By Chris McGrath
Coming from a culture where most wagering stipulates a fixed dividend, in the startling event that your horse happens to see through his part of the deal, I tend to view the morning line on American races as named for the hangover evidently being suffered by its compiler. Certainly by the time the market has been soberly hydrated with dollars and cents, I won't be expecting anything as close to an even play as the 4-5 listed about Forte (Violence) overcoming the wide draw that appears to introduce his only real jeopardy in the GI Curlin Florida Derby at Gulfstream on Saturday.
We all know that anything can happen in a horse race, but some imaginative contortions are required to see any of his rivals bridging the abyss dividing them from the champion juvenile. After all, the most competent among them are keeping him company out wide anyway. There has to be every chance, then, that the GI Kentucky Derby favorite will arrive at Churchill without having been put under any meaningful pressure in five months since having to deal with Cave Rock (Arrogate) in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Keeneland in November.
This, as we know, is the modern way. If his Hall of Fame trainer is satisfied that Forte's best shot of winning the Derby is not even to run until March, and then only to outclass two fields of inferiors in his backyard, then we must respectfully stand aside. It's a different race, nowadays, and contested by a different kind of horse; and it is hardly Forte's fault that so few credible contenders have been tempted to slipstream their way to 40 starting points for the runner-up.
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Nor is he vulnerable to the way a similarly light schedule has backfired for Instant Coffee (Bolt d'Oro), who was deliberately kept under wraps between Jan. 21 and last weekend. It looked a safe enough gamble, in that the starting points awarded down to fifth place in the GII Louisiana Derby gave the hot favorite plenty of margin for error. In the event, however, he missed out altogether after trying to make up ground into a quickening pace and running a tepid finish.
There may be dozens of different reasons for that, so we can't assume that another race in between might have sustained him better through that mile and three-sixteenths. But what I do know is that horsemen of the old school, finding themselves in this kind of pickle, would certainly not be panicking. And that's because they would know that there are still 40 points available in the GIII Stonestreet Lexington S. on Apr. 15.
Now obviously if you decide that the model Derby prep today comprises races on Jan. 21 and Mar. 25, then I can't imagine that you'll suddenly be willing to salvage the situation with a race at the modern equivalent of five to midnight. That's a shame, because a lot of people involved in this talented colt deserve their shot at an experience that owes much of its mystique precisely to the fact that a) no horse gets a second chance; and b) as a result, nor do very many horsemen.
I can think of one man who wouldn't be squeamish about a three-week interval between the Lexington S. and the Derby. In fact, D. Wayne Lukas was probably disappointed in 1982 when Churchill moved the old Derby Trial from the Tuesday before the race back to the Saturday. The couple of Trial winners he had that decade were doubtless a little rusty by the time they ran midfield in the Derby, a full week later.
At 87, and 40 years after his first winner in Hot Springs, Lukas is already enjoying the most lucrative Oaklawn meet of his career and he's a long way from finished. Besides upcoming engagements for barn leaders Secret Oath (Arrogate) and Last Samurai (Malibu Moon), Lukas has seven declared on Saturday's card including 'TDN Rising Star' Caddo River (Hard Spun) in the GIII Oaklawn Mile.
Until recently a barnmate of Instant Coffee, Caddo River ran second in the GI Arkansas Derby two years ago. And actually Lukas has a candidate for the latest running with, I suspect, a rather better chance than odds that may yet extend past the 20-1 of the “hangover” line. Bourbon Bash (City of Light) broke his maiden by eight lengths at Saratoga last summer but then bombed out in consecutive Grade Is and was then given a chance to start piecing things quietly back together in sprints. He hadn't quite learned to settle when runner-up to a talented rival around a second turn last month, but then caught the eye with the way he handled a poor trip when fifth as rank outsider for the GII Rebel S.
Lukas evidently believes that Bourbon Bash can stretch out effectively and, if he's right, his revival could yet open up a final fairytale. But we must note that this colt is out of a sister to Volatile (Violence), who has helped to make the sire of Forte primarily, to this point at least, a speed brand. That duly also remains a caveat about the crop leader, who will probably be depending heavily on damsire Blame on the first Saturday in May, when he'll be facing a 10th furlong in much more exacting company.
Ironically this will actually be only Bourbon Bash's third sophomore start, scarcely the standard Lukas treatment. Lukas has said that the horse doesn't need mental seasoning, but has needed time to strengthen. He's certainly fired some bullet works over the past month or so but, who knows, maybe he'll end up having to complete his preparations in the Lexington S.- the last port of call now that the old race-week Trial has been absorbed into the Derby undercard as the GII Pat Day Mile.
Tim Tam, the last horse to double up the Trial and the Derby, had previously won both the races chosen for Forte's own road to Churchill: the Fountain Of Youth S. and Florida Derby. In fact, the Kentucky Derby was his 10th sophomore start. So where would Jimmy Jones have learned a fool thing like that, running a future Hall of Famer four days before the Derby? Well, I can't quote chapter and verse–but I can give you a Citation.
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