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April 21, 2010

The mane event

A rundown of Kentucky Derby contenders

People have all these theories and historical notes about the Kentucky Derby. They’ve got Ragozin Sheet figures and Dosage Diagrams, and studies that prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that a horse that has made its reputation on a track with a synthetic surface is a no-good commie rat, compared to a good old-fashioned, family-values dirt horse. Traditionalists (this one included) maintain the Kentucky Derby is still a mile-and-a-quarter without a drink of water, and that distance remains the most important factor in determining the winner. But sometimes, in the midst of all that, it’s worth pointing out if there is a Derby contender that is simply way faster than all the others. It is, after all, a horse race, and as Mark Twain famously said, “The race is not always to the strong and swift — but that’s the way to bet.”

Which means no one can begin to assess the upcoming 136th Run for the Roses without noting the fastest horse is likely Eskendereya.

Now, whether Eskendereya will be in the same spectacular form in Louisville on the first Saturday in May as he was in Florida and New York is unknown. (He arrives at the Downs this week.) And, as a grandson of Storm Cat, Eskendereya certainly could trip over his pedigree on the way to the winner’s circle. No horse from the Storm Cat sire line has ever won the Kentucky Derby.

Even so, Eskendereya has been winning so easily his rider spent the last sixteenth of a mile of his final prep race looking over his shoulder to see if anybody might be coming. Nobody was. And might not be.

Now this is not a secret. If you’re interested in a horse not everyone is riding, options include two very good horses from California. We’ve also tabbed a couple of long-shot come-from-behinders from the same sire line, and a workingman’s horse, which you won’t meet at any of the glitzy Derby week parties.

We won’t pick Eskendereya, or any other horse — yet. One crucial element remains in the handicapping puzzle: how the contenders train up to their date with destiny in their final days before the Derby. How they “handle” the Downs dirt and the carnival atmosphere of Derby week. These 3-year-old colts are in a growing phase of their physical and mental lives and are changing by the day. And anybody who ever sipped a julep can tell you horses bloom in the springtime in Kentucky, just like mint — often making enormous leaps forward in ability and attitude. Alysheba comes to mind.

This weekend, many of the contenders will “work” five furlongs (five-eighths of a mile) at Churchill Downs. That’s half the Derby distance.

We’ll put aside the video clips and past performances and take a look at the horses, as horses. Then next week, we’ll offer the Official LEO Weekly Derby Pick in this space.

Right now, let’s meet the key contenders.

Eskendereya, the heavy favorite

Beginning with Eskendereya.

This horse was one of the better 2-year-olds a season ago and has blossomed at 3.

“I liked Eskendereya when I saw him last fall at the Breeders’ Cup,” says Churchill Downs handicapper Jill Byrne. “He looked then like one of those 2-year-olds that hadn’t grown up all the way yet. I was thinking he might be special when he fills out and gets to traditional dirt.”

Which happened.

One has to wonder a bit, though, about the incredibly easy victories. You see horses sail away to win by 10 lengths, and then the next race isn’t so easy and they lose.

On the other hand, Eskendereya might be a swoop bird. You’ve seen those kinds of horses in the Derby: Barbaro, Big Brown — horses far better than their brethren. The big day, the big crowd, the big field, none of that fazes them. They lope along with the leaders of the pack until the jockey decides he’s seen enough, pushes the button, and they’re gone.

Trainer Todd Pletcher is 0-for-24 in the Derby, but it is not a curse that has kept him out of the winner’s circle, it’s been his horses. Eskendereya, Pletcher says, is the first horse he’s trained he knew for certain could go the Derby distance. “It’s amazing. The farther he goes, the stronger he gets. He’s a horse that has natural stamina.”

Eskendereya’s rider, John Velazquez, also has never won the Kentucky Derby. But he, too, just needs the right horse.

Lookin good

Lookin At Lucky, the 2-year-old champion that has won six of eight starts and banked $1.5 million, could change his name to Lucky in Looks. He’s not just handsome, but racehorse-sharp looking.

