Friday, May 02, 2008

It's Derby Week!

For lovers of the sport and the Thoroughbred breed, this is THE WEEK! It's Kentucky Derby Week, the event that turns the town of Louisville, Kentucky into a horseperson's Mardi Gras for seven days leading up to the magical date--the first Saturday in May and...

The Run for the Roses.

You may or may not know that along with my fanatical devotion to writing, I also breed Thoroughbreds. This is a very exciting time for me. "The Derby" as it's known generically, is the Superbowl of horse racing. The Derby is also the first leg in the Triple Crown, those three monumental races, including the Preakness two weeks later, and the Belmont Stakes another three weeks after that, that determines if we are again witnessing the making of a legend. When someone says "Triple Crown" the first horse that may pop into most peoples' minds is the immortal Secretariat, but there have been others since him--the equally immortal Seattle Slew and Affirmed--who have won the coveted Crown. It just hasn't happened since the late 1970s. Thirty years have passed without another Triple Crown champion. But, to use a standard cliche, "Hope springs eternal."

There is no standout horse this year. There is no dominate Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Barbaro that is expected to take it all. What we have is a field of very good horses. For the first time in decades, I have no horse that I enthusiastically endorse (like I did the three mentioned above). Always bear in mind, however, that with fate and horse racing being what they are (fickle), this doesn't mean we may not see our next Superhorse emerge from the herd. ;)

Here are a few that I really like, in no particular order:

Colonel John
Well, of course, with a name like Colonel John and me being so military-oriented, how could I not like this guy? Another plus. He's from the Relaunch male line, Relaunch being the sire of the immortal Skywalker, as well as at least four others with "million/s" behind their earnings. That's unusual in an age where the males lines are dominated by Mr. Prospector/Gone West, Northern Dancer/Storm Cat, and Seattle Slew/AP Indy. I won't get down into the weeds of his pedigree (you'd be here all day) but suffice it to say this guy has a lot going for him in the genetic department including a fabulous balance of both speed (for short distances) and stamina (for longer distances). This is the kind of pedigree that could take it all! His race record is very respectable at 6 starts-4 wins and 2 seconds and over $800,000 in earnings, to date. If he peaks for the Derby, he'll be a force to contend with.

Eight Belles
Oh, yes, female power. How can I not root for a filly that had the talent and credentials to make it all the way to the Big D? Do we have another Winning Colors in the making? Another Rags To Riches? Another...dare I say it?...Ruffian? Well, probably not, as her race record doesn't indicate freakish speed, but it does show a solid performer. 9 starts, 5 wins, 2 seconds, 1 third, over $300,000 in earnings. Her pedigree? Delta Mr. Prospector--that means Mr. P is the patriarchal sire of her sire line (Mr. P/Fappiano/Unbridled-Derby winner/Unbridleds Song) and he's also the sire of her granddam. That's some powerful reinforcement through opposite sexes to a great, GREAT sire. Her dam's sire is also Dixieland Band who is a phenomenal broodmare sire (meaning his daughters' offspring are often awesome runners). What scares me? The history of some of her relatives with catastrophic breakdown. Hopefully the strengths in her genetics outweigh any potential for disaster.

Big Brown
One word. Impressive. Three starts, three wins, over $650,000 in earnings., including the Grade 1 Florida Derby. He's running with the big boys and he has the right stuff. Pedigree wise: Big Brown is an example of what I would never do in breeding--the top and bottom of his pedigree are the same pattern, Northern Dancer over Damascus--meaning his sire is by a son of Northern Dancer (Danzig) out of a daugher of Damascus. His dam is by a son of Northern Dancer (Nureyev) out of a granddaughter of Damascus. Can you say inbred? Inbreeding is done a lot in TB breeding, but usually the reinforcements are reversed, in other words, the pedigrees are mirror images of each other, not a nearly identical pattern. (Am I making sense?) Still, Northern Dancer is one of the few sires where duplication of male lines does work and Danzig and Nureyev were certainly two of his greatest sons. And Damascus reinforced through female lines...awesome. Big Brown represents (to me anyway) a genetic no-no that just may pay off handsomely. His pedigree breaks all the rules and that makes him mighty (to borrow a phrase from Firefly). He's lightly raced for a test of this caliber and a field of this size--and inexperience is not a good thing to have going into the Derby--so how he does may boil down to what's inside his head. He's shown he has the athletic goods to make it happen, the question is if he has the professional mind.

