Archive for May 2013

TRIPLE CROWN HEARTBREAK- The 20 Horses To Come Closest Since The Last Triple Crown Winner

May 30, 2013

As much as I wanted to believe that Orb would be the horse to finally break the Triple Crown drought, which extends longer than the duration of my life, his 4th place finish in the Preakness just once again demonstrated what an incredibly difficult feat that is to accomplish. Orb was by far the most talented runner in the field, but variables like an inside post, a bad trip, and slow early fractions on the lead made it difficult for him to run his race and make up any ground on the leader, another horse that I really like in Oxbow. It got me thinking, in what is now 35 years since Affirmed won all three races, which horses were closest to doing the impossible and winning the Triple Crown?

I’ve broken down these horses into four basic groups: those that won the Derby and Preakness and then lost the Belmont, horses that won the Preakness and Belmont after not winning the Derby, horses that won the Derby, then lost the Preakness but came back to win the Belmont, and finally, horses that won one of the three races and finished second in the other two. Of course the first group is the one that are the most memorable and climactic, but there are many other horses that could argue that they were just as close, and in many cases, closer.

In light of the probable event that Orb and Oxbow meet again in the Belmont with a chance to add one of their names to this list, it seems a worthy exercise. In what may seem a bit contradictory to the spirit of the win, I’ve decided to post video of each horse’s most heartbreaking LOSING effort in the Triple Crown series, as that is what this list is supposed to address…who was the closest to breaking the drought, and how did they fall short of racing immortality? I’ve tried to make the breakdown as logical as possible, with quantity as well as quality of defeat(s) being taken into account.

#20: VICTORY GALLOP, 1998 (2nd Derby, 2nd Preakness, 1st Belmont)

As soon as I saw his hard closing 2nd place finish coming all the way from last in the Kentucky Derby (below), I knew I had my Belmont pick. A change of tactics in the Preakness found him more forwardly placed, where he was no match for the Derby winner, but it sure set up a great one three weeks later.

#19: EASY GOER, 1989 (2nd Derby, 2nd Preakness, 1st Belmont)

He deserves to be much higher on this list, but since he only was able to capture one of the Triple Crown jewels, I am forced to place him here by default. However, you could argue his loss in the Preakness to Sunday Silence, one of the very greatest horse races ever run (below), was as close to a win as you can get. He turned the tables big time three weeks later and got his revenge, winning the Belmont going away.

#18: HANSEL, 1991 (10th Derby, 1st Preakness, 1st Belmont)

Who knows what happened to him in the Derby (below). He ran close to the pace but it wasn’t a terribly torrid one, he simply tired after the mile mark. Perhaps he simply needed another conditioning race, as he came back to dominate the Preakness by seven lengths, and held off the Derby winner by a length in the Belmont.

#17: WAR EMBLEM, 2002 (1st Derby, 1st Preakness, 8th Belmont)

Overlooked with a field high 120 Beyer, which sounds crazy by today’s standards, he took advantage of a lack of speed in the Derby and took his competitors wire to wire, the last horse to win that race in that fashion. In the Belmont, the long campaign caught up with him, as he broke poorly and was forced too fast run early, fading to 8th in the stretch as 70-1 shot Sarava ruined his Triple Crown attempt in the biggest upset in Belmont history (below).

#16: SWALE, 1984 (1st Derby, 7th Preakness, 1st Belmont)

After winning the Kentucky Derby, Swale shipped to Pimlico and posted a blowout work the Monday before the Preakness. He chased a torrid opening half mile in :45.1 and that work may have taken its toll, as he faded to 7th (below). Swale would come back in top form to win the Belmont, but tragically collapsed and died eight days later.

#15: TABASCO CAT, 1994 (6th Derby, 1st Preakness, 1st Belmont)

This was the first Derby I ever watched live, and the controlled, wire to wire victory by Go For Gin over the sloppy track didn’t bode well for Tabasco Cat’s closing style (below). He would take the final two races of the Triple Crown, an impressive feat indeed considering the overall strength of that class.

#14: ALYSHEBA, 1987 (1st Derby, 1st Preakness, 4th Belmont)

After winning the Derby in a gutsy performance following a stumble and near disaster on the heels of rival Bet Twice, that one turned the tables big time in New York and crushed Alysheba’s Triple Crown bid, winning by 14 lengths (below).

#13: THUNDER GULCH, 1995 (1st Derby, 3rd Preakness, 1st Belmont)

This was the first Triple Crown season that I was fully involved in, and also my first Derby winning pick at a healthy 25-1. He didn’t miss by much in the Preakness, as he was beaten by the winner Timber Country by about a half a length in a thrilling stretch duel (below), and then came back to win the Belmont in equally exciting fashion. I’ll always remember the blinkers.

#12: BIG BROWN, 2008 (1st Derby, 1st Preakness, DNF Belmont)

I’m breaking the rules a bit to have him ranked this highly considering he was eased in the Belmont and didn’t finish the race, but words can’t really express how shocking that race was. The fear to race Big Brown was so extreme that he faced virtually no rivals in the Preakness or Belmont, and the Triple Crown victory was all but assured. But that’s why they run the races; his connections certainly were’t the most popular, so maybe the racing gods had a say. I still can’t explain what happened here or how the hell Da’Tara was able to win this race (below). This was the race that made me realize that I may never see a Triple Crown winner as long as I live.

#11: PLEASANT COLONY, 1981 (1st Derby, 1st Preakness, 3rd Belmont)

After narrow victories in the Derby and Preakness, Pleasant Colony just didn’t have quite enough in the Belmont (below). He was a factor throughout but his closing move was too little to late, and the second of many more failed Belmont attempts since Affirmed.

#10: FUNNY CIDE, 2003 (1st Derby, 1st Preakness, 3rd Belmont)

Over the years I’ve been picking Derby winners, if you’d asked me my single most confident pick, I would undoubtedly reply “Empire Maker in 2003.” Funny Cide, the gutsy gelding, proved me wrong that day, but after skipping the Preakness to freshen up, my Derby pick turned the tables in the Belmont and ended another Triple Crown dream (below).

#9: CHARISMATIC, 1999 (1st Derby, 1st Preakness, 3rd Belmont)

After being completely overlooked in the Derby at 31-1, he went on to defeat the second place finisher there again in the Preakness. He battled gamely in the Belmont and actually had the lead at the top of the stretch, but the long spring campaign took its toll–Charismatic had broken his leg in two places during the effort (below). Jockey Chris Antley memorably jumped off the horse, who still managed to finish third, held up his broken leg, and ultimately saved his life. Had he not sustained that injury, who knows?

#8: RISEN STAR, 1988 (3rd Derby, 1st Preakness, 1st Belmont)

Wire to wire Derby wins are a rare thing to behold, but in 1988 Winning Colors took the field from start to finish as jockeys gambled she would fade late, and lost. But Risen Star was closing hardest of all, never getting the pace to run into that he would have ideally benefited from, and losing a lot of ground by running wide around the final turn (below). He would come back to win the Preakness, and then crush his competition by nearly 15 lengths in the Belmont. With a less speed favoring Derby scenario, he may have been the one to end the drought, but alas…

#7: POINT GIVEN, 2001 (5th Derby, 1st Preakness, 1st Belmont)

I’m breaking the rules again here, and even though he lost the Derby to perhaps my favorite horse of all time in Monarchos, I’d be doing a disservice to the sport to not put the wicked pace set by Songandaprayer into perspective, as the frontrunner set the single fastest splits for the 1/2 and 3/4 in Derby history (:44.86, 1:09.2). Point Given was a bit too close to that hot pace, and even though I still believe that no one was beating Monarchos that day, he certainly still should have been second rather than fifth under normal racing conditions (below). He would go on to win the Preakness and Belmont with ease, and added the Travers for good measure in route to Horse of the Year honors in 2001. (Also one of Tom Durkin’s top 3 race calls ever).

#6: SPECTACULAR BID, 1979 (1st Derby, 1st Derby, 3rd Belmont)

In perhaps the greatest upset over all of these 35 years, as well as one of the very worst rides in the history of the sport, Spectacular Bid chased hot opening fractions and moved way too soon to take control of the race before the halfway point. Some believe that he was trying to duplicate Secretariat’s Belmont, but he didn’t have enough left in the tank after making such an early move. He faded to third after leading the field turning for home, and the Triple Crown drought began (below).

#5: SUNDAY SILENCE, 1989 (1st Derby, 1st Derby, 2nd Belmont)

The legend of his rivalry with Easy Goer often leads many to bring him up as the primary horse over this time period that should have won a Triple Crown. The argument goes that in most other years, without a horse of the caliber of Easy Goer to contend with he would have easily captured all three races. It is true that 1989 is one of only two years where I have included two horses on this list, but the fact remains that he was pretty easily beaten by his arch rival in the Belmont (below), whereas the horses I have ranked ahead of them lost much more narrowly. Additionally, again, with credit to Easy Goer, he didn’t dominate the Preakness as well as some of these did as well.

#4: AFLEET ALEX, 2005 (3rd Derby, 1st Preakness, 1st Belmont)

If I am willing to forgive Point Given for being too close to a hot pace in 2001, I’d have to do the same for Afleet Alex, who did the same with a rough trip as well as a lung infection and still managed to hit the board in one of the most bizarre Kentucky Derbies ever. I was in attendance as the rabbit Spanish Chestnut took the field through the second quickest opening 3/4 in history, and I’ll never forget the utter silence of the crowd as 50-1 shot Giacomo crossed the wire first by less than a length over the next two finishers (below). The remarkably athletic Afleet Alex would come back to win the Preakness after nearly falling during a collision coming around the final turn in one of my favorite races ever, and then decimated his opponents in the Belmont. If there is one horse that probably “should” have won the Triple Crown, it would have to be him.

#3: SILVER CHARM, 1997 (1st Derby, 1st Preakness, 2nd Belmont)

After winning the 1997 Kentucky Derby by a narrow head, Silver Charm came back to win the Preakness in a three horse photo finish in one of the most exciting finishes in that race’s history. He took the lead in the top of the stretch in the Belmont, and it looked to be setting up as another rematch with rival Free House, who had finished 3rd and 2nd in the prior two races. Alas, the added distance of the Belmont proved just a bit too much as it often does, especially after a wide early trip, and Touch Gold (who happened to be my pick to win the race) got up just in time to win by three parts of a length, and ruin the first Triple Crown attempt in eight years (bel0w).

#2: SMARTY JONES, 2004 (1st Derby, 1st Preakness, 2nd Belmont)

Smarty Jones was the last undefeated horse since Seattle Slew to win the Kentucky Derby when he did so in 2004, and after winning the Preakness decisively by nearly a dozen lengths, he was understandably a heavy favorite to finally break the Triple Crown drought in the Belmont, going off at odds of 1-5. After opening up on the field coming for home, he appeared poised to do just that. I still watch this race (below) imploring Smarty to hold on, yet the wicked Birdstone always gets there to pull off the upset by a length in arguably the most shocking and disappointing Belmont of all.

#1: REAL QUIET, 1998 (1st Derby, 1st Preakness, 2nd Belmont)

Real Quiet was my Derby pick in 1998, but as mentioned above, as soon as I saw the way Victory Gallop closed into him when second in that race, I knew who I was picking to win the Belmont. In a famously debated act of riding, Kent Desormeaux probably moved too soon with the late closing colt, opening the door for an even later closing rival. Still, it is amazing to re-watch this race (below) and wonder how on earth Victory Gallop was able to make up so many lengths in deep stretch. The resulting photo finish was literally too close to call initially, and by definition Real Quiet was therefore horse that came the closest to actually winning the Triple Crown based on margin of defeat. I went ahead and posted both the ABC telecast with Dave Johnson on the call as well as the track call from Tom Durkin- arguably his greatest ever.

WINES OF THE MONTH- APRIL AND MAY

May 22, 2013

With a lot going on recently between my two week trip to Italy and all of the subsequent blog coverage on the trip as well as the Triple Crown races, I nearly forgot to feature a couple of wines to represent the past two months. In April, as you may remember, I spent two weeks in Italy, and while I have already posted a long blog recapping each winery I visited and the best wines I tasted, the focus was primarily on the local wines of Montalcino. What I didn’t mention is that while I was there I was also able to taste a fantastic Chianti that I bought on our first night there and enjoyed on my terrace. I’m always looking for standout Tuscan wines, and since the price point is very reasonable for the quality and it wasn’t included in my recap, that wine, which you will see below, is the Wine of the Month for April.

For May, I wanted to swich gears a bit and give some recognition to a fantastic and affordable Pinot Noir from the difficult 2011 vintage. This Pinot Noir blends grapes from the up-and-coming Mendocino region with the well-established Santa Barbara terroir. The Pinot-fever epidemic that followed the movie Sideways led to an increase in demand that allowed most producers to ramp up pricing, but at $22, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better quality Pinot. An offshoot from the well-established Belle Glos winery of Willamette Valley fame, this is certainly a label to keep your eye on. This is the first vintage to be labeled independent of the Belle Glos name.

Fontodi Chianti Classico 2009, 91 Points, $34, 10,000 Cases Made- Black cherry and wet limestone aromas. Packed and densely concentrated body with violet notes leading into black cherry, red licorice, plum and wet minerals, picking up notes of chocolate and sweet tobacco through the long finish. Super pure, driven and elegant. Tasted on terrace in Montalcino, Il Giglio, 4/19/13.

fontodi-chianti-classico-2009

Meiomi Pinot Noir Mendocino-Santa Barbara Counties 2011, 91 Points, $22, 92,000 Cases Made- Vibrant, rich and jazzy, with silky blueberry, wild raspberry and cherry fruit notes backed by toasty mocha, white pepper spice and tobacco leaf nuances. Elegant finish with acidity pumping all the way through, finishing with dusty tannins.

