Haskin's Derby Report (4/8)--Cont.

And now the mysterious case of Easy Grades and his baffling bridle blunder. According to Gary Stevens, the person who put the bridle together inadvertently put the chin strap on the wrong side of the bit. We haven't quite grasped the physics of this, and how exactly it caused Stevens to have such little control of the horse, as he claimed. We do know that Ted West and his son Ted H., the father-son training team (Ted H. is the listed trainer) are not prepared to use that as a legitimate excuse.

The elder West said he watched the replay many times, and he couldn't see anything amiss in the way the horse was running, nor could he understand why that would have any effect on his performance. "I wish it was a legitimate excuse, but I just don't see it," he said. "The chin strap serves no function anyway. In my mind he was beaten fair and square, except that he had to go wide the whole way. If you make the slightest mistake against Came Home he's going to beat you."

The bottom line is that both Wests (of Budroyale fame) were elated with the gelding's performance, and both couldn't stress enough how dramatically this horse is improving. The younger West called his improvement trend "abnormal." Before he was gelded, Easy Grades was a "renegade" who was totally untrainable. While being previewed at the Barretts 2-year-old sale, he dumped his rider on the way to the track and ran off like "a wild horse," which explains why the Wests got him for only $30,000.

As for Stevens' claim that there was no communication between rider and horse, who couldn't get a feel of the bit in his mouth, you definitely could see Stevens pulling hard on the left rein nearing the head of the stretch, just as it appeared as if he were going to blow by Came Home and draw clear. With each stride, Easy Grades would turn his head slightly to the inside. It looked as if he were trying to cut the corner, but he kept drifting to the outside. Stevens had to hit him right-handed before they turned for home to prevent him from drifting out any more than he already was. Once he straightened for home, it was obvious his momentum was gone. He had fired his best shot, and was now defenseless against a brilliant battler like Came Home.

Came Home looked like a beaten horse nearing the quarter pole, but fought back and was drawing clear at the end. Judging from the way the former claimer Lusty Latin was gobbling up ground in the final quarter, going 8-wide and making up 7 lengths, we have to deduce that both Came Home and Easy Grades were tiring in the final furlong, which was substantiated by the closing fractions of :25 4/5 and :13 2/5. U S S Tinosa, who was heavily bet, got roughed up badly going into the first turn by Danthebluegrassman, who was freaking out from the stranglehold his rider had on him.

So, what does all this mean? The most important thing is that it enables Came Home to continue on to Louisville, bringing a star presence to the Derby. Regardless of whether or not this colt can go 1 1/4 miles, the Derby needs a horse with his raw talent and near-flawless record. He deserves the chance to keep going, and does have several positive factors in his favor. First, he no doubt was short for this race, having missed a work; having come down with a slight fever; and having cast himself in his stall and undergoing a subsequent nuclear scan. Despite all this, he still was able to win going 1 1/8 miles after being tested by an improving horse. The second thing in his favor is Paco Gonzalez, in our mind the most underrated trainer in the country. What's he's accomplished with mostly unfashionably bred horses is nothing short of amazing. Gonzalez is a true horseman's horseman, and one day should be recognized as one of the best in the business. Not many trainers could have gotten Came Home to run the race he did.

It also means we have to take Easy Grades seriously as an up-and-comer who could be ready to peak on Derby Day. He certainly has the pedigree to get the 1 1/4 miles and he's now proven he belongs with the best. Although Repent's popularity no doubt will diminish, this horse will always be a major threat, regardless of where he's running and who he's running against. Lusty Latin is an intriguing horse and a great Cinderella story in the making. From the claiming ranks to the Rattlesnake Stakes at Turf Paradise to the Kentucky Derby. You gotta love it.

It means that Coolmore now has the option of being represented in the Derby with a live contender without having to push Johannesburg, if they so desire. But if they are intent on sending both horses, then at least it'll peak European interest in the race, and we'll get a chance to see the champ again.

The connections of War Emblem have not made up their mind regarding the Derby. We don't really know how good this horse is, but he is a striking individual - a sleek, near-black colt who has a smooth way of moving. He really didn't show much at Fair Grounds, but obviously has turned into a terror at Sportsman's. But remember, he was carrying a feathery 114 pounds and still has to show what he can do when someone puts pressure on him.

We didn't get into the Aventura Stakes, as the trainers of both Marasca and Equality have wisely discounted the Derby and likely will aim for the Preakness. Marasca is an improving colt, but had a dream trip, while Equality was stuck behind horses the whole way and never got a chance to run until it was too late. We have no idea why Gulfstream decided to run this race at 1 1/16 miles, but it sure doesn't fit as a Kentucky Derby prep. It is more designed for late bloomers who might be looking at the Lexington Stakes and then the Preakness.

We had another unusual Derby contender hit the trail when German-bred Flying Dash lived up to his name by sweeping past horses to win the Translyvania Stakes at Keeneland on the grass in his U.S. debut. The mile race was the farthest the colt has gone. He is owned and trained by the Fusaichi Pegasus team of Fusao Sekiguchi and Neil Drysdale. The Kentucky Derby has been in the colt's plans for some time. It's just a question whether he'll have another prep, possibly the Lexington, or go straight to the Derby without ever having raced on dirt.

One other note, it's a long way from a Cal-bred sprint to the Preakness, but we still believe that Officer is a freak, and the most brilliant 3-year-old in the country. We can't recall ever seeing a 2-year-old who looked as magnificent in the paddock as Officer did before the Champagne, and we believe he is back to being that same horse following his easy 6-length romp in the Zany Tactics Stakes, in which he again idled home in 1:08 3/5 for the 6 furlongs and 1:15 3/5 for the 6 1/2 furlongs. He couldn't have been beating anything, drawing off through a :07 final sixteenth, and we still don't know what his distance limitations are, but Bob Baffert is talking about possibly stretching him out in the Lexington Stakes, and then maybe the Preakness. The other option obviously would be to keep him at shorter distances. Either way, it's good to have the old Officer back.