Santa Anita was playing to speed Saturday when Consolidator won the San Felipe.

Santa Anita was playing to speed Saturday when Consolidator won the San Felipe.

Benoit photo

Kentucky Derby Trail: Rocky and Elvis and Other Headliners

So, where are the best 3-year-olds based? Florida, Arkansas, California, and New York can all make a case for being the hot spot right now following Saturday's stirring and strange turn of events. With Declan's Moon and now Roman Ruler out of the picture, and Afleet Alex and Wilko facing uphill battles, last year's top 2-year-olds are fading fast.

But there is still hope for the juvenile class of '04 after Sun King's expected score in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), Consolidator's out of the clouds romp in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II), and Rockport Harbor's remarkable runner-up performance in the Rebel (gr. II).

It looks as if this is turning into another one of those years where you can't get a really strong feeling for any particular horse as the early Kentucky Derby (gr. I) favorite. No one has dominated on a consistent basis, and many opinions are based on a single performance. The only winning machine seen this year has been Greater Good, and his pedigree, which will be discussed later, is as enigmatic as you'll find in this or any other year.

Beyer Speed Figure pundits are still searching far and wide for a horse who can string together two or three big numbers. We're also inundated with top-class frontrunners and stalkers this year, making it difficult to feel comfortable picking one of them as a top Derby selection. Several will be attempting to buck history by going into the Derby off only two starts this year or coming off a five-week layoff. The bottom line: How can you pick a Derby winner when you can't even figure out which of Nick Zito's five Derby hopefuls is going to be his big horse come Derby Day? It looks like Sun King at this point, but the other four all have strong credentials of their own.

With that said, let's cut right to the chase and see who came out the wild weekend smelling like roses and where their performance puts them in the overall picture.

First off, forget Consolidator's time of 1:40 in the San Felipe and his 6 1/2-length margin. They have little bearing on anything when you consider that the times of the other races at Santa Anita Saturday made maidens and claimers look like Seattle Slew (one of many examples was a 30-1 longshot 5-year-old claimer making his first start on dirt and first start in the U.S. running his opening half in an unworldly :42 3/5 the race after the San Felipe).

If Consolidator's time and margin were legit, it actually would be a strike against him. The last thing you want to see is a horse running that fast and being that dominant in mid-March.

What should be taken from the San Felipe was the fact that Consolidator has now proven his brilliance and class at two and three, and the fact that he was so much more professional and relaxed this time before the race, compared to his debut when he was a wreck, and under-trained, as D. Wayne Lukas has admitted. As a Storm Cat, he still has a tendency to get a little wet, but that comes with the territory. From a pure physical standpoint, he looked spectacular. He has a low, smooth running style, with good extension to his stride. He runs hard and tough and is always in the fight in a manner that is reminiscent of his maternal great-grandsire, Nodouble, a tenacious foe on or just off the lead who would have been Horse of the Year in 1969 had he not come along the same year as Arts and Letters.

Lukas now has two top Derby contenders in Consolidator and Going Wild (Golden Missile), both owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis. But they have very similar running styles in a year where many of the major players are either speed horses or stalkers, so it's going to be interesting to see how this plays out on May 7.

Because of the freaky track condition at Santa Anita and the way it was playing (even though there were no other distance races with which to compare the San Felipe) look for the closers, such as Giacomo (Holy Bull) and Don't Get Mad (Stephen Got Even), to fare better in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). But, we really don't know how good a bunch this is, and with Wilko (Awesome Again ) coming out of the race with another quarter crack, things are starting to look pretty good for Sweet Catomine (Storm Cat). Trainer Craig Dollase said he'll have to decide whether to point Wilko for the Santa Anita Derby or wait another week and ship him to Kentucky or Arkansas.

Rebels with a cause

One horse who really shined over the weekend was Rockport Harbor, who, despite suffering his first career defeat, may have run the best race of his life. He still faces an uphill battle in his quest to give trainer John Servis back-to-back Kentucky Derby victories, but he did prove once and for all that he is a very gifted horse who has the rare ability to combine raw speed with unwavering courage.