Meiomi_1024x1024

PREAKNESS PICKS AND ANALYSIS

May 16, 2013

In preparing for the Preakness, I decided to take a closer look at the Louisiana Derby, as it appears to have become a very important race based on its top 4 finishers’ recent efforts:

1st- Revolutionary (3rd Derby)

2nd- Mylute (5th Derby)

3rd- Departing (1st Illinois Derby)

4th- Golden Soul (2nd Derby)

In the Kentucky Derby, of the 19 runners, only 7 of them had shown sub :38 second final 3/8 moves in their final prep on dirt (this doesn’t include Java’s War or Palice Malice, who did so over synthetic in their final prep). Looking deeper, three of those runners did so in the Wood Memorial, a race that is pretty much a toss in terms of come home times considering the absurd opening fractions (:24.9/ :49.6/ 1:13.7). If we toss those three runners, we are left with only FOUR horses to run a legitimate sub :38 final 3/8 leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Want to know who they are?

Golden Soul :37.29 (finished 2nd)

Mylute :37.64 (finished 5th)

Orb :37.68 (finished 1st)

Revolutionary :37.89 (finished 3rd)

The most notable thing here is that somehow I completely missed the fact that Golden Soul’s final 3/8 in the Louisiana Derby was not only the fastest in that race, but the fastest in the entire Derby field outside of the Wood Memorial. I’m not sure I would have used him anyway, but it would have been nice to have noticed that in retrospect.

A cheap, simple box of these four horses in a $.50 tri would have cost $12 and paid $1730. Oops.

Anyway, back to the Preakness. Before I stumbled upon that tidbit that has me incredibly furious with myself, the point of the exercise was to evaluate the chances of newcomer Departing, who was 3rd in the Louisiana Derby before circling the field to win the Illinois Derby impressively, making a four wide move.

First, I wanted to evaluate his final 3/8 in the Louisiana Derby against the rest of that field, a stat that held up quite well in the Derby based on the come home times in that race:

Golden Soul :37.29 (ran 3rd fastest final 1/4 in Derby)

Mylute :37.64 (ran 4th fastest final 1/4 in Derby)

Revolutionary :37.89 (ran 2nd fastest final 1/4 in Derby)

Departing :38.54

So, based on that, it’s probably safe to say I wouldn’t have used him in the Derby. Considering he finished three lengths behind Mylute in Louisiana, and considering how well Mylute ran on to finish 5th in the Derby, it’s tough to elevate Departing above him, one would think.

But, we also must evaluate Departing’s win in the 9f Illinois Derby, in which he came home his final 3/8 in a much improved :37.25 running four wide. This looks eye-catching on paper and would certainly have been worth considering for the Derby- is this a colt that is simply improving at the right time?

To quote Lee Corso, not so fast my friends. Let’s have a look at the opening fractions of the Wood Memorial, which my above methodology proves rendered the come home times irrelevant in terms of hitting the Derby trifecta, versus the opening fractions of the Illinois Derby and the Louisiana Derby, which was proven to have very valid come home times in terms of predictability:

WOOD: :24.9/ :49.6/ 1:13.7

ILLINOIS: :23.1/ :47.7/ 1:13.0

LOUISIANA: :22.8/ :46.3/ 1:11.8

While the Illinois Derby opening 1/2 fractions were far faster than the Wood, the middle 1/4 was actually slower, making the opening 3/4 split relatively similar, only :0.7 faster. Keep in mind that after running a similarly slow opening 3/4, Normandy Invasion, Verrazano and Vyjack were all able to come home in a sub :36.5 final 3/8 in that race. None hit the board in the Derby, and only one came close. How does :37.25 look now taking that into consideration?

In addition, Departing’s Beyer for the Illinois Derby was 93. In a year of generally low speed figures I guess that doesn’t disqualify him altogether, but it certainly doesn’t jump off the page, and the field he beat there was quite weak. I’m leaning towards not using him…especially since he’s the projected 6-1 second choice right now.

Now, a word on each of the horses:

139th Kentucky Derby

1- ORB (1-1 Morning Line Favorite, 104 Beyer)

Considering how easily he won the Derby, and the fact that the 2nd-4th place finishers took a pass on the Preakness, he is certainly a deserving odds-on favorite here. What was most remarkable about his Derby win is the fact that he ran the fastest final 1/4 split of all; there was no horse gaining ground on him through the finish. Sure, the hot pace up front didn’t hurt his chances, and he’ll have less extra ground here as the distance shortens up half a furlong. But it would be difficult to make a strong case for any of these runners to beat him considering the way he came out of the race and the way he’s been training (worked a :47.2 4f and galloped out beautifully in :59.5). The one to beat, and an easy one to root for.

2- GOLDENCENTS (8-1 Morning Line, 105 Beyer)

I had been hard against him in the Derby, but even his detractors didn’t expect the utter disaster he experienced there. He didn’t like any part of it, be it the hot early pace or the muddy track, and finished a fading 17th, nearly 50 lengths from the winner. Some will look for a bounce back performance here, but I again expect him to be on or near the lead, setting fractions near :46.5 or below. That’s simply too fast for a horse with his distance limitations, and while he was near the lead in the Derby, it’s worthy of note that he sat 4.5 lengths off the opening half and pretty much ran his race- his split time of :46.3 falls directly in between his prior two opening split times, so don’t tell me he got too close to a hot pace. The track at Pimlico should be more favorable to speed than Churchill was two weeks ago, but it won’t be as favorable as Santa Anita, and there is plenty of other speed in here to keep him honest him early.

3- TITLETOWN FIVE (30-1 Morning Line, 84 Beyer)

Lukas adds another contender to the mix here and now has a third of the field under his supervision. A Tiznow colt with tons of speed on the bottom, you can expect him to be involved early, despite Lukas’ assertion this week that he would like to see him four to five lengths off the pace. His 9th place finish in the Louisiana Derby against many of these foes after making the lead in :46.3 for the half doesn’t inspire much confidence, and he wasn’t able to hit the board against a weaker field in a shorter race, the 8f Derby Trial three weeks back (he was only 2 lengths off a scalding :45.0 opening half in that race, so I’m pretty sure he’ll be right there if they go in :46.5 this time).

4- DEPARTING (6-1 Morning Line, 93 Beyer)

I gave him a fair amount of attention above, and of the newcomers, he certainly appears to have the most upside. A bit of Preakness history here though- the last three winners to not race in the Derby were Rachel Alexandra in 2009, Bernardini in 2006 and Louis Quatorze in 1996. The most recent two of those became two of the most brilliant thoroughbreds of their generation, and the latter benefited as lone speed with a front-running trip. While admittedly improving, does Departing’s win in the Illinois Derby (93 Beyer) from off a slow pace qualify under either category? For what it’s worth, Bernardini had posted a 104 Beyer, and Rachel Alexandra a 116, prior to racing in the Preakness. In terms of class, his win in the Illinois Derby featured a 4 length win over Abraham, a horse that Govenor Charlie handled even more easily by 8 lengths at Sunland. For me, as mentioned above, it is hard to justify betting him ahead of Mylute, especially considering the extra money he is liable to take as the “wise guy” horse.

5- MYLUTE (5-1 Morning Line, 99 Beyer)

As documented above, his closing fractions in the Louisiana Derby indicated he could be a factor in Kentucky, and his 5th place finish there looms on paper to be the biggest returning threat to the winner. I still think it’s likely that he benefited from the sloppy track most of all, and his one-run style could be less effective as this race should turn up a tad cooler on the front end, but he is certainly in the mix to hit the board.

6- OXBOW (15-1 Morning Line, 95 Beyer)

I keep waiting for this guy to show his breakout race, and this could finally be it. The race he ran in the Kentucky Derby was arguably the best of his career to date. Forced to go early with a quicker than expected pace from his furthest inside post, he stuck around far longer than any of the other pace horses to finish a respectable 6th. With five races now under his belt in 2013, he’s got plenty of bottom, experience, and if his last race was any indication, upside. My affinity for his pedigree is well-documented and this might be the race to take a shot on him to hit the board at a decent price.

7- WILL TAKE CHARGE (12-1 Morning Line, 95 Beyer)

Coming off a long seven week layoff, the race he ran in the Derby was deceivingly good. He started to make a move around the same time Orb did and was actually matching strides in the early part of that move before he ran smack into the rear end of a tiring Verrazano, had to check, and ran on to finish 8th. He probably needed the added fitness he acquired there anyway, and might also benefit from the slight cutback in distance. He looks like a live one to hit the board.

8- GOVENOR CHARLIE (12-1 Morning Line, 95 Beyer)

Baffert finally gets his 2013 Triple Crown shot after deciding to pass on the Derby with this guy, who now takes a giant leap up in class coming off an eight week layoff thanks to an issue with a bruised hoof in only his fourth career start. That’s a lot to overcome, and while he appears to be a talented colt with a promising future based on his Sunland Derby win, there’s nothing to suggest he possesses the type of brilliance required to pull the upset against this classy field. Expect him to be tested early as he likes to run near the lead.

9- ITSMYLUCKYDAY (10-1 Morning Line, 93 Beyer)

His connections seemed utterly shocked by his dismal 15th place finish in the Derby, but he pretty much ran the race I expected, starting off close to a hot pace and fading late. Again, he has been training well and certainly has the tactical speed to be in the mix early, but I still think he is highly vulnerable at distances beyond 9f…which this race, while a cutback from the last one, still is.

Picks Summary:

1) Orb

2) Oxbow

3) Will Take Charge

4) Mylute

5) Departing

6) Goldencents

7) Itsmyluckyday

8) Govenor Charlie

9) Titletown Five

How to Bet $100 on the Preakness:

Orb is the highly likely winner, but won’t offer value in the outright pools. I’ll try to key him on top and hit the trifecta, while looking for value elsewhere underneath him in the place and show spot. Again, since this is still a longer race at 9.5f, I’ll try to beat the horses with suspect pedigrees at longer distances, namely Goldencents and Itsmyluckyday. It worked in the Derby and I’m not buying the slop excuse…they were all running on the same slop, and a wet track should help the speed if anything. I’ll also play against all the newcomers, which leaves me with this:

$10 Tri Key: Orb/ Oxbow, Will Take Charge/ Oxbow, Will Take Charge, Mylute

$30 Place, Show on Oxbow

Positano Town and Dining Recap

May 13, 2013

Hotel: Villa Franca

The main draw to Villa Franca is its location up and away from the hectic tourist bustle of the Marina Grande beach. The hotel is situated at the top of the “vertical village” of Positano, and offers spectacular views of the town and the sea below from its rooms’ terraces, its dining areas, and especially its panoramic rooftop pool. Aside from being a potential home base for various day trips around the Amalfi coast, there isn’t a lot to do in Positano besides eat, drink and enjoy the surrounding beauty, and we found Villa Franca to be a luxurious option for that.

Its positioning away from the beach necessitates an atmosphere that can be enjoyed independently, and luckily we were able to spend many hours simply enjoying the pool, our terrace and the hotel lobby. If the atmosphere of the hotel itself was any less enjoyable, it could potentially be a problem, as getting down to the beach can be a bit of an ordeal, especially with a stroller. The hotel does offer shuttle service to and from a spot in the city center, but not always promptly and not at the most convenient times. Perhaps the greatest help that the hotel provided was talking me out of taking the ferry from Salerno to Positano (which would have been impossible) and ponying up for a €120 private transfer instead, which was well worth the money for the convenience. While we enjoyed our stay here very much, it came not without its fair share of kinks.

0426_PositanoRoomView

The good: For a reasonable €220 a night, we enjoyed a lovely (if small) room with a beautiful balcony overlooking the sea and the Fornillo Beach (Above). We kept the doors wide open every night and fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing into the rocks below. The room itself is very up to date and the flat screen TV offers several hundred digital channels- my wife was even able to find Nickelodean Jr. in Italian, which kept our son occupied. In terms of amenities, the spa and workout facility provided a bit more leisure than our previous experience in Montalcino, and were decent enough considering that Positano is again, a very small town. Included in the rate is a full scale breakfast including bacon and eggs, pizza, fruit, pastries and coffee that was well worth taking advantage of, and in a couple of cases resulted in us not needing anything for lunch. The lobby, bar and restaurant area are all elegantly appointed and offer lovely scenic views of the hotel’s incredible surroundings. One particular bartender, Mateo, was one of the friendliest people we came across during our entire trip. But, as mentioned before, the real draw for this place is the amazing rooftop pool. (Below). We were lucky enough to have a few very warm days with which to enjoy it. I entered the pool on two occasions and took our son swimming for the first time in his life. I can only hope he wasn’t turned off from swimming altogether, as the pool temperature was approaching what I like to refer to as “Lake Michigan Cold.”

0426_PositanoPool

The bad: While the overall ambiance of the hotel lends comfort and relaxation and tends to overcome its less than ideal position relative to the city, the dining options leave much to be desired (which makes taking advantage of breakfast and loading up even more important). The fine dining establishment is not family friendly and appeared incredibly overpriced relative to even some of the better restaurants in the area, while the pool bar bordered on absurdity (€18 for a sandwich of lox on wonderbread, €16 for a well done burger sloppily presented, €7 for a beer).

This wouldn’t normally be a problem except for the combination of the fact that the staff doesn’t seem to be incredibly helpful in terms of assisting with more suitable dining options and that the town itself is quite difficult to navigate without said assistance. When I tried to confirm a reservation at Donna Rosa for dinner the morning of, I was informed by the lady at the desk that they can confirm our reservation but that the restaurant no longer offered a shuttle service to and from its premises. Since the place was a good distance away and I didn’t really want to deal with cabs after dark, this was a dealbreaker for me, so we made other plans, only to learn later that the shuttle did indeed come to pick us up. Unfortunately we were not there. When I tried to reschedule the reservation, the restaurant was understandably upset and refused to come to pick us up again, so we did not get to dine there. This was a major communication breakdown at the front desk.

