Scipion took a big stride forward with Risen Star victory.

Scipion took a big stride forward with Risen Star victory.

Lou Hodges Jr.

Kentucky Derby Trail: Scipion to the Rescue

Simply put, this has been a relatively uneventful Kentucky Derby (gr. I) trail. Until Feb. 12, no 3-year-old had done anything exciting enough to infiltrate the top spots, occupied by last year's stars, none of whom have even run yet in 2005. Then, along came Scipion.

Of course, winning the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III) is a far cry from beating the top 3-year-olds in the country. But until last year's stars run, we really won't know who the top 3-year-olds are, and at least Scipion looked like a Derby horse, talent-wise, style-wise, and physically. The colt is now ridden by big-time Derby jockey Gary Stevens and trained by Patrick Biancone, one of the top international trainers of the past 25 years. And the son of A.P. Indy is a half-brother to champion Vindication and boasts a pedigree loaded with class and stamina.

Too good to be true, you might ask?

Well, it may be, but at least we now have a stakes-caliber horse to get excited about. So, where has Scipion been hiding since his explosive debut at Saratoga last Aug. 14? Well, one can say he was hiding too close to the pace in his three subsequent starts. When new rider Stevens took him back to last, and the colt was able to revert back to the running style he used so effectively in his maiden win, you knew the fuse had been lit. When Scipion suddenly kicked in gear at the half-mile pole and took off around horses, you knew another explosion was imminent. Even when he was six-wide nearing the head of the stretch with some seven lengths still to make up, you knew, with that long Fair Grounds stretch ahead of him, he would be an unstoppable force.

After Lion Heart and Pomeroy last year, and San Rafael (gr. II) winner Spanish Chestnut this year, it looked as if Patrick Biancone was stuck in speed mode. Having trained for so many years in his native France and developing the wonder filly, All Along, Horse of the Year in 1983, one would think Biancone would not be inundated with so many classy speed horses. But it was his experience with American speed, while working for Leroy Jolley, that separated him from other European trainers and made his eventual migration to the U.S. so successful.

Spanish Chestnut looks like a top prospect in his own right, and he and Scipion could give Biancone a knockout one-two punch come May 7. And don't forget about Biancone's maiden, Chekhov, who was beaten only 2 3/4 lengths in the Sham Stakes after waking up in the final furlong. Biancone will try to get him in the win column by putting him back in maiden company. Spanish Chestnut heads for the Santa Catalina (gr. II), while Scipion will return to Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby (gr. II).

A refreshing new face on the scene, Scipion now catapults to the number 2 spot on the "Derby Dozen" list, mainly because he seems to have it all, and he's provided a much-needed spark this year. Of course, he'll have to find a happy medium somewhere in the middle of the pack so he doesn't become one-dimensional. Coming from that far back on a regular basis leaves a horse, no matter how talented, too dependent on the pace and horses retreating. But Scipion has already shown good tactical speed, and you at least know he has it and should be able to find a suitable spot where he doesn't leave himself with so much to do.

Behind Scipion in the Risen Star came Real Dandy, Storm Surge, and Electric Light, who all ran strong races, with Storm Surge conceding eight pounds to every horse in the field but two, and those two were up the track. Electric Light, who set the pace, is a horse to watch. Stretching out to two turns for the first time, the son of Silver Ghost went his half in a solid :46 3/5. He hung tough down that long stretch and was beaten only 1 3/4 lengths. He is an attractive colt with a fluid way of going and should improve off this race. Look for him to settle off the pace next time.

The Risen Star disappointments were Rush Bay and Harlington, who broke from the two outside posts. You knew they were going nowhere when Scipion blew right by both of them on the turn. Harlington did find his best stride late, but it got him nothing more than sixth. Remember, he gave up a lot of experience, and this was his first race over a fast track.

Also this past weekend, Galloping Grocer finished a disappointing fourth in the Whirlaway Stakes, a race he was supposed to dominate if he had any hopes of emerging as a leader in the division. But before anyone gives up on him, this was not the kind of race you look for in a 3-year-old debut. The gelding was sent to the front and was under too much pressure for too long. Instead of relaxing and sitting off the rail horse, Diamond Wildcat, a confirmed speed horse, he continuously engaged him and couldn't shake free. He also had two others breathing down his neck and then had to contend with the challenge of European invader Middle Earth. He was struck from behind, likely on the backstretch, suffering a gash. Turning for home, he was challenged from both sides, and although he hung on gamely, he was already spent.

So, where does this leave Galloping Grocer, a New York-bred son of A.P. Jet? Who knows. But he definitely deserves another chance, and perhaps next time he can find some kind of rhythm and learn to settle better. The last thing you want for the Derby is a one-dimensional speed horse. Not only is it the hardest way to win the Derby, but jockeys are now more aware of lone frontrunners after falling asleep in 2002 and having their pockets picked by War Emblem.