Pyro
Credential wise, he's one of the best. His record is 7 starts, 3 wins, 2 places, and 1 show and he's earned his first cool million and then some. He came in 2nd in the Breeder's Cup Juvenile as a two year old, and has since won the Champagne, Louisiana Derby and Risen Star Stakes. Until his last race, where he finished last, some had begun to whisper amongst themselves "Is this the horse? Is this the year?" His loss effectively squelched those mutterings, although in his defense, he was running on a polytrack surface for the first time and didn't care for it in the least. He's a son of Pulpit so his male lines trace directly through AP Indy to Seattle Slew, one of the last Triple Crown winners. He's got Secretariat, Wild Again and Mr. Prospector all in five generations. Love the name and I'd love to see this boy turn the world on its ear and silence his naysayers.

Monba
His race record is a respectable 5 starts, 3 wins and edging up on $600,000 in earnings. Monba is a good horse, and maybe a horse on the improve at exactly the right time. But mere "good horses" don't win the Derby, do they? When I look at his pedigree, I just smile. I see potential there that few might. Monba is a son of Maria's Mon, who you've probably never heard of if you haven't been immersed in this world. Maria's Mon is the sire of Monarchos, who won the Kentucky Derby in the second fastest time in history. The only horse that ever ran a KD faster was Secretariat. Monba is a direct male descendant of the great Derby winner Majestic Prince, who reached the last leg of the Triple Crown undefeated, only to finish second. He retired with the Belmont being his only loss. This male line throws tremendous talent. And Mom's side of the pedigree? His dam is a daughter of Champion Easy Goer who ran 2nd in the Kentucky Derby to Sunday Silence, 2nd in the Preakness and won the Belmont. Impressed yet? Well, those are just a few of the many big races in Easy Goer's portfolio. He earned almost $5 million and set a new track record. Easy Goer's sire? Alydar, who ran second to Affirmed in all three of the Triple Crown races. In addition, Monba's dam is a half-sister to stakes winners Secret Hello and Silent Account. All that talent on both sides of his pedigree is flowing in Monba's veins. As far as his own career, he won his last race convincingly, the Grade 1 Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, the race where Pyro ran last. Monba is a sleeper with the genetics to fly. Watch out world!

Big Truck
He's not a standout. 8 starts, 3 wins, 1 place, 1 show. Only $330,000+ in earnings and only one graded stakes--a Grade 3 at that--the Tampa Bay Downs Derby under his belt. Gotta love an underdog. Some would raise their nose in the air and claim Big Truck is not a blueblood, doesn't belong in this kind of company. He's the best his sire, Hook And Ladder, has produced to date. Big Truck is a great name for this honest blue collar racehorse, and he's just the kind of horse who could pull off an upset. There's a lot of depth in his pedigree. Dixieland Band is his sire's sire, Dixieland being yet another fabulous producing son of Northern Dancer. His dam's sire Go For Gin earned over a million and won the Kentucky Derby, came in 2nd in the Preakness and Belmont. His "weakness" is his female family. Although his dam's line has produced some good racehorses, there are no legends in there and certainly no runners that have competed at this level, but I will say the female line has been bred to the best stallions generation after generation--Go For Gin, Halo, Bold Lad, and Round Table, in generational order, that the resulting influences may surface in Big Truck. Think Seabiscuit. ;)

So there you have it, the six I'll be watching. Of course, that being said, I haven't forgotten that there are potentially 14 other horses in this field. In a race of this size and this caliber, anything can, and does, happen. What these horses do in this race will determine their futures, their owners' fortunes, their mark in history and the future of the breed. It is a stampede toward greatness.

So here's to the showcase of our sport and my prayer for these exceptional athletes:

Safe trip, brave ones, safe trip!

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