Kentucky Derby Trail: Matchup of the Year Could Rock Gotham

Although the Gotham Stakes is only grade III, and is not known for producing Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winners, Saturday's running of the one-mile event features the most intriguing matchup of the year, between two of most gifted 3-year-olds in the country, Eddington and Redskin Warrior.

The Gotham will be their first real test of class, but their potential is so great, it makes this, to me, the most anticipated race of the year so far. Many Thoroughbreds often fail to live up to their early promise, and that could wind up being the case here, but based on what these two colts have shown so far, it would be a surprise if both horses didn't emerge as legitimate Derby contenders.

Eddington will be dropping back from two-turn races, which puts him at a disadvantage, but he is bred for classic distances, and trainer Mark Hennig is only looking for the colt to move forward and learn some lessons along the way. The colt's only noticable flaw is changing leads and leveling off too late. But his cruising speed is something to see, as is his acceleration and fluidity once he does level off. Once he corrects that flaw, there's no telling what he's capable of.

Redskin Warrior has more to prove, not having been farther than six furlongs, but the power this long-striding colt has demonstrated in his last three races indicates he should have no problem stretching out. Many have knocked his pedigree, saying an Indian Charlie won't go 1 1/4 miles. The fact is, Indian Charlie went into the Kentucky Derby off only four career starts and being plagued with physical ailments, such as ankle chips and stifle problems. He was coming off a brilliant victory in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), run in 1:47 flat, and his last two Beyer Speed Figures going into the Derby were 111 and 112. For him to finish a game third in what was to be the final start of his career was very impressive under the circumstances.

Also, Indian Charlie's sire, In Excess won the 1 1/4-mile Suburban Handicap (gr. I) in a scorching 1:58 1/5 and the 1 1/8-mile Woodward (gr. I) in and equally brilliant 1:46 1/5, as well as the grade I Whitney and Met Mile. An absurd decision to run him in the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) instead of the Classic (gr. I) cost him Horse of the Year. Finally, Redskin Warrior's broodmare sire, Hermitage, is a three-quarter brother to the great sire Sadler's Wells. So, the pedigree is there.

But the Gotham is not going to be a two-horse race by any means, not with horses like Saratoga County, Deputy Storm, Pomeroy, and Quick Action in the field. Quick Action ran a big race in the Whirlaway Stakes, battling head and head in fast fractions in the mud, then opening up before tiring to finish a game third. If Eddington and Redskin Warrior can pass this test and finish one-two, then the Derby trail will take on a whole new and exciting look.

Another colt running Saturday who can also bring new-found excitement to the Derby trail is Purge, who stretches out from six furlongs in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes (gr. I). His two career starts have been awesome, but he is way behind and has to play catch-up just to make it to the Derby off four career starts, and no horse with four starts has won the Derby since 1918. On the other hand, if Smarty Jones can remain undefeated, there will be an exciting colt heading toward the Derby who does have the foundation, but one who's distance ability is questionable. With tough horses like Mr. Jester and Pro Prado in the field, as well as the up-and-coming Cryptograph, the Rebel should serve as a great prelude to the Arkansas Derby (gr. II).

As for Saturday's Lane's End Stakes (gr. II), the matchup is simple: Birdstone vs. Birdstone. The race is his to lose, unless the Titan of Turfway, Silver Minister, makes a big leap and runs another corker. And expect to see the late-closing Little Matth Man finish in the money.

There are some interesting horses in the Rushaway Stakes, with the Zito-trained Pies Prospect sitting on a big race after making a very wide, explosive move on the far turn in an allowance race won by Swingforthefences.

Kimmel addresses controversies

Friends Lake seems to be a topic of discussion since his Florida Derby (gr. I) victory. Not the victory itself, but the slow time and the fact that trainer John Kimmel said he likely will train the colt up to the Kentucky Derby.

In regard to the training decision, the only history we can go by is the fact that no horse has been able to accomplish this since Needles in 1956. Historians will point out that in '56, the Florida Derby was run on March 24, not March 13, giving Needles six weeks to the Derby, compared to seven for Friends Lake. Also, Needles had 13 career starts going into the Derby, compared to five for Friends Lake. And finally, Needles had eight career victories before the Derby, compared to three for Friends Lake, who would be going into the Derby off one start in 15 weeks.

Kimmel said his decision is based on several factors. First off, Friends Lake is not a big, heavy horse, and has some mental issues to work out, and Kimmel is concerned there won't be much to him, mentally or phyisically, heading into the Triple Crown if he runs him beforehand.

"I know this horse is on the upswing," Kimmel said. "But he's going to need work at the gate (after refusing to go in before the Florida Derby), and we have to make sure he's not going to run his race in the paddock (as he did before the Holy Bull). Both those factors are important to give my horse a good, clear mindset going to the post. We're trying to get the top performance out of this horse, and I don't know that throwing another race at him while we're trying to do that is going to get me closer to my goal."

He also points out that Bobby Frankel had seriously considered training Empire Maker up to the Kentucky Derby off the Florida Derby, but went with history and ran in the Wood Memorial (gr. I). The colt suffered a bruised foot in the race, and Kimmel believes he would have won the Derby had he not run in the Wood. Frankel agrees with him.

As for the slow time, Kimmel said, "I think the Beyer number is a phony number. The track variant was much different than it was in the earlier races. That track needs a lot of water on a dry, windy day like that, and it didn't get it. With a turf race run before the Florida Derby and a long gap between races, the track just gets dry and cuppy. Does it really make sense that every horse in the race ran 10 points lower than they were expected to, Beyer-wise? Or is it more likely that the track itself had a different, slower variant than it did earlier in the card?"

Another horse who has been criticized for running slowly is Eurosilver, who came up a nose short in the Swale (gr. II) in 1:22 4/5 (1:22.87 to be precise). What makes that criticism difficult to understand is that Eurosilver isn't even a sprinter, but still ran his opening half in :45 flat. He had every reason not to close fast off that. And Madcap Escapade was hailed for her victory in the Forward Gal Stakes (gr. II) in 1:22.97. It's true that she won eased up, but even taking that into consideration, it is interesting to note that in the race before the Forward Gal, a 3-year-old maiden with one career start ran seven furlongs in 1:23 flat. That could suggest that the track at Gulfstream was playing pretty weird all day. The only point being made here is that time on this day seems almost irrelevant. Even if it wasn't, what's wrong with a distance horse running the same seven-furlong time as Madcap Escapade, believed to be the fastest filly in the country?