Kentucky Derby Trail: The Week That Was-Part 2

With the next Kentucky Derby Trail column not until Wednesday, March 30, when the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) and UAE Derby (UAE-I) will be discussed belatedly, this seems like a good time to offer some lingering thoughts, facts, and observations left over from last weekend.

-- With the big-name California horses either off the Derby trail or skipping town, the pickins' for the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) are getting slimmer by the day. Suddenly, Sweet Catomine has emerged as the marquee attraction. But there are two names worth remembering – Don't Get Mad and Wannwinemall. Well, forget about remembering the latter's name. If he makes the Derby, his name may be a bigger obstacle to overcome than his bleeding episodes.

Don't Get Mad faced his first two-turn test in the San Felipe, and actually ran a very promising race, despite getting beaten seven lengths by Consolidator. The son of Stephen Got Even has been branded by some as a late-closing sprinter, but this colt sure doesn't look like a sprinter physically. Over a speed-favoring wet-fast track that put the closers at a disadvantage, he put in a strong move around the far turn only to run up behind a wall of horses. When Tyler Baze was forced to steer him abruptly to the outside, he lost valuable ground at a time when he should have been kicking into high gear and mounting his challenge. Once he leveled off, he closed with great determination to snatch third from Wilko, and would have been second in a few more jumps.

He should move way up off this race, and watch for him to put in an explosive move in the Santa Anita Derby. It would be proper justice for trainer Ron Ellis if he wound up going into the Kentucky Derby with a live contender after the disappointment of losing his undefeated 2-year-old champ Declan's Moon. The feeling here is that this is a much better horse than most people think.

We can say over and over that Wannawinemall is a terrible name for any horse, never mind a Derby horse. But who knows what kind of playful and impish mood the Derby gods will be in this year. They certainly did their best to make sure Atswhatimtalknbout wouldn't win the Derby, giving him a nasty skin rash and a horrible trip to overcome.

They've already begun to work on Wannawinemall, plaguing him with bleeder lesions on his lungs, which caused him to bleed severely in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III). But all frivolity aside, this looks to be an extremely talented horse who is showing big improvement with every race. The fact that he was able to finish a fast-closing second in the El Camino Real to a brilliant colt in Uncle Denny, despite bleeding a "5" on a scale of 1 to 5, indicates we may be seeing a star on the rise. He also had to take the overland route, coming around horses and following Buzzards Bay, whom he out-fought in the stretch for the place spot. His sire, Royal Anthem, was not only a top-class international star, but one of the grandest-looking horses seen at Churchill Downs and Gulfstream for the 1998 and '99 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships.

Unless this colt continues to have chronic bleeding problems, there is a good chance he'll be making a name for himself in the Santa Anita Derby. Then, it's off to Kentucky again for trainer Kristin Mulhall.

-- As a self-confessed ignoramus when it comes to the Beyer Speed Figures, and one who would welcome a "Beyers For Dummies" edition, it seems inconceivable that Sun King, coming off a 104 Beyer in an allowance race, should drop to a 91 in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III). No, he wasn't running against anyone in his class, but the fact is, he was forced to go to the front, which is not his style, and was only asked to run the last quarter of a mile. Yet, he still missed the stakes record by one-fifth of a second and the track record by two-fifths of a second.

It is understandable that the low number may have been based in good part by the runner-up, Forever Wild, coming off a 69, and the conclusion that he should not have jumped over 20 points in this race. But young up and comers often do make huge leaps, and many horses, like human athletes, raise their game considerably when confronted by superior and classier opponents. Forever Wild, after all, had won his last two dirt starts convincingly over wet tracks, so who knows how formidable a foe he really was over his home track. A horse as proven as Sun King should not have to shatter a track record in order to pull his Beyer number out of the depths of mediocrity.

-- The subject of running in the Kentucky Derby off a five-week layoff has come up time and again, with top contenders Bandini, High Fly, and Noble Causeway heading in that direction after running in the April 2 Florida Derby (gr. I). Others in the same predicament are Closing Argument, B.B. Best, and Papi Chullo. We've all heard that no horse has won the Derby off a five-week or longer layoff since Needles in 1956. It must also be noted that Needles was the 8-5 favorite that year over a mediocre field. In that Derby, they came home the final quarter in :26 3/5, enabling Needles to close from 16th at the half-mile pole. And his time was a modest 2:03 2/5.

Despite the historic trend, Bandini's trainer, Todd Pletcher, said he has no problem waiting the five weeks. Nick Zito, who trains High Fly and Noble Causeway, admits it's not ideal, and hasn't ruled out running one of them, most likely Noble Causeway, in the Lexington Stakes (gr. II). Zito has attempted running in the Derby off a long layoff twice, with Birdstone and Stephen Got Even, and neither fared very well.

With the Wood Memorial (gr. I) now four weeks from the Derby, as is the Santa Anita Derby, there is no doubt times are changing. Looking back at how it was a half-century ago, from 1948 to 1958, eight of the 11 Derby winners ran in the Derby Trial, four days before the Derby, and another ran seven days before the Derby.

Many trainers today would not even consider running two weeks out in the Lexington Stakes (gr. II). When Charismatic won the Lexington in 1999, it was his seventh start of the year and 14th of his career. Yet he was able to win the Lexington, then come back and won the Kentucky Derby two weeks later and the Preakness (gr. II) two weeks after that. Another D. Wayne Lukas-trained colt, Proud Citizen, won the Lexington and ran a huge race to finish second in the Derby, and might have won had he gone into the race with more than just two starts at three. Swale, Forty Niner, Risen Star, and Prince of Thieves are others who came off the Lexington to run big in the Derby. Swale, who won the Derby, went on to capture the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), with Risen Star and Lexington winner Hansel capturing the Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont, respectively.

High Limit (Maria's Mon), winner of the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) will be bucking history on two counts – having only two starts at three and four lifetime starts. The last horse to win the derby off only four lifetime starts was Exterminator in 1918. Recently, Bob Baffert tried it with the brilliant Indian Charlie and Congaree , and both came up short, finishing third. Bobby Frankel tried with Medaglia d'Oro , and he could do no better than fourth. D. Wayne Lukas, Charlie Whittingham, Nick Zito, and Neil Drysdale also tried and failed.

-- Also discussed has been the number of frontrunners and stalkers that are heading to the Derby this year. There have been only two wire-to-wire winners in the last 20 years, five in the last 37 years, and only nine in the last 85 years. But if any one of them can settle off the pace, there have been a number of stalkers who have won in recent years, indicating that this is also a trend that seems to be changing, especially with the Churchill strip becoming tighter and more speed-favoring. Horses aren't coming from as far back as they used to on a regular basis.

-- Getting back to Bandini, Pletcher said he may work the son of Fusaichi Pegasus  in blinkers next time, then decide whether to use them in the Florida Derby. But he seems reluctant to do it with such a talented horse, who may only require a bit more experience to help keep him more focused. Pletcher also does not really want to change equipment the race before the Derby. Look for him to do it only if Bandini shows dramatic improvement in his work.

-- Wayne Lukas said he's definitely planning on running Going Wild in the Wood Memorial and Consolidator in the Blue Grass Stakes.