LOUISVILLE, Ky. — — With the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby behind us and the eyes of the horse racing industry now focused on the Preakness in less than two weeks, the most important questions that need to be answered have as much to do with the mud as they do with a horse.
Is Super Saver a great 3-year-old capable of winning the Triple Crown? Or is he simply a great mudder who, thanks to jockey Calvin Borel, took advantage of the rain-soaked track at Churchill Downs?
We likely won't know the answer until the Preakness on May 15. But Super Saver's trainer, Todd Pletcher, and his owners at WinStar Farm are confident the colt can hold up to scrutiny. He is, after all, a distant relative of both Seattle Slew and Secretariat. Pletcher thought Super Saver's victory Saturday had more to do with his maneuverability than with the mud.
"I think his running style suits Pimlico well," said Pletcher, who ended an 0-for-24 drought in the Kentucky Derby. "I think that one of the reasons he was able to get a good trip is because he's a very nifty, handy horse. Traffic conditions are sometimes created by the horse himself, and his style of running is not vulnerable. He doesn't need a pace setup; he's the kind of horse that makes his own trip. He's not at the mercy of what's happening around him."
But there is no denying the conditions favored Super Saver. As a 2-year-old, he earned his first career victory in the slop, dominating a race at Belmont Park and winning by seven lengths. And he benefited from some bad luck suffered by the runner-up, Ice Box, who was probably the fastest horse Saturday.
The Nick Zito-trained colt was checked — meaning jockey Jose Lezcano had to pull him up because he was blocked — three times during the race, and he still lost by only 21/2 lengths.
"I don't like to make excuses," Zito said. "I hate that. You always salute the winner. But [Ice Box] was checked three times. Not once — three times. That's a winning race. A lot of people don't realize that means he's running even harder than the winner."
But Super Saver has been on people's radar, not just Pletcher's, since November, when he won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs with Borel riding him. That was a tactical decision by Pletcher and WinStar Farms to have Borel get experience on Super Saver in preparation for the Derby, which wasn't for another six months.
"The winner is a good horse. I always liked that horse," trainer Bob Baffert said. "When I was watching Derby horses, I thought he was their best horse in the fall, back when he won at Churchill. He was on the rail the whole time. And he looked good training here too."
Borel's post-Derby prediction that Super Saver was going to win the Triple Crown raised a few eyebrows, but Baffert didn't think that was a bad thing.
"You never know," Baffert said. "The horse is a good horse. I think it's good for racing that he said that because maybe it will get more people involved."
It will be interesting to see who enters the Preakness field, hoping to deny Super Saver the second leg of the Triple Crown. Pletcher will have a second horse, Aikenite — who is owned by Cot Campbell's Dogwood Stable — in the race. Paddy O'Prado, who finished third, will be in Baltimore, according to trainer Dale Romans.
Fourth-place finisher Make Music for Me is probably in, trainer Alexis Barba said. D. Wayne Lukas said he will likely enter Dublin.
According to Pimlico Race Course's vice president of communications, Mike Gathagan, seven other runners who did not compete in the Derby have contacted the Maryland Jockey Club with interest in entering: A Little Warm, second at the Louisiana Derby; Bushwhacked, second in the Lexington Stakes; Caracortado, fourth at the Santa Anita Derby; Hurricane Ike, a Derby Trial winner; Pleasant Prince, third at the Derby Trial; Schoolyard Dreams, a distant fourth in the Wood Memorial; and Turf Melody, third in the Illinois Derby.
Blind Luck, winner of the Kentucky Oaks, won't be coming, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said.
Zito and Baffert were noncommittal about whether their horses would come to Baltimore, although Zito indicated Ice Box would be highly unlikely to make the trip.
"To run the horse off a six-week layoff and to see him have to check three times makes it hard to run back in two weeks and then again three weeks later," Zito said. "If we had won, it would have been a different story. You never say never, but it looks doubtful."
Zito did indicate that Jackson Bend, his second Derby horse, has a good chance of entering the Preakness.
Baffert said he needed to wait to see how Lookin At Lucky trained the next few days before he could figure out what to do. His horse was tabbed as the favorite before the race but was bounced around in traffic and never recovered, finishing sixth. He also wasn't sure about Conveyance, who set the Derby pace but faded to 15th.
"I'll probably leave you all in suspense," Baffert said.