The bay son of Smart Strike gleamed a bit as he strode out onto the Churchill Downs track for the first time last week — taking some exercise after arriving by jet from California. At a gallop, Lucky has a cool look to him: Not big like a locomotive, but clean-lined and sleek — with his head kind of heading the train, pointing right down the tracks. Some newly arrived horses gawk around when they get to Churchill, but not Lookin At Lucky. He’s steady where he’s headed — and gets that way directly.

Looks, of course, have nothing to do with how Lookin At Lucky stacks up against Eskendereya — or maybe they do.

“He’s going to be something to see as he gets into his works here,” predicts Byrne. “I think he’s a dirt horse who’s going to tear up this track.”

This synthetic track versus plain dirt is serious business. Handicappers and horse people realize most horses are better on one or the other. Few handle both well, and California and Keeneland winners on synthetic surfaces generally have had little success on dirt in the Kentucky Derby. Last year, Lucky made all his starts on synthetic surfaces, so to see where he stood, trainer Bob Baffert shipped Lookin At Lucky to Arkansas this spring for a race on the dirt course at Oaklawn Park. He won.

Sidney's Candy

The Kentucky Derby is a wonderful venue for human-interest stories and storybook endings. In recent years, the Derby has handed out late-in-life victories to a handful of racing’s most ardent supporters, kind of a going-away present for a few men and women who had been in racing all their lives, but never won a Kentucky Derby. There are romantic tales, too, of far younger Derby winners.

This year, the Derby has a feel-good story in the run made by Sidney’s Candy — three-straight stakes victories in California, including the Santa Anita Derby — to earn a trip to Kentucky. Sidney’s Candy surely rates a nod, especially with trainer John Sadler rising to the top level of racing success, and 20-year-old jockey Joe Talamo back again for another try at the Derby. Last year, he was the rider of the Derby favorite, I Want Revenge, which was scratched from the race Derby morning. Sadler also won the $1 million Arkansas Derby with Line of David, and has that horse here, as well as Crisp, a filly for the Kentucky Oaks.

But the feel-good part of the story centers around owner Jenny Craig, the weight loss entrepreneur, and her late husband Sid, for whom Jenny named Sidney’s Candy. The Candy part comes from Kentucky stallion Candy Ride.

On the morning of the Santa Anita Derby, Craig called trainer Sadler from Paris and told him if Sidney’s Candy won, look for her in Louisville. She already had her Kentucky Derby tickets. Still stuck in Paris due to a volcanic eruption and lingering ash cloud grounding most European flights, Craig has bought a ticket on a passenger ship hoping to arrive in Louisville in time.

While Sid Craig was always the racing fan, the couple took up horse ownership together when Jenny retired. The Craigs’ interest began as a hobby, but soon they both became passionately involved — to the point that they were buying each other racehorses as presents.

Be sure and look for the drawing on the front of the Craigs’ silks, which will be worn by Talamo in the Derby. It’s a “Peb” cartoon of a colt and a filly dancing, a caricature of the Craigs by artist Pierre Bellocq that appeared in the Daily Racing Form.

The caution on Sidney’s Candy is that he’s won all his races on synthetic tracks in California, and all in wire-to-wire fashion. But he’s looked very good doing it.

A surprising Victor

When Stately Victor won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, it was a 40-1 shocker. His $82.20 payoff surpassed Dust Commander’s $72.80 in 1970 as the longest price in the history of the Blue Grass. Dust Commander went on to win the Kentucky Derby at $32.60. If Stately Victor pulls off a double like that this year, his victory would be even more startling.

In the first place, a horse suddenly topping all previous form to win a big race at a big price seldom repeats in his next start. Handicappers also will note Stately Victor’s race came on synthetic surface at Keeneland, and his only other win was on turf.

Stately Victor isn’t a nobody. He was the sale-topper in a 2-year-old sale in Florida last year, with Louisville attorney Tom Conway paying $250,000 for the son of Ghostzapper, who is by Awesome Again. Trainer Mike Maker liked the way the horse moved, and says Conway liked the colt’s pedigree. Conway included in the ownership his son Jack, Kentucky’s attorney general and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

“Getting beat is one thing, but every race is frustrating,” says Maker, a leading trainer at Churchill Downs with a strong national reputation. Last season, Maker captured a $1 million Breeders’ Cup race for prominent owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, for whom he trains Dean’s Kitten, who will also run the Kentucky Derby.

