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Solving the Derby puzzle

handicapping for the Derby takes on a complicated game of Sudoku
handicapping for the Derby takes on a complicated game of Sudoku
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Maki Kaji, is the creator of the puzzle game Sudoku, he also is an avid fan of horse racing. If I were to go out on a limb I would guess he got into horse racing because of the confounding puzzle that handicapping the ponies offers. Looking at past performances and handicapping one race is a challenge in itself, handicapping a series of prep races that culminates into one final big race is probably on a par with high level sudoku.

After this weekends preps for the Kentucky Derby, the level of challenge just went from advanced to master level. Before the weekend the Derby picture was cloudy but nothing out of the ordinary. Every year takes a similar pattern, until the second level of preps (The Risen Star, Fountain of Youth) serves to clear the air on where they stand.

By late Saturday afternoon, the general feeling was that the races this weekend did more to confuse than to clear up. The only real takeaways were that Gulfstream Park was playing fast and benefiting front runners, and that the link legitimizing Cairo Prince’s performance in the Holy Bull and Honor Code in the Remsen was further solidified with Intense Holiday’s gutty win in the Risen Star.

Some other tidbits to take out of that race was the realization the Vicars in Trouble is probably best at 7 furlongs to a mile. After his impressive win in the Lecomte, there was a 50/50 chance that his next race would prove either that he had distance limitations from his running style and breeding (Into Mischief) or that he was growing into a freak ala Smarty Jones, who in 2004 inspired millions of people by out running his size and pedigree, and just generally being a freak of nature in the truest sense of the word (see also his Preakness). The Risen Star proved the latter.

As for the Fountain of Youth, it is a safe bet to say that the 1-2 finishers: General A-Rod and Wildcat Red definitely benefitted by a speed bias. However the question remains how much did they benefit and how great of and overlay will they be in their next race.

Benefiting the most may have been the winner Wildcat Red, not just because he won the race, also because the winner of the G2 Hutchensen, is bred from D’Wildcat. D’Wildcat is known in the breeding game as a sire with a strong sprint pedigree. According to Stallion Registry, D’Wildcat’s progeny average a distance of 6.5 furlongs when they finish first.

The big question coming from that race was if Top Billing’s closing third was disappointing or a standout performance. The post time favorite, Top Billing has been creating a buzz about his talent ever since he overcame a ton of trouble to just miss in his second race. Adding to his buzz is that he is trained by fan favorite and last years Derby winning trainer Shug McGauhey, and bred from superhorse Curlin. Top Billing finished third on Saturday, and many racing analyst were torn between being disappointed or very impressed, being that he was the only who came off the pace to do anything in that race.

So obvious was the bias at Gulfstream Park on Saturday that in six dirt races on the card, the only horse to come close to an off the pace win was Normandy Invasion. Normandy Invasion was running his first race back off a long layoff and therefore was entered in a race he could have won even if he ran backwards.

The other big race at Gulfstream Park concerning horses prepping for the Kentucky Derby was the sixth race of the day. An allowance race for three year olds, the race was the same distance as the Fountain of Youth, and will undoubtably yield futures prospects for the Derby trail. The winner of that race was Constitution. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Constitution is undefeated in two races and began his career by impressing in the morning workouts.

However there were some notable performances in that race from horses not lucky enough to be on the lead. One of them was from Mexikoma, who is out of the sire Birdstone. Birdstone has notoriously bred top quality three year olds who excel at the classic distances and beyond (see Smarty Jones Belmont).

Also Wicked Strong, who is quickly becoming a leather tough veteran, knocking heads with top tired horses in the Remsen, and Holy Bull. Wicked Strong is out of the sire Hard Spun who made his name in the very talented 2007 class earning paychecks in the highest level of races that year.

Lost in the buzz of the weekend races was the impressive performance from Tapiture in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The son of Tapit drew off to win by 4 ¼ lengths, defeating the post time favorite Strong Mandate.

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