Bob Baffert is assembling a large force of contenders along the Kentucky Derby trail.

Bob Baffert is assembling a large force of contenders along the Kentucky Derby trail.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Kentucky Derby Trail: Battle Stations!

Steve Haskin's look at the races on the trail to the Kentucky Derby.

Two potent armies are gathering en masse on opposite ends of the country. Their objective: Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. The generals: Bob Baffert, who is assembling a large force on the slopes of the San Gabriels, and Todd Pletcher, who is matching him horse for horse, with his main division operating several miles from the Atlantic Coast in Boynton Beach. Fla.

Gen. Baffert’s uniform is adorned with ribbons and medals, awarded for his heroism on the Kentucky Derby trail and his three conquests under the Twin Spires. On Gen. Pletcher’s uniform are only a few minor decorations signifying his gallant, but futile campaigns that ended in defeat on 24 occasions.

While Baffert’s modus operandi is to attack with George Patton-like aggression, Pletcher prefers a more conservative approach, and his troops are not pushed as hard as the gung-ho Baffert brigade. 

Now, here they are, armed and loaded for a full-scale assault on Churchill Downs. Baffert lives for the Derby, and the success of his year is dictated in good part by whether he is “live” on Derby Day. He believes in order to accomplish that and ultimately come home with a victory he needs a hardened campaigner who can stand up to the arduous grind of the Derby trail. Although Pletcher would love to take home the roses one day, he basically trains his horses up to the Derby as he would any other race. So far, it hasn’t worked, but the more he perseveres and the more weapons he brings, the better chance he has of succeeding one day. That day could be this year if his main body remains intact until May 1. The last two Derbys have been won by horses with only two starts at 3, coming off five-week layoffs, so we’ll see if those were aberrations or if times are changing.

To show how deep Baffert’s 3-year-olds are, he is loaded despite already having lost two of his top prospects, Clutch Player, who tragically died of pneumonia, and the regally bred Take Control (A.P. IndyAzeri), who is sidelined with shin problems.

Baffert’s main hope is champion 2-year-old Lookin At Lucky , who has already won three grade I stakes, two of them at 1 1/16 miles. But many feel his best performance was his head defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), in which he was forced to go wide on both turns after breaking from the 13-post. Baffert will add blinkers to the colt’s equipment, because of his habit of doing only what he had to and failing to finish off his opponents after he had them down.

Lookin At Lucky was a methodical winning machine, who knew how to beat you without expending much energy. He was the football team who was content to win by a score of 10-7. He was the professional poker player who would rather beat you with a pair than a full house. Why decimate his opponents in fast times when he could get the same result by beating them by a length and leave enough in reserve to come back and do it over and over? And that is just what he did, winning five races by a total of five lengths.

Baffert also has the undefeated speedster Conveyance , wire-to-wire winner of the San Rafael Stakes (gr. II), who needs to harness some of that speed. Then there is the Tiznow  colt, Tiz Chrome, impressive winner of two sprints, including the overnight Stuka Stakes. He will stretch out in the Feb. 6 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II), an appropriate spot considering Baffert has been comparing him to Lewis’ Silver Charm.

Also in the Baffert barn are impressive maiden winners Bulldogger and Concord Point; allowance sprint winner Tiny Woods; and The Program, Macias, Indian Firewater, Marcello, and Quiet Invader. Many of these will turn out to be either sprinters or grass horses, but this still is a deep talent pool, and we’ll see how far Baffert can take them.

Pletcher’s forces are even deeper and more accomplished as a whole at this point, with Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) winner Super Saver , Delta Jackpot (gr. III) winner Rule, Pilgrim Stakes winner Eskendereya, multiple stakes winner on grass Interactif, Champagne (gr. I) and Futurity (gr. II) runner-up Discreetly Mine, California Derby runner-up Connemara, and Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) runner-up and Hopeful (gr. I) third Aikenite , a late-closer who tired in the Jan. 23 Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) after challenging for the early lead. Pletcher recently sent out the well-bred Colizeo to break his maiden by 5 1/2 lengths in 1:49 3/5 for 1 1/8 miles and ran one-two in an allowance sprint with Three Day Rush and Mission Impazible.

The majority of Pletcher’s top 3-year-olds not only have proven their class and talent, but have pedigrees that suggest they will have no problem whatsoever getting a mile and a quarter. So, it is safe to say at this stage that Pletcher is loaded with potential Derby contenders.

The changes in the dates of several major Derby preps this year no doubt pleased Pletcher, as well as trainer Rick Dutrow. Both prefer time between races, and that’s what they’ve got. Gulfstream Park, where both trainers will be racing the majority of their horses, was chased out its spot five weeks before the Run for the Roses by the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), even though one race has no bearing on the other and the Florida Derby has proven itself in this spot, producing two Kentucky Derby winners in the past four years.

