Steve Haskin's Derby Report: History Be Damned

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: History Be Damned
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Curlin worked Monday at Keeneland.
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With not much going on at Churchill Downs or Keeneland Wednesday morning, this will be more of a potpourri of Derby tidbits and a few early thoughts on the race. And, guess what? We have another name being tossed in the Derby hat, which is par for the course in late April.
 
First things first. Joe Hernandez, assistant trainer to Jerry Hollendorfer, said El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) and California Derby winner Bwana Bull, who arrived at Churchill Downs Tuesday, will run in either Saturday’s Derby Trial Stakes (gr. III) or the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Bwana Bull, with $125,000 in graded earnings would be No. 21 on the earnings list, and still would need one defector. If they do decide to wait and try to get into the Derby, that would knock Teuflesberg down to No. 22, Imawildandcrazyguy to No. 23, and all but eliminate Chelokee and Reporting for Duty (tied for No. 24) from the Derby picture.
 
As of now, it looks as if Sedgefield is a go for the Derby, while the connections of Slew’s Tizzy and Xchanger have not made a decision. The trainers of both horses do not relish coming back in two weeks, but decisions regarding the Derby usually come down to the owner, and as we all know, Derby fever reaches its boiling point just about now.
 
It has been well established that this year’s Kentucky Derby is loaded with questions, as more horses than ever before will be attempting to buck history in one way or another. Because there are so many, we have no idea whether the historical guidelines for the Derby will apply or not this year. No one even knows if this is a wide-open race, as it appears on paper, or if one horse is going to dominate. Some believe that one horse will be Curlin, who has had two public workouts, so to speak, in his two stakes appearances at Oaklawn Park. But Curlin is an example why this year’s Run or the Roses appears to be near-impossible to figure. Two weeks out, here is what we are dealing with.
 
First off, almost all of the Derby hopefuls in Kentucky have been training at Keeneland on Polytrack, so we won’t even know how many of them will handle the Churchill Downs surface. Regardless of how fast the track is playing on Derby Day compared to the track now, it’s still the same composition, and some horses simply don’t take to it, whether it’s fast or slow. Only Street Sense has been training regularly at Churchill, and there is no doubt he absolutely loves the track.
 
Circular Quay, Great Hunter, Scat Daddy, and Stormello all were trounced by Street Sense in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). It is highly doubtful that Street Sense is 10 to 16 lengths better than those horses, so how much of it was Street Sense getting a dream trip over a track he relishes, and how much of it was these horses not liking Churchill as much as the tracks on which they scored their greatest victories? Because none of them will be working at Churchill, we won’t know the answer. Nor will their connections.
 
Curlin, Zanjero, Hard Spun, and Dominican, who have done all their training at Keeneland, will have their final Derby works at Churchill Downs, so we will at least have some idea how they go over the surface.
 
Then we come to the history factor. Never before have so many horses gone into the Derby bucking history, and not just modern historical trends, but the old standbys. All of the historical factors will be tested this year, by top-class horses, which will tell us how much significance to give them in the future.
 
Curlin, undefeated winner of the Arkansas Derby (gr. II), will attempt to become the first horse since Regret in 1915 to win the Derby with only three career starts. He also will attempting to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win without having raced at 2. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won four Kentucky Derbys, says none of those apparent obstacles will have any bearing on the colt’s performance. Lukas feels Curlin is the ‘now’ horse, and if he continues to progress as he has been, seasoning will not be an issue.
 
Circular Quay, winner of the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), will be bucking history on three counts. He will be attempting to become the first horse since Morvich in 1922 to win the Derby off a layoff of as long as eight weeks; the first horse in 58 years to win the Derby without having run a mile and an eighth; and the first horse since 1983 and second since 1947 to win with only two starts as a 3-year-old.
 
Others attempting to win off only two starts are 2-year-old champ Street Sense, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) and second by a nose in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I); Robert B. Lewis (gr. II) winner Great Hunter; Blue Grass winner Dominican; and Fountain of Youth (gr. II) runner-up Stormello.
 
In addition, Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II) winner Hard Spun will be trying to win the Derby off a six-week layoff, while Florida Derby (gr. I) and Fountain of Youth winner Scat Daddy and Stormello will attempt to emulate Barbaro last year and win off a five-week layoff. Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Tiago will attempt to become the first horse since Exterminator in 1918 to win the Derby off only four career starts.
 
