As the Triple Crown trail leads to Baltimore and the Peakness Stakes, the experts should be just about out of reasons why Smarty Jones isn't as good as he seems.
Before he won Saturday's Kentucky Derby, picking up nearly $6 million in purse and bonus money, the wise guys said the Pennsylvania-bred horse hadn't faced good opponents, hadn't been tested, wasn't bred to go a mile and a quarter and, by implication, really wasn't somehow worthy of winning the great American race.
They also questioned whether his trainer, John Servis, and jockey, Stewart Elliott, could win the Kentucky Derby on their first try.
All of those questions were answered 2 minutes and 4 seconds after the starting gate opened. But after Smarty Jones's 2 3/4-length victory, some other potential "explanations" leapt to mind: The winning time of 2:04 was pretty darn slow, and the sloppy track favored front-running horses like Smarty Jones.
In fact, of course, the time was slow. But the other 17 Derby starters ran even slower, which makes Smarty Jones better than those rivals -- at least on May 1.
And if the sloppy track favored front-runners, how did Imperialism close from 17th on the backstretch to finish third? How did The Cliff's Edge, despite losing both front shoes, close from 17th after a mile to finish fifth? Or how did Action This Day close from last after three-quarters of a mile to finish sixth? All of them passed a lot of other horses -- but couldn't come close to Smarty Jones or Derby runner-up Lion Heart.
In fact, Smarty Jones goes on to Pimlico as the heavy favorite to win the Preakness. And, if he can do that, we'll find out whether his breeding will get him win at the 1 1/2-mile trip of the Belmont Stakes.
VISA puts up another $5 million bonus for a Triple Crown winner, so Smarty Jones is only two wins away from becoming the all-time leading money winner in Thoroughbred racing. That would be a hard statistic for anyone to explain away.
Pimlico said Sunday at least five Derby starters are expected to contest the May 15 Preakness: Smarty Jones, Lion Heart, Limehouse (who finished fourth), The Cliff's Edge and Borrego (10th). Churchill Downs reported Read the Footnotes (7th) and Friends Lake (15th) also might go on to the Preakness if things go well for them.
Smarty Jones's trainer, Servis, said the Derby winner was "bright-eyed" Sunday morning and had eaten well.
"I won't know that much (about his physical condition) until he goes back to the track," Servis said. "
In other weekend racing under the twin spires:
-- Ashado caught pace-setting Madcap Escapade at mid-stretch and went on to win Friday's $500,000 Kentucky Oaks by 1 1/4 lengths, avenging a defeat last time out in the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. Island Sand was third. Ashado, a daughter of Saint Ballado, ran the 1 1/8 mile on a muddy track in 1:50.81. Trainer Todd Pletcher said he never considered running Ashado in the Kentucky Derby, but that the Preakness might be a different story. "She's a big, strong filly and might be able to match up with the colts," he said after the Oaks. "The Preakness? We'll keep our options open." Later, he said the Acorn at Belmont is a likely goal for Ashado.
--Stroll, with Jerry Bailey up, had no trouble handing a saturated turf course to win the race before the Derby, the $400,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. After stalking Sweet Return to the three-eighths pole, Baley put Stroll to the test and the 4-year-old son of Pulpit responded, drawing clear to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Sweet Return held second and Mystery Giver rallied from near the rear to take third-place money. The 9 furlongs took 1:53 over a course that hadn't had time to soak up a thunderstorm that drenched Churchill Downs shortly before post time. "Our plan was to stay close," Bailey said. "When the turf is soft like it was today, it's hard to make up ground." Stroll, a Claiborne Farm homebred, is trained by Bill Mott. He had won five straight races before settling for fifth in his last outing, the Makers Mark at Keeneland.
--Azeri, horse of the year in 2002, lost a long stretch battle with Mayo On the Side in Saturday's $250,000 Humana Distaff. After putting a head in front at the top of the lane, Azeri surrendered the advantage to Mayo On the Side but continued fighting to the wire, losing by a head. It was 7 1/4 lengths back to Randaroo in third. Keiai Sakura completed the order of finish. Mayo On the Side, a 5-year-old daughter of French Deputy, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:22.78 under Pat Day. Winning trainer Carl Nafzger said he was happy with the win but felt it unfair that Azeri carried 11 more pounds than his filly. "We won the race and we are very glad we won the race," he said. "But a great filly like Azeri, running in a Grade I, should not be giving weight." Mayo On the Side came into the race off a victory in the Doubledogdare at Keeneland and now has won seven of 21 lifetime starts.
