos, Barbaro and Big Brown all draped with the blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May. Can the Grade I event at Gulfstream Park close out the decade with a fourth, courtesy of Quality Road?

The impeccably-bred colt not only defeated the highly regarded-Dunkirk by 1 3/4-lengths, he broke the track record for nine furlongs with his 1:47.72 performance, besting Brass Hat's 1:47.79 mark.

Quality Road rated just off the early pace and exploded through the stretch in electrifying fashion putting to rest any and all qualms some folks might have had about his ability to stretch out over two turns.

There should be no question that the Edward P. Evans homebred can win going 10 furlongs. His damsire, Strawberry Road, was a multiple Group I winner all over the world, and his dam's full sister, Ajina, won the 1997 Breeders' Cup Distaff and Coaching Club American Oaks.

His speed and quickness, though, come from his sire, Elusive Quality, who was not only a world-class miler in his day, but also sired Smarty Jones and last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Raven's Pass.

Quality Road's running style is eerily similar to that of Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner. And in this day and age of speed, speed and more speed, having a colt that can run as fast as the wind while rating just off the early pace is a dangerous combination. Even more so when said three-year-old has the pedigree to win at the 1 1/4-mile distance.

Since this was Quality Road's final prep on the road to Kentucky, it was important for him to get something else from the race besides another open length score, and that's exactly what happened. There's nothing wrong with winning every race by the length of the racetrack but there will come a time when race conditions aren't in one's favor and a horse must win on guts alone. Mark it down - Quality Road possesses the eye of the tiger.

CHALLENGED AT THE TOP OF THE STRETCH

When Dunkirk put in his bid around the turn, it looked as if the undefeated colt would blow right by for an easy victory. However, never underestimate the heart of a winner. Jockey J.R. Velazquez went to the right-handed whip three times, and although Quality Road ducked in a bit with the first two cracks, he geared down and drew off to win by a length-and-three-quarters.

Since he's only had four lifetime starts, this type of stretch drive was tremendously important in his quest for Kentucky Derby stardom. In fact, it was only the second time he was ever challenged for the lead in the stretch and both times he emerged on top. One might wonder how I could say he came out unscathed if Theregoesjojo defeated him in an allowance race, but I'm referring to his stretch battle that day with the third-place horse, Obligingly.

Quality Road had zero chance of holding off Theregoesjojo since he was stuck on the rail, with Obligingly right to his outside. More important than the victory however was the heart he showed by never permitting his stretch rival to pass him as the pair raced to the wire.

The Florida Derby winner prevailed by a neck in the race within the race vs. Obligingly, a monumental task when one remembers how Quality Road missed the break that day and was rushed to the top in a very fast 22 1/5 first quarter.

As we move closer to Derby Day, it's safe to say the Jimmy Jerkens-trained colt does not need the lead to be effective. Moreover, his toughness can never be questioned, and that intestinal fortitude will surely come in handy on May 2.

POSSIBLE NEGATIVES

If one wants to find fault with Quality Road, there are two things that could come into play. First is the lack of two, two-turn efforts. Second is the fact that his most recent victories were aided by the strong speed favoring surface at Gulfstream Park.

The first trouble spot shouldn't hold him back considering he's bred to run all day. The other statement, however, might have some validity, even though Barbaro and Big Brown both handled the transition to Churchill Downs without a problem.

The track on Kentucky Derby day is usually a cement highway, but it might not be as speed-favoring as Gulfstream Park has been this meet, and especially last Saturday. When reviewing the dirt races run on March 28, it's easy to see how speed was holding up. Seven of the eight races were won by horses that were either first or second after the first half-mile, and the other winner held down the third spot, only one length behind the leader.

Here's the rub. This current crop of three-year-olds is the strongest we've seen in a long time, and dwarfs those of '06 and '08, the years Barbaro and Big Brown dominated the Kentucky Derby. There's no doubt Quality Road should be in everyone's top three, and quite possibly at number one, but is he that much better than the other contenders to be singled out on top, especially since he'll probably be the betting favorite on the first Saturday in May?

THE DUNKIRK DILEMMA

Was Dunkirk's second-place finish enough for him to reach the starting gate at Churchill Downs? The colt bankrolled $150,000 in graded earnings, which sits him squarely on the bubble. If horses such as Imperial Council and Flat Out were to win the Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby, respectively, then Dunkirk might be forced to sit on the sidelines and await the Preakness.

As a side note, it will be interesting to see where Todd Pletcher goes with the rest of his three-year-old contingent. Would he send out Take the Points, Join in the Dance, Affirmatif and Bittel Road in spots they were not originally intended to run just to keep a few colts underneath Dunkirk on the earnings list?

For instance, Al Khali was expected to ship up north for the Wood Memorial, but Pletcher sent him to the Illinois Derby in hopes of keeping the likes of Giant Oak and Nowhere to Hide from moving ahead of his prized three-year-old. It also must be noted that Al Khali is not Pletcher's lone hope at Hawthorne, as the four time Eclipse Award-winning trainer has entered two other horses in the race.

Dunkirk's connections will do right by the horse and not race him between now and the Derby. A very smart move since the last thing this lightly-raced colt needs is to be rushed into battle. Rest and proper training will do him worlds of good, and if a spot opens up, he will be just as dangerous in Kentucky as Quality Road.

Remember, the Gulfstream Park surface was very kind to front-runners all day long and Dunkirk was some seven lengths off the pace after running his first quarter in 25 seconds. When Casey's On Call led the field through a relatively slow first half of 46 4/5, the undefeated colt still had not made up any ground on the front-runners.

For Dunkirk to be in position to challenge his top rival and even take the lead for a few seconds approaching the top of the stretch was nothing short of amazing, considering how deliberate the early pace was. The fact that Quality Road pulled away in the stretch should not diminish how well Dunkirk ran taking into account the track bias highly favored the winner.

For those who are still planning to bet on Dunkirk in the Kentucky Derby (if he makes it), this loss was actually a blessing in disguise. Instead of going off as the likely favorite, he will now be anywhere from 9-2 to 6-1 depending on what happens the next two weeks.

Despite all the positives, there are still a couple of negative nuggets to chew on. First, the most recent time a horse won the Kentucky Derby without a two-year-old start came in 1882. Second, only one Florida Derby runner-up has been able to win the Run for the Roses since 1974, and that was Strike the Gold 18 years ago. In Quality Road's favor is the fact that seven Florida Derby winners since 1979 have gone on to grab the brass ring at Churchill Downs.

THE NEW TOP 10

Did Quality Road do enough to move into the top spot in the new Jeff Frank Top 10? He was extremely impressive and is currently the horse to beat, but Dunkirk remains number one due to his strong second-place finish.

I mentioned last week that any one of the top three colts from the Florida Derby could move forward and win the Kentucky Derby. I was wrong. Theregoesjojo is obviously not in the same class as Quality Road and Dunkirk.

I Want Revenge, The Pamplemousse, Pioneerof the Nile, and to a lesser extent Rachel Alexandra, Imperial Council and Chocolate Candy will all have their final prep this coming weekend so a lot can change one week from today. But as of now, the Top 10 looks like this:

1) Dunkirk; 2) Quality Road; 3) The Pamplemousse; 4) I Want Revenge; 5) Pioneerof the Nile; 6) Friesan Fire; 7) Rachel Alexandra; 8)Desert Party; 9) Imperial Council 10-T) Charitable Man and Chocolate Candy.



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