Horse racing: Derby hopeful Odysseus still has some work to do

Trainer Tom Albertrani wanted to sneak in one more quality two-turn race for his Grade III Tampa Bay

So much for the comfortable route to the Kentucky Derby for Odysseus.

Anyone connected to a horse with that name should know that nothing is going to come easy.

Trainer Tom Albertrani wanted to sneak in one more quality two-turn race for his Grade III Tampa Bay Derby winner, but now that the graded stakes earnings list has become bunched up at the cutoff point for first preference to enter the Kentucky Derby, Odysseus will have to do better than just get in a good fitness-boosting run around the track.

By Albertrani’s estimate, Odysseus, at $180,000, will need another $40,000-$50,000 to guarantee a spot in the May 1 Derby.

He’s in the right place to do that today, the $750,000 Grade I Blue Grass at Keeneland. If Albertrani’s projection is correct, Odysseus would need to finish in the top three to ensure a place in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.

The mad scramble for last-minute earnings will also be part of the story at Oaklawn Park, which will hold the $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby.

That race appears to have more star power than the Blue Grass, with Super Saver, Dublin and Noble’s Promise breaking from the rail, in that post position order.

Albertrani and owner Satish Sanan of Padua Stables were willing to risk running Odysseus on the Keeneland Polytrack, his first race on synthetics, if it were to mean a less salty field and a more comfortable shipping schedule to Kentucky. Odysseus is going to have to get in the money, though, or they might have to wait for the Preakness.

“We actually thought that this horse had been on a pretty hard schedule right from the beginning of the year,” Albertrani said during a national teleconference on Tuesday. “We didn’t want to really take a lot out of the horse going into the Derby. But we just felt that he probably could use another race and get some benefit out of another two-turn race where he didn’t have to actually peak going into the Blue Grass.

“Then we started looking at the earnings, and now we’re saying, you know what, now I think we have to run just to make sure that we have our placing in the Derby. The first thought was just really trying to keep the horse as fresh as possible. Then when all these other horses were kind of catching up to his graded earnings, then we decided, well, it looks like we really need to run again.”

Odysseus, a son of Malibu Moon who has raced once a month since the beginning of the year, thrust himself into the Derby picture with one of the more memorable performances on the prep schedule this season.

He was the 2-1 second choice on the morning line for the Tampa Bay Derby off a 15-length win in an allowance optional claimer at Tampa on Feb. 17.

Running just off the pace of 3-2 favorite Super Saver, Odysseus, under Rajiv Maragh, appeared to fall out of it when Schoolyard Dreams exploded past him on the outside as they got into the second turn.

Track announcer Richard Grunder even shouted “Odysseus will have to wait for another day” as the field, still led by Super Saver, approached the three-eighths pole.

In the stretch, Gleam of Hope made a big move on the far outside, Schoolyard Dreams took over the lead and Super Saver dug in. Then Odysseus, like a Greek soldier bursting out of the Trojan horse, surprised everyone, including Albertrani, by finding his stride again at the sixteenth pole, trying the outside first, then bouncing back inside of Schoolyard Dreams and Super Saver.

He barely got up in the final stride to win by the slimmest of noses. Even Maragh didn’t believe it, telling Jeremy Rose, on Schoolyard Dreams, “I think you won it,” during the gallop-out. Rose did, too, but the photo, and the placing judges, said otherwise.

“I actually thought he was finished going down the backside,” Albertrani said. “I didn’t think he was really traveling as well as I’d like to have seen him. It looked like Rajiv had to keep asking him to just kind of keep up with the pace, and at the quarter pole, I thought for sure this horse is just not firing today.

“In the blink of an eye, he’s back in there, changes his lead at the sixteenth pole and he’s back up again and just ran a huge race to come back like that.”

Albertrani has his best shot at a 3-year-old classic winner since Bernardini won the Preakness in 2006 and followed it up with wins in the Jim Dandy, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup before losing to Horse of the Year Invasor in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The trainer said there isn’t much similar between Bernardini and Odysseus, who has won three straight after finishing second in his only start as a 2-year-old.

“Bernardini showed a lot of natural ability even before he ran,” Albertrani said. “This horse is going through leaps and bounds. With every race, he just seems like he’s on the improve.”

The Blue Grass appears to be wide open.

Pleasant Prince is the 3-1 morning-line favorite off his second to Ice Box in the Florida Derby, and trainer Todd Pletcher’s pair of Aikenite and Interactif, breaking from the two outside posts, are each 4-1.

If Interactif, who has plenty of stakes earnings, makes the Kentucky Derby, he will have done so off four straight turf starts followed by two on synthetic. At 19 on the earnings list, Aikenite is on the bubble, as are Pleasant Prince and Make Music for Me.

Of the top three in the Arkansas Derby, only Noble’s Promise, second only to Lookin At Lucky with $708,000, has a spot in the Derby starting gate secure, even though he hasn’t won since the October.

He still has one of the strongest resumes in the division, winning the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity before finishing third to Vale of York, just a half-length back, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

He finished 2009 with a second to Lookin At Lucky and was a head behind that one in the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park, his first-ever start on conventional dirt, and his first with Robby Albarado in the irons.

“I think the key to this horse going a little farther is going to be the rider,” trainer Kenny McPeek said. “Robby Albarado is going to get another try on him. I think he learned a little something.

He has a tendency to try to scoot away, and I think it’s good that you have that move with him. I think Robby being a little more patient with the colt is going to be important.”

More Keeneland

The Blue Grass card also includes the Grade II Jenny Wiley for older fillies and mares on the turf; the Grade II Commonwealth at seven furlongs; and the Grade III Shakertown turf sprint for fillies and mares.

Forever Together, the 2008 Eclipse Award-winning turf female and a two-time winner of the Diana at Saratoga, will make her 2010 debut as the 7-5 favorite in the Kenny Wiley.

Also in the field is another 2008 champion, Stardom Bound, who had a rocky 3-year-old season after winning the Eclipse for juv­enile fillies. She’ll be making her turf debut for IEAH Stables, which has her cross-entered in a turf allowance on the same card.

IEAH also has Salve Germania in the Jenny Wiley, having purchased her after she won the Ballston Spa on Travers Day last year as the longest shot on the board at 24-1.

Mechanicville native Chad Brown will saddle Silver Timber, making his 7-year-old debut, as the slight 7-5 favorite in the Shakertown. The former claimer was sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

Here and there

Eskendereya received a 109 Beyer speed figure for his victory in the Wood Memorial and has the top two figures among 3-year-olds this year, along with the 106 he earned in the Fountain of Youth.

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