--Speightstown upset Saturday's $200,000 Churchill Downs Handicap, racing on the lead to win by 3 1/2 lengths over McCann's Mojave. Publication was third and the favorite, Congaree, never reached contention, finishing fourth of seven. Speightstown, a 6-year-old son of Gone West, ran the 7 furlongs with John Velazquez aboard in 1:21.38 on a track rated "good." He now has six wins and two seconds from his last eight starts for trainer Todd Pletcher.
--Those looking for next year's Derby winner can ponder Lunarpal, winner of Saturday's $100,000 Three Chimneys Juvenile. The bay son of Successful Appeal pressed the pace set by the only filly in the race, Classic Elegance, then went by and drew clear to win by 5 lengths. Gallant Secret was second and Classic Elegance held third. Lunarpal ran 5 furlongs under Shane Sellers in 57.98. He now is undefeated in two starts, having won his first race at Keeneland by 7 lengths.
--Shaconage was just along in the final strides to win Saturday's $100,000 Argent Mortgage Stakes for fillies and mares by a nose over Etoile Montante. Chance Dance was third. Shaconage, with Brice Blanc in the irons, ran the 1 mile on "good" turf in 1:36.10. She is a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of El Prado.
--Lead Story upset Friday's $300,000 Louisville Breeders' Cup for fillies and mares, beating Yell to the wire by 1 length. Cat Fighter was third. Sightseek, the 2-5 favorite, struggled home fourth. Lead Story is a 5-year-old daughter of Editor's Note, who ran sixth in the 1996 Kentucky Derby while running as an entry with the winner, Grindstone.
--Kitten's Joy charged to the front at mid-stretch in Friday's $100,000 Crown Royal American Turf for 3-year-olds and won off by 2 1/2 lengths. Prince Arch was second and Capo third. Kittens' Joy, a son of El Prado, got the 1 1/16 mile over yielding turf in 1:43.31.
--Lydgate unleashed a sustained stretch bid to take Friday's $100,000 Aegon Turf Sprint at 5 furlongs on the yielding turf. The son of Pulpit caught 3-1 favorite Mighty Beau inside the sixteenth pole and won by 1 length. Banned in Boston was third. The race was timed in 56.56 seconds.
--Galloping Gal rallied from last to win Friday's $100,000 Edgewood Stakes by a neck over Gingham and Lace. Dynaville was third.
In other weekend racing:
Medalist went out to set a quick pace in Saturday's $150,000 Withers Stakes, then held on well despite drifting out in the stretch run to win by 3 1/4 lengths over the odds-on favorite, Forest Danger. Two Down Automatic was third in the 1-mile event, clocked in 1:34.49. H. Allen Jerkens trains Medalist, a 3-year-old son of Touch Gold, for owner Robert N. Clay, who also owns Three Chimneys Farm. Jerkens said he told jockey Jorge Chavez, "He better go to the front because the wind is at his tail. When there's a strong wind behind them, I like horses to be in front." Both Chavez and Jerkens said they will need to find a way to keep Medalist from drifting out in the future. "We were lucky that he didn't bother anybody today," Jerkens said.
Also Saturday, Dedication rallied through the stretch to win the $100,000 Beaugay Handicap by 1/2 length over Aud. Caught in the Rain was another 1/2-length back in third. Dedication, with Javier CAstellano up, ran the 1 1/16 mile on "good" turf in 1:46.36. She is a 5-year-old, French-bred daughter of Dedication, trained by Christophe Clement. "She's better at 7 furlongs or a mile," Clement said. "They walked the first part, so that made it a much easier mile and a sixteenth. She settled nicely and finished good."
In Sunday's $75,000 Kings Point Handicap, Gander belied his 8 years, coming from last to beat five younger rivals. Levendis was second under the wire, 1 length behind Gander, and Trial Prep was third. Gander, a gelded son of Cormorant, ran the 1 1/8 mile in 1:52.31 under John Velazquez.
