Saturday, July 21, 2007

Stakes Analysis: Virginia Derby

With all due respect to Belmont and Del Mar, the real fun race for the weekend is the 10th running of the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs. Colonial is an interesting course for the States--it's all turf! Located in Middle of Nowhere, Virginia, it was designed in the 90's to emulate European racing, where the dirt is the anomaly. The inside fence is moved in and out of the course of the days and meet to make "new" courses each time, and to avoid too much wear and tear on the grass. And the centerpiece of the meet is the Virginia Derby, a Grade 2 on the grass at a mile and a quarter for a cool million dollars.

Much like the race analyzed yesterday, the CCA Oaks, this race is part of a greater series
of races. Unlike the faux Triple Tiara, this one has a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: sweeping the Colonial Turf Cup (run last month), the Va Derby, the Secretariat (next month at Arlington Park) and the BC Turf results in a $5 million bonus. That'll keep your attention if you're an owner.

So let's start with the horse that's eligible for the bonus: Rick Violette's Summer Doldrums. A son of Street Cry (same sire as Street Sense), he's taken well to the turf since a poor showing in the Wood Memorial, with a nose loss in his turf debut, followed by winning the CTC by a head in his last. His breeding is strong for the turf and the distance, and he's got good tactical speed to sit off front runners Inca King and Red Giant and get first run on the closers. Making his case even a little bit better is the fact he didn't have the best trip in the CTC by going 6 wide on the far turn, and was still able to turn the tables on Strike a Deal, who beat him in his turf debut. He's a tough customer that's going to be heard from, even if he does have the utterly uninspiring Jose Lezcano in the irons.

Despite all this, he's not the morning line favorite and probably won't be the post-time favorite. Those honors will fall to Circular Quay, a veteran of the Triple Crown who was last seen running an uninspired 5th in the Preakness, following his uninspired 6th in the Derby. Super trainer Todd Pletcher now switches him to the turf for the first time, and goes back to 10 furlongs for the million dollar purse here. Is this a good idea? Well, chasing a good purse isn't a bad idea, and he's got the fastest Beyer Speed, Gowanus Speed the race, albeit all on dirt. How's he going to translate to turf? Lauren Stich posits that Thunder Gulch is a "hidden turf sire", which he is to some extent, though he's clearly preferable on dirt. Circle of Life, Circular Quay's dam, never tried the turf, but with her background, it's not unfathomable that she'd be okay with running on the grass.

But even more of an issue than his questionable ability on turf is the fact he may not be a horse for a mile and a quarter. Circular Quay has failed to finish within 6 lengths of the winner in a Grade 1 route race, and his only success at a route race was in the Louisiana Derby, where he beat absolutely nobody. And while Thunder Gulch should sire a distance horse, his mum, Circle of Life, was a sprinter at heart when she ran. (Granted, she retired a tad prematurely with an injury in the Test, but she was still best at shorter distances.) So what we've got here may not be a router, but really a miler at heart. This is the type of favorite you're suppose to play against, and I think he's a good bet-against.

So who are our other options? Inca King and Red Giant look like they're speed factors only. Soldier's Dancer isn't fast enough. Neither is Love Dubai, though he closed stoutly in his last, and could catch a piece at an okay price. Top Cross has the Pletcher factor working for him, but seems to be a cut below. Let's look at the remaining three horses in turn:

Strike a Deal has yet to finish out of the exacta in a turf race, and is out of Smart Strike, the same sire as English Channel, the 2005 winner. He's exchanged tight finishes with Summer Doldrums in his past two, so if you like Summer Doldrums (as I do), you really can't put Strike a Deal too far out of the picture either. The only real "issue" I can find with him is that I don't love Alan Goldberg as a trainer, but I'm nitpicking.

Duveen may be the forgotten horse on the tote board, as he won the Crown Royal American Turf on Kentucky Oaks day, then fell asleep behind Inca King in his last. He's bred superbly to hit 10 furlongs on the turf, and should get excellent tracking position just off the leaders and near Summer Doldrums. And his trainer won this race 3 years ago with Kitten's Joy. Have to include him in everything.

Most intriguing of them all is Blazing Dynamo, who appears to have finally woken up and is living up to his excellent breeding. He's a dead closer who will be absolutely flying late and will relish the extra distance here. Given the fact that there may be a stiff pace here that may even involve Summer Doldrums and Strike a Deal, he's a closer to watch and see if he improves. Let's take a stab with him at 20-1 or so.

So after all that analysis, the picks are:

(1) Blazing Dynamo
(2) Summer Doldrums
(3) Duveen
(4) Strike a Deal

For those betting the race, I would focus on Blazing Dynamo and Duveen, but would back up those bets with Summer Doldrums and Strike a Deal on top of exactas and trifectas as well. Getting Circular Quay out of the money will add so much value to the exotics that they'll be worth it.

Enjoy the race!

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