Mayakovsky was added to the Derby contenders' list after this victory in the Gotham Stakes.

Mayakovsky was added to the Derby contenders' list after this victory in the Gotham Stakes.

NYRA/ Adam Coglianese

Steve Haskin's Derby Report (3/18): Newcomers Move In

As usually happens in a year like this, a second wave hit the beach this past weekend, bringing with it some new goodies, while washing some of the old deposits out to sea. Now, we have to basically start all over again, wondering just where the lightly raced Medaglia d'Oro, Mayakovsky, and Buddha fit in the Derby picture, as well as other new faces, such as Equality, Ethan Man, and Cashel Castle.

As if we don't have enough problems trying to make a case for Came Home and Johannesburg getting a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May. We probably will not get a clear picture of this year's Derby until the 11th hour, and even then there will be a lot of questions still to answer come Derby Day.

Be forewarned, what you are about to read is rather lengthy, so think of it as a three-act play and take a few breaks in between if you have to.

Wearin' o' the Blue

Like most Derby preps, there are going to be some who were impressed with Harlan's Holiday's Florida Derby victory and some who were ambivalent at best. From a logistics standpoint, the race set up perfectly for him, as he reaped the rewards of Michael Tabor's $800,000 seek-and-destroy plan, designed to eliminate Harlan's Holiday's nemesis, Booklet. Although Tabor and trainer Todd Pletcher said before the race that the newly acquired Smooth Jazz was in there on his own merit, and the object was to win the race with either him or Nokoma, that is not Pletcher's style and contradicts the obvious. To put an inexperienced horse, with only two six-furlong races over Aqueduct's inner track, in the Florida Derby suggests only one thing: he's in the race strictly as a rabbit (or pacesetter, as they would say in Europe). Not that there's anything wrong with it. It's always been a strategic part of the sport that is designed to eliminate the distinct advantage a lone speed horse with class has over his opponents.

With that said, let's get back to Harlan's Holiday, who in our opinion, proved himself a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender, and a worthy favorite, if one is inclined to bestow him that honor. The reason has nothing to do with the scenario of the Florida Derby. It has to do with several of the colt's attributes, which were on display throughout the race. Using a checklist for the attributes you want to see in a Derby horse, Harlan's Holiday leaves very few boxes, if any, unmarked. He's consistent, never having finished worse than second in nine career starts; he rates beautifully; he has an ideal disposition; he runs like a seasoned pro; he has now turned in back-to-back push-button moves on the far turn since discarding his blinkers; his lead changes are so smooth and on cue, you don't even notice him switching; he runs straight as an arrow down the stretch; he can blow by horses and inherit an early commanding lead, and still keep going, with minimal encouragement from his rider; and he has a pedigree that is more than sufficient to carry him a mile and a quarter.

When Edgar Prado decided to close the gap between him and Booklet, who was just beginning to shake free from Smooth Jazz, Harlan's Holiday made up almost eight lengths in a flash. Following a scorching half in :45 1/5 (the fastest half-mile in Florida Derby history), Harlan's Holiday went his next quarter in :23 3/5. His final two fractions of :25 and :13 were nothing to get excited about, but when you run the first three quarters of your first race ever at 1 1/8 miles in :23 3/5, :23 1/5 and :23 3/5, you can't be expected to come home much faster than that, especially when you have nothing to run at, having already opened a two-length lead. And he did increase his lead in the final furlong to win by a commanding 3 1/2 lengths.

To his credit, he was farther in front of the fast closing Blue Burner at the wire than he was at the quarter and eighth poles, and Blue Burner finished nearly seven lengths ahead of the third-place finisher. So, in essence, Harlan's Holiday blew the Florida Derby wide open, leaving what was believed to be a competitive field strung out more than 40 lengths up the stretch.

As for Blue Burner, we don't really know yet if a mile and a quarter will be his best distance, but he does seem to be putting it all together, and he did unleash quite an electrifying move from 11th that carried him to within a couple of lengths of the winner approaching the quarter pole. Unlike the Fountain of Youth, where he simply put in a one-paced move to grind his way to a third-place finish, he now demonstrated (with blinkers) the explosive turn of foot you look for in a Derby horse. All he has to do now is sustain it. Jerry Bailey had to go to an early whip on him, and he failed to change leads until the eighth pole, while ducking in and out from the whip. So, there still are a few things he has to work out. But no doubt the potential is there.

There really isn't much to say about any of the others, as the third-place finisher, the 96-1 Peekskill, was beaten 10 1/4 lengths, while finishing almost 5 lengths ahead of Booklet, who hung on to finish a clear fourth. But don't go thinking Booklet is going to roll over and play dead in the Blue Grass Stakes. He's still a dangerous horse, especially when the pace scenario suits him. Nokoma, D'Coach, and High Star all were left well up the track. Gary Stevens said he heard High Star make a noise down the backstretch, and after the race it was discovered the colt had bled pretty severely. Nick Zito will have to address this problem before making any plans.

Harlan's Holiday will head to Kentucky and point for the Blue Grass Stakes, where he'll tackle Booklet again. Trainer John Ward will get out his textbook on how to rate, and hopes to be able to teach Booklet some new lessons between now and April 13. With Harlan's Holiday going in the Blue Grass, his equally illustrious stablemate, Repent, is all but certain for the Illinois Derby on April 6. The one thing Repent has over Harlan's Holiday is that he's run big against horses like Johannesburg, Siphonic, Came Home, and Officer when they were at their best, while we really don't know the quality of the horses Harlan's Holiday has been facing. He was soundly beaten by Siphonic the only time they met last year, but there is no doubt he's a far superior horse now than he was then.

Frankelstein strikes again

We've already told Bobby Frankel we've figured out his secret. To have this kind of success over this long a time, he surely must have sold his soul to the devil. Frankel kids with us about it, but after Sunday's extraordinary victory by Medaglia d'Oro in the San Felipe Stakes, maybe we're not too far off base. We've heard he's had this sudden urge lately to hold on to pitchforks. And we doubt he's using them to muck out stalls.

Seriously, though, what Frankel pulled off with Medaglia d'Oro was remarkable. Making only his third career start, his first in a stakes, and his first over 6 furlongs, the son of El Prado came back from apparent defeat to beat seasoned stakes horses USS Tinosa and the heavily favored Siphonic. Not only did he set the pace, drop back to third at the three-eighths pole, then come on again, he was actually getting stronger at the end, drawing off to win by 2 1/2 lengths in a snappy 1:41 4/5 for the 1 1/16 miles.