It was also interesting to me, given that the staff could clearly see that we were traveling with a baby in a stroller, that every time I asked for directions anywhere, the answer always involved stairs. Indeed, the shortest route from Point A to Point B usually results from climbing up and down the town’s steep stair systems that create a straight line between points. However, did it not ever occur to them that I might be willing to take a slightly longer route in order to save myself the fatigue and moderate danger of climbing up and down hundreds of stairs with a baby and a stroller? I kid you not, it took me the full five days we were there to discover that by simply winding around down the single street the hotel was on, we could get all the way down to the beach. Perhaps that is on me, but I definitely got the feeling that the staff was actively attempting to dissuade me from leaving the hotel.

Another incredibly bizarre aspect of a hotel this seemingly luxurious was their general attitude towards the consumption of outside beverages anywhere on the premises. I can understand opposition to drinking my own wine at the bar or at the pool, but to go out of their way to make it difficult for me to drink bottles of wine I had bought in Italy on the comfort of my terrace that I was paying handsomely for left a bad taste in my mouth. First of all, there was no corkscrew in our room. I was told it should be in the mini-bar, and when I informed the front desk that it was not, no one ever came to my room to provide one. I was subjected to bringing my bottles down to the bar, one by one on a nightly basis, to Mateo, who happily opened them for me free of charge. Worse yet was when the lady at the desk informed me that I had to use the “plastic glasses” in the room to drink my wine and that I could not bring actual glassware there as it was “too dangerous for them.”

Too dangerous for YOU? Did something get lost in translation there? Look lady. I’ve got four bottles of Brunello that I just brought down here from Tuscany. I’m not drinking them out of a freaking plastic cup. You can bet after I ordered a glass of wine at the bar that night that I took the empty glass upstairs and kept it safely hidden for the duration of my stay. And that’s just silly. It shouldn’t be that way at a resort on this level of otherwise very high quality.

Town:

I think I can safely say that I’ve never seen anything quite like Positano. In terms of terrain, it’s most similar to the villages of the Cinque Terre on the northeastern coast of the country, with its steep cliffs and colorful houses hanging off the edges. But the Cinque Terre towns are quiet and peaceful. We were shocked at how busy, even before the high season, the roads in Positano were.

In terms of pure beauty, Positano probably has the edge on the Cinque Terre towns just by nature of its pure grandeur. The cliffs are steeper, the views higher elevated, the encompassing areas more vast. It takes on an especially unique beauty at dusk (Below). The town seemed bigger and livelier than I had expected. Winding down to the beach, you find more sets of stairs leading to boutique shops and the only three ATM machines in the entire town. We even killed some time at a little cafe called Bar Mulino Verde and received very friendly service while we waited for our shuttle. The Marina Grande Beach area itself is full of little bars and restaurants that always appeared packed whenever we went down there. The beaches are a bit dirty and look painful to lay on, with crushed rock rather than fine sand, but that isn’t atypical compared to a lot of what we’ve seen in Europe on the coast, and shouldn’t be surprising considering how rugged the terrain here is. The Marina Grande is linked to the Fornillo Beach by a convenient ramp that is worth hiking up at least once.

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Due to the overall difficulty of getting all the way down to the beach, we never rode the ferry boats and opted instead to catch the SITA bus for our daytrip to Ravello (I was again told to go up the stairs, but instead took about a five minute winding uphill walk on the road). To say this was an experience would be an understatement. When the bus comes, the people waiting to get on rush towards the open doors in a frantic attempt to attain a seat while demonstrating a reckless disregard for humanity. We were lucky enough to attain a seat (I think a few people helped us because they saw we were with a young child), but the bus was packed with travelers forced to stand who hovered over us. It was difficult to enjoy the lovely views that this drive offered, but we did our best as it took 90 minutes to travel from Positano to Amalfi to catch another bus to Ravello. The return trip was even more daunting, as there isn’t really a bus “stop” in Amalfi, but instead globs of people surrounding random buses trying to guess which one they need to board. I nearly suffocated attempting to get on.

Even so, I don’t regret making the trip there. Ravello is truly one of the prettiest places that I have ever seen in my life. The lively square and and authentic cobblestone streets only add to the intrigue of this tiny town perched hundreds of meters above the sea. There are two main garden attractions in Ravello, the Villa Rufolo, which is conveniently situated right on the square, and the Villa Cimbrone, which requires a bit more of an uphill hike, but is not to be missed, especially after making the considerable effort to get there. From this high vantage point, I found most striking the relative calm of the water below. Besides possibly Santorini, Greece, I’ve never seen anything like it. Like that island, this is a place I could see coming to later in life just to relax for a week or so. –

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Food:

Since the breakfast at Villa Franca was so substantial, we ended up having only five sit down meals during our time in Positano. Each one had its own unique, generally amazing view, and unlike many tourist towns, these places didn’t use their view as an excuse to serve subpar food. Every meal we had was exceptional. Since we were eating while looking at the water, I reverted to my general rule of seafood and white wine, a dramatic shift from my dining style while in Tuscany.

Pupetto

After walking down to the Marina Grande Beach, we took a ramp up about 400m to Fornillo Beach and over to the Hotel Pupetto. We received very friendly service here and enjoyed a table right on the beach, where the sound of the waves crashing into the sand served as the soundtrack for our meal (Below).

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We shared an appetizer of Fritto Misto, or fresh fried fish, which included squid, prawns and a local fish that tasted to me like sardines (Below). It was evident from the flavor that it was remarkably fresh, probably caught that morning.

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For my main course, I enjoyed a large dish of spaghetti con vongole (clams), simply seasoned with tomatoes and herbs (Below). This dish is pretty straightforward but isn’t flashy by nature, but was quite substantial for the price.

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Villa Gabrisa

We stumbled upon this hotel restaurant when wandering around down the hill from our hotel, and made a point to head back to it on one of our open nights. The unique positioning of its outdoor dining area sits looking over a massive cliff down to the sea below, and also offers a spectacular view of the hills to the east (Below). We were served by the daughter of the hotel’s owners and she was very friendly to us.

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Since the combination of the table and the view were so perfect, we decided to go for it all here, and ordered a large appetizer spread of bruschetta and calamari, followed by fresh cod (which came with the head still attached, Below), sea bass with green olives garnished with orange (Below), and lemon pound cake, a specialty of the region. This was among the very best meals we had in all of Italy, and we enjoyed a bottle of local white wine that paired perfectly with the food, as well as the sunset.

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Da Salvatore

On our third day on the Amalfi Coast, we took the aforementioned SITA bus ride to Ravello, and ended up at this magnificent lunch spot upon our arrival. For all the great dining views we had while staying in Positano, this one probably topped them all (Below).

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The menu at this restaurant is bursting with imagination and innovative dishes. I only wish that we could have had full blown dinner here as so many of the options interested me. If I ever make it back to Ravello, which I hope to do someday, you can be this place will be at the top of my list. I ordered a single course, the ricotta gnocchi in orange peel with walnuts next to veal cheek braised in red wine (Below). The gnocchi, having been made from from cheese rather than potatoes, was remarkably soft yet rich, and the contrasts of other flavors resulted in one of the more exciting dishes I tasted on this trip.

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La Pergola

Looking for a family friendly spot among the restaurants that line the Marina Grande Beach following our long day trip to Positano, we landed upon this spot after a brief amount of deliberation. We spotted a table right on the boardwalk, and the friendly servers didn’t seem to mind as our son ran all around the restaurant. I decided to keep it simple since we’d had a long day, and just ordered a single course of seafood risotto , which was simply enormous.

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Da Vincenzo

For our final dinner, I saved the best for last. Situated down the winding street of Ville Pasitea, Da Vincenzo offers outdoor tables with a fantastic vantage point overlooking the hills to the east (Below). This ended up being our most expensive meal of the entire trip, but I wouldn’t have changed anything about it. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Positano.

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For a first course, I tried the highly recommended homemade ravioli with ricotta, sweet cherry, tomato and fresh basil (Below). The sauce created by the local tomato and basil was simply stunning. We wiped up the leftover sauce with our bread and were in awe of the flavors.

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For my main course, I was going to order a simple grilled sea bass, but I let the waiter talk me into getting the parmesan encrusted sea bass for a 5 Euro upcharge. He was so insistent and friendly about it, like he wanted to make sure I was getting the best possible dish for my last meal on the Amalfi Coast, so I certainly wasn’t going to quabble over a slightly higher expense. Bring it on. And I was so glad I did. The presentation alone (Below) was simply beyond words. I also really enjoyed the addition of orange slices to sea bass in particular, as this was the second time in Positano that I recieved this presentaion. This is definitely something I will be trying at home this summer, as it is in stark contrast to the typical lemon or lime garnish that I am accustomed to with fish in general. Yum.

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And so it ended, my dream trip to Italy, a trip that I planned for over half a decade with countless rewrites of itineraties, hotels, restaurants and traveling strategies. In the end, we kept it as simple as we could have, spending the bulk of our time in the two vastly different cities of Montalcino and Positano. Having our nearly two year old son with us certainly presented its challenges at times, but it is something that we will always remember as a family, and in all honesty, there wasn’t a single thing on my list of things to do on this trip that we didn’t end up doing. Interestingly, this was the longest vacation I have taken (14 days) since after I graduated college in 2002 and I backpacked across Europe (15 days) with my best friend before I moved to Chicago and entered the real world. All things considered, this trip was perfect. Now, if I can just get an IU Hoops NCAA Basketball Title and a Cubs World Series win, I can die a happy man…after a few more trips back to Italy, of course.

Montalcino Town and Dining Recap

May 10, 2013

Hotel: Il Giglio

The Hotel Il Giglio is a small, family run establishment right on the main stretch of Montalcino a few hundred feet from the Piazza Popolo and Piazza Garibaldi. The old and rustic ambiance of the hotel fits the nature of the town perfectly, and we were very happy with the overall cleanliness and standards of the room. For being stuck in a tiny medieval town that seems almost frozen in time, Il Giglio offers free wifi, flat screen television with English channels, and an up to date bathroom with a glass-door shower (although no work out facility, as I was frequently reminded by my wife). The lobby is warm and inviting, and almost gives off the feeling that you are a guest in an old Italian home. (Below).

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The owners Anna and Mario were very friendly to us, especially given that it became quickly apparent that the hotel is not generally used to accommodating young children. However, they happily re-arranged our room to make his baby crib fit comfortably and generally put up with him running around and causing chaos in the lobby. Even after he knocked over a ceramic vase in the lobby, breaking it upon impact, the owners remained cordial (it may have helped that we offered to reimburse the vase to the tune of €100). I was surprised at how well they spoke English, especially Anna, although I tried to speak Italian to them as often as I could. Their son, Michele, also works at the hotel and speaks perfect English. He was helpful in setting up restaurant reservations and answering general questions about the area.

The parking situation is a bit dicey, but in a town this small, the free parking lot offered by Il Giglio is certainly helpful. By the end of our six day stay there I think I finally had it figured out. The owners would park the car in the lot for us upon our return, but then it was up to us to retrieve the car from the lot when we needed to use it again, which for us was on a daily basis. The lot itself is down a hill from the hotel and shut behind a locked gate that you have to reach in and unlock from the outside in order to get in. After you figure that out (I didn’t on my first trip down the hill), there is an automatic wooden gate that you have to open. Wait for it to open completely, because if you drive too close to it while it is still in the process of opening, it will stop. I learned this the hard way but was pleased when I ran back up the hill to inquire about the gate and learned that indeed my car wasn’t stuck inside a broken gate, but that I merely needed to back it up and press the button again. The left turn you have to make in order to exit the lot requires several three point turns thanks to the narrow street, but I managed it. You quickly get an understanding as to why most people in this town use smart cars or motorcycles as their vehicle of choice.

We reserved Room #1 for the modest rate of €145, which is the only room in the hotel with a terrace. And oh what a terrace it is (Below). The terrace itself was nearly the same size as our entire room, and we certainly took advantage of it. I had basically planned our entire trip around staying in this particular room, so I was very pleased that there were no issues in receiving it. Breakfast is included in the rate, and includes basic cheeses, hams, cereals and yogurt as well as homemade cakes from Anna’s kitchen (although no hot food such as eggs or bacon). Since our little guy became quite a terror in the dining room, we enjoyed breakfast on our remarkable terrace instead.

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Town:

One of the most immediately striking things about Montalcino is how truly small it is. In about five minutes you can walk from one end of the town center to the other and in another five minutes you can walk up through Piazza Garibaldi to the fortress (Below). By the end of six days we felt like everyone in town knew who we were. I will always vividly remember one morning I went out looking for milk, and there was none to be found at any grocery store in town; it had sold out. We literally had to wait for the milk man to come and make a delivery.

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Still, even with such concision, this is a very serious wine town. The main streets are all lined with wine stores and wine tasting rooms, which pretty much makes it an ideal place for me. Our favorite was Enoteca di Piazza which is right next to the hotel, and offers over 100 tastes of wine, including such high end names as Casanova di Neri, Biondi Santi and Mastrojanni, using automated dispensers. I received friendly service and visited nearly every day I was there. My tastings were discounted significantly any time I bought a bottle from the store’s vast, reasonably priced selection. Any time that I ordered a glass of wine at a restaurant or cafe, it was accompanied by a circular card around the edge of the glass that stated the name of the producer and the vintage. Coming from a world where restaurants sometimes fail to even include vintages on their menus, it was eye-opening to see a town so unified in their passion for their local wine.

Montalcino is not a town for the clubbing crowd, and it turns quite sleepy at night. A typical day for us there consisted of sleeping in, having a late breakfast, grabbing the car around 11 or 12 to hit a winery or two and have lunch, and then returning around 4 or 5 for a pre-dinner siesta. For us, that meant me sitting on the terrace sipping wine and soaking in the view while my wife and son napped. A stroll through town at dusk on the way to dinner at one of the many quality restaurants really reveals Montalcino’s charm (Below). One thing I will never forget about this place is how it smells, especially in the evening. There always seems to be someone nearby with a massive fire burning, which fills the air with the smell of campfire and crackling wood. This wonderful aroma combines with all of the smoked meat and game being cooked at the various dining establishments, and the entire aroma of the place is just heavenly.

