Point Given, in his "eye-catching" San Felipe win.

Point Given, in his "eye-catching" San Felipe win.

Associated Press/Benoit Photo

Haskin's March 19 Derby Report: Stars Shine as Clouds Lift

Just over a week ago, the clouds over the Derby trail were so thick, everyone was fumbling along in the dark, trying to get even the slightest glimpse of the Twin Spires. Now, all of the sudden, the clouds have lifted and the stars are shining brightly. First Monarchos lit up the sky in the Florida Derby. And at Santa Anita this past Saturday, two more stars emerged, as visible against the night sky as the top of Bob Baffert's head.

First came Baffert's "freak of nature," Congaree, who won a 1 1/16 -mile allowance race by 8 lengths, with jockey Victor Espinoza never even moving his hands. Then, later in the day in the San Felipe Stakes, Gary Stevens found a nice safe, wide path to put Baffert's behemoth, Point Given, and the towering chestnut just rolled by the field with those huge strides to win as he pleased by 2 1/4 lengths. Although Point Given did take the overland route, it still must be noted that Congaree's time of 1:42 was only a fifth of a second slower than that of his illustrious stablemate. Congaree's last sixteenth in :06 2/5 also was a tick slower than Point Given, but the son of Arazi was merely coasting through the stretch, throwing his ears out, without even the slightest urging by Espinoza. Point Given, on the other hand, hit the front so quickly on the far turn Stevens found himself with a length lead by the time they reached the five-sixteenths pole and had to resort to five right-handed cracks of the whip to keep his colt's mind on business.

The bottom line is that both these performances were eye-catching in their own way. But while Point Given maintains his position on or near the top of everyone's Derby list, Congaree was making only his third career start, and has yet to face stakes competition. That likely will come in the Wood Memorial, where he'd face Monarchos in what would prove to be an intriguing showdown to say the least. Baffert's reaction to having to face Monarchos in his first stakes outing? "It doesn't bother me," he said. "That's the last cheap ticket anyone gets against this horse. From now on, I don't run him for anything less than $500,000."

More on these two later. The San Felipe was marred by the fatal breakdown of Gold Trader, who got banged around in close quarters on the far turn, then took a bad step in the stretch, fracturing his right hind cannon bone. This was a crushing loss for D. Wayne Lukas, who had always held a soft spot in his heart for the son of Storm Cat -– Golden Attraction, having trained the dam and several stakes-winning siblings.

There were two other important stakes run over the weekend. While Lukas' Scorpion faded to fifth as the favorite in Sunday's Gotham Stakes, yet another star emerged in Richly Blended, a brilliant son of Rizzi who ran off an hid from his opponents, winning by 5 1/4 lengths in a snappy 1:35 for the mile. In three career starts, all this year, Richly Blended has won all three, by a combined margin of 28 lengths. That's an average of just over 9 lengths a victory. What made his performance even more impressive was the fact that he came home his last two quarters in :24 2/5. Although his pedigree is geared more for a mile to 1 1/8 miles, he still may be tough to catch in the Wood Memorial if they let him get loose on an easy lead.

No one else in the Gotham looks to have any designs on major stakes right now, although Lukas and jockey David Flores feel Scorpion did not get hold of the track, and the son of Seattle Slew likely will be given another chance.

Assuming owner Harold Queen will stick to his guns and pass the Derby with Burning Roma, we'll just have to wait until the Preakness. But if he changes his mind, then we have another legitimate contender following the colt's authoritative score in Sunday's Tampa Bay Derby. Although Burning Roma's sire Rubiano was a sprinter, there are plenty of top-class stamina influences all through his pedigree. And remember, Rubiano is by Fappiano, out of a Nijinsky mare, so he's not even bred to be a sprinter.

But Queen seems to be doing what he feels is best for the horse, and if he doesn't tackle the heavy hitters in the Wood or Blue Grass, he'll point for the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico as a prep for the Preakness. Tony Dutrow, who trained the colt last year, expects him to arrive back in Maryland in 3-4 days. Dutrow likes the 35-day gap to the Tesio, and he'll discuss it with Queen before making a final decision. If he does go in the Wood or Blue Grass and runs big, Queen now says he might think about the Derby, so we'll just to wait and see what happens.

What was most impressive about the Tampa Bay Derby was how jockey Richard Migliore brought the colt up to challenge four-wide nearing the far turn, then, instead of hitting the front too soon, he just sat on him, biding his time. It's not easy for a horse to sit outside horses on the turn like that and just relax until the rider tells him to go. But Migliore, high in the saddle, kept his hands relatively still, and when it was time to go, Burning Roma responded and quickly put his opponents away. Migliore kept him well out in the middle of the track, and the colt switched leads smoothly, then drew clear under several left-handed whips to win by 2 3/4 lengths. Burning Roma has a long, gorgeous stride, and he just seemed to be bouncing off the track through the stretch. We have always been a big admirer of this colt after watching him overcome major traffic problems and bumpings last fall and still come flying through stretch each time. He's the kind if horse who is a trainer's dream. He goes out and gives 100 percent every time.

Continued. . . .