The Whirlaway winner, Sort it Out, wasn't nominated to the Triple Crown, but this effort should convince his owners to put up the late money. The New York-bred son of Out of Place, out of a Kris S. mare, is bred to run all day and he's improving with every start. He's already made up the 8 1/2 lengths he was beaten by Naughty New Yorker in December and has now won three in a row.

His tail-female line is Claiborne Farm breeding at its finest. His second dam, Abrada, is a full-sister to champion Forty Niner, and his third dam, File, is a half-sister to Tuerta, the dam of Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Swale.

At Santa Anita Sunday, they ran the San Vicente (gr. II), the fourth 3-year-old stake of the season, and for the fourth time, the race was won wire-to-wire. This time, the winner was Fusaichi Rock Star, a son of Wild Wonder who was the longest price in the field of four and proved a worthy substitute for stablemate Roman Ruler, scratched due to the wet track and a month-old quarter crack. Unlike some of the other Santa Anita stakes, in which the winner came home slowly, Fusaichi Rock Star closed his final eighth in a strong :12 1/5, completing the seven furlongs in 1:22 2/5 over the wet-fast track. He obviously is a much-improved horse after having a myectomy performed to correct a breathing problem.

But the real star of this race was Don't Get Mad, who closed like a rocket up the inside to finish second, despite the winner's fast final furlong. Trainer Ron Ellis, who also has Declan's Moon, says the son of Stephen Got Even is a natural distance horse and he is surprised he's done so well sprinting. He told jockey Tyler Baze not to tighten the screws and make him do too much in this race. This was just a prep to get him started, and he also was at a big disadvantage, with only three other starters.

But as he did in his previous two starts at Churchill Downs, he demonstrated an explosive turn of foot, coming home his last eighth in a blazing :11 2/5, with Baze only hitting him once down the lane. Look for him to make his first start around two turns in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) March 19 before heading east for the April 9 Wood Memorial (gr. I), with the following week's Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) an alternative. This is one the most exciting prospects seen so far this year.

As for the even-money favorite Consolidator, he finished last of four, but was beaten only 2 1/2 lengths and was a little too keen early. Sprinting doesn't look like his game, and he should move forward off this race.

Getting back to last year's top 2-year-olds, never before have so many leading Derby contenders attempted to win the Run for the Roses off only two races, as they attempt something that hasn't been done in 22 years, and only once in more than a half century. Granted, horses like Victory Gallop, Lion Heart, and Proud Citizen did manage to finish second in the Derby off only two starts, but considering how conservative so many trainers have become in recent years, it would be nice to see a horse finally show it can be done and be rid of this obstacle once and for all. This year is certainly set up for it to happen. But until Declan's Moon, Afleet Alex, Roman Ruler, Rockport Harbor, and Wilko show up in the entries in March, we will remain pretty much clueless who the real Derby contenders are.

At Bay Meadows Saturday, Stellar Magic upset Texcess in the one-mile San Mateo Stakes with a strong kick in the final furlong. A son of the Gone West stallion Western Fame, Stellar Magic also in inbred three times to Secretariat's dam, Somethingroyal.

A Peek at McPeek

We are all well aware by now that Todd Pletcher, D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito have several promising Derby-bound colts. But flying under the radar is Kenny McPeek, who quietly has three solid prospects, all of whom boast graded stakes credentials.

Two are owned by the Sarah Lyn Stables of Carl Gessler and Danny Wiginton. The farthest advanced is Kansas City Boy, an improving son of Boston Harbor, out of an Affirmed mare, who broke his maiden by 8 1/4 lengths at Churchill Downs in his first start around two turns. He then finished third, beaten a neck, in the LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds and was second in the nine-furlong Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III), in which he battled back after setting all the pace.

McPeek said the colt used to be kind of slow, but the light bulb has since gone on and he's turned in three solid performances, with his best still to come. McPeek is expecting big improvement in the March 5 Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II). The other Sarah Lyn horse is Wild Desert, who has been working sharply in company with Diamond Isle. Wild Desert, a son of Wild Rush, won back-to-back races last year at Arlington on the dirt and grass before coming with a strong eight-wide run to finish third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II). McPeek is pointing him for the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III).

McPeek's final Derby hopeful is the Buckram Oak colt Diamond Isle, who boasts the same kind of pedigree as the last three Derby winners, being by a speed-oriented stallion (Gilded Time) out of a family loaded with stamina. You won't find a stronger female family on this year's Derby trail, as his dam is by Polish Navy, sire of Derby winner Sea Hero, out of a Pleasant Colony mare who is a half-sister to Hoist the Flag by English Derby and Arc de Triomphe winner Sea-Bird.

Diamond Isle was impressive breaking his maiden by 4 1/2 lengths at Churchill Downs, then ran steady, even races to finish second in the Miller Genuine Draft Cradle Stakes (gr. III) and third in the Lanes' End Breeders' Futurity (gr. I). McPeek is looking to use a 1 1/8-mile allowance race Gulfstream on March 5 as his debut.