Instead of standing their ground and using the Florida Derby’s larger purse and grade I status to basically attract the same horses it normally would have, Gulfstream officials backed down from the challenge and high-tailed it out of there, settling on a new, less desirable, spot six weeks before the Derby (March 20). This move will force trainers to either buck history, trying to overcome that long a layoff or run their horses back in three weeks for their final prep. The best thing to come of all this was the change in distance of the Louisiana Derby to 1 1/8 miles, something that was long overdue. Now, it can serve as a final Derby prep and not merely a prep for a prep.

Another option for trainers is to run in the March 13 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) a week before the Florida Derby, which would give them either three weeks to the Wood Memorial (gr. I) or Illinois Derby (gr. II) and then four weeks to the Kentucky Derby or four weeks to the grade I Arkansas Derby or Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and then three weeks to the Run for the Roses.

Few will argue that Florida boasts the strongest and deepest group of Derby hopefuls. One of the leading contenders is Buddy's Saint, trained by Bruce Levine, who has scored impressive victories in the grade II Nashua and Remsen Stakes. The son of the late Saint Liam is being pointed for the Feb. 20 Fountain of Youth (gr. II) at 1 1/8 miles, but likely will head back north after that for the Wood Memorial (gr. I) at Aqueduct, where he scored his two big wins last year. Other trainers, not relishing the six weeks to the Derby, could also leave for New York after the Fountain of Youth or opt for the Illinois Derby for their final prep.

But, there will be conservative trainers, like Pletcher and Rick and Tony Dutrow, who are not fazed by the layoff into the Derby, and will stick around. But if they are going to push that five-week layoff into a six-week layoff they are going to have to accomplish something that hasn’t been done since 1956. And it must be remembered that Needles, who won the Derby off a six-week layoff, made 10 starts as a 2-year-old, racing steadily from March to late October.

On the owner front, Rick Porter is back on the Derby trail with Holy Bull winner Winslow Homer . Porter, who races in the name of Fox Hill Farms, finished second in the 2007 and ’08 runnings of the Kentucky Derby with Hard Spun  and the ill-fated Eight Belles, respectively. Porter has provided a potential legacy for his star filly with Winslow Homer, named after the famous American artist whose works include the painting “Eight Bells.”

The son of Unbridled's Song has now won three in a row at three different racetracks in three different states. Porter also owns the Count Fleet Stakes winner Laus Deo, giving him a strong hand in New York and Florida.

WinStar Farm, which has sent out at least one live contender in the last four runnings of the Derby, including 2006 runner-up Bluegrass Cat , should be well represented this year with Super Saver, Rule, Hollywood Prevue (gr. II) winner American Lion  (trained by Eoin Harty), and the impressive maiden winner Drosselmeyer (trained by Bill Mott).

Robert LaPenta went into the private purchase market this winter, buying majority interest in Calder sensation Jackson Bend, who finished second to Winslow Homer, beaten three-quarters of a length, in the Holy Bull, snapping a five-race winning streak. LaPenta also has recent allowance winner Ice Box  and several promising maidens, including Our Dark Knight who is one to watch.

Godolphin got a late start on their annual Derby shopping spree, picking up only maiden winner Tahitian Warrior so far. Of course, their big hope is Vale of York, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But for the first time, the Godolphin invaders will be running on a synthetic surface in Dubai, making them more perplexing to figure out than normal.

Returning to the Derby trail this year is D. Wayne Lukas, who has Hopeful (gr. I) winner Dublin. The son of Afleet Alex  subsequently suffered two bad defeats, but has since been operated on to free an entrapped epiglottis, so he will bear watching at Oaklawn Park.

So, will the Derby trail be dominated by the powerful armies of Baffert and Pletcher or some of the other big names from 2009, or is there a Mine That Bird or a Big Brown  lurking out there somewhere? Finding out the answer is what makes the Derby trail as fun and adventurous as the Yellow Brick Road. And we all know what waits at journey’s end.

Action last weekend

First off, horses left off the Derby Dozen include the classy and consistent Noble’s Promise only because he hasn’t worked since the CashCall Futurity. The son of Cuvee also has some stamina issues, but a very strong tail-female line. Once he starts working he’ll likely be back on the list. Another who has not worked in a while is Tropical Park Derby (gr. IIIT) winner Fly by Phil, and we’ll keep a look out for him as well.

