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Anne M. Eberhardt

Haskin's Derby Report: The Gods and the Devil

The Derby gods could very well have a few tricks up their sleeve this year.

Do you believe in the Derby gods? You know, those mystical beings that on occasion gather round somewhere up in horsey heaven and decide to tinker with the result of the Kentucky Derby.

When they have an agenda, you might as throw away your past performances, speed figures, horses with the same name as Aunt Harriet or Uncle Seymour, and horses that wink at you in the paddock. None of it matters. Secretariat wasn’t going to beat the Derby gods’ favorite, Frances Genter, in 1990 or the Sunshine Boys, Paul Mellon and Mack Miller, in 1993, or Charlie Whittingham in 1986 or Wayne Lukas in 1988 or Cal Partee in 1992 or Barclay Tagg in 2003 or Michael Matz in 2006. All of them had paid their dues in the Sport of Kings and were deemed deserving winners by the Derby gods. In Matz’ case, it was a year for a true-life hero to get his due.

So, where is this leading, you might ask? Is there a potential Derby gods horse in this year’s Kentucky Derby?

All signs are pointing toward Devil May Care and the Greathouse family, who have been breeding horses at the highest level in Kentucky for some 60 years. Passed down from generation to generation, there are few families in the Bluegrass state that are as well-liked and respected as the Greathouses, starting with John Sr., continuing through his six children, including sons John Jr., David, Allen, and Edward, and down to the grandchildren.

It was 50 years ago that John Sr. bred the 1960 Kentucky Derby winner Venetian Way. Sign number one.

John Jr. said that the only way Devil May Care would run in the Derby was if her regular rider, John Velazquez, was able to ride her. Velazquez was booked on heavy Derby favorite Eskendereya, but when that colt was withdrawn with a filling in his leg, it left Velazquez open. Immediately after, Devil May Care, following a sensational work, was named as a definite Derby starter. Sign number two.

If there is a trainer who deserves to win the Derby, especially in the eyes of the Derby gods, it is Todd Pletcher, who has had to deal with an 0-for-24 monkey on his back. Pletcher’s only Triple Crown victory has come with  Rags to Riches…a filly. Sign number three.

The last trainer to have had to put up with the constant reminders of his inability to win the Derby was Pletcher’s old boss and mentor, Wayne Lukas, who had an 0-for-12 stigma attached to him like a barnacle. Lukas finally got off the schneid in 1988 with Winning Colors…a filly. Sign number four.

So, if you’re big on family values, tradition, coincidences, anniversaries, deserving winners, the female sex, and, oh, yes, a very gifted horse who has been training as well or better than anyone, then look to the heavenly handicappers known as the Derby gods to make your selection for you. If this indeed is their plan, then no one has any say in the matter anyway. In an era of so much conflict and hatred, what would be more appropriate than to have the gods award the Kentucky Derby to a devil.

Dozen Shmuzzen

We just may have blown it. In our latest Derby Dozen, we did the unthinkable, which is to fall prey to racetrack rumor, which runs rampant during Derby Week, and inconclusive facts.

The facts were that Endorsement was barely doing any training, mainly due to off tracks. The Sunland Derby (gr. III) winner jogged on Friday and Saturday, walked the shed on Sunday, and jogged a mile and galloped a very easy mile on Monday – not the typical training schedule for a horse preparing for the Kentucky Derby. Where was his final work? Where were the strong gallops? How would he be tight enough for such a grueling race?

Word began to spread on Monday that Endorsement not only wasn’t training properly, but in fact may not even make the race. Some questioned his soundness, and one trainer all but guaranteed he was out of the Derby.

So, when it came time to make up the final Derby Dozen, rather than use up a spot on Endorsement, whom I had ranked fairly high, I decided to just drop him altogether, at least until I found out what his situation was.

Trainer Shannon Ritter, who gallops and works Endorsement herself, is not big on training horses over bad tracks, and everyone associated with the horse insisted he was fine.

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So, it was with great interest that I watched his gallop Tuesday morning at around 6 a.m. Well, from a physical standpoint, the horse looked perfectly sound during the few seconds I saw him as he galloped by one of the viewing stands. He switched leads smoothly and right on cue, his head was perfectly straight, and he was down into the bit. He was moving at a much quicker pace than he was the previous day and with more authority. He came off the track fine and cooled out fine. Although I only saw a small portion of his entire gallop, he sure didn’t look like a horse who was in jeopardy of coming out of the race because of physical issues.

The next step will be to watch him work on Wednesday, when he is scheduled to breeze a half-mile. Whatever the real deal is with the horse, as of this writing he should have remained on the Top 12. So, consider him there in spirit.

Awesome Act, Conveyance work

In the only two works of the day, Awesome Act and Conveyance  both had solid drills over the muddy track, and handled the surface well.

Awesome Act went in company, and his stablemate, Peace Town, made him work for everything he got, digging in when Awesome Act ranged up outside of him in the stretch. Under only mild encouragement, Awesome Act did get the better of Peace Town by about a neck. Although he was credited with a half-mile work in :48 1/5, galloping out five furlongs in 1:00 4/5, that was more of a five-furlong work to the seven-eighths pole, with a final furlong in :12 3/5. All in all, it was a decent move, revealing nothing more than what we knew or thought we knew about the horse. Although this work was not any eye catcher, we don't know what the strategy was behind the work. With a turn of foot as strong as Awesome Act's, one would expect him to blow by his workmate, but he either was unable to wasn't asked to. An off track on Saturday certainly wouldn’t seem to be an issue.

The same can be said about Conveyance, who moved very well over the track in his five-furlong work in :59 4/5. He was reaching out with good extension and hitting the ground with authority. His final quarter of :23 1/5 was excellent, as was his gallop-out. This is a colt with great natural speed, and he may be helped by an off-track, which often will carry a front-runner farther than they normally want to go.

Speaking of an off track, if it does come up sloppy or muddy on Derby Day, there is one horse in the race with an off-track pedigree to die for, and would move up several lengths on it. That horse will be revealed later in the week when the forecast becomes more definite.

Longshots looking good

A while back, we mentioned two potential live longshots we liked – Paddy O'Prado and Mission Impazible . That has not changed at all. Paddy O’Prado, as we all know, had a super work last week, and his gallop this morning was thing of beauty to watch. He was strong and focused and had his rider’s head bobbing up and down as he pounded through the mud. Everything about this horse shouts live longshot.

What has impressed us most about Mission Impazible is his energy level and overall sharpness. He is quite visible, residing in the first stall, and you can see that alertness and look in his eye. He doesn’t know what to do with himself and appears to be on ‘go.’

Another colt we’ve been anxious to monitor closely is Super Saver, and he also could not be doing any better. He had a sneaky-good work the other day, coming home fast and galloping out beautifully, and he has looked great on the track each day since. He also had a standout gallop this morning. If Calvin Borel can perform his Churchill magic on him and reel him in early, we could see a different horse on Saturday.