They're all officially 3 years old, of course, but even so, the Kentucky Derby field seems to be coming down to the "old guys" against the "young blood."
The old guys -- the contenders who have been duking it out all winter and spring -- include the likely Derby favorite, Harlan's Holiday, who was most impressive in winning Saturday's $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland by 4 ½ lengths over Booklet.
The young blood -- horses who are have been lightly raced or slowly edged into top stakes competition -- would include all three top finishers in Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct as well as the winners of the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and the California Derby at Bay Meadows.
The Wood certainly had enough excitement for any Derby as Buddha, Medaglia d'Oro and Sunday Break battled most of the way around the Aqueduct oval before Buddha stuck his head in front of Medaglia d'Oro's at the wire. Sunday Break was just ½ length back in third and Saarland closed moderately to finish fourth. All four are likely to show up in the Churchill Downs starting gate on May 4.
Buddha, a son of Unbridled's Song, burst on the scene with a sparkling allowance race victory on the Florida Derby undercard. The Wood was his first stakes try. Medaglia d'Oro, a son of El Prado, made his mark with a huge upset win over U S S Tinosa and Siphonic in the San Felipe a month ago. And Sunday Break, a Japanese-bred colt by Forty Niner, was making his stakes debut after three straight wins against lesser company.
"We knew the horse had a lot of talent," said Buddha's owner, Gary West. "But we didn't know how much class he had until today. He looked the other horse in the eye and out-gutted him to the wire."
An odd footnote to the race is that winning jockey Pat Day last year rode Dollar Bill for West and found nothing but trouble in each of the Triple Crown races. Saturday, Day made a bold move in tight quarters along the rail on the first turn that put Buddha in position to win. "That was just another flawless ride by Pat Day," said winning trainer H. James Bond.
Only one likely Derby starter came out of the Blue Grass but Harlan's Holiday is likely to go to the big race as the favorite. The son of Harlan confirmed his Florida Derby victory with a dominating victory in the Blue Grass. The only question mark is the relatively slow time of 1:51.51 on a track rated fast despite significant overnight rain. Another of the "old guys," Booklet, was a disappointing second while another newcomer, Ocean Sound, was a neck farther back in third and could go to the Derby.
Winning rider Edgar Prado said Harlan's Holiday has proved through his extensive efforts against top company "that he can run against those horses." And trainer Ken McPeek added that he has watched his colt and Booklet battle all year, learning as they went. "We've seen this same scenario over and over again," he said. "I felt we had the advantage today."
Trainer John Ward said Booklet's Derby chances would depend on "attrition" in the likely field for the Run for the Roses. "My feeling is that we probably saw the best our horse has to give today," he added. Jim Cassidy, trainer of Ocean Sound, said he is "50-50 right now" about the Derby. Ocean Sound was fourth behind Came Home in the San Rafael last month, then second in the Rebel at Oaklawn.
Saturday's $500,000 Arkansas Derby turned up at least one Kentucky Derby prospect and put paid to the chances of a few others. Private Emblem, coming off two straight wins at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn, made it three in a row with a convincing, 4 ½-length victory over Wild Horses in the signature event of Oaklawn's spring festival. Windward Passage and Bay Monster dead-heated for third.
Private Emblem stalked the pace slightly off the rail, took the lead in the stretch and won driving. "He goes to Kentucky in the morning," said winning trainer Steve Asmussen. Jockey Donnie Meche said Private Emblem "made the lead easily and I knew if anyone caught me, they were going to have to sure do some running." Chief disappointment was Mr. Mellon, winner of the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway in his last outing, who dueled for the lead Saturday before fading to finish sixth. "The Kentucky Derby is out for him," trainer Elliott Walden said of the Red Ransom colt.