On the bubble is Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Vale of York. Because they will now run on a synthetic surface in Dubai, he will be untested on dirt should he make it to the Derby. That makes him more of an unknown than past Godolphin horses. But he did run a huge race in the Juvenile and must be respected. For now, however, we’ll keep him on the outside looking in.

Also on the bubble is Fair Grounds allowance winner Stay Put, who wasn’t flattered by runner-up Worldly’s performance in the LeComte. But he does look like a colt with a future.

Some observations regarding horses who have competed in the past two weeks that are not on the Derby Dozen:

LeComte runner-up Maximus Ruler has a good deal of upside, but needs to get his act together. First off, he shouldn’t have been on the lead and was under pressure through brisk fractions. He holds his head high and seems to lack focus. And just as a side note, he was wearing front wraps for the first time; at least he wasn’t wearing them in his allowance victory at Churchill. Feeling the effects of his early efforts, he was swishing his tail in the final furlong and then jumped back to left lead late, suggesting he was getting tired down that long stretch. He went his half in :46 4/5, and by comparison, Friesan Fire wired his field in the Louisiana Handicap going his half in :48 2/5. In the Tiffany Lass, the leaders went in :46 and were nowhere to be found. He obviously is a talented colt. Just imagine what he’ll do when he figures it all out.

In head-to-head comparisons, Thank U Phillippe, who ran a solid fourth, beaten 5 1/2 lengths, in the Holy Bull with the addition of blinkers, had finished second, beaten 1 1/4 lengths by Eskendereya, in his previous start; second, beaten 12 lengths by Buddy’s Saint in the Nashua Stakes; and second, beaten 2 3/4 lengths by Jackson Bend, in the In Reality division of the Florida Stallion Stakes.

We don’t know yet quite what to make of Smarty Jones winner Dryfly, who wired his field by 2 1/4 lengths. The way he hugged the rail and cut the corner turning for home under Calvin Borel suggests he has agility and athleticism. The Oaklawn strip was incredibly slow, so his 1:41 3/5 mile and final quarter in just under :28 has to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. We’ll wait until the Southwest (gr. III) Stakes on Presidents’ Day (Feb. 15) before trying to figure out where he stands.

Horses shipping in to Tampa this winter may run into more than they can handle, with Uptowncharlybrown, undefeated winner of the Pasco Stakes, waiting for them. He was being pushed along on the turn, but kept building up momentum, eventually drawing off to a six-length score, his second runaway victory in as many starts. The son of Limehouse has a strong enough pedigree to suggest he'll stretch out with no problem.

Although they are playing catch-up, keep an eye on several maiden sprint winners over the weekend. From a visual standpoint, the Steve Asmussen-trained Rule by Night, looked impressive in his 7 1/4-length victory at Aqueduct. He has beautiful action, the way he drops his shoulder and reaches out with great extension. There’s no reason why the son of Malibu Moon  shouldn’t stretch out, judging from the way he was finishing.

Another maiden winner who caught the eye on Jan. 23 was Leothelion, who had to bear down to catch a tough opponent in Close to the Edge. But once he asserted himself, the son of Lion Heart drew off with every stride to win by 2 1/2 lengths in 1:22 3/5 and was six in front galloping out. Trained by Mike Puype, he was coming off a strong second to the highly promising Concord Point in 1:15 flat for 6 1/2 furlongs, earning a 91 Beyer Speed Figure. You’ll be hearing from this colt in stakes races.

Fans of Lentenor  had to love the way he broke his maiden on the grass at Gulfstream Jan. 20, turning back his challengers and drawing clear to win. Now, it’s just a question of if and when Michael Matz will try him on dirt.

Another impressive maiden winner was Savemyspotimbeting, a name that although whimsical, is not exactly appealing to the ear and even less appealing to the eye. But the son of Vindication certainly was appealing himself, breaking his maiden at Gulfstream on the front end in 1:08 3/5. Before you get too excited over that time, remember this is Gulfstream where time usually has no meaning, whether extremely slow or extremely fast, depending on the mood of management. A case in point was Mine N Gems’ seven-furlong time of 1:21 4/5 in a maiden race later on the card. Oh, by the way, in between, a starter allowance horse ran 5 1/2 furlongs in a track-record 1:03. Yet the races over seven furlongs were not that fast, with the Holy Bull run in 1:35 4/5 and a final quarter in :26 1/5.

Also, keep an eye on Odysseus, who scored a game victory in his debut at Gulfstream in a 12-horse field. The final time was a snappy 1:22 4/5 for the seven furlongs.

On Jan. 24, the Mike Machowsky-trained Nextdoorneighbor, a son of Lido Palace, stretched out to two turns and scored a four-length victory after stalking a slow early pace.