Well, we blew it, pure and simple. Not only is it right there in the book, "Horse Racing's Holy Grail: The Epic Quest For The Kentucky Derby," but we wrote the darn thing. It says it right there in an entire chapter devoted to the "Derby Dynamos," Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, and Nick Zito. It explains why these three guys know how to win the Derby, while most everyone else doesn't. It says these are the guys you go to if you want to win the Derby. Well, we didn't go to them, and like most everyone, we have a load of losing tickets in our pocket. $1,300.80 on a Bafftert-Lukas exacta in the Derby – unreal!
We also blew it with a different kind of brain lapse. In our April 24 Derby Report, we wrote: "Bob Baffert sent out War Emblem for a six-furlong work a few minutes before Harlan's Holiday. Jet-black in appearance, the newly purchased Illinois Derby winner is quite an eyeful. Unlike Harlan's Holiday, he broke off steady and relaxed, and got into a good groove right from the beginning. He built up a good head of steam coming to the quarter pole, which carried him several paths off the rail. With exercise rider Dana Barnes letting him finish up on his own, he came home his final quarter in about :24 flat to complete the six furlongs in 1:12 3/5. Also unlike Harlan's Holiday, War Emblem kept going at a strong clip past the wire and all the way around the clubhouse turn, galloping out seven furlongs in 1:25 4/5 and pulling up a mile in 1:39.
For a speed horse, whose ability to carry that speed a mile and a quarter in a 20-horse field is in question, this was an excellent work, and provided him with a solid foundation going into the race. He'll be picking up 12 pounds off his Illinois Derby victory, but if he should get loose on the lead and allowed to get into the rhythmic stride that decimated his field at Sportsman's Park, he could hang around for quite a while. And if no one is bold enough to take him on in the first six furlongs, he could be a tough horse to catch. He is coming off two monster ThoroGraph numbers, and watch out if he runs anywhere near that on Derby Day."
Then, on April 28, we wrote: "The final galloper, who keeps getting stronger by the day, is War Emblem, and once again the son of Our Emblem barreled around there at a good clip. This near-black colt looks nothing at all like a sprinter, and in fact looks more like a European stayer, except he is as powerful a galloper as you'll see in this race. Perhaps it is the lip cord he's wearing (for better control), but he's focused and more easily manageable, and if he gets loose on the lead and gets into a rhythmic stride, well, you never know. But there will be a number of classy stalkers clocking him the whole way. It'll be interesting to see who makes the first move at him, and when. If they wait too long, he could be gone."
So, he worked great, galloped great, looked great, has the look of a stayer, and "could be gone" if they wait too long. So, what happens when it comes time to go over the race and do a final analysis? And what happens when we go to the windows? We completely forget about him and what we wrote about him. So, when it came down to crunch time, we were the one who got crunched. The Derby will do that to you. So, you you regroup and vow never to make the same mistakes again. But you know something? You will.
The reality of the 2002 Kentucky Derby is that it was an excruciating race to watch, unless you had the first three boxed in the trifecta. Otherwise, you were just waiting for something to happen. My colleague from the New York Post, Ray Kerrison, put it best when he wrote: "It was like watching a heavyweight boxing match and no one threw a punch." There wasn't even a jab thrown. This was unlike any Kentucky Derby we've ever seen. On the far turn, which is always a flurry of activity, with horses flying from the back, not a creature was stirring. Nothing. It was like watching auto parts moving on a conveyor belt. The positions never changed. Whether a track bias was to blame, we really don't know. But it just did not look like the Kentucky Derby, and in that respect it was disappointing.
With that said, was this a bad Derby in terms of talent? Heck, no. War Emblem ran a terrific race. While the fractions were not fast as far as Derbys go, they certainly were not slow. And to come home his last quarter in :24 2/5, while finding another gear inside the sixteenth pole, proved that this colt is for real. And his time of 2:01 was impressive. Can he possibly win the Triple Crown? Horses like him are always dangerous, because they don't have to worry about traffic problems or jockeys on other horses out to get them. The only way to stop him is to sacrifice yourself. Maybe the other jockeys didn't respect him, so they didn't go after him. Next time, they will respect him, but still will not want to go after him for the opposite reasons they didn't in the Derby – self preservation. If that is the case, then, yes, he can certainly win the Triple Crown.
This is a tough, fast colt, who is capable of galloping his opponents into the ground. As long as he isn't challenged early by a top-class horse whose rider is willing to test his courage under fire, he will continue to win his races in similar fashion. This is an aerodynamic type of horse – long and lean, with a big, powerful, rhythmic stride. After Saturday, we don't see a mile and a half as being a problem. Sometimes, it is speed, not stamina, that wins the Belmont.
The runner-up, Proud Citizen, whom we reported on several occasions was the best-looking horse in the field by far, ran an unbelievable race. Lukas or no Lukas, brilliant work or no brilliant work, we didn't think this horse was anywhere near ready to run a race like this going a mile and a quarter. To Lukas' credit, he was effusive in his praise for the colt and his optimism regarding his chances. The last time we saw Lukas this confident in a horse it was in 1999 with Charismatic. But optimism aside, this horse ran tons better than he should have, considering he had only two starts this year following a seven-month layoff; was making his first start beyond 1 1/16 miles; and was making his third start in four weeks. Chalk this down as one of Lukas' gems.
Eddie Delahoussaye was the only rider who could see the scenario that was developing, and he put the come-from-behind Perfect Drift right into the hunt from the start. When you see Eddie D put a closer into the race early, you can bet it's going to be a speed-dominated race. Perfect Drift ran big, and could easily have been second had Victor Espinoza, on the winner, not come back in and shut off the rail, causing Delahoussaye to stop riding and swing to the outside. It doesn't appear, however, that he will head for the Preakness.
Throw out Medaglia d'Oro's fourth-place finish in the Derby. This was his kind of race, and if he had broken like he did in the Wood Memorial, you might have seen a lot more excitement on the front end. But running 10th, he had little shot, and ran well to hit the board. Frankel doesn't like getting his pockets picked by a lone speed horse, and you can bet he will make sure this big, powerful colt will test War Emblem in the Preakness.
Add the speedy Booklet, as well as Equality, Stephentown, and several other new shooters, and it should make for a rousing Preakness...we hope. As for the remainder of the field, it looks like the majority of them are average horses who really don't want to go 1 1/4 miles. None of them had really shown the kind of turn of foot you look for in a Derby horse. And finally, you have the Coolmore and Godolphin horses. It's looking more and more like they're simply going about this all wrong. Will they learn, and try to do it in a more conventional manner? Probably not, but we hope they do. If they don't, their presence at the Derby will soon become much ado about nothing.