The Week in Review by T. D. Thornton
This past Saturday's last-chance trio of nine-furlong preps for the GI Kentucky Derby unfolded like a tense card game that came down to the crucial final draw. Some decent hands had already been dealt over the course of the long season, but we still needed to see the last three cards from the deck to get a handle on how intriguing and entertaining this year's Run for the Roses would turn out to be.
That final turn revealed, in succession: An ace. An ace. And a tantalizing wild card that nobody saw coming.
Mo Donegal (Uncle Mo)'s deft, sustained run from last to snatch victory in the final jump of the GII Wood Memorial S. at Aqueduct established him as one of the Derby favorites.
But when Zandon (Upstart) one-upped that performance 24 minutes later at Keeneland with his own relentless, adversity-overcoming charge from far back to win the GI Toyota Blue Grass S., it set up one of the most fascinating Derby rivalries in recent memory.
That's because we now get the juicy first-Saturday-in-May rematch of the top two colts from last December's “fighting finish” in the GII Remsen S., in which Mo Donegal outmuscled Zandon (barely) by a nose in a roughly run race that made national headlines for the stewards' non-disqualification of the winner.
Our sport is often stuck in the “Racing needs a superstar” mentality. But horse vs. horse grudge matches? I say bring 'em on. They really are the more fascinating allure.
Still, if you're the type of fan who latches onto sky's-the-limit, undefeated prospects, the racing gods had one more card to toss your way Saturday.
Thirty-seven minutes after the two Eastern races yielded aesthetically satisfying results, the GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby delivered the unexpected gift of 'TDN Rising Star' Taiba (Gun Runner), who crashed the Kentucky Derby party by mowing down two highly-heralded speedsters, sparking a late-to-the-party journey to Louisville with an audacious two-for-two record amid an aura of revenge.
Although you won't see Churchill Downs promoting this storyline, the most riveting subplot over the next four weeks will involve Taiba's owner, Amr Zedan, who won the Derby last year with longshot Medina Spirit, a rags-to-riches $1,000 yearling. Medina Spirit died suddenly after a December workout, and he was subsequently disqualified from his Derby win for a betamethasone overage, a penalty that Zedan is currently appealing.
Last week, Zedan insisted (reportedly against the advice of his trainer, according to DRF's Jay Privman) that Taiba–who sold for $1.7 million as a juvenile–be entered in the Santa Anita Derby even though the colt had just broken his maiden Mar. 5.
Taiba's largely unforeseen win on Saturday now gives Zedan a shot at righting what he perceives as a Derby wrong. Even Zedan's choice of a name for this prized colt underscores his mission: Roughly translated from Arabic, Taiba means “one who is clean” or “one who refrains from evil.”
So which prep was strongest?
Story arcs aside, make no mistake that Zandon ran the most visually appealing 'Wow!' race that sets him up as the likely favorite for the Derby.
Zandon asserted himself midpack through the first turn of the Blue Grass, exuding confident body language while into the bit and hemmed in by horses through the tightly-packed first turn.
The pace was moderate (first three quarters in :24.04, :24.35 and :24.33), yet Flavien Prat allowed Zandon to drift back to last by the half-mile pole. Over the course of the next furlong, Zandon found himself pocketed while still bringing up the rear, yet Prat never panicked when guiding his colt to the outside to start picking off stragglers on the far turn.
Zandon split horses while gaining on the first flight, and Prat made the dicey decision to drop back inside at the head of the lane. He was walled up and had to punch his way to the outside three-sixteenths from home, and after an unfazed Zandon shouldered aside a tiring rival, he had dead aim on well-regarded favorite and 'TDN Rising Star' Smile Happy (Runhappy).
Zandon kicked home with purpose through a last quarter in :25.14 and a final eighth in a respectable :12.49, his tied tongue flapping loose in the chilly breeze while 2 1/4 lengths clear of the competition. The final time was 1:50.35 over a drying-out track labeled good (98 Beyer Speed Figure).
In the Wood Memorial, Mo Donegal's off-the-pace task was made tougher when favored Morello (Classic Empire) hit the gate at the break and couldn't effectively pressure the speedy Early Voting (Gun Runner), whose high cruising gear enabled him to post consecutive quarters in :23.86, :23.89, :23.84 and :24.04.
Mo Donegal, from last, began a methodical march 4 1/2 furlongs out and quickened his cadence at the three-furlong pole before jockey Joel Rosario gambled on tight inside passage off the turn for home. The still-strong Early Voting wasn't about to opt out of this fight however, and when Rosario switched outside at the eighth pole two lengths in arrears, it looked as if he had left Mo with too much work to do.
Yet Mo Donegal closed the gap incrementally, prevailing by a neck while always intently focused. As he's demonstrated in previous efforts, this is the sort of colt who is unlikely to unleash a storming stretch run that propels him to a big-margin victory. But he knows where the wire is and what his job is, and always has something left for the later stages.
Mo Donegal's 1:47.69 winning time over the “fast” track translated to a 98 Beyer. But here's the more important number out of that race: Mo Donegal has now won two nine-furlong races that featured identical final eighths in :12.33.
Of all the 1 1/8-miles preps we've seen in 2021-22, those are the two fastest clockings for that final fraction.
Meanwhile, on the Left Coast…
The Santa Anita Derby was supposed to be a figurative match race between 'TDN Rising Star' Messier (Empire Maker) and the blitzing early gunner Forbidden Kingdom (American Pharoah).
Apparently, someone forgot to tell this to Taiba and jockey Mike Smith.
Taiba was keen in the early stages and stacked up three across the track through the first turn with the aforementioned two favorites. The pecking order sorted itself out on the back straight with Forbidden Kingdom making the pace, Messier stalking menacingly, and Taiba taking it all in from third through splits of :23.23, :23.43 and :24.27.
Messier prolonged his inevitable cracking of Forbidden Kingdom through the far turn before wresting command at the quarter pole. But Taiba was also primed to pounce at that juncture, and Messier initially repulsed his stablemate's bid in upper stretch.
In an effort that belied his relative inexperience, Taiba dug in and came again, and even though Messier was noticeably shortening stride in the run to the wire (fourth quarter in :25.04 and final eighth in :12.70), Taiba kept on extending fluidly, driving clear over the “fast” dirt to win by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:48.67 (101 Beyer).
Taiba will be up against all sorts of historical norms by forging ahead to the Kentucky Derby off just two lifetime starts. Since 1937 (the advent of detailed start statistics), only four horses have ever even attempted the Derby in career start number three: China Visit (sixth in 2000), Disposal (18th in 1992), Senecas Coin (DNF in 1949) and Perfect Bahram (ninth in 1946). In addition, Bert G. ran 14th in 1945 off just one previous lifetime outing.