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Restaurants:

All of our meals in Montalcino were fantastic, and all of them were reasonably priced. Typically, appetizers run in the €6-10 range, pasta courses cost about €12-15, and main courses cost about €15-20. Rather than try to assemble a ranking of all the places we went to, which would be impossible, I’ll simply break down each meal individually in the order in which we ate them.

Il Giglio

This is as authentic a home cooked Tuscan meal as you will find, as hotel owner Anna literally cooks every order from scratch herself as the guests come in, while husband Mario and son Michele work the tables. Since we were staying at the hotel, we took advantage and had dinner here on our first night in Montalcino. The dining room is small and quiet and maintains an ambiance of elegance which wasn’t ideal for our son’s mood that night; luckily we were able to get him to sleep upstairs so we could enjoy our meal in the dining room. The first course of tagliatelle with wild hare ragu was rich and gamey, if a bit skimpy on the hare. The main course of Veal brasied in Brunello was incredibly tender and flavorful (Below).

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Boccon Divino

For lunch on our second day, we made the short drive here. We had hoped to sit outside but the temperature was just a bit lower than typical for that time of the year, and they were not seating outside. No matter, the window seat inside served our purposes just fine. This place is worth a stop for the view alone (Below), but I also found the service to be very friendly and accommodating and the food to be innovative and flavorful.

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I ordered a course of gnocchi in a sausage sugo with pine nutes, truffles and herbs to hold me over for lunch (Below). The portion was pretty small, but was rich and flavorful enough to get the job done.

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Re di Mecchia

I made the trip next door to this tiny kitchen by myself on our second night, as the time change was still causing issues in my wife and son’s sleeping patterns. They missed perhaps the single best meal of the entire trip while catching up on those z’s. The whole place consists of maybe five tables, and if it feels like you are dining in someone’s living room while they cook in their kitchen, that’s because you are (Below).

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My waiter recommended after I ordered the pinci pasta with wild boar ragu that I abstain from adding parmesan to it, so I happily complied. The dish was amazing. Homemade pinci pasta is a big thing in Montalcino- it’s basically a thicker version of spaghetti, and the gamey flavors of the boar really came through along side it (Below).

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Since I was in the mood to demolish some hairy pig, I went with the stewed boar for my entree, which was as intensely flavored and perfectly cooked as anything I’ve ever tasted in Italy (Below).

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Since I was by myself, I went for it all and ordered a delicious slice of tiramisu cake for my dessert. The presentation was terrific, and even being one who is not usually a dessert eater, I must admit it melted in my mouth and was quite delicious (Below).

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Osticcio

This is really a wine bar that has transformed itself into one of Montalcino’s more elegant eateries, boasting probably the very best view over the hills of Tuscany through its large windows. We made a reservation at the earliest possible time in order to secure a window seat which I highly advise, as the ambiance isn’t as spectacular after the sun goes down. The owner Tullio is a very friendly guy, and really knows his wines. I paid up for the tasting flight of three Brunellos, which Tullio hand selects on a daily basis for a modest charge of €14.50. Trust him. In terms of food, the menu leaned a bit towards the vegetarian side of things, but I was able to find a dish of thick spaghetti in a bacon ragu served with pecorino cheese that went well with my three Brunellos. This seemed to be more of a place to pair food with wine than the other way around.

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Taverna dei Barbi

This was another lunch stop where I had hoped to dine outside, but this was our on/off rainy day in Montalcino, so we hid inside a tiny private room in the back. Barbi is a winery, so I took advantage of the modest pricing and ordered a half bottle of their 2007 Brunello (91 Points) to have with my lunch. To start, I ordered tagliatelle ragu, which was flavorful enough, but the ragu was a bit thin and watery for my liking (Below).

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For my main, I ordered the wild boar stew, which was a big, hearty dish that came off like a gamey pot roast (Below).

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With some time to kill and the sun peaking out, we ordered another drink and got to spend some time on the terrace after all following our lunch (Below).

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Taverna Grappolo Blu

Situated down the steps off the main road in Montalcino, this was one of the more modestly priced dining establishments we visited and has a very down-to-earth vibe thanks to its very friendly owner. My pasta dish of pinci al ragu di carne really hit the spot, and might have been the heartiest portion of pasta I ate all week (Below).

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After some deliberation, I went with a main course of diced veal braised in balsamic, which was rich and tender, and gave me some cooking ideas to try out now that I’m back home (Below). After seeing the restaurant’s owner the next morning at the pharmacy, my theory that we were equivalent to locals in town at that point in our stay had become a corollary.

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San Giorgio:

This place has a beautiful interior and tries to act like it is more elegant than it is; we got some dirty looks from some patrons as our son was acting up a bit, but in reality this is one of the most casual spots in town, which is evident from the pricing, which is about half of what you see elsewhere. We were pleasantly surprised, and simply split a sausage-gorgonzola pizza as well as a pepperoni pizza, and I ordered a veal osso bucco cooked with peas that was a surprisingly large portion for its price point, and was well-cooked and flavorful (Below).

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The bottle of Fattoria dei Barbi Rosso we bought for €12 was also very modestly priced and went well with our food choices. This is certainly a good, filling option for dining on a budget, or with children.

Taverna Banfi

We enjoyed perhaps our longest meal here, ordering a bottle of the Belnero 2010 (92 Points, Below) and laboring over two courses and coffee after our son fell asleep in his stroller, a rare occasion for us indeed. This is a very nice restaurant with high ceilings that fills up completely on a daily basis, and as a result has a noisy buzz that creates a very casual ambiance.

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I went with the wild boar pasta yet again here, and it was served in a far different style, with the sauce made from ground boar into more of a dark brown gravy (Below).

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For my main course, I went for it all and got the pancetta arrosto, a roasted pork belly rolled with peppercorns in a Brunello au jus (Below).

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Il Pozzo

We made a visit to the quiet, sleepy town of Sant Angelo en Colle for the sole purpose at dining at this well-regarded restaurant, which is run by two friendly sisters. We killed some time at a small grocery/ cafe store, and ran across a terrific sunset (Below) before securing our outdoor table when the restaurant opened.

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It was worth the wait. A jug of delicious house wine washed down my final pinci pasta with meat ragu (Below).

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I had planned to order osso bucco here as well, but it wasn’t on the menu, so I’m glad I ended up ordering some the night before. Instead, I turned towards my old standby, and went with the stewed wild boar. Again, this was a fantastic dish (Below). There is so much more complexity of flavor going on with boar than with a typical piece of pork.

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Cafes:

Bar Alle Logge

This was a great place to drop in, and we ended up eating here a couple of times, as my wife really enjoyed the salad of  tuna and beans, and we were able to get our son to eat a grilled cheese sandwich. There is a wide selection of wines by the glass, which can be enjoyed while sitting outside under the bell tower on Piazza Popolo. A little known fact- I ordered my first of 3 wild boar pasta dishes here for lunch immediately after we arrived in town.

Bar Le Potazzine

This is another great outdoor dining spot on the Piazza Garibaldi, which sits above Piazza Popolo just below the fortress. It is essentially the enoteca of Tenuta Le Potazzine, who is a pretty well-regarded wine producer in the area. I kept it simple for lunch and ordered what else, a pasta dish with a meat ragu, to get me through the day.

All in all, it was a great six days in this lovely Tuscan town. I would most certainly go back someday if the opportunity presented itself.

 

MONTALCINO WINE TASTING REPORT

May 9, 2013

While spending two weeks traveling through Italy, my wife, son and I spent six of our nights in the quaint hill town of Montalcino, a perfect home base to visit some of the very best vineyards in all of Italy while staying within walking distance to some of the most authentic Tuscan dining experiences that can be found. Over this period, we visited six wineries and I tasted 50 Italian wines. We really enjoyed the format for tasting in Italy, which is far different than the “belly-up” tasting bars in Napa, and is actually quite different to the experiences we had in France as well. Our plan was to visit one or two wineries a day maximum, with a day or two reserved for day trips and hanging around in the hill town of Montalcino, as each visit is an intimate,  thorough two hour experience that begins with a complete tour and ends with a tasting of a large amount of wine. I for one found the pace to be quite relaxing, and a huge contrast to what I am used to doing when we visit Napa and Sonoma every year. So, I’ve broken down the six wineries we visited and have tried to provide some commentary about each one’s unique style of winemaking and history. It truly was revealing to visit so many different types of wineries within such a close proximity, so I’ve made an effort to give due credit to each. Spoiler Alert: I pretty much loved every single one of them.

ALTESINO:

We began our winery tour at Altesino, which is reached by taking the third turn off the roundabout in Montalcino and heading north towards Strada del Brunello. Our tour guide Mia, a young Danish woman who had moved to Italy a year ago because she decided she “should have been born an Italian”, was an absolute delight. She walked us through the property overlooking vineyards and olive trees (Below), and then into the sparkling clean fermentation and barrel rooms while giving us an overview of the wine making process at the winery as well as the rules that wineries must adhere to in order to classify their wines as Brunello. We learned that almost all Brunello is aged in large Slavonian oak barrels rather than French oak, which imparts much less oak flavors to the wines and allows the fruit and earth character to shine.

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Mia had informed me over email of the three wines we would be tasting, but ended up offering us double that amount for the same price (€12 per person). The private seated tasting overlooked the vineyards and our son was able to run around the grounds while we tasted. Imagine a similar experience in Napa at that price. It does not exist. In terms of the wine, stylistically these were the most expressive of tobacco flavors of any of the estates we visited. The 2010 Toscana Rosso, a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, (90 Points) begins with red fruit but quickly evolves into tobacco and cigar box notes through its persistent finish. The 2008 Brunello di Montalcino (93 Points) is showing incredibly well for its youth, with intense black fruit and floral notes that lead into  sweet tobacco and leather. The single vineyard 2008 Brunello di Montalcino Montesodi (94) benefits from a bit of a smoother texture and complex elements of chocolate to go along with the signature tobacco note, but probably isn’t worth double the regular Brunello, which appears the better buy. I walked away with two bottles of the Rosso and a bottle of the Brunello.

CIACCI PICCOLOMINI D’ARAGONA

On our second day we ventured out to Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, which can be reached by taking the second turn at the roundabout in Montalcino towards Sant Antimo Abbey. Our tour guide was Nicoletta, and she provided us with information regarding the unique family history of the estate while walking us through the wine-making process and showing us the rooms where all of the many bottles lie as they age and await labeling and shipping (Below). She also gave us some time to visit the pet wolves that the family keeps on the premises, which was a huge highlight for our son.

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Our tasting took place in a private room and included 5 wines as well as an olive oil sampling and a bonus pour of grappa, all for a cost of €14.50 per person. The style of these wines can best be described as toasty and rich. The Rosso di Montalcino 2011 (88 Points), for example, showcases some darker fruit flavors than is typical for that table wine across the region. The highlights, of course, are the Brunello wines. We tasted the 2008 Brunello di Montalcino (91 Points) in the tasting room, and it is a sure winner , showing a silky texture of blackberry and blueberry fruit above dark chocolate, cigar box and a crushed gravel finish. The 2007 Brunello di Montalcino (94 Points) is not offered to taste at the estate, in fact, the bottles you see in the above photo are all that remain of that vintage, which was awared the #9 ranking for the year in 2012 by the Wine Spectator. I was able to secure a bottle to take home to my cellar, and also purchased a half bottle to taste while in Italy. The hype is justified, as this smooth, rich wine practically melts in your mouth with dark fruit flavors of blackberry, black cherry and licorice that gain complexity from briary herbs and cocoa powder, showing a finish that goes on and on. Also of note was the single vineyard Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso 2007 (92 Points), an earthy, balanced wine that shows cedar and tobacco up front above black cherry, mocha spice and gripping iron and stone mineral notes.

BIONDI SANTI:

Following lunch at Fattoria dei Barbi, we headed for the mecca of Brunello at Biondi Santi’s Tenuta Il Greppo, with its long driveway lined with cypress trees (Below). The history at this estate is staggering, as the Biondi Santi family was responsible for the creation of the 100% Sangiovese wine back in 1888 that we know as Brunello today. The rise to prominence of this wine arguably saved the economy of Montalcino, which was long impoverished following Florence’s conquering of Siena by the Medicis in 1555. I had to wiggle my way into a 4:30 appointment and the winery had made it sound as though they were opening a special spot for me at that time, but in reality I went on the tour with at least a dozen other people–the only non-private tour and tasting during our visit to Tuscany.

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In any case, the tour was highly informative. I was surprised by the small size of the barrel room relative to the wineries we had visited previously. Biondi Santi produces only about 80,000 bottles annually, which was far and away the smallest of the places we toured.

The meticulous production process differs at Biondi Santi, as in contrast to many other producers, they ferment the harvested grapes in concrete vats rather than steel, and then use oak barrels that are over a hundred years old to develop the grapes further, rather than replacing these barrels every decade or so. The result is a very subtle oak presence that really allows the terroir of the vineyard to express itself. Also, since Biondi Santo takes the term “Brunello” very seriously, they will declassify any vintage that they feel is not up to their standards and instead release the wine as a specially bottled Rosso called Fascia. They also tend to barrel age their wines for three a years, a year longer than is required by law.

Not surprisingly, these techniques result in wines that are more rustic, round and balanced on the palate thanks to the extra bottle age, low yields and the very subtle influences of the ancient oak barrels. It would be safe to say that the texture of each of these wines was on another level in terms of weight on the palate than anything else I tasted in Tuscany. The tasting was supposed to include two wines for €15, but our tour guide actually added a 1997 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva (94 Points) that was open- a $425 bottle- to the mix!  This was the oldest wine that I tasted on the entire trip, and from a spectacular vintage, so it was really a special treat. The wine was extremely rustic, with fruit dissipating and earth showing, but the texture on the palate was simply amazing, with subtle black cherry and blackberry gaining backbone from the tar, asphalt and mushroom notes that are beginning to show through. The more recent 2007 Brunello di Montalcino (93 Points) also made a strong showing, with an equally impressive texture and a floral red fruit body that leads into complex mineral and tobacco spice. Even the Rosso di Montalcino (89 Points) maintains the typical soft, balanced structure through its vibrant, acidic body, although at $75 a bottle, is a bit overpriced even for one of the best of its style in the region.