The son of Unbridled's Song had his head turned to the left at the start and broke flat-footed, then got squeezed back, finding himself with only one horse behind him. When Greater Good was sent to the lead, it looked as if the race were being run in reverse. Stewart Elliott steered Rockport Harbor to the outside, and when the colt saw daylight, he took off, intent on getting the lead. He flew into the first turn and quickly opened up by some four lengths.

When Afleet Alex began to close in at the five-sixteenths pole, Elliott, instead of setting Rockport Harbor down and trying to get the jump on Alex and Greater Good, who was still a half-dozen lengths back, continued to sit motionless. Even when Alex began suffering the effects of a lung infection and went into a sudden retreat, Elliott still kept his hands still as if in a workout. By the time he finally stepped on the gas pedal at the three-sixteenths pole, Greater Good was rolling and had all the momentum.

At this point, Rocky, who was said by Servis to be only 70-75% fit for the race after suffering through a winter of discontent and foot bruises, had every right to pack it in and just try to hold on as best he could. But when Greater Good, who packs a dynamite stretch punch, came to him, Rocky dug down and battled back, matching strides with him to the shadow of the wire. Only in the final strides did Greater Good finally get the better of him, winning by a half a length. This was no stretch runner wearing down a tired horse. Rockport Harbor had been able to set easy fractions and had plenty left, coming home his final sixteenth in a sharp :06 1/5.

It is understandable that Elliott would want to wait as long as possible on a horse who had been out for that long and with foot problems. But the goal with this horse has always been the Kentucky Derby and he needs to get fit fast. Yes, he might have won the race had he gotten an earlier jump on Greater Good, but more importantly, did he get enough out of this race to build the foundation necessary to win the Derby off only two starts, several days of missed training, and a pair of foot bruises? Rocky could easily come off this race and run his opponents dizzy in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II), but we still won't know until May 7 if he'll be ready to run a mile and quarter under pressure the whole way.

What Rockport Harbor has going for him is his extraordinary talent, his courage under fire, and a magnificent stride that puts him in high cruising speed with little effort. A horse who runs like he does is not the kind of horse you want to take on early. He can run his foes into the ground, while taking one stride to their two, and that will be his biggest asset come Derby Day. But he still has a lot to overcome.

And now for the enigmatic Greater Good, who you have to like more and more, mainly because he wants to win every time he goes out there and usually finds a way to do it. He's certainly not going to break any stopwatches and he's never going to beat you by a pole, but he goes after horses in the stretch like a leopard chasing its prey.

What makes him so enigmatic is his pedigree and his physical appearance. When you first look at his breeding, you see a family loaded with sprinters – from his sire Intidab to Intidab's sire Phone Trick to Phone Trick's sire Clever Trick. And his dam, Gather the Clan, is by General Assembly, who won the seven-furlong Vosburgh in 1:21 flat, and is out of champion sprinter What a Summer, who twice beat the colts in the six-furlong Fall Highweight Handicap.

So, how come this colt bears no resemblance to a sprinter -- in looks and in running style? The answer may lie in the versatility his family also possesses. General Assembly not only won the Vosburgh, he also won the 1 1/4-mile Travers by 15 lengths in track-record time of 2:00 flat that still stands. General Assembly's sire, Secretariat, as we all know, excelled from sprint distances to 1 1/2 miles. And Secretariat's sire, Bold Ruler showed his brilliance from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.

What a Summer was a sprinter for almost all her career. But in between sprints, she managed to run second in the 1 1/4-mile Beldame Stakes to the classy Cum Laude Laurie and beat champion Dearly Precious in the 1 1/16-mile Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. You can even go back to What a Summer's broodmare sire, Summer Tan, who was a fast, precocious youngster who stretched out to finish second to Nashua in the Wood Memorial and third behind Swaps and Nashua in the Kentucky Derby.

And on the sire's side, Phone Trick has sired several two-turn stakes winners, such as Phone Chatter, Mazel Trick. Favorite Trick, and Semoran. And Intidab's maternal great-grandsire is English Derby winner Roberto, a major source of stamina all over the world.

So, who's to say how far Greater Good wants to run? All that's important to him right now is honing in on a horse down the stretch. So far, that's all he's needed.

