This Side Up: Still Amending the Derby Agenda

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Essential Quality preparing this week at Keeneland | EquiSport Photos

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We should have known better. The moment we deceived ourselves that we had a crossroads of perfect symmetry, with four standout colts converging inexorably on the first Saturday in May, one promptly limped off the trail and then last weekend another was beaten at odds-on. Nobody, then, will be making any assumptions when the other two complete their GI Kentucky Derby preparations, Concert Tour (Street Sense) in the GI Arkansas Derby next week and Essential Quality (Tapit) as the geographical and narrative pivot of three rehearsals staged coast to coast Saturday.

That said, the juvenile champion gets a home game, round a circuit where he has already won two Grade Is. It will be on the margins of East and West, then, that we seem more likely to see a breakout after the manner of Known Agenda (Curlin) last week. Not that anyone in the Greatest Honour (Tapit) camp is too downbeat after he had to settle for third behind that old rival in the GI Curlin Florida Derby. I was heartened by the fidelity of colleague T.D. Thornton to Greatest Honour, who retained the No. 1 spot in his Derby Top 12 this week. Because these adolescent horses seldom crown a curve of relentless improvement under the Twin Spires: very often, they will need to have soaked up some adversity on the way, to have absorbed a tough lesson or two before regrouping. Greatest Honour has been on the punchbag all winter and was entitled to drop a glove this once, especially with such a messy trip. We know that his trainer will always have been working back from one date, and one date only.

With that date now looming so large, however, there's a kind of exquisite tension for all these horsemen, trying to achieve an equilibrium between their own restraint, and the fitness and seasoning of their charges. Remember that's exactly what they do every day, with horses at every level. It's just that the whole process is so much more visible here, because of the extremity of the test and the depth of the associated lore.

Many of us profess a sentimental attachment to the old school, with an emphasis on grounding, but modern trainers make their own rules. Obviously last year's race was an outlier, its postponement as ruinous to other horses as it was helpful to the raw Authentic (Into Mischief). But in 2018, we had a Triple Crown winner unraced before Feb. 18; and the following year, the first past the post had started off in midwinter under a $16,000 tag, and his works might have been as usefully clocked with a sundial as a stopwatch.

Medina Spirit has only been beaten by Life Is Good | Benoit

Bob Baffert's mastery of the definitive challenge of his calling now puts him within reach of a seventh Derby, and an outright record, even after losing the services of Life Is Good (Into Mischief). In that colt's lamentable absence from the GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, we have a twist in the astonishing tale of Medina Spirit (Protonico), the $1,000 short yearling who somehow found his way into the most lavishly stocked barn in the land. But nothing should surprise us with the genius of his trainer. Remember that Medina Spirit, having been pinhooked to a giddy $35,000, was actually twice as expensive as Real Quiet (Quiet American)!

He would be unbeaten but for Life Is Good and he's been working the house down since a minor throat procedure. Baffert plus Medina Spirit is like Goliath teaming up with David, but this race does offer romantics the option of Rock Your World (Candy Ride {Arg}), bred by Hall of Famer Ron McAnally.

Undefeated Rock Your World switches to dirt | Benoit

You imagine John Sadler has not been short of humorous counsel on the backside, especially as the veteran McAnally, who nowadays supervises just with a handful of animals, managed a graded stakes placing for Rock Your World's older sister She's Our Charm during the winter. McAnally trained both the parents, namely Candy Ride (Arg) and dual Grade I-placed juvenile Charm the Maker (Empire Maker); and actually McAnally and wife Deborah bred the first three dams. But Sadler is certainly rewriting Derby rules with this colt, switching from turf after teaching him about dirt with some pretty heavy duty drills.

The last four runnings have been divided between Baffert and John Shirreffs, who intriguingly perseveres with Parnelli (Quality Road) as though he has more ability than we've been seeing of late. Recent works suggest that the blinkers are helping, much as they did Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow) when Parnelli ran the GII Louisiana Derby winner to a neck in the fall.

Interesting to see a Californian shipper taking on Essential Quality, in Rombauer (Twirling Candy), though the most feasible GII Toyota Blue Grass S. wildcard is surely Known Agenda's raw but devastating barnmate Untreated (Nyquist). In the GII Wood Memorial (presented by Resorts World Casino), meanwhile, a similarly late play from Prevalance (Medaglia d'Oro) will help Godolphin decide whether he's progressing fast enough to join their champion in Louisville. If not, then they will hope that at least Risk Taking (Medaglia d'Oro) can go forward on behalf of their big stallion, who joins Tapit and Curlin in craving the Derby as a seal on all their other success.

A playful Weyburn last month at Belmont | Susie Raisher

Pioneerof the Nile beat those big hitters to that distinction before his premature loss, which would be felt all the more keenly if Weyburn were to emerge as a new Derby force from this race. I can definitely see that happening, the Chiefswood homebred being born for this second turn with first three dams by A.P. Indy, Sunday Silence and Nijinsky. The third dam, indeed, is Maplejinsky, dam of Sky Beauty (Blushing Groom {Fr})–so seeing the name Jerkens on the card gives us that warm glow, too. This is an Apr. 21 foal, paradoxically just the kind of thing we like for the Derby, and I love the gutsy way this horse carried his speed through a demanding mile after a lay-off.

So, forget that neat and orderly crossroads. On the day itself, we know it will be chaos out there; and the same applies to the four weeks in between. Some engines stalling, others suddenly roaring into life; lights turning red, lights turning green. And with horsemen like Jerkens, Shirreffs and Sadler trying to weave into the traffic, with all their skill and experience, for now it still feels like we don't even know which way round to hold the Derby map.

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