Kentucky Derby Trail: A Wonder to Behold

Racing seems to have its share of ills these days, which is why the first injection of Derby Fever is being given out earlier and earlier each year. Even taken in small doses in November, it can start the blood pumping, and what better way to brace for the long winter than by getting a brief whiff of roses or hearing even the faintest strains of "My Old Kentucky Home?"

Now, before the thought, "Has he totally lost his mind?" enters your brain, let me answer by saying, "Quite possibly, but as with Quixote's journey into 'madness,' it just may be that the cure is worse than the disease."

With that said, let's start tilting at windmills and take the first step on the 2006 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) trail.

What better way to begin than by cruelly putting enormous pressure on Stevie Wonderboy, proclaiming him one of those rare 2-year-old champions (to be) that look to have all the tools to win not only the Derby, but...nope, I won't dare say it.

Of all the Eclipse champions/Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winners in the past decade, other than Vindication, whose career was snuffed out early in his 3-year-old campaign, we have not seen one who has looked more like a Derby horse in every way possible than Stevie Wonderboy.

Of course, we could have said the same thing about First Samurai had the Hopeful (gr. I) and Champagne (gr. I) winner won the Juvenile and remained undefeated. But if the son of Giant's Causeway  sets the world afire again this winter, we will have two young titans to follow to the Promised Land.

Any words of praise directed at Stevie Wonderboy as a Derby prospect have to be accompanied by some skepticism, based on the recent misfortunes that have claimed many of racing's brightest stars, and the knowledge of how difficult it is to get a horse to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

What makes Stevie Wonderboy so appealing is his strength in so many categories. Trainer Doug O'Neill said he's always acted like an older horse, and you can see that in his demeanor on the track. Nothing seems to bother him and he does everything in machine-like fashion. He has a big closing kick that he can launch from just about any place on the track. He showed his brilliance by winning the Bessemer Trust Juvenile in 1:41 3/5, which was more than two full seconds faster than Folklore's win the Alberto VO5 Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). He generates a great deal of power from his shoulders, and you had to love the way he was stretched out in the final yards, his neck reaching for the wire.

From a physical standpoint, he has the look of a stayer and still has room for improvement, especially in his hind end. His pedigree is nearly flawless. His sire, Stephen Got Even (by A.P. Indy) was a picture-book racehorse with a ton of ability. His broodmare sire is A.P. Indy's half-brother Summer Squall, who is the sire of 1999 Kentucky Derby winner Charismatic. That gives Stevie Wonderboy the Rasmussen Factor (inbred to the same mare) through the top-class racehorse and producer Weekend Surprise (3x3). The RF is considered by many an indicator of class, as is the inbreeding (5x5) to Buckpasser.

In his first four generations are two Triple Crown winners and five American classic winners as well as an Epsom Derby winner and a Coaching Club American Oaks winner.

And how can you not root for Merv Griffin, who could become racing's greatest ambassador since Jack Klugman back in 1980. This is someone who started singing "My Old Kentucky Home" in the interview room after the Juvenile. In the winner's circle he sought reassurance from jockey Garrett Gomez that he didn't abuse the horse with the whip, pleading to him, "Please don't hurt my horse."

So, is it all too much too soon? Probably, but it at least gives us something to look forward to.

Another colt that needs to be mentioned is Private Vow, who will try to put his broken rein debacle in the Juvenile behind him when he runs in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II). We'll obviously never know what he would have done in the Juvenile, but there wasn't a better-looking horse in the paddock. This son of Broken Vow  has a magnificent presence about him, and it was hard to take your eyes off him before the race.

This is another horse who looks to be extremely professional and possesses a ton of ability, and it wasn't an easy decision for Jerry Bailey to give up the mount on him in the Juvenile in order to stick with First Samurai.

Although his victory in the Futurity (gr. II) at Belmont turned into a bizarre race with the field chasing a riderless horse, Disco's Son, almost the whole way, it revealed a great deal about Private Vow. He disposed of his field with ease, and even with the loose horse on his inside, he never missed a beat and didn't seem fazed by him in the slightest. Bailey kept him pretty much under wraps, and the horse was content to just cruise along, despite what could have become a dangerous situation.

After Private Vow began to drift in closer to Disco's Son, Bailey went to a more vigorous hand ride, and Private Vow quickly switched to attack mode. Just like that, he became competitive and seemed determined to outfinish the riderless horse, sticking his head in front right on the wire. It's been a long time since a horse got that kind of a learning experience from a nine-length victory. In addition to his other attributes, he is a beautiful-moving horse who seems to generate a good deal power coming out of the turns.

Once again, we're dealing with a horse who should relish the longer distances. Although his sire never won beyond 1 1/8 miles, he wasn't given much of an opportunity, finishing third, beaten two lengths, in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) in his only start at 10 furlongs. But Broken Vow is by Unbridled out of a Nijinsky II mare, and Private Vow's tail-female family traces to father and son English Derby winners Mill Reef and Shirley Heights, as well as the great English Derby-Arc de Triomphe winner Sea-Bird. His dosage profile is as perfectly balanced as you can get (4-2-9-2-3). In short, this is one to watch, and if he can get a normal trip for a change, we'll get a better idea what we're dealing with in the Kentucky Jockey Club.

