Steve Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: It's Alive!

Steve Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: It's Alive!
Photo: Equi-Photo/Bill Denver
Is Florida Derby winner Empire Maker the greatest creation from 'Dr. Frankelstein'?
If Bobby Frankel had any sense of fair play, he'd at least have the decency to keep these races close. There are other less-fortunate trainers out there who have been dreaming of roses and mint juleps every night for the past two months, and here is big, bad Bobby single-handedly jolting them back to reality by thrashing their poor horses. OK, Peace Rules' 2 1/4-length margin in the Louisiana Derby was at least reasonable enough to allow some of the vanquished to come back for more. But what's with these 9- and 10-length demolitions?

The addition of blinkers to Empire Maker turned out to be the most dramatic optical equipment change since Clark Kent took off his glasses for the first time. By going from a second-place finish in a restricted stakes to a 9 3/4-length rout in the Florida Derby, this newly created monster surprised even Dr. Frankelstein, who wasn't expecting him to run amok like that, destroying everything in its path.

And speaking of monsters, what's with the doctor's other creation, Midas Eyes, who returned from a 7-month layoff, having last run in 5 1/2-furlong maiden race at Calder, to win the 7-furlong Swale Stakes by 9 1/4 lengths in 1:21 flat? It's too bad this colt doesn't have another couple of races under him, because he was downright awesome.

After the Florida Derby, Frankel, fearing Empire Maker had done too much too soon, gave serious consideration to training up to the Kentucky Derby, which would have given him seven weeks between races and only four career starts. Bucking history twice like that would have been scrutinized, analyzed, and criticized from now until Derby Day. But it all became moot when Frankel decided the next day to stick to his original schedule and run in the Wood Memorial.

In the past, Derby-winning trainers Bob Baffert D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito, Neil Drysdale, and Charlie Whittingham all attempted to win the Derby with a horse who had only four career starts and all failed.

As for the layoff, in 2001 John Ward was in a similar situation with Monarchos, who had turned in one of the most spectacular performances ever by a young 3-year-old in the Florida Derby. Ward stuck with his original plan to run the colt back in the Wood, making sure it served as a prep race, first and foremost. He gave him two weeks off after the Florida Derby, then trained him lightly for the Wood and told Jorge Chavez not to beat him up to win the race. When he finished a fast-closing second to the brilliant and lightly raced Congaree, Ward was thrilled with the race, which set him up perfectly for his monster effort on Derby Day. Frankel, like Ward, would like to win the Wood, but the main goal is to keep that peak effort from coming out until three weeks later.

Frankel's thinking is that if his goal was solely to win the Derby, then he's convinced he could accomplish that with a fresh horse off a 7-week layoff. But Frankel's goal is winning all three Triple Crown races. And to pull off a feat of that magnitude he has to go about it as if he were shooting pool. He's confident he can sink the first shot, but he knows in order to keep the run going he has to make sure he leaves the cue ball in position for the next shot. He feels if Empire Maker won the Derby as a fresh horse off that long a layoff, he might regress off it. The tighter and tougher he is going into the Derby, the better chance he has of doing it again two weeks later. Charismatic, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem were all good examples of horses getting on a roll prior to the Derby and carrying it through the Triple Crown. Although a variety of circumstances got these horses beat in the Belmont, it's the same pattern followed by horses who did sweep the Triple Crown. So, Frankel's philosophy is "why buck history?"

Although Empire Maker won by almost 10 lengths, he looked as if he still has a bit of greenness to work on. He didn't switch leads until two strides from the wire and his final three-eighths in :38 1/5 could use a little improvement. Bailey tried to get him to change leads through the stretch. Passing the finish line, when he pumped his fist and gave Empire Maker a congratulatory slap on the neck, it was hard to tell if Bailey was congratulating him for winning or changing leads. This actually was a learning experience as well as an impressive score.

But the most important aspect of the race was how much he improved with blinkers. He was into the bit right away, and was so much more focused and confident throughout the race. Even down the backstretch, one got the impression he had Trust N Luck measured. And when he confronted him, he took no prisoners, as they say. The bottom line is that Frankel finally has seen the colt emerge into the star he always believed he was, and we finally have an exciting Derby favorite.

Sunday's three races really were an enigma. While there were some impressive performances, the key word was "longshot." There simply were too many of them around at the finish to get a true gauge of the merits of these races. In the San Felipe, you had the victorious Buddy Gil at 9-1 finishing three-quarters of a length ahead of third place finisher Brancusi at 48-1, with 86-1 shot, Logician, another 1 1/4 lengths back in fourth. Now, Logician may turn out to be a good horse, but he was one-for-four in Cal-bred races and finished last in his only start in open company. For him to get beat two lengths in here makes one ponder a little, anyway.

In the Tampa Bay Derby, the 8-5 favorite, Region of Merit, was all out to run down a stubborn Hear No Evil at 34-1. Second choice Aristocat just got up to beat out Hear No Evil by a neck for second, while finishing three-quarters of a length behind the winner. Hear No Evil had never been two turns and had lost seven in a row going into the race. His last victory came over eight months ago. Finally, in the Gotham, 9-1 Alysweep set an uncontested pace throughout and drew off to a 4 1/4-length victory in his first start over 6 furlongs.

So, what did we get out of these races? Buddy Gil was impressive, having to come between horses and getting bumped around, yet still showed a lot of determination at the end. He was very sharp for this race, coming off a win in the 6 1/2-furlong Baldwin Stakes on the turf and having worked 5 furlongs in :57 4/5. But his pedigree seems more geared to distances up to 1 1/8 miles. That, however, can't be said for Atswhatimtalknbout and Brancusi. Atswhatimtalknbout was striding out beautifully in the final furlong, and although he was running down horses with questionable past performances for a grade II stakes, you couldn't script his progress any better. Each race has moved him forward, and this is one horse who really is on target to peak on Derby Day. He'll look to take it one step further in the Santa Anita Derby. Visually, he was very impressive. He's a powerful, grand-looking colt with a long stride and fluid action. And he's got the pedigree to keep going. There aren't any real flaws you can find in him right now.

Continued...

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