The first morning at Churchill Downs brought sunny skies and warm temperatures, as the Kentucky Derby horses began their final stretch to racing’s biggest day. From here on, there is no room for error. We’ll give a brief rundown of the day’s activities and continue with the plusses and minuses of each contender.
The majority of activity took place after the renovation break, with the only worker being the Nick Zito-trained Cool Coal Man, who worked a half-mile in company in :47 2/5.
The two horses who really filled the eye from a physical standpoint were Colonel John and Adriano, both of whom stood for several minutes before galloping, giving observers a close study. Both are big, good-looking colts with who cover a tremendous amount of ground. Colonel John is laid back and barely moved a muscle as he stood for a while at the entrance to the chute.
Another powerhouse of a horse is Z Fortune, who went out in trainer Steve Asmussen’s first set at 6 a.m., followed by Pyro in the second set. The Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner is a muscular colt, with big shoulders and hindquarters.
But the one horse who stood out was Denis of Cork. We didn’t get to see his last work, which several horsemen said was fantastic, but from what we saw today it would be an absolute shame if this colt didn’t get in the race because of a lack of graded earnings. He currently stands at No. 22. His coat looked super and his gallop was strong and smooth, as he seemed to bounce over the track. All trainer David Carroll can do now is wait. Those standing in his way as of now are Coolmore Lexington (gr. II) winner Behindatthebar and the two Larry Jones-trained fillies Eight Belles and Proud Spell.
At No. 21 is Santa Anita Derby (gr. II) runner-up Bob Black Jack, whose connections have been trying to decide all week whether to stay home and not risk it or ship to Louisville and hope for the best, with the Preakness (gr. I) being their other option. The horse would ship on Saturday if they decide to come.
Before the heavy activity begins over the weekend, here is a look at the remaining Derby contenders in order of graded earnings.
Adriano – Minuses: He ran horribly in his only dirt start, getting beat 17 lengths in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II), but trainer Graham Motion blamed it more on his pre-race behavior on a hot, humid day than the surface. He did, however, act up badly at Laurel last November, and a hot-blooded horse is a concern in the Derby. He’s run big on grass and Polytrack, which leaves his ability to handle dirt in question. He’ll be coming into the Derby off a six-week layoff and has had only an easy half-mile breeze and easy five-furlong breeze since that race, with one more work to come. Plusses: He’s certainly bred to handle dirt and has plenty of stamina top and bottom. He’s a beautiful-moving horse with a long, fluid stride. He had a pack of horses strung out across the track bearing down on him after turning for home in the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II), but galloped away from them, winning under wraps. In his grass allowance score on Jan. 11 he turned in what was arguably the most explosive move on the turn seen all year by a 3-year-old. If he keeps his cool on Derby Day he is more than capable of winning.
Recapturetheglory – Minuses: He’s had only two starts this year, bursting on the scene from out of nowhere to win the Illinois Derby (gr. II) wire to wire. Many claim it was because of an inside speed rail. His sire Cherokee Run is known more for his sprinters and milers, but his get have won up to nine furlongs. Plusses: The speed bias was not that pronounced judging from the other races on the card, and bias or no bias, he put away a good horse in Golden Spikes with a powerful :36 1/5 final three-eighths, earning a 102 Beyer speed figure. He finished a good second to Cool Coal Man in an allowance race at Churchill Downs last year. He’s not an overly big horse, but he covers a lot ground and no one knows how good this horse really is, just as they didn’t know how good War Emblem was. Named by Louie Roussel to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Risen Star, he looks like a Derby gods type of horse if ever there was one.
Smooth Air – Minuses: His pedigree doesn’t seem geared for 1 1/4 miles, but other than that he really doesn’t seem to have any other minuses. His trainer and jockey are newcomers to the Derby, but certainly have done everything right with this horse so far. He’s a smallish colt, so traffic is always a concern. Plusses: He’s as honest and consistent as they come and gives 100% every race. Talk about a Derby gods horse, his 70-year-old trainer Bennie Stutts, with only eight horses, will be the media darling come Derby Day, and the colt actually could wind up being this year’s wise guy horse. His Beyers are solid, with four races over 90, his speed sheets numbers are live, and his second in the Florida Derby was a huge effort, as he finished nearly eight lengths ahead of the third horse. Stutts’ old school training has put a ton of conditioning and stamina in him, and up to now everything has been right on the money. With so many question marks surrounding the others, he looks to be as solid a play as anyone.
