This Side Up: Derby Wildcards Start Churchill Reconnaissance

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Major Fed | Hodges Photography

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They’re still trying to figure out what to do about the U.S. Open. In March, much like Aqueduct, Flushing Meadow found itself requisitioned as a temporary hospital. As that facility is dismantled and disinfected, however, the USTA must decide whether to stick to their original schedule, behind closed doors; or postpone the tournament, and perhaps move it somewhere like Indian Wells.

American tennis is fortunate, at least, that its premier annual engagement with a mass audience is entrusted to a body guided only by the long-term interests of the overall sport. In contrast, by unilaterally postponing the GI Kentucky Derby to Sept. 5, Churchill Downs appeared to be animated primarily by the best interests–as perceived at the time, at any rate–of Churchill Downs.

It remains to be seen whether the turnstiles, by the end of the summer, might again admit the public in lucrative numbers. Regardless, the new date falls halfway through the Open, as currently scheduled. And, as a result, two tennis icons may yet find their rivalry being replicated in Louisville, even as they contest the most coveted record in their sport–at present held by Roger Federer, with 20 Majors, just one ahead of Rafael Nadal.

If their equine incarnations Major Fed (Ghostzapper) and Nadal (Blame) are to square up, however, then the one named for Federer (as he was, however obscurely) must Saturday advance his Derby cause in a fascinating reconnaissance of the reopened track in the GIII Matt Winn S.

It’s a race dominated by the return of Maxfield (Street Sense), whose sensational charge around a Grade I field at Keeneland last October identified him as the most flamboyant talent of his crop. His misfortune, in missing the Breeders’ Cup with an ankle chip, has been amply redressed by the postponement of the Derby, as he was never going to be forced to the first Saturday in May.

On the other hand, the wider chaos in the calendar–measured, elsewhere on the card, by a turf allowance contested by nine graded stakes winners–means that this will be a legitimate test of where he stands.

You have to say that gate 12 puts Major Fed straight onto his second serve. Out there he certainly can’t afford to repeat his drowsy start (from the rail gate) in the GII Louisiana Derby, which left him already detached at the first turn. The way he worked past 10 of his 13 rivals, though unsurprisingly forced wide and taking a bump or two in the stretch, suggested that Major Fed could thrive on the stamina demands of the Derby.

His only start outside maiden company had also been promising, closing for second in what was otherwise a procession of a race for a division of the GII Risen Star S. (Witness the transformation of fifth-placed Mr. Big News when able to cut into a harder pace in the Oaklawn S. next time.)

Homebred by Lloyd Madison IV, Major Fed strikes an intriguing balance between the dirt speed of his sire, as famously carried in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic, and a family that soon hits a deep seam of European quality. Grass, in fact, will surely be worth sampling with Major Fed at some point. (His full brother, modest overall, was graded stakes-placed on turf last year.)

His dam, who operated on turf/synthetics, is by a versatile influence in Smart Strike out of a Caerleon half-sister to star European sprinter Tamarisk (Ire) (Green Desert). And the next dam, by Vaguely Noble (Ire), was not only out of a half-sister to one of the most revered European racemares of her era, in Triptych (Riverman), but also features as third dam of dual Arc winner Treve (Fr) (Motivator {GB}).

Not that Major Fed, even with those genes behind him, could ever hope to cover a lawn quite like his namesake floats round Wimbledon. You literally can’t hear Federer skimming around; he makes Andy Murray seem like he’s wearing hobnailed boots. Anyone wondering why we spend so much time watching yearlings walk up and down should compare the injury record of those two gentlemen.

Two-for-two Pneumatic (Uncle Mo) is yet another Winchell homebred tracing to the foundation mare of that operation. Pneumatic’s dam is by their mighty Tapit out of the Wild Again mare who also produced GI Forego winner Pyro (Pulpit), by Tapit’s sire.

Note that another unbeaten colt on the Derby trail, Authentic (Into Mischief), also has a second dam by Wild Again. Sadly, Wild Again’s chances of keeping a male line going have pretty much devolved to Bayern. With Nearctic so pervasively represented through Northern Dancer, it would be nice if the Hill ‘n’ Dale stallion–with his aristocratic maternal genes–can keep open this fragile alternative line via Ruffian’s half-brother Icecapade.

Maxfield and Pneumatic have been handed a “wildcard” by the Derby’s postponement. But the one with slightly more seasoning, at this stage, is Major Fed. Certainly he would be a fitting winner, the day after the death of Australian tennis legend Ashley Cooper, who presented the trophy to Federer for what may or may not prove to be his final Major, in the 2018 Australian Open.

In being saddled by Louisville native Greg Foley, moreover, Major Fed would set a seal on the return to the Twin Spires of a community that has been yearning all spring for a Kentucky homecoming. In a race this good, mind, there’s no need for some dazzling back-hand winner. Any of these very interesting colts could settle for the equivalent of a deep return, and getting onto the baseline for whatever comes back over net. September remains a long way off, and they just need to stay in the rally.

 

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