Colonel John during his April 27 work at Churchill Downs.

Colonel John during his April 27 work at Churchill Downs.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Kentucky Derby Trail: California Comets

The California invaders turn in some impressive works on Sunday

With each day, more and more questions are being answered. We now know Colonel John at least can work like the dickens on dirt; we know that Proud Spell will run in the Oaks, letting Bob Black Jack in the Derby; we know that Smooth Air is feeling fine again; and we know that Gayego is looking and training awesome.

We had a feeling that the California 3-year-olds were a strong bunch when Gayego, Tres Borrachos, and Indian Sun finished one-three-four in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) and Behindatthebar and Samba Rooster finished one-two in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II).

That feeling was enhanced when Gayego turned in a big five-furlong work in 1:01 over a muddy track Saturday and came bouncing off the track like he wanted another go-round. But it wasn’t until he was walking the shed that one could clearly see what a magnificent specimen this colt is. He has as big a shoulder and hind end as you could hope for and a girth to match, and almost every inch of them had dapples bursting out. The way he dragged exercise rider and assistant trainer Jody Pieper around the barn, there was no doubt this colt is going to make his presence felt May 3. If his pedigree was more stamina-oriented, he’d be getting much more press than he has. And his running style also is a concern with so many top-class speed horses and stalkers assuring a contentious pace.

If the California fans were feeling good about their horses’ chances before, they have to be ecstatic now after seeing Colonel John work five furlongs in :57 4/5 Sunday. Two other clockings got him a few ticks faster. It was apparent watching the son of Tiznow  charge down the stretch under no urging in :23 1/5 for the final quarter that the dirt will not be a concern and in fact might actually move him up. This colt has such a big stride, you have no way of knowing he’s going that fast. After an opening eighth in :12, he rattled off splits of :11 1/5, :11 2/5, :11 2/5, and :11 4/5. He continued on strongly past the wire, galloping out six furlongs in 1:11 1/5. The time was the fastest of 62 works at the distance. Ideally, with a horse like this, you’d rather see his two final splits reversed, but one can’t quibble over a couple of ticks. It still was a strong final quarter.

But it wasn’t the time that made the work impressive, as Larry Jones’ two fillies, Eight Belles and Proud Spell, worked in :58 1/5 and :58 2/5, respectively. It was the manner in which he glided over the track that gave his supporters a good feeling about his ability to handle the dirt and his overall chances in the Derby.

Speaking of Eight Belles, the attractive daughter of Unbridled's Song, will be Jones’ Derby starter, assuming she doesn’t draw a horrible post. If she draws any of the extreme outside posts, she’ll likely join Proud Spell in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I). She broke running after Jones, aboard the pony, let her go shortly before the five-furlong pole. She actually appeared to be going even a bit easier than Colonel John, and also galloped out strong in 1:11 and change, pulling up seven furlongs in 1:25.


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Also working after the renovation break, when the track was faster than it had been earlier, was Adriano, who went five furlongs in company in 1:00 4/5. Trainer Graham Motion got him his last quarter in about :24. The son of A.P. Indy does not seem as natural a dirt horse as Colonel John and was being ridden a bit in the final furlong, finishing on near even terms with his workmate.

It’s still difficult to know what to make of this horse. He will go into the Derby unproven on dirt, with a bad performance in his only start over it. And while his work today was OK, and the final quarter was solid enough, it didn’t convince anyone he will relish the surface in the Derby, as Colonel’s John’s work did, which was three full seconds faster. So, you either like this horse or you don’t. We’re not going to learn much more about him between now and the Derby.

Motion said he believes Adriano’s dismal performance in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) was due more to his becoming unraveled in the paddock. The colt schooled in the paddock between races on Saturday, and although he didn’t sweat or become unruly by any means, he appears to needs more schooling, which he’ll likely get this week. He was a bit nerved up, displaying some signs of a horse not quite comfortable where he was. His didn’t seem particularly happy in the saddling stall, as he got a big fidgety and lashed back once. When he left, he was on his toes quite a bit and continued that way for a good portion of the walk back to the barn. With that said, we’ve seen a lot worse, and he should get more comfortable with a few more schooling sessions. As we mentioned, he stayed pretty dry on a warm afternoon, which is a good sign, and never acted up. Derby day will be much more hectic, which is why he’ll need additional schooling to acclimate to the surroundings.

Also on Sunday, Bill Mott sent out both his Derby horses, Court Vision and Z Humor, for five-furlong works. Court Vision worked earlier at a little after 7 o’clock, when the track was a bit more chewed up and not nearly as fast as it was after the break. Wearing blinkers again, Court Vision broke off behind a workmate and tracked him through a slow opening eighth in :13. They picked it up after passing the half-mile pole. Down the stretch, when Court Vision was given the cue to pick it up, he blew right on by his workmate and had a great extension to his stride as he opened up by daylight. The clockers caught him in 1:00 4/5.

Z Humor, who made an excellent physical appearance, was the final Derby horse to work, breezing his five furlongs in 1:01 1/5.

Pyro had his best gallop by far Sunday morning. Not only did he go twice around this time, he was striding out and hitting the ground much better than he did the past few days. And today, he went out after it was light. Physically, he looks great, and if you’re willing to toss his Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), he could very well bounce back to his old self. We should know more after he works tomorrow, but today was a very good day for him.

Denis of Cork, still on the outside looking in, has been the strongest galloper so far, and he looked super on Saturday galloping down on the rail with great vigor and purpose. This colt is a powerhouse right now and is sitting on a big race, but there’s a good chance that race won’t be the Derby unless someone drops out.

The horse many thought would be that someone is Smooth Air, who was temporarily knocked out by a low grade fever and elevated white blood count. But he’s bounced back quickly and cleaned out his feed tub last night. He went to the track this morning for a light jog and will do more tomorrow. Trainer Bennie Stutts said he might let him blow out a quarter or three-eighths on Thursday.

Visionaire and Bob Black Jack tested the track for the first time this morning and will work tomorrow. Visionaire arrived early Saturday and went out to graze with trainer Michael Matz. He’s not your typical stamina-type horse; he’s more compact with a strong shoulder. But his coat looked as if it had just been buffed, as it glistened brightly in the afternoon sun. If you’re ranking them by coat shine, no one can touch him.

Also on the track for the first time was Big Truck, who was feeling good, jumping and bucking.