The Grade II - Hutcheson Stakes from Gulfstream Park isn't one of the primary Kentucky Derby prep races that some of the more popular hopefuls use as one of their stepping stones, but as we saw last year with Animal Kingdom, it doesn't matter how accumulate the dollars, it just matters that you have enough to be one of the top 20 three year-olds in country in graded stakes earnings. Thunder Moccasin, a three-year-old bay colt by A.P. Warrior, out of the Storm Cat mare One Stormy Mama, was coming into the Hutcheson off a very nice win back in December, going six and a half furlongs on the Gulfstream Park dirt in a blistering 1:15.81. He looked even more impressive in his comeback to the same surface against four other Derby hopefuls.
Thunder Moccasin went off as the huge odds-on favorite at odds of 1-5, he broke cleanly from the gate and moved up along the inside of front-runner IL Villano. After clearing a the remaining trio, Thunder Moccasin sat contently just behind second betting choice, IL Villano (4-1). The early fractions were relatively slow for the day, the first quarter went in :23.34, and the half in :46.89. You can see in the video on this page, jockey Johnny Velasquez had a handful under him as they approached the far turn. It looked like he gave him a little chirp—a tap on the neck—and they bolted for the lead and grasped it easily from IL Villano. Velasquez showed him the whip but never struck him with it. Thunder Moccasin was hand ridden the entire way to a six-length victory.
After watching some of the early Derby contenders over the past month, Thunder Moccasin should be shooting up to the top of the list for most impressive three-year-olds to date. The Beyer figure may not be super impressive, considering the fractions and lack of quality in the field, but you have to remember the horse was asked for very little and crushed this group.
“You don’t often make this move going from a maiden win to a graded stakes but he’s a very talented horse and his first race was so impressive it was worth taking the shot," said Todd Pletcher. "I talked it over with John in the paddock and I was hoping he’d be able to put him outside the 5 horse [IL Villano]. Being less experienced, I didn’t want him to be under pressure the whole way.” Pletcher got it the exact way he wanted, Velasquez settled behind il Vilano and then moved outside him about a furlong into the race.
Typically, a trainer of such an impressive horse would be ecstatic after such a performance, but Pletcher kind of put the nix on what he thinks of Thunder Moccasin's Derby hopes.
“Even though his pedigree suggests he’ll run further, he gives the impression he’ll be at his best in shorter races,” said Pletcher, who singled out the seven-furlong, Grade 2 Swale on March 10 as Thunder Moccasin’s next likely start.
If you want one thing from a trainer of the Derby horse you are going to wager on, it's a lot of confidence. Todd Pletcher is not known as a big "betting-trainer" like say a Michael Maker for instance. He really doesn't have a huge advantage throwing fans and handicappers of his horse off, so it will be very interesting to see how this horse handles two-turns in his next start.
Keep you eyes on this horse, you should take extreme caution following the words of his trainer, I wouldn't worry too much about him in the Swale, but after that he will have to tested a a mile or longer. After Pletcher's comment, the Grade II - Swale Stakes may not prove anymore about the quality of this three-year-old. We know he can succeed going this distance at Gulfstream.
On March 10, it will be hard to beat this horse if he stays healthy and continues training well. One thing is for sure about the Swale in March, Thunder Moccasin will get a much tougher test. An interesting note, second-place finisher, IL Villano finished third in the Count Fleet, going one mile and 70 yards to top Derby prospect, Alpha, who recently burned up the track in the Withers from Aqueduct.
If Thunder Moccasin can take the two-turns without any problems, Pletcher might be boasting rubbish about him being a better sprinter. Pletcher could possibly pin his two brightest three-year-old stars against one another in the Swale. Thunder Moccasin and Algorithms have been two of the best in the early Derby preps. It looks unlikely at this point, with Algorithms set to run in the more traditional path for a top Derby contender, The Grade II - Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 26 and then a final tune-up in the Grade I - Florida Derby on March 31, both from Gulfstream Park. If they ever do clash, the most likely spot is the Florida Derby, and Pletcher isn't going to pin them against each other in their next start if he feels they can win the race. The graded earnings for a win in the Swale would be much higher than a second place finish in the Fountain of Youth.
IL Villano and third-place finisher Quick Wit could possibly make a run backs in the Swale or fall off of the Derby path seeing neither of them are Kentucky Derby nominated.
$2 MUTUEL PRICES
#3 Thunder Moccasin $2.40 $2.20 $2.10
#5 IL Villano $3.40 $2.20
#4 Quick Wit $2.20
EXACTA (3-5) = $6.40
TRIFECTA (3-5-4) = $14.20
SUPERFECTA (3-5-4-2) = $34.20
Here's a fun quiz, I am going to list the top-three finishers from the Hutcheson over the past 20 years.
1. How many of them went on to run in the Kentucky Derby?
2. How many of them won the Kentucky Derby? Placed? Showed?
3. How many of them ran and/or placed in any leg of the Triple Crown?
Five horses over the past 15 years have made their way into the Triple Crown. Four of them went to the Kentucky Derby, and only Flashpoint last year started in a later Triple Crown race -
Smooth Air ran in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and finished 11 behind winner Big Brown,
Limehouse ran 4 in 2005 Derby, behind winner Smarty Jones.
More Than Ready finished 4th in the 2000 Derby behind Fusiachi Pegasus.
Cat Thief ran 3 in the 1999 Derby, behind Charismatic and Menifee
Flashpoint ran in the 2011 Preakness and ran 14th behind Shackleford.
The Grade II - El Camino Real Derby from Golden Gate Fields in Northern California on Saturday, February 18th, 2012
The Grade II - San Vicente Stakes from Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California on Sunday, February 19th, 2012.
**STAY TUNED FOR MORE RECAPS AND DERBY PREP ANALYSIS**