Steve Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: Off the Beaten Path

You're traveling on the Kentucky Derby trail, a trail not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead - your next stop, the Twilight Zone?

Yes, that's pretty much where we're heading this year. The signpost is supposed to read Churchill Downs, but somewhere along the way we have made a wrong turn. For the past five weeks we've been wandering aimlessly on this mysterious, uncharted road, waiting for a herd of fleet-footed steeds to lead us back on the right path.

As we grope along, there really is nothing solid we can grasp on to, as not one of the leading Derby contenders has faced anything resembling a strong field, and none have asserted their authority in more than one race. So, basically, it is difficult to go overboard on any one early selection until we see what happens in the big April preps.

Saturday's Lane's End Stakes came up a weak field compared to past years. And while it is great having a horse named New York Hero, with his New York connections, we really have no idea how good this horse is. Physically, he's a good-looking, long-striding colt who obviously has a lot of heart and tenacity. So, in that respect, he is aptly named. And he does seem to be improving with experience and maturity. But before we can get a true line on him, he'll have to face better Derby-quality horses than the ones he beat on Saturday. And he'll have to show he can come home quicker than :39 3/5 for the final three-eighths over a track that played right into his running style.

With that said, however, his appearance on the Derby scene is a welcome addition, regardless of where he fits. One thing we can assure is that, with his owner, Ernie Paragallo, and trainer Jennifer Pederson, things will not be dull around his barn at Churchill Downs. This would be the biggest one-two New Yawk invasion in Derby history. So, be prepared for some good, old in-your-face repartee.

Going into the Lane's End, New York Hero had never raced anywhere other than on the inner track at Aqueduct. In fact, he stables at Aqueduct, and every one of his works this year have been on the inner track. So, this really was a homebody, who showed that he's just as comfortable traveling and racing over a new surface.

He was getting blinkers on for the first time and was being ridden by a new jockey, Norberto Arroyo Jr. So, although, statistically, his race is not what you'd look for in a leading Derby contender, he did pass several tests, and took a big step forward while leaving room for further improvement. We also have to mention Pederson. Although most people have no clue who she is or what her background is, if there is one thing we can assure you, it's that Pederson is as dedicated and caring a trainer as you'll find anywhere. She has great communication with her horses, whom she treats like her children, as well as like athletes. She brought Griffinite to the 2001 Preakness, and the colt ran a huge race to finish fifth of 11 starters at odds of 59-1. We watched the horse train up to the race, and he went to the gate that day primed to run the race of his life. And he did. Pederson is straightforward, witty, and talks from the gut (with a New York accent, of course). If she and New York Hero do make it to the Derby, we guarantee the reporters will come flocking to her barn in no time, much like they did with Jenine Sahadi three years ago.

New York Hero was picked out at the sale by the maestro, Buzz Chace, whose roster of stakes winners reads like a Who's Who. Chace paid $135,000 for the son of Partner's Hero as a 2-year-old at Timonium, the same sale he picked out Belmont Stakes winner Sarava the year before. "He was just a beautiful, physical horse, and he had a great mind," Chace said of New York Hero. "And he was ready to run. I thought we got him pretty cheap considering what a big, gorgeous horse he was." Chace had picked out 1994 Kentucky Derby starter Meadow Flight, but he really burst on the Triple Crown scene two years later after buying Unbridled's Song as a yearling for Paragallo, and acted as spokesperson for Paragallo during the weeks leading up to the Derby.

Perderson and Paragallo gave New York Hero time off to recover from ankle chips and a few other nagging problems. When he finally came around in January, he was ready, and has moved forward with each race. In his previous start, he faced older horses and was just beaten. Although he had to pick up 11 pounds off that race, he met every challenge and came home victorious. And that's all you can ask at this point. Sure, he still has a ways to go to prove he belongs with the top 3-year-olds, but as Pederson said, "He's still just a baby." The Wood will toughen him even more, and all he really needs to do in the race is to show he can hold his own against Empire Maker. If he passes that test, then he should be a fun horse to have at Churchill Downs.

Runner-up, Eugene's Third Son, also ran an improved race, coming from off the pace. But he wasn't going to beat New York Hero no matter how much farther they went. This also was an important test for the son of Indian Charlie, because the horses he had beaten in a very slowly run 1 1/8-mile allowance race last time out did not do well coming off that race.

As for the big favorite, Lion Tamer, he was dead when the gates opened just as he was starting to turn his head. On that track, he had little chance having to come from that far back early. He was climbing going by the stands and obviously was not comfortable. John Velazquez got him into the race down the backstretch, but he had no response on the far turn. He did pick it up after being steered outside horses in the stretch, but he really wasn't closing much ground at the finish. Still, he was only beaten 2 1/4 lengths in a race in which he had everything against him.

When we saw him in the Hutcheson Stakes, he looked a lot bigger up near the pace than he did back in the pack and running between horses. It was then you realized how physically overmatched this little guy is in a big field. And this was only half the horses you'll have in the Derby. Unlike the winner, we don't know if he's up to another nine-furlong race in three weeks and then a mile and quarter three weeks after that. Pletcher is in a bit of a dilemma. He has Indy Dancer for the Wood Memorial and Aristocat for the Arkansas Derby, and Lion Tamer's owner, Michael Tabor, has Brancusi for the Blue Grass. So Pletcher said he's considering the Lexington Stakes, and then pointing for the Preakness. But he did leave open the option of running in the Blue Grass or possibly in the Wood. He'll have to talk to Tabor before making any decision.