Top trainers from New York to Kentucky to Arkansas are gearing up for this weekend's three big Kentucky Derby preps, after which we should have a good idea who will provide the main challenges to Santa Anita Derby winner Point Given.
On the foreign front, the two Godolphin invaders, Street Cry and Express Tour, arrived safe and sound at Churchill Downs today at approximately 1 p.m. after clearing quarantine at Keeneland. Assistant trainer Tom Albertrani said everything has gone smoothly so far. As for speculation that Express Tour may run in the Lexington Stakes, Albertrani said that is not in the plans. Both colts will make their next start in the Kentucky Derby.
John Ward, trainer of Wood Memorial favorite Monarchos, said via teleconference that the son of Maria's Mon is on his way to New York, and will be stabled at Aqueduct. "He's not the best shipper in the world," Ward said. "On the flight from Florida to Kentucky he was a little apprehensive at first, but settled nicely by the end of flight. If he's going to be a good horse, these are the things he has to learn."
Ward doesn't believe that Monarchos peaked too soon in the Florida Derby, as some suspect. "He did show a dimension I had never seen before," he said, "but I don't think he peaked. He's had four weeks between the Florida Derby and the Wood, and we've given him plenty of time to put weight back on and get mentally sharp."
Ward is also looking for a big performance from Hero's Tribute in Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. "He's improved a great deal mentally, coming out of the Louisiana Derby," Ward said. "We had been thinking of adding blinkers to keep him focused, but we decided to add Jerry Bailey instead of the blinkers. If Jerry feels after the race that he needs them, it's easier to add them than it is to take them off. I feel this horse has been overlooked. If everything works out, I think we're going to see the icing put on the cake in the Blue Grass. If he doesn't perform the way I think he will, then I've been fooled. I'm looking for an extremely good race."
Another trainer looking for an extremely good race from his colt in the Blue Grass is Nick Zito, who will saddle last year's Champagne winner A P Valentine, who had been plagued with shin problems earlier in the year after bucking his shins in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
"He looks fabulous and he's doing fabulous," Zito said. "We lost two weeks with him, but miraculously, we've somehow found those two weeks. We now feel he's equal with Hero's Tribute and Dollar Bill, I think you'll see a great performance out of him. If the man upstairs keeps doing what he's doing, we'll be (at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May) with bells on."
Zito also will saddle It's So Simple in the Wood Memorial, and feels the son of Smart Strike has a great chance to finish in the money. "His race in the Florida Derby was not as bad as it looked," he said. "He hadn't run in seven weeks, he had to break from post 13, and had he followed Monarchos, I think he could have been second. This is a very good horse."
Todd Pletcher also will have action on two fronts this weekend, sending out Invisible Ink in the Blue Grass and Balto Star in the Arkansas Derby. "We had analyzed all the possibilities for Balto Star," Pletcher said. "Being in Kentucky, we were in a strategic position to go in any direction. But the bottom line was that the one race where he'd be favored was the Arkansas Derby. And we did win that race on the front end last year with Graeme Hall. It's going to be hard to improve on the Spiral Stakes, in which he got a 112 Beyer, the fastest of any 3-year-old this year. We'd like him to win the Arkansas Derby without having to run that kind of race, and leave something in the tank for Churchill Downs."
As for Invisible Ink, Pletcher says the Blue Grass is not a race he has to win. "We've felt he was a Derby horse for a long time," he said. "He's already shown he certainly belongs. We're just looking for him to run well."