Never before has there been a long gray line of 3-year-olds like the one that is heading for Churchill Downs this year. Imperialism and Wimbledon have already punched their ticket to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). On Saturday, Value Plus, Tapit, Consecrate (Wood Memorial), Preachinatthebar (Blue Grass), and Pro Prado (Arkansas Derby) hope to join them. Bob Baffert alone has three grays, not to mention Odds On, who didn't quite make it. And there was the highly regarded Hopeful (gr. I) winner Silver Wagon, who dropped off the Derby trail in February, and El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) winner Kilgowan, who failed in the Illinois Derby (gr. II). Another gray, Aventura Stakes winner Kaufy Mate, had been listed as a Triple Crown nominee, then was dropped because of a miscommunication.
The question is, why have so many gray horses set their sights on this year's Kentucky Derby (gr. II) in particular? Is there some mysterious force being emitted from the Twin Spires that is drawing all these grays to Louisville?
Well, there just might be. It just so happens that this year's Kentucky Derby marks the 50th anniversary to the day of the first gray ever to win the Run for the Roses. On May 1, 1954, Determine captured the 80th running of the Derby, becoming the first gray to stand in Churchill Downs winner's circle on the first Saturday in May.
Will another gray join him 50 years later? If you believe in omens, you might want to take a closer look at Value Plus and Preachinatthebar, who will be among the favorites in their respective races this weekend. But, with the way things have been going this year, you can't discount the other grays.
If you're more of a realist and aren't impressed with all that ethereal stuff, good luck trying to figure out what's going to happen on Saturday. Rather than analyze the three races to death (lots of good it's done in past 3-year-old stakes), it might be better just to fire off brief comments with machine gun-like rapidity and see what we're left with in the end.
* Value Plus'
pre-Florida Derby (gr. I) works (all five furlongs) – 1:02 2/5, 1:02 4/5, 1:02 4/5, 1:02. Value Plus' post-Florida Derby works (all five furlongs) -- :59, :59 3/5. This big gray is now ready, and it is quite possible we could be seeing a major star emerge from the Wood.
* If you're trying hard to like horses with questionable distance pedigrees, like Smarty Jones, Value Plus, and Lion Heart, remember the words of Woody Stephens, who when asked by trainer Bill Donovan who one of his 2-year-olds was by, replied, "I don't really care who they're by. All I care about is who they can run by."
* No excuses: This is the moment of truth for Action This Day
. Good mile work to take the edge off. Good half-mile work to put a little of the sharpness back in him. Returns to old tactics. Makes one big run. Doesn't need to win. Earns trip to Derby. Right running style, right pedigree. Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), two-year-old champion "curses" beware. All there laid out for him. He just has to take this first step.
* First impressions: The two horses who made the best first impression this year were Eddington
back in late January and early February. Both now are one step away from the roses, but both are in desperate need of earnings. If Mustanfar gets in the Derby, he'll devour every inch of that mile and a quarter. If Eddington wins the Wood, you're looking at the Derby favorite.
* Way, way, way under the radar: When was the last time anyone mentioned Breakaway
? Improving with every start. Looking to ride in on the tail of the Mineshaft comet. Closes with a fury and should be part of the cavalry charge trying to catch Lion Heart. Whichever one gets closest, or catches him, will be bet through the roof at Churchill. Same can be said of Borrego
if he runs down Smarty Jones at Oaklawn.
* No fluke: Tricky Taboo's
sire, Mazel Trick
, was once called by his Hall of Fame trainer the best horse he's ever trained. Tricky Taboo's broodmare sire, Spectacular Bid, was once called by his Hall of Fame trainer the best horse anyone has ever trained. If you believe the words of Bobby Frankel and Buddy Delp, then you've got yourself an angle for a good-priced horse for the Arkansas Derby who is coming off a huge breakout effort at 54-1 in the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II).
* Equipment change of the day: With a two-turn race under him, and with the blinkers being removed, look for an improved effort from Purge
in the Arkansas Derby. This is a very talented horse, who showed what a pro he is in his maiden victory at Saratoga last year and how fast he is in his 3-year-old debut. Don't know if he's ready to win this, and don't know that he'll excel at 1 1/4 miles, but you'll hear a lot from him once he gets more experience.
* DRF/Equibase Derby exacta: The Cliff's Edge
is named for Equibase and former DRF chart caller, Cliff Guilliams, who for years turned the Kentucky Derby chart into a work of art. If The Cliff's Edge gets to the Derby, how big an exacta will Guilliams play using his namesake and Read the Footnotes?
If three of the strong contenders this weekend – Lion Heart, Value Plus, and Smarty Jones -- do indeed win, that could confuse the Derby picture even more, considering how many people have doubts that they can get the mile and a quarter, especially with their aggressive running styles. Whatever happens, phase one (race results) will be over, and it will be time to move on to Churchill Downs and see if a Derby winner can emerge from phase two, which is training and overall appearance. Maybe, it's just going to come down to which horse is doing best in the weeks leading up to the Derby, and peaks on Derby Day.
On April 19, this column goes through its annual metamorphosis and becomes a daily report from Churchill Downs, where horses' training and overall appearance will be the focus of attention. It is the objective of this column to try to pick out the horses who are doing the best, not the worst, especially not having seen most of these horses in the flesh to use as a comparison. Workout times are not as important as how the horse is doing it. Some trainers don't look for fast times; some horses don't need fast times. It's how they're handling the track, how they close, how they gallop out, and how they look coming off the track that are important.
What can be just as revealing is watching the horses graze, or sometimes just walking the shed, every afternoon, and observing close up whether their coats are blossoming and how sharp they are mentally. You can observe a horse's coat much better in the late afternoon sunlight while he is grazing than you can early in the morning while he is training. In 2001, no horse's coat looked any better in the afternoon than 55-1 runner-up Invisible Ink. A horse must be at his physical and mental best on Derby Day, and his coat and sharpness are often a great indicator whether he is or isn't, and can reveal as much about the horse as training and past performances. Last year, forgotten horse, Atswhatimtalknbout, looked like hell two weeks before the Derby, but blossomed every day until he looked like Adonis by Derby Day. He didn't win but ran a super race, despite traffic problems.
By Derby Day this year, a few of these horses, it is hoped, will stand out from the others, and those are the ones that will be singled out in the Friday (April 30) column. Each column leading up to that will try to put a few of the pieces of the puzzle together until it forms one clear picture, while trying to bring the reader as close to the scene and pulse of the backstretch as possible.