In that race, he could face another horse who appears to have a bright future. High Cotton, despite a sixth-place finish in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. I), has shown enough to suggest he will be the one Private Vow has to beat in the Kentucky Jockey Club. The son of Dixie Union displayed the kind of tenacity you like to see in a young horse when he broke his maiden at Belmont, holding off the highly regarded Rondo to win by three-quarters of a length. The third-place finisher in that race, Ramsgate, looked impressive breaking his maiden Saturday at Hollywood Park for Bobby Frankel, showing push-button acceleration. Watch out for this one as well.

High Cotton then stretched out from six furlongs to 1 1/16 miles in the Breeders' Futurity, but lost all chance after breaking slowly and getting squeezed back, which is the kiss of death at Keeneland. In the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III), he broke from the inside in a 13-horse field and had to be rushed up, where he battled on or near the lead all the way through fast fractions. He opened up in the stretch, but the stakes-placed Catcominatcha came up the inside to take the lead inside the sixteenth pole as if he were going to draw off. But High Cotton battled back to be beaten a neck and looked as if he were going to win it in a few more strides. As of now, he's listed as probable, but not definite, for the Kentucky Jockey Club.

He is another horse with a strong pedigree top and bottom, and is inbred 4x3 to Seattle Slew. He has a very efficient stride, and as mentioned before, he doesn't back down from a fight.

A likely starter for the Kentucky Jockey Club is Flanders Fields, who disappointed in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III), but deserves another chance after getting hung wide from the 13-post. The son of A.P. Indy out of Flanders is a powerful, long-striding horse who missed the Champagne with a fever and should run a much-improved race in the Kentucky Jockey Club.

Two successful Derby trainers, Bob Baffert and Nick Zito, have several interesting prospects this year, but all still have a lot to prove.

Baffert's main hope at this point is Bob and John, who ran a solid second to Norfolk (gr. II) runner-up A.P. Warrior in a recent allowance race at Santa Anita after getting bumped and squeezed back going into the first turn. He's by Seeking the Gold out of a Deputy Minister mare and his second dam is a half-sister to Exceller. Baffert also has Only in Louisiana, a recent winner in the slop at Hollywood Park going 1 1/8 miles; and Enforcement, an impressive maiden winner who has recovered from shin problems and should be back by late January. Two unraced colts Baffert is high on are Point of Impact, an $800,000 yearling by Point Given, and Regal Legacy, a Monarchos colt who cost $550,000.

Zito's big gun right now is Superfly, a full-brother to Belmont Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Andromeda's Hero who won a small stakes at Delaware Park, and then was third in the Champagne (gr. I) and fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Little Cliff, a son of Gulch, has won two in a row, including a convincing 1 1/16-mile allowance victory at Churchill on Sunday. Zito also has five colts who have broken their maidens -- Doc Cheney, Fabled, Hemingway's Key, Regent Spirit, and Great Point. The last named ran poorly in the Nashua Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont, but will try to make amends in the Kentucky Jockey Club.

Could it be we'll have "The Chief," Allen Jerkens, on the Derby trail for the first time since 1992? Jerkens won Sunday's six-furlong Huntington Stakes at Aqueduct with Saint Daimon, who drove through an opening along the rail to win by 3 3/4 lengths. In his previous start, the son of Saint Ballado broke his maiden by 6 1/4 lengths. Another Jerkens-trained youngster to watch is Political Force, a son of Unbridled's Song who finished a fast-closing second to Bluegrass Cat in the one-mile Nashua Stakes Oct. 28.

Getting back to A.P. Warrior, the son of A.P. Indy was impressive winning the aforementioned allowance race, and although he still pulls too hard early, he settled nicely in second down the backstretch and was never touched by Pat Valenzuela down the stretch, winning with his ears pricked by four lengths.

So, with Stevie Wonderboy, First Samurai, Private Vow, High Cotton, A.P. Warrior, Henny Hughes (more on him in an upcoming installment), Catcominatcha, and Bluegrass Cat, we have a strong nucleus to build on for next year. Others to watch are Brother Derek, Superfly, the injured Sorcerer's Stone, Bob and John, Flanders Fields, Dr. Pleasure, Saint Daimon, Political Force, Bashert, Stream Cat, Dawn of War, the lightning-fast Bro Lo, and number of impressive maiden winners, including Discreet Cat, Music School, Dr. Decherd, and Ramsgate.

Several of those just mentioned will be running in either the Kentucky Jockey Club, Remsen (gr. II), or Hollywood Futurity (gr. I), so there are still big races left for 2-year-olds to stamp themselves as promising Derby hopefuls.