Calder Race Course
Stay Forever stayed well back in the pack in Saturday's $150,000 Hollywood Wildcat Breeders' Cup Handicap -- but not forever. Rather, the 7-year-old mare closed sharply through the late going to win in the final strides over Mrs. M. Cocktailsandreams was third. Stay Forever, a daughter of Stack, finished the 1 1/16 mile on "good" turf in 1:42, winning for the sixth time in nine starts at Calder. Despite her running style, trainer Marty Wolfson said Stay Forever can't be too far back. "She has to be in it with some other horses or she just loses interest," he said.
Mobil indicated his 4-year-old campaign may be even more exciting than last year's as he defeated a classy field in Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian) Vigil Stakes. Trainer Mike Keogh said he told jockey Todd Kabel to stay back of Woodbine's 6-furlong track record-holder Chris's Bad Boy because a speed duel is "not our game. We just wanted to be close enough to close on him." The strategy worked to a T and Mobil beat Chris's Bad Boy by 1 3/4 lengths. Awesome Action was third. "He's really grown and matured into his body," Kabel said. "He's much stronger than he was last year. Hopefully, we're looking at a good year with this horse." The 7 furlongs went in 1:21.84.
Leroidesanimaux scored a course-record, gate-to-wire victory in Saturday's $100,000 Inglewood Handicap, winning by 2 lengths and finishing in 1:38.45. Designed for Luck, the favorite, took second with Devious Boy third. "Boy, he panned out today," said jockey Jon Court, who won his first Hollywood Park stakes. "He rated kindly on the front end and when I called on him, he had plenty of finish. It was just a joy to ride him." Leroidesanimaux was bred in Brazil. He was third in his U.S. debut, then won a conditioned allowance race and a $100,000 optional claimer. The Inglewood was his first stakes effort. Humberto Ascanio, assistant to winning trainer Bobby Frankel, said Leroidesanimaux "was real impressive. Stepped up in class but he's going good. You never know until you try with these horses but it looks like he's going in the right direction."
Sunday, Elusive Diva got the lead a sixteenth of a mile out in the $100,000 Railbird Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, then was all out to hold off three rivals to the wire. M.A. Fox was home second, a neck behind Elusive Diva. Speedy Falcon was another neck back in third and Aspen Gal was a nose father back in fourth. Elusive Diva, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Elusive Quality, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:21.36 with Patrick Valenzuela up.
Frisky Spider, forsaking the Triple Crown trail after failure in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, returned to the winner's circle after Saturday's $75,000 Francis "Jock" LaBelle Memorial. The son of Frisk Me Now scored by a neck over Snub the Devil, with Xtreamotion third. Edwin King rode Frisky Spider over 6 furlongs in 1:11. The morning-line favorite, Redskin Warrior, was a late scratch. Trainer Robert Durso said Frisky Spider might be seen next in the Riva Ridge at Belmont Park on June 5.
Run Zeal Run pressed the pace most of the way in Saturday's $75,000 Panhandle Handicap, then locked up in a tight duel outside Crossing Point and just got home with a nose in front. Ex Who was third, 2 3/4 lengths farther back. Run Zeal Run is a 6-year-old, Florida-bred gelding by Unreal Zeal. He finished the 5 furlongs in 58.54 seconds.
Tampa Bay Downs
Restage won a four-horse race to the wire in Saturday's $60,000 Chris Thomas Turf Classic, scoring by a neck over Coahoma. After being caught in traffic, jockey Jesus Castanon got Restage through an opening on the rail to get home first. Milky Way Guy, who led the way early, was a neck farther back in third and Guardianofthegate was a head back of him in fourth. "He's a trier," trainer Tom Proctor said of Restage. "He wins a lot of photos." Final time for the race was 1:48.03 on turf labeled "firm."
Pie's Lil Brother sat off the early lead in Saturday's $50,000 Prairie Express, got to the front and held off late runs by Coach Jimi Lee and Sand Ridge to win the race for the second straight year. Pie's Lil Brother, with Terry Thompson up, ran 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.65. "He's a 5 1/2 specialist," said winning trainer Stanley Roberts. "That's his lick -- 5 1/2. He likes a lot of speed in front of him. If they go out there burning like they did tonight, he'll come and get them."
Mr O'Brien got his Irish up in the stretch run in Saturday's $50,000 Henry S. Clark Stakes, rolling off to win by 9 lengths over Spruce Run. The favorite, Tam's Terms, came to terms with finishing third after a wide trip, another 2 1/2 lengths in arrears. Mr O'Brien, a 5-year-old, Irish-bred gelding by Mukaddamah, got 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.80.