Spoils go to fittest, so `Vision' rates high

Tapit, `Jones,' `David' among others in running

Analysis

Horse Racing

May 01, 2004|By Steve Davidowitz | Steve Davidowitz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The 130th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is a wild handicapping puzzle with many missing pieces. Though the Derby is always difficult to win, this year's version features a bulky field of 18 colts with plenty of good and bad performances plus a probable wet track.

Sure, Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones is unbeaten in six starts, but until now he's been kept away from most of the best horses. No one knows if he will falter or if first-time Derby rider Stewart Elliott can ration his speed through the 1 1/4 miles.

Should he secure a safe striking position outside front-running Lion Heart, Smarty Jones just might kick away from his rivals through the long Churchill Downs stretch. Or, maybe Lion Heart can shake off Smarty Jones' bid and go gate to wire, just as underrated War Emblem did in 2002.

These two high-class colts also might push each other into fast early fractions, leaving them vulnerable to stretch-running Tapit, Master David, Imperialism, Borrego, Castledale, Friends Lake and a half dozen others making their moves from heavy traffic on the final turn.

Pollard's Vision, Read the Footnotes, Limehouse and Quintons Gold Rush also have the speed to push a taxing pace or challenge for the lead approaching the final turn.

Of this group, Pollard's Vision, improving winner of a fast Illinois Derby, seems the most intriguing upset possibility from slightly off the pace for potent jockey-trainer combination John R. Velazquez and Todd Pletcher.

The bottom line is the Derby is invariably won by a horse in pluperfect physical condition. That is why several talented contenders - Action This Day, Read the Footnotes, Friends Lake and Birdstone - have to be regarded suspiciously.

All turned in top performances quite some time ago or failed to run a step in recent starts. Read the Footnotes ran extremely fast in February, but was kept on the training track after a poor Florida Derby.

Should he win, trainer Rick Violette will have pulled off a remarkable feat. Ditto for the Mark Hennig-trained Friends Lake, who won the Florida Derby and has not raced since, and the Nick Zito-trained Birdstone.

All have trained well at Churchill Downs, but are big question marks.

The Cliff's Edge, the morning-line Derby favorite also trained by Zito, had a career-best stretch-running performance in beating Lion Heart in the Blue Grass but needs a hot pace to repeat that performance at relatively modest odds.

Tapit, the lightly raced stretch-running winner of the Wood Memorial, has much room for improvement, as does the Bobby Frankel-trained Master David, who finished second in the Wood. Master David is more nimble, but Tapit has the most inherent talent. Either could win; either could wind up 12th.

The fittest horses in this diabolical race seem to be: No. 17 Pollard's Vision, No. 18 Tapit, No. 15 Smarty Jones, No. 8 Master David, No. 11 The Cliff's Edge, No. 10 Imperialism and No. 3 Lion Heart, ranked in order of my preference.

In such a wide-open race, it makes sense to play my hypothetical $100 bankroll in pursuit of a juicy payoff while using this cavalry charge as a betting guide for the Preakness.

First, a $10 win on 20-1 shot No. 17 Pollard's Vision ($10).

Next, a series of $1 exacta boxes, each costing $6:

Ticket A: No. 17, No. 18, No. 15 ($6).

Ticket B: No. 17, No. 8, No. 11 ($6)

Ticket C: No. 17, No. 10, No. 3 ($6)

Next a series of $2 exacta boxes, each costing $24:

Ticket D: No. 17, No. 18, No. 15, No. 8, ($24)

Ticket E: No. 17, No. 18, No. 15, No. 11 ($24)

Ticket F; No. 17, No. 18, No. 15, No. 10 ($24)

Total $100.

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