0422_BiondiSantiRainbowAbove: A rainbow appears above the fields behind the Biondi-Santi Il Greppo Estate.

POGGIO ANTICO:

On our third day, we headed another direction, taking the first turn out of the roundabout south towards Grosseto. While all the roads in Tuscany are beautiful, this was probably my favorite to drive on. Our friendly tour guide Davide took us on a thorough tour that included every aspect of the wine-making process, and even let our son look inside the empty steel tanks that were undergoing cleaning. We managed to stumble upon the actual labeling process here, and also were allowed to step inside the ancient cellar where the winery’s owner keeps a collection of all the estate’s vintages (Below). I’d sure like to have a tasting in there, wouldn’t you?

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At Poggio Antico, their philosophy is an interesting blend of old school tactics and new innovations. While their traditional Brunello is aged three years in Slavonian oak, the Altero Brunello differentiates itself by spending just two years in French oak, resulting in a completely different flavor profile for the same grapes from the same vineyard. Additionally, for the so-called Super Tuscan Blends of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, the winemaker prefers to ferment and age these grapes separately in French oak, and then combine them together at the end of the process so that they can all develop their own characteristics from the oak on an individual basis. They do all of this while still limiting production to around 100,000 to 120,000 bottles per year, which is on the lower end of the production spectrum.

This was probably my favorite actual tasting, as Davide began pouring huge samples of Brunello all over the spectrum for us to try, including two Riservas, two Alteros, and a Classic Brunello, in addition to the Madre and Lemartine (Below). We shared these since the pours were large (we would have been there all day otherwise, which would have been fine with me, but we had another appointment looming), and the total was €23 for the 7 large pours. Stylistically, these were the most heavily perfumed and complex wines I tasted during this trip, as they were all big, ripe and rich, but powerful expressions of the style. The 2004 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva (95 Points) is actually the winery’s top scoring wine ever from the Wine Spectator, and it was my very favorite of all the wines that I tried on this trip. Showing a complex balance between heavily perfumed black fruits and rustic, funky earth and mineral notes, all through an elegant texture, this wine has it all, and is impressive for its overall power. It was interesting to taste both the 2006 and 2008 Brunello di Montalcino Altero wines (92 and 91 Points respectively) against the 2006 Brunello di Montalcino (93 Points). The difference between the two was astounding, as the French oak influences are really quite evident on both vintages of the Altero, and while I respect the excitement over this trend and the richness and power it creates in the wine, I am still partial to the more classic style. The 2006 Brunello shows a more nuanced and elegant overall package, with notes of lifted, floral red currants that combine with smoked meat, game and tobacco.

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ARGIANO:

After a wrong turn that took us into the tiny hill town of Sant Angelo en Colle, we found our way back onto the same highway and finally found Argiano. Don’t let the maps trick you, just follow the same main road from Poggio Antico and look for the sign on the right after about 10-15 minutes of driving. I was happy to have found it, because in terms of pure beauty of the entire property, Argiano is second to none. The long road leads up the hill to the enormous grounds, which explode with scenic views and most of all, history. The main villa was built in 1581 by the Pecci family (Below).

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The most impressive aspect of this estate is undoubtedly the underground cellar, which was built around the same time and is still used to age the wines in barrel. You can really feel the age on this place from the smell alone, not to mention the large amount of mold and dirty soil ground that is in stark contrast to many of the modern facilities that we had visited prior. Argiano also has a modern production facility where they age some of their wines, but this underground cellar was a real eye-opener in terms of how valuable the estate considers its history, as using the ancient cellar is certainly not going to win any efficiency awards. It is pretty amazing down there though. I kept saying “this is crazy” to our tour guide because I was in such disbelief that such an ancient cellar was still in use for such a large scale producer. I’m not sure if that got lost in translation or not. (Below).

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Our guide then led us around the property to the two large apartments, complete with a swimming pool, that can be rented out for a very reasonable fee -think €150- on a three night minimum basis. The views from here, like most areas of the estate, are spectacular (Below). I was pleased when she informed me of the wild animals, such as wild boar, that roam in forest below and pose a threat to the estate’s grapes; it made me feel as though I’d been eating fresh local game all week. I couldn’t help but offer, “Well, that’s ironic…the boar enjoy eating your grapes, and I enjoy eating THEM!!!” She gave me a look of horror.

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On to the wines, which for my money were the most terroir driven and balanced of any we tasted, with fruit hiding at the back of the palate. My wife liked these the most, probably because she is a fan of balance and an enemy or ripeness. We tasted five wines each for a cost of 15 Euros per person. The 2007 Brunello di Montalcino (94 Points) is striking, with a remarkably balanced body that shows wet mineral and herbs before any of the black fruit makes an appearance, yet neither component ever dominates the other, as the wine picks up steam through a long, refined finish. The famous Super-Tuscan Solengo 2008 (92 Points), a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, is big and aggressive with its leather, smoke and tobacco notes that hover above black currant fruits, oak and finish with chalky mineral and crushed rocks. Even the bargain priced Non Confunditur 2010 (91 Points), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese, shows similar qualities, with its juicy cassis notes quickly balanced out with cedar, briary herbs and spicy tobacco. Everything from the bottom up, including the intensely perfumed, heavily floral example of a Rosso di Montalcino (2011, 89 Points) is an essay in winemaking technique. I walked away with a bottle of the Non Confunditur and a bottle of the Brunello.

BANFI:

Following the road south past Argiano, you can find Banfi’s Castello Il Borgo, although GPS is a must as the road is not very well labeled. For a small fortune approaching €600 per night, you can stay on the property. Since it is a considerable distance from all of the great dining that Montalcino has to offer, even if you feel like a splurge, it’s probably better to just spend the day there instead. After a long lunch at the fantastic Taverna, we opted to skip the 4 pm tour (offered for free Monday-Friday) and spend the afternoon tasting at the Enoteca, where they sell glasses of pretty much everything the winery produces as well as tasting flights. There is a lovely outdoor seating area where you are free to take your wine to taste, and I did this as the weather was beautiful that day (Below).

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Banfi is essentially the Italian equivalent of Mondavi, as they produce a massive quantity of wine at all ends of the spectrum, from $8 bottles of swill to very expensive high end bottlings that set the standard for their varietal. During my time there, I tasted large samples of three different wines (a bottle of Belnero 2010 at lunch, two different glasses of Brunello 2007 at the Enoteca). The style of these wines was the most intense and dark of all the wines I tasted in Tuscany, coming off with a chewy, rugged edge. With my lunch of wild boar pasta and pancetta, I ordered a bottle of the Toscana Belnero 2010 (92 Points) which may have been the single best value wine of the entire trip. The palate shows remarkable polish for such a young wine, with rich dark plum and black cherry fruit above intense cedary spice that lingers long. It was a fantastic food match. Later, I would try a glass of each of the Brunello di Montalcino 2007 (91 Points) and the Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 2007 (92 Points). Both surprised me with their thick, chewy texture of deep black fruit, chocolate and leather notes, with the Poggio Alle Mura showing the slighest bit of extra complexity in terms of depth.

COMPLETE RUNDOWN OF THE TOP WINES I TASTED IN TUSCANY (score ties broken by price):

BRUNELLO RISERVA:

1) Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004, 95 Points, $180-  Funky and complex, with earthy leather and wet mineral shading the black currant fruit notes. Heavily perfumed yet rustic, with blackberry and black cherry pulsating through a remarkably smooth ad refined texture. This bursts into notes of violet, chocolate, crushed rocks and dried tobacco leaf, filling into a spicy, leathery finish. Lots going on here, and the dark juicy fruit keeps pumping.

2) Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1997, 94 Points, $425- Extremely rustic and rich on the nose with its mushroom earth and asphalt notes above cherry and plum fruit. Seamless texture, with rich black cherry and blackberry fruit flavors leading into complex mushroom earth and asphalt and tar mineral. All in balance, with soft, silky tannins adding length.

3) Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2007, 93 Points, $145- Toasty oak aromas with floral red cherry and plum on the nose. Elegant red currants show a heavily perfumed style, with bright raspberry and cherry elements running over the smooth, creamy texture, lingering with vanilla bean and tobacco spice. Extremely well done, if a bit brighter fruit and less complex than the 2004.

BRUNELLO ANNATA:

1) Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 94 Points, $60- Rich on the nose, with big, beefy black cherry, black licorice and violet notes. Amazingly smooth and silky for its richness, as black cherry and blackberry fruit carry over the melt-in-your-mouth texture, eventually showing even deeper complexities of melted licorice, cocoa powder and briary herbs. Rich, creamy and spicy through the long finish, lingering for minutes with impressive structure.

2) Argiano Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 94 Points, $70- Very rustic on the nose, with wet limestone, understated black currants, violet and white chocolate. Clean and elegant on the palate, which starts with herbs and wet stone mineral at the front before evolving into steady layers of black cherry, cocoa and tobacco, which are all in perfect balance and refuse to take center stage in front of one another. So seamless, with a finish that goes on for minutes.

3) Altesino Brunello di Montalcino Montesodi 2008, 94 Points, $120- Lovely, elegant nose of chocolate-covered cherries, tobacco and minty mineral. Amazing mouthfeel, super light on the palate yet super intense, bursting with plum and cherry that are taken over by tobacco spice, chocolate and understated soy notes. Long, long finish.

4) Altesino Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 93 Points, $65- Balanced aromas of well-water mineral, tobacco and baked red currant fruits. Complex and intense, with juicy plum, black licorice and cherry draped by violety floral notes, sweet tobacco spice, leather and chocolate. Silky and complex through the long finish. Vivid, juicy and spicy, with leather and tobacco really dominating late.

5) Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova 2008, 93 Points, $80- Extremely aromatic and perfumed, with juicy flavors of cherry, red licorice, candy sugar and an edge of dried floral potpourri. Smooth, silky and creamy, finishing with understated vanilla bean, spice and stone mineral notes. Extremely elegant and long.

6) Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino 2006, 93 Points, $80- Lifted aromas of red licorice, smoked meat, game and dried flowers. Intense on the palate with juicy red fruit flavors of raspberry and cherry that run over a super silky texture, finishing with crushed rock and gravel, lingering with an enticing note of sweet tobacco spice. Complex smoked meat nuances are engaging throughout. Spectacular.

7) Siro Pacenti Brunello di Montalcino 2008, 93 Points, $95- Vibrant aromas of perfumed black cherry and dark raspberry. Complex and silky on the palate with a streak of smoked bacon fat above the juicy black cherry and dark raspberry fruit. Incredibly elegant and balanced, with a finish that kicks long with spice and mineral lingering.

8) Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 93 Points, $175- Very floral and minerally on the nose, with violet and rustic red fruits. Texture is phenomenal, with bursting floral fruit notes of cherry and raspberry, leading into complex layers of mineral and tobacco spice, lingering long through the smooth finish. Separates itself with texture, smooth as can be.

9) Castliglion del Bosco Brunello di Montalcino 2006, 92 Points, $50- Black olive and black currant on the nose. Ripe yet dark, with raisin, plum and blackberry above black olive and mineral earth. Deftly balanced, as hints of powdery chocolate and vanilla bean creep in late, with an element of sweet tobacco spice lingering long with the fruit.

10) Ciacci Piccolomini Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso 2007, 92 Points, $75- Black cherry, cigar box and wet mineral aromas. There is tobacco and cedar up front, leading into black cherry, mocha spice and a gripping undertone of stone and iron minerality. This really deepens as it evolves, with toasty spice lingering long. Elegant and intense through the finish.

11) Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 2007, 92 Points, $80- Intense, dark and deep aromas of leather and black currant, with a trace of minerality. Thick and chewy, with blackberry and dark plum above dark chocolate, leather and cedar earth, gaining notes of black tea and wet limestone. Firm tannic grip with tea notes lingering. A dark version of the style.

12) Mastrojanni Brunello di Montalcino Vigna Loreto 2008, 92 Points, $80- Explosive aromas of intensely perfumed cherry, raspberry and eucalyptus. This is very soft and silky on the palate, providing bright, juicy fruit notes of cherry, plum and raspberry backed by subtle tobacco spice. Finishes on a creamy hazelnut note. Lovely stuff.

13) Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino Altero 2006, 92 Points, $95- Usage of French Oak is evident in the side-by side with the regular Brunello, with bing cherry and wet mineral aromas. Smooth and ultra-ripe, with strawberry, red cherry, licorice, raspberry pie and some wet mineral notes through the long, creamy finish. Smoother than the 08, as these tannins have softened up already.

14) Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 91 Points, $55- This is very intriguing, with a chewy, leathery texture that leads into rich blackberry and dark raspberry that are backed with notes of cedar, smoked meat and vanilla bean through the long finish. This lingers with a strong note of tobacco. Firm tannins creep in, but there is great structure and promise here.

15) Ciacci Piccolomino d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino 2008, 91 Points, $60- Lovely aromas, with violet, tobacco and wet stone. Silky body with a fantastic texture of blackberry and blueberry fruit flavors above notes of dark chocolate, cigar box and a long finish of crushed gravel. Lingers long with spicy chocolate and chalky mineral notes.

16) Talenti Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 91 Points, $60- Rustic barnyard nose with aromas of tobacco and red currant. Very smooth and textured, with layers of tobacco and oak above the subtle red cherry and baked plum notes.

17) Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 91 Points, $65- Light on the palate with its red cherry, plum and smoked game notes, filling out through the finish with crushed wet rocks and a distinct redness. Firm tannins creep in through the long finish, which carries the fruit with its lively acidity.

18) Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino Altero 2008, 91 Points, $95- Bright red fruit and minty mineral on the nose. Complex body with toasty oak running through the red fruit body. Vibrant and acidic red plum and cherry is backed by vanilla from the French Oak, which is persistent through the long finish.

19) Tenuta Le Potazzine Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 90 Points, $55- Marked by red cherry and wet limestone aromas. This is very smooth and juicy, with acidty carrying the plum and cherry fruit over the spicy herbs and wet stone minerality. Finishes with a tannic grip, but the length carries long.

20) Mastrojanni Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 90 Points, $65- Distinct red licorice aromas. Medicinal mineral combines with licorice and cherry flavors on the smooth palate, giving way to wet stone and hints of tobacco. The finish shows a firm tannic grip and a dryness that closes off the fruit just a bit.

SUPER-TUSCANS AND BLENDS:

1) Castello Banfi Belnero Toscana 2010, 92 Points, $30- Lovely aromas of perfumed black currants, minty cedar and herbs. The palate shows remarkable polish for such a young wine, with rich dark plum and black cherry fruit above intense cedary spice that lingers long. Rich and spicy through the long finish, which carries with silky, refined tannins.

2) Argiano Solengo Toscana 2008, 92 Points, $75- Huge nose of smoke, leather and tobacco mingles with black currant fruits. Complex, with earthy tobacco spice, cedar and leather above softly understated blackberry and black cherry across a smooth, velvety texture. Finishes with crushed rocks and chalky mineral that showcase the terroir, and lingers long on a creamy oak note.

3) Argiano Non-Confunditur Toscana 2010, 91 Points, $25- Rich aromas of dark plum, herbs, tobacco and cedar. Juicy cassis notes are balanced out with cedar, briary herbs and tobacco that linger with a spicy presence. Very smooth, creamy texture.

4) Altesino Rosso Toscana 2010, 90 Points, $20- Strong aromas of heavily perfumed red fruit and well-water mineral. Fruity and ripe but balanced out nicely with tobacco and cigar box spice. Persistent finish. Lovely balance betweeen its perfumed fruit and spice. Tannins add grip, with tobacco the dominant lingering element.

5) Poggio Antico Madre Toscana 2006, 90 Points, $84- Earthy nose of cracked pepper and forest floor above red currants. Dry mouthfeel with lots of cedary earth, tobacco and briary herbs above intense cracked pepper and dark raspberry and cherry. Finishes with a spicy sandalwood bite and a dry tannic grip.

ROSSO:

1) Argiano Rosso di Montalcino 2011, 89 Points, $25- Very heavily perfumed, with violet shading black cherry and plum notes. Juicy purple fruit, with an intense floral note throughout including violet, lavender and potpourri elements. Some wet mineral influences creep in through the long finish, a lot going on here for a Rosso.

2) Biondi-Santi Rosso di Montalcino 2009, 89 Points, $75- Vibrant, lively acidity of bright cherry, strawberry and medicinal mineral. Very well balanced and finishing with a tobacco note. Age shows as the fruit is in balance with the earth elements.

3) Caparzo Rosso di Montalcino 2010, 88 Points, $20- Dense and juicy, with ripe black cherry and red licorice flavors at the forefront, showing deeper character of plum and wild raspberry as it deepens. Suave and fruit forward, but not cloying. Lingers enjoyably with a hint of tobacco spice.

4) San Polo Rosso di Montalcino 2010, 88 Points, $25- Minty mineral, red currant aromas. Very bright and minty, with medicinal mineral qualities that supplement the black cherry and raspberry fruit flavors lingering with a hint of tobacco.

5) Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Rosso di Montalcino, 88 Points, $30- Perfumey aromas of black cherry. Plush texture, with bright, juicy black cherry and dark plum fruit backed with subtle cedar, tobacco and crushed rocks. A bit dry through the finish, but this has much darker fruit than a typical Rosso, and a bit more complexity.

KENTUCKY DERBY PICKS AND ANALYSIS

May 3, 2013

I can’t remember a year where I have been less certain about my Derby pick than I have been this year. For much of the spring prep races, it has seemed to be even more wide open then usual, without a horse really stepping to the forefront and providing a “wow” factor. This is not to say that this crop of three year olds is weak, although it very well might be (only three colts have run a 100+ Beyer Speed Figure in a race beyond 8 furlongs, which would have been unfathomable even five years ago), but just that the race appears even more wide open and difficult to handicap than usual.

The first step is always to determine the likely pace scenario once the post positions are drawn. This year, a large point of contention among the experts is that the 2013 edition of the Kentucky Derby will feature a less grueling pace than what we typically see, which will therefore be advantageous to the horses closer to the lead. I do not share this view; I believe that any race with 20 horses entered will have a faster pace than expected. That was the case last year, even with fast fractions anticipated, and it will be the case again this year, with speedy contenders like Goldencents and Falling Sky fully capable of taking the field through an opening half of around 46.5 seconds. A pace that lively could lead to a meltdown up front and set up for horses that sit just off the pace or for stalkers, as this race usually does. Horses coming from further back, the closers, often find themselves in traffic trouble and need some racing luck, but are always dangerous as the added distance takes it toll on the majority of the young field. None of these horses have ever run 10 furlongs before.

So, I have broken the field of 20 into four categories based on running style: Pace, Just off the Pace, Stalkers, and Closers. You’ll see the horse’s post position and Morning Line odds after the pedigree information I’ve provided in this format: (Sire- Dam/ Damsire) Also worthy of note is the Tomlinson Distance Rating, a formula that attempts to quantify a horse’s ability at a given distance based on its breeding (this has been a useful stat, as the past three Derby winners have owned either the highest or second highest Tomlinson Figure). Finally, I’ve included each horse’s best Beyer Speed Figure for the 2013 campaign for races beyond 8f.

Without further adieu, here are my reasons to like and dislike every horse in the field, along with my final conclusion in terms of betting strategy. I can’t ever remember a year where every horse, even the best ones, had as many cons as they had pros, but that is where we find ourselves as we close in on the first Saturday in May. To further complicate matters, there is a 90% chance of rain in the forecast, so if you’re looking for longshots, pay attention to the mudders. Happy picking to all.

PACE

Verrazano  (More Than Ready- Enchanted Rock/ Giant’s Causeway) PP #14, 4-1 Morning Line, 301 Tomlinson Distance Figure, 101 Beyer

Pros: Undefeated in four career starts, Verrazano is a deserving second choice and may well go off as the betting favorite. He has posted two Beyer figures above 100, one of only two horses in the field to lay that claim, and also holds the field high figure of 105, albeit at a shorter distance of 8f. He benefited from a slow pace and an ideal trip in the Wood Memorial, but was able to hold off closing challengers and seemed to have plenty of gas in the tank, coming home in :12.55 for his final 1/8 and in :36.43 for the final 3/8 after getting away with murder on the front end (:49.62 opening half mile and 1:13.74 through 3/4). He is one of the most visually spectacular colts in the field, and seems to be improving with each race. It is fair to wonder whether we have seen his best yet, as he appeared to win both of his last two races, the Tampa Bay Derby and the Wood Memorial, without much urging. His tactical speed will keep him close to the leaders, and while his kick hasn’t been explosive, it appears he is more than capable of carrying his high cruising speed over a distance of ground. His draw couldn’t have gone more perfectly, as he sits outside the speed and can track outside of it to time his move.

Cons: There remains some concern about his ability to handle the longer distance of the Derby. Those fears were eased a bit after his front-running win at 9f, but his inability to dominate that field (less than a length separated him from the 2nd and 3rd place horses, Normandy Invasion and Vyjack) after such an ideal trip and soft pace setup raises some valid questions. While the slow opening fractions lend some credence to the relatively low Beyer speed figure of 95 he earned there, it bears mention that his figures have been in decline since the 105 he posted at Gulfstream in his allowance victory (101 in the Tampa Bay Derby win in between), and that distances have increased over those three races as well. Coincidence? From a pedigree standpoint, sire More Than Ready did finish 4th in the 2000 Kentucky Derby, but was more successful as a sprinter. Most of the stamina influences will have to come from the bottom side of the pedigree, and coming out of a Giant’s Causeway mare could stretch his sire’s speed a bit. However, the average winning distance of horses on the More Than Ready/ Giant’s Causeway cross is a mere 6.36 furlongs, and among the shortest of any horse in the field. Notably, he was unraced as a 2 year old, and therefore has the dreaded Apollo curse to contend with just as Bodemeister did that last year (but nearly overcame). No horse has won the Derby unraced as a 2 year old since 1881.

Conclusion: There are two completely different schools of thought here in terms of his Wood Memorial victory. On the one hand, his come home times look impressive on paper, but given the easy lead he was able to carve out, they should have been. However, he didn’t need to demolish that field and didn’t appear slightly winded after the win, suggesting that he likely gained fitness out of the race while remaining fresh and ready for a peak effort. Alternatively, one could argue that it is a serious red flag that he was unable to put away his rivals down the stretch as he should have had plenty of run after walking on the lead; Normandy Invasion was actually gaining on him late and galloped out past him. When faced with opening fractions that will likely be closer to :46 than :49 in the Derby, it is still going to be a bit of a guessing game to see how he handles it and whether he has any kick left for the stretch run. Still, as the only undefeated colt in the field, it would be tough to leave him off the top line altogether, and his Tomlinson Distance Figure is high enough to suggest that he’ll get the distance with no trouble. Probably the easiest place bet of the day based on his talent alone. (Pictured below).

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Oxbow  (Awesome Again- Tizamazing/ Cee’s Tizzy), PP #2, 30-1 Morning Line, 336 Tomlinson Distance, 95 Beyer

Pros: His well-planned, spaced out campaign has given him a seasoning advantage over this field that should have provided him with a good amount of bottom, as he is one of only three horses to run four times this year. That, combined with what is probably my favorite pedigree in the field, boasting the second highest Tomlinson here, could be a dangerous combination in this race. Sired by Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome again, he is out of a Cee’s Tizzy mare that is a full sister to dual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow. His overall pedigree is remarkably similar to Grade I winner Paynter, both being sired by Awesome Again, and Paynter being out of another full sister to Tiznow (Tizso). He’s had excuses in nearly all of his races, running wide and covering extra ground, and had posted three ascending Beyers before bouncing hard in the last. With rain expected Saturday, it’s worth mentioning that his Tomlinson Wet Track Rating is the highest in the field (424).

Cons: I was hoping he could show me something in his most recent start, but his run when 5th in a weak edition of the Arkansas Derby was too bad to be real. The 80 Beyer he earned there was a catastrophic bounce for him after previously posting three ascending speed figures. He seemed to lack the turn of foot and killer instinct it takes to be successful at this level and appeared to be more of a grinder that has trouble finding the second gear that his pedigree suggests he should possess. He likes to run near the lead, but was caught easily in the stretch of the 8.5f Rebel by Will Take Charge. He ran that race wide and had his excuses, but after his poor showing in Arkansas, I’m not sure he got quite the fitness from that effort as I had originally imagined. While his workouts at Churchill have been speedy, he has looked a bit high strung and uncomfortable.

Conclusion: Had he moved forward in the Arkansas Derby he had a chance to be my win pick, but the regression he showed in that race was concerning. He has seemed one-paced and one-dimensional up to this point, which is hugely disappointing for a horse with his potential. However, while his post isn’t ideal, it will afford him the opportunity to save ground and avoid the wide trips that have been his undoing, as he’ll have to go early with the speed. He’ll be one my longshot plays underneath in the trifecta. The point here is that if I’ve liked him all year and his last race will only serve to improve his value, he is a must play regardless of the poor effort there. He does have the highest Tomlinson of any horse who was run on dirt, and that has meant something the past three years. In a race that could have less pace than a usual Derby, he has the tactical speed to be forwardly placed early and after that, who knows?

Goldencents  (Into Mischief- Golden Works/ Banker’s Gold), PP #8, 5-1 Morning Line, 163 Tomlinson Distance, 105 Beyer

Pros: He turned his form around in a sensational win in the Santa Anita Derby, relaxing a bit off the pace and posting a field high 105 Beyer in that race. That’s the highest last race figure in the field and the only 100+ last race figure as well. That track appeared to be quite friendly to the lead, but the fact that he was able to rate off the immediate pacesetter, manage the distance and keep his momentum through the finish was a step in the right direction after wearing down in the stretch after a hot pace duel during a 4th place finish in the San Felipe the race prior to that. With less speed showing up in this year’s race, he may be able to carve out pretty reasonable fractions on the lead from a good post, and having proven his ability to handle a longer distance of ground, is certainly dangerous.

Cons: A bit of the luster from his Santa Anita Derby win dimmed when it was revealed that Flashback, his main rival there, suffered a bone chip in his knee, seemingly giving him an excuse for his poor 2nd place finish. While Goldencents contested a hot early pace (:46.48 opening 1/4), his final 1/8 of :13.0 and final 3/8 of :38.4 leaves a bit to be desired, and outside of the injured Flashback, his competition in that race wasn’t strong. He actually ran the second half of that race slower than the first half. From a pedigree standpoint, there are certainly reasons to question his ability at the Derby distance, as none of his immediate influences ever won beyond 9f, and his female side appears particularly geared towards speed. His Tomlinson Distance Figure for 10f is the lowest in the field by a considerable margin.

Conclusion: Conventional wisdom would say that if I was set on tossing him following the San Felipe pace meltdown, a front-running win over a fast track against a weak field shouldn’t change my mind, and moreover, should add value to playing against him as the third choice here. The perceived lack of pace this year gives me some pause, but the simple fact is that he is probably the very most questionable horse here in terms of distance ability, and he’s fairly certain to be near the pace, however fast or soft it turns out to be. That doesn’t sound like a great combination to me, and since there will be added value to keeping him out of the trifecta, that’s exactly what I will try to do.

