This Side Up: River Levels Rising

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'TDN Rising Star' Caddo River demolished the Smarty Jones S. in January | Coady

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They used to say that when you think you have two Epsom colts in your stable, you don't have any. The axiom has long since been decommissioned, however, by the skills of Aidan O'Brien and his patrons, albeit with the inane complicity of a commercial market that is disastrously diluting competition. And it looks as though it no longer transfers to the GI Kentucky Derby, either.

Having (eventually) landed running with champion Essential Quality (Tapit), and with Caddo River (Hard Spun) and Mandaloun (Into Mischief) testing their own credentials over the next eight days, Brad Cox is hoping to win three trials across four weekends. As such, the middle leg of this sequence has the potential to weigh quite significantly in the shifting balance of power at the top of the North American training profession.

Because the man who continues to set the standards, for Cox and everyone else, awaits Caddo River in the GII Rebel S. with a staggering record of seven winners, three seconds and a third from 13 starters since he first shipped here in 2010. And a week after producing an Authentic (Into Mischief) imitation, as it were, here comes Bob Baffert with a doppelganger for Nadal (Blame).

In fact, the evolution of Life Is Good (Into Mischief) and Concert Tour (Street Sense) seems so closely aligned to their predecessors in the barn–November maiden at Del Mar/GIII Sham/GII San Felipe for one; January maiden at Santa Anita/GII San Vicente/GII Rebel for the other–that we have to remind ourselves that these are different individuals, setting their trainer fresh challenges.

That said, when Baffert sticks to a formula it's because he has made it work. Certainly he has changed the way trainers think about the Triple Crown trail, having proved that his adolescent racehorses don't need the kind of grounding once considered essential. No doubt that reflects the experience his horses instead derive from the aggressive, speed-oriented works he imported from Quarter Horse training, often giving his better horses the chance to hone their velocity and confidence with a “punchbag.” That's exactly what Baffert arranged for Concert Tour the other morning–i.e. an inferior workmate released as a target to run down–and the response was electric.

Baffert has a genius for the fast horse that keeps going: precisely the challenge awaiting Cox with Caddo River on Saturday. The signs are promising, so fluidly has this guy maintained his cruising speed in different scenarios for his last two starts; and remember how his sire held out for second to Street Sense in the Derby, nearly six lengths clear of the third (horse called Curlin) after blazing away early. Street Sense and Hard Spun, of course, have long since shared the same stallion barn so it'll be fun for the Jonabell team to see them carry on their rivalry by proxy here.

Effortless speed is also the trademark of Life Is Good, just as it was with Authentic. And while the Horse of the Year has definitively confirmed their sire's eligibility as a Classic influence, in tandem with the upgrading of his mares, Life Is Good has also shown something of the mental immaturity we saw this time last year. Authentic, crucially, was indulged with a September Derby but this time round the race will, we trust, be run at its customary date. Life Is Good was conspicuously granted a clear run last week and, while he took freakish advantage, we'll have to see whether he will know how to respond when stretching out against 19 hostile rivals.

Life Is Good, who was sold as a yearling, and the homebred Concert Tour are both graduates of a program that notoriously has unfinished business with the GI Kentucky Derby.

In returning to Oaklawn, Gary and Mary West will remember the day their whole Turf adventure hit a different key, 28 years ago, with the 108-1 rock-your-world success of Rockamundo (Key to the Mint) in the Arkansas Derby. That horse was saddled by Ben Glass, who was fortunately persuaded to stay on as racing manager when deciding to quit training a couple of years later. When this team started out, they were claiming horses for $2,500 at places like Grand Island, Nebraska; and, in the convincing testimony of Glass, their experiences on a long road since have cultivated in his patrons' exemplary standards of stoicism and attention to welfare.

He remembers when they went to the barns at 5 a.m. to see Buddha (Unbridled's Song) on the eve of the 2002 Derby. This was after the Wests had begun to raise the stakes: Glass had picked him out as a $250,000 yearling, and he had beaten Medaglia d'Oro in the GI Wood Memorial. And here was the second favorite for the Derby emerging from his stall, the morning before the race, holding off his left fore. An immediate scratch. Glass couldn't believe how Gary West took it on the chin. He just shrugged and said: “Well, I'm going back to bed.”

Ben Glass with Gary West | Sid Fernando photo

So the Wests and Glass had seen it all by the time they took Maximum Security (New Year's Day) to Churchill a couple of years ago. Or so they thought. No need, here, to reprise everything that happened then, and subsequently. Suffice to say that a) Thoroughbreds never cease schooling us in adversity; and b) whatever the rights and wrongs of Maximum Security's Derby, and indeed of his trainer at the time, we can all be grateful to the Wests for the priorities driving their program. Because the two races they most covet are the Derby and the Travers, and their investment in the type of Thoroughbred best adapted to those historic measures of the two-turn sophomore will only serve the breed well.

That's why it's always so edifying to review the purchases made by Glass at the September Sale. You won't see him joining the witless stampede for rookie sires whose averages will almost invariably never be so high again. Last year, he bought 15 colts catalogued from 29 to 2186, for between $65,000 and $360,000: two apiece by Blame, Distorted Humor, Flatter, Street Sense and Union Rags; plus one by Candy Ride (Arg), Empire Maker, Ghostzapper, Quality Road and Uncle Mo.

'TDN Rising Star' Concert Tour upon arrival at Oaklawn this week | Coady

Concert Tour is out of a Tapit mare, giving the Gainesway phenomenon yet another foothold in this year's Derby quest. So, again like Nadal, he looks bred to relish this second turn after showing his raw class sprinting. Certainly the Wests will be hoping to efface that nose defeat for their reappearing champion Game Winner (Candy Ride {Arg}) in this race two years ago.

Game Winner subsequently passed the post sixth in the Derby, after a messy trip. That kind of thing rather goes with the territory, you would say, and let's hope nobody congratulated his owners on his promotion to fifth. Unfortunately Game Winner only managed one more start, though kept in training at four; but even that was one more than Buddha, after he was found to be lame that Friday morning. To that extent, we must hope that Concert Tour ceases to impersonate Nadal after the Arkansas Derby. Because you can safely say that this would be a Rebel winner with a cause.

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