Kentucky Derby Trail: Dynamic Derby Still a Possibility

Although many have already written off this year's 3-year-old crop and are expecting a muddled mess in the 130th Kentucky Derby (gr. I), there are several feasible scenarios, beginning with this weekend's preps, that could actually make this an unforgettable Run for the Roses.

Scenario No. 1 – Wimbledon wins the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Master David wins the Wood Memorial (gr. I), Preachinatthebar wins the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), and Smarty Jones wins the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). Suddenly, you have a showdown between Bob Baffert and Bobby Frankel, with America's Cinderella horse taking on racing's two titans. You also have Baffert and Frankel with three horses coming into the Derby off back-to-back stakes victories, facing an undefeated horse who will be the darling of the public and the media.

Scenario No. 2 – Rock Hard Ten wins the Santa Anita Derby, Value Plus wins the Wood Memorial, Lion Heart wins the Blue Grass, and Smarty Jones wins the Arkansas Derby. Now, you've got four of the fastest, most brilliant horses in the country, including two of the most physically imposing horses (Rock Hard Ten and Value Plus) seen in a long time. Imagine the hype and the prognostications of superstardom that will follow all four of these exciting horses. To add to the intrigue, all four horses would be vulnerable in the Derby, for one reason or another, leaving a horde of come-from-behind, distance horses ready to chase them home at some juicy overlay prices.

At this point, you can even mix and match these two scenarios to suit your own likes and desires and still come up with an exciting storyline.

Now, to stretch it a bit, Scenario No. 3 would have Pollard's Vision win the Illinois Derby (gr. II), Value Plus win the Wood, Limehouse win the Blue Grass, and Purge win the Arkansas Derby, giving their trainer, Todd Pletcher, the strongest (yet vulnerable) four-horse entry in Derby history. But having a massive throng of media surrounding the low-keyed, soft-spoken Pletcher every morning seems like a bizarre scenario.

Anyway, the point of all this is, until the main cast of characters assemble at Churchill Downs, no one can know for sure whether this year's Derby will provide a jolt of electricity or remain in the dark.

Either way, it all begins this weekend with a fascinating array of horses in the Santa Anita Derby, and a wide-open field in the rejuvenated Illinois Derby, which produced the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner and 2003 Travers (gr. I) winner and Belmont (gr. I) runner-up, even though the race was run at two different tracks.

Rock On

Although the Santa Anita Derby will feature graded stakes winners Wimbledon, St Averil, and Imperialism, the one horse who will be on everyone's lips is Rock Hard Ten, even though the towering son of Kris S.. has had only two starts, a 1 1/4-length maiden victory and 1 3/4-length allowance score.

From a handicapping standpoint, in his allowance score, the second-place finisher, Teton Forest, came back to finish sixth in the WinStar Derby as one of the choices, while the third-place finisher, Jimmy's Instinct, came back and finished fifth of six in the San Pedro Stakes at 8-5. In his maiden win, the second-place finisher, Storm Pilot, was beaten in his next start at 1-5. Third-place finisher, Point of Flight, did win his next start, but finished seventh in the WinStar Derby. But what everyone did take notice of right from the start was the time of his maiden win, which was a fraction faster than Imperialism's time in the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) the same day.

The question is, is this colt is as special as everyone who has seen him says he is? From a physical standpoint, he has scores of reputable horsemen tossing out almost mythical-like superlatives. His stride is something to behold, and you have to love the way he throws his ears up just as he hits the wire, as if he knows what it's all about. His exercise rider is Corey Black, who is amazed by his athleticism for such a big horse. There is an awe-inspiring winner's circle photo of him on one of the web sites, in which he looks like a cross between Black Beauty and Man o'War. If you're thinking of him as a potential Kentucky Derby winner, history, and logic, are against him. But until he shows a mortal side, he will remain a feast for the imagination.

Which way to the front?

One thing that looks fairly certain about the Santa Anita Derby at this point is that, whoever is in front early will not be used to being there. With Lion Heart skipping the race and heading for the Blue Grass, it looks like the lead is up for grabs. Quintons Gold Rush seems to have the most natural speed, breaking his maiden by running Wimbledon into the ground after a stirring battle on the front end. Those tactics are a thing of the past for Wimbledon, so don't expect to see a repeat of that. Quintons Gold Rush sat back off the pace in the San Rafael, made a move nearing the quarter pole before tiring a bit to finish fourth in only his third career start. He recently worked six furlongs in a bullet 1:11 2/5 at Hollywood Park and could be tough to catch if he's left alone on the lead. Perhaps Rock Hard Ten or Lucky Pulpit could find themselves right up there as well if the pace is slow enough. A key horse could be Mambo Train, who is 50-50 to run. He does have speed, fighting for the lead in suicidal fractions in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), and could be the one who takes it to them.

Santa Anita officials are not happy about Lion Heart, Master David, and Borrego all skipping town for races back east on April 10. It was especially hard on them losing Lion Heart less than a week before the race, especially when it looked like he had a huge chance to wire the field with little or no pressure on the lead. After he put the speedy Hosco away after battling through fast fractions in the San Rafael, he held on tenaciously and was just nipped at the wire by Imperialism. With that race under him, and the others looking to earn a place in the Kentucky Derby field, it is highly unlikely anyone would have tackled him early. But trainer Patrick Biancone said he didn't have "that fire in his eye" when he worked Monday, and he's confident he'll get it back in another week. Now, it becomes more of a rider's race, and it'll be interesting to see how it plays out.

Melting Pot

With an evenly matched (on paper) group of horses from Florida, Northern California, New York, Arkansas, and Maryland shipping to Chicago for the Illinois Derby, it is very difficult to handicap the race with any conviction.

One potential longshot, Pure American, has already been discussed in an earlier column, as has White Mountain Boy to a lesser degree.

If there is one horse who can come out of this race with a big reputation it is the undefeated Song of the Sword, who was flattered by Lane's End winner Sinister G. after out-dueling him in the fog in an Aqueduct allowance test. He's now three-for-three, has won going long and short, on the lead and from off the pace, and on wet and dry tracks. And he has red-hot Richard Migliore in the saddle. He's by Unbridled's Song, out of a Crusader Sword mare, and is inbred 5x4 to In Reality.

Not only is it difficult handicapping this race, it's difficult handicapping the three Northern California invaders, Kilgowan, O.K. Mikie, and Skipaslew. Kilgowan is just starting to get good, and he came from pretty far out in the middle of the track to win the El Camino Ready Derby (gr. III). He's a son of Smoke Glacken, out of a Dynaformer mare and has a solid female family.