Kentucky Derby Contenders
by T.O. Whenham
The Kentucky Derby is less than three weeks away, and all but one of the meaningful prep races is in the books, so it seems like a good time to look at how the top of the field is shaping up. The Derby is very hard to handicap at the best of times, but this year is shaping up to be even more difficult than normal. Every top contender either has a glaring problem or a poor performance that needs to be explained away. A big part of the problem this year are the synthetic tracks - the Derby is not run on one, but many of the key prep races were. We haven't been dealing with the new surfaces long enough to know just how well horses react to them, or what kind of horses will transfer best from the fake surface to a real one.
Some will argue that this is a weak class of three year olds. I don't know if that's the problem, or if we just haven't seen the true superstars emerge yet as they usually have by this time. Either way, here is a look at six of the serious Kentucky Derby contenders.
The favorite is very likely to be one of two horses. A third, Pyro, would have been in this group until a terrible performance in the Blue Grass Stakes raised some questions.
Big Brown - The likely first choice, this horse will be a handicapping nightmare. He has won each of his races in incredibly impressive fashion, and he has shown that he can run away from the crowd at the front of the pack, or stalk the pace before pouncing late. That versatility s a huge asset in Kentucky. The problem, though, is that the horse has only run three times, and only once in stakes competition. His career began last September on the grass at Saratoga. He led the whole way and won by more than 11 lengths. The gap was even wider in his next race on the dirt at Gulfstream in March. In between those races, though, the horse was forced out of action by some foot issues. Though they seem to have cleared up, it's a vulnerability that needs to be considered . His stakes debut came in the Florida Derby at the end of March, and it was spectacular. He settled off the pace before unleashing a massive move to take the lead and pull away.
The horse has game - there is no doubting that. He just has so many strikes against him - the lack of experience, the injury, the layoff before the race. On their own, each one can be overcome - Curlin had barely run before the Derby, and he almost won; Barbaro had the same layoff after winning the Florida Derby; Smarty Jones was badly hurt in a training accident in the starting gate as a two year old, but came back to win the biggest race. The question is whether this horse is good enough to overcome all of them at once. A tall order.
Colonel John - This horse doesn't have the jaw dropping appeal of Big Brown, but he has been impressive, and is clearly the best the west coast has to offer. He comes in off a Santa Anita Derby victory captured by a powerful stretch drive. In that race and the Sham Stakes before it, Colonel John beat El Gato Malo, the other top runner in California. Overall he has won four of six races.
This horse is more seasoned, but he has no shortage of knocks, either. He has never run on dirt, so the Derby will be a new experience for him, and potentially one he is not suited for. His trainer, Eion Harty, is very good but has never had a Derby runner before. Horses from California have not fared well in recent years at the Derby, and a California prepped runner hasn't won it all since Real Quiet in 1998.
Pyro - Going into the Bluegrass Stakes Pyro probably had the inside track to Derby favoritism. He had been a strong second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and had built on that with impressive victories in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby this year. He didn't even need to win the Bluegrass as long as he put up a solid effort that showed he was moving forward. Oops. He was 10th the whole way in that race, and never showed the first sign of a desire to win. On one hand, that race was on a synthetic surface, and he clearly didn't like it, so it might not mean much. On the other hand, a performance that lousy could be a clear sign of failing form. The good news for people who still like this horse is that his price will be much better in Kentucky after the Bluegrass.
Other top contenders
Tale of Ekati - This horse has disappointed amid high expectations a few times, but he finally lived up to his potential when he chased down War Pass to take the Wood Memorial. If he ran the same race in Kentucky that he did in the Wood he wouldn't be good enough, but he has the tempting look of one who can improve significantly.
Recapturetheglory - This horse rose to prominence from almost nowhere with a win in the Illinois Derby, the same race that War Emblem used as his final prep before his Derby win. The distance may be a question, and the Illinois Derby has created more heartbreakers than winners in recent years. What makes this horse compelling, though, is his owner. Louie Roussel owned Risen Star, the 1998 Preakness and Belmont winner, and he is one of the more entertaining characters in the sport.
Gayego - The Arkansas Derby winner proved he has the much needed versatility. He won on dirt in Arkansas, and he was very solid against the top competition in California on the synthetics. His win in Arkansas improves the outlook of the California class, and the fact that it came after a tense stretch duel showed that Gayego is a fighter.
