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May 01, 2009

The Kentucky Derby - A Rainy Proposition

By: by Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 20-horse field is set for the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby, but the race will lose a ton of luster when Mother Nature rears her ugly head on Saturday afternoon.

The track is already muddy from Thursday's rain, and the early forecast for Derby Day calls for a 60 to 70 percent chance of rain from noon through the evening. With that as the backdrop, predicting the outcome of the 2009 Kentucky Derby is an extremely difficult task, more so than almost any other Derby of this decade. Friesan Fire and Desert Party are two horses that have won over a sloppy track, while only a handful of others have ever set foot on one.

Today's column will feature those two colts along with three others, beginning with Pioneerof the Nile.

The son of Empire Maker has done nothing wrong in his quest for Derby stardom, with four straight victories including a pair of Grade I triumphs. He also has the distinction of running against and defeating more horses in this race than any other member of the field. Not only has he beaten Chocolate Candy twice, he got the best of the morning line favorite I Want Revenge in both the Cash Call Futurity and the Robert B. Lewis. In the latter event, he also defeated Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem. Only Musket Man has won as many races (five), and no other horse can claim as many stakes wins as Bob Baffert's colt.

There are some concerns, however, as Pioneerof the Nile has yet to race on conventional dirt, with seven of his nine lifetime starts on synthetics and his first two appearances coming on the Saratoga turf. It's true that he has beaten many of the top contenders in the Derby, but after taking a closer look at how he did so, the results do not seem as flattering.

Pioneerof the Nile defeated I Want Revenge in the Cash Call Futurity after already running in a pair of Grade I events, while I Want Revenge was coming into the race right off his maiden victory. The same scenario took place in the Robert B. Lewis as Pioneerof the Nile, now having run in three straight Grade I races, barely got past another recent maiden winner, Papa Clem.

Even though he's won four in a row, he was extremely rank in the early stages of his last two. One can forgive him for doing so against a weak field in the San Felipe, but the same thing happened again in the Santa Anita Derby, a race that left more questions than answers.

The head-on angle shows Pioneerof the Nile, under severe whipping from Gomez, bearing in and out through the stretch in his first attempt at nine furlongs. Will he be able to improve his poor habits running an extra furlong on a surface he has yet to see against 19 other horses? It's a risk too tough to take.


With Quality Road on the sidelines, I Want Revenge could be the post time favorite. In his first race on dirt in the Gotham Stakes, he dazzled the New York crowd with an 8 1/2-length win, earning a 113 Beyer figure. In a fascinating statistic, the last seven Kentucky Derby winners have all won a race by eight lengths or more prior to the first Saturday in May. (The only other horse in this field that can stake that claim is Advice.)

I Want Revenge followed up that effort with a devastating performance in the Wood Memorial, after three one-way trips across the country. The son of Stephen Got Even broke slow from the gate and still had enough energy to defeat a field of eight by 1 1/2-lengths, running his final three furlongs in 36 seconds flat under a hand-ride.

His talent cannot be questioned, but his energetic, high-strung personality might be his downfall. On April 13, just a day before his first scheduled local workout, he cast in his stall, which left scrapes all over his head and left knee. Imagine what might happen on Derby Day with over 140,000 fans in attendance at Churchill Downs.

Here's something else to remember. The reason I Want Revenge was moved off synthetics was due to his inability to properly grip the Pro-Ride surface out west. One has to wonder how he'll adjust to a projected sloppy racetrack in Kentucky. If he was spinning his wheels at Santa Anita, might he do the same on Saturday?

Trainer Larry Jones has finished second in each of the last two years with Hard Spun and Eight Belles. Is Friesan Fire the horse to take him to the Promised Land before he retires? If that happens, then a couple of longstanding Derby myths will be discarded.

Friesan Fire has yet to race beyond 1 1/16. The last Run for the Roses winner without the benefit of a nine-furlong race was Middleground in 1950.

In addition, Friesan Fire's last trip around the track was back on March 14 in the Louisiana Derby, a race he won by 7 1/4-lengths in the slop at Fair Grounds. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby off a six-week break since Needles grabbed the crown in 1956. Barbaro and Big Brown both proved victorious with a five-week layoff, but Friesan Fire enters the race with an unheard of seven-weeks of inactivity.

Nevertheless, if there's any trainer that can pull it off, it's Larry Jones. He came close to breaking the above trends the last two years, as Hard Spun ran second off a six-week layoff in '07 and Eight Belles did the same without a 1 1/8-mile prep just last year.

Friesan Fire has been training exactly as Hard Spun had prior to the '07 Derby, with a mile workout followed by a five-furlong blowout. The only difference is that Friesan Fire finished in 1:14 flat after five in 57 4/5, while Hard Spun galloped out six furlongs in 1:11 2/5 after five in 57 3/5.

