Fusaichi Samurai wins in first-ever outing.

Fusaichi Samurai wins in first-ever outing.


Kentucky Derby Trail: Will 2005 be the spring of the Samurai?

December or no December, the journey to Louisville has officially begun. Just ask any trainer with a promising 2-year-old if the lure of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) hasn't already taken a firm hold. Over the past 10 days we've seen several exciting hopefuls emerge. And there's still that little matter of crowning a champ this weekend.

The rumble you hear from Hollywood Park, however, is not caused by the upcoming Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) Dec. 18 as much as it is the career debut of Fusaichi Samurai, which has caused such a stir the colt's ebullient trainer Neil Drysdale is already preparing vast oratories to present to the inquiring media (yes, only kidding).

The son of Fusaichi Pegasus has been under close scrutiny ever since he was purchased for a record $4.5 million by his sire's owner, Fusao Sekiguchi, at the Fasig-Tipton Calder 2-year-old sale. Nick Zito had bought him as a yearling for $270,000 for Robert LaPenta, who pinhooked him. Although the colt was a bit on the gangly side, Zito could see the growth potential, and being out of a Storm Cat mare certainly didn't hurt. That potential was evident Dec. 11 when the handsome, regal-looking colt appeared, winning under wraps by two lengths in a quick 1:15 2/5 for 6 1/2 furlongs.

He's still a lean, long-bodied colt with the look of a stayer. And he moves with an air of nobility, lowering his head and arching his neck. As soon as he changed leads after turning into the stretch, his ears shot up and stayed up, occasionally jutting out, the entire stretch run. After being throttled down by Victor Espinoza at the wire, he was extremely impressive galloping out, still hugging the rail all the way around the clubhouse turn. Like his father at this stage of his career, everything about this colt spells star. Let the hype continue.

But there are other Derby stories emerging around the country, scripted by lesser known talents such as Kirkendahl, Devil at Sea, Biloxi Palace (by Seattle Slew), and Daddy Joe, all of whom have won impressively in the past couple of weeks, as have the more experienced stakes winners Texcess and Better Than Bonds, winners of the Delta Jackpot and What a Pleasure Stakes, respectively. The latter looks as if he's going to keep improving as the distances stretch out. He is conditioned by former Greentree Stable trainer Bob Reinacher, who would make for a great comeback story

Kirkendahl definitely is one to watch following his second career victory in as many starts for trainer Ted West. The son of Menifee has an awesome pedigree to along with his brilliant speed. Devil at Sea is an intriguing son of Devil His Due, who romped in his career debut at Calder, winning by 10 1/4 lengths under Jose Santos. He's trained by former Todd Pletcher and D. Wayne Lukas assistant George Weaver.

There also came the recent announcement that Amazonian Sweet Catomine will make her 3-year-old debut in the Jan. 9 Santa Ysabel Stakes. This powerhouse of a filly appears to have all the tools necessary to take on the boys on the first Saturday in May. Of course, most people felt the same way about Halfbridled. But although both were awesome at two and had all the physical attributes needed to take on such a task, Sweet Catomine has shown a remarkable turn of foot for a filly with her robust physique as well as the ability to crash through any roadblocks she stumbles upon during a race. We'll see what kind of plan trainer Julio Canani maps out for her. It's worth noting that the two modern-day fillies who have won the Derby -- Winning Colors and Genuine Risk -- both came off nine-furlong races against colts, with Winning Colors romping in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and Genuine Risk finishing a game third in the Wood Memorial (gr. I).

Bob Baffert's two main Derby hopes at this point -- Roman Ruler and Chips Are Down -- both worked recently at Santa Anita. Norfolk (gr. II) winner Roman Ruler, who had an undescended testicle removed following his fifth-place finish in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) had his first breeze, going an easy three-eighths in :36 4/5. The feeling here is that the powerful son of Fusaichi Pegasus will again show the brilliance he displayed in the summer and regain his stature as one of the best young prospects in the country. Chips Are Down, an allowance winner at Hollywood Park, drilled a sharp half in :46 1/5 for a possible start in the Jan. 15 San Rafael Stakes (gr. II).

Several exciting Derby hopefuls have hit the work tab at their winter homes. The nation's most accomplished maiden, Patriot Act, has turned in a pair of solid half-mile breezes at Fair Grounds for Neil Howard. John Kimmel's rousing maiden winner, Premium Tap, has started breezing at Payson Park. The undefeated High Fly, an impressive winner of his only two starts, turned in a sharp six-furlong drill in 1:14 2/5 at Calder. Todd Pletcher's regally bred Harlington, winner of his only start, has started breezing at Palm Meadows, putting in a strong half-mile move in :48 3/5. The stoutly bred Dearest Mon, impressive maiden winner at Aqueduct, breezed a half in :48 4/5 at Palm Meadows for Rick Violette (his sire and broodmare sire both sired Kentucky Derby winners and his maternal great-grandsire won the English Derby). Another impressive winner who has begun working at Palm Meadows is Deputy Indy, winner of his only start for trainer Stan Hough.

Patrick Biancone has hit the Derby trail with stakes-placed Scipion, who has already worked a half (:49 2/5) and five furlongs (1:01 1/5) at Santa Anita. The son of A.P. Indy is a half-brother to 2002 juvenile champ Vindication. Biancone's highly regarded maiden, Chekhov, breezed a sharp half-mile in :47 4/5, then followed it up with five-furlong breeze in 1:01. Another Biancone-trained colt who may have a bright future is Spanish Chestnut, a son of Horse Chestnut who was runner-up in the Lone Star Juvenile, and then was second again to Chips Are Down at Hollywood Park. In his career debut, he broke his maiden in the slop at Keeneland in 1:10 4/5.

Finally, Saturday's Hollywood Futurity likely will decide the 2-year-old championship. A victory by Declan's Moon, Wilko, or Proud Accolade will all but nail down top honors. If there is an upset, which doesn't seem likely on paper, then Afleet Alex and Rockport Harbor will come storming to the forefront. Of the big three, Declan's Moon has the most potential to develop into something extraordinary. He has the speed, courage, and professionalism, and it's just a question how far his pedigree will take him. But with those three attributes, he should have no problem stretching out to classic distances. Remember, he is inbred top and bottom to Secretariat's dam, Somethingroyal.