Steve Haskin's Derby Report (4/8): A Potpourri of Perplexing Preps

Steve Haskin's Derby Report (4/8): A  Potpourri of Perplexing Preps
Photo: AP/Mark J. Terrill
Came Home's victory in the Santa Anita Derby was the slowest since 1963.
If this year's crop of 3-year-olds could talk they no doubt would speak in rhetoric. Each individual word makes sense, but when they string them together they say nothing. If they're trying to tell us something, they're being awfully cryptic about it. We have one more weekend to get some meaningful answers and then we're left to our own devices to try to sort out the complexities of this year's Kentucky Derby.

This past weekend was supposed to provide much-needed answers, and although America's marquee horse passed his final test and earned his ticket to Louisville, we still came away with that same confused look as in past weekends. And why not? You had the slowest Santa Anita Derby since 1963; you had the 1-2 favorite in the Illinois Derby get beat 6 1/4 lengths by a horse he defeated by 9 3/4 lengths two races back; you had last year's 2-year-old champion beaten by a filly in his 3-year-old debut; you had the Santa Anita Derby runner-up run with a faulty bridle, which gets added to the never ending list of weird ways to lose a horse race; you had the Gotham winner stumble badly at the start of the Santa Anita Derby, then get slammed into while he was getting back up; and you have the one-two finishers in the Aventura Stakes not even being considered for the Kentucky Derby.

Welcome to another episode of "2002: A Derby Dilemma," where all that's missing is a narration by Rod Serling, although we really don't need anyone to tell us we're "traveling in another dimension."

Being we started this report with the negative and unusual aspects of the weekend, it's only fair we play devil's advocate with ourselves.

On one hand, Came Home closed his final three-eighths in the Santa Anita Derby in a lethargic :38 4/5. On the other hand, he's won six of seven career starts, and no doubt is an extremely talented, professional, and tenacious colt.

On one hand, jockey Chris McCarron was pushing hard on him a long way out, and seemed to be going nowhere from the three-eighths pole to the quarter pole. On the other hand, he's won six of seven career starts, and no doubt is an extremely talented, professional, and tenacious colt.

On one hand, Repent not only was beaten 6 1/4 lengths by War Emblem in the Illinois Derby, he was farther behind him at the finish than he was at the eighth and quarter poles. On the other hand, he was giving the winner 10 pounds, and War Emblem did close his final two fractions in a very solid :24 3/5 and :12 2/5. Repent also made a strong run from ninth to second, but the turns at Sportsman's are so short, there is no time for a closer (and good turn horse) to make up much ground before turning for home.

On one hand, Repent still is not changing leads when he's supposed to and still is not running as professionally in the stretch as he's supposed to. On the other hand, trainer Kenny McPeek feels he trained him too softly for this race, and also opened his blinkers up from a three-quarter-inch cup to a half-inch cup in order to help him change leads -- plans he feels backfired. McPeek will now go back to the three-quarter cups and train him more sharply for the Derby, working him faster and shortening his gallops.

On one hand, Repent was caught gawking off to his left at the break and was late coming out of the gate, costing him all chance to get an early position. On the other hand, McPeek will work on that as well, breaking him out of the gate three times between now and the Derby.

It should be noted that Repent did finally change leads at the sixteenth pole and immediately drew off from Fonz's, increasing his margin to 4 1/2 lengths. He just couldn't make a dent in War Emblem's lead. McPeek's vet told him the colt was cooled out by the time he reached the detention barn, and he cleaned out his feed tub in two hours. Repent surely doesn't move up off this race, as he still has issues to work out. But we feel it would be premature to throw him out. A mile and a quarter at Churchill is a whole other ballgame. Remember, Ferdinand was coming off a third in the Santa Anita Derby, in which he not only was beaten 7 lengths, but he lost 3 lengths in the final quarter mile. Yet he came from far back and blew his field away at Churchill. If you can find it in your heart and wallet to forgive Repent for his recent transgressions, you could be rewarded financially for your loyalty. His one-time favorite-like odds likely are now a distant memory.

On one hand, Johannesburg was caught going 7 furlongs by a filly who also was making her first start of the year, who was giving Johannesburg 11 pounds, and who had been running mainly in 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 mile races last year. In her last start she finished a well-beaten eighth in the 10-furlong Dubai Champion Stakes. On the other hand...well, we're still working on the other hand. Even if there was another hand it is hard to imagine him winning the Kentucky Derby off this race. It would have been hard to imagine it even had he won by daylight. This did, however, look like an excellent 2,000 Guineas prep.

If they do decide to continue with their plans to send Johannesburg to the Derby, the once-unbeaten colt will not arrive with the same aura of invincibility he had prior to the Gladness. While we still believe he is an extraordinarily talented horse, our reservations about him being ready to go a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May are no stronger than his own trainer's, whose key phrase in discussing the quest has been "we're just hoping."

While on the subject of Aidan O'Brien horses, while we didn't see Castle Gandolfo's victory in the Fosters-International Trial Stakes (a most impressive, but misleading name), we did receive a video in the mail on Friday showing all of Coolmore's 2001 group I victories - an astounding 23 of them. Fortunately, in two of them, Castle Gandolfo finished second to his own stablemate, enabling us to see him in action. In the 1 1/4-mile Criterium de Saint-Cloud, run over a left-handed, relatively flat course, we were extremely impressed with the colt's action and the length of his stride. We particularly liked the way he was still striding out strongly at the end of the 10 furlongs and showed no signs of backing up over heavy ground that does not suit him. He gets his head and shoulders down pretty low and really reaches out with authority. Now that he's won over the dirt, albeit against mediocre competition, we have to feel he is a horse who should not be treated lightly on Derby Day.

Continued...

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