Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: Searching for the Winner

Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: Searching for the Winner
Photo: AP/Copyright Benoit Photos
Despite this troubled start, Siphonic's Santa Catalina was "an excellent performance," according to Steve Haskin.
He's out there, somewhere. He may be in the back of his stall nibbling on a mound of alfalfa, or stretched out with his head nestled in a bed of straw. He may be nothing more than a shrouded figure galloping through an early morning fog or a mere silhouette against a golden sunrise. But one thing is certain: somewhere out there is the winner of the 2002 Kentucky Derby (gr. I).

All you have to do is find him...or her. No matter how you go about it, it's just about that time of year to start diving head first into the speed figures and dosage numbers. It's time to head to your local racetrack or keep your eyes glued to simulcasts from around the country.

So, where do we begin looking? It used to be at the barns of trainers D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Nick Zito. Even though none of the last decade's big three Derby dynamos have won in the past two years, you still have to perform a thorough search of their barns to make sure you don't overlook the obvious, especially considering there are no standouts so far in this country, and the undefeated Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner Johannesburg will not be heard from for a while.

Lukas admits he is light right now; so light that the first horse he mentions, Shah Jehan, hasn't even run in this country. A $4.4- million yearling purchase, the son of Mr. Prospector was sent to Lukas by Coolmore. Shah Jehan has only a nose victory in a Leopardstown maiden race in Ireland to his credit. But he has been turning in some eye-catching works at Santa Anita, and Lukas says he's moving forward by "leaps and bounds."

Baffert is not nearly as strong this year as he was last year, or most years for that matter. But even with Officer's failure to develop into a classic horse and the removal of the promising China Grind from the Derby trail for reasons unknown, Baffert still has enough ammunition to do some heavy damage. He's already won a trio of 3-year-old dirt stakes this year. In the San Miguel (gr. III) winner Popular, Baffert has a gutsy fighter who doesn't know what quit is. Although the son of Saint Ballado hasn't been stretched out around two turns yet, his pedigree has a good amount of stamina, being from the female family of English Oaks (Eng-I) and Irish Derby (Ire-I) winner Balanchine and Alabama (gr. I) winner It's in the Air.

Baffert also has the odd-sounding Danthebluegrassman, winner of two stakes at Golden Gate, who has also shown what he's made of in the heat of battle. While his pedigree doesn't exactly shout out 1 1/4 miles, he should have enough stamina through maternal great-grandsire Herbager to get the job done if he's good enough. Others in the Baffert barn to watch are the classy filly Habibti; the late-closing Strive, who needs to break his maiden soon; Mountain Rage, a dual stakes winner on the turf; Hawk's Top Gun, a recent allowance winner going seven furlongs; and the maiden winner Chaos N Confusion. True Monarch, a $325,000 yearling purchase and son of Maria's Mon, looked brilliant breaking his maiden at 5 1/2 furlongs, but has a lot of catching up and stretching out to do. We absolutely love his female family. If he runs big stretching out first time, keep an eye on him. Also watch for the Thunder Gulch colt High Thunder to break his maiden first time out this year.

Zito, who was not a happy camper when Hialeah closed its doors, is keeping a low profile and just wants to get through the Gulfstream meet unscathed. He has attempted to fire off a few shots in Hallandale so far, but Governor Hickel, Iwin, and Mighty Gulch all failed to hit any targets. He did send out Inaugural Address to break his maiden at Gulfstream going two turns. It looks like Zito's two big shots will come from Silent Fred, third in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II), and High Star, third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr.II). Both colts were motoring in the final quarter, and we particularly liked the acceleration Silent Fred demonstrated. He would have been right there with Saarland and Nokoma at the wire had he not ducked in badly when Saarland came charging up on his outside like a runaway train, jumping over onto his left lead. Zito said both horses may run in an allowance race on Jan. 26, and he's hoping the race is split, so he can keep them apart.

Latest Developments
Two big races were run on Jan. 19. Those expecting Siphonic to emphatically stamp himself as the solid early favorite off the Santa Catalina Stakes (gr. II) will have to wait until the San Felipe (gr. II) two months from now, although he still looks like the horse to beat despite his defeat. Siphonic, who likes to run close to the pace, broke horribly, spotting the field a good seven to eight lengths, and considering how fast the winner Labamta Babe closed, he had no shot to win. When Jerry Bailey moved on him, he dashed through his next quarter in :23 3/5 to reach contention, but when Labamta Babe, in receipt of eight pounds, went his next quarter in :24 2/5 and final sixteenth in under :06 1/5, Siphonic was left hung out to dry. This was an excellent performance by both horses, who combine North American and South American pedigrees--Siphonic is Brazilian on top and Labamta Babe is Argentinian on the bottom. We still believe Siphonic is a gifted colt with all the tools to be a major force this year.

At Gulfstream, the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) was supposed to be a battle between Iroquois (gr. III) winner Harlan's Holiday and Remsen runner-up Nokoma, but it was Booklet, recently purchased by John Oxley, who captured his fifth race in six starts by leading all the way to hold off Harlan's Holiday by three-quarters of a length. The runner-up's trainer, Kenny McPeek, will point him for a rematch in the Fountain of Youth (gr. I). McPeek's big gun, Repent, will train at Gulfstream, but may head for Fair Grounds and the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III).

Trainer Todd Pletcher had no excuse for Nokoma's fourth-place finish in the Holy Bull, in which he was beaten almost 12 lengths. In an earlier race, another of his top horses, Charioteer could do no better than third, beaten 4 3/4 lengths, by Speed Hunter. But another horse on whom Pletcher is very high, Smoked Em, did just that in an Aqueduct allowance race Jan. 20. Continued...

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