HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It's March16, seven weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Do you know who your Derby horse is?
You're not alone; neither does hardly anybody else. This has been a dull year so far, when no single 3-year-old has separated himself from the pack. Even those few who head most prognosticators' lists offer a mixed bag of unanswered questions and nagging flaws.
However, if racing fans are ever going to start solving the riddle of this year's Triple Crown series, then solutions will begin taking shape this weekend. Three major stakes for 3-year-olds take place in Florida, New York and California, featuring a dozen serious contenders for the Derby on May 4 at Churchill Downs.
Today, at Gulfstream Park between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, 11 horses will contest the Grade I, $1 million Florida Derby, the richest Kentucky Derby prep in the country.
Tomorrow, seven will compete in the Grade III, $200,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct and seven in the Grade II, $250,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
"Horses are really late developing this year," said John Ward Jr., trainer of Booklet, one of the favorites in the Florida Derby. "We're all still really trying to figure out what we've got.
"Let me put it like this: After this weekend, there're going to be an awful lot of people who decide to go to other derbies. I think there are more people going to leave the Derby trail than come on it."
Booklet could become the first horse to sweep Gulfstream's major stakes for 3-year-olds: the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. That would assure his rank among the leading Kentucky Derby contenders despite his modest pedigree and doubts about his ability at the demanding Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles.
Harlan's Holiday will stop that from happening, said Ken McPeek, who trains Harlan's Holiday as well as Repent, No. 1 or 2 in nearly everyone's Derby poll, and Take Charge Lady, the speedball filly.
Harlan's Holiday finished second to Booklet in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, both at 1 1/16 miles. The Florida Derby at 1 1/8 miles provides Harlan's Holiday the extra distance needed to track down the front-running Booklet, McPeek said. Plus, Edgar Prado will pilot Harlan's Holiday for the first time.
"I think we'll get him this time," McPeek said. "That extra 16th of a mile is all he needs."
Repent, McPeek's other Derby candidate, salvaged a victory last weekend in the Louisiana Derby that can only be termed "ugly." Repent wouldn't change leads in the stretch (switch the leg with which he leads his stride).
His jockey Jerry Bailey, aboard for the first time, fought him mercilessly, nearly turning him sideways trying to force him to change from his left lead around the turn to his right lead down the straightaway. Finally, Repent switched, accelerated and caught Easyfromthegitgo at the wire to win by a nose.
That wasn't all Repent, the 2-5 late-running favorite, overcame.
"The only way the other jockeys were going to beat him was by slowing down the pace and boxing him in," McPeek said. "They did both those things, and he won anyway."
Repent has won four graded stakes and finished a fast-closing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Harlan's Holiday, an Ohio-bred, has captured just one graded stakes. Still, McPeek touts both.
"I know there's a lot of talk about Repent," the Kentucky trainer said. "But Harlan's Holiday is rock solid. It's hard to separate the two the longer I'm around them."
NOTES: Tony Dutrow has revamped Saratoga Blues' spring campaign, and it no longer features a run at the Kentucky Derby. Stabled at Laurel Park, Dutrow decided not to run Alvin Akman's undefeated colt in the Gotham Stakes, but to point him instead to the Spiral Stakes next Saturday at Turfway Park.
"We'd be playing catch-up if we tried to rush him into the Derby," Dutrow said. "If he's good enough, maybe we'll run him in the Preakness." ...
Racing for the first time in four months, Belterra finished third as the 3-5 favorite yesterday in the $250,000 Bonnie Miss Stakes, a Grade II test for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park. Dust Me Off, trained by Allen Jerkens, led from gate to wire to capture the 1 1/8 -mile race in 1 minute, 49 3/5 seconds and return $18 to win. Nonsuch Bay finished second.
"One step at a time," said Bob Manfuso, the Marylander who bred and owns Belterra. "She needed the race."
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies races will be contested at 1 1/8 miles instead of 1 1/16 miles at Arlington Park on Oct. 26. The change of distance approved by the Breeders' Cup Limited Board of Directors on Friday applies to only this year. The reasoning behind the change is due to the short run into the first turn on Arlington Park's main track.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Tom Keyser's Derby Dozen
Horse Sire Trainer Jockey Last race Next start Comment Odds*
Siphonic Siphon David Hofmans Jerry Bailey 2nd Santa Catalina San Felipe, tomorrow Stumbled badly at start of last race 5-1