Big-Race Showdown: Kentucky Derby Championship Series Visits Fair Grounds, Turfway
Making the Grade, which will run through the 2021 Triple Crown races, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an impact on the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.
This week we take a closer look at Helium, winner of the $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 6 at Tampa Bay Downs.
It is perhaps unfair that a Hall of Fame trainer like Mark Casse prepares a talented young racehorse for his graded stakes debut, the colt rallies to win impressively in his first try around two turns, and a guy like me who couldn’t lead a horse to water disparages his chances to win the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve based largely upon speed figures. With that in mind, let’s dig a bit deeper in our evaluation of unbeaten Tampa Bay Derby winner Helium.
Ability: As mentioned above, the speed figures for Helium do not jump off the page in comparison with other leading Kentucky Derby hopefuls, so let’s get that out of the way first. After a debut win, Helium earned a 93 Equibase Speed Figure, a 75 Beyer Speed Figure, and an 86 BrisNet speed rating for winning the seven-furlong Display Stakes Oct. 18 at Woodbine. The Ironicus colt improved his Equibase Speed Figure to a 94, his Beyer number to 84, and his Brisnet rating to a 93 for his Tampa Bay Derby win March 6.
For comparison, Gotham Stakes winner Weyburn, champion Essential Quality in the Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes winner Concert Tour, and Sham Stakes runner-up Medina Spirit have been in the 105 to 109 range for Equibase Speed Figures.
Life Is Good earned an eye-catching 107 Beyer figure for winning the San Felipe Stakes, but he is now sidelined. Other top-tier Derby contenders Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie, Concert Tour, Weyburn, and Mandaloun have topped out in the 94 to 98 Beyer range.
Quite simply, Helium will need to run a significantly faster race to win the first jewel of the Triple Crown.
Now, let’s take a much closer look at his on-track performances.
Purchased for a modest $55,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October yearling sale, Helium debuted Sept. 27 on the synthetic Tapeta Footings surface at Woodbine going seven-eighths of a mile and was somewhat overlooked at 7-1 odds. After an awkward break where it looked like he brushed the outside of gate, Helium was quickly into stride and in front briefly before setling nicely in second along the inside. He moved up approaching the turn from inside and took charge under Emma-Jayne Wilson before favored Excellorator made a bid near the top of the stretch. Helium showed some maturity by switching leads right on cue and powered clear to win by 3 ¼ lengths while weaving just a bit in stretch. His gallop out was terrific and it looked like he was just getting warmed up.
Next tested by Casse against stakes competition in the Display Stakes, Helium again showed some early speed but listened to Wilson and rated behind a dueling trio. He responded gamely, ears flattened, when encouraged to accelerate and swept into contention approaching stretch. Helium again switched leads right on cue and spurted away with Wilson really only needing to keep him engaged and on task late. He completed the final eighth of a mile in 12.35 seconds on his way to a 4 ¼-length romp.
Helium was slated to compete in the Grey Stakes, but the race was postponed because of snow and then canceled because of pandemic restrictions. He then missed a planned start in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in January because of a minor injury.
The Tampa Bay Derby and Gotham Stakes subsequently became options for Helium’s first test on the Kentucky Derby trail. Casse opted for Tampa going two turns at 1 1/16 miles rather than ship north for the one-turn-mile Gotham at Aqueduct.
Helium was a little slow to start in first try stretching out in distance and was second to last passing finish line for the first time, which led to a very wide trip throughout the Tampa Bay Derby.
After he was parked very wide on first turn, Helium was asked by jockey Jose Ferrer to pick up his feet a bit approaching the backstretch and improve his position. He responded and moved up four or five wide on backstretch to advance into sixth before again racing very wide entering the second turn.
Helium made an eye-catching bid on the final turn to seize command entering the stretch, shifted leads flawlessly again, and opened a clear lead. Hidden Stash surged to challenge Helium at eighth pole and pushed his head in front, but Helium was ready for the fight and dug in tenaciously to edge away to a three-quarter-length win.
The Tampa Bay Derby speed figures, obviously, were not inspiring, but reviewing the race it is pretty amazing how much adversity Helium overcame to reach the front in the stretch and that he still had enough stamina in reserve to battle back after he was headed.
It’s tough to compare times and speed figures on synthetic surfaces to those on dirt because the races often are run much differently. Likewise, I find that there seems to be a bit more variance over the years in Kentucky Derby prep races at Tampa Bay Downs.
I’m not saying to ignore the speed figures when it comes to evaluating Helium – far from it, he definitely needs to take a big step forward by the first Saturday in May – but he might be a little bit closer than I originally thought. He also seems to have a strong mind and understand his job, he identifies his target and responds on cue, and Helium showed tenacity in the Tampa Bay Derby stretch.
