Thursday, May 28, 2009

Not Luv Gov again!

Why won't Luv Gov leave us in peace?

The Ten Most Wanted colt who I said had no business in the Preakness -- and who pretty much ran like it, placing eighth -- has officially been pointed to the Belmont Stakes. He might win and make me look the fool, but I say he doesn't belong there, either.

Luv Gov broke his maiden (at 10th asking, a term you don't hear that often about Grade 1 stakes horses) on the Kentucky Derby undercard. His name first cropped up as a Preakness entry amid the subterfuge intended to keep eventual winner Rachel Alexandra out of the race. Ahmed Zayat, owner of Pioneerof The Nile, said Marylou Whitney planned to enter a colt to "promote her stallion" (Belmont winner Birdstone, sire of Derby winner Mine That Bird) and the only colt to emerge from Whitney's string with Preakness intentions was Luv Gov. (The Whitney camp issued a blanket denial of a role in any conspiracy.)

Either Whitney and trainer D. Wayne Lukas are actually every bit as confident in this horse's ability as they say -- they were quoted as entering the Preakness feeling he "(had) a legitimate chance," also not something you hear often from the camp a 1-for-10 horse entered in a Grade 1 classic -- or else they're taking this charade two steps too far.

I just don't see how this entry adds up. Other than the truly special athletes, a horse deserves his conditions; in this case, the right to face non-winners of two when he himself has not yet won twice in his life.

Luv Gov took 10 races to break maiden. He did so impressively, closing from deep in the pack to draw off and win by 6 1/2 lengths going a mile and a sixteenth in the slop, for an 87 Beyer. But running off from maidens by 6 1/2 is a far cry from announcing your Grade 1 status unless perhaps you're a first-out 2-year-old.

The colt is improving. He had only one decent Beyer at age 2, a 73 in finishing third behind the ill-fated Stormalory in a Polytrack route at Keeneland. His other juvenile efforts earned Beyers of 39, 27, 49, 37 and (after the 73) a 30. (See his full pre-Preakness PPs here.)

He progressed considerably for Lukas after a layoff from November 2008 to March 2009, when he returned at Oaklawn Park. He was second there in two straight maiden special weight efforts, with Beyers of 83 and a regressive 74, then ran well again over Keeneland's synthetic surface in a place finish from his third 3-year-old start. Then the win at Churchill.

But an instant jump to Grade 1 races?

The Belmont actually makes more sense than the Preakness, I suppose. Whitney's a New Yorker and probably wants to see one of her horses in the show. And we've seen several seemingly overmatched horses -- particularly deep closers -- get up for a piece of the action at the end of the arduous 12 furlongs. Whitney's own Birdstone paid $74 when he charged from the rear to rob Smarty Jones of a Triple Crown in 2004. The following year, Afleet Alex won the Belmont with ease, while second place went to Andromeda's Hero (closing odds essentially 12-1) and third was a maiden, Nolan's Cat, at roughly 21-1. Alex beat them by 7 and 13 3/4, respectively, but they closed from 10th and 11th -- that's next-to-last and last -- to collect $200,000 and $110,000 paychecks.

But doesn't a horse deserve his conditions? Clearly Luv Gov is no Curlin, who burst on the scene with a huge debut effort at 3 and, almost the next thing you know, was finishing third in the Kentucky Derby, winning the Preakness and barely getting nosed out in the Belmont. A horse that took 10 tries to break maiden doesn't usually inspire such confidence.

It isn't like Luv Gov was brilliant in defeat at Pimlico. He wasn't beat by 15 or 20 lengths; only about nine. But he didn't really beat anybody, either. The only horses he finished ahead of were those whose riders didn't persevere with them once they realized the cause was lost. I haven't seen his Beyer from the Preakness, but judging from Rachel's reported 108, and the distance he finished behind her, I'd guesstimate that Luv Gov earned no better than 91. That could be considered progress from his maiden-breaking 87, but not nearly enough in my mind to try a Grade 1 again next out. (Edit: Belmont-contender PPs are now up at DRF; Luv Gov's Beyer for the Preakness was a bit-surprising 94, and in an interesting change, the Beyer for his maiden win was for some reason upgraded from 87 to 94.)

And I think the colt's pedigree is suspect at least to some degree. While his sire won the Travers at a mile and a quarter and was placed in the Belmont, Luv Gov's dam, City of Silver (Nepal-Silver Discovery, by Mr. Prospector) was a modest winner once from five starts, seems bred to sprint, has produced only two foals to race (a Luv Gov half-brother won once from 12 starts) and the only blacktype winner I can see under his second dam is a granddaughter who was a champion filly ... in Puerto Rico.

Still ... again ... somehow ... Lukas and Co. apparently think he has a shot in the Belmont.

"Wayne said he worked real well (since the Preakness) and that we ought to take a chance," John Hendrickson, Whitney's husband, told The Daily Racing Form. "We've gone off at higher than 30-1 before."

And it isn't like Lukas thinks this race is important. Having won it four times -- but not since 2000 -- Lukas recently said "nobody cares about mile and a half horses anymore" in calling for the Belmont to be shortened. So maybe he figures this is as good a place as any for his 1-for-11 charge.

The more I rant about this colt, I suppose, the more likely it is he'll eventually prove me wrong. Or at least the dumber I'll look if he does. And don't misunderstand; I'm not rooting against him. I'm only assessing his chances as any handicapper would before a big race, and I don't think those chances are good. Not to win, anyway.

So why not give the colt his conditions?

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