Steve Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: The Calm Before the Storm

Steve Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: The Calm Before the Storm
Photo: Orin France
Ministers Wild Cat: Santa Anita Derby overlay?
Having to cope with a slow week like this right before the final push to Louisville is like being a little kid staring out the window on a rainy, summer day, trying to figure out what to do. So, what better time to indulge in a potpourri of minutia.

Before we get to that, however, let's take a brief look at the activity we did have over the weekend. And to give you an idea just how bizarre the road to the Kentucky Derby has become, the two preps that were run this weekend were in Dubai and New Mexico.

Godolphin's main Kentucky Derby hope, Inamorato, was trapped behind horses in the UAE Derby, and could never threaten the South African 4-year-old Victory Moon, whom he had trounced in his most recent start. Although he never got a chance to show his best, he needed a perfect trip and a powerful performance to compensate for his having only three career starts. But even taking his traffic problems into consideration, let's face it, his pedigree is not exactly overflowing with classic and stamina influences. Godolphin's Songlark struck the front turning for home and ran a very game race to finish second, beaten a half-length, in his first start on dirt and first start in almost five months. And he was battling back in the final yards. Godolphin will wait before deciding whether to point either one or both colts for the Kentucky Derby. Right now, Inamorato still looks like their main hope.

In Sunday's WinStar Derby at Sunland Park, poor Spensive again ran a solid race only to find a way to get beat. This time he was unable to get up despite fractions of :44 1/5 and 1:08 2/5 and a closing five-sixteenths in trotting horse time of :34 1/5. The winner, Excessivepleasure, is a fast, game, consistent horse who has been right there in all five of his career starts, at four different distances at four different tracks from coast to coast. Despite his speed he has a good deal of stamina in his pedigree. The bottom line is that this was not a Derby-caliber prep, but there are plenty of other opportunities for these horses.

On Saturday, Sky Soldier won the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel by 4 lengths. The most interesting aspect of the race is that the winner was the longest shot in the five-horse field...at 9-2.

Looking ahead to the Santa Anita Derby and beyond, there is one horse who could be a big overlay in the Santa Anita Derby and a smart horse to bet before the race in the future book at enticing odds. That horse is Ministers Wild Cat. Forget speed figures and his somewhat erratic running habits, and the fact that his regular rider deserted him.

This is one horse where it's all about maturity. Whereas every Derby hopeful this year was born in April or earlier, Ministers Wild Cat was born on May 21. This colt basically is just a baby, especially compared to everyone else. Ocean Terrace, who beat him in the El Camino Real, is three months older than him. Since the El Camino Real, he has turned in two superb distance works, better than any of his previous works. His last was a Fusaichi Pegasus type of work that Neil Drysdale loves to give a horse – "He settled very well behind some other horses. Victor (Espinoza) dropped his hands and basically just let him run on in the last furlong. It was just what I wanted to see." The colt also wore blinkers for the first time to keep him focused and will wear them in the Santa Anita Derby, which gives him even more room for improvement.

When Drysdale is quoted as saying, "I think you'll see a big improvement next time from last time," you can take the comment right to the windows. If there is one horse who is eligible to take a huge leap forward in the Santa Anita Derby it is Ministers Wild Cat, and if he does, watch out on the first Saturday in May, when this boy starts turning into a man.

Also, toss Kafwain out at your own risk. Perhaps classic distances will not be his strong suit, but just look at the main reason for most of the skepticism – his sire was a sprinter. Actually, his sire was a miler, who easily won the 1 1/8-mile Dwyer and was second, beaten a half-length, in the Preakness before winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint and being named champion sprinter at 4. In the 1995 Derby, most everyone ignored Thunder Gulch, whose sire, Gulch, also was a miler who won 1 1/8-mile stakes at 3 before winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint and being named champion sprinter at 4. The result of that skepticism was a whopping $51 payoff on Thunder Gulch in the Derby. Thunder Gulch shares another thing with Kafwain – class. Although it didn't work out in the Derby, look how far class enabled Came Home to go when most everyone felt he'd be hard-pressed to get a mile. Whether you like Kafwain or give him no chance, for whatever reason, just remember the class factor. If he indicates in the Santa Anita Derby that he's best at shorter distances, then you can look elsewhere. But right now he does deserve respect based on what he's accomplished over a lengthy period of time and who he's raced against, something no other Derby contender can claim.

Now, for the first order of trivial business, and that is dealing with the name of one of the leading Derby contenders.

** Not only is Atswhatimtalknbout the antithesis of the quintessential Derby name, you can't even shorten it to come up with a nickname. Even with Almutawakel, you could at least call him Al. But we're determined to come up with something. We dread seeing what copy editors will resort to trying to squeeze this horse's name in a headline.

First off, let's acknowledge the fact that while some people may think it's a cute name, it's not if you grew up in Brooklyn. I'm sure at some time in my youth, some back alley thug who dropped out of Lafayette High School actually said the words, "ats what im talkn bout," just that way. All that's missing is the "Ay!" before it. Just for the record, the older Italian guys in my neighborhood like Raz and Vito would have said, "atsa what ima talkn bout," just that way.

After dissecting the name and rearranging the letters as if attempting to score a coup in "Scrabble," I have come up with nothing. Therefore, I proclaim the new name of Atswhatimtalknbout to be: "The Big A." I know it's a racetrack in Queens, but in sports, you've already had "The Big M" (Frank Mahovlich) in hockey and "The Big O" (Oscar Robertson) in basketball, and they were pretty darn good. If this horse wins the Santa Anita Derby, be advised that henceforth he will be called "The Big A" in all Derby Watch and Road to the Kentucky Derby columns.

The only thing left would be to spell his name backwards and see how that sounds, but Tuobnklatmitahwsta sounds more like a Zulu king than a racehorse.

So, that's it, then. "The Big A," it is.

Continued...

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