Steve Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: The Smell of Roses

Already? Is it really time to start smelling roses again, even though the scent of pine and eggnog still permeates our living room? Is it premature to start thinking Kentucky Derby while there are Christmas tree needles still embedded in our carpet?

Most people wait until April 1 to look like fools, so why compile a Derby Dozen in January and get a three-month head start? Even Sherlock Holmes couldn't have found enough clues last January to point to War Emblem. Or Proud Citizen. Or Perfect Drift.

That is what makes the Derby so fascinating, so wonderful, and so humbling. You can hit a $1,229 exacta in the Derby in 2001 by nailing Monarchos and Invisible Ink. Then, in 2002, you can have a book published about the Kentucky Derby, devoting an entire chapter to all the reasons why Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas win the Derby so often, while everyone else finds it so difficult to even get there. So, Baffert and Lukas wind up finishing one-two to complete the largest exacta payoff in Derby history, and the author doesn't even bet two bucks on it. That's the Derby for you. From Monarchos to comatose in one year.

With that said, we now look ahead to the 2003 Kentucky Derby. Will it wind up as confusing as the 2002 running, which amazingly saw a 6-1 favorite? The answer as of mid-January is an emphatic no. If everything falls into place and the major players get to the gate on the first Saturday in May, we should be treated to one of the great Derbys of all time. How's that for optimism?

Normally, this preview focuses on the trainers who are stocked with an arsenal of 3-year-old weapons – trainers like Baffert, Lukas, Nick Zito, and Todd Pletcher. This year, Bobby Frankel and Kenny McPeek have to be added to that list. However, with so many talented individuals from smaller stables scattered across the country, it's best to hit the top contenders before discussing stable strength.

The two big names, residing on opposite ends of the country, are Vindication and Toccet. The undefeated Vindication, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Cup Juvenile in spectacular style, is one of those too-good-to-be-true horses who seemingly has no weaknesses, combining an electrifying turn of foot, great tactical speed, a professionalism beyond his years, and a pedigree that shouts mile and a quarter. And the word on the street is that owner Satish Sanan is in good with the Derby gods this year.

"You should see this colt now," jockey Mike Smith said. "He looks better than he did at the Breeders' Cup. Man, he's a good-looking sucker. He seems to be growing and he's just beautiful right now. He's something else."

Trainer Bob Baffert admitted he has no clue what path he will take with Vindication. The Santa Anita series doesn't really fit a horse having already won going 1 1/8 miles, so it would not come as a surprise to see the son of Seattle Slew hit the road at some point.

Toccet is a throwback to a bygone era when horses were held together with steel and sinew and couldn't get enough racing. Toccet rattled off victories in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park, Laurel Futurity at Laurel, Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct, and Hollywood Futurity at Hollywood. No 2-year-old has ever put together a string of victories such as that, from a quality and geographic sense. His poor effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was attributed to breaking from the disastrous 13 post, which virtually eliminated him before the race was even run.

To show what an extraordinary horse this is, on the day of Champagne, he was standing in his stall, tied to the wall, when a filly came walking by who had just shipped in. Toccet wanted to get a better look at her, so he took a step back, then lunged through the webbing, busting the screws on the wall. This is a colt who has to be walked four times a day. After winning the Remsen, he cleaned out two hay racks before he even got home to Laurel. The first three times he ran, trainer John Scanlan had to gallop him a mile and a quarter the morning of the race.

If there was a wish list, there is little doubt most people would wish for these two colts to make it to Churchill Downs in top form. By then, Baffert and Toccet's owner, Dan Borislow, should be verbally lip-locked to each other like two grappling sumo wrestlers.

If Baffert and Borislow don't induce enough Derby fever to break the thermometer, add John Ward and his undefeated Hopeful and Lane's End Breeders' Futurity winner Sky Mesa to the mix. Remember last year's Preakness when Ward and Baffert, winners of the 2001 and 2002 Kentucky Derbys, respectively, went at it like two heavyweight boxers promoting their upcoming fight, and how Ward promised the second coming of the gunfight at the OK Corral? Ward said Sky Mesa just had his first breeze since suffering an injury that kept him out of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The only difference between Vindication and Sky Mesa, according to Ward, is "36 hours." That's how close Sky Mesa came from making it to the race and a showdown for championship honors with Vindication.

We're not done yet. No one has ever accused Frankel and McPeek of failing to speak their mind, and each has several promising 3-year-olds. Frankel and Jerry Bailey can't wait to get Empire Maker back on the Derby trail after the colt's troubled third-place finish in the Remsen Stakes, coming off only a maiden victory. Watch out for other Frankel 3-year-olds, such as Ghostzapper, an impressive maiden winner who came out of his last start with a virus; Peace Rules, a multiple stakes winner on grass; and the promising Touch Gold colt, Midas Eyes.

McPeek is especially high on Ten Cents a Shine, who turned in a devastating move from last to first in the Kentucky Jockey Club, only to come back to Soto in the closing stages. McPeek said the son of Devil His Due is still very green, but has "a stride that's incredible." He also said he has retained the services of Bailey. McPeek's other top Derby hopeful right now is Powerful Touch, a son of Touch Gold who ran a big race to be beaten a head in the Jan. 18 Holy Bull Stakes. Lukas is still high on Scrimshaw after the colt's third-place finish in the Jan. 18 Santa Catalina Stakes. He also has Tropical Park Derby winner Nothing to Lose and Golden Gate Derby runner-up Ozzie Cat, in his arsenal.

And don't forget to keep an eye across the Atlantic, as Aidan O'Brien, having learned from the Johannesburg experience, tries to figure out the best way of getting Hold That Tiger to Churchill Downs. Next to stablemate Rock of Gibraltar, Hold That Tiger turned in the most impressive losing performance on Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships Day. After breaking terribly and dropping back to last on a notoriously speed-favoring track, he turned in a strong five-eighths of a mile move, mowing down horses on the far turn while having to go extremely wide. His third-place finish stamps him as a top-class colt who must be regarded as a serious Derby contender, especially with a solid 1 1/8-mile dirt race and a spectacular victory in the one-mile Grand Criterium under his belt. Another O'Brien 3-year-old to watch is Van Nistelrooy, who's bred for the dirt, bred to stay, and didn't run that badly coming from 11th to finish fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. With both colts having a good foundation under them don't expect to see them on these shores before the Derby.