Steve Haskin's Kentucky Derby Report: The Big Day Draws Near

Steve Haskin's Kentucky Derby Report: The Big Day Draws Near
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Empire Maker, composed during paddock schooling Thursday.
With only two days remaining before the big race, no news is good news, especially around the Bobby Frankel barn. Frankel kept throwing one word around in response to inquiries about Empire Maker's jog – "Perfect."

There was little activity at the Downs this morning. All observations and selections are beginning to take shape...sort of. There is no doubt that this is one of most perplexing Derbys in memory, especially with Empire Maker's bruised foot hovering over the race.

As is usually the case, opinions differed as to how Empire Maker looked jogging. Some thought he went well, others disagreed. To the layman, the colt appeared to be moving well enough, certainly a lot better than he did the other morning. Not all horses look great jogging, and we've seen many horses who do not jog perfectly go out the next day and run lights out. The bottom line is that Frankel liked what he saw, then called Juddmonte manager John Chandler and told him the colt was fine. Chandler told Frankel that Juddmonte owner Prince Khalid Abdullah was already on his way.

"He's never been a great jogger," Frankel said. "He's got those long legs and doesn't fire them up and down like pistons. He's a better galloper than jogger. But this is as good as this horse jogs."

Frankel said Peace Rules has been so strong, he may gallop him the day of the race. "You've got to get their energy up and keep it up," he said.

If Empire Maker joins the 22 favorites in the past 23 years to go down to defeat in the Derby, then there is an excellent chance we'll be seeing one or more historical trends broken this year. First off, two classy geldings, Buddy Gil and Funny Cide, will be trying to become the first gelding to win since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. Funny Cide, also would be the first New York-bred to win the Derby. Indian Express will attempt to become the first horse the first horse since Exterminator in 1918 to win the Derby off only four career starts. Atswhatimtalknbout will be trying to become the first horse to win without having raced as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882. He also would be the first horse since Proud Clarion in 1967 to win the Derby without ever having finished first in a stakes races. That does not include Venezuelan invader Canonero II in 1971. That also applies to Brancusi. If Empire Maker wins, he would be the first horse ever to complete the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Kentucky Derby triple. And if his stablemate, Peace Rules wins, he'll be the first horse since Sunny's Halo in 1983 to win off only two starts as a 3-year-old.

Also, 13 of the 17 jockeys in this year's field will be trying to win their first Derby. Only Kent Desormeaux, Gary Stevens, Jerry Bailey, and Pat Day have won the roses. Needless to say, Rosemary Homeister Jr. would be the first female to win the Derby.

Ten Most Wanted, who was made the 6-1 second choice, continues to do everything perfectly. He schooled in the paddock Wednesday afternoon, and never raised a bead of sweat, despite near 80-degree temperatures. He stood like a statue in the saddling stall, and kept his ears pricked, looking out at all the activity. This morning, he again schooled beautifully in the gate, and was smooth and aggressive in his gallop.

We've been saying all week that Buddy Gil is getting more aggressive by the day. He had a strong gallop this morning after schooling at the gate, which may have made him more on the muscle than usual. He was down into the bit, with his head cocked, and looked as if he wanted to do a lot more. This is what you want to see as the big race approaches.

Another horse training aggressively is Atswhatimtalknbout. This is one horse that people seem to either love or hate, even though he should be of more an in-between horse. No one, not even trainer Ron Ellis, has a clue how he's going to run. He either is over the top, with his recent skin rashes a sign of that, or he's going to bounce back after the Santa Anita Derby. Despite his lofty reputation all year and his big-bucks part-interest sale to the "Seabiscuit" crew, he still, as we said earlier, has not won a stakes. He's a major guess, and we'll discuss tomorrow whether it's worth taking a chance on him.

Funny Cide took to the track for the first time after arriving Wednesday evening, with trainer Barclay Tagg accompanying him to the gate on the pony. Although he has a reputation as being a very tough horse to gallop, the son of Distorted Humor was very relaxed walking to and from the gate. Not only does this gelding have a bottom line that shouts stamina, he is a long, lean horse, and definitely has the look of a stayer.

Lone Star Sky was out early and had a very smooth gallop for trainer Tom Amoss. This horse will be a huge longshot, but he is doing well and looking good. He has run big over this track, and ran a super race against Peace Rules in the Louisiana Derby, taking all the worst of a speed-biased track. Obviously, he has to step way up to be competitive in this race, but it wouldn't come as a shock to see him pick up a piece of it.

Supah Blitz, the veteran of the field, who has done well at Churchill Downs, will not school in the gate or the paddock, as trainer Manny Tortora feels he's been around the block so many times, he doesn't need to do either one.

Because today was a slow day, we're going to offer suggestions on how to make ESPN's Derby draw show more appealing to the public. Being the connections of the Derby horses now have about six hours to plan their strategy and pick their preferred post, instead of giving them 60 seconds to make their selection, give them 10 seconds. That will add more drama, and eliminate those fake-out moves to the opposite direction that are too obvious and overdone to be humorous. And wouldn't it be great to see owners and trainers dashing up to the board in less than 10 seconds, knowing one slip-up and they go to "the end of the line?"

In fact, why not have two representatives pick their posts that the same time? Can you imagine how entertaining it would be to see Beverly Lewis and Bobby Frankel in a match race to see who gets to hang their number first? The rules would state that it be a no holes barred, full contact race to the board. Shoving is permitted, as is the old fake-out move to catch your opponent off guard.

Finally, was it appropriate or inappropriate to have the first trainer interviewed be named T.V.?

Tomorrow, we'll lay it all on the line. With such a wide-open field, after the favorite, it's not going to be easy to become enamored with one or even two horses. But when push comes to shove, we'll narrow it down, look for the real value, and hope for the best.

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