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Derby Prep Races Offer Little Interest
By Andrew Beyer
When the undistinguished colt Monba won Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes with the highly regarded Kentucky Derby contender Pyro finishing 10th, the result may have surprised or confused many racing fans. It deserved another reaction, too: sheer dismay. The prep races leading up to the Derby have in many cases been shorn of significance or interest.
The weeks preceding the Derby used to be one of the best times of the year for thoroughbred racing. Although the sport's overall popularity has declined, the Triple Crown series and the 3-year-old prep races leading into it commanded widespread attention from the media and the public. Even casual fans watch the prep races intently, looking for the colt who will move them to exclaim, "That's my Derby horse!"
The prep races have prompted few such exclamations this year. The current generation of 3-year-olds has been disappointing; neither War Pass nor Pyro, the top 2-year-olds of 2007, has lived up to expectations. Only one colt has delivered anything resembling a spectacular performance: Big Brown, in his Florida Derby victory. The quality of this year's Derby crop is just a transitory disappointment, but the prep races have undergone what may be a permanent change for the worse.
The major reason has been the installation of synthetic surfaces at the sites of significant 3-year-old stakes -- Santa Anita, Turfway Park and particularly Keeneland. Everyone involved in the game -- from Hall of Fame trainers to gamblers in the grandstand -- has been struggling to understand the nuances of these new surfaces. Everyone knows by now that early speed is generally less important on synthetics than it is on dirt. Almost everyone agrees that synthetic surfaces and dirt are two different games, and that a horse is unlikely to display the same level of ability on both surfaces.
Most mature bettors never expect handicapping to be easy; they accept synthetic tracks as just another factor that needs to be understood and mastered. But in the 3-year-old stakes races that precede the Kentucky Derby, the presence of synthetic tracks has not merely complicated the game. It has made rational handicapping judgments almost impossible.
Never was this as apparent as it was Saturday in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes -- a race that was once the most meaningful of all Derby preps. Keeneland's Polytrack is less kind to speed horses than almost any other synthetic track; accordingly, jockeys put their horses under early restraint and try to accelerate late, tactics that produce bunched finishes and sometimes bizarre results. Last year, the leading 3-year-old, Street Sense, lost the Blue Grass in a four-horse photo finish, a result that had nothing to do with the relative ability of the horses. Street Sense came back to win the Derby, while the other three finished 11th, 12th and 17th at Churchill Downs.
But if the 2007 result was fluky, 2008 was incomprehensible. Pyro, the electrifying stretch-runner, was by far the most accomplished horse in the field, but he was making his first start on a synthetic track. Cool Coal Man, winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, was considered his main rival; he, too, had done all of his previous racing on dirt. Big Truck was a well-regarded contender, too, after winning the Tampa Bay Derby on dirt.
On Polytrack, none of these three got into contention; they finished ninth, 10th and 11th in the field of 12. Meanwhile, the top four finishers, headed by Monba, were all colts who had never finished in the money in a stakes race on dirt.
What was the significance of Pyro's bad performance? ESPN's Saturday telecast featured two of the best analysts in the sport, Randy Moss and former jockey Jerry Bailey, and each voiced a strong opinion. Asked if he would forgive the bad effort because it was on Polytrack, Bailey replied: "Absolutely. A horse that good can't run that bad [without a legitimate excuse]." Moss shot back, "I'm not buying it," observing that even mediocre rivals outfinished Pyro in the stretch. "Maybe he didn't like the track, but what about the nine horses ahead of him?" Moss asked. "Did they all like the track better than he did?"
Handicappers will surely have more questions like these when Keeneland runs the final important Derby prep, the Lexington Stakes, on Saturday. And they certainly have questions about most of the California-based Derby contenders, such as Colonel John and El Gato Malo, who have spent their entire careers running over artificial surfaces on the Southern California circuit. At least the form on Hollywood Park's Cushion Track bears some resemblance to dirt form; Gayego made a successful transition to dirt when he won the Arkansas Derby on Saturday. But an element of uncertainty nevertheless surrounds all of California's other Derby contenders.
Picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby has never been easy under any circumstances. Because it is such a rigorous test of handicapping skills, bettors have always cherished the bragging rights that come from being right in this race. But now it has become an unfair test. Horseplayers can do little more than guess whether Pyro's poor showing at Keeneland is excusable, or whether the top California horses will duplicate their synthetic-track form when they run at Churchill Downs. The prep races run on synthetic surfaces raise questions that can't be answered with any confidence -- at least not until after the Derby has been run.
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