With leading rider Garrett Gomez aboard, Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT) winner Willow O Wisp is a deserving favorite in a field of eight entered for the $150,000 Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT) at 1 1/8 miles on the turf at Santa Anita Park Saturday.
Except for his defeat by a head in the Will Rogers Handicap (gr. IIIT) in May, Willow O Wisp would be undefeated in five starts since Vladimir Cerin began conditioning the 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding. But the trainer is hard-pressed to explain the reason for his success.
"I have no idea," said Cerin. "He's probably just a young horse that was developing. You have to get them at the right time."
Willow O Wisp has a 5-1-1 record from 12 starts for owner Robert Alexander of Las Vegas. In five starts for Cerin, the son of Misnomer has four victories, including the Cinema Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIIT), the La Jolla Handicap (gr. IIT), and the Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT) in his last three races.
Gomez, Oak Tree's leading rider with 23 wins through 13 days, says of Willow O Wisp, "He's a horse that's developing into his best form. The first time I rode him (a neck victory in an allowance race at Hollywood Park April 23), he was all over the race track, but he's slowly gotten better and matured. He's doing everything right. I've worked with him and Vlado's worked with him to be more versatile in his running style, and that's a potent combination."
The 33-year-old Gomez is keeping things in perspective as he rolls towards an Oak Tree riding title.
"I'm just enjoying it," he said. "I'm getting cranked up to ride in the Breeders' Cup. I just try to show up every day and give 120 percent and see what happens at the end of the day. Fortunately, we've been pretty lucky."
The biggest challenge for Willow O Wisp figures to come from Osidy, who defeated Willow O Wisp in the Will Rogers and was most recently third in the Del Mar Derby Sept. 5. The horse who nosed him for second that day, the German-bred Tedo, returns Saturday as well. Tedo was a listed stakes winner in Italy making his United States debut last time.
Eastern Sand, who was only a head behind in fourth in the Del Mar Derby, also returns Saturday.$150,000 Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT, Race 9, 4:30 pm.), 3-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles (turf)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Aragorn (IRE), 118, Patrick Valenzuela
2. Eastern Sand (FL), 118, Victor Espinoza
3. Osidy (KY), 118, Corey Nakatani
4. Willow O Wisp (FL), 120, Garrett Gomez
5. Follow the Rainbow (KY), 118, Tyler Baze
6. Tedo (GER), 118, Felipe Martinez
7. Brecon Beacon (GB), 118, Kent Desormeaux
8. Orbits World (CA), 118, Javier Santiago