Other Sports

Latest Derby prep winners long shots for roses

In addition to boasting healthy purses, Saturday's $1 million Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds and $500,000 Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park have each produced their share of winners who have gone on to notable careers.

Grade I performers like Hard Spun, Flower Alley and Perfect Drift all used a win in the Spiral Stakes as a launching point over the last 10 years while Saturday's Grade II New Orleans Handicap winner Mission Impazible captured Fair Grounds' signature Kentucky Derby prep just one year ago.

What the two races haven't had in recent years, however, is the ability to produce a winner come the first Saturday of May. With all due to respect to this season's victors, one would be hard pressed to think that trend is going to turn around in 2011.

For a variety of reasons, it is hard to put a ton of stock into what we saw in both the Louisiana Derby and Spiral Stakes.

Though Team Valor's Animal Kingdom was visually impressive in drawing off to his first graded stakes score in the 11⁄8-mile Spiral, prep races contested over a synthetic surface have to be taken with a grain of salt when it comes to evaluating Derby potential as they tend to attract horses with little to no dirt form.

Aside from 2007 when both Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and runner-up Hard Spun had their final preps over Polytrack, going from synthetic to dirt has proven a challenge for many would-be Derby contenders. Even though the above duo pulled it off successfully, both Street Sense and Hard Spun were already proven top-level dirt horses prior to their races on synthetics.

Animal Kingdom has thus far only raced on turf and synthetic surfaces and many of the horses he beat in the Spiral — which hasn't produced a Derby winner since Lil E Tee in 1992 — fall into the same category. Even Animal Kingdom's sire, Leroidesanimaux, was a champion on turf so there isn't much there yet to suggest how he might handle the dirt transition.

The Louisiana Derby produced an upset when Pants On Fire — who had lost four straight, was 0-for-3 previously against stakes company, and was supposed to be the rabbit for his stablemate Nacho Business — instead kept running right into the winner's circle.

Outside of Risen Star Stakes winner Mucho Macho Man, the quality of this year's Louisiana Derby field was considered suspect by some as it — like the Spiral — is hindered by its spot on the calendar.

Though the Louisiana Derby — which has only produced two Kentucky Derby winners — did have 12 horses in the field, the fact it is six weeks out from the first Saturday in May puts it in a rough spot.

Trainers have to either risk training up to the Derby, something that hasn't been done successfully since Needles in 1956, or try to squeeze one more start in and risk having an overextended horse.

Both Pants On Fire and Animal Kingdom have certainly earned the right to be in the Churchill Downs starting gate on May 7. Should either of them end up wearing the roses, they likely would also earn the right to be called one of the biggest upsets in the race's history.