Taking nothing away from the winners of the weekend's big races, but if you're looking for a Kentucky Derby horse, history shows you'd be best off looking at some of Saturday's also-rans.
Smarty Jones was very impressive in running his undefeated record to six in the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn from post position No. 11. The Cliff's Edge rallied beautifully to win the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland. And, in the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Tapit got the job done in the final sixteenth to pull out the victory.
But since 1990, only three Kentucky Derby winners came into that race from a victory in their final prep -- War Emblem from the Illinois Derby in 2002, Fusaichi Pegasus from the Wood in 2000 and Strike the Gold from the Blue Grass in 1991.
By far the majority of Kentucky Derby winners finished second in their final prep: Funny Cide last year in the Wood, Monarchos in 2001 in the Wood, Charismatic in 1999 in the El Camino Real Derby, Real Quiet in the 1998 Santa Anita Derby, Silver Charm in the 1997 Santa Anita Derby, Grindstone in the 1996 Arkansas Derby, Go For Gin in the 1994 Wood and Lil E. Tee in the 1992 Arkansas Derby.
Some who wore the roses on the first Saturday in March didn't even do that well in their previous race. Thunder Gulch was unplaced in the 1995Blue Grass, as was Sea Hero in the 1993 Blue Grass. And Unbridled ran third in the Keeneland fixture in 1990.
So ... Who ran second on Saturday?
Smarty Jones dueled for the lead in the Arkansas Derby, then drew clear to lead by as much as 3 lengths and looked like the easiest kind of winner. But in the final furlong, Louisiana Derby runner-up Borrego found another gear and, while he came up 1 1/2 lengths short, he was making up ground and looked well able to benefit from the added furlong of the Kentucky Derby.
In the Blue Grass, the situation was just the opposite. Lion Heart and Limehouse battled for the lead, only to have The Cliff's Edge come along on the outside and win by 1/2 length with Lion Heart holding second and Limehouse third. Still, the participants felt after the race they learned something that could make a difference at Churchill Downs.
"The main thing," said Lion Heart's trainer, Patrick Biancone, "is that he has tactical speed that we can control now." And Jose Santos, who rode Limehouse, said his mount didn't like being so close to the front. "When I took him back," Santos said, "he settled and responded. He beat some nice horses today. I'd love to ride him in the Derby."
And in New York, it appeared until the final few yards that either Master David or Eddington would win the Wood -- until Tapit stopped gawking at the grandstand and rallied past them on the outside to win by 1/2 length.
Master David, making his first start since February, "is not a great workout horse," said trainer Bobby Frankel. "So with all that in mind, I thought he ran really a great race." And Eddington, if he has enough graded stakes earnings to crack the Derby field, also is still a live prospect for trainer Mark Hennig. Hennig said Eddington "lost interest" in the stretch "but then he picked it up again when he saw Master David coming on the inside. ... It was a terrific race and I would love to run in the Kentucky Derby."
And, if you want a "knock" on each winner: Tapit had been ill, has made only two starts this year and could either benefit from his trip in the Wood or be knocked out by it; Smarty Jones is a something-less-than-blueblood Pennsylvania-bred who arguably hasn't met top competition yet and the 1 1/4 mile might be a stretch for him; and The Cliff's Edge runs from far back, which can be a problem in a large field like that expected at Churchill Downs on May 1.
Kentucky Oaks preps
-- House of Fortune saved ground through the early going of Friday's $200,000 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park, swung three wide into the stretch and won by 1 3/4 lengths over Island Sand. Stellar Jayne was third. Winning for the fifth time in eight career starts, House of Fortune finished the 1 1/16 mile in 1:42 3/5. Winning trainer Ron McAnally hadn't won a race during Oaklawn's spring Racing Festival since Paseana turned the trick in the 1993 Apple Blossom. "It's been a long time," he said. "But I actually haven't run that many. It's good to come back with a filly this good." Trainer Larry Jones said he also was happy with Island Sand's performance. "How could I not be? She ran second from post 11 against one of the best fillies in the country. Unless something's wrong, she's going to the Kentucky Oaks."
-- Reigning 2-year-old filly champ Halfbridled ran into a buzz saw in Thursday $250,000 Stonerside Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland. Victory U.S.A. took the lead with 3 furlongs to go and hit the afterburners, winning by 8 1/4 lengths. Halfbridled rallied from last in the eight-filly field to finish second but needed to visit the binocular rental booth to catch a view of the winner. Wildwood Flower was another 1 1/2 lengths back in third. Victory U.S.A., a daughter of Victory Gallop trained by Bob Baffert, ran "about" 7 furlongs in 1:27.06.
