Kentucky Derby Trail: Gearing Up For the Main Course

Kentucky Derby Trail: Gearing Up For the Main Course
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Haskin: Sunday Silence last Santa Anita Derby winner to win Kentucky Derby.
The first course is over. It is time to take a deep breath and digest the odd smorgasbord of Kentucky Derby (gr. I) preps that has been laid out so far. Racing fans are starving for something more substantial, and they should get it beginning with the April 3 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and Illinois Derby (gr. II).

Other than the WinStar Derby, this weekend will serve as a respite from all the confusion. After that, the Derby trail will start getting more difficult, and the true contenders will separate themselves from the pack.

But for all the trainers out there gunning for these big final preps coming up, there are some frightening statistics they should be aware of. For those heading for the Santa Anita Derby, the last winner to go on and win the Kentucky Derby was Sunday Silence 15 years ago. For those going to the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), the last winner to capture the roses was Strike the Gold 13 years ago. For those pointing for the Wood Memorial, only one winner (Fusaichi Pegasus) in the past 23 years has gone on to win the Derby. And, no winner of the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) has gone on to win the Derby in 21 years.

So, it is obvious, the Kentucky Derby is not about winning the skirmishes. It's all about getting to and winning the one big battle on the first Saturday in May.

Speaking of the skirmishes, here is how they're looking at the moment. Pointing for the Santa Anita Derby are Wimbledon, Lion Heart, St Averil, Imperialism, Rock Hard Ten, Lucky Pulpit, Quintons Gold Rush, and Totally Platinum.

Rock Hard Ten is the big enigma here. Why has this mammouth son of Kris S., with only two career starts, inspired such rave reviews and superlatives from everyone who has seen him? Why does Bob Baffert and other trainers fear him in the Santa Anita Derby?

"He's amazingly athletic for a horse his size," said jockey and TVG commentator Corey Black, who exercises the colt. "The best way I can put it is, he's Kobe Bryant in Shaquille O'Neal's body. He moves and does everything like an athletic average-sized horse, but he happens to be about 17.1 or 17.2 hands. He has a very high cruising speed. He's up against it, experience-wise, but under the circumstances, I'd have to take one whack at it and give him a chance to show that he isn't ready or isn't good enough."

On the same day, the Illinois Derby (gr. II) will attract Pollard's Vision, Tiger Hunt, Kilgowan, Song of the Sword, O.K. Mikie, Pure American, White Mountain Boy, and possibly Swingforfences, who likely will run here or in the Wood Memorial. Another outside possibility is Breakaway, but trainer Neil Howard still isn't sure which of several possible preps he'll run in.

The following week will be the big push that should unscramble the whole messy picture. Heading for the Wood Memorial are Value Plus, Master David, Eddington, The Cliff's Edge, Tapit, Sinister G, Little Matth Man, Royal Assault, and possibly Swingforthefences, depending on whether Violette feels he's better off with three or four weeks before the Derby.

The Blue Grass will be a race for redemption for Birdstone and Action This Day, as they square off against Eurosilver, Preachinatthebar, Mustanfar, Limehouse, Gradepoint, and possibly Farnum Alley.

Heading for the Arkansas Derby are Smarty Jones, Borrego, Purge, Shadowland, Mr. Jester, Pro Prado, and no doubt several others.

The Lexington Stakes (gr. II) will likely be the next stop for Saratoga County, Suave, Pomeroy, Fire Slam, Tricky Taboo, and Seattle Borders. And finally, Friends Lake and Read the Footnotes will head straight for the Kentucky Derby.

So, start sorting 'em out until some kind of clarity appears, at least for now. Tomorrow, who knows if it'll look clearer or even more muddled.

Now, for the journey of Jerry Bailey. His one-time hot Derby mounts, Read the Footnotes and Birdstone, were both out of the money in their last start, and Bailey and agent Ron Anderson are shopping around for new faces. Bailey has also ridden Eddington, but Edgar Prado, who rode Eddington in the Gotham, has been given the option of riding him back by trainer Mark Hennig. Prado and agent Bob Frieze were happy with the colt's performance, and as of now will stick with him in the Wood Memorial. Bobby Frankel, who has had great success with Bailey, said he's staying with Alex Solis on Master David for the Wood.

The feeling here is that if Bailey doesn't land a mount in one of the April 10 Derby preps (Congaree runs that day at Keeneland), he'll keep a close eye on Preachinatthebar in the Blue Grass Stakes. A big effort, and Bailey could very well pick up that mount in the Kentucky Derby, with regular rider Javier Santiago opting to stay on Wimbledon for the Derby, assuming the colt runs the way he's expected to in the Santa Anita Derby. Bailey also hasn't completely given up on Read the Footnotes, and if nothing materializes for him, he could wind up sticking with him for the Derby.

You can also throw Violette's other Derby hopeful, Swingforthefences, into the Bailey mix. The Wood at this time looks like the logical spot for the son of Boston Harbor, and if Bailey doesn't ride him, he'll likely get his old rider, Shaun Bridgmohan, back. Violette couldn't understand why the normally passive colt blew up before the Tampa Bay Derby, sweating badly and fighting the pony boy and Edgar Prado. He was too close to the pace, fought off the all the speed, yet hung on determinedly to finish a close third. Violette is sure he can correct whatever it was that set the colt off, and can get him to relax and make the one explosive run he did with Bailey aboard in his previous start.

Other riders who may have decisions to make are Richard Migliore and John Velazquez. If Song of the Sword runs huge in the Illinois Derby, Migliore will have to decide between him and Friends Lake, who is going cold into the Derby. The Mig and Friends Lake's trainer John Kimmel have been close for many years. Velazquez would have a tough decision if Value Plus and Pollard's Vision both turn in big efforts in the Wood Memorial and Illinois Derby, respectively. But if Value Plus is good enough to win the Wood, he would seem to be the likely choice.

One rider who would normally be in a precarious position is Stewart Elliott, who rides the undefeated Smarty Jones. Top jocks' agents would love to get their hands on this colt, despite his questionable pedigree for a mile and a quarter, but Elliott is five-for-five on him and there is no reason for Servis to even consider changing riders. Plus, those Philly Park guys stick together. And Elliott is riding at a 25% win clip this year.

Looking back at the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II), if you were offered the choice of two trifecta boxes before the race, which would you choose, the one having horses trained by D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito, and Bill Mott or the one having horses trained by John Toscano Jr., Edward Frederick, and Martin Ciresa? Not much else to say about that except, times are changing, and that a case could be made for the first three finishers, Sinister G, Tricky Taboo, and Little Matth Man, all of whom are getting good at the right time.

Tricky Taboo has moved way up with Lasix, although he had run well before, and I love that he's out of a Spectacular Bid mare. Little Matth Man has turned in four straight powerful stretch runs since stretching out from six furlongs to two turns. And he is yet another New York-bred. What a day for the Darby Dan stallion Matty G, who sired the first and third finishers of the Lane's End. Little Matth Man's tail-female family is loaded with graded stakes winners, but the vast majority of them were pure sprinters. Surprisingly, this colt has been up to 1 1/16 miles and has been running like he wants more distance.

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