Steve Haskin's Derby Report (4/15): On to Louisville

As difficult to believe as this may seem, we're actually going to keep it relatively short this week, as everyone saw what transpired on Saturday and has formed their own opinions. We are starting from scratch and tossing the past performances. We've looked at them so many times over the past four months, they no longer register in our brain.

Friday, it's on to Louisville, where we'll re-energize the batteries and let the horses themselves tell us who looks ready to win the Derby. From now on, it's workouts, gallops, demeanor, and overall appearance that will dictate our thinking. Last year, we narrowed the top workers down to Monarchos, Express Tour, and Congaree, and best overall appearance to Invisible Ink and Dollar Bill. Maybe we just got lucky, but we'll try to get lucky again, as difficult as it may seem this year.

Now, on to Saturday's races, and we'll keep this simple and concise. The two main preps, the Blue Grass Stakes and Wood Memorial, were two separate entities, with each designed to achieve totally opposite results.

In short, any of the first four Wood finishers have a good shot to win the Derby. It's just a matter of which one progresses the most and trains the best at Churchill Downs. Only time will tell us that. We know one thing, we'll be concentrating a bit more on these four than the others, as the next three weeks will be very important in determining their chances in the Derby.

If you liked Harlan's Holiday going into the Blue Grass, but felt the final time of 1:51 2/5 was too slow, your concern is unwarranted. This is exactly what the colt needed. If he had won in 1:47 3/5, we would have all but eliminated him on Derby Day. Way too many good horses leave their best race at Keeneland. For Harlan's Holiday, this was strictly a prep, a bridge to the Derby. It was imperative he run a good race, but leave enough in the tank following his impressive score in the Florida Derby, much like Monarchos in the Wood Memorial last year. This was a horse in danger of peaking too soon had he fired another big shot, but he got exactly what he should have out of the race, and still won convincingly. We remember when Spectacular Bid, coming off sensational victories in the Flamingo and Florida Derby, won the Blue Grass in 1:50. Everyone wanted to know what had happened. Was he tailing off right before the big one? This why they call them preps.

As for the extremely slow time of this year's running, you also have to remember that the track was heavy, with a lot of moisture still in it. Judging from the other times, we have to surmise it was about two to three seconds off, so let's say Harlan's Holiday's time equated to around 1:49 and change. He went out and did his thing, and once again turned in his now-patented move on the turn before drawing away. He's become machine-like in his running style, and now he's well-oiled and finely tuned for the big race. The only question remaining that he has to answer is, can he do the same thing against someone other than Booklet? Blue Burner, the Florida Derby runner-up, did go up to New York for the Wood Memorial and got a swift kick in the pants from those young bucks, Buddha, Medaglia d'Oro, and Sunday Break. Like all the other questions surrounding this year's Derby, we won't know the answer until May 4.

Which brings us to the Wood, and for pure excitement and entertainment, you couldn't have asked for a better show. Unlike the Blue Grass, this was a race that needed to test the lightly raced combatants to see what they were made of. We believe after watching this race that Buddha, Medaglia d'Oro, and Sunday Break are all extraordinarily talented horses who have proven their courage under fire. You can totally ignore the final eighth in :13 3/5, as they were running smack into a 25 mile-per-hour headwind whipping in off Jamaica Bay. And as a veteran Aqueduct patron of many years, we can assure you that a blast from Jamaica Bay can stop a charging rhino in his tracks. This was the same wind that carried them from the half to the three-quarters in :23 1/5. That six-furlong fraction in 1:10 flat and mile in 1:35 flat was some serious running. And the final time of 1:48 3/5 was very solid, considering the wind-induced slow closing fraction.

So, which of the first three, as well as fourth-place finisher Saarland, is the most likely to move forward off this race, and how significant will the race be come Derby Day, considering the first two finishers have each run only four times in their career?

Buddha looked special the first time we laid eyes on him, winning a Gulfstream allowance race, and he certainly confirmed it in the Wood, battling back on his own to snatch the victory after Pat Day had put his whip away. And he galloped out strong with his ears pricked. In the paddock, he walked with the swagger of a champion. With a classic arch to his neck and his eyes focused straight ahead, he definitely was in a zone. There simply is no telling how good he is. But there also is no telling whether he can come back in three weeks and keep moving forward. Considering the excellent performances in the Derby by other horses with four career starts - Congaree, Strodes Creek, and Indian Charlie - he certainly deserves the chance to go them one better. Remember, this was a horse whom the speed sheets experts felt was ripe to bounce in the Wood after getting a monster number in his previous race. It certainly didn't look he bounced much in the Wood. In our mind, exceptional horses run exceptional races, and this is one exceptional horse.

For Medaglia d'Oro, who ran hard all the way and battled gamely down the stretch with horses on both sides of him, this also was a tremendous effort. Looking at this big linebacker of a horse in the paddock, he certainly has the physical attributes to stand up to another tough race in three weeks. He's powerfully muscled and covers a lot of ground walking and running. He's just a pure athlete. We just wish we knew what he was capable of coming from off the pace. The Derby can be a front-runner's nightmare, and it's altogether possible he doesn't even want to be on the lead. He doesn't run like like a speed-crazed horse whose intent on getting the lead, so we'd expect to see him just off the pace in the Derby. If there isn't a lot of speed, we do know he can set the pace, drop back off it, and then come on again as strong as ever, which does bode well in case a horse like War Emblem is intent on taking him on. One thing we can assure you: wherever he is in the race, he's going to be dangerous.