Steve Haskin's Derby Report: California Dreamin'

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: California Dreamin'
Photo: Skip Dickstein
Haskin: Wilko...is a tough, durable, hard-nosed little warrior who comes to run every time...
It was another routine morning, with Nick Zito electing to put his works off until Sunday, due to the wet track. So, let's take a break and turn our attention to the California horses, who are being talked about by most everyone at Churchill Downs as if they had leprosy, even by people from California.

"They're too slow." "Forget the California horses." "The Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) was a terrible race." "The first four finished within two lengths of each other, and they all can't be good."

That's all you hear whenever the subject of the Californians comes up, with is not too often. It's as if no one even cares whether or not Buzzards Bay, Wilko, and Giacomo show up.

But show up they will. Wally Dollase, who moved his barn to Kentucky this year, has a comfy stall all ready for Wilko's arrival tomorrow. Nothing would thrill Dollase and his wife Cincy more than to see their son, Craig, win the Derby. He's already the youngest trainer to win a Breeders' Cup race.

If anyone thinks Wilko is too slow, they only have to look at his work at Hollywood Park this morning. Working in company with PG's Grey Eagle, the son of Awesome Again   flew home his last quarter in :22 2/5 to complete his five furlongs in :59 4/5, then "galloped" out another eighth in :12 flat for a six-furlong clocking in 1:11 4/5.

One of the main complaints racing fans have nowadays is that they don't make horses like they used to. We have nothing but fragile, lightly raced horses, and the tough, durable horse is a thing of the past. Well, here he is, the horse everyone has been longing for.

Then there is the so-called dreaded Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) curse. Amazingly, not one Juvenile winner has ever gone on to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Well, if you're looking for a horse who can break that ignominious streak, here he is, the horse everyone has been longing for.

So, if everyone is longing for a horse like Wilko, then why are they talking about him, Buzzards Bay, and Giacomo as if they're jalopies heading to the Indianapolis Speedway?

Wilko, a little pit bull of a horse on the racetrack, has been through the wars, racing at eight different tracks in England last year and two tracks in America, then battling through a pair of quarter cracks over the winter. Through it all, he has finished worse than fourth only once in 14 starts, racing at distances from five furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. His first start this year -- a fourth in the San Felipe (gr. II) -- was a throw out, as he was forced to race wide on both turns over a wet-fast track he didn't like, and came out of the race with his second quarter crack.

He needed a hard race in the Santa Anita Derby to move him forward enough and give him the seasoning needed to be competitive in the Kentucky Derby. Regardless of the low Beyer Speed Figure, Wilko still made a big run, while again racing wide on the turns, and closed his final eighth in a sharp :12 2/5 to be beaten only a half-length by Buzzards Bay. And his Ragozin number of "4 1/2" was strong enough to suggest that another solid move forward, which he definitely should make, will put him right there in the Derby.

Wilko should be appreciated for what he is a – a tough, durable, hard-nosed little warrior who comes to run every time he marches into the gate. He has proven the speed is there, and he has the pedigree to run all day. This is the kind of horse we've all been looking for, and what better time to start paying closer attention to what is right in front of our eyes. Wally Dollase summed him up best when he said, "This horse is class, class, class."

Speaking of the California horses, Buzzards Bay is another who is getting no respect. But no one really knows how much improvement this big, handsome chestnut still has in him. Maybe the Buzzards Bay we saw in the Santa Anita Derby is only a shell of what will show up in Louisville. Sure, you can only like so many horses, and the big guns of the East have been more dominant and brilliant than the Californians. But horses do change dramatically this time of year, and Buzzards Bay may be one of those who is undergoing that kind of change. At 25-1 or 30-1, it may worth it to at least consider that possibility.

Here is a horse who has won on the lead, making a middle move to get the lead, and coming from dead-last. He has shown tremendous grit on two occasions – in the Golden Gate Derby and Santa Anita Derby, and he has a bottom line to die for. He's inbred three times to the great international class and stamina influence Ribot, through Graustark, Arts and Letters, and Maribeau. His broodmare sire, Seneca Jones, is by Alydar, out of champion Tiffany Lass, and his sire, Marco Bay, traces to Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winners Damascus, Quadrangle, and Sword Dancer, as well as Ribot and Tom Fool.

Yes, I realize there can be only one winner, but at the price he's going to be, it's at least worth pondering, even if you feel he and Wilko are only worth putting in the exotics. If either takes the step forward they are capable of, they could make for some hefty trifecta and superfecta payoffs. And take one other factor into consideration, Buzzards Bay has made five Beyer jumps in his career, of 16, 12, 7, 15, and 12 points, which averages out to 12.4 points a jump. If, and I repeat, if, he does it again in the Derby, you're looking at a potential 110 Beyer on May 7.

Today's Activity

Zito went back to his normal gallop schedule, with Bellamy Road coming out in the first set and galloping strongly. He wasn't as headstrong as he's been a couple of times this week, and had his neck bowed again, moving much smoother. High Fly was again full of himself, and looks to be sitting on a big work tomorrow, especially coming off that 1:06 3/5 move last time. Sun King was back galloping after his work on Thursday. Noble Causeway also should be ready to zip around there tomorrow. With five weeks off, he and High Fly need a good stiff work.

Bob Baffert arrived this morning and was surprised to see how much better Sort it Out looks physically, and how much sharper he's been acting. "You couldn't drag him around the shed back in California, but he's acting great now, and his coat looks super," he said. Sort it Out went out for a gallop, and Baffert liked what he saw. He'll work the son of Out of Place on Monday.

Afleet Alex jogged two miles just after 6 o'clock, then returned to the track for a strong twice around gallop after the renovation break. He came back in a strong canter as if he were ready to do it all over again.

Greeley's Galaxy showed no ill effects from his wild work on Thursday, as he had a nice solid gallop. This horse has a lot of history going against him, but there is no doubt he is very talented. Just looking at him, he does everything like a good horse, and is a joy to watch in action -- his head down and reaching out with great extension.

Giacomo, who should at least be respected for his consistency, is scheduled to work at Santa Anita Monday.

Big day tomorrow, with Bellamy Road, High Fly, Noble Causeway, Bandini, Flower Alley, and Closing Argument all scheduled to work.

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