<
>

First impression from Churchill

4/28/2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Credulity generally ignores logic, incredulity rarely yields to observation and together they work to bend just about everything into a box of preconceived dimensions. But Sunday morning here at Churchill Downs, anybody who watched in order to see and who then allowed his thoughts to proceed unfettered would have arrived at this conclusion: Trainer Todd Pletcher is about to win the Kentucky Derby.

Granted, it's more of a first impression than a conclusion, and a few horses have yet to arrive, but two from Pletcher's barn argued Sunday morning that they're poised to offer superlative efforts in Saturday's 140th Kentucky Derby: Danza and Intense Holiday.

Yes, you're right: Danza can't win the Kentucky Derby because he doesn't have a purple pedigree that drips with regal stamina, and Intense Holiday can't win because, well, he's Intense Holiday, a colt who's better known for losing focus than winning races. That's just what the Credulity twins want you to think. But don't listen to their beguiling whispers, don't let them tell you what you're seeing but rather watch with your own eyes.

Danza breezed a half-mile Sunday, but in truth he worked, truly worked, only a sixteenth of a mile or so -- that is, he lowered himself into racing gear only briefly, and in that instant, in mid-stretch, responding to just a nudge from exercise rider Ezequiel Perez, the powerhouse of a colt spurted away from his workmate, the Sam F. Davis stakes winner Vinceremos, who's also aimed at the Kentucky Derby. They had started virtually together, with Vinceremos closer to the rail and Danza slightly behind in the four path. Balanced motionlessly in the irons, Perez moved only his hands and moved them only slightly, and in a blink Danza became the train and Vinceremos the hapless traveler who missed it.

The workout wasn't especially fast. Over a rather dull Churchill surface, Danza completed the half-mile on the official stopwatch in 48.80 seconds, with Vinceremos a length back in 49.00 seconds. But Danza's instantaneous acceleration confirmed that he has continued to thrive since his recent victory at Oaklawn Park.

"He's been working well and doing well, and we have to be pleased with how he's coming into this race," Pletcher said about Danza, pointing out that the flashy chestnut came out of the Arkansas Derby very proud of himself. "He's getting better and better."

Powerfully put together, Danza probably looks more like a sprinter or a miler than a classic Derby horse. His dam, Champagne Royale, never won a stakes while racing exclusively at Hastings Park in Vancouver. And the sire of Danza, Street Boss, sprinted his entire career, never racing beyond seven-eighths of a mile. But, then again, Benjamin Franklin was the son of a candle maker.

Pletcher's other two Kentucky Derby candidates, Intense Holiday and We Miss Artie, also worked together -- for a while anyway. Starting slightly behind and outside the Spiral Stakes winner, Intense Holiday appeared eager for more than a stroll. And in the stretch, when jockey John Velazquez allowed the long-bodied colt to stretch his legs, Intense Holiday left We Miss Artie behind like a bad reputation. Running the final quarter-mile in about 23.60 seconds, Intense Holiday completed a half-mile in 48.60 seconds and then galloped out strongly beyond the wire, leaving his humiliated stablemate farther and farther behind with each furlong.

A few moments later, back at the barn, former trainer Frank Brothers, who picked out Intense Holiday for owner Starlight Racing, said, "That's as good as it gets." And Pletcher echoed the same sentiment, saying the handsome colt never worked better.

"

I'm not sure at all if he should be running in the Derby.

"-- Trainer Todd Pletcher on We Miss Artie

Did Sunday's workout indicate that the focused and serious Intense Holiday will be the one to show up Saturday for the Derby, the same colt, in other words, that rallied strongly to win the Risen Star Stakes and then just kept rolling? Or will the unfocused version reappear, the recalcitrant colt that finished second in the Louisiana Derby after ducking in at the top of the stretch and knocking himself off stride, his hind legs not moving in sync with his forelegs. That has been a reoccurring problem, but it wasn't evident Sunday.

"I didn't have to help him at all," Velazquez said, meaning the jockey didn't have to shift his weight in the stretch to encourage Intense Holiday to change strides. "He gave me a lot of confidence."

Hoppertunity, who'll have a serious workout Monday morning, also has made a positive first impression. He seems to have gained weight since his runner-up effort in the Santa Anita Derby. And Medal Count, who has delivered his best efforts over Keeneland's synthetic surface, worked six furlongs Saturday, from the five-furlong marker to the seven-eighths, in 1:13. To these eyes, that move, along with Intense Holiday's and Danza's, has been among the best here. Most important, Medal Count moved comfortably over the surface as if to indicate his talents don't necessarily have to be confined to synthetics or turf.

The same probably can't be said of We Miss Artie, whose three victories have all come on synthetic surfaces and turf. After his poor workout Sunday, Pletcher said, "I'm not sure at all if he should be running in the Derby."

Has a trainer ever so clearly and loudly indicated that a horse in his barn shouldn't participate in the Kentucky Derby? Probably not. And yet Sunday afternoon, We Miss Artie's owner, Ken Ramsey, said the synthetic-turf specialist would run Saturday as long he's physically sound. And so We Miss Artie will run in the blushing-crimson colors of Ramsey's insatiable ego.