Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Smart Bomb Ready to Drop

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Smart Bomb Ready to Drop
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Smarty Jones, with exercise rider Pete Van Trump.
The equine projectile known as Smarty Jones has been detonated. On May 1, its target will be Churchill Downs. After watching the colt hurtle around the track this morning, there is no doubt an explosion is imminent. But we'll have to wait until about 6:07 p.m. before we know the extent of the damage.

After beginning his gallop aggressively, but controllable, Smarty Jones put it into high gear, and up from the saddle shot 170-pound exercise rider Pete Van Trump, whose broad shoulders make him look like Dick Butkus compared to other exercise riders. But to Smarty Jones, he was a mere rag doll. Van Trump stood straight up in the saddle, pushed his feet against the dashboard and pulled...and pulled. And Smarty kept going. One mile later, Van Trump was still at attention and Smarty, his head down, was still stampeding down the track. Amazingly, he came off the track hardly taking a deep breath

But this is Smarty Jones. When trainer Nick Zito went to Keeneland one morning early last week, he caught a glimpse of the Smarty Jones express, and summed him up very simply: "Whew! I can't believe how that horse attacks the ground."

But Smarty Jones, whose starting gate misadventure as a 2-year-old has been well chronicled, was not on his best behavior while schooling this morning. He's fine once he's in, but getting him in is another matter, and today he wanted no part of the green monster, and at first was reluctant to go in. Starter Roger Nagle most likely will load Smarty first on Saturday.

The other problem child, Friends Lake, however, was on his best behavior and passed his exam with flying colors. This was his second straight day at the gate, and although he wasn't too bad yesterday, this was as good as you could ask for. A great of credit for the colt's improvement goes to New York Racing Association consulting starter Bob Duncan, who has been working with Friends Lake for some time.

The son of A.P. Indy looked great galloping today. He is a long-bodied colt with a big stride that covers a lot of ground. His elegant frame and head, complete with narrow blaze, and golden chestnut coat make him a photographer's delight. Several were gathered around his sand pen (on loan from D. Wayne Lukas) this morning waiting for his daily roll. After walking around for a while, eyeing all the cameras pointed at him, he finally flopped down and just laid there motionless for a few seconds, his head resting on the sand. He then rolled a few times, jumped up and bucked, and quickly settled back down before heading to the grass for a long grazing session. This is just a fun horse to be around.

The Kentucky Derby's first of several Maalox moments is over, and owners and trainers can now start to plan strategy following this morning's draw for post position selection order. Dick Mandella has to be smiling after Minister Eric and Action This Day drew the number one and six selection order, respectively. Ironically, the three fastest horses in the field - Smarty Jones, Lion Heart, and Quintons Gold Rush will pick 11th, 14th, and 20th, respectively, meaning, unless one of them takes the rail (Quintons Gold Rush obviously has no say in the matter), we're going to have all three charging out of there from the middle of the track on out.

Of the likely top choices, Tapit will select 16th, but trainer Michael Dickinson might just prefer his colt near the outside after his sweeping move in the Wood Memorial (gr. I). The Cliff's Edge, who will be the morning line favorite, should be in good shape picking eighth. Also drawing well are the numbers two, three, and four picks - Master David, Friends Lake, and Imperialism.

What also has to be taken into consideration is the ominous forecast and the prospect of a sloppy track. That added to the fact that owners and trainers are more inclined to go well to the outside rather than take posts inside five and six, don't be surprised to see posts seven to 10 snatched up first, and then a jump to posts 14, 15, and 16 to avoid having to load early. The loading procedure has post position numbers 1 and 11 loading first, followed by 2 and 12 and so on. But each group will have their own strategy, based on their horse's likes and dislikes, and running style, and who might be on either side of him.

There were three horses out for blowouts this morning, and I really like the way Imperialism went. He has great extension in his left leg, and that was in evidence today, as trainer/exercise rider Kristin Mulhall just sat on him and let him open his lungs for a quarter mile, clocked in :24 4/5. He negotiated the second turn very well and galloped out another strong eighth in :13 1/5.

Action This Day floated a bit wide turning for home in his three-furlong move in :35 1/5, and also continued out strongly in :48 3/5, which was faster than stablemate Minister Eric worked yesterday. Last year's 2-year-old champ, came off the rail in his last work in company with Halfbridled, and it will be interesting to see if his connections decide to keep him more to the inside when they select their post position this evening.

Finally, Song of the Sword, who arrived at 5 p.m. last evening from Keeneland, blew out his half in :49 2/5. I love this colt's finely chiseled, almost feminine head, and his lop ears, which were jutting out in all directions during his work. His coat is glistening, and he is the picture of good health. Credit to trainer Jennifer Pedersen and the colt's herbalist Cathy McGlory for bringing in such a magnificent-looking horse.

The son of Unbridled's Song also has a great deal of class about him, and was unfazed by the many noises and distractions while grazing after arriving. He went out on the grass by the Longfield Avenue fence and behaved as if he had been stabled at Churchill all his life. He's still a work in progress, and even if he proves not quite ready for such an arduous task as the Derby, he will be a major force in the 3-year-old division this year.

Another horse who has a classy look about him is the newly arrived St Averil, who was feeling good grazing yesterday, and, according to trainer Rafael Becerra, is looking and acting like he did earlier in the year when he was considered one of the top colts in California.

One horse who is ready for action and protesting any restraint is Pollard's Vision, who was throwing head around while being schooled in the paddock yesterday, and again today while jogging with the pony. Trainer Todd Pletcher, aboard the pony, had a good hold of him as he continuously tried to break free, jerking his head in all directions.

He's another who should be pretty close to the pace, and will get a decent post position, having the ninth pick.

The Cliff's Edge and stablemate Birdstone had good solid gallops today, as did Pro Prado, who is like a little machine. You just wind him up and he goes out there and does everything perfectly.

Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Tapit was scheduled to arrive at Churchill at around 3 p.m. this afternoon. He originally was scheduled to go in Barn 45, with Friends Lake and Song of the Sword, but racing manager David Fiske was not happy with the barn, according to stall superintendent Mike Hargrave, who moved him to the stakes barn (Barn 17), where he'll join Santa Anita Derby winner (gr. I) Castledale.

In Friday's column, I'll try to make some sort of sense of all this confusion, looking for potential overlays and a megabomb or two, and some exotics combinations, based on how these horses have been training, looking, and acting.

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