This space will not focus too much on Big Brown or Colonel John. The comments and observations that follow are designed to help ferret out some elusive price horses, based on looks, works, and gallops. A separate analysis will be based on past performances and plain old gut instinct. Together, it is hoped they can form some kind of coherent picture of one of the most baffling Derbys ever.
Big Brown has done everything so far to indicate he is as special as his connections firmly believe he is. But he is breaking from post 20, will be wearing front bandages for the first time, and has had foot issues for a while. And he’s only had three career starts; you have to go back to Regret in 1915 to find a Derby winner with as few as three starts. With that said, if Big Brown wins by daylight, will we be surprised? No, because it will just prove he is a super horse. But at the price he’s going to be, let’s look for something more appealing financially.
It’s the same with Colonel John, who is getting a tremendous amount of buzz the past few days. It seems as if nearly every horseman on the grounds is picking him. The speed sheets players say his numbers aren’t fast enough, but synthetic surfaces have thrown the speed figures out of whack. From a physical standpoint, Colonel John has looked terrific. He has flourished in Kentucky, his gallops seem to get stronger every day, he worked blazingly fast in his first drill over the track, and his coat looks fantastic. Combine all that with his pedigree and enormous stride, and you have as solid a Derby horse as you could hope to find. The only questions are how he’ll react to dirt kicking him in the face for the first time and if he’s agile enough to get himself out of any traffic jams he might encounter.
OK, with Big Brown and Colonel John accounted for, lets start off by saying that I am sticking with the one-two horses on my initial Derby Dozen back in January – Court Vision and Monba, not necessarily in that order. I have gone out on a limb the past few weeks by putting Monba on top, based mainly on my belief that he is a very talented horse who was able to win the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) off a layoff following a nightmarish trip in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II), from which he emerged with more than one infirmity. And he won a tough battle with stablemate Cowboy Cal coming off only four half-mile breezes in seven weeks, suggesting he will improve off that effort. He also has a victory at Churchill Downs to his credit, defeating stakes horses Macho Again and Your Round in a gutsy performance. By Maria’s Mon, out of an Easy Goer mare, he will run all day.
Court Vision is a consistent closer, who showed his grit and determination winning two graded stakes last year he shouldn’t won – the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) and Remsen Stakes (gr. II). In the latter, he proved he can run through horses if he has to and doesn’t mind playing it rough. He was branded a plodder after two third-place finishes this year – in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial (gr. I), but woke up after arriving at Churchill Downs, where he breezed a bullet half in :46 1/5 with blinkers added and followed that up with a solid five-furlong breeze in 1:00 4/5. On the assumption this will be a different horse in the Derby, who will be more forwardly placed, we’ll stick with him as well.
Now we fast forward to the past 10 days, and three words stand out – Denis of Cork. You cannot ask a horse to come into a race any better than the son of Harlan's Holiday is coming into the Derby. His works have been sensational, as has his gallops, and he was a bear going back to the barn after schooling on Thursday. He’s not a horse who works himself up or loses his cool. He’s just so on the muscle right now and is itching for a fight. In his last work, he flew home and Calvin Borel couldn’t pull him up afterward. Had his original schedule not been altered so dramatically because of speed figures, he’d be one of the choices in the Derby for sure.
After an ill-advised seven-week vacation while on the top of his game, he came back flat in the Illinois Derby (gr. II) over a quirky surface. Now he must go into the Kentucky Derby off a bad race and having only four career starts instead of five. That is not an ideal situation, but this is an extremely talented horse, and based on how he’s been training and acting, and how good his coat looks, we have to put him in the top three and include him in any win bets.
We came to Kentucky ready to have Smooth Air right up at the top, but a low-grade fever and high white blood count about eight days before the Derby cast a small shadow over him. He seems fine now, but he did miss a work and had to make up for it by blowing out three furlongs on Thursday. So, we’re just going to root for him and Bennie Stutts. A victory by these two little giants would be worth more than picking a winner or cashing a bet. It’s that great a story.