Cool Coal Man – Minuses: Stopped badly in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), finishing ninth, and obviously did not like the Polytrack. He didn’t run well at all in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs. We had him ranked pretty high over the past month, but just don’t know what to make of him now. His final Derby work was a half-mile drill nine days before the race. Plusses: He demonstrated an excellent turn of foot in the Fountain of Youth, and although he threw in a bad race in the Kentucky Jockey Club he did win an allowance there, beating Recapturetheglory by 2 1/4 lengths. His 98 Beyer in the Fountain of Youth was strong in this field and he likely doesn’t have to improve too much off that to be right there in the Derby. Lost in War Pass’ shadow all year, this is his chance to take over the spotlight.
Anak Nakal – Minuses: He hasn’t regained the form he showed last year. His first two races this year were clunkers, and although he did improve in the Wood Memorial (gr. I), they crawled home and Court Vision blew right on by him turning for him. Plusses: He does have a grade II stakes victory at Churchill Downs and looked to be one of the upcoming stars of 2008. He has a fascinating pedigree, inbred three times to Dr. Fager, and his sire, Victory Gallop, won the Belmont Stakes. He was only beaten 3 1/2 lengths in the Wood Memorial, so maybe he can build on that. He’ll have to if he’s going to be competitive on May 3.
Cowboy Cal – Minuses: His only appearance on dirt was his career debut, in which he finished up the track. You can’t gauge his ability on dirt from that race, but there still is the question of whether he can handle it or is simply a grass horse who handles Polytrack. He’s one of several horses who like to be on or near the pace, so he’ll be tested early. Pretty much of a guess, like a lot of them. Plusses: He’s won some of his grass races like a dirt horse, taking the lead on the far turn and not backing up, as many turf horses will after taking the lead prematurely. He also has a beautiful stride, and we’ll have to see if it’s as effective on the dirt. He battled gamely to the wire in the Blue Grass, and his breeding has both turf and dirt influences.
Behindatthebar – Minuses: Another who has run big on synthetic surfaces only to falter in his only dirt start. Reportedly did not like dirt getting kicked in his face in El Camino Real Derby (gr. III), which does not bode well for the Derby. He’ll be making his third start in four weeks and has never been farther than 1 1/16 miles. And he’s by sprinter Forest Wildcat, who also is a sire of sprinters. Pletcher’s initial comments suggest he’s not keen on running him back in two weeks, but there has been a report of a possible deal for half interest. However, that has not been substantiated. Plusses: He gives all the signs of being an extremely talented horse, and his connections just have to hope the Derby doesn’t prove to be a major setback in his rapid development. He has to be talented to have won the Lexington coming from so back on that short stretch (finish line was at the sixteenth pole).
Visionaire – Minuses: Another who is not bred for a mile and a quarter, and, like Smooth Air, that is really the only minus you can give him other than perhaps not having the build of a distance horse. Plusses: Other than his pedigree, which is more questionable than undesirable, he has the right running style and a powerful closing kick. He’s run well at Delaware, Laurel, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, and Aqueduct, and actually didn’t run badly at all over Keeneland’s Polytrack, despite not liking the surface. He at least rallied from 12th to finish fifth, coming home in :35 and change, after breaking from the 12-post, getting hung wide on the first turn and swinging nearly 10 wide in the stretch. And he’s run well in the slop. We would prefer him having his final work at Churchill, which he likely will if the weather cooperates. If he can get the 10 panels, he’ll be motoring down the stretch.
Big Truck – Minuses: Yet another coming off a horrible performance in the Blue Grass. His sire Hook and Ladder is basically speed. He won the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), but form hasn’t held up well from that race, so he’s pretty much of a guess…what else is new? Plusses: He has good tactical speed and can come from farther back if he has to.
We’ll discuss Eight Belles and Proud Spell tomorrow along with the two horses – Bob Black Jack and Denis of Cork – whose fate is in their hands.