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Mar 14, 2008

Through The Binoculars

By: JOHN PIESEN


DERBY PREPS FROM A TO Z

Trainers Nick Zito and Steve Asmussen -- in the shocking absence of Todd Pletcher -- are clearly dominating the Triple Crown Trail hype this season. This does not necessarily translate into a winner's circle celebration on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs, but, nevertheless, with a tad less than two months before Derby Day, any Derby discussion at this point has to focus on Mr. A. and Mr. Z.

Certainly, this weekend's Derby countdown begins and ends with Zito and Asmussen.

Trainer Nick has the unbeaten 2-year-old champion and current Derby favorite War Pass at Tampa Bay Downs, where he will be 1-9 in the $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby, a race that Street Sense used last year as a springboard to a Kentucky Derby victory.

And, half a continent away, Zito has Anak Nakal, the winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club last Fall at Churchill, in the $300,000 Rebel right here at Oaklawn Park.

And who will be the favorite in the Rebel?

That's simple.

Despite drawing the outside post in a field of nine, Z Fortune, trained by Steve Asmussen, will be a short price to give Steve his fourth Rebel triumph since the turn of the century. Steve won the Rebel in 2000 with Snuck In, in 2003 with Windward Passage, and last year with a nice colt named Curlin.

So what are we looking at here?

War Pass can pretty much name the margin in front of the good folks at Tampa, and it would surprise no one if Asmussen and Zito finish one-two in front of an expected crowd of 30,000 at Oaklawn.


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Surprisingly, neither Zito or Asmussen has a dog in the fight in the $200,000 San Felipe at Santa Anita.

Incidentally, such is the strength of California when it comes to grading races, the San Felipe, despite its smaller purse, is a Grade 2, while the Rebel and Tampa Bay Derby are listed at Grade 3.

(Speaking of Santa Anita, Rafael Bejarano, the leading rider there, was injured, apparently seriously, in a spill there Friday, and we join the racing world in wishing him a speedy recovery.)

And speaking of jockeys, there are two very interesting jockey angles concerning Saturday's three-year-old stakes.

First, reigning Eclipse winner Garrett Gomez chose to fly halfway across the country to ride Z Fortune in the Rebel, rather than stay home to ride Georgie Boy in the San Felipe.

What makes his decision even more interesting is the fact that, on Sunday, he'll be at Sunland Park to ride the stakes-rich card there. That's a lot of frequent flyer miles.

And, second, Julien Leparoux gave up the ride on Sacred Journey in the Rebel to ride a European shipper named Shediak in the San Felipe. 

Calvin Borel picks up the mount on Sacred Journey, who, no doubt, will be the controlling speed of the Rebel.

And Borel, now an international celebrity in the wake of Street Sense, is due for some luck inasmuch as it was his decision to choose Turf War over Denis of Cork for the Southwest.

You'll recall that Turf War finished eighth as the favorite, and Denis of Cork won going away -- under Robby Albarado -- to become a major contender for the Kentucky Derby.

More on Denis of Cork...

The unbeaten (3-for-3) colt was for sure coming to the Rebel, but his owners -- at the 11th hour -- decided to cancel the trip, and await the Wood Memorial, where Denis will face War Pass.

Of course, this is not the first decision made by these owners. Three years back, they took Edgar Prado, only the best rider alive, off Saint Liam.


There is a third jockey angle to the Rebel.

Chris Emigh rode Sierra Sunset to a second-place finish in the Southwest, but, when it came time to give the colt a strong work for the Rebel, trainer Jeff Bonde used Luis Quinonez, the defending Oaklawn champion.

With Luis Q up, Sierra Sunset rattled off five furlongs in :59 1/5, the fastest work of the year at Oaklawn. And SS did so under double wraps.

But Luis Q is committed to a no-chance longshot in the Rebel so Emigh, not a bad whippersnapper himself as Chicago folks know, gets the mount back for the Rebel.

What's more, Sierra Sunset had the good fortune to draw well (post two)  in the nine-horse Rebel.

Then there is the Lukas factor.

Trainer Wayne has Stone Bird in the Rebel, and he too drew well (post three), and he will be ridden by Joe Johnson, wh is the only one of the nine Rebel riders to have won the stake previously. In fact he has won it twice.

Wayne tried to get a big-name rider for Stone Bird, but may have lucked out.

Stone Bird is a three-quarter brother to Birdstone, who upset Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes. And, like Birdstone, Stone Bird is owned by Queen of Saratoga Mary Lou Whitney.

I foresaw the possibility of Mary Lou again knocking off an unbeaten three-year-old..at least until Denis of York came out.

Oh, yes. Asmussen is running the uncoupled King's Silver Son in the Rebel. And he went to the trouble of bringing Shawn Bridgmohan (Pyro's rider) up from New Orleans for the riding assignment.

Some folks will be tempted to play Golden Yank in the Rebel off his terrific 2-year-old form. But I don't believe this colt is close to bringing his "A" race off the three-month layup.

As mentioned above, Sacred Journey is the pure speed of the Rebel, and is in the hands of a top speed rider in Borel.

It's possible that this could be a big weekend for a certain Delaware auto dealer named Rick Porter...the same Rick Porter, who, in recent years, gave us Rockport Harbor (check out Rockportharbor.com), Round Pond and Hard Spun.

And, on Sunday, an admittedly nervous Porter will watch Eight Belles run in the $100,000 Honeybee.

I have promised to withhold all talk of advising Porter and trainer Larry Jones to point Eight Belles for the Arkansas and Kentucky Derbys until we see what happens Sunday.

In a division of the Martha Washington, Eight Belles looked like the second coming of Ruffian winning by an all-time Oaklawn stakes record 13 1/2 lengths, but we have to see how she fares against much better opposition, notably Pure Clan, who is unbeaten in four starts for trainer Bob Holthus.

Ramon Dominguez will give up his usual four or five Aqueduct winners to come to Hot Springs to ride Eight Belles, and Leparoux will make the trip from California to ride Pure Span.

Believe me, none of Ramon's 100-plus winners at the current Big A meet can compare to Eight Belles.

Eight Belles and Pure Clan currently are ranked in the top four betting interests -- and deservedly so -- in Churchill's Kentucky Oaks future book.

I'm just hoping that Eight Belles (who will be 2-5) and Pure Clan (who will be 9-5) both bring their "A" races, and both come back OK.

The third choice in the race will be Kadira, whose trainer, David Vance, is recovering from massive injuries sustained in a car wreck back in December in northern Kentucky. And Kadira's jockey is Larry Melancon, who, at 52, is the second oldest active rider at major venues.

Earlie Fires, at 61, also is riding at Oaklawn...but Earlie told me the other day that he plans to hang 'em up this summer at Arlington.

Back to War Pass for a minute. Conceding him the win at Tampa at $2.20, it might be wise to use Big Truck and Atoned in the gimmicks.

And, as for the San Felipe, it will be interesting to see how fast and far that 109 Beyer number can take Bob Black Jack.


JOHN PIESEN. In 20+ years as public handicapper at Daily Racing Form & New York Post, was 81% in the money. His feat of picking winners 207 days in a row at the Monmouth-Meadowlands meeting of '98 - documented in the Daily Racing Form - is still the world record.

John Piesen's Derby Top 10
HORSE   JOCKEY
1. Denis of Cork Albarado
2. Pyro Bridgmohan
3. War Pass Velasquez
4. Z Fortune Gomez
5. Sierra Sunset Emigh
6. El Gato Malo ??????????
7. Colonel John Nakatani
8. Eight Belles Dominguez
9. Visionaire Dominguez
10. Court Vision Gomez

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