Kentucky Derby 2002: Hitting the Trail

While us humans celebrate the New Year, our equine friends around the world quietly celebrate their collective birthdays. For 2-year-olds in America, that extra candle placed in their cake at the stroke of midnight could light their way to Churchill Downs and immortality.

As the masses congregate at the start of the Kentucky Derby trail, there will, as usual, be lots of pushing and shoving until late February and early March when the contenders begin to separate themselves from the pack. But disappointment and frustration can be prevelant just getting to the Derby trail, as evidenced by the number of highly promising juveniles who stumbled along the way last week.

Everyone was eagerly looking forward to the appearances of hot commodities Pelirrojo, Popular, Onthedeanslist, Definite Edge, Gold Dollar, and Hawk's Top Gun. We even got an opportunity to see another chance at redemption by the $4.2 million yearling Distinction. But when the smoke cleared, all had been defeated, with Popular (7-5), Onthedeanslist (5-2), and Pelirrojo (4-1) finishing out of the money in the same race. It was a 17-1 shot and a pair of 12-1 shots who made up the first three finishers, showing how suddenly and dramatically the fortunes of young horses can change.

But with every loser there is a winner, and being 17-1 does not necessarliy mean that some shocking result has taken place. In this case that 17-1 shot was an undefeated $850,000 yearling purchase named Werblin. Trained by Eduardo Inda for Aaron Jones, the son of Unbridled's Song is now two-for-two following his 1 1/2-length victory in a six-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita Dec. 26. With Corey Nakatani aboard, Werblin pressed rapid fractions of :21 4/5 and :44 3/5 before drawing clear in the final furlong to win in a sharp 1:09 flat.

Because Werblin has a relatively obscure bottom line, with stallions such as Rollin on Over, Brent's Prince, Honey Jay, In the Pocket, and High Tribute, he no doubt must be one heckuva looking individual to bring that kind of money. But stamina should not be a problem at all, and it'll be interesting to see how this colt develops as he stretches out.

The trainer who had the busiest two weeks was Bob Baffert, who saw his Prevue runner-up Popular finish a dismal seventh. On Dec. 30, his highly regarded maiden Strive was upset by 25-1 shot Hot Contest, who was stretching out to two turns following two sixth-place finishes in sprints. The day before, his 4-1 Hawk's Top Gun finished a badly beaten sixth in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race. And a week earlier, Mountain Rage was soundly thrashed in the Hollywood Futurity.

But there were a couple of high notes for Baffert and owner Mike Pegram, as their Danthebluegrassman ran off with the Gold Rush Stakes at Golden Gate on Dec. 15, and Chaos N Confusion captured a six-furlong maiden race by one length on Dec. 26.

Both colts have a mile and a quarter within their scope, but are not inundated with stamina. Danthebluegrassman is by the Mr. Prospector stallion Pioneering out of a Grey Dawn II mare. Grey Dawn is by the stamina influence Herbager, and his other maternal great-grandsire What a Pleasure sired Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, so the stamina is there. Chaos N Confusion's sire Boston Harbor is questionable when it comes to siring distance horses, but maternal granddam Henmedic is by Dr. Fager out of a Damascus mare. And to anyone following racing in the late '60s, there is no greater dream combo than arch rivals Dr. Fager and Damascus. Danthebluegrassman's DI is 3.63, while Chaos N Confusion's is 3.89.

So, even with Officer off the Derby trail and Popular now having to rebound big-time off his poor effort, as well as the other defeats, Baffert still has the above mentioned pair, along with China Grind, a son of Grindstone on whom we're very high. He recently breezed a half in :48 1/5. Baffert also has Six G's, a maiden in two starts who has been working well.

In the other big allowance race last week at Santa Anita, Holdthehelm, a son of Helmsman, drew off to 3 1/2-length victory over the 8-5 favorite Definite Edge, with the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Gold Dollar fourth at 2-1, and Baffert's Hawk's Top Gun sixth at 4-1. Trained by Paul Assinesi, Holdthehelm was making his ninth start of the year, having scored a maiden victory going 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass back on July 16. He had also finished third in the one-mile Pinjara Stakes on the grass on Oct. 12.

Holdthehelm's sire was strictly a grass horse, while his broodmare sire, Sentimental Slew, is a son of Seattle Slew. His maternal grandsire Bold Legend is an unraced son of Turn-to, so this is pretty much a hodgepodge of a pedigree. He does have a DI of 3.00.

The other colt we mentioned earlier, Hot Contest, is a son of Tabasco Cat, out of the Secretariat mare Secretly. In fact, he is inbred 4x2 to Secretariat, something you don't see very often. Ironically, Hot Contest, trained by Thomas Bell II, is owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, whose main trainers, Baffert and Lukas, finished second and third in the race. Third was Distinction, whose $4.2 million price tag and four dismal showings threatened to stamp him as one of the most overpriced horses in memory. But, by opening up a commanding lead at the eighth pole and getting beaten only a half-length, this was a good wake-up race.

Still in Southern California, the Trudy McCaffery, John Toffan, and Paco Gonzalez team struck again, as Earl of Danby remained undefeated by winning the California Breeders' Champion Stakes by a length in 1:23 1/5 for the seven furlongs. With Came Home likely to be kept short, this son of Smokester could be given a chance to stretch out. Came Home drilled a sharp six furlongs Monday in 1:12 3/5.

Two races of interest at Aqueduct were the New York-bred Lord ofthe Thunder's 15-length demolition of state-breds in a six-furlong maiden race. Talk about a man against boys, this colt is a son of Saint Ballado, out of a Deputy Minister mare. Trained by Dick Lundy for Ernie Paragallo, Lord ofthe Thunder has an appetizing dosage profile of 6-1-11-2-2 and a DI of 1.32. Watch out for this colt, who no doubt is headed for two turn open company stakes.

Also at Aqueduct, My Man Ryan, who has Phipps blood running all through his sire's veins, broke his maiden by 2 3/4 lengths going 1 1/16 miles on Dec. 30. His sire Mutakddim is by Seeking the Gold, out of Oscillate, who is by Seattle Slew out of Dance Number, a daughter of Numbered Account. My Man Ryan's dam is by the Alydar stallion Talinum, who defeated Cryptoclearance in the Flamingo Stakes. His maternal grandsire, Silver Series, won the American Derby, Ohio Derby, and Hawthorne Derby, and was second to Forego in the Woodward Stakes.

At Fair Grounds, the Thunder Gulch colt Chop Chop won a mile allowance race by 1 1/2 lengths on Dec. 23. Sold as a weanling at Keeneland for $55,000, he brought only $12,000 the following year at Keeneland September, then was bought back for $27,000 at this year's Ocala 2-year-old sale.

In other news, Todd Pletcher sent out Remsen runner-up Nokoma for a five-furlong breeze in 1:01 3/5 at Gulfstream, while his promising Charioteer breezed in 1:01. Kenny McPeek is starting to get Harlan's Holiday cranked up for the Holy Bull, breezing him a half in :49 1/5. Shug McGaughey sent out his highly regarded Maybry's Boy for a half-mile breeze in :48 3/5, while Remsen winner Saarland went in :52.

Nick Zito had his top 2-year-olds out on the track last week for five-furlong breezes, with Silent Fred going in 1:02 2/5, High Star in 1:02 3/5, Iwin in 1:02 3/5, and Governor Hickel in 1:03 2/5.