Nobody predicted that Itsmyluckyday would develop into a top Kentucky Derby contender this year, not after his well-beaten sixth in the Delta Jackpot Juvenile in mid-November and fourth-place effort in the December 15 Dania Beach on turf, but Saturday's Holy Bull changed perceptions.
Itsmyluckyday convincingly handed unbeaten juvenile champ Shanghai Bobby his first defeat, winning easily by a two-length margin while establishing a new track record at Gulfstream Park for the 1 1/16-mile distance, and he's the clear leader of the pack when it comes to BRIS Speed ratings.
He opened 2013 with an impressive 111 BRIS Speed rating in the Gulfstream Park Derby, the top figure by any Kentucky Derby hopeful at two or three, but it came at a one-turn mile against a short field of questionable rivals. The Holy Bull represented a significant step up in class and a stretch back to two turns, and Itsmyluckyday proved more than up to the task, generating another terrific figure of 106.
The dark bay colt puts longtime South Florida trainer and co-owner Eddie Plesa Jr. in the spotlight. It may be unfamiliar ground for Plesa, with a top Derby contender to prepare over the next three months, but he has experience in the big event via the filly Three Ring, who finished last of 19 in the '99 Derby. Itsmyluckyday's supporters can take comfort in the fact that the last five Derby winners, and nine of the last 10, were saddled by first-time winning trainers.
"Everybody's excited because of the Kentucky Derby. It's hard not to get wrapped up in that," Plesa said after the Holy Bull.
The $1 million Florida Derby on March 30 will be his next start and Itsmyluckyday needs a strong showing to ensure himself a starting spot at Churchill Downs -- he earned only 10 points under the new scoring system for the Holy Bull win. Given his affinity for Gulfstream and razor-sharp present form, it's difficult to envision him not running well in the Florida Derby.
The 1 1/8-mile distance of the Florida Derby is of little concern given the way he finished up in the Holy Bull, but the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby trip will be a different ballgame. And Itsmyluckyday's pedigree does give pause in that regard. His female family appears more geared toward shorter distances and the presence of Lawyer Ron and Vicar in his bloodlines must be considered.
Itsmyluckyday is by the ill-fated sire Lawyer Ron, who netted a 105 BRIS Speed rating when posting an 8 1/4-length victory in the 2006 Risen Star in mid-January and went on to sweep Oaklawn's three major Derby preps (Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby) in dominant fashion. But Lawyer Ron was done in by the Derby distance, weakening to 12th in the stretch, and went zero-for-four in his career at 1 1/4 miles.
Vicar is easily the most accomplished runner in Itsmyluckyday's immediate female family and established himself as a major Derby contender in 1999 by virtue of wins in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, generating a 106 Speed rating in the former. But Vicar was unable to carry his strong form outside the friendly confines of Gulfstream Park, finishing a dismal 18th in the Run for the Roses, and wound up competing in the Breeders' Cup Sprint by year's end.
The connection to Lawyer Ron and Vicar is disconcerting, but Itsmyluckyday won't be the first horse to outrun his pedigree if he performs well in this year's Kentucky Derby. We are just getting into the heart of the Kentucky Derby prep season and it will be interesting to see whether Itsmyluckyday can continue to reign as a Speed-figure standout.
Racing fans benefited from Shanghai Bobby earning only 10 points for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile win because there would have been little incentive to run him in the Holy Bull if he was already qualified for the Kentucky Derby. And the Holy Bull would've been a complete laugher without him.
The 4-5 favorite showed speed as expected from his rail post with Rosie Napravnik and led the way until the stretch drive, establishing solid early splits in :23 1/5 and :46 3/5. Itsmyluckyday stalked in third, just behind Shanghai Bobby and pace-pressing longshot Clearly Now, and advanced into contention while three wide on the far turn.
Itsmyluckyday collared Shanghai Bobby with about a furlong remaining and drew off late, stopping the teletimer in 1:41.81. Gulfstream offered a pair of 1 1/8-mile allowances on the undercard for three-year-olds and both winners, Cerro and Orb, are well-regarded colts. But the BRIS Speed ratings they earned -- 92 and 89, respectively -- illustrate the spectacular nature of Itsmyluckyday's performance; his 106 was awesome.
Naysayers weighed in once Shanghai Bobby tasted defeat, offering it up as evidence of his complete vulnerability at the Kentucky Derby distance, but that issue wasn't resolved on Saturday. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt ran extremely well despite the setback, equaling a career-best with a 103 BRIS Speed, and finished nearly a dozen lengths clear of the rest of the pack. He is still a very talented colt.
Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby appeared to be in a different class than the rest of the Holy Bull contestants.
My first thought after watching 42-1 outsider Clearly Now and 132-1 no-hoper Joshua's Comprise finish third and fourth, in a different area code from the top two, was that the rest of the Holy Bull field really stunk. Excuses abounded afterward for the no-show performances by Bern Identity (fifth), Frac Daddy (sixth) and Dewey Square (seventh), so that critique could prove grossly unfair, but that trio's stock dropped precipitously on Saturday.
Derby Top 10
The "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series continues this Saturday with three scoring opportunities: the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs and Withers at Aqueduct. We will recap the action and take a look at the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool that kicks off next Friday.