At Bay Meadows, Tracemark ran down pace-setting Cappuchino to win Saturday's $150,000 California Derby by a neck. Captain Squire was third. Edward T. McGrath, owner of Tracemark, said he has "a lot of options all over the country. But I'd love to go to Kentucky." Jockey Jason Lumpkins said Tracemark, a Kentucky-bred son of Conquistador Cielo, "galloped out great" after running the 9 furlongs in 1:47.93. Tracemark was fourth in the San Felipe in his last outing, behind Medaglia d'Oro, U S S Tinosa and Siphonic.
So who has the advantage in the "youth vs. experience" competition? Sunday Break's trainer, Neil Drysdale, poses the question a little differently:
"Fusaichi Pegasus had a lot of experience but he still won the Wood and the (Kentucky) Derby," Drysdale said Sunday. "I'll take talent over experience any day."
In other Derby doings:
--War Emblem, winner of last week's Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park, has been sold by Russell Reineman to The Thoroughbred Corporation and turned over to trainer Bob Baffert. The front-running Our Emblem colt had not been expected to go to the Kentucky Derby for Reineman but will do so for his new connections.
--Kentuckians think of the Kentucky Derby as their own. This year, it may not be so. Likely favorite Harlan's Holiday is an Ohio-bred. Sunday Break was bred in Japan, Ocean Sound hails from Ireland, Private Emblem is a New York-bred.
In other racing:
The Kentucky Oaks is going to be a good race again and Bella Bellucci will play a featured role. The French Deputy filly demonstrated her style in Sunday's $100,000 Comely Stakes, rating, then drawing off in the stretch to win by 7 lengths over Short Note. The 1 mile went in 1:35.50. "She galloped out very well today," said trainer Neil Drysdale, "and I don't think she'll have a problem with two turns. The 3-year-old filly division is very strong this year. The Ashland winner (Take Charge Lady) was very impressive." Winning rider Gary Stevens said he "tried to keep things nice and simple. I eased her outside and she just rolled by horses."
Affirmed Success, still ticking at age 8, held off Voodoo in the final furlong to win Saturday's $350,000 Carter Handicap by 1 length. Burning Roma was third, with Say Florida Sandy fourth. The favorite, Snow Ridge, faded badly in the stretch run to finish next-to-last in the field of 10. Affirmed Success finished the 7 furlongs in 1:21.84. "He's never looked better in his life," said winning trainer Richard Schosberg. "He's eight and he's always loved running." Jockey Mike Smith said Snow Ridge likes harder tracks "like Santa Anita and Turfway....He likes to hear his hooves rattle."
Also Saturday, Roman Dancer came widest of all into the stretch in the $150,000 Bay Shore Stakes for 3-year-olds, methodically worked to the lead and got home first, 1 ¾ lengths ahead of Warners. Monthir was third. Roman Dancer, a son of Polish Numbers, ran 7 furlongs in 1:22.21. "We're going to take him back to California," said winning trainer Christopher Paasch. "The Kentucky Derby would be a huge stretch for him. Maybe we'll be back here for some New York-bred races."
See How She Runs ran pretty darn well in Friday's $200,000 Fantasy Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, taking over the lead into the stretch and winning by ¾ length over a late-closing Lake Lady. Chamrousse was third. See How She Runs, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Maria's Mon, got the 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.80. Asked about her next start, trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel said, "I want to enjoy this win first."
Explicit went quickly to the front in Thursday's $150,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap and sprinted home a winner by 3 ¼ lengths over Entrepreneur. Junior Deputy was third. Explicit, a 5-year-old son of Distant View, ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.60. "The time didn't surprise me," said winning trainer Ian Jory. "We knew we were the speed of the speed."
Sweet Sixteen led almost all the way to a 1-length victory in Saturday's $50,000 Althea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. The Florida-bred daughter of Montbrook, with Chris McCarron aboard, ran 1 mile in 1:37.71. Sarah Jade was second and the favorite, Bedanken, was third. "This is likely her best distance," said winning trainer Bob Holthus. Owner David Clark said the La Troienne at Churchill Downs on May 2 may be the next step.
