April 29, 2008

Derby Exacta, plus one: Colonel John, Court Vision and Adriano top the 134th Run for the Roses

If you throw out the favorite Big Brown — which we’re going to do — Colonel John becomes a kind of “default choice” to win the Kentucky Derby. He’s a solid alternative for those who find themselves totally turned off by the incessant bragging from the Big Brown barn.But we’re not landing on Colonel John because we need a solid alternative. We like him straight up.The lasting vision of Colonel John came four weeks ago in the Santa Anita Derby, when he was shuffled behind the pack at the top of the stretch, seemingly through for the day, then came running down the center of the track, mowing down horse after horse to win in a long, hard drive. And looking like he might also like the long, tough final quarter mile of the 1¼ miles Kentucky Derby.But the Derby winner could also be Court Vision, who appears to have been specifically trained by Hall-of-Fame trainer Bill Mott to relax early and come running late. After a sterling 2-year-old campaign, Court Vision has finished a closing third in both his races this season, though not threatening the winner. But now the distance lengthens, and the stage is bigger under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs. Court Vision is the kind of high-class horse, with pedigree, who could seize the moment.Then there’s Adriano, a Longshot Special who might win because ... well, we’re not really sure why Adriano might win. But he might. That’s our list. Other handicappers have other horses in mind, including Blue Grass Stakes winner Monba, and Arkansas Derby winner Gayego. Toss Big Brown into the mix, and pretty soon this Kentucky Derby is looking like a wide-open affair. A random kind of Derby, likely to produce a random result.Sometimes, there’s simply a best of the bunch that isn’t revealed until they go 1¼ miles for the first time in their lives. And then we see it.In the long history ...What’s that? You want us to can the history lesson and explain how in the world we can throw out Big Brown? A brilliant winner of the Florida Derby, with by far the highest Beyer Speed Figures, who has won all three of his races by a combined nearly 30 lengths?How? It’s easy.Just open the program, find Big Brown, and draw a line through his name.Gone! Just like that.And why?Well, to begin with, Big Brown is barely battle-tested. Just three races — even though one was last August at Saratoga, which indicates the horse has been in serious training for some time. But he’s also missed training with reported bad “quarter cracks” in the hooves of his front feet. That’s a common ailment, and the horse now wears glue-on plastic horseshoes, rather than nailed-on metal ones, to protect his feet. But he has missed many miles of wind-building conditioning.Another negative is his pedigree. He’s kind of his own cousin, with both his dad and his mom descending straight from Northern Dancer, which certainly can be in a Derby pedigree, but is nothing like the blood of, say, Hail to Reason, Ribot or Raise a Native. He’s sired by a sprinter, and he’s inbred to Derby-jinxed Damascus.But he could win.What most irks everyone is Big Brown’s trainer, the often-suspended Rick Dutrow.“It’s a horse race, and I have the best horse in the race. It’s that simple,” Dutrow told the Thoroughbred Times. “We’re going to Kentucky to win; anything less than that is not going to be OK with us. There’s such good karma going around the stable now that I don’t see how he can get beat.”Or to the Daily Racing Form:“Until somebody shows me the beast, this is not a tough horse race,” said Dutrow. “I’m training this horse for a horse race. I don’t care what the name of it is.”Forgive the Derby Gods if they frown on such boasting. And pardon longtime horse owners who have spent a lifetime dreaming the Derby dream, when they hear that IEAH Stables, the Wall Street syndicate that owns a majority stake in Big Brown has said that if (or was it when?) Big Brown wins the Kentucky Derby, they will take their partnership public and run it like a hedge fund.A hedge fund. Geez-Louise.Of course, the horse can’t help who owns and trains it. Maybe he’ll get out there winging away at his own pace and sail on. And that’s Big Brown’s biggest plus, his jockey, two-time Kentucky Derby winner Kent Desormeaux, the kind of rider who seems to feel the poetry in his horse’s motion.Meanwhile, it is hard not to admire Colonel John, who has four victories and two seconds in six starts for owner WinStar Farm and trainer Eoin Harty.When Colonel John comes on the track in the morning, the rider allows the horse to stand for some minutes, surveying the vista. Horses coming and going, big tents in the infield, and people clambering all around to get a look at the Derby horses. All the while, Colonel John stands almost motionless, just extending his head as he watches, occasionally wafting his tail, taking it all in.“He’s got the right mind for it,” said Harty. “He’s got to be able to handle all that noise, people screaming and yelling, car alarms going off, etcetera. It’s something they possess. Lots of horses fall apart on the way over to the (Derby). A lot of times the race is won or lost on the way over to the paddock. It’s not something you can teach, or medicate for. They either have it or they don’t.”Plus speed and stamina. On Sunday, Colonel John sizzled five furlongs (half the Derby distance) in :57 4/5. Very sharp. Also sharp is Court Vision, who last week zipped four furlongs in :46 2/5. He’s a son of Gulch, a Raise a Native line stallion who sired 1995 Derby winner Thunder Gulch. His dam’s pedigree includes such luminaries as Secretariat, Buckpasser and Princequillo.Court Vision’s biggest plus might be trainer Bill Mott, the all-time leading trainer at Churchill Downs. A native of South Dakota, now based in New York, Mott is an expert with top-class horses, and it looks like Court Vision might be one of those.The wild card in our top three is likely longshot Adriano, a son of A.P. Indy who blossomed in the Lane’s End Stakes. He’s trained by English-bred horseman Graham Motion, and ridden by Derby-winning rider Edgar Prado (Barbaro).Why Adriano? Well, why not, in a random Derby? His chestnut coat is gleaming after training all spring in the Kentucky air. He looks fresh, and ready to run.Three possible longshots — and who among us is not seeking one of those? — include Z Fortune, Visionaire and Halo Najib. Z Fortune runs hard. Visionaire seems to do pretty well. And Halo Najib sports a Dosage Profile of 8-3-15-2-0, with a Dosage Index of 1.95. That’s very good for a horse that figures about 200-1. Trained by Churchill kingpin Dale Romans.For an official Bill Doolittle Pick, we’ll make it Colonel John and Court Vision 1-2 in the exacta, with Adriano along someplace.Good luck! And may the Random God of Good Fortune smile upon us all in the 134th Run for the Roses. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com