-- Society Selection disposed of Bending Strings with a furlong left in Friday's $100,000 Comely Stakes at Aqueduct and ran off to win by 3 lengths. Bending Strings held second and Daydreaming was third. Society Selection, a daughter of Cornado's Quest, ran the 1 mile in 1:35.89 for Jorge Chavez. She is trained by H. Allen Jerkens.
-- In Saturday's $75,000 Instant Racing Breeders' Cup Stakes at Oaklawn, Tee's Pearl, toting Pat Day, went quickly to the lead, then drew clear to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Pilfer was second and Cedar Summer finished third. Tee's Pearl is an Indiana-bred filly by 1992 Arkansas Derby runner-up and Kentucky Derby winner Lil E. Tee. She finished the sloppy mile in 1:39.20.
In other weekend racing:
Pico Central battled for the early lead in Saturday's $350,000 Carter Handicap, was headed by pari-mutuel favorite Strong Hope in the stretch but found another gear and won off by 1 1/4 length. Strong Hope held second and Eye of the Tiger came from well back to finish third. Pico Central, a 5-year-old, Brazilian-bred son of Spend a Buck, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:20.22. Badge of Silver was scratched.
Forest Danger dominated Saturday's $150,000 Bay Shore Stakes for 3-year-olds at 7 furlongs. Jockey John Velazquez held the Forestry colt on a short lead for the first half mile, then let him run to win by 7 1/2 lengths. Abbondanza was second and Indian War Dance finished third. Forest Danger was clocked in 1:20.67.
Lion Tamer, the favorite, moved into contention at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $250,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup Stakes, then prevailed in the drive to beat Private Horde by 3/4 length. Mario Marini was third after setting the pace. Lion Tamer, a 4-year-old son of Will's Way, finished the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.14. Winning rider Mike Smith said he was happy to be behind the early speed, adding, "I thought we'd go right on by when I got to them but he kind of hung. I hit him and he didn't respond, so I chucked the reins at him and it worked."
Also Saturday, Soaring Free battled for the lead until late in the $100,000 Shakertown Stakes, then got clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Chosen Chief. Banned in Boston was third. Soaring Free, a 5-year-old Smart Strike gelding, went to the post as the odds-on favorite under Shane Sellers. He completed the 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:01.78.
On Friday, Perfect Soul came six-wide into the stretch and was put to an all-out drive to win the $200,000 Maker's Mark Mile by 1/2 length over Burning Roma. Royal Spy was another head farther back in third. Perfect Soul, with Edgar Prado in the irons, raced well back before starting his winning move. He concluded the trip, on a firm course, in 1:33.54.
Sam Houston Race Park
Warleigh got the lead after an early pace duel in Saturday's $200,000 John B. Connally Breeders' Cup Turf Handicap, disposed of a challenge from Gentlemen J J and finally held on to win by 1/2 length over late-running Skate Away. Gentlemen J J held third. Warleigh, with Jeremy Beasley in the irons, ran the 9 furlongs over yielding turf in 1:53.01. The favorite, Quest Star, ran fourth under a quick-traveling Pat Day.
In Saturday's $40,000 Jersey Lilly Stakes for fillies and mares, Sound of Gold led from gate to wire, winning by 2 lengths over Tyger River. Tiva's Little Sis was third. Sound of Gold, a 6-year-old Mutakddim mare, ran 1 1/16 mile over yielding turf in 1:47.65.
Toasted, at 25-1 odds, toasted eight rivals in Saturday's $100,000 La Puente Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 mile on the grass. The Kentucky-bred son of Hennessey, with Goncalino Almeida up, raced last of nine through the early going, had to get through some traffic in the stretch and then won by 1 1/4 lengths over Erewhon. Seattle Borders was third and the favorite, Terroplane, settled for fourth. Toasted raced in France last year and finished eighth in the San Felipe last month to see about his dirt-track potential. Returning to the green course Saturday, he finished in 1:34.18. "He's got a dirt pedigree but he's a turf horse," said winning trainer Laura De Seroux. "We'll stay on the grass with him." Toasted is owned by Chicagoan Sidney Port.
