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Apr 04, 2008

Big Brown delivered the goods

By: by Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Since 2005, not many horses have won from post 12 at Gulfstream Park. In fact, you can't even count them on one hand, because the amount has been a big fat zero. That's until last Saturday, when Big Brown came home a decisive five-length winner in the Florida Derby.

Not only did the son of Boundary overcome a disastrous post to cross the wire first, he did so with a flair reserved for the greats of the game. Breaking from the 12th hole, jockey Kent Desormeaux seized the lead approaching the backstretch, but not before going four-wide in a fast 22 3/5 first quarter.

It's true that Gulfstream Park favors speed, but not many three-year-olds have run as swift as did this horse. The final time for the nine furlongs was 1:48, just two-fifths of a second off the track record.

Big Brown will easily be the first or second choice in the Kentucky Derby, and may very well be the most talented three-year-old later in the season. However, there's a big difference between the spring and the summer - just ask Curlin. The recent Dubai World Cup winner also went into Kentucky with only three lifetime starts under his belt, and was a well-beaten third to Street Sense.

For those getting ready to anoint Big Brown the new champ, be advised that only one of 16 horses in the history of the Derby has won with just three career past performances, and that victory came all the way back in 1915.

One aspect of Big Brown's breathtaking presentation that will most likely be overlooked was how poorly he ran through the lane, bearing out at the onset of the stretch drive and then continually ducking in after repeated left-hand whips from Desormeaux. That alone is cause for concern, but there are other factors that will prevent Big Brown from picking up the winner's check in the Run for the Roses.

Experience plays a huge role in the Derby, and that is something he will not have come May 3. In addition, it's extremely doubtful he will be able to rate off the pace in the Derby and that alone will compromise his chances, especially if War Pass returns to form in the Wood Memorial.

Big Brown's soundness will also come into question, as his foot problems have been well-documented throughout the spring. Also, the fact that he will not have another prep is a disturbing signal. Only one other horse in the history of the Run for the Roses has won off a five-week layoff, and that was Barbaro. In order for him to win at Churchill Downs, he will have to be a combination of Curlin and Barbaro, and call me a fool, but I doubt Big Brown is in that class just yet.

Another factor that most handicappers have overlooked is how fast the track was playing that afternoon. Less than one hour later, Electrify won the Forever Whirl Stakes in 1:47 4/5, a tick faster than Big Brown.

Don't get me wrong, he could, and probably will, be a major player later on, maybe even in time for the Preakness, but to think he will win the Kentucky Derby, especially at 3-1 or less, is ludicrous.

Smooth Air, the second-place finisher in the Florida Derby will also head to Churchill Downs, but it's unclear whether Tomcito will run in the Derby. Despite a solid third-place finish in his first race in over four months, he still bled even with Lasix. The Belmont Stakes has always been his connection's number one priority, and they may indeed prep him in New York for the third leg of racing's Triple Crown rather than sending him to Kentucky.


Three races this Saturday will separate the studs from the duds. Let's start in the Wood Memorial, where War Pass looks to rebound from his very forgettable Tampa Bay Derby. The two-year-old champ bounced back with a bullet four-furlong workout last Thursday, so a much-improved performance is in the cards.

Court Vision returns to the wars after running third in the Fountain of Youth. Trainer Bill Mott did not want him to peak too early in the spring so not much was expected at Gulfstream Park on February 24. Still, despite lagging in last place at the half, the son of Gulch blew past nine horses the rest of the way to nail the show spot. He may not win the Wood, but expect him to improve and be ready to strut his stuff for real in Kentucky.

Others expected to race at Aqueduct are Texas Wildcatter and Giant Moon, second and last, respectively, in the Gotham Stakes, and Tale of Ekati, who finished a dismal sixth to Pyro in the Louisiana Derby.

The choice here is War Pass to get back on track winning at nine panels, with Court Vision running second and Giant Moon third.

The Santa Anita Derby could have been the most contentious of the three races, but with the defection of San Felipe winner Georgie Boy, it leaves a rematch of the top two finishers from the Sham Stakes in Colonel John and El Gato Malo.

(Georgie Boy pulled a muscle in his back in a workout last Saturday and will miss the entire Triple Crown.)

The Sham was a five-horse race and a very slow-paced event at that. Colonel John was pressing Victory Pete for the lead through a half-mile of 50 seconds flat. El Gato Malo was in tight quarters on the rail the entire race until the field reached the top of the stretch. Colonel John put away Victory Pete at the 1/8 pole to grab the lead, but he certainly wasn't running in a straight path as El Gato Malo swung wide to make his stretch run.

Colonel John barely held on to win by a half-length over the "Bad Cat." Look for David Flores, El Gato Malo's jockey, to keep his horse clear of trouble in this race and turn the tables on the "Colonel" to win the Santa Anita Derby.

I still don't think either of these two horses has a chance in Kentucky, since neither has ever run on a dirt track. Still, it should be an exciting rematch between California's two best three-year-olds.

Yankee Bravo, who ran third in the LA Derby, is the only horse capable of pulling off an upset, but look for the son of Yankee Gentleman to be too far back early to threaten the top two choices.

The Illinois Derby at Hawthorne is the final important prep that takes place this Saturday. Denis of Cork, the expected heavy favorite, will be looking for his fourth straight victory, after taking the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on February 18.

His unbeaten record notwithstanding, he's certainly not a lock to win this race. His trainer, David Carroll, withdrew him from the Rebel Stakes to ensure he will not peak well before the Kentucky Derby. It was an extremely risky move, as Denis of Cork will only have four races under his belt heading to Churchill Downs.

It also raises the question of how fit he will be for the Illinois Derby, since the intention of his trainer was to not have him run "the race of his life" in the race prior to the Derby. And folks, this will be his last prep before the Run for the Roses.

Given that, along with the fact that Atoned is also entered in the Illinois Derby, it's entirely possible that Denis of Cork will not win this Saturday. Atoned is the more experienced horse, with eight career starts including a pair of second place finishes to Big Truck in the Tampa Bay Derby and Court Vision in the Remsen.

Todd Pletcher was in awe of how Atoned filled out over the winter and the horse came back a little short in his three-year-old debut. With a 2008 race already behind him, look for a much-improved effort, one that will put him in front at the wire in the Illinois Derby.

Also entered in the grade two stakes event is Z Humor. The bay colt could be a factor on a brief layoff after running two races in a span of nine days back in late February. Favored in the Sam F. Davis, the son of Distorted Humor actually led at the three-quarter pole, but faded to fifth, beaten five lengths. He then finished fourth in the Fountain of Youth eight days later.


Big Brown makes a huge move up the ladder from a tie for 10th place last week, but I am extremely hesitant to place him in the top two based on all the hype. As I stated earlier, he could very well be the best of the bunch during the summer, but this list deals solely with the Kentucky Derby and I do not expect him to win on the first Saturday in May.

1) Pyro, 4-1; 2) Court Vision, 16-1; 3) Big Brown, 6-1 - field; 4) Atoned, 6-1 - field; 5) Denis of Cork, 12-1; 6) Visionaire, 19-1; 7) War Pass, 9-2; 8) Colonel John, 17-1; 9) El Gato Malo, 15-1; 10-T) Tomcito, 6-1 - field, Yankee Bravo, 41-1 and Big Truck 6-1 - field

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