Could the best horse be a girl again this year?

April 28, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — — A year ago, after the first week in May, it was pretty obvious that the best 3-year-old in the country wasn't the Kentucky Derby winner.

That distinction belonged to Rachel Alexandra, who won the Kentucky Oaks, a race for fillies, by a jaw-dropping 20 1/2 lengths the day before the Derby. Rachel Alexandra was sold to new owners, who immediately entered her in the Preakness, and the filly proved that gender was no obstacle by winning easily.

So is it possible the best 3-year-old in the country this year is, once again, a girl?

Todd Pletcher thinks so. It's at least possible. And he's not alone in his thinking. With Lookin At Lucky and Sidney's Candy each drawing unfavorable post positions in Wednesday's draw, plenty of eyes turned to Devil May Care, the Pletcher-trained filly. At 10-1 odds, she is seen as having a legitimate chance at becoming the fourth filly in history to win the Kentucky Derby.

"She wants a mile and a quarter," Pletcher said. "I think she relishes that. It's a big challenge for any horse, filly, colt, gelding, whatever. But we really like the way she's trained all along. She's trained alongside these colts, and she's breezed really well. I like her draw."

Devil May Care's owner, John Greathouse, said the gender difference isn't a concern for him. Two years ago, when Eight Belles had to be euthanized after finishing second in the Derby and breaking both legs, there was a heated discussion about whether she should have been racing against colts. But the success of Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, and the recent dominance of Zenyatta — who is undefeated in 16 career races — seems to have silenced the debate.

The last filly to win the Derby was Winning Colors in 1988.

"Good fillies, internationally, run against good colts all the time," Greathouse said. "Why it seems to be taboo here in the United States is beyond me. Good animals are capable of overcoming those things.

"When you look at this filly, she's not going to look like some dainty little thing. She's a good size, big strong filly, and she'll take care of them herself."

Devil May Care will wear blinkers for the first time this week, a move Pletcher thinks will help her focus. She won the Bonnie Miss despite wandering all over the track once she got the lead.

"It speaks to how much ability she has to win a race like that and not be focused while she's doing it," Pletcher said. "We've trained her in blinkers since then, and she's adjusted very, very well. She likes them and seems focused, so it has become a no-brainer."

Endorsement scratched

Endorsement, considered by some handicappers to be an enticing bet this week at the Kentucky Derby, was scratched Wednesday morning after trainer Shannon Ritter noticed an ankle injury after his morning workout.

The mood outside barn No. 19 was grim after Endorsement's morning workout, which started brilliantly as the horse ran four furlongs in 48 seconds but ended poorly when Ritter felt the horse pull up lame on the walk back to the barn. X-rays soon revealed a nondisplaced condylar fracture of his right front ankle.

"The way Endorsement worked this morning, we were just thrilled," said Bill Casner, one of the horse's co-owners. "He couldn't have been any better. Shannon came off the track beaming. The horse was really at the top of his game. But it all went downhill from there. When he got back to [the] barn, he started favoring his ankle. This is a game of mountains and valleys, I guess."

Endorsement was slated to go off at 12-1 but was an intriguing bet because of the 101 Beyer Speed Rating he showed in winning the Sunland Derby.

"It's obviously very disappointing," Ritter told the media. "It's hard to get to the Derby."

There was concern earlier in the week that all might not be right with Endorsement, the son of Distorted Humor, when Ritter gave him the day off Sunday and didn't even bring him out of the barn. But Ritter dismissed questions about it at the time, saying she typically likes to give her horses a day off each week.

Ritter, who has never saddled a Kentucky Derby horse before, was trying to become the first female trainer to win the race in its 136-year history.

"She's a person you really have to root for," Casner said. "It was heart-wrenching event, and I know it's devastating for her. She lives with that horse."

Elliot Walden, the racing manager of WinStar Farm, which owns the horse, said it's too soon to say whether Endorsement's career is over. The horse is headed to Lexington for surgery, and the projected recovery time is three to six months.

Coincidentally, a female trainer could still win the Kentucky Derby.

Endorsement's injury gave another female trainer, Alexis Barba, a shot when Make Music for Me was the next horse in line with enough graded stakes earnings to qualify for the field.

"It's very exciting, but you feel bad for [Ritter]," Barba said. "You're glad you're in, but you're sad for the other person."

Barba, who trained Make Music for Me to a victory in the Pasadena Stakes, said blazing a trail for her gender would be just about the last thing on her mind if she were to pull off the huge upset. Make Music for Me's odds are 50-1.

"I don't look at it in terms of gender," Barba said. "If I'm the first woman, that would just be a big bonus, wouldn't it?"

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/KVanValkenburg

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