It's that time of year again. Nearly everyone in horse racing gets Derby Fever, and the Paulick Report is no exception.
The debate over Horse of the Year between Zenyatta and Blame was the No. 1 story from the time the two crossed the finish line heads apart in the Breeders' Cup Classic until the Eclipse Awards were handed out on Jan. 17. But once the golden statuette for Horse of the Year was given to Jerry and Ann Moss, the co-owners of Zenyatta, it became time to focus on the road to the Triple Crown and the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.
We had Tapizar's wire to wire romp in the Sham Stakes on Jan. 15 at Santa Anita and last Sunday's Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park showcased the stretch-running talents of the lightly raced Dialed In for Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito.
In between those two races, the Jockey Club released its ranking of the best 2-year-olds of 2010 in the annual Experimental Free Handicap, which over time has been a good source for helping identify future Derby winners — not always from the top of the list, but from within 10 pounds of the high weight.
For the life of me, to heighten the interest in the American classics at a time when many of us are cold weather shut-ins in the northern climes, I don't know why the Jockey Club – a co-owner of industry data collector Equibase – doesn't publish online past performances for all of the horses weighted in the Experimental Free Handicap. Publishing that information in conjunction with the release of the Experimental would help spur debate among racing fans and media about the relative merits of 2010's best juveniles. It could be racing's version of the so-called “Hot Stove League” that has kept Major League Baseball fans engaged during the off-season for so many years.
Equibase should be doing everything it possibly can to increase interest in the sport, and providing basic past performance information on the leading contenders for the sport's highest profile event – months in advance when people start to contract Derby Fever – would help that industry organization fulfill its mission.
OK, off the soapbox and on to the analysis of our first Paulick Derby Index Top 10.
Here is a quick look at my Top 10.
1-Uncle Mo. Gotta love this game. Todd Pletcher is coming off one of the best years any trainer has ever had, and he even got the 0-for-24 Kentucky Derby monkey off his back (doesn't 1-for-28 sound a whole lot better?). Yet the pundits are already saying he's mishandling Uncle Mo, the sensational son of Indian Charlie who went 3-for-3, won the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male, and was assigned high weight of 128 on the Experimental. It's Feb. 1, with three months until the May 7 Kentucky Derby, and Uncle Mo has just one slow three-furlong breeze. I'm going to cut this future Hall of Famer some slack and figure he's got a calendar and a plan. We know Uncle Mo has talent.
2-To Honor and Serve. Hall of Famer Bill Mott hasn't started nearly as many horses in the Kentucky Derby as Todd Pletcher has (only six), but his winless streak has lasted a lot longer, since his first starter in the Run for the Roses came in 1984 with Taylor's Special. Make no mistake about it: Mott would love to be standing in the infield winner's circle at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. He thought he had a horse good enough last year in Drosselmeyer, but the colt didn't have the earnings to qualify for the starting field. To Honor and Serve already has $210,000 in graded stakes earnings, by virtue of victories in the Nashua and Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct last fall. The Bernardini colt just has the look of a classic prospect, and Mott is a master horseman.
3-Dialed In. What's not to like about the way this Mineshaft colt rallied in the stretch to win Sunday's Holy Bull Stakes for Nick Zito in just his second career start and coming off a 10-week layoff? Zito is coming off a frustrating year – so many seconds in big races – and is due for some luck in 2011.
4-Jaycito. Son of Victory Gallop pulled a right-hand turn in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and continued to show some bad habits after being transferred from the barn of Mike Mitchell to Bob Baffert. But he has shown ability and looks like the kind of colt that can get the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter.
5-Boys At Tosconova. Am not convinced the son of Officer can get the classic distance, but he is a hard-trying colt and never quit when Uncle Mo pulled away in the stretch of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
6-Comma To the Top. Well, the least you can say about this gelding by the Indian Charlie stallion Bwana Charlie is he does have seasoning. We don't see many Derby contenders these days who had 10 starts during their 2-year-old season. You have to go back to Sunny's Halo in 1983 to find a Kentucky Derby winner who had double digit starts at two (he had 11). Welcome to the big show, Peter Miller.
7-Tapizar. Can't read too much into his Sham Stakes win at Santa Anita. It was on a track favoring speed to the nth degree. But this son of Tapit trained by Steve Asmussen took a Churchill Downs maiden race by 10 1/2 lengths before that and can't be discounted.
8-Santiva. I guess the big question is who will be training this horse come Derby time. McPeek to Pletcher to Kenneally isn't a double play combination. It's the trio of trainers that owner Tom Walters has gone through in the Giant's Causeway colt's four starts last year at two. Eddie Kenneally was the only one to win with him, taking the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes to break his maiden, so maybe he's safe …. for now.
9-Brethren. WinStar Farm's half brother to 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver by Distorted Humor has been handled conservatively by Pletcher, winning a maiden and allowance race at two. He'll need to rev up soon and get some graded stakes earnings if he has hopes of getting into the Derby field.
10-Machen. Another Distorted Humor colt unbeaten in two starts and awaiting his stakes debut. Very impressive allowance victory at Fair Grounds for trainer Neil Howard on Sunday, but he hasn't beat much yet.
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