But Stately Victor was a stumper.

“You find yourself saying, ‘When is he going to have a clear path to run?’” continues Maker. “After a while, you just kind of think you’re making excuses for this horse, and the bottom line is he probably can’t run anyway. Guess we found out. Guess we found out in a big way.”

Indeed.

In the Blue Grass, Stately Victor came away from the gate in his usual mild manner, settling back in the pack where a non-threatening long shot belongs.

But going into the far turn, Stately Victor began to move, passing horses. Jockey Alan Garcia was giving him the confident ride, swinging wide into the stretch to make a run at the leader.

Paddy O’Prado (another Derby contender) seemingly had things going his way, opening up two lengths at the top of the stretch. That’s usually a winning scenario. But a funny thing happened: Stately Victor didn’t just settle for second. He galloped right by that Paddy horse and kept going.

Yeah, yeah. You’re right. Weak field. Synthetic track. Likely to bounce. One-race wonder. It’s all of that.

But Stately Victor has long legs that stretch out a long way.

“He’s got a massive stride,” says Maker. “Just got this long, even stride that goes and goes and goes. Never changes speed. He doesn’t have that big turn of foot. Just keeps going.”

Awesome Act

Awesome Act is a son of Awesome Again, the 1998 winner of the 1 1/4 miles Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Awesome Act is trained in England by Jeremy Noseda, but has been pointed at American races. He finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last fall, and this spring won the Gotham Stakes and finished third in the Wood Memorial (behind Eskendereya.)

“You want him to be comfortable and relaxed,” says Jockey Julien Leparoux, the leading rider at Churchill Downs and the Eclipse Award winning jockey in North America last year. “He had that in the Gotham, and when I asked him, he really brought his best run.”

But the Wood had no fast pace for Awesome Act to run down.

“He’s a very quiet horse, very professional,” adds Leparoux. “Now, I think, we are going to have pace for sure in the Derby, so he can relax and have a big shot to finish in the top three to five. Maybe win.”

No chance, and chance

Of course, it’s easy to get Derby tips. One guy recently told us NONE of the top four finishers in the Louisiana Derby would amount to anything. Just an hour later, another expert said people were underrating the Louisiana Derby horses. He particularly liked the winner of that race, Mission Impazible.

The best bet, however, is to avoid tips on the Derby entirely. But that is impazible.

It is too bad Setsuko, a horse with an outstanding distance pedigree who finished a fast-closing second in Santa Anita, probably will not make it into the Kentucky Derby field. Setsuko and U.S. Racing Hall of Fame trainer Dick Mandella will watch the Derby at home on TV in California, while a whole slew of speed horses wing-ding themselves into oblivion trying to lead all the way at Churchill Downs. The Derby field is limited to the top 20 graded stakes money earners. It’s a fair rule, but often favors speed horses that have “wired” fields in shorter races leading up to the Derby. Most of them have never passed a horse in their lives. So we’ll not spend time (or money) on Rule, Super Saver, Discreetly Mine, Line of David or Conveyance.

Horses with a nugget of promise include Endorsement, American Lion and Paddy O’Prado, who seem on the upswing. And while Dean’s Kitten might be strictly a turf and synthetic specialist, he owns the lowest Dosage Index — a mathematical figure used to calculate a horse’s ability — in the race: 1.15. Think of him as an out-of-the-clouds long shot who could be fourth in the superfecta to help you take home all the kale on Central Avenue.

Florida Derby winner Ice Box has become a closer, but we prefer owner Robert V. LaPenta’s other Derby horse, Jackson Bend. Both are trained by Nick Zito. LaPenta has started several horses in the Derby, and is a racing enthusiast. To promote his stallion, The Cliff’s Edge, LaPenta purchased a naming sponsorship for this Saturday’s pre-Derby race, dubbed The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial.

Meanwhile, Jackson Bend has a totally wrong kind of pedigree, but works hard at racing. He’s been first or second in all nine of his races. If Bend were a human, we’d imagine him as a working guy with a cool job. Say a horn player. He’d carry a card from Local 11 of the American Federation of Musicians and show up ready to play the show.