The only sure shots seem to be long ones

Upsets rule Derby preps, where favorites falter, and picture might not clear up

April 10, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - If you're having trouble following the bouncing ball, then join the party. The lead-up to the Kentucky Derby has been incomprehensible.

Long shots have won nearly every important Derby prep, and shocking long shots have won the most important two. Friends Lake captured the Florida Derby and paid $76.80. Castledale upset the Santa Anita Derby field and returned $62.

What's more, the favorites have often faltered abysmally. The fastest horses seem to lack the breeding to sustain their speed for the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4 miles, and the come-from-behind horses simply don't seem strong enough.

Now come the final three major preps for the Kentucky Derby on May 1 at Churchill Downs. Today, 30 3-year-olds race in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. They will perhaps lend some clarity to the so-far foggy picture. But chances are, at the end of the day, handicappers will still be scratching their heads trying to identify the horse who will win the 130th Kentucky Derby.

"The Derby favorite will be 8-1," said John Toscano Jr., trainer of Sinister G, an entrant in the Wood. "I've never seen a race so wide-open."

An 8-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby would set a record for highest odds for a favorite in the country's most-watched race. Harlan's Holiday set the standard two years ago at 6-1.

For the first time since 1999, when Churchill Downs began offering futures betting on the Derby, the favorite is "all others" in all three pools. In other words, during each wagering period in February, March and April, bettors decided that any other 3-year-old was more likely to win the Derby than the 23 top contenders offered as single betting interests.

"All others" closed at 6-1 in the final pool last week. Smarty Jones at 10-1 was the second favorite, followed by Master David at 12-1, Eddington at 13-1 and Rock Hard Ten at 14-1. As if the situation isn't chaotic enough, those four horses risk not even qualifying for the Derby because of a lack of earnings in graded stakes.

The Derby is limited to 20 horses. If more than 20 enter, then the field is determined by graded-stakes earnings. In this, one of the most puzzling years ever for Derby contenders, several are still trying to complete the required application for Derby admission.

In the Wood, only Sinister G, winner of the Grade II Lane's End Stakes, and Value Plus, runner-up in the Grade I Florida Derby and Grade I Belmont Futurity, are guaranteed berths in the Derby starting gate. Maryland-based Tapit, who will be ridden by Maryland's leading jockey, Ramon Dominguez, is one at risk of missing the cut.

This will be Tapit's fourth race and his second as a 3-year-old. He finished a lackluster sixth in the Florida Derby four weeks ago and returned to Maryland with what trainer Michael Dickinson described as a "pretty significant" lung infection. Dickinson nursed the colt along at his Tapeta Farm in Cecil County.

Before the Florida Derby, Dickinson said he'd be delighted if Tapit finished third. He said the colt was good enough to win but not fit enough. Yesterday, he repeated the refrain for the Wood.

"We'll be delighted if we finish third," said Dickinson, noting that third-place money ($75,000) should be enough to get Tapit into the Derby. "But we're only just out of the woods health-wise, and we're obviously not 100 percent fit."

Value Plus, the striking gray son of Unbridled's Song, winner of the 1996 Wood, appears ready to follow in his father's footsteps. Todd Pletcher, his trainer, has intensified the speedy colt's training since his impressive effort in the Florida Derby.

"I think we've arrived at this point ready to run our best races in the two most important ones: the Wood and three weeks from now in the Derby," Pletcher said.

The 36-year-old trainer will saddle Value Plus in New York, but he also has Limehouse in the Blue Grass and Purge in the Arkansas Derby. Last week he saddled Pollard's Vision to a convincing victory in the Illinois Derby. Those four horses could give Pletcher one-fifth of the field in the Kentucky Derby.

The trainer Nick Zito held the strongest hand early in the year, but his two top prospects, Birdstone and Eurosilver, fell victim to illness. Eurosilver was withdrawn from Derby consideration because of an infection in his neck, and Birdstone was scratched from the Blue Grass because of a blood disorder. Zito said Birdstone remains a candidate for the Derby.

Off the beaten path at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., the undefeated Smarty Jones will establish whether he'll be America's darling at the Derby or whether he's a Pennsylvania-bred flash in the pan feasting on inferior competition. He has won all five of his races - four of them stakes, but not one of them graded. He'll need to finish first or second in the lucrative Arkansas Derby for his requisite share of graded-stakes earnings.

Celebrating its 100th year, Oaklawn Park not only doubled the Arkansas Derby pot to $1 million but also offered a $5 million bonus to the horse who can sweep Oaklawn's Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Smarty Jones has already won the Rebel.

Despite breaking from the outside 11 post, he will likely be the biggest favorite in the three crucial races. That could be a curse in this, the year of the upset.

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