So, are there any horses who will go into the Derby the conventional way? After all, if most everyone is bucking history, then someone has an excellent chance to succeed. Tying one hand behind your back in a fight is only a disadvantage if your opponent is using both his hands, otherwise it’s a meaningless handicap.
 
Well, it just so happens, there are two top contenders who will be trying to win the old fashioned way, and they are Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Nobiz Like Shobiz and Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Any Given Saturday, both of whom had solid 2-year-old campaigns and will have three starts this year. Also, Illinois Derby (gr. II) winner Cowtown Cat fits in that category. Others who do, with slightly lesser credentials, are Sam P., Liquidity, Zanjero, Teuflesberg, and Storm in May.
 
Scat Daddy should probably be included , despite the five weeks off. After all, it was accomplished last year, and Scat Daddy does have a stronger racing foundation than Barbaro had, having run in the Sanford (gr. II), Hopeful, Champagne, and Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (all gr. I) at 2 and the Holy Bull (gr. III), Fountain of Youth, and Florida Derby this year.
 
Early observations
 
These are in no way selections for the Derby, especially not having seen many of the horses. They merely are early observations that will have some bearing on the final analysis of the race.
 
Based on works, the two horses that have occupied the top two spots on Derby Dozen for the most part this winter and spring should be major forces on May 5. We’re talking about the Tampa Bay Derby one-two finishers Street Sense and Any Given Saturday, both of whom have indicated in their works they are sitting on a huge race. As mentioned yesterday, you can count on Street Sense going into the Derby with the top work, even though there still was 11 days to the race.
 
Curlin was impressive in his work on Monday, but if you’re looking for a big price, or someone to fill out a whopping exacta, trifecta or superfecta, his stablemate Zanjero was every bit as impressive, and he’s a handsome colt who is built like a stayer. He is one horse I want to see work at Churchill to compare it to his work over Polytrack.
 
With a slew of works scheduled between Friday and Monday at both tracks, we’ll have a better idea just where we are regarding the remainder of the field.
 
Doug O’Neill is not looking for anything serious from Great Hunter, who will have more of a maintenance half-mile work at Keeneland Friday. Liquidity also won’t be drilled hard, but the same can’t be said for Cobalt Blue, who will get a good stiff work so O’Neill can see just where this colt stands following his poor effort in the Illinois Derby.
(gr. II).
 
Liquidity still has O’Neill’s blood pumping, despite two disappointing efforts. He has always felt this was the most gifted of the three J. Paul Reddam horses (Liquidity, Great Hunter, and the injured Notional), and believes if he gets his act together he will accomplish great things. O’Neill is hoping several equipment changes will get the son of Tiznow back on the right track.
 
The feeling here is that if Great Hunter works well on Friday and gallops strongly next week at Churchill Downs, he is going to be very live in the Derby at a good price. All the reasons why will be explained in the final column a week from Friday.
 
The other early observation, not based on anything physical, is that Dominican is by no means just a Polytrack horse, and simply is getting good at the right time. That also will be explained a week from Friday. His final work this weekend at Churchill Downs will be greatly anticipated. A strong work by the son of El Corredor   and he will join Great Hunter as the two potential overlays in the Derby.
 
Another anticipated worker will be Hard Spun, who had a strong work at Churchill last week and a lung-opening mile work at Keeneland on Monday, which got him pretty tired. It will be interesting to see how he bounces out of that last work and how he goes at Churchill Downs next Monday or Tuesday.
 
In other Derby news:
 
Barclay Tagg said Nobiz Like Shobiz came out of Sunday’s five-furlong work in :59 2/5 in good shape and likely will work again on Sunday or Monday. The son of Albert the Great   will fly to Louisville next Wednesday, making him the final Derby horse to arrive at the Downs.
 
Street Sense returned to the track Wednesday, one day after his :59 breeze, and will walk tomorrow. Nafzger believes an athlete, after exercising, should get right out and loosen up the muscles and get the blood flowing.
 
One horse not getting much attention is Arkansas Derby (gr. II) runner-up Storm in May, who has been galloping regularly at Churchill Downs under Mick Jenner, who is best remembered as the exercise rider for Kentucky Derby and Preakness (gr. I) winner War Emblem. The son of Tiger Ridge is a neat little horse who does everything professionally. He can handle any kind of surface, dirt or grass, and has finished in the money in 12 of his 13 starts. The only time he’s been out of the money he was forced to steady on the turn in the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II).
 
With another slow day anticipated tomorrow, we’ll discuss the Derby from a pedigree angle, and try to find the true stayers who will have no problem handling the mile and a quarter.

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