LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- After finishing a well-beaten third in the Florida Derby this winter, Pistols and Roses looked like a second-stringer. Still, trainer George Gianos said he would never switch riders, even if he went to the Kentucky Derby.
But, a few weeks later, Gianos pulled Herbie Castillo Jr., the colt's regular jockey, off the horse and replaced him with Jacinto Vasquez, 48. Pistols and Roses promptly went wire-to-wire to win the $500,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course.
Now, Pistols and Roses is at the Derby, rated among the top challengers to favorite Arazi.
"Herbie's mother still won't talk to me," Gianos said. "But I knew I was going out of town. You're in a strange place, running for a half-million dollars, and you can't be nice. Herbie isn't mean enough. Jacinto is. And he rode the hair off the horse in the Blue Grass. The colt knew he'd been in a horse race when he got back."
The colt's owner, Sheldon Willis, was also $300,000 and some change richer.
Vasquez, who had a hard time breaking into the top 10 leading riders at Laurel Race Course last fall, looked like a has-been and switched his tack to Florida.
Why did Gianos choose Vasquez, who will ride Pistols and Roses in the Derby on Saturday?
"Jockeys like Laffit Pincay Jr. and Mike Smith were trying to get on the horse," Gianos said. "I've ridden jockeys like Jose Santos and Chris Antley before. But I didn't have any rapport with them. But I've put Jacinto on some of my stakes horses cold, and I'd say three out of four times, he's won with them. I'm sound with him, and he's sound with me."
Gianos said he gave Vasquez no instructions before the Blue Grass, that it was Vasquez's presence of mind that prompted him to put the colt on the lead, something Pistols and Roses had never done.
With front-runner Bertrando out of the Derby, the race seems devoid of speed. Could Pistols and Roses -- one of two gray horses in the 19-horse Derby lineup; the other is Ecstatic Ride -- fill the gap?
"Won't know anything until the post positions are drawn [tomorrow]," Gianos said. "But I'm not the kind of trainer who tries to out-figure what other people are going to do. A speed horse stumbles. The jocks panic. Anything goes in the Derby, anyway, short of assault with a lead pipe. So I'm not going to predict what anyone is going to do."
Vasquez has plenty of Derby experience. He won the race in 1975 with Foolish Pleasure and in 1980 with Genuine Risk.
The way Gianos sizes up the race, Arazi and A.P. Indy are in a class by themselves.
"I'd say after those two, Pistols and Roses falls near the top of the second tier," Gianos said. "The question is: Is Arazi as good as his press? He just might be. His people certainly seem to think he is. His presence adds a lot of mystique to the race. I think there are so many horses in the race because people aren't convinced he can win the Derby off just one race since November. But his trainer knows what he's doing."
Why is Pistols and Roses running?
"I say, 'Why not?' The bottom line is that this is a horse race, and anything can happen," he said. "I don't have to win to be happy. I'm looking for my horse to run a decent race. He's better now than he's ever been. I never bought that story that he had peaked too soon and was going over the edge after he lost the Florida Derby. He didn't act like that kind of horse to me. He's gaining weight, and he's sound. I think he'll go 1 1/4 miles. After all, it's not so bad to run second or third in the Kentucky Derby."