Itsmyluckyday (Lawyer Ron-Viva La Slew/ Doneraile Court) PP #12, 15-1 Morning Line, 231 Tomlinson Distance, 104 Beyer

Pros: He is one of only two colts in the field to duplicate triple digit Beyer numbers in his career. His gritty win over 2 year old champion Shanghai Bobby in the Holy Bull was one of the most impressive preps run this year in terms of figures, and he wasn’t disgraced in his 2nd place finish in the Florida Derby following a long layoff. Given the back to back high numbers in January and the two month break, his bounce back to a 93 speed figure in that race isn’t altogether shocking or inexcusable.

Cons: It may be that he is better suited to distances much shorter than the Derby will offer, as he was no match for Orb down the stretch in the Florida Derby after leading on the turn for home, coming home in a less than desirable :38.33 for his final 3/8 and a plodding :13.6 for his final 1/8. His claim to fame was the aforementioned win against Shanghai Bobby, but that looks less impressive now in terms of contending for this particular race. Sire Lawyer Ron was much more effective at 9f and shorter than he was at this distance, and while damsire Doneraile Court is a son of Seattle Slew, his best win came at 8f and his offspring have not won beyond 9f.

Conclusion: This is a nice colt who will likely have a good career as a miler, but I lean against giving him the benefit of the doubt based on the layoff. It wasn’t that he lost in the Florida Derby, it was the way he lost. He had no answer whatsoever in the final stages as Orb inhaled him, and his pedigree seems to back up this result, layoff or not. He’s a play against for me, with the annoying name sealing the deal.

Falling Sky  (Lion Heart- Sea Dragoness/ Sea Hero), PP#13, 50-1 Morning Line, 255 Tomlinson Distance, 92 Beyer

Pros: Well, he is expected to go to the lead, so he will be the one to catch. Wet Figure of 412 is among the highest in the field, and the track could be helpful to the lead depending on how it is playing if it comes up sloppy.

Cons: Nothing about his pedigree or prior race form suggests that he can hang onto the lead, especially after getting some pressure from the classier colts here. He is always fading even at much shorter distances, so this race presents a real challenge for him from a distance perspective.

Conclusion: His presence in the race is meaningful if only because it could have a strong bearing on the early pace. If he gets away in a :46 first 1/2 mile and the other speed goes with him, the complexion of the race will change vastly. For me, he can’t be expected to hang on even if he goes in :50, which won’t happen, and isn’t usable on any level.

JUST OFF THE PACE

Lines of Battle (War Front- Black Speck/ Arch), PP #11, 30-1 Morning Line, 352 Tomlinson Distance

Pros: As always, he’s the winner of the UAE Derby, so he’s the only horse here to have won a race beyond 9f. The bottom side of his pedigree would confirm his ability to handle a distance of ground, and a dirt course as well. His Tomlinson Distance Figure of 352 is the highest in the field, which has been a good omen in recent years to say the least.

Cons: The Derby will be his first dirt start, which combined with the long trip from Dubai is difficult for a young horse to overcome.  The track there is very deep, but his time of 2:02 over 9.5f is remarkably slow. Expect the Derby winner to cover 10f faster than that. He arrived late and was in quarantine until Friday, so he didn’t have much time to become acclimated with the dirt course. He’s been very lightly raced, with only the one start this year, and that combined with the late arrival could put him at a decided seasoning disadvantage.

Conclusion: In a year this wide open, anything could happen. Usually, the UAE Derby winner is an easy toss every year but this horse could be an intriguing overlay if he takes to the dirt the way he should. Aidan O’Brien doesn’t bring horses over the pond for no reason, and he wasn’t far out it two years ago when Master of Hounds ran 5th. This pedigree is arguably even more impressive, and he’ll need to be used on the bottom of trifectas at the very least. A small place bet to hedge the exacta should he ruin it probably isn’t a bad idea either as he should offer value in that pool.

Vyjack (Into Mischief- Life Happened/ Stravinsky), PP #20, 15-1 Morning Line, 206 Tomlinson Distance, 93 Beyer

Pros: Vyjack continues to outrun his pedigree, and ran a respectable 3rd in his last start in the Wood Memorial, finishing only a length behind the highly regarded Verrazano. That race was his first career loss in five starts, having won both the Gotham with an impressive late rush and the Jerome Stakes at shorter distances prior to that. Although he was allowed to stalk easy opening fractions in the Wood, his :12.55 final 1/8 would seem to indicate that he had energy remaining in the stretch, and he actually covered the final 3/8 faster than the winner (:36.43). One could argue that while that race was there for the taking, it played against his running style, as he is one that prefers to lay back and make one run, and the slow early fractions nullified that effect as the leader had plenty of run left.

Cons: In five career starts, he hasn’t been able to make a decisive jump in terms of figures, as his career best Beyer of 93 doesn’t match up with the best here. Even if you are going to give him the benefit of the doubt based on an unfavorable pace scenario in the Wood, you’d still have to like Normandy Invasion a bit more, as he couldn’t hold that one off down the stretch. Given that his pedigree is strongly geared towards sprinting on the dam side, it is hard to imagine him making the needed improvement in terms of figures as the race distance gets longer. He came out of his most recent race with a lung infection, which is not exactly the type of tune up you ideally want to see. He’s also never run outside Aqueduct and drew furthest outside of all.

Conclusion: While he is admittedly a hard trier, I just can’t get past the pedigree aspect here. His Tomlinson of 206 is the second lowest in the field above only Goldencents, who shares the same sire and has posted far higher speed figures. I just don’t think he can take the needed step forward here to hit the trifecta, although it bears mention that last year’s field low Tomlinson, Went the Day Well (155) ran on well the finish 4th. I wouldn’t be totally shocked by that outcome, so he’s worth including in superfecta bets if you feel like really going for the home run.

Palace Malice (Curlin- Palace Rumor/ Royal Anthem), PP #10, 20-1 Morning Line, 312 Tomlinson Distance, 94 Beyer

Pros: He ran huge on only two weeks rest in a make or break race last time out, finishing 2nd over an unfamiliar surface on the Keeneland polytrack in the Blue Grass. He ran near the lead and still covered his final 1/8 in :12.8 and his final 3/8 in 37.1, both competitive fractions against this field. He had excuses in his prior two races, as he was bottled up badly in both and was forced to come to nearly a complete stop in the Louisiana Derby, nullifying any chance he had to make a move. In terms of pedigree, there is a lot to like, as being the son of two time Horse of the Year Curlin means he also descends from the sire line of Mr. Prospector. On the dam side, Royal Anthem was a tough turf horse that won at distances well beyond 10f, and has sired distance runners as well.

Cons: A May foal, it’s possible that Palace Malice has not yet come into his peak form, and while there is room for improvement, this race could be a tall task especially coming off such a tough campaign. This will be his third race in five weeks. For all the work it took to get here, he hasn’t been terrifically impressive in any of his races. His last race was strong but he couldn’t hold on in the stretch, as Java’s War gobbled up ground to win by a head. The Beyer speed figure of 89 that came back from that race isn’t particularly inspiring. It’s possible that he just isn’t fast enough at this point in his development.

Conclusion: There are many reasons to be bullish on his potential improvement, but I tend to think we will see it this fall. He appears very playable based on his pedigree and overall toughness, so there’s always the potential that he keeps running on and grabs a piece of the pie, but I’m going to use the angle that he’s worn out from such a tough campaign. Three races in five weeks is a lot, and this will obviously be the most grueling yet. It’s tough to see him any higher than hitting the superfecta.

Frac Daddy (Scat Daddy- Skipper’s Mate/ Skip Away) PP #18, 50-1 Morning Line, 267 Tomlinson Distance, 81 Beyer

Pros: He picked up the needed points to make the race when 2nd in the Arkansas Derby, bouncing back somewhat from back to back dismal performances when 6th in the Florida Derby and 7th in the Holy Bull. His pedigree would seem to indicate some stamina, especially on the dam side, being out of a Skip Away mare. He ran perhaps the best race of his career over this track last year when 2nd in the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall.

Cons: While he turned up 2nd in the Arkansas Derby, there is a case to be made that he didn’t run much better there than he did in the prior two races where he was soundly beaten. He was no threat to the winner, losing by more than 4 lengths, and actually lost ground over the final 3/8, coming home in a dismal :40.0 and finishing far off a race winner that earned the lowest Beyer figure of any prep this year.

Conclusion: I suppose someone had to finish 2nd in the Arkansas Derby, so he got the points there and finds himself up against a far tougher bunch. I was hard against Scat Daddy in the 2007 Derby and have helped myself narrow the field down in recent years by tossing his progeny as well. So far, this has been a quite successful strategy, and I don’t see a compelling reason to change it with this guy.

Giant Finish (Frost Giant- Apocalyptic/ Hickman Creek) #7 PP, 50-1 Morning Line, 286 Tomlinson Distance, 86 Beyer

Pros: He ran a determined enough race when 3rd in the Sprial behind Black Onyx. He did break his maiden over the dirt in a 6f race at Aqueduct.

Cons: All three of his races in 2013 have come over synthetic surfaces, and he takes a giant leap in class.

Conclusion: This was the horse that I said “who?” when they were drawing the posts. He looks severely, colossally overmatched.

STALKERS

Orb (Malibu Moon- Lady Liberty/ Unbridled) PP #16, 7-2 Morning Line Favorite, 293 Tomlinson Distance, 97 Beyer

Pros: Those who believed he benefited from a hot pace after his hard closing victory in the 8.5f Fountain of Youth bore witness to his versatility during his 9f Florida Derby win. Orb sat closer to a less grueling pace, yet was still able to overtake the leaders with ease in the stretch, covering his final 3/8 in :37.68 and his final 1/8 in :12.9. His duplication of a 97 Beyer in that race is highly competitive here. From a pedigree standpoint, he appears well suited for the added distance on both sides, as his sire, a son of AP Indy, has produced multiple 10f winners. His dam was a winner at 12f, and his damsire Unbridled, a Derby winner himself, has left his own mark on the Classics, siring Derby winner Grindstone, Preakness winner Red Bullet and Belmont winner Empire Maker. He is inbred 3 x 4 to Mr. Prospector.

Cons: While his recent wins have been impressive, there remains some question as to the quality of the fields he has beaten. On paper, the Florida Derby appears to have been loaded with speed types that were not suited for the distance, and the win in the Fountain of Youth over the highly touted Violence doesn’t look as good as it originally did after that foe came back with a significant, career-ending injury sustained in that race. While visually impressive, his final furlong in the Florida Derby probably should have been a bit faster considering how slow the early internal fractions were (:48.56 and 1:12.89.) The inbreeding to Mr. Prospector has upside in terms of stamina, but is often associated with structural hoof issues.

Conclusions: Considering the ease in which he won the Florida Derby and the fact that he didn’t even need to win that race to solidify his spot in the Kentucky Derby, I’m inclined to believe that we’ve yet to see his best and that he is sitting on a big race here. Any increase in his speed figures in combination with his running style and pedigree points to a strong contender for the win. Remember, he’s one of three colts here that is undefeated in 2013, so the point is that he will do what it takes to win. He’s looked primed over the track in his works this week. The pick. (Pictured Below).

orb

Overanalyze   (Dixie Union- Unacloud/ Unaccounted For), PP#9, 15-1 Morning Line, 313 Tomlinson Distance, 88 Beyer

Pros: He certainly appears to be rounding back into form after a surprisingly flat effort in the Gotham in his 2013 debut. He was high on many early Derby lists coming off his win last year in the Remsen over Normandy Invasion, a race that looks a bit better now than it did a month ago. He posted an eye catching 99 Beyer as a two year old in that race. He was much the best in winning his last start, the Arkansas Derby, by more than four lengths after running wide most of the way, and winners of that race have had a great deal of success in recent Derbys. This will be his third start off a layoff for Todd Pletcher. His Tomlinson Distance Figure suggests the Derby distance should be to his liking, as his 314 is the third highest in the field.

Cons: He looked like an impressive winner in the Arkansas Derby, but digging deeper into that race, the details appear far from impressive. The 1:51.9 final time was over 11 lengths slower than the Oaklawn Handicap which was run two races before. He finished the final 1/8 in :12.7, but covered the final 3/8 in a mediocre :38.8, indicating that his win may not have been as powerful as it appeared; moreover, all the horses were slowing down, he was just slowing down less. The 88 Beyer he earned there is the lowest winning number for any major prep run this year, and is only marginally better than the 86 he earned when 5th in the Gotham the race prior, easily beaten in the stretch by a surging Vyjack.

Conclusion: While his win in the Arkansas Derby on paper looks unimpressive and hard to elevate him above Vyjack, I just have the feeling he is improving at the right time and sitting on a big race. By extrapolation, it stands to reason that he was speeding up through the finish of the Arkansas Derby as he ran his final 1/8 faster than the prior two 1/8s. (:26.1 into :12.7). Visually, the way he won his final prep is exactly what you want to see in a Derby horse, and while his closing fractions and overall speed probably rule him out as a true win contender, he’s very usable at these odds in outright bets and underneath in exotics. He is certainly the most playable of the 15-1 Morning Line entrants, and should benefit from a central post.

Black Onyx (Rock Hard Ten- Kalahari Cat/ Cape Town), PP #1, 50-1 Morning Line, 297 Tomlinson Distance, 90 Beyer

Pros: He took the same route to the Derby as previous winner Animal Kingdom did, winning the Spiral at Turfway over the synthetic track and heading straight to Churchill after that. The average winning distance of his sire/ broodmare sire cross is the highest in the field at 8.71 furlongs, which would seem to suggest that the distance won’t be an issue and moreover, could be to his liking. Last year’s Spiral winner, Went the Day Well, went virtually unnoticed in the wagering, and found his way into the superfecta, so the race itself has been successful in producing contenders over the last two years.