My biggest concern with him is the eight-week gap between the Tampa Bay Derby and Kentucky Derby combined with only three races as foundation. For a 3-year-old trying 1 ¼ miles for the first time, I’m worried he might just be a bit short in the Churchill stretch. It’s a balancing act for sure – you don’t want a 3-year-old to run their best race of the spring in their final prep – and the decision to bypass a final prep by Helium’s connections is certain to be debated often between now and May 1.
Running style: Helium showed some speed in his first two starts in sprints on synthetic surfaces, but that is much different than the speed it takes to press or stalk in a typical U.S. dirt race and he was forced to adapt in the Tampa Bay Derby. I wouldn’t qualify him as a poor starter out of the gate, but it’s certainly not a strength. Ideally, I think in a race like the Kentucky Derby, Helium would have the best chance to win if he was positioned in mid-pack between the stalkers and closers to give him a chance to avoid some traffic in the middle part of the race and launch his bid on the final turn.
Connections: Helium is owned by Leonard and Lois Green’s D. J. Stable, which paid a $6,000 supplemental fee to nominate him to the Triple Crown after his Tampa Bay Derby win. The Greens’ son Jon serves as the racing manager for his family’s stable. Leonard Green, an accountant, is founder and chairman of The Green Group, which advises Thoroughbred industry clients.
Other notable runners for the Green family include graded stakes winners A Thread of Blue, Do It With Style, Chart, On Thin Ice, and Martha’s Music. The Greens raced in partnership Grade 1 winner Songandaprayer with former NBA player Bobby Hurley and campaigned in partnership with Chuck Zacney’s Cash is King 2018 champion 2-year-old filly Jaywalk.
Trainer Mark Casse is an 12-time Sovereign Award winner as Canada’s champion trainer. He was inducted into Canada’s Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2016 and last summer he was honored with induction into the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame. Casse is best known as the trainer of U.S. champions Tepin, World Approval, and Classic Empire as well as 2019 Preakness winner War of Will.
Casse also won the Belmont Stakes in 2019 with Sir Winston and has five Breeders’ Cup victories among his more than 3,000 career wins.
Local rider Emma-Jayne Wilson was aboard Helium for his two starts at Woodbine and Casse called upon Tampa Bay Downs rider Jose Ferrer for his Tampa Bay Derby victory. He. Has not named a rider for Helium for the Kentucky Derby.
Pedigree: Helium has now become the first winner, stakes winner, and graded stakes winner for his sire, Ironicus. Helium is part of his first crop of runners. Ironicus was a multiple graded stakes winner on grass, winning twice in graded stakes at 1 1/16 miles and once at 1 1/8 miles. He also ran second in a Grade 1 race at 1 ¼ miles and finished fourth in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Mile. A homebred of Stuart S. Janney III, Ironicus is one of five graded stakes winners and six stakes winners produced by Meaghan’s Joy, by 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy.
Helium’s dam (mother) is multiple stakes winner and multiple stakes producer Thundering Emilia, by Thunder Gulch. Thundering Emilia was a Group 3 winner in Peru at about 1 1/16 miles and a stakes winner at Delaware Park, also at 1 1/16 miles, in 2012. In addition to Helium, Thundering Emilia has produced Peruvian Group 1 winner Emilia’s Moon.
Helium’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Saint Emilia, by Saint Ballado, was a three-time stakes winner in Peru at distances ranging from about five furlongs to about a mile. Third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Proud Emilia, by Proud Appeal, was primarily a sprinter, although stakes-placed at a mile. Proud Emilia was twice named Broodmare of the Year in Peru as the dam of three group stakes winners, including Peruvian champion miler Domingo.
While the pedigree is unusual for a Kentucky Derby contender, it’s pretty clear why Helium has thus far proved versatile with wins on dirt and synthetic surfaces and it wouldn’t be a shock if he also showed ability on grass. There also is reason to be optimistic Helium should be able to excel as the distances get longer, which Casse mentioned after his Tampa Bay Derby win.
“What was amazing is that he wasn't overly exhausted after the race,” Casse said after mentioning the adversity he overcame to win. “He’s a beautiful horse, he’s bred to run all day long and he looks like a Derby horse, so it’s exciting.”
I’m still worried that Helium will enter the Kentucky Derby with only one race since Oct. 18 – it’s far from ideal. He won’t be my pick to win May 1 at Churchill, but I do think he’s a really talented 3-year-old colt with a bright future and it wouldn’t shock me if he stepped up and ran a big race.