Another horse who has raised conflicting opinions is Gayego. Looks-wise he is right at the top. A powerfully built dark bay, who is dappled out beautifully, he turned in one of the best works over a muddy track and was bouncing all the way back to the barn. He remained strong and aggressive cooling out. But his pedigree is questionable for 10 furlongs and he hasn’t done a lot of training the past two days.
Other observations of note: Visionaire, whose only flaw may be his pedigree, is in superb health coat-wise and has as great a disposition as you’d want in a horse, which could help him get that extra furlong. Adriano has improved immensely in his paddock schooling, and now it’s just a question of whether he handles the dirt. Off his turf allowance score at Gulfstream, in which he displayed the single most explosive move of the year, and his pedigree, he definitely has the ability to win this race.
Every so often, you see some 60-1 shot sneak into the Derby exotics. These usually are grinder types who don’t have the brilliance or powerful move to win, but can keep coming at you, often picking up a piece of it. Once such horse could be Z Humor, a horse totally under the radar, but who looks great physically and has trained extremely well. No one has paid much attention to him, but if you’re looking for a Coax Me Chad, Mane Minister, Wild Gale, or I’mawildandcrazyguy type of horse in your trifectas at a monster price, he could pop one and surprise a lot of people. Anak Nakal is another, but he has a bit more improving to do off some bad efforts this year. He has won a grade II stakes at Churchill and breezed a sharp half in :46 3/5 over the track, so you know he loves the surface, and he did get some decent Thoro-graph numbers in the Wood Memorial, suggesting he might be on an upswing returning to his favorite track.
For a lighter touch, how about a Colonel John – Cowboy Cal exacta to relive one of the great Breeders’ Cup races of all time, the 2000 BC Classic (gr. I) right here at Churchill Downs, in which Colonel John’s sire Tiznow just beat Cowboy Cal’s sire Giant's Causeway by a neck following a gut-wrenching stretch duel.
Here is another note of interest: The only horses in the field who have won two races at 1 1/8 miles are Colonel John and Cool Coal Man.
Finally, there is the Derby gods angle that always must be considered. Of course, the Bennie Stutts and Smooth Air story is worthy of the Derby gods, but that is more of a Cinderella story, like Smarty Jones . The real Derby gods stories are Richie Migliore, after so many untimely injuries and his dogged determination to get back in the saddle, especially after nearly being paralyzed in a spill, riding the $4,500 Cal-bred Bob Black Jack the same year he wins the George Woolf Award; Louie Roussel and Ronnie Lamarque returning to the Derby 20 years after Risen Star’s Triple Crown odyssey with a horse named Recapturetheglory to commemorate Risen Star’s anniversary of winning the Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont (gr. I) and finishing a troubled third in the Derby; Michael Matz returning to the Derby two years after Barbaro with Visionaire, co-owned by the people who broke Barbaro and an owner who suffered one of the most heartbreaking Derby defeats (Team Valor with Captain Bodgit).
One other would be Cool Coal Man, owned by Robert LaPenta, who just recently lost champion 2-year-old War Pass to injury. LaPenta’s first Derby starter, The Cliff’s Edge, had been named after longtime Equibase/DRF chart caller Cliff Guilliams, who died several weeks ago at just about the same time his other namesake Little Cliff, previously owned by LaPenta, was rescued from the slaughter house.
There probably are others that we haven’t found yet. These bets are for the romantics, but all are logical from a handicapping perspective as well.
OK, so what does all this mean in the real world? From strictly a logic standpoint, it means we’ll look at a $1 trifecta box consisting of the six horses mentioned earlier from the original Derby Dozen – Court Vision, Monba, Pyro, Tale of Ekati, Z Fortune, and Colonel John.
We’ll play Denis of Cork to win and box him in the exactas with each of the above six horses. And we’ll play Monba and Court Vision to win.
And we’ll go for the history angle for no logical reason whatsoever, playing an exacta of the 2000 BC Classic offspring Colonel John and Cowboy Cal.
If Big Brown is indeed a super horse, which he very well has the potential to be, then never mind.
For more from Steve, Watch "And They're Off."