Monday, April 13, 2009

The puzzle is scattered on the table

The Kentucky Derby is a bit less than three weeks away and this is the point from which nothing good happens. Any news is almost certainly bad, this at the point of decision. The puzzle is scattered on the table.

Excluding the Jeff Mullins story, the bad news began last week, actually, with the withdrawal of The Pamplemousse from chase. Then appeared the quarter crack in one of Quality Road’s hind hooves. “You don’t see (quarter cracks) behind too often,” Jerkens said last week. But there was one, though it seems at least for the moment not to bother the Florida Derby winner, who galloped strongly last week and breezed well on Friday at Belmont. All quarter cracks are serious, Jerkens said. So, the horse I intend to back in the Derby is suddenly on a day-to-day watch. Hold your breath.

This will always be the case with Quality Road, who may be the most underrated of the leaders at this point. The Florida Derby is the most impressive individual effort by any of the winners of the last round of Grade 1 preps. He was under a hold leaving the quarter pole, when asked ran away from Dunkirk and hit the wire as owner of the Gulfstream course record, the fastest 9 furlongs run there since the reconfiguration five years ago.

Quality Road is 17-hands tall at the withers, a monster with a huge stride. He will be a difficult horse to keep sound but is in conservative hands and if he shows up on Derby day, he will be the horse to beat in a group with several others who have the talent to be opportunistic.

The latest news followed shortly after the Arkansas Derby. Old Fashioned is out of the Derby and his career ended by injury, which leaves trainer Larry Jones with Friesan Fire, an obviously talented colt who swept the three Fair Grounds preps and has a fair amount of support going into Louisville.

The knocks against Friesan Fire are the long layoff that follows the Louisiana Derby and the lack of an all-important 9-furlong prep. This is enough to put me off Friesan Fire as a Derby threat. It would be easier to overlook the layoff if not for added challenge of distance. Besides, though it is not difficult to root for Larry Jones after the loss of Eight Belles last year, with Proud Spell and Old Fashioned already in retirement and little more than the first quarter of this year behind him, this outfit is going the wrong way.

Fortunately, there is the warm and fuzzy story in 75-year-old Tom McCarthy and his one-horse stable named General Quarters. This colt has won on dirt in Florida, on Polytrack at Keeneland and has an eye-catching stride. This is the kind of horse that anyone who has ever had a one-horse stable thinks about in those moments when they are privately and unreasonably optimistic. With the ever-controversial Jeff Mullins at center stage with I Want Revenge and the story of Ernie Paragallo in the background, the game needs a warm and fuzzy story. -- PM

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