Steve Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: The Search Continues

Sometimes, when you dig deep to try to find something, all you wind up with is a big hole. In Saturday's Santa Anita Derby, we kept digging, hoping to find the key to unlock Kentucky Derby 129. But in the end, not even Indiana Jones could locate the treasure most everyone had been looking for.

Of course, we're referring to Atswhatimtalknbout and Steven Spielberg and Company, who recently purchased 10% of the son of A.P. Indy. The Santa Anita Derby was supposed to be the big unveiling of racing's latest star, but all that was uncovered was Buddy Gil once again. Old Buddy had popped out of nowhere in the San Felipe Stakes, but his nose victory over Atswhatimtalknbout was supposed to be an aberration. Someone, however, forgot to tell Buddy, who again proved that he is a gutsy, tenacious fighter who doesn't like to lose.

While Buddy Gil's victory was well-earned, there were so many bizarre plot twists that we came away even more bewildered than we were before, if that's possible. First off, there was the downright freaky performance by Indian Express, who shouldn't have been able to do what he did, which is battle all the way with undefeated Ocean Terrace through testing fractions, put him away, then duke it out all the way to the wire with Buddy Gil, getting beat a head. This is a horse who had made only three career starts – two sprint romps in Panama last year and a fourth-place finish in the 6 1/2-furlong San Pedro Stakes this year. To stretch out to 1 1/8 miles and run the race he did was simply amazing, and added to the quirkiness of the race.

So, what you had was a horse raised in Idaho beating a horse bred in Utah and raced in Panama. Things indeed are changing in the Sport of Kings.

Another strange aspect of the race was four horses, including Ocean Terrace and Logician, getting beaten from 29 to 46 lengths. Although the final three-eighths was run in a pokey :39 1/5, Atswhaimtalkbout was unable to make a dent in the leaders in the final furlong. Then you had Buddy Gil bleeding slightly during the race, despite being on Lasix, and being put on the bleeder's list for 14 days. That means he can't work during that period of time, and can only be taken off the list by working five furlongs in 1:03 or faster after the 14 days. Brocco, winner of the 1994 Santa Anita Derby, went through exactly the same thing, and the whole episode and the colt's work at Churchill Downs caused a great deal of anxiety for his trainer Randy Winick. But this really shouldn't set the horse back too much. He'll be plenty fit. Yes, it was a strange race all around.

Now that Buddy Gil has established himself as a leading Derby contender, he will have to overcome the dreaded curse of Damascus. You see, Buddy is by Damascus' son, Eastern Echo, and word has it that there is a Derby curse on all the male descendants of Damascus. It actually started with Damascus' sire, Sword Dancer, who was beaten a nose in the Derby in 1959. Then, Damascus ran an uncharacteristically dull third at Churchill Downs as the overwhelming favorite. Since then, every male-line descendant of Damascus, many of them favorites and grade I winners, have all found a way to lose the Derby. They include Judger, Skip Away, Fly So Free, Desert Wine, Mister Frisky, Private Terms, Captain Steve, Technology, Soul of the Matter, Afternoon Deelites, Corporate Report, and Diabolo.

As for Atswhatimtalknbout, it shouldn't come as a complete shock that he ran dull. With no starts at 2, Ron Ellis has had to cram five starts in him in a relatively short period of time. His race was not unlike the race Thunder Gulch ran in the Blue Grass, in which he also finished a dull fourth after several hard-fought races.

Yes, it was disappointing for the colt's connections, especially with all the hype and Hollywood glamour surrounding the horse. Majority owner B. Wayne Hughes even had 2,000 Atswhatimtalknbout hats distributed to the fans on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The horse did stumble a bit coming out of the gate, and although he began picking off horses on the far turn, he didn't seem to be moving with the same authority he had in his earlier races. He had dead-aim on Kafwain the entire length of the strength and couldn't catch him for third. Because you had four horses who were virtually distanced in the race combined with the fact that Atswhatimtalknbout wears a type of egg-bar shoe in training, it is possible that the track was not to his liking. It is also possible that he'll like the softer surface at Churchill Downs. In any event, there are enough reasons to give him another chance, as long as he's sound and shows a lot of enthusiasm and energy leading up to the race.

Kafwain is still Kafwain, and although he's not showing the brilliance around two turns that you'd like to see, you still have to admire the colt for coming to race every time and giving it his all. He needs to get the perfect trip to be effective going long and now that Pat Valenzuela has had a race to get to know him, he'll have a better idea where to put him in the Derby.

The one horse who really looked like a Kentucky Derby contender on Saturday was Ten Most Wanted, who was visually impressive winning the Illinois Derby. The final time was a slow 1:51 2/5, but the track was dead all day and the son of Deputy Commander answered a lot of questions. Primarily a stalker, he was taken about eight lengths back by Pat Day and turned in a strong, steady rally along the inside to reach contention. But with a wall of horses in front of him, he and Day waited patiently for something to open. New York invader, Fund of Funds, had opened a clear lead in the stretch, but when Ten Most Wanted did find room, he exploded and flew past Fund of Funds with long, beautiful strides, drawing off to a four-length victory over the improving Fund of Funds, while coming home his final eighth in :12 2/5. It was another eight lengths back to the third-place finisher.

Granted, Ten Most Wanted wasn't beating a stellar field, and he'll have to pick up 12 pounds in the Kentucky Derby, but with the way he's improving dramatically with each race, and with his pedigree and stride, he definitely is a legitimate threat on the first Saturday in May. And who deserves it more than trainer Wally Dollase, one of the real good guys in the sport?

Finally, we come to Dynever, who once again looked awesome in winning the Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream. If this son of Dynaformer had another race or two in him, he'd be right up there with Empire Maker as one of the solid Derby favorites. Just watching this colt assert himself in the final furlong is one of the few thrills we've gotten this year from the 3-year-olds. He has a powerful way of moving and great turn of foot. When he broke his maiden, he put eight lengths on his field so quickly you would have thought the others stopped suddenly. But then he did it again on Saturday against a classy, experienced stakes horse in Supah Blitz.

The two circled the field together on the far turn, with Dynever just in front of Supah Blitz. After inhaling their competition, Supah Blitz stuck his head in front of Dynever and seemed to have the advantage. After all, he was a grade I-placed horse with 14 career starts against a recent maiden winner with only two career starts. But Dynever stuck with him until the eighth pole. Then Supah Blitz got his head in front again, and just when it appeared as if it was going to be a battle to the wire, Dynever put in a burst speed that left Supah Blitz reeling. With a final sixteenth in :06 1/5, he quickly drew off to a 3 1/4-length victory, while Supah Blitz was putting 6 1/2 lengths between himself and the third-place finisher. Dynever was moving with such momentum, a hundred yards past the wire, he had 10 lengths on Supah Blitz and still kept widening heading into the clubhouse turn. This definitely is a star in the making.