Sunday, Ticket Tape took command in the stretch to win the $100,000 Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 2 1/2 lengths. Amorama was second with a run from the back and Winendynme was third. Ticker Tape, a British-bred daughter of Royal Applause, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.55 for jockey Kent Desormeaux. The favorite, Mambo Slew, was never in contention and finished 10th.
Oso Tricky led from gate to wire in winning Sunday's $130,000 Copper Top Futurity for New Mexico-bred 2-year-olds. The son of Tricky Fun, opened up a daylight lead in the stretch and held on to beat Ring of the Run by a neck. Sandias Peppermint finished third was disqualified to 10th for interference, moving up Smartlildevil. Oso Tricky ran 4 1/2 furlongs on a sloppy track in 54.16 seconds.
A to the Z, starting from the outside post position, rallied seven-wide into the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 Sunland Park Handicap and just got up in the final strides to beat Pleasant Bend by a neck. Wishingitwas completed an all-longshot trifecta worth $8,064.20 for a $2 investment. A to the Z, a Cal-bred, 4-year-old son of Benchmark, ran 9 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:53.41.
Two Down Automatic, with Tim Doocy in the irons, took the lead turning for home in Saturday's $75,000 Northern Spur Breeders' Cup Stakes for 3-year-olds, then cruised home 5 3/4 lengths in front. Proper Prado was second and Level Playingfield finished third. Two Down Automatic, a Kentucky-bred son of Smoke Glacken, ran the 1 mile over a sloppy track in 1:37.37.
Hippogator upset Saturday's $75,000 Miss America Handicap, leading most of the way to a 3/4-length victory over another longshot, Marwood. A B Noodle was third and the favorite, Hooked on Niners, ran last of 10 through most of the race, then made a belated bid to finish fourth. Hippogator, a 4-year-old daughter of Dixieland Band, finished the 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:41.46.
True Love's Secret closed fastest of all in the final yards to upset Sunday's $50,000 Yankee Affair Stakes. True Love's Secret, a 7-year-old Desert Secret gelding, dueled with Ghostly Numbers, got the advantage and then held off Take Achance On Me, winning by a neck. Ghostly Numbers held third. The 5 furlongs on firm turf sent in 53.85 seconds. The favorite, Cripple Creek, dwelt and never passed a horse, finishing seventh.
Sassy Hound caught pace-setting Out of Fashion in time to win Saturday's $50,000 Fire Plug Stakes by 3/4 length. With Abel Castellano up, the 7-year-old son of Deerhound covered the 6 furlongs in 1:10.11. Cherokee's Boy, the favorite, finished third. "I had no idea how he'd run today," said winning trainer Ben Feliciano. "He's been very hard to figure out lately." Sassy Hound now has won 16 times, earning more than $600,000.
Hawthorne Race Course
Saturday's Illinois Champions Day, featuring six stakes events for state-breds, turned out to be a reasonably good day for champions. The 2003 Illinois Horse of the Year, Summer Mis, got back to winning form in the Governor's Lady Handicap. After running third against males in her seasonal debut, Summer Mis got the lead Saturday, turned back a challenge from Ravalli Girl and won off by 3 1/4 lengths in 1:11.03. "Carrying 128 pounds and winning like that was unbelievable," said winning trainer Anthony Mitchell. "Now I have to worry about what kind of weight they are going to give us in the future."
Mitchell also brought back another 2003 champ to victory in the Peach of It Handicap. Last year's 3-year-old champ, Julie's Prize, toting 126 pounds, got the lead at the top of the stretch and scored by 4 lengths over Rathleen. Invader was third. Julie's Prize ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.76. "The weight didn't bother her at all," said winning rider Larry Sterling Jr. "I think this is the year that she'll reach her full potential."
The 2003 male 3-year-old champion, Wiggins, just missed the winner's circle while making his 2004 debut in the Milwaukee Avenue Handicap. Scooter Roach got by between horses in the late going to win by ½ length after a trio of other challengers fell short. Act of War finished third.
Shandy got the inside position in a three-horse duel in the Chicagoland Handicap, extended his lead through the stretch and won by 1 1/4 length over Silver Bid. Out of My Way finished third. Shandy got the 6 furlongs in 1:10.78. Slewville beat stablemate Wish For Gold by 4 1/4 lengths in the Lady Hallie Stakes, with Lady Laverne holding on for third after leading. And in the Land of Lincoln Stakes, the aptly named Prairie King raced in last place early, then wore down Jaguar Friend in the stretch drive to win by a head. Medicine Eyes was third.