By Ed McNamara
You hear it every year late in autumn and early in winter: “That’s my Derby horse.”
A colt runs lights out in his first or second start, and suddenly he’s The Next Big Thing. I always wonder “Why so soon?”
Some horseplayers are particularly susceptible to premature infatuation, and no matter how many times they’re proven wrong, they never learn. Maybe they don’t want to. It reminds me of a sweet, sad song from the 1930 movie “The Blue Angel.” Sing it, Marlene Dietrich.
“Falling in love again, never wanted to,
“What am I to do? Can’t help it.”
Except for guys like handicapper extraordinaire Jeff Siegel, who was all over Big Brown after his second race, and California clocker Gary Young, who foresaw greatness in the 2-year-old American Pharoah, making snap judgments is silly.
Take last year, for example. What did the eventual winners of the Triple Crown races look like in early January?
Country House (Kentucky Derby) was 0-for-2, and all the DQ’d Derby winner, Maximum Security, had done was win his debut in a $16,000 maiden claimer. War of Will (Preakness) won on dirt after starting 0-for-4 on grass, and Sir Winston (Belmont Stakes) was 1-for-5, with the win on Woodbine’s synthetic surface.
I guarantee that nobody envisioned a classic victory after watching any of those races. This year’s picture looks murky, as it usually is early in winter. But let’s check out some precocious horses with potential to make their mark. Keep your eye on them, but don’t lose your heart.
Independence Hall is 3-for-3 by a combined 21 lengths, but he misbehaved badly before his last two races. He’s also never been around two turns, and trainer Michael Trombetta must figure out a way to calm him down. If he freaked out in front of 40 people in Aqueduct’s paddock, how would he react to the chaotic scene on Derby Day?
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) champion Structor may get the 2-year-old male Eclipse Award for his 3-for-3 campaign on grass. He’s by a dirt sire, Palace Malice, winner of the Belmont and Met Mile (G1), and the masterful Chad Brown wants to try him on the main track. Wait and see.
Shotski is the only 3-year-old who’s won at 1 1/8 miles, but he went wire-to-wire on a speed-biased track last month in Aqueduct’s Remsen (G2). His pedigree (Breeders’ Cup Classic champ Blame out of a Bluegrass Cat mare) says more distance should be no problem.
Tiz the Law is 2-for-3, and he ran well in a bad-trip third in the sloppy Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs. Trainer Barclay Tagg won the 2003 Derby and Preakness with Funny Cide, so this New York-bred has the right guy in charge, and Tiz the Law should handle 1¼ miles.
I don’t think you can draw many conclusions from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). Storm the Court led throughout at Santa Anita on a conveyor belt for front-runners. A poor start canceled 4-5 favorite Dennis’ Moment, and Maxfield was scratched earlier in the week after surging from far back to take his first two races. He started slowly in both, which can’t continue.
Predictably, the most recent impressive performance was by a horse trained by Mr. Derby himself, Bob Baffert. Authentic is 2-for-2 after he coasted by 7¾ lengths in the mile Sham Stakes (G3) on Saturday at Santa Anita despite spooking twice in the stretch and running erratically for Drayden Van Dyke.
“I told Bob when he broke his maiden that he was my favorite 2-year-old,” Van Dyke said. “He’s very talented.”
The jockey blamed the wacky antics partly on the crowd noise. “But then when he got down to the rail, he spooked himself again,” he said.
The light-bodied, leggy son of Into Mischief “moves like a gazelle,” said Baffert, who called the front-running romp in the two-turn Sham “a big move forward.”
More promising 3-year-olds will pop up in the next few weeks. Note the ones who run big, but don’t get carried away no matter how fast they run or how much they win by. It’s a long way to the first Saturday in May, and so many things can happen – and usually do — along the Derby trail.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.