For at least 25 years, maybe longer, when the countdown t the Triple Crown begins heating up, Chick Lang and I have collaborated on a piece about 3-year-olds. The purpose is to give all an idea of names to watch, horses we might be seeing on the track for the Derby the first Saturday in May, along with some educated comment from Lang.
When we started it, Chick was vitally interested in the 3-year-olds as general manager of Pimlico, home of the Preakness. Even though he is supposed to be retired now, he is just about as active in racing as ever, and nobody keeps up with the 3-year-olds better. So, what about this year's crop?
"An interesting group with some interesting offshoots to follow," he began. "What I really want to watch is whether Scotty Schulhofer runs an entry with Fly So Free and Cahill Road, maybe even Scan, and whether LeRoy Jolley challenges the colts with his sensational filly, Meadow Star.
"Before his last race in the Florida Derby, a lot of people I really respect in racing told me Fly So Free was so good he had a lock on the Derby. But I was at Gulfstream for that race, and although he won his third stakes in as many starts this year, I left with a few reservations about him.
"He's good, no question about that, and right now he is the Derby favorite, but he seemed so much the best of that field I thought he would demolish those horses and show us some real good fractions on a track that was lightning fast. He didn't. He held off Strike The Gold by a length, but his time wasn't impressive and Jose Santos hit him 18 times with the whip in the stretch.
"He said the colt looks for horses when he gets the lead. If he looks for horses in the Derby, he'll darn sure find them," said Lang with a chuckle. "There are no timeouts, no breathers, no bases on balls in that race. The speed horses fight you early, then when they back off, the second wave makes its run. Coming to the wire, the closers kick in. There is no problem finding horses all the way in the Derby.
"Cahill Road is an interesting case. He's a full brother to last year's Derby winner, Unbridled, and owned by Mrs. Frances Genter, the 92-year-old lady who made such a great impression in the winner's circle last year. Funny thing is, Carl Nafzger did such a good job training Unbridled then, and still trains him now, but Schulhofer trains Cahill Road. Why? They kid each other about it, but sometimes I wonder if it's kidding on the square.
"Cahill Road is lightly raced, but has a lot of ability. Scotty thinks he isn't seasoned enough, needs more education and probably isn't as good as Fly So Free anyway, but I still think he might run an entry. They look to be the best in Florida now."
What about Meadow Star? "A great looking filly," answered Lang. "She is 8-for-8, with seven easy stakes wins, and LeRoy has been down this road before, because he won the Derby with another filly, Genuine Risk. But, you know LeRoy. He's conservative. He didn't want to run Genuine Risk in the Derby, but the owners did, and she won it. I talked with LeRoy. He said he's keeping one eye on the colts, one on the fillies, and he'll decide when the time comes. If he runs, you have to give him a shot, because he won't go unless he thinks he has one."
Any local challengers? "Well, Tong Po, the colt Leon Blusiewicz trains, was impressive winning the Tesio, but Leon originally said he didn't think he would go to the Derby. But Thursday, he said that owener Robert Quinichett is talking about going to the Derby. He will race in the Wood Memorial in New York.
"The West Coast people claim they have a good crop, but they have a half-dozen horses who keep beating each other. Nobody seems to take over. For the long haul, I like Best Pal out there. Fly So Free beat him in the Breeders' Cup last year, but that wasn't his best race. Other names they throw at you from California are Dinard, Apollo, Compelling Sound. Sea Cadet is interesting. He isn't nominated for the Triple Crown, but you can go the supplemental route now. He's trained by Ron McAnally, the latest trainer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Sea Cadet recently won impressively for Chris McCarron, so he's a possibility.
"Charlie Whittingham is high on a colt named Excavate, but I hear he has physical problems. But, there is nobody better at getting a horse ready for one race than Charlie. If he runs in the Derby, watch him."
Wayne Lukas? "I talked with Wayne. He says he is loaded with good fillies, but his colts haven't developed as fast. Unless he brings one out of the woodwork in a hurry, he might not be a factor this year. Richman won the Louisiana Derby, but Billy Mott, a good young horseman, seems to think he is sort of the junior varsity to the best of this crop, and unless he changes his mind he intends to duck them and go for the money elsewhere.
"You might throw an eye on Fenter. He is owned by Loblolly Stable. They've had some good ones, and he is probably the best in the Hot Springs area. He is going in the Arkansas Derby April 20, and that race has sent some Derby winners to Louisville.
"All in all, it could be an interesting year," concluded Chick. "See you at the Derby."