Don't bother looking at allowance and maiden races any longer for your Kentucky Derby horse. It is Louisiana Derby time, and that means the beginning of the big stakes run that will keep horses, trainers, jockeys, and fans hopping right up until the Derby.
There are no more pushover races or experimenting or looking for last-minute late developers. No more margins for error; no more playing catch-up. This is crunch time, when the real Derby contenders will be decided.
And what better way to begin than by pitting two of the leading 3-year-olds against each other in what promises to be an exciting and fascinating running of the Louisiana Derby. Not only do we have "The Rock," Kafwain, squaring off against the "Bourbon Street Bullet," Badge of Silver, at Fair Grounds on Sunday, there is also the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on Saturday that is expected to bring together an eclectic group of horses who have been heading to Louisville via different roads.
But the race that has captured everyone's attention is the Louisiana Derby. Never before can we recall this race providing such an intriguing matchup, with two totally different types of horses vying for solid Derby favoritism. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the race is that both horses can benefit from a defeat almost as much a victory, as strange as that may sound.
Badge of Silver is unbeaten and untested in three career starts, ranging from 4 1/2 furlongs last April to 1 1/16 miles last month. To say he's been brilliant would be a gross understatement. His total disdain for a multiple stakes winner like Saintly Look as he cruised by him with ease on the turn of the Risen Star before drawing off to a 10-length victory stamped this colt as something special.
Looking at him realistically for the Kentucky Derby, however, he's never been given a gut check, has essentially only two races under him for foundation, and is in danger of peaking too early. It is for those reasons that a defeat at the hands of Kafwain now would not be disastrous by any means, as long as he stands up to the challenge and runs a big race. That would slow down the runaway train just enough for it to refuel and begin picking up steam again in time for the Kentucky Derby. A narrow-margin victory over Kafwain would pretty much serve the same purpose. Now, if Badge of Silver should happen to run circles around Kafwain, as he's done with his previous foes, then he would have the Illinois Derby on April 5 to look someone in the eye and not go gallivanting off by himself again.
As for Kafwain, the difference between his foundation and Badge of Silver's is like a 20-story high-rise compared to a basement apartment. There also is no comparison physically, as Badge of Silver is a smallish, unassuming colt who relies on quickness and agility, while Kafwain is a big, powerfully muscled colt who probably outweighs his opponent by a couple of hundred pounds. Kafwain already has three two-turn races under him – a grade I at 1 1/8 miles and a grade I and grade II at 1 1/16 miles. He also demonstrated his class by destroying a group of promising speedsters in the San Vicente Stakes, blazing 7 furlongs in 1:21.
It is that performance that makes the Louisiana Derby more of a prep race for Kafwain. Often, a distance horse coming off a brilliant sprint such as that will be duller in his next start, going two turns. The difference here is that Kafwain didn't have much of a rest following his 2-year-old campaign – only 6 weeks. Then he had 5 weeks off after that race. So, while it's difficult to tell just how he's going to bounce back off the San Vicente, you can certainly excuse a defeat if Badge of Silver runs lights out again over his home track. On paper, one would think Kafwain has the speed, class, seasoning, and experience to overpower the lightly raced Badge of Silver. But what makes this race so fascinating is that we have no idea how deep Badge of Silver's well of talent is. We'll sure find out on Sunday.
What is most important is that racing fans will get a chance to see these two talented colts knock heads in a race that should be full of intriguing scenarios.
Although there are some other talented horses heading for the Louisiana Derby, it would be a major upset if any of them knock off the top two.
One intriguing possibility is Peace Rules, who returns to the dirt after scoring victories in the Generous and Hill Rise Stakes on the grass. But this son of Jules runs like a dirt horse, is bred for the dirt, and has been working brilliantly on the dirt. Three horses he beat in the Generous -- Man Among Men, Outta Here, and apalachian Thunder -- all won their next start on the dirt, two of them in stakes. We wouldn't be surprised to see him run a big race. If an upset is in the making, this is the most likely one to pull it off.
Funny Cide, who had a distastrous trip in the Holy Bull Stakes, has been training awesome at Palm Meadows. He has a great deal of potential, a superb pedigree, especially on his female side, and would be the most likely to threaten the favorites. Locals Lone Star Sky, Defrere's Vixen, and Prince Alphie all finished next to each other in the Risen Star. Each has room for improvement and should be closer to the winner this time. Lone Star Sky, runner-up in the Risen Star, indicated his sharpness by breezing a half in :47 4/5 in the slop. Prince Alphie is a versatile horse who can run long or short, dirt or grass, and although he finished behind Defrere's Vixen in fourth, he was conceding eight pounds and should run better this time.
One interesting horse to keep an eye on is Commander's Affair. The son of Deputy Commander has not run in a stakes yet, but showed a lot of courage in his last two starts, getting headed both time, then coming back to win. He could make things interesting for Badge of Silver, at least for a while.
Now we turn our attention to the El Camino Real Derby. All eyes will be on the unbeaten, but still green, Ministers Wild Cat, winner of the Golden State Mile, in which he probably was a lot better than his 1 1/4-length margin would indicate. He was restrained early, then ducked in sharply down the stretch and never really found his stride until a few yards from the wire. Trainer Neil Drysdale said he's maturing in leaps and bounds mentally with each race, and expects to see big improvement on Saturday. "We could have let Kent (Desormeaux) let him run, but we wouldn't have achieved much," Drysdale said.
Facing Ministers Wild Cat will be a diverse group of horses all coming into the race with different agendas. Ozzie Cat is trying to rebound big-time after his dismal effort in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. The Cal-bred Crackup, who has a victory over Fountain of Youth runner-up Supah Blitz and Deputed Testamony winner Cherokee's Boy at Sam Houston Park and a two-turn victory in the Cal Cup Juvenile, will try to improve on his fourth-place finish in the Santa Catalina Stakes.
The connections of Ten Most Wanted are hoping the switch to Pat Day will play a part in getting their big Deputy Commander colt back on track after his fourth in the Sham Stakes. Winning Stripes will try to reverse his second-place finish in the Golden State Mile, in which he gave Ministers Wild Cat a run for his money. Ocean Terrace, undefeated in two sprint starts for Bob Hess, needs this race desperately if he is to have any chance of making the Derby. And Onebadshark will be stretching out to two turns after a second-place finish at Santa Anita in 1:08 3/5.