They came one right after the other; first Lion Heart, then The Cliff's Edge, then Rock Hard Ten, then Read the Footnotes. Three of the faces were familiar, but the chestnut wearing the figure-8 and martingale was a stranger in town. Just when everyone had gotten used to seeing Lion Heart, poof, he was gone.
Trainer Patrick Biancone vanned Lion Heart over from his hideaway at Keeneland, walked him around the paddock for about 20 minutes, breezed him a sharp half-mile in :47 4/5, then put him back on the van, bidding farewell to Churchill Downs until Derby Day.
Biancone was in his usual bright spirits, obliging the media by requesting a Derby saddle cloth for the son of Tale of the Cat. "The press want me to use one," Biancone told racing secretary Doug Bredar. "I already know what he looks like."
Lion Heart is not a big horse by any means, but he's well put together, and packs a lot of muscle. Biancone explained that he's only doing what's best for the horse by keeping him at Keeneland. Lion Heart is aggressive colt in everything he does, and Biancone is trying to get him to relax. He doesn't want to subject him to all the heavy traffic on the racetrack at Churchill Downs.
Whatever Biancone is doing, it must be working, as Lion Heart was very relaxed walking and jogging on the track. During the renovation break, he walked around the paddock led by a pony and didn't turn a hair. His half-mile work couldn't have gone any better. He broke smoothly, rattled off :12 eighths, and was striding out beautifully through the stretch.
Lion Heart is a major key to the Derby in that he has more natural speed than any of the others, but hasn't learned to harness it. So, if he breaks on top and Mike Smith lets him roll this time, will anyone be foolish enough to take him on? Any horse who runs with him likely will be cooked. But on the other hand, with a strong nine-furlong race under his belt now, he has the potential to pull off a War Emblem. Remember, this is not just another fast horse who can carry his speed; this is a horse who fights back when he's challenged, regardless of how far it is into the race. He made powerful stretch runners Imperialism and The Cliff's Edge work hard to get past him in the San Rafael (gr. II) and Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) respectively, despite engaging in head-to-head battles early in the race.
The way he starts waiting for competition once he draws clear of the field, it's almost as if he's more comfortable looking horses in the eye. "Sometimes, I think he has too much talent," Biancone said.
In any event, it appears as if the Derby will center around Lion Heart, and what the riders of Smarty Jones, Quintons Gold Rush, Pollard's Vision, and Read the Footnotes decide to do if he shoots to the lead. One thing is for sure, even if he takes back and you do outrun him, you won't be comfortable with him breathing down your neck, ready to strike at any time.
The Cliff's Edge turned in another strong work, perhaps his best one yet. After his five-furlong drill in :59 3/5 last week, the last thing trainer Nick Zito wanted was another fast work. Coming to the head of the stretch, Cliff ran up behind three workers, and exercise rider Maxine Correa steered him to the outside. The big colt picked it up and blew by the three horses with his ears pricked, and quickly drew clear. After an opening eighth in :13 and a quarter in :24 1/5, he went his next quarter in :23 4/5 to compete a half in :48, then continued to work past the wire, getting his five furlongs in 1:01. The son of Gulch retains his enthusiasm, and it does not appear as if the Blue Grass has taken anything out of him.
Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Castledale, who turned in an exceptional work at Santa Anita Saturday, arrived at Churchill Downs today at around 12:30, along with St Averil. The son of Peintre Celebre looked fantastic. His coat had a rich burnished shine to it, and he was carrying good flesh, which says a lot about the horse, considering he had just traveled cross country. A feisty little colt, he was aggressive as he was being grazed by part-owner Frank Lyons, and he generates a great deal of power and class. This is a horse who could be forgotten, and definitely will be among the top two or three potential overlays in the race.
It's still too early to know whether Rock Hard Ten will get into the field, but this colossus of a horse is just plain awesome to look at, and even more awesome to watch work. His stride is so huge, it is inconceivable to think he went his five furlongs in :59 2/5. The feeling here is that he went slower than that, because the Churchill splits have him going the last eighth in :11 1/5, and last quarter in :22 4/5, and that doesn't seem likely, especially since they have him galloping out another eighth in almost :14. He covers as much ground as just about any horse I've seen, but is extremely athletic. Nothing to do now for trainer Jason Orman is wait, although he's the first to admit that not getting in the Derby might be the best thing for the horse.
The last Derby horse to work today was Read the Footnotes, who went a half in :47 3/5. The son of Smoke Glacken
has very high action and also runs with his held high. He's another aggressive horse who is all ready ready for action. Trainer Rick Violette has him on an excellent work pattern. Earlier in the morning, Coolmore Lexington (gr. II) winner Quintons Gold Rush went five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 under the cover of darkness. The son of Wild Rush didn't need much, having just run nine days earlier.Imperialism had a good morning, schooling in the gate and paddock, then turning in a good solid gallop under trainer Kristin Mulhall.Borrego, who breezed yesterday and who has been doing great since day one, was feeling so good this morning, trainer Beau Greely decided to send him to the track.In a sneak preview of Friday's column, one horse who has been totally ignored and who could be the megabomb special on Saturday is Pro Prado, who quietly has been training super and should relish the final quarter. And his race in the Arkansas Derby was much stronger than it would appear, as he ran every quarter in either :24 1/5 or :24 2/5, and has some heavy duty Sheets numbers to back him up. He'll be discussed in greater depth closer to the race.