Kentucky Derby Trail: Will the Real Derby Favorite Please Stand Up

Kentucky Derby Trail: Will the Real Derby Favorite Please Stand Up
Photo: Jeff Coady/Coady
Haskin: Smarty Jones {with owner Patricia Chapman after Rebel win} is having a tough time making believers out of people, despite being undefeated in five starts.
It seems as if each Monday brings with it a new set of excuses for beaten favorites in Kentucky Derby (gr. I) preps. Some will prove to be legitimate and some won't. But the bottom line is no one has a clue who is going to win this year's Derby, which is as muddled as any in memory at such a late date.

The main topic of discussion this week has been the surprising sealed track at Turfway Park just prior to the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) and the continuation of slowly run races and slowly run final fractions.

And of course, the failure of big-name 3-year-olds over the past two weeks, such as Action This Day (clipped by a loose horse, suffering a laceration), Read the Footnotes (victim of the dreaded "bounce"), and Birdstone (stuck on the inside over a sealed, outside-biased track). Not to mention earlier beaten favorites Lion Heart and Gradepoint.

What emerged from all this mutuel carnage was: Friends Lake ($76.80 in the Florida Derby-gr. I), Sinister G ($34.80 in the Lane's End), Kilgowan ($55.80 in the El Camino Real Derby-gr. II), Preachinatthebar ($19.20 in the San Felipe-gr. II), Wimbledon ($16.40 in the Louisiana Derby-gr. II), Imperialism ($30.20 in the San Vicente-gr. II and $16.80 in the San Rafael-gr. II), Brass Hat ($79.60 in the Rushaway), and Saratoga County ($11.40 in the Gotham-gr. III).

As for Birdstone, trainer Nick Zito still can't understand why the track, already playing fair, was sealed, when all a downpour right before the race would have done is turn the track wet-fast. "Sealed tracks are absolutely the worst tracks to run on," Zito said. "Look at the big Turfway hero, Silver Minister. He won four in a row over the track on fast, good, and muddy surfaces, and for whatever reason he finished last over the sealed track. It was absurd. (Birdstone) was slipping and sliding and never handled that track, and now I'm out in the middle of the ocean and I'm looking for a paddle to get back to shore."

Although discouraged, Zito said he'll give the son of Grindston another chance to bounce back from this race. He's still considering the Wood Memorial (gr. I), but said he may decide to keep the colt in Kentucky and run him as an entry with Eurosilver in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). If he does, The Cliff's Edge, who is under consideration for the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II), could take Birdstone's place in the Wood.

The Gotham (gr. III), actually, went pretty much according to plan other than the disappointing effort by Redskin Warrior and the bizarre fractions caused by a brutal headwind whipping in off Jamaica Bay. Going a flat mile around one turn at the Big A, Saratoga County looked like the horse to beat. Eddington's trainer, Mark Hennig, said beforehand he was using the race as a learning experience and wasn't necessarily looking for the colt to win. Other than the fact that Eddington still ran greenly and didn't make much progress in that department, he still got a lot out of the race, and it should set him up for a big effort in the Wood Memorial.

One of the reasons Hennig shortened him up to a mile was to get him back off the pace, and that's exactly what happened, although not for the reasons he anticipated. Shortly after the start, Eddington was slammed into by War's Prospect, turning him sideways and almost unseating jockey Edgar Prado. That by itself was an excuse for losing, and enough to get him back off the pace, with only one horse beat down the backstretch.

Some may feel as if Eddington should have closed stronger because the blistering fractions set up for him. They might have set up for him if he were Action This Day or any stone closer who drops well out of it and is dependent on a fast pace. But Eddington has always been a stalker, who has been running :48 half-mile fractions going two turns over the deeper Gulfstream track. Now, he's dropping back to a one-turn mile and running fractions of :44 3/5 and 1:08 3/5, or some 17 lengths faster than he's been running. So, why would he be expected to close after running those fractions? The fact that he did close, while running on his left lead the whole race, says a lot about the horse's ability.

As for the :27 2/5 final quarter, if the wind was strong enough to push these horses in :43 3/5 and 1:08 flat, it certainly was strong enough to put up a wall in the stretch. Even with the wind, no one else even came close to these fractions all day. So, it was a combination of running fast and being pushed along by the wind. A return to two turns and a slower pace should help Eddington settle in stride and change leads in the Wood. Also, he arrived in New York only two days before the race, so he missed a day of training, then couldn't go to the track Friday because of the snowstorm. The same can be said for Saratoga County, but every horse reacts to changes in different ways, and Eddington was not the same happy horse after arriving in New York that he was in Florida, according to assistant trainer Jose Sanchez.

All this may sound like a morass of excuses, but the fact that the horse didn't win the Gotham means nothing. Many people were down on Monarchos   when he was defeated by Congaree   in the Wood Memorial after his mind-blowing score in the Florida Derby. Trainer John Ward insisted he got just what he wanted out of the race, but few listened. After a $23 payoff and the second fastest running ever of the Kentucky Derby, they listened.

If Eddington is still green and makes little or no progress in the Wood, then there is reason for concern that he won't have his act together by May 1. And green horses don't win the Derby. But for now, it's too early to dismiss a horse with his ability, strength, and pedigree just because he lost the Gotham when there is still one more prep to go.

You can dig up a slew of superlatives about Smarty Jones' victory in the Rebel, such as his fractions of :23 3/5, :24 1/5, :24 2/5, :23 4/5, and :06 flat. That kind of performance has been rare on the '04 Derby trail. And you can say that his final time of 1:42 averaged better than four full seconds faster than the three 1 1/16-mile race on the card, and that a fast California invader named Number Juan ran a mile two races earlier in 1:38 3/5. And you can point to Smarty's 106 Beyer Speed Figure.

But this invader from Philadelphia Park has a relatively unknown trainer and jockey, and is having a tough time making believers out of people, despite being undefeated in five starts. The one factor that has turned off the pedigree experts is that he's by the very fast sprinter Elusive Quality  , out of a mare by champion sprinter Smile. So, is there any way on earth this Pennsylvania-bred colt can continue winning at longer distances, especially a mile and a quarter?

If there is any ray of hope it is from his tail-female family. His second dam, Don't Worry Bout Me, is a half-sister to Basie, winner of the 1 1/4-mile Delaware Handicap, beating top-class mares Heatherten and Life's Magic. Don't Worry Bout Me is by Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. And Smarty Jones' fourth generation sire is the great stamina influence Herbager, who also is in the tail-female fourth generation of Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem. Although Smile's sire, In Reality, is known mostly as a sire of miler-type horses, he can be found relatively close up in the pedigrees of Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet, Belmont (gr. I) winners Empire Maker and Commendable, Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Tiznow  , and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Waquoit. And, finally, Smarty's fourth dam, Bases Full, is a great-granddaughter of Man o'War (through War Admiral) and La Troienne. And he does qualify with a 3.40 dosage index.

I'll look at some of the others who ran over the weekend in the next column.

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