I can’t wait to bet on Union Rags in the Kentucky Derby. For me, this sort of feels like back in 2007 when Street Sense seemed on his way to going off as a heavy Derby favorite before getting nosed out in the Blue Grass Stakes. Now we have a horse who has already proven himself at the top level and is going to be ready to fire his best shot in his third race of the year–and his Derby odds probably just went up to somewhere in the 4-1 to 9-2 range.
I know people are upset with Leparoux for his ride or are worried that Union Rags has still yet to run a Beyer speed figure over 100. I’m not one of those. Union Rags has been a victim of circumstances. I firmly believe that in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile he essentially ran his 100 Beyer (after all, didn’t he run about 5 lengths farther than Hansen when going four to five wide the entire trip?). And in last Saturday’s race, Leparoux couldn’t have known that the pace would be so glacially slow. It didn’t necessary project to play out that way on paper and you wouldn’t think that the other jockeys would let Calvin get away with that after Gulfstream was playing so strongly to speed in the earlier route races. And if you’re not sure about how slow the pace was, consider this: The six furlong fractions of the three two-turn races on the card preceding the Florida Derby were 1:10 2/5, 1:10 3/5, and 1:10 4/5. Take Charge Indy got to run his first six furlongs in 1:12 and he came home his final three eighths in 36 3/5. How fast could Union Rags reasonably be expected to run into such a quick final fraction?
I also take issue with the Beyer speed figure for the race. The track at Gulfstream through the first part of the day was playing extremely fast. The good-but-not-great Travelin Man ran six and a half furlongs in 1:14 3/5, just one fifth of a second off the track mark, and Fort Larned broke the 1 3/16 miles track record, running that distance in 1:53 4/5. Now Fort Larned is not a bad horse, but before Saturday, he had only run a Beyer speed figure above an 89 once in his career. Yet he earned a 108 Beyer for his Skip Away triumph. After the seventh race, the track was sealed since rain was expected, and it was later reharrowed for the final two dirt races, the GP Oaks and the Florida Derby. I just do not believe that the track was still as fast later in the day, which is the assumption that was apparently made when making the figures for the day. Do you really buy that Grace Hall got only an 89 for her romp in the GP Oaks? I’m not so sure that I do. Then again, if you make the Florida Derby figure any higher, it means you’re taking the leap of faith that longshot runner-up Reveron ran that good of a race. Reveron did get a perfect trip up on the pace, however, so I’d say it’s conceivable.
But putting aside any qualms I have with how the figures were made, I believe Union Rags showed me exactly what I wanted him to. On a day when the main track seemed to be very tiring in the two-turn races, Union Rags did not get discouraged when he found himself behind a wall of horses on the far turn. Instead, he waited for Leparoux to tell him where to go and really picked up momentum nearing the finish, actually galloping out past the winner by the time they reached the clubhouse turn. I have no doubt he will get a mile and a quarter and I now have confidence that he will handle whatever sort of trip he gets on Derby day.
And now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s move on to the new Horses to Watch (and yes, I resisted the temptation to put Union Rags on the list):
- Sin Codigo, an Argentinian import, was making his second start in the United States in Wednesday’s ninth race, a $20,000 beaten claimer at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. He was dropping into this spot after doing no running in an optional claimer at Tampa when making his first start in over two years. In last week’s race, Sin Codigo broke a bit awkwardly, but was able to secure a good early position sitting in fourth, just a few lengths off a solid early pace. Coming around the far turn, when waiting to make his move, Sin Codigo’s rider, Junior Alvarado, let the favorite slip through on his inside. Sin Codigo was not able to quicken with that horse and soon found himself stuck in behind horses by the time the field entered the stretch. From there, Alvarado just could not seem to find a clear path for his horse and was never really able to set him down for the drive. In the late stages of the races, the leading pack really came together and Alvarado had to stand up in the stirrups to check Sin Codigo out of a bad spot. He ended up finishing seventh beaten about 3 lengths. While I’m not sure he would have won this race with a better trip, he certainly would have been right there at the finish. It looks on paper like he’s done absolutely no running the U.S. and we could get a big price on him next time. I will say, however, that I’d be cautious going forward with horses out of these early season turf races. A lot of the top stables have yet to ship their best horses up from Florida and races at this same level could be much tougher going forward.
- King Rock is a horse that I’ve been following for some time now. I’ve always maintained that he’s best from seven furlongs to a mile on turf, but over this winter at Aqueduct he really came to hand running on dirt, finding the consistency that had been lacking previously in his career. Last Thursday, he ran in a $14,000 claimer at seven furlongs on the main track. There was not much speed in the race and King Rock had to sit back in fifth behind fractions of 23 3/5 and 47 4/5–very slow for a sprint. Coming to the top of the stretch, King Rock made an eye-catching three-wide move to join the leaders and seemed poised for a victory. However, the two horses to his inside had something left after the soft early fractions and King Rock had to settle for third, beaten just a half-length. They came home the final three-eights in 36 3/5 seconds, so it’s understandable King Rock could not make much of a dent late in the race. He was claimed out of this race by the hot David Jacobson after spending a few years in Leah Gyarmati’s barn. This probably hurts his price next time, but I’m hoping Jacobson claimed him with the idea of getting back on the turf at Belmont. That’s what I’m really waiting for, although with an honest horse like this, we’ll probably find a good spot to make a score on him regardless.
- In Aqueduct’s sixth race on Saturday, a beaten $10,000 claimer at six furlongs, Sixty Acres appeared to be one of the main speeds on paper, but she lunged at the break and was left at the back of the pack in 11th, losing about four to five lengths. Apprentice Jose Ortiz allowed Sixty Acres to move up outside of horses down the backstretch and actually made the lead by the time the field hit the top of the stretch. Sixty Acres briefly seemed like she might actually win the race, but she understandably tired late to finish third. She was claimed out of this race, but prior to that she had been entered back today for a $15,000 tag by her previous trainer, Rudy Rodriguez. I’m not sure if the new connections will want to run her on such short rest after her performance over the weekend, so I’m putting her on the list and waiting to see today’s scratches. (EDIT: She was scratched by the stewards out of Wednesday’s race.)
- Recurring Dream (#2) made it 2-for-2 after winning Aqueduct’s eighth race on Saturday, a NY-bred N1X allowance at six and a half furlongs. On a day when horses were not really coming from way back, Recurring Dream made a sustained rally from second-to-last after breaking slowly and showed a lot of gameness in wearing down the runner-up, who got a perfect trip, in the late stages. This 3-year-old gelding has shown a lot of professionalism in his two starts and should have even better races ahead of him being a late May foal. As far as future wagering opportunities are concerned, I’m looking to make a score on him down the line when he steps up in class in a NY-bred stakes race like the Mike Lee at Belmont.
- North Ocean (#9) made his debut in Saturday’s seventh race at Gulfstream Park going seven furlongs in a tough maiden special weight. He is bred to be a good one, being by Street Cry and out of one of the great mares of the past couple of decades, Beautiful Pleasure. North Ocean was unprepared for the start of this race and was left far back early, some eight lengths behind the next-to-last horse down the backstretch. He made a nice run to catch up to the field around the far turn and stayed on well through the stretch, missing third by less than two lengths. He was beaten over 14 lengths by the winner, a good-looking Todd Pletcher second time starter, but considering how sluggish he was down the backstretch, he actually put in an excellent performance. He could prove to be a decent horse when stretched out around two turns.