Cons: Having not raced since March 23rd, he’ll be coming off a six week layoff up to the race, which hasn’t historically been successful, with the recent exception of Animal Kingdom. The times and figures for the Sprial have historically been a bit of an enigma, but it bears mention that the 90 Beyer he posted in the win there as well as the :13.6 final 1/8 are not very competitive here. Like previous winners of the Spiral before him, there are serious questions about his dirt form. He lost an allowance dirt race by 19 lengths back in January in his most recent start over that surface. He did not look very comfortable over the track during his workouts this week, and the one hole has been pretty impossible to overcome in this race, so the post draw didn’t do him any favors.

Conclusion: I seem to recall dismissing Animal Kingdom in 2011 based purely on the slow closing fractions coming out of the Spiral. Learning my lesson there I will toss that data for that particular race this year. But you still have to wonder if he is fast enough to make an impact here and whether he has the potential to reverse his dirt form and overcome such a difficult post. I’ll be betting against it again, but because of his pedigree and long odds, he’s definitely one you don’t want to overlook entirely if you are a superfecta player. He’d be my top choice of the 50-1 horses, but surely has a lot to overcome.

Mylute (Midnight Lute- Stage Stop/ Valid Expectations), PP #6, 15-1 Morning Line, 260 Tomlinson Distance, 93 Beyer

Pros: He seems to be improving at the right time, and as the distance gets longer, as he gave the highly touted Revolutionary all he could handle in the Louisiana Derby, finishing the final 3/8 in :37.7 and the last 1/8 in :12.6 to lose by a neck. Sire Midnight Lute is a great grandson of Mr. Prospector, so he is one of only four colts to represent that strong classic sire line.

Cons: That said, his overall pedigree appears more speed oriented thanks to Valid Expectations on the dam side. Prior to his last race, he was a handily beaten 7th in the Risen Star. The reality is that he may be getting more credit than he deserves for his 2nd place finish in the Louisiana Derby. He appeared to have the race won coming through the stretch but couldn’t hold off what most agree was a superior colt in Revolutionary. And, with the slow winning figure there, he didn’t really have an excuse. Is there reason to believe added distance will be to his advantage considering that result and how he flattened out in the stretch?

Conclusion: I saw this horse run in person at Arlington last summer and I hit the trifecta by keeping him out of it. He’s certainly been improving since then, but if he couldn’t crack the top three against that field, he’s going to be really up against it in this spot. I can’t bring myself to use him as I don’t think the distance will be to his liking.

Charming Kitten (Kitten’s Joy-Iteration/ Wild Again), PP #15, 285 Tomlinson Distance, 88 Beyer

Pros: He is one who likes to move late, as he made up four lengths late in the Blue Grass to snatch third place and qualify for this race, finishing only a half length away from the winner. His pedigree is strong enough overall to suggest that the distance shouldn’t be an issue.

Cons: This will be his first career dirt start, and his pedigree is definitely more oriented towards turf racing. His speed figures don’t add up with the top competitors here, having never broken the 90 Beyer threshold.

Conclusion: This looks like a pretty tough spot for him and a big step up in terms of class. It’s hard to see a scenario where he hits the board.

CLOSERS

Normandy Invasion (Tapit-Boston Lady/ Boston Harbor), PP #5, 12-1 Morning Line, 228 Tomlinson Distance Figure, 94 Beyer

Pros: After a very rough trip that resulted in a 5th place finish in the Risen Star, Normandy Invasion came back to close hard and finish an impressive 2nd in the Wood Memorial, less than a length behind the highly regarded Verrazano. The slow early fractions of that race make his ability to close into the leaders in the stretch even more impressive, although it should be noted that he was never more than 3 of 4 lengths off the pace. Nevertheless, his final 1/8 of :12.1 is among the fastest of any prep run this year, as is the :36.0 he posted over the final 3/8. Both of his last two speed figures should be taken with a grain of salt, as he was bottled up badly in the Risen Star, while the early pace of the Wood Memorial pretty much renders that figure difficult to judge. If he can run back to the 99 he posted in last fall’s Remsen, and improve upon that as he takes a liking to the added distance, he could be a fierce competitor indeed. He’s another that should benefit from an off track, with the second highest Tomlinson Wet Track Figure in the field (418).

Cons: He seems prone to traffic trouble, which isn’t a great sign in a 20 horse field where horses who like to come from off the pace like he does are bound to need some racing luck. His pedigree offers a mixture of speed and stamina, but is less than ideal to my liking. Sire Tapit has been hot of late, but his best runners, such as 2011 2 year old champion Hansen, have been better at 9f. The bottom side appears more speed oriented. His Tomlinson Distance Figure is in the bottom three in the field, and historically that has been a very hard stat to overcome in terms of the win.

Conclusion: For what it’s worth, Javier Castellano voluntarily chose to ride this horse over Revolutionary. You’re looking at the horse who posted the fastest late fractions over dirt in the whole field, which could help to dissuade any pedigree concerns, although I haven’t been crazy about his stride or his general physical imposition. His inside post could force him closer to the pace which should help his chances, so he certainly has to be used, but probably not on top except in exactas.

normandy-invasion

Revolutionary (War Pass- Runup the Colors/ A.P. Indy), PP #3, 10-1 Morning Line, 254 Tomlinson Distance, 93 Beyer

Pros: Winner of his only two Derby preps in 2013, Revolutionary has had very difficult trips but has found a way to win nevertheless, and that experience should be beneficial coming into a race like this. After overcoming brutal traffic trouble to rally and win the 8.5f Withers, he swung five wide making the winning move in the Louisiana Derby, and held off Mylute in the stretch, finishing his final 1/8 in :12.5 and his final 3/8 in :37.89. Departing’s impressive win the Illinois Derby flattered the form of the Louisiana Derby a bit, as he was 3rd there. His very balanced pedigree bodes well for his chances here, as sire War Pass provides ample speed on top, and dam Runup the Colors was a winner of the 10f Alabama. Damsire AP Indy has been one of the most influential and successful sires of his generation, especially at longer distances.

Cons: While his wins have been gritty and demonstrated toughness, the speed figures he has produced and the fields he has beaten appear to be a bit suspect. Mylute was coming off a 7th place finish in the Risen Star going into the Louisiana Derby, and Revolutionary was all out down the stretch to hold that one off. It’s also somewhat concerning that he hasn’t broken well out of the gate especially after drawing so far inside here. His deep closing style and ability to maneuver around his foes has nullified his bad breaks up to this point, but he could put himself at a disadvantage against a much larger and talented field here should this trend continue. As impressive as his pedigree appears on paper, his Tomlinson figure is not in the top half of the field, which is worth noting, although there isn’t a lot of data available for his late sire War Pass.

Conclusion: It’s important to remember from a figure perspective that Revolutionary did post a 102 Beyer when he broke his maiden at 8f in late December, and that in the decidedly lower figures he has posted since then, he has encountered severe traffic trouble and still found a way to win. Should he get a clean trip and some racing luck, there’s no reason he can’t run back to that number, which puts him squarely in the mix here. Combine that with a pedigree that is among the field’s most impressive despite what the Tomlinson number says, and he has to be used in exotics. However, there are too many knocks against him for me to put him on top or bet him to hit the board outright at his likely odds.

Java’s War (War Pass- Java/ Rainbow Quest), PP #19, 15-1 Morning Line, 254 Tomlinson Distance, 96 Beyer

Pros: He overcame a terrible start when he circled the field, coming from last to first to win the Blue Grass over the Keeneland polytrack. In an eye catching late move running widest of all the runners, he covered the final 3/8 in :35.8 and the final 1/8 in :11.9, both field best closing fractions. His deep closing style will be attractive to players who like to support horses that can pick up the pieces of a pace meltdown and come flying home late. In the race previous to that in the 8.5f Tampa Bay Derby, he was no match for the winner Verrazano, but was definitely making up ground late on the dirt track, and wound up a clear 2nd in that race. The added ground here would appear to help based on his running style.

Cons: There is some concern about his ability to transfer his polytrack form to the dirt. Despite his performance at Tampa, he struggled in his only start at Churchill Downs, finishing 6th in an 8.5f race last November. While his running style seems to indicate a desire for more ground, his pedigree would surprisingly predict the opposite. The average winning distance of his sire and broodmare sire cross is a mere 6.01 f, the lowest in the entire field. His direct influences suggest speed on top and an affinity for turf underneath, so a 9f winner over synthetic sounds about right. As eye-catching as his Blue Grass win was, the strategy of dropping back to last early in a 20-horse field could be asking for trouble. And, the Beyer figure he earned even with such strong closing fractions doesn’t look very competitive. His high leg action is more typical of a turf runner and he hasn’t looked great over the course this week.

Conclusion: If you’re a fan of deep closers, it’s probably better to look toward his performance at Tampa Bay rather than in the Blue Grass, a race that hasn’t translated well at all into Derby form over the past few years. His closing fractions look impressive on paper, but they should considering he didn’t start running until the end. Still, without as a hot a pace scenario this year, I’m iffy on using a horse that gives away so much ground early in a race with so much traffic, and drawing this far outside will only add to that. I’ll play the Blue Grass curse angle and try to keep him off the board.

Will Take Charge (Unbridled’s Song- Take Charge Lady/ Dehere), PP #17, 20-1 Morning Line, 229 Tomlinson Distance, 95 Beyer

Pros: Trainer Wayne Lukas is keeping him fresh, opting for a seven week layoff with several long workouts to give him bottom rather than trying to run back after only three weeks rest. He looked strong in his last contest, overtaking stablemate Oxbow down the stretch of the 8.5 Rebel at Oaklawn. He certainly looked like he wanted to run longer there and the empirical data regarding his pedigree would suggest the same, as the average winning distance of his sire/ broodmare sire cross is 7.93, good for the second best in the field. He is one of four colts running here that descend from the Mr. Prospector sire line, which has won 10 of the last 18 Kentucky Derby’s, including last year’s winner I’ll Have Another. The wide post should help keep him out of traffic and allow him to make his move late.

Cons: It’s somewhat surprising that Lukas opted for the unorthodox decision to train him up to the Derby following his Rebel win on March 16, and the seven week layoff and lack of a major prep race could put him at a disadvantage in terms of seasoning. It’s been over 60 years since a horse won this race with that kind of a break, and when Barbaro won in 2006, he was the first in years to do so after even five weeks of rest. He’s also never raced beyond 8.5 furlongs, so this will be quite a jump for him. His average winning distance looks strong in terms of pedigree, but it’s worth noting that he’s a half brother to Take Charge Indy, who struggled to get the distance in his Derby try, and who arguably has better stamina influences on his top side (AP Indy vs Unbridled’s Song). The low Tomlinson Distance Figure seems to confirm this. While his Wet Figure looks high on paper (413), he ran the worst race of the year over a sloppy track when 6th by 18 lengths in the Southwest. The worst race of his career, the Kentucky Jockey Club, came over this track last November, where he finished 13th by over 25 lengths, posting a 32 Beyer after flattening out. Earlier this week, Morning Line Favorite Orb galloped out 5 furlongs nearly as fast at Will Take Charge’s hard 5f work.

Conclusion: He’s admittedly somewhat of a wildcard, but I can’t say I’m enthused by either the seven week layoff or the fact that he’s the least tested at the distance of any horse in the field. He’d really have to be a superstar to move up from an 8.5f winner to a 10f winner against 19 other horses and no races in between. While he’s a candidate to pick up the pieces late, his 95 Beyer in the Rebel doesn’t scream superstar to me, and I like others just a bit better.

Golden Soul (Perfect Soul- Hollywood Gold/ Mr. Prospector) PP #4, 50-1 Morning Line, 251 Tomlinson Distance, 89 Beyer

Pros: He ran well at Churchill Downs in his debut, and has stamina influences on the bottom side of his pedigree that could help him run on late if the pace if quicker than expected.

Cons: He was no match for Oxbow in the 8f LeComte, as he was crushed by 11 lengths. He’s been improving since but has finished off the board in his last two races against several competitors here.

Conclusion: It’s tough to make much of a case for him here and will likely be even higher than his morning line odds suggest. I just can’t find an angle on him that merits taking any kind of shot.

PICKS SUMMARY:

1)    Orb

2)    Verrazano

3)    Normandy Invasion

4)    Revolutionary

5)    Overanalyze

6)    Oxbow

7)    Lines of Battle

8)    Goldencents

9)    Itsmyluckyday

10) Vyjack

11)  Java’s War

12)  Palice Malice

13)  Will Take Charge

14)  Black Onyx

15)  Mylute

16)  Charming Kitten

17)  Frac Daddy

18)  Falling Sky

19)  Golden Soul

20)  Giant Finish

BETTING STRATEGY:

Admittedly, it is far from ideal that in a race this wide open, I have landed on the two favorites as the most likely winners. However, I remind myself that 4-1 or 5-1 on horses that you feel good about is not too shabby even in a field this large. It’s better to trust your handicapping than to search for value where it doesn’t exist. So, my outright bets are rather chalky this year. But, to compensate for this, I’ll search for value by trying to beat Goldencents altogether, throwing in some longshots into the exacta and trifecta. I’ll go five deep in the exacta and seven deep on the bottom of the trifecta. I don’t have the patience to bet the superfecta. I feel like playing the superfecta in this race is like having multiple brackets in the NCAA Tournament. You just spread yourself too thin trying to cover everything and end up losing the essence and fun of the event in the process.

HOW TO BET $100 ON THE KENTUCKY DERBY:

$10 to Win, Place, Show on ORB

$10 to Place, Show on VERRAZANO

$10 to Show on NORMANDY INVASION

$1 Exacta Box- ORB, VERRAZANO, NORMANDY INVASION, REVOLUTIONARY, OVERANALYZE ($20)

$0.50 Trifecta Wheel- ORB, VERRAZANO/ ORB, VERRAZANO, NORMANDY INVASION, REVOLUTIONARY, OVERANALYZE/ ORB, VERRAZANO, NORMANDY INVASION, REVOLUTIONARY, OVERANALYZE, OXBOW, LINES OF BATTLE ($20)