Steve Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: Off-Track Developments

February promises to provide a great deal of excitement, with the eagerly-awaited debuts of 2-year-old champion Vindication, Sky Mesa, Empire Maker, and Kafwain.

In addition, we'll find out just how strong the South Florida-based 3-year-olds are in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and learn more about the current Fair Grounds kingpins Seattle Hoofer and Saintly Look in the Risen Star Stakes. We'll also see how impressive maiden winners such as Ministers Wild Cat, Southern Image, Buckland Manor, Ten Most Wanted, Midas Eyes, Affable, Midway Cat, Christine's Outlaw, and Dynastyle fare against winners.

The big news in January was the perplexing injury to Toccet and the surprising jockey switch on Vindication from Mike Smith to Jerry Bailey, thus adding a tinge of controversy to the top two Derby contenders. Toccet appears to be much improved, according to his owner, Dan Borislow, who said the Derby still is very much in the picture. He hopes to have him ready for the Private Terms at Laurel on Mar. 29, then it's on to the Wood Memorial.

In action last week, Saintly Look, a colt with sprinter's speed and a stayer's pedigree, overcame a terrible post position to win the one-mile Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds for trainer Dallas Stewart. However, his two main opponents, Most Feared and Lone Star Sky never were in the race, which made Saintly Look's job a lot easier. With his final quarter in :25 4/5 and little action from the closers, we'll have to wait until the Risen Star to see if this son of Saint Ballado can carry his speed against quality competition. Stewart's other option is to wait until the Louisiana Derby.

As for Saintly look's pedigree, with Herbager on top and Ribot (through His Majesty) and Round Table on the bottom, it is easy to see why he has an attractively low 1.00 dosage index.

Last Friday, a mile and a sixteenth allowance race at Santa Anita looked to be an excellent spot for the exciting maiden winner Atswhatimtalknbout and the Norfolk third-place finisher Listen Indy to take a big leap forward. But it was the Bob Baffert-trained Apalachian Thunder who overcame an early tussle with Nation Wide News to win going away. Once again, we had a slow closing quarter, with the winner coming home in :26 2/5, so it's difficult to know what to make of the race. But Apalachian Thunder did burn up the track early with fractions of :45 1/5 and 1:09 3/5, so the slow final quarter was not that surprising. Unlike his maiden victory, when he unleashed a breathtaking late move, Atswhatimtalknbout could only make a slight dent on the winner in the final furlong, falling two and a half lengths short. Listen Indy came out of the race with sore shins and will be on the shelf for a while.

Another result of interest last week was Badge of Silver's brilliant allowance victory at Fair Grounds, in which he defeated the Tom Amoss-trained Broke Again by seven lengths in a sharp 1:09 3/5. Badge of Silver, a son of Silver Deputy, hadn't run since his nine-length maiden romp at four and a half furlongs at Keeneland way back on Apr. 12, while Broke Again was coming off a game second to Saintly Look in the Sugar Bowl Stakes at Fair Grounds on Dec. 29. Now it's time to see what he can do going two turns.

One maiden winner who looks very intriguing is Buckland Manor. Owned and bred by John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery, the son of Bien Bien went head and head from the start before drawing away at the head of the stretch to win by five lengths. Unlike the question marks surrounding the stable's Came Home last spring, there are no doubts regarding Buckland Manor's ability to stay a mile and a quarter. Finishing third was Serena's Song's son, Arbitrate, who's been running well, but hasn't been able to break his maiden.

As for the leading Derby contenders, Vindication turned in an eye-opening work last week, blazing five furlongs in company in :58 2/5. With the son of Seattle Slew still several weeks from a race, Baffert wasn't looking for anything that fast. Another undefeated colt, Sky Mesa, has been taking it much slower at Palm Beach Downs, where he breezed an easy half in :51 3/5 on Monday for trainer John Ward.

Back in California, Bobby Frankel's highly touted Empire Maker prepped for his debut in the Feb. 7 Sham Stakes by working six furlongs in 1:12 4/5 at Hollywood Park. Last year's Belmont Futurity winner Whywhywhy worked five furlongs in :59 2/5 for his debut, which may come in the Fountain of Youth.

Wally Dollase, who is extremely high on his runaway maiden winner Ten Most Wanted, worked the son of Deputy Commander six furlongs in 1:26 at Hollywood for his meeting with Empire Maker in the Sham. Also pointing for the nine-furlong Sham is Baffert's stakes-placed Truckle Feature, who worked six furlongs in 1:25 at Santa Anita. The Baffert Brigade's second in command, Kafwain, will make his debut in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes on Saturday. Domestic Dispute, impressive winner of the Santa Catalina Stakes, likely will wait until the San Felipe Stakes Mar. 16, following a similar schedule as Baffert's 1998 Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet.

Todd Pletcher has been taking it easy with his undefeated Indy Dancer, giving him a pair of slow five-furlongs breezes at Palm Meadows. The son of A.P. Indy went in 1:05 on Tuesday. He will run next in either the Fountain of Youth or Risen Star. Pletcher was able to keep the brilliant Lion Tamer after the colt was sold by Peachtree Stable to Michael Tabor, who also is a client of Pletcher's. Lion Tamer is coming off one of the more impressive victories of the young season, in which he broke terribly, dropped back to last, then blew his field away by seven lengths. Pletcher will keep him sprinting for now, pointing him for the seven-furlong Swale Stakes.

Kenny McPeek, who has a strong duo in Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up Ten Cents a Shine and Powerful Touch, sent the former out for a half-mile drill in :48 3/5 at Gulfstream, then entered him in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race on Friday in what he hopes will be a confidence booster. Powerful Touch, who lost a head bob to Offlee Wild in the Holy Bull Stakes, came out of the race with a slight foot bruise and likely will await the Florida Derby. This is a big, lanky colt, and McPeek wants to give him as much time as possible.

Keep an eye on Turf Paradise this weekend when the exciting Siberland tries to extend his winning streak in the Turf Paradise Derby. The son of Siberian Summer recently worked five furlongs in 1:01 1/5 on the turf. An allowance race at Gulfstream this Friday could attract some heavy hitters.

Word from Ireland is that, unlike last winter, the weather has been excellent. Aidan O'Brien's Hold That Tiger, who was so impressive finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, is looking and doing well, and should begin serious training shortly. Another possible Kentucky Derby hopeful from Ballydoyle is Van Nistelrooy, who ran respectably in the Juvenile, coming from 11th to finish fifth.