Wednesday's $75,000 Northern Spur Stakes for 3-year-olds went to Screen Idol by 1 ½ lengths over Missme. Thunderpumper was third. Screen Idol, a son of Zarbyev, got the 1 mile in 1:38.32 under Tony Lovato
Touch of the Blues had to work through the field in Friday's $200,000 Maker's Mark Mile before getting up to win by ¾ length over Pices. Boastful was third in a very contentious field. Touch of the Blues, a French-bred, 4-year-old son of Cadeaux Genereux, finished in 1:35.02 under Kent Desormeaux (where's that 'x' key?). "He really poured it on when he found some room," Desormeaux said. "Again, it was some tight quarters turning for home."
Orientate got off to a quick start in Sunday's $250,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup, then held on to win by 1 ¼ lengths over Aldebaran. Twilight Road was third in the 7-furlong event, run on a muddy track. "I felt that when it rained and we got a little bit of moisture in the track, tat it might help us a bit," said winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "He's a Mt. Livermore and most of those will handle the off going." Winning rider Pat Day said Orientate "was like a little Quarter Horse leaving there" at the break.
Morluc closed strongly in the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Shakertown Stakes to catch pace-setting longshot Mighty Beau and win by a head. Grangeville was just a nose farther back in third with a late rush. Morluc, a 6-year-old son of Housebuster, finished the 5 ½ furlongs in 1:03.25 on turf listed as firm despite overnight rain. Jockey Robby Albarado confirmed the going "was soft and Morluc doesn't like it that way. He protects himself. We found some high ground turning for home and he finished really good."
Thursday, Tates Creek continued the ongoing Bobby Frankel Fest in graded stakes around the country by nipping mutuel favorite Snow Dance in the final strides of the $100,000 Jenny Wiley Stakes for fillies and mares on the grass. Step With Style was third. Tates Creek, a 4-year-old Rahy filly, finished the 1 1/16 mile in 1:42.27 after some traffic trouble. She has won four of her six starts. Frankel said jockey Desormeaux "had her in a good spot. Then he had her in a bad spot. She's a nice filly."
Victory Ride, fresh after eight months off after winning the Test Stakes at Saratoga last summer, rallied to win Wednesday's $100,000 Madison Stakes by 1 length over Celtic Melody. Away was third. "She broke a step slow but I didn't rush her," winning rider Edgar Prado said of the 4-year-old daughter of Seeking the Gold. "When I asked her in the lane, she responded. She's a lot more mature than she was last summer."
Mysterious Affair took a short lead early in Saturday's $125,000 Whimsical Stakes for fillies and mares, turned back all challengers and won by 3 lengths. The 5-year-old Ontario-bred, who also won this event last year, finished in 1:10.54 on a sloppy track under Dale Hemsley. She had been on the shelf since last June with a knee injury. "You're always a little bit nervous if they're going to come back as good as they were," said owner/trainer Mort Hardy. "But she has."
Pretty Gale, a half sister to Illinois Derby winner War Emblem, scored a front-running, 7 ½-length victory Sunday in the $100,000 Lady Hallie Handicap. As did War Emblem a week earlier, the 4-year-old daughter of Mountain Cat led all the way, posting easy fractions. With Larry Stirling Jr. up, Pretty Gale finished the 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:45.99. "She wasn't going to let her baby brother show her up," said winning trainer Frank Springer. Lunar Star, a full sister to Lunar Spook, rallied to take second with Harlan Ash third.
Texas Glitter dueled down the stretch with Joe's Son Joey before winning Saturday's $75,000 Yankee Affair Stakes by a head. True Love's Secret was third. The favorite, Kipperscope, broke down on the turn while dueling with Texas Glitter for the lead. Texas Glitter, a 6-year-old son of Glitterman, finished the 5 ½ furlongs in 55.68 seconds. Assistant trainer cindy Hutter said Texas Glitter may be headed to the Aegon Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs on Oaks Day.