Breaking from post six should set him up in a good spot right behind the early speed, and the wet track makes him a must-play. However, that's what most of the betting public will think, so look for the son of A.P. Indy to wind up as the favorite come post time.


Godolphin Racing has not had much of an impact in the Kentucky Derby with horses brought over from Dubai. The best finish of the five came in 2000 when China Visit, with only two lifetime starts, finished sixth to Fusaichi Pegasus. Curule, who ran seventh that year, didn't even start as a two-year- old. The next year, Express Tour ran just once at three prior to the Derby while Essence of Dubai only had two starts as a three-year-old before the 2002 Run for the Roses.

This year, the stable has gone about winning the Derby the right way. Its top candidate, Desert Party, has had three preps in '09, after winning two of three races, including the Sanford Stakes, as a two-year-old in the United States.

The son of Street Cry (Street Sense's sire) defeated Regal Ransom early this year in the Ford Flex by a half-length and then crushed that rival, along with Vineyard Haven, by almost five lengths in the UAE 2000 Guineas.

The track bias at Nad Al Sheba affected his performance in the UAE Derby as stablemate Regal Ransom finally got the best of him at nine furlongs. Speed was king in Dubai that day and Desert Party, despite sitting a couple of lengths off the lead, could not catch Regal Ransom, coming up a half-length short at the wire but 15 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher. Moreover, both trainer and jockey felt the horse wasn't at his peak heading into the race.

Desert Party has looked fabulous in morning workouts over the Churchill Downs strip and despite the lack of a two-turn race he should be on top of his game this Saturday, particularly if there's moisture on the track. The only negative might be the 19 post.

Never in the entire history of the Derby has a horse won from that position, but jockey Ramon Dominguez might be able to keep his horse from floating wide as the field hits the first turn, since most of the speed will be breaking from posts one through 10.

It's been over a century since a horse won the Kentucky Derby without a two- year-old start. That trend will end this year when Dunkirk crosses the wire first at Churchill Downs.

The $3.7 million yearling encountered as much trouble in his first two starts as most horses see over a full year of racing. Not many colts can overcome a slow start and win by almost six lengths in their debut, and then stretch out to 1 1/8-miles and win by almost five while being carried into the eight-path around the first turn.

Dunkirk completed his nine furlongs in 1:50 earning a 98 Beyer in that second start, running faster than grade-one older horses had in the Donn Handicap earlier in the meet. In addition, he already has dealt with bulky fields, as 12 horses ran in his debut and 10 hit the track in his next outing. To put that into perspective, Friesan Fire has only encountered one double-digit field in his seven career outings.

In his most recent event, the Florida Derby, Quality Road took advantage of a speed-favoring Gulfstream Park surface and outran Dunkirk through the stretch to win by 1 3/4-lengths. It was a gap of six back to the third-place horse. There's no shame in losing to Quality Road as that colt would have vied for favoritism with Friesan Fire and I Want Revenge if two quarter cracks had not forced him to miss the Derby.

Todd Pletcher's decade long 0-21 Derby slump will end, as the best horse will win the most important three-year-old race in the county provided he can handle the sloppy racecourse.


The most important factor in regard to handicapping this year's Derby is the track condition. Speed has been the answer the last three times the race was run on muddy or sloppy tracks.

Smarty Jones galloped to victory sitting right behind Lion Heart, who held second, in the 2004 Derby, while both Go For Gin and Sunday Silence proved best on the lead in 1994 and 1989, respectively.

That doesn't mean a horse can't run well from off the pace. Strodes Creek rallied for second to Go For Gin, and Easy Goer, who disliked the off-going, still managed to nail the place spot behind Sunday Silence.

Given the expected track conditions, Desert Party and Friesan Fire must be used along with Dunkirk.

Given a $100 bankroll, this is how I would handle the wager. Throw $25 on an exacta box with Dunkirk and Desert Party for $50. Then bet $15 on each horse to win for $30, leaving $20.

Finally, take the two horses that have won on the slop - Friesan Fire and Desert Party - and box them in a $5 exacta for a total of $10, and do the same with Friesan Fire and Dunkirk for another $10.

For those with larger bankrolls, Hold Me Back, Chocolate Candy and Regal Ransom are other horses that should be used in trifectas and superfectas.


1) Dunkirk; 2) Desert Party; 3) Friesan Fire; 4) I Want Revenge; 5) Hold Me Back; 6) Chocolate Candy; 7) Pioneerof the Nile; 8) Regal Ransom; 9) Summer Bird; 10) Papa Clem.

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