A brief note about Afleet Alex. The saddest part of the day was seeing this generous horse stagger home in the Rebel. At first, when he swerved after turning for home, there was some speculation that something had happened to him. But trainer Tim Ritchey said the culprit was a lung infection. It looks as if his connections are still planning on running in the Arkansas Derby. Whether it proves to be the right decision or not we won't know until April 16. Right now, all we can do is wait and see how quickly he recovers and hope we get to see the real Afleet Alex next time. He was looking awfully good in the Rebel before hitting that brick wall.

Elvis has left the building

The big performance is over and "Elvis," as trainer Nick Zito likes to call Sun King, has left Tampa Bay Downs and the adoring fans who made him the 1-20 favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III).

The race basically served two purposes: it gave the son of Charismatic his first stakes victory and moved him another step closer to what Zito hopes will be a peak performance on the first Saturday in May.

It's true, there was wasn't much to beat in the race, but at least Sun King got a bit of a gut check at the head of the stretch when 13-1 Medigating came charging up on his inside, reaching even terms. Then, Forever Wild mounted a challenge on his outside. But it was all an illusion. Sun King, who had set all the pace through slow fractions, was never really in any danger and quickly burst clear under one left-handed whip by Edgar Prado, who switched to a couple of right-handed whips before hand-riding the colt to a 3 1/4-length victory. His final fractions were a solid :24 1/5 and :06 1/5.

Tampa Bay can be a quirky track for outsiders, and many horses often need a race over it. It's definitely not your kind of track if you're looking for fast times. This is a deep surface, and normally gets a horse much fitter than running over a track like Gulfstream. But Sun King handled it just fine, and from the quarter pole home you couldn't ask a horse to run a straighter course.

Because of the way the track is banked, horses have a tendency to get squeezed down to the inside and leaned on, so Zito told Prado to stay several paths off the rail, which is why Medigating was able to slip through. All during the race, Prado kept looking to his inside to see if anyone was coming.

After the race, Zito went over and planted a kiss on Sun King's neck. "This is one of my favorite horses," Zito said. "He has an incredible personality; he's always been a special horse."

As he did in his 3-year-old debut, he looked sensational in the post parade, with his long, well-muscled body and glistening coat. Now it's time for Zito to tighten the screws a bit in the Blue Grass Stakes. The last Blue Grass winner to capture the Derby was Zito's Strike the Gold in 1991. Many horses who love the normally speed-favoring Keeneland surface do not like Churchill, so all Zito is looking for is a strong effort against the undefeated High Limit and Consolidator, who won the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland last fall.

A true Survivalist

You can't say Survivalist isn't aptly named. If the son of Danzig takes any more pounding on his left side, trainer Shug McGaughey is going to have to equip him with a suit of armor. Rallying wide in his 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream, he was given a sound bump, which knocked him several paths farther out than he already was.

In Saturday's Gotham Stakes (gr. III), while rallying wide once again, he was shoved out twice by Naughty New Yorker, who finally whacked him pretty good at the same exact spot he got it at Gulfstream. As he did then, he shrugged it off, never breaking stride, and closed relentlessly. This time, however, he got up in time, winning by three-quarters of a length in a solid 1:35 3/5 for the mile.

The victories by Survivalist and Sun King each flattered the other horse after their one-two finish in a recent allowance race at Gulfstream. Survivalist still hasn't been two turns, so the Wood Memorial will be an important race as he tries once again to out-close Naughty New Yorker (Quiet American), a proven two-turn horse, while having to run down Galloping Grocer (A.P. Jet), Pavo (Marquetry), and two swift invaders, Going Wild and Bellamy Road (Concerto).

Finally, speaking of Pavo, how about that ride by Alan Garcia, who lost his irons down the backstretch and had to ride the colt "Indian style" the rest of the way, his body vertical and legs dangling off the sides. It's amazing how he got this horse to finish second. As if that weren't enough, when Survivalist drifted in late, he forced Naughty New Yorker in. Then, when Garcia went to hit Pavo right-handed he smacked Naughty New Yorker across the face with his whip, resulting in an automatic disqualification. This was a remarkable performance by Pavo, and who knows what the result would have been had he been able to be ridden properly?