Kentucky Derby Trail: 20 Questions and Counting

OK, so who's in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), and who's out? Who will be the favorite? Who really are the fast horses and who are the slow horses? Who's going to ride whom? Oh, yes, who's going to win? The answer to all these questions: Who knows?

What did we learn from this past weekend's preps? First off, we learned that the horse the speed experts considered a slow plodder, coming off what they called the slowest race in memory, actually is one of the fastest 3-year-olds in the country. Yes, that was The Cliff's Edge who ran a 111 Beyer Speed Figure in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), jumping 21 points from his tortoise-like number in the Florida Derby. Go figure.

But when you think of it, if Read the Footnotes' Beyer can plummet 27 points from the Fountain of Youth, turning the fastest 3-year-old in America into one of the slowest, why can't a horse go from being one of the slowest to the fastest? So, just who is fast and who is slow? In short, if horses are capable of dropping 27 points and jumping up 21 points, doesn't it indicate that maybe these speed figures shouldnt be taken as gospel, but just one of many handicapping tools?

We also learned that you simply cannot handicap a Michael Dickinson-trained horse with any of the conventional handicapping tools. Dickinson trains in a universe of his own, and it's just best to assume that if he sends out a horse, he or she has a big chance, regardless if it goes against all logic. Heck, even when Dickinson says he won't win, he wins, so how can you handicap his horses?

All Tapit did in the Wood Memorial, was go into a grade I race against 10 opponents only partially fit and just barely healthy; come from dead-last on a notorious speed-favoring track; go five-wide on the far turn, and still get up to win, despite spending half the stretch gawking at the grandstand. He even brought tears to the eyes of Dickinson, who dreaded running him in the Wood, knowing that the horse was so generous he'd give more of himself than he should. He said if something had happened to Tapit he never would have forgiven himself. "We love him to death," Dickinson said, "and I'm indebted to him."

The bottom line, however, is that Tapit, according to Dickinson, will improve five to seven lengths off this race. Is there anyone who is going to doubt him?

Another interesting aspect of the Wood is that Edgar Prado and Kent Desormeaux both turned down the mount on Tapit.

How about that itty bitty nose separating Master David and Eddington for second? Although it looks as if Eddington should get in the Derby, as long as one or two horses who are iffy drop out, it just shows how someone's Derby dreams can be decided by a measly inch.

Master David is a tough little horse who loves a good fight, and it doesn't matter who he tangles with, whether it's a big chestnut like Borrego in the Sham or an even bigger chestnut like Eddington. Both times, he came through on the inside of those colts, never flinched, and each time got the better of them. His grinding second-place finish fits the pattern of your typical Derby winner (Funny Cide, Monarchos, Real Quiet, Silver Charm, Grindstone, Go For Gin), and he did it coming off a two-month layoff.

As for Eddington, he's still a work in progress. As soon as his mind and his legs get together, it's going to be like detonating a stick of dynamite. Now, you can bet that won't happen in the Derby or you can bet that it will. In the Wood, once he got his blood up over the little horse outrunning him on his inside, he surged forward at the wire and just missed. Could it be that surge was the match being lit? That's what you'll have to decide. This colt has the running style, the strength, and the pedigree to sit in midpack in the Derby, then just start grinding his opponents into the ground. Horses who have trouble changing leads (Bailey finally got Eddington to change at the eighth pole), usually wind up changing much earlier in the Derby, because of the all the weaving, and bumping, and commotion all around. All this colt has to do for now is get in the race.

Turning to the "slow" time of the Wood, in comparison to the sizzling one-turn times most of the afternoon, it's really hard to tell what to make of it. Yes, if the track was playing the same going one turn as it was going two turns, you would expect a faster time. But Aqueduct at times can have a split variant, where sprint times have no bearing on route times. But even if there wasn't a split variant, what is important to remember about the Wood is that the first three finishers all are improving horses who just needed this race to move forward. And all of them got just what they needed out of the race. Not only should all three improve, they have the potential to improve dramatically.

Getting back to The Cliff's Edge, this was the Cliff of last year, when he was turning in eyecatching moves on the far turn. He has such big strides, that if he gets a clear run, he can mow down anyone, especially down that long Churchill Downs stretch, over which he already has scored a pair of graded stakes victories. Now, if you really believe in that 111 Beyer, you have to ask yourself if he can return to that kind of number. Then again, does he have to? Who says it's going to take a 111 to win the Derby? Normally, big speed numbers in the Blue Grass are attained by frontrunners and stalkers riding on the Keeneland conveyor belt. The Cliff's Edge is a big, powerful colt who came from 14 lengths out of it and only did his big running in the last three-eighths of a mile, which he negotiated in a solid :24 3/5 and :12 2/5. From a visual aspect, there is no reason why he can't duplicate this kind of effort on the first Saturday in May.

Credit must be given, once again, to Lion Heart for another courageous performance, but for Kentucky Derby purposes, it must be noted he went his fourth quarter in almost :26 after opening a clear lead at the three-eighths pole. But he did come home in under :13, so, all in all, it was a very good effort, especially finishing six lengths ahead of Limehouse in third, which is always very instrumental in determining how classy a performances was.

Of all the races this past weekend, perhaps the strongest pace-wise was the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). And that's not just talking about Smarty Jones, who continues to amaze with his brilliance and consistency. While Smarty Jones' fractions were a bit all over the place (:22 3/5, :24 1/5, :24 4/5, :25 1/5, and :12 3/5), you had to be impressed with the consistency of Borrego, and especially Pro Prado. Borrego ran fast early, with a :23 1/5 opening quarter, then tracked Smarty Jones down on the rail running fractions of :24, :24 4/5, and :25, then cut Smarty's lead in half with a final eighth in between :12 1/5 and :12 2/5, to be precise. That's a pretty strong race. Pro Prado, who will be ignored big-time in the Derby, ran as consistent a race as one could ask, with fractions of :24 2/5, :24 1/5, :24 2/5, and :24 2/5. Although his final furlong was a solid enough :12 3/5, he couldn't make up any ground on Smarty Jones, but did some heavy-duty running in this third and fourth quarters. From start to finish, this was a sneakily good effort, in case you're looking for a real bomb in the Derby, at least to play in the exotics.

But the most impressive part of the Arkansas Derby was Smarty Jones breaking from the 11-post, having to use himself to get position through a very quick opening quarter, then easily disposing of a horse (Purge) whom you'd expect to be a lot tougher in this race than he was in the Rebel. To blow open a race like this against a large field of classy horses, after having to be used early, and still come home in :12 3/5 is one heckuva performance. And he did it over a muddy track that had been playing slow all day.

Finally, Smarty Jones to stable at Keeneland? That may be the toughest of them all to answer.