This year's running of the Kentucky Derby will be special. It will be won by a special horse with a special story. We're sure of it after watching last night's PBS documentary on Seabiscuit.
But who will it be? Will we see the making of an empire? Will the aura of Seabiscuit rub off on Buddy Gil? After all, this gutsy gelding, who was raised in Idaho, is an unlikely hero, and his rider, Gary Stevens, who stars in the movie, is himself making a remarkable Red Pollard-like comeback. For "Seabiscuit" director Gary Ross and the movie's producers, who purchased 10% percent of Atswhatimtalknbout, will the Derby be life imitating art imitating life? Can Bob Baffert find happiness once again in the Run for the Roses with a Panamanian horse bred in Utah?
Can Ten Most Wanted provide a dream ending to Wally Dollase's remarkable comeback after the popular trainer lost every one of his horses and was forced to rebuild his stable from scratch? And what about the loyalty of his Horizon Stable partners, who promised to be there for him if he ever decided to return, and kept their promise? Or will it be Brancusi, whose will to survive as a foal, and the determination of his small-time breeders are the stuff of movies and books?
Those are just some of the great story lines developing for the 2003 Derby. All we know is that if the movie "Seabiscuit" is half as good as the documentary, make sure you bring plenty of tissues to the theater.
Getting back to the reality of this year's Derby, Illinois Derby runner-up Fund of Funds is out of the race due to a small tendon tear in his left front leg. The injury was discovered yesterday following an ultrasound.
The only worker this morning was Holy Bull Stakes winner Offlee Wild, who has had his share of morning misadventures this year. The son of Wild Again worked too fast (:57 2/5) for the Fountain of Youth Stakes and too slow (1:03 3/5) for the Blue Grass Stakes.
As the nearly black colt stood quietly in his stall just after 6 a.m., trainer T.V. Smith was preparing for the work to assure that everything went right this time. He had a workmate all lined up in the 3-year-old colt Roman Centaurian, and he had jockey Robby Albarado coming to work him and to get acquainted with his new mount. Smith's only regret was missing so much time with the colt after he came down with a serious virus following the Fountain of Youth, in which his temperature climbed to over 104. With a third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes, Smith is hoping that will be enough of a move forward to have him ready for a top performance in the Derby.
"He was a pretty sick horse," Smith said. "It took a long time for the fever to break, and it was 10 days before he was able to return to the track. All the time he was on antibiotics, we had him off his grain, so he lost weight and was tucked up, and it took him a while to get his strength back. We had to get him fit and get his weight back at the same time, so it was kind of a balancing act."
One of the reasons Smith worked him in company is because of the colt's habit of playing around and losing focus when he has no one to run at. "He'll work so far, and if he doesn't have anything to keep his interest, he kind of comes out of the bit and doesn't persevere," Smith said. He also sent the colt to the track with a pony, because he's gotten a bit keyed up before a work in the past.
With Roman Centaurian breaking off at the five-eighths pole a couple of lengths in front of Offlee Wild, they went along at an even clip, with Offlee Wild getting the opening quarter in :24 3/5. When Albarado asked him to pick it up around the far turn, Offlee Wild ranged up alongside Roman Centaurion. The pair came off the turn well and raced as a team to the eighth pole, with Albarado content to just sit on his horse and let him do everything on his own.
In the final furlong, Offlee Wild asserted himself and drew clear of his workmate. But, just as Smith had said, once he cleared him he again lost his focus a bit and began to drift out, something he's done in past works. Despite the drifting, he still was running strongly to the wire and striding out nicely. He came home his final eighth in :12 2/5 to complete the five furlongs in 1:01 2/5, which obviously would have been faster had he kept his mind on business. He still has another work scheduled, and while this was a solid work all in all, Smith probably would like to have seen Roman Centaurion hang around a little longer.
We've considered Offlee Wild a live longshot for quite some time, and at the odds he's sure to go off at, the feeling here is that he's still an attractive proposition, even if it's to complete a big-priced exacta or trifecta. We're still not sure if he's quite ready to win, but we'll be taking a long, hard look at him over the next 11 days, and will be anxious to see his next work.
There were three gallopers this morning who really caught the eye. Bobby Frankel gave Empire Maker a good open gallop, letting him roll a bit down the backside, and the son of Unbridled looked like pure poetry, as he glided along with his ears up, covering a ton of ground with every stride. Frankel, who probably will work Empire Maker and Peace Rules on Sunday, couldn't ask the favorite to be looking and training any better. He's even begun to dapple out, in addition to putting on more muscle.
Another colt who really caught the eye was Ten Most Wanted. Like Empire Maker, he has a long, fluid stride and covers a lot of ground. But even though he's a bigger and more powerfully built horse, he's very light on his feet. Before the arrival of his regular exercise rider from California yesterday, he's been ridden at Keeneland and Churchill Downs by former Kentucky Derby-winning exercise riders – Brian Becchia (Monarchos) and Andy Durnin (Fusaichi Pegasus). Durnin said he really had no rooting interest in the Derby until he got on Ten Most Wanted's back for the first time. He said he was amazed at the feeling of effortless power the colt gave him, and compared him very closely to Fusaichi Pegasus in that regard.
Wally Dollase was scheduled to arrive in Louisville Tuesday evening, and he'll supervise Ten Most Wanted's work on Wednesday with Pat Day aboard. Day is another huge fan of this horse, and couldn't stop raving about him, and how much he improved from the El Camino Real Derby to the Illinois Derby. Day said he was a totally different horse and much more professional. He compared the change to a boy turning into a man.
The third horse who was impressive to watch gallop was Indian Express, a tall, more rangy type of colt, who also has a magnificent stride. It's hard to tell if he's going to be seasoned enough for such an arduous task, but we may know more after he works with Kafwain on Wednesday. Kafwain needs a workmate, and Bob Baffert said he may work both colts in company. But we won't know until tomorrow morning.
Baffert sent out Senor Swinger for a five-furlong breeze in 1:03 on the turf with Day aboard. Day felt the colt handed the new surface well after a few initial antics, and said he did become a bit distracted when a rabbit (yes, a real Easter bunny type rabbit) dashed between two of the cones on the turf course. Baffert said he'll talk to Bob Lewis tomorrow to decide whether to run the son of El Prado in the May 2 Crown Royal on the grass. Baffert didn't dismiss the Derby as an option, but it appears to be a longshot at this time.
One horse who may very well pop back into the Derby picture is Lone Star Sky, who is coming a disappointing effort in the Illinois Derby. But when the son of Conquistador Cielo turned in a sharp 6-furlong work in 1:12 4/5 this morning, with a final eighth in a blazing :11 1/5, trainer Tom Amoss began to start thinking Derby. He said at this point he isn't leaning in any one direction.