I don't mean to contradict what the great Vince Lombardi was quoted (or misquoted) as saying during his time as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, but when it comes to prep races for the Kentucky Derby, winning not only isn't everything, it isn't the only thing, either.
Sure, it's nice to have a horse go through his series of wintertime races unbeaten en route to Churchill Downs and the first Saturday in May, but it's more important 1) that he gets through them in one piece, and 2) moves forward with each race.
Creative Cause is a good example of moving forward. The son of Giant's Causeway trained by Mike Harrington lost his 2012 debut when third of four starters in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 19. But the race was only at seven furlongs, a mere appetizer for what is ahead, and he appeared to get what he needed out of that effort to step it up a bit next time out.
That next start came last Saturday in the G2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park, where Creative Cause was far from flawless but did enough to win, setting things up for the G1 Santa Anita Derby on April 7.
The grey colt caught a real tiger in Bodemeister, who was coming off a strong maiden win for trainer Bob Baffert only one month earlier. The Empire Maker colt made Creative Cause really work to get the job done in the San Felipe, though it didn't help matters that Creative Cause went extremely wide into the stretch and raced somewhat erratically in the final three-sixteenths of a mile.
Creative Cause, winner last year of the G1 Norfolk Stakes and third to Hansen and Union Rags in the G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, is a consistent class performer who looks like he has what it takes to be a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender.
At Gulfstream Park on Sunday, Dullahan made his first start since closing to be fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and while he wasn't able to beat Howe Great in G3 Palm Beach Stakes going nine furlongs on turf, he also will move up from the effort. Trainer Dale Romans has the benefit of enough earnings in Graded Stakes for Dullahan so he doesn't have to worry about getting the son of Even the Score into the starting gate for the Derby. He can circle May 5 on the calendar and use each start to get the colt ready for his biggest and most important test.
The Palm Beach winner, Howe Great, may look more like a turf or synthetic horse to his connections, Team Valor International and trainer Graham Motion, but weren't we saying pretty much the same thing going into last year's Derby with Animal Kingdom?
Howe Great, a son of the Sunday Silence stallion Hat Trick, and Dullahan will likely be rematched in the G1 Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland's Polytrack.
The 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile not only produced the champion 2-year-old colt in Hansen and the leading Derby contender in runner-up Union Rags, but the first five finishers (Hansen, Union Rags, Creative Cause, Dullahan, Take Charge Indy) all appear to be serious Triple Crown race candidates. There are three other major stakes winners to come out of the race, including Drill, Alpha, and Prospective, the latter of which won Saturday's G2 Tampa Bay Derby for trainer Mark Casse.
Prospective finished last as a longshot in the Juvenile after winning the G3 Grey Stakes on the Woodbine Polytrack. His Tampa Bay victory may not have been the most visually impressive win of the season and he only beat a maiden winner (the same can be said of Creative Cause's San Felipe), but he is one of those moving in the right direction and presumably has enough earnings to make the Derby field.
One of those moving in the wrong direction was the impressive maiden and allowance winner Fed Biz, who was to go in Saturday's San Felipe. A hind end injury of an unspecified nature has taken him off the Triple Crown trail. Trainer Bob Baffert initially said the problem was minor, but when it comes to 3-year-olds in March and April, there are no small or minor problems if you want a horse that has a serious chance to win the Roses.
Editor's Note: Some votes do not reflect the news late Monday concerning Fed Biz.
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