Sunday, Flying Birdie took the lead early and just held on to beat Elvi Gamble by a nose in the $75,000 Marshua's River Stakes for fillies and mares. Flying Birdie, a 4-year-old Birdonthewire filly, got the 5 furlongs on firm turf in 56.38 seconds. "She did it all on her own," said winning trainer Happy Alter. "She only had three breezes in four months."
Best of the Rest rolled home a 3-lengths winner in Friday's $75,000 Unbridled Handicap for Florida-breds. The 7-year-old son of Skip Trial got past pace-setting Groomstick Stock's with a furlong to go and took charge. Groomstick Stock's finished second and Dancing Guy was third. The 1 1/16 mile on a fast track went in 1:43.83.
Megahertz won a sprint to the wire in Saturday's $75,000 Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, beating La Martina by a nose. Ayzal was third as British-bred fillies swept the event. Megahertz, by Pivotal, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:47.35. Winning rider Alex Solis said his filly started waiting after she got the lead, making the finish close. "She's one of those horses that isn't going to win by much," he added.
Sunday, Mountain Rage found room on the inside turning for home and drew off to win the $75,000 La Puente Stakes for 3-year-olds by 3 lengths over Doc Holiday. Stormy Forever was third. Mountain Rage, a Florida-bred son of Mecke, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.84. "A mile is a little short for him because he's just getting rolling," said winning trainer Bob Baffert. "He's got a lot of heart, this horse."
Lone Star Park
La Recherche surged past tiring pace setter Sassy Das entering the final turn and went on to win the second division of Saturday's $75,000 Irving Distaff by 2 ¾ lengths. Golden Rhythm was second and Euryanthe was third. La Recherche, a 4-year-old daughter of Sky Classic, finished the 7 furlongs on firm turf in 1:33.59 under Ron Ardoin. In the first division, Pleasant State also came from off the pace to win by ¾ length over Solo Attack, with Mysia Jo third. Pleasant State, a 7-year-old Cal-bred by Stately Cielo, needed 1:34.20 for the trip.
Nad Al Sheba
The road to the Kentucky Oaks leads through Dubai? Maybe. Imperial Gesture, runner-up in last year's unsponsored Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies behind stablemate Tempera, turned the tables in Saturday's $150,000 UAE Oaks. Imperial Gesture took the lead, then drew off in the late going to win by 3 ¼ lengths. Tempera was second and a third starter from Godolphin Racing, Seba, was third. Only five started. Although Tempera was the better filly last fall, the fact that Frankie Dettori was aboard Imperial Gesture on Saturday indicates Godolphin's current assessment of the relative merits.
Deer Run won a four-horse blanket photo in Saturday's $50,000 Fire Plug Stakes. Coming from off the pace, Deer Run hit the front a furlong out and scored by ½ length. The 6 furlongs took 1:10.91.
The favored entry of Hail to Bag and Sky High Bag got home 1-3 in Saturday's $30,000 Inaugural Handicap for 3-year-olds. Hail to Bag jumped right to the lead and scooted off to win by 8 ¼ lengths over Belive Im Special. Sky High Bag missed seond by just a neck. Hail to Bag, toting S.J. Bourque as part of his high-weight 122 pounds, ran 6 furlongs in 1:11.
The Downs at Albuquerque
Quickkey dueled with Devious Ways for the early lead in Saturday's $30,000 La Fiesta Handicap for 3-year-old fillies, the drew clear to win by 2 ¼ lengths. Espeedytoo was second and Devious Ways held on for third. Quickkey is a New Mexico-bred daughter of Devon Lane.
News and Notes
John and Donna Ward have been named the Kentucky Thoroughbred Media's 2002 "Ambassadors of Racing." The award is presented annually for extraordinary effort to provide the public and the media with a greater understanding of the Thoroughbred industry. The Wards' success stories have included 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, Maria's Mon, Beautiful Pleasure, Forest Secrets and Snow Dance. KTM President Jenny Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal said the Wards' "willingness to share their knowledge, experiences and emotions opens the door to greater understanding of a sport and industry that is often challenging and complicated."