It’s nearly four months until the Kentucky Derby on May 4, light years in horse racing time, but it’s never too early for Derby Fever.
Even a seasoned veteran like Laffit Pincay Jr. is subject to get smitten, especially after riding a precocious youngster like Got The Message, a jumbo-sized son of Memo who won his debut like a horse who’s Derby timber.
Trainer Bill Spawr has been high on Got The Message since Day One, and we heralded his thoughts in the Dec. 11-17 issues of GamingToday, well in advance of the chestnut colt’s four-length victory in a 6Â½-furlong sprint last Dec. 29.
“He can really run, but he’s got no speed leaving the gate,” Spawr said at that time. “He might need a race first out, I don’t know. But if he draws well . . . he can really run.”
Got The Message did not draw well, breaking from the extreme outside No. 12 post position. Otherwise, Spawr was perfect in his assessment. Got The Message was well off the pace early, but made a monster move leaving the 3/8 pole, split horses heading into the stretch and drew off to win on cruise control.
Pincay rode Got The Message, and the world’s winningest jockey (9,290 wins) says the colt owned by Fred and Alice Jacoby should have no problem with the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter.
“He hopped out of the gate,” Pincay said, recounting the race. “He didn’t break that good. I tried to get a good position so he didn’t have to exert himself unnecessarily. Then I dropped in and tried to saved some ground.
“All of a sudden he just started running between horses and he really surprised me, because I had worked him once before and I didn’t think he was that ready to win going a short distance. I really thought he was a long-distance horse and he really surprised me when he made that move around the turn. He ended up winning very easily.”
Pincay has ridden in 20 Kentucky Derby races (he won aboard Swale in 1984). So he is familiar with the nuances of the Churchill Downs oval, and of horses that can successfully negotiate a classic distance.
Can Got The Message get a mile and a quarter?
“He’s got the stride to go a long distance and he’s a big, strong horse,” Pincay said. “Hopefully, he’ll turn out to be a nice colt.”
Spawr, meanwhile, says Got The Message is “absolutely” on the Derby Trail and plans to run the colt again soon, preferably in a one-mile race. “He came out of the race better than he went in,” Spawr said.
Anything can happen before May 4, but racing, like life, is a gamble. Advice to Kentucky Derby Future Book bettors: get down now, while the gettin’ is good.
THE HOMESTRETCH: One Derby Future Book horse that’s out of the picture is the Bob Baffert’s No. 1 Derby prospect, China Grind. “He’ll be on the shelf for a while,” Baffert said of the $240,000 son of 1996 Derby winner Grindstone. Baffert wouldn’t elaborate on the colt’s problem. “Just call it growing pains,” he said. Baffert, admittedly behind in training of his Kentucky Derby horses, who have been pared to Strive, True Monarch, Popular, Danthebluegrassman and the filly Habibti, is not one to work backwards towards the Derby. “That’s bad,” said Baffert, who won the Derby with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998 after missing by a nose with Cavonnier in 1996. “I never work backwards from the date. You ruin your horses that way. You just go, and if you’re ready three weeks out, that’s it. You just go along, you don’t rush them. That’s one thing I’ve learned. You don’t know until three weeks before if you’ve got a Derby horse. I’m behind with some of mine right now, but I’m not rushing. If they make it, they make it. Just like Congaree last year. At this point last year, I didn’t think he was going to make the Derby, but I brought him along and he got there. But I never work backwards from the date of the race.” Strive, a maiden after two starts, worked five furlongs Saturday in a bullet 59 seconds, best time of 60 horses clocked at the distance . . . Although the opportunity for backstretch personnel to unionize became legal in California on Jan. 1, the Service Employees International Union will not be permitted to solicit members at the race tracks until the SEIU and the California Horse Racing Board have security and time parameters in place for the union to physically do so. That could take months. Presently, no format exists for the SEIU to implement solicitation, and it cannot start until a plan is approved by the CHRB . . . Your humble scribe has been requested to make known the fact that he won his first match in Santa Anita’s Fans’ Forum this meet by selecting three winners, highlighted by a $53.40 shocker named Hot Contest. It was the highest-priced winner ever selected in the head-to-head match of handicappers, the winner of which is determined by most money won on a $2 win bet per race, not by most winners picked. My total money won was $63 (for a profit of $45 based on a $2 wager on nine races), a high-water mark for the contest . . . Derby prospect Earl of Danby missed a few beats due to a fever but co-owner John Toffan says the colt will be ready for the restricted Sham Stakes at 11/8 miles on Feb. 8. Toffan was still shopping for a stud site for retired turf star Bienamado, but said he’ll “probably stand in California.”