Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Master and Commander

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Master and Commander
Photo: Associated Press/Benoit
Imperialism, shown winning the San Vicente, exercised over the main track at Churchill Downs Tuesday.
All eyes were on Wood Memorial (gr. I) runner-up Master David, who was the only Kentucky Derby (gr. I) worker at Churchill Downs this morning, and the pocket-sized chestnut brought a smile to trainer Bobby Frankel's face when he worked five furlongs in 1:01 2/5, which was exactly what Frankel was looking for.

After last year's disappointment with Derby favorite Empire Maker, and Aptitude two years before that, Frankel has been reserved in his comments about Master David, expecting the worst and hoping for the best.

Except for his different shade of chestnut, Master David could easily be mistaken for Peace Rules in physical appearance. Like Peace Rules, he's small in stature, but big in heart, giving 100% every time he goes out there.

Frankel is the antithesis of Bob Baffert when it comes to works. While Baffert watches intently from the grandstand, giving instructions to the rider on his two-way radio and clocking every split, Frankel remains on the backside and sees only a small portion of the work. His philosophy is, he doesn't need to see the work. If the time is anywhere in the neighborhood of what he's looking for and the rider gives him a good report, that's all he needs to know.

"I don't care about time," Frankel said as he followed Master David to the track. "He's dead-fit. The only thing about time here is that horses who work well over this track usually run good. If he works in :48 and goes out in 1:01 and change, that would be all right."

A few minutes earlier, Frankel had told exercise rider Joe Deegan to break off from the half-mile pole and work another eighth past the wire. "He'll go a good half," Frankel said. "If he's right, he'll pull you right to the pole." When Deegan looked for his whip, assistant trainer Jose Cuevas told him, "You don't need no stick with Bobby Frankel's horses."

Frankel and his wife Bonita went out on the track and watched whatever they could see of the work from the entrance to the chute. When Master David broke off at the pole, another worker came up on his inside. The rider yelled over to Deegan, "You going with me?" And Deegan, yelled back, "No, I'll let you go on for a little bit." The other horse left Master David, who was nice and relaxed, and showed no inclination to go after him. By the time they reached the eighth pole, Master David was now rolling and caught the other horse just before the wire.

"I couldn't have scripted it any better," Deegan said afterward. "He didn't get rank when that horse came up to him, and I could have picked him up anytime I wanted. I just kinda picked the reins up. I didn't even move on him and he cruised right up to that other horse. Then I asked him just a little to keep going when he went by him."

Frankel was all smiles after the work. "It worked out perfect, with that horse in front of him," he said. When the gap attendant gave Frankel the time for the half (:48 2/5) and five-eighths (1:01 2/5, his smile broadened. "Just what I said I wanted. I know my horses." The Churchill Downs chaplain picked the busiest time of the morning to offer his morning words, as his comments blared over the P.A. system. "See, it's God's country," Frankel said. "So, God takes care of me, too."

Frankel figured, that with the final part of the work being run on the turn, it was more like working 1:00 and change. "Hopefully, he'll do the same thing next time," he said. "That's all he needs. He's a cool horse; nothing bothers him. Joe said he was relaxed, which is good, because he's always pulling early in the race."

The same time Master David worked, Imperialism went out for his first tour of the Churchill Downs track. The gray son of Langfuhr   is one of the most appealing horses in this year's Derby field. He's full of character and is always bright-eyed and alert. You knew he was going to be full of himself this morning after he shipped in Monday evening and was bucking and lashing back, and rolling around in his stall. His trainer, 21-year-old Kristin Mulhall, is as passionate and hands-on a trainer as you'll ever see. She gets to the track every morning around 4 and basically never stops working, and that includes getting on the horses.

Owner Steve Taub matches her enthusiasm, and most definitely is one of the most hands-on owners you'll ever see. He comes to the barn every morning at 5, and is often seen jogging through the Hollywood Park backstretch. After the colt arrived, he helped unpack the truck, then attached the webbings on the three stalls..

As Imperialism stood at the gap this morning waiting for the track to open following the renovation break, he honed in on the grandstand across the track and just stood there motionless staring at the massive structure. He then checked out everything else around him before heading to the track. As he came around the first time, he was soaking it all in. Then he got down to business and turned in a good stiff gallop. He was so strong, when Mulhall dismounted back at the barn, she showed Taub the back of her shirt, which was soaking wet from perspiration.

Over at Keeneland, Blue Grass runner-up Lion Heart "stretched his legs" this morning, working five furlongs in :58 2/5, according to trainer Patrick Biancone. That's considered stretching his legs? "For him it is," Biancone said.

"The Blue Grass got him fit, and now I just want to keep him happy. The reason I decided to stay at Keeneland is because the works at Churchill end at 9:15, and you have 1,400 horses on the track. Over here, it's like our own private training center. He should be right where I want him to be on Derby Day."

Biancone said Lion Heart will van over to Churchill on Monday to work over the track, but he hasn't decided whether or not to keep him there or go back to Keeneland.

Biancone has a good news-bad news outlook on the Blue Grass Stakes, in which Lion Heart finished a gutsy second to The Cliff's Edge. "The good news is that only one Blue Grass winner in the last 25 years has won the Derby. The bad news is that that one horse was trained by Nick Zito."

In the "If You Were a Horse, Who Would You Want to be Trained By" department, Dick Mandella's pair of Action This Day and Minister Eric were groomed out on the large grassy area near the Longfield Avenue fence. "They're in their stalls long enough," Mandella said. "They enjoy being out here." Mandella couldn't be happier with the way Halfbridled has blossomed since arriving at Churchill Downs. After a series of setbacks and ailments this year, the champ appears to be heading into the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) in super shape. She strutted to the track this morning like a queen, and turned in a strong gallop. "She was never right at Keeneland," Mandella said, "but she's really doing great here."

Bob Baffert had Wimbledon and Preachinatthebar back to the track this morning for a gallop following their works on Saturday. Baffert admits he doesn't know what to expect from either colt after their disappointing efforts last time out, but he at least knows they like the track and have an impressive victory the race before to fall back on. Preachinatthebar still needs Value Plus to be officially withdrawn from Derby consideration before he gets into the field. Trainer Todd Pletcher called Value Plus' status "very, very unlikely," but they'll wait to see if there are any "significant defections
Before making final decision. The colt is in New York, and could be flown to Kentucky next Wednesday if there is a change of plan.

Jason Orman, trainer of Rock Hard Ten, said the dark bay mountain of a horse may run in the Derby Trial (gr. III), but doubts he'd be wheeled back a week later in the Derby. He said the Preakness (gr. I) would be the most likely goal.

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