This weekend in New York, Kentucky, and Arkansas, everyone will be picking up rocks, hoping to find the one that reveals the winner of the Kentucky Derby, or at least the winners of a couple of Saturday's big stakes.
With the way things have been going so far, is it possible we may have to dig even farther under those rocks than we expected? Sure, we're all looking to Harlan's Holiday and Saarland and Medaglia d'Oro and Sunday Break and several others for answers, but let's pretend those horses will not be the ones to provide them. Let's pretend they will come from someone else – someone you'd least expect. Basically, what we're saying is, let's see if there are any longshots or lesser known horses who are capable of making an 11th hour appearance on the Derby party scene.BLUE GRASS STAKES
-- Two things seem fairly obvious on the surface: Booklet has a pretty good shot at stealing this race if left unattended on the lead, and Harlan's Holiday has the luxury of not winning, as long as Prado doesn't ride the tar off him. If he runs a similar race as Monarchos did in last year's Wood, and simply fails to catch a loose-on-the-lead Booklet, he can be expected to rebound in the Derby. But we do have a fast colt in Bob's Image in here, who may be capable of running with, or even outrunning, Booklet if Chavez decides to try to rate his horse. Jim Cassidy has already said he doesn't want to see Ocean Sound on the lead, which should leave the European import sitting right behind the top two.
Now comes the juicy aspect of the race. Can Azillion prove to trainer Bobby Hess that he has what it takes to run in the Derby, and can Straight Gin do a 180 turn and shock everyone? Is Nick Zito lurking in the corner like a wounded badger, as dangerous as ever, prepared to make one last desperate stand?
First off, although some feel Azillion
should have gone on and won the Lane's End Spiral Stakes after dashing to the front along the rail, you have to take into account this was his first stakes appearance, he was giving away home-court advantage to Perfect Drift and Request for Parole, and they did fly home in :12 1/5 for the final eighth. Tailwind or no tailwind, that's still impressive, considering they opened up 8 lengths on the fourth horse. He also should be given credit for demonstrating such quick acceleration and then fighting back and outdueling the classy, tenacious Request for Parole for second. And perhaps most important, he is bred for stamina and should only get better the farther he goes. He should be sitting comfortably in fourth or fifth Saturday and still be close enough to put in a steady closing move in the final three-eighths to put himself in contention. A good effort here, at a decent price, should set him up well for the Derby.Straight Gin
looks like a stretch off his dismal effort in the Spiral, but when a horse has been as hot and cold as he has, you never know when he's going to pop in a big one, especially when the signs are there that his big one could put him in the picture on Saturday. When the son of Go for Gin broke his maiden by 3 3/4 lengths on Feb. 2, he defeated Blueformer (second), who came back in his next start to break his maiden by 2 1/2 lengths, earning an impressive 100 Beyer Speed Figure. Finishing third to Straight Gin in that race was Essayons, who came back in his next start to break his maiden against older horses by 15 1/2 lengths. In Straight Gin's next start, a March 2 allowance race, he defeated Marasca, who came back in his next start to win the $250,000 Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream, upsetting Equality.
Zito has no idea what happened in the Spiral, only that it's possible Straight Gin didn't care for the hard Turfway surface, especially considering the way he won at Gulfstream over a much deeper track. Zito's other two horses who ran at Turfway that day also ran poorly. So, if you're willing to toss out that race, and are looking for a big price in the Blue Grass, you might want to take a shot that this is a better horse than he showed in his last race. It's strictly a guess whether or not he's capable of rebounding enough to run with these horses, but at least there's enough in his PP's to suggest it could happen. And if it should come up sloppy, watch out for those Go for Gins.
Even Ocean Sound showed enough, battling back in the Rebel, to warrant a chance in here, but we'll limit our longshots to two.WOOD MEMORIAL
-- Being every leading contender in here is going to be bet down to some extent, there probably aren't any bargains. And talk about guessing, here you're guessing what every horse in the race will do, or is even capable of doing. We're not even going to attempt to figure this race out. We just want to enjoy it and hope someone emerges who will illuminate the Derby picture with his brilliance. No 3-year-old in our mind has been more impressive visually this year than Buddha
, but it's a question whether he will go forward or regress off his last start, in which he earned a monster speed figure – one you don't see from a horse with so little experience.
And again, you do have one of those enigmatic horses in Nokoma, who is capable of being right there or finishing just out of telescope range. And what to expect from Laissezaller, who is coming off not one, but two 1 1/4 mile races against older horses, in which he finished second both times, although he was disqualified to third in the latter. We're pretty much just going to sit this one out, although the overlay in here could very well be Blue Burner
if the track is playing fair. He still has room for improvement, and Bailey would love to secure his Derby mount with a horse he's confident in, and not have to go hustling for one (Is Godolphin waiting with Essence of Dubai?)ARKANSAS DERBY
-- We are very impressed with Mr. Mellon and Windward Passage, and feel both these good-looking colts have a big shot to win this, and also have a bright future. But again, we're looking for surprises, and both of them will be bet heavily. With 11 horses entered, this could be a great race to bet the exotics. The one horse we have found very intriguing all winter is Holdthehelm
, and although we're not sure he's ready to win this race, having missed the Spiral with a quarter crack and not having raced for almost two months, we still feel he's capable of running a big race. This horse can run on dirt or grass, can sprint or go two turns, and can come from way out of it or be right on the lead. In his last start, he came from 12 lengths back at the quarter pole to be beaten three-quarters of a length in a six and a half-furlong grass stakes. In his previous start, he easily defeated a top-class allowance field going 1 1/16 miles on the dirt. As we said, he's quite an unusual horse and bears watching.
Also, if you like Mr. Mellon, there's no reason not to like Wild Horses
, who will be a bigger price and gets a six-pound weight shift in his favor. Wild Horses is a very attractive colt who has the presence of a good horse (as does Mr. Mellon), and he would have fared much better in the Rushaway had he not dashed off to an early lead. It is conceivable, without a lot of pace in the Arkansas Derby, that he could go to the front again. But this time, he may be a lot harder to catch over a track which has seen its share of wire-to-wire Arkansas Derby winners. He now has more bottom and experience, and although we'd prefer to see him come from off the pace, he is capable of wiring this field.