Steve Haskin's Derby Report: The Search Begins

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: The Search Begins
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
The Cliff's Edge continued to show his affinity for Churchill Downs in Monday's workout.
Live from Churchill Downs, it's the countdown to the 130th Run for the Roses, which can best be described as Derby Daze. If you thought it was an adventure finding Nemo, good luck trying to find this year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner. After three months of confusion, the final leg of the journey starts today.

There were two big workers at Churchill this morning, the likely morning line favorite The Cliff's Edge and Arkansas Derby (gr. II) runner-up Borrego. But before discussing those works, here is a brief rundown of this year's prospective Kentucky Derby (gr. I) field:

You've got one horse who is blind in his right eye, another who is partially blind in his right eye, a horse who has freaked out in the paddock and getting in the gate; and another who fractured his eye socket and nearly lost his eye when he hit his head on an iron bar in the gate, and can still be a handful getting in, rearing and balking at times. You've got one horse who missed 19 days of training with a sore shin, and suffered from a severe bronchial infection and foot abscess; two who came down with coughs, one with a hind end problem, and others with an elevated white blood count, sore feet, a displaced palate, and a foot infection.

You have seven horses who finished out of the money in their last start...one getting beaten 30 lengths, one 28 lengths, one 13 lengths, one 10 3/4 lengths, one 10 1/2 lengths, and one 9 1/2 lengths. And of those, one is the 2-year-old champ, one was the 3-5 favorite, one was the even-money favorite, one was the 2-1 favorite, and another was the 5-2 second choice. You have six horses, all major stakes winners, who will come into the Derby off only two starts this year, two of them off seven-week layoffs and one off a six-week layoff. OK, now you can go to the past performances and find a Derby winner.

Monday morning was sunny and windy, with clouds rolling in, and rain predicted for later in the day. Twelve of the 20 prospective starters are on the grounds, with Imperialism due later today.

The focus of attention was on The Cliff's Edge, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), who went out for what was to be an easy five-furlong spin under exercise rider Maxine Correa. Earlier, stablemate Birdstone was out for a light gallop under the cover of darkness. Even though the son of Grindstone is small, and is at a disadvantage being a late foal, he has excellent muscle tone and a strong set of shoulders. He moved smoothly over the dry, cuppy surface.

Zito said he wouldn't even care if The Cliff's Edge worked in 1:04 this morning, but told Correa he was looking for something around "1:01 and change; 1:02 would be great, because you don't have company." Zito's view of the five-furlong pole, where The Cliff's Edge would break from, was blocked by the new corporate tents/buildings in the infield. Cliff broke off at a steady clip, and it's difficult to get a good gauge on how he's running because of his big, loping strides. With a pair of workers well ahead of him, it was if Cliff was honed in on them, as he continued to pick up speed. Zito, who clocked his final half in :47 4/5, knew right away he was going faster than he expected. He remained locked on the big dark bay colt as he galloped out strong and didn't pull up until he was well down the backstretch.

"You see the way he keeps going?" asked Zito, who although surprised how fast the colt went, was impressed with the way he did it. A call to the clockers provided Zito with the official clocking of :59 3/5, which is not what he was looking for. He saw those two horses in front of him. But it doesn't look like he's going that fast. Zito was planning on giving Cliff a sharper work next week, and immediately shifted gears. "Well, I'll do it in reverse then. We'll get it over with today. Bob Baffert will love this kind of work."

The bottom line is that The Cliff's Edge is peaking right now, and horses doing this good, usually work fast. He's such a laid back, easy-going horse, and is doing everything well within himself. This work, like his effort in the Blue Grass, shouldn't take anything out of him. He's a big, strong colt who only runs the last three-eighths, and at this point in his career, he's basically training himself.

Zito was correct in his comment about Baffert, who clocked the work closer to the finish line and was able to see the five-eighths pole. Baffert caught him in 1:00, and was very impressed with the way he did it, especially over such a dry track that hadn't been watered. Baffert considers The Cliff's Edge and Tapit as the two horses to beat.

Borrego worked just before The Cliff's Edge, and just looked like he was in an open gallop as he breezed three furlongs in :37 3/5, with exercise rider Any Durnin just sitting on him. Trainer Beau Greely said it was more to get him used to the new surroundings than anything else. Borrego is a big, flashy chestnut with a long stride, and he, like The Cliff's Edge, makes quite an impressive appearance on the track.

A very key work later in the week will come when Dick Mandella works Action This Day. Mandella is hoping he has figured out the 2-year-old champ's poor recent form. The son of Kris S. came out of the Blue Grass "a little stiff behind, up on his back." Mandella said they've been doing chiropractic work on the horse and that it is "coming along pretty good." Mandella feels this may have started when Action This Day was clipped from behind in the San Felipe Stakes, and that might have caused his back to tighten up a little. And it was the Blue Grass that brought it to the surface.

Mandella now is hoping that Action This Day can return to his old style of running, and if he can go the first part of his work slow and come home with the kind of finishing speed he's capable of, then Mandella will be confident he's on the road back, and will continue to train him for the Derby.

Mandella's other Derby hopeful, Minister Eric, is a handsome, beautifully balanced colt, with a nice long back, and is reminiscent of his sire, Old Trieste. He was out for an easy gallop this morning. Despite Minister Eric having only three allowance races this year, Mandella feels he's coming into the Derby in great shape, and is happy with where he's at right now.

Coolmore Lexington (gr. II) winner Quintons Gold Rush certainly wasn't feeling any effects of that race today, as he continuously reared while grazing late this morning, and even took a nip at trainer Steve Asmussen's calf, as if telling him, You're standing on a spot of grass I desire to dine on.' Talk about flashy, this long-legged chestnut has four white stockings that run up to and over his knee, and even his hind end and back are coated with white.

Todd Pletcher, who has Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) winner Limehouse and Illinois Derby (gr. II) winner Pollard's Vision at Churchill, said Value Plus, who at the moment has Preachinattebar sitting in the 21st spot on the graded earnings list, is "very unlikely" to run in the Derby. But Pletcher said if there should be one or two "significant dropouts," they might reconsider and put the big gray colt on a plane from New York next week.

Imperialism was scheduled to land in Lexington this afternoon, and was expected to arrive at Churchill Downs around 3 p.m.

With all the new structures in the infield this year, due to the construction on the grandstand, viewing the races will not be as easy as in the past, especially from the lower levels. Bob Baffert said this year's Derby will be the fastest one minute in sports, because that's about as much as the fans in the grandstand will see of the race.

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