The Santa Anita Derby should set Chocolate Candy up perfectly for the Kentucky Derby.

The Santa Anita Derby should set Chocolate Candy up perfectly for the Kentucky Derby.


Ky. Derby Trail: The Key Word is Prep

Saturday’s big three Kentucky Derby preps should be pretty formful, with one or two standouts in each race. But, there’s a lot more to these races than who is going to win. While they are all prestigious events, let’s not forget the fact that they are indeed preps.


Winning these and next week’s stakes is a short-term fix. It feels good while it lasts, but it is the ultimate euphoria on May 2 that you want to experience, and you have to make sure that you don’t scale the top of the proverbial mountain too soon.


Remember, it’s been 20 years since the winner of the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) has come back to win the Run for the Roses. On the other hand, Giacomo, Charismatic, Real Quiet, and Silver Charm all came off defeats in the Santa Anita Derby to score at Churchill Downs.


Fusaichi Pegasus  is the only Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner in the past 28 years to capture the Kentucky Derby. But during that time, Funny Cide, Monarchos, and Go for Gin were able to win the Derby off defeats in the Wood.


The Illinois Derby (gr. II) has produced its share of winners who earned triple digit Beyers, but only War Emblem has gone on to win at Churchill Downs, and that’s when the race was run at Sportsman’s Park.


Pioneerof the Nile  and The Pamplemousse are the headliners in the Santa Anita Derby, but you can bet Bob Baffert, trainer of runners-up Silver Charm and Real Quiet, is not going to lose any sleep if Pioneerof the Nile should also run second on Saturday, as long as the race moves him forward. With three consecutive victories in his belt, he is in an excellent position to just let the Santa Anita Derby carry him to Kentucky, regardless of how the scenario plays out.


Consider these preps as pool shots. Sinking your ball is fine, but it doesn’t do much good if you don’t position the cue ball for the next shot.


The horse who is slightly under the radar and actually is coming into the Santa Anita Derby with a chance to put himself in great position for the first Saturday in May is Chocolate Candy. He has no earnings concerns, and with a seven-week freshening since his El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) victory, all he needs is a good second- or third-place finish and a decent hike in speed figures to set him up for a peak performance on May 2. Even if he wins on Saturday, his trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, has put him in a position where he’s not going to empty out, and will surely have a lot left in the tank for the Kentucky Derby.


Mention must be made of Mr. Hot Stuff. The full-brother to Colonel John has to put in a huge effort Saturday in order to come away with a first- or second-place finish, which he’ll need to make it into the Derby field. If he should be flying at the end and fall two noses short he will provide more ammunition to the critics of the graded earnings system, which clearly needs to be changed.


The addition of the speedster Z Day will assure an honest, if not blazing, pace, and likely will force The Pamplemousse to return to his previous stalking style, and certainly will help Pioneerof the Nile, Chocolate Candy, and Mr. Hott Stuff. All The Pamplemousse has to do is make sure he's not backing up in the final furlong. Watch for the lightly raced Cape Truth, who is way behind these horses, to at least make his presence felt at some point in the race. Another potential pace factor from a stalking position is Feisty Suances, who picks up seven pounds off his second in the San Felipe (gr. II).


The most interesting aspect of the Wood Memorial is seeing where I Want Revenge  is right now after his monster performance in the Gotham (gr. III) and two subsequent cross-country flights. Jeff Mullins clearly does not want to see a repeat of the Gotham; that has to come in four weeks. The ideal scenario would be for the colt to get tested by Imperial Council and respond to the challenge without his speed figures going through the roof again. But it’s not always easy to plan those kinds of scenarios. One thing you can be pretty sure of, Shug McGaughey won’t have Imperial Council primed to run any 115 Beyers, nor would he want him to. If I Want Revenge again proves much the best and actually can get an easy race, without having to light up his speed figures, that should also serve him well. What he and Joe Talamo have to avoid is winning off by themselves and earning huge speed figures again. The speed sheets figures for the Gotham were so outrageous a so-called “bounce” of some degree is not only expected, but essential.


Friesan Fire ’s trainer, Larry Jones, was so fearful of his colt peaking in his final prep, he decided to forego it altogether and train him up to the Derby off a seven-week layoff and no 1 1/8 miles races, despite the move going against all conventional wisdom. You also don’t want to back up too far at this point, so, a nice two-length score (with a decent gap between second and third) and about a 105 to 108 Beyer would be just right for I Want Revenge. But, again, this is not a science, and you never know how a race is going to play out.


Imperial Council, other than the pressure of having to finish first or second, is in a good position, because he could take a big step forward off the Gotham and still not come close to peaking. A strong second-place finish to I Want Revenge would set him up so well for the Derby it likely would make him the wise-guy horse at Churchill Downs.


One horse with no earnings concerns is West Side Bernie, and even a solid third-place finish after his poor effort in the Lane’s End (gr. II) would put him in track for the Derby. The others have to run the race of their lives to even have a chance to get in the Derby.


The Illinois Derby (gr. II) is the race in which to pick up the much-needed earnings. Only Musket Man is secure, so it will be a real battle for the top two placings. Perfect Song is a dangerous speed horse who is bred to run all day, and could emerge from this race as serious pace factor at Churchill Downs. Nowhere to Hide gets blinkers off and should be sitting on a big race after an excellent effort in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III) and a decent enough performance in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) over a quirky surface that many shippers don’t handle well.


Giant Oak’s connections said after the Louisiana Derby that the colt was no longer on the Derby trail, but you would think a victory or a fast-closing second here would change their minds. With his pedigree and running style and scope for improvement, why wouldn’t it?


As for the others, Free Country tries to rebound off two bad efforts, in which he obviously detested the surface each time – in the Sam Davis at Tampa Bay and the Louisiana Derby over a sloppy track. He also gets blinkers off. Al Khali  is an unknown commodity who has a good deal of room for improvement, with only one start in this country after coming here from Peru. Il Postino’s last race was so huge, it makes him at least interesting, even though it was in a $20,000 claiming race, for Pletcher no less. Toccet Rocket is coming off a good effort in the Rushaway Stakes and is pretty much a house horse, with five races at Hawthorne last year. His Greatness and Knight Shot both are coming in off terrible races.

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