Steve Haskin's Derby Report: The Action Heats Up

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: The Action Heats Up
Photo: Lydia Williams
Talk Is Money, whose addition to the list of possible Derby starters was no surprise.
Welcome to Churchill Downs. Many of the names and faces change each year, but the same charge of electricity still ripples through the backstretch. Bob Baffert has two shotgun cartridges aimed right at the Twin Spires, while Nick Zito is back after a one-year absence, and for the first time since Genuine Risk captured the roses in 1980, D. Wayne Lukas will be a spectator.

Since arriving Sunday afternoon, we've had two defections and one addition, several interesting works, a recurrence of a nagging ailment for one of the leading contenders, and the usual rumors that blow in with those early morning Louisville winds. But the only winds that blew in today were warm and blustery, as the temperature began its projected rise to low the 80's.

The two defections are Street Cry, due to an ankle injury that had been building up for several days, and Saint Damien, who bled badly enough during a working this morning to keep him out of the race. The addition of Talk is Money was to be expected, considering where the $1.8 million colt has shown up in the past.

On the work tab this morning were A P Valentine, Express Tour, Dollar Bill, Gift of the Eagle, and Saint Damien.

A P Valentine was the first to show his face, just as the morning light began trickling in. Among the visitors was the colt's co-owner Rick Pitino, who informed the media, mostly TV camera crews, that his lips would be sealed for all interviews until next week. There are those who have come to resent this colt because of his lack of success this year, the so-called hype attached to him, and a hefty partial-sale price to Coolmore. For his boosters all year, myself included, who still are looking for a reason to cling on, it was this morning's work.

The son of A.P. Indy cantered by the stands, prancing along with his head down into the bit and his neck arched. With stablemate Lake Agawam breaking off ahead of him, A P Valentine had run on his mind, and exercise rider Jamie Sanders had to take a good hold of him. Right from the start, he was moving very smoothly, and after collaring Lake Agawam at the three-eighths pole, he turned for home under no urging, and changed leads right on cue. He continued to ease his way clear of his workmate, while doing everything on his own. He was striding out beautifully through the final furlong, run in a swift :11 3/5, and completed the five furlongs in :59 3/5, the fastest of 43 works on the tab for the distance. And Sanders never moved her hands on him. It was the first time a Zito-trained horse had ever broken 1:00 for a five-furlong work, while prepping for the Derby.

"Well, we needed to get two good works in him, and now we got one," Zito said. No one will ever know why A P Valentine ran so poorly in the Blue Grass. He was climbing badly right from the start, so he apparently was one of many horses who couldn't handle the speed-favoring track. But even before the race, the colt's gallop rider felt he wasn't quite himself, so maybe it just wasn't his day. Whether he got enough out of the race to make him competitive on Derby Day we'll find out, but if this work was any indication, then maybe Zito can pull off another remarkable form reversal, as he did in the 1996 Preakness and '96 Breeders' Cup Classic, to a lesser degree, with Louis Quatorze, and in last year's Travers with Albert the Great. All we know is that the A P Valentine we saw this morning was the same colt we remembered from last year – eager, brilliant, and all class.

An Express Tour of Churchill

Immediately following A P Valentine came the Mountain of Mohammed, Express Tour, a 17.2-hands giant of a horse, who rises about as high off the ground as one of Sheik Mohammed's camels. This humongous chestnut is an easy-going, professional colt who goes out there and does what you want. Today he worked six furlongs in company with stablemate Dubai World, and although he didn't switch leads at any point in the stretch, he still drew clear easily and covered the distance in a sharp 1:12 1/5. The son of Tour d'Or is quite a sight when he turns for home, his sleek head held high and his mane illuminated by the early morning sun.

"This is the best he's looked since he left Dubai," assistant trainer Tom Albertrani said. "I don't see his style of running as a problem. If he runs the same kind of race he did in Dubai, he'll be sitting right behind the leaders."

Bet your bottom Dollar

It's still a long way to the Derby, but from our first look at Dollar Bill, he is going to be our overlay special. The son of Peaks and Valleys is doing as well physically and mentally as you could possibly expect from a Derby horse. As he grazed inside the Longfield Ave. gate after breezing an easy half in :50, his coat glistened, and you could see a faint set of dapples beginning to appear near his withers and hind end. He vigorously chowed down mouthfuls of grass, and basically looked a like a very content individual.

It was obvious he wanted to do a lot more than breeze a slow half. He was very determined heading down the backstretch, as exercise rider Joanne McNamara pulled back on the throttle. She had her hands down on the colt's neck, as he came down the stretch with his ears pricked. After the wire he galloped out very strong and didn't pull up until well down the backstretch. It's as if the colt has been denied the opportunity to show what he can do, and is ready to kick some butt on Derby Day. With so many speedy contenders in the race, this is one horse who should be flying down that long Churchill stretch. Trainer Dallas Stewart said jocks' agents have been calling constantly trying to land the mount. Watch this colt, he could be a live one.

McPeeks and valleys

Kenny McPeek lost one Derby possible this morning when Saint Damien bled through Lasix while working six furlongs in 1:15 4/5, but watched his other colt Gift of the Eagle breeze a solid half in :49 1/5 as a prep for the Derby Trial, which could in turn serve as a prep for the Kentucky Derby.

Other news

--Since arriving at Churchill Downs, Millennium Wind has suffered a recurrence of the allergy and fungus that causes his heels to crack. The colt also ran down in the Blue Grass, but Juan Ruynoso, who has been hot-walking him and taking care of him in trainer Dave Hofmans' absence, said it has healed up nicely. The son of Cryptoclearance was out for a gallop after the break this morning and seemed to be moving well over the track, which had been watered heavily during the renovation break.

--Todd Pletcher has laid down his challenge that Balto Star will go to the front in the Derby, and anyone who runs with him will not be around at the finish. Pletcher said the son of Glitterman will work on Sunday, his only work between the Arknsas Derby and Kentucky Derby.

--Bob Baffert is already starting to get nervous over Tuesday's works for Point Given and Congaree. "I'll be up all night tonight," he said. "I get more nervous for these big works than I do for the race." Both colts were out for gallops after the break. Point Given went smoothly, with his head held high, while Congaree was more serious, getting his head down into the bit and swishing his tail.

--John and Debbie Oxley were on hand this morning to watch Monarchos gallop following the break. The son of Maria's Mon moved well over the surface. Trainer John Ward said he was very happy with the colt's performance in the Wood Memorial, and he's looking for a big effort on Derby Day. Ward said he'll likely work on Thursday, depending on the weather. Rains are expected Tuesday night, and Ward feels the track will best on Thursday after it has time to dry out.

--Scheduled to work Tuesday are Point Given, Congaree, Jamaican Rum, and Fifty Stars.

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