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Apr 11, 2008

Thru The Binoculars

By: JOHN PIESEN


A LOOK AT THE ARKANSAS DERBY & BLUE GRASS STAKES, THE TOP WEEKEND DERBY PREPS:

California shippers have won virtually every major race at Oaklawn Park this season so it's no surprise that the track linemaker installed Gayego, one of the four west coast shippers, the 5-2 morning-line favorite in a field of 14 for Saturday's Arkansas Derby.

That's right...14!

When was the last time we saw 14 in a major Kentucky Derby prep? And when was the last time we've seen a mutuel field?

Old-timers will recall there were mutuel fields every day in New York. But that was a long time ago.

That's why it's so unusual that there will be a three-horse field in the Arkansas Derby- because Oaklawn can only accommodate 12 betting interests.

When Mike Smith was in town last week, he stopped off to do my seminar...and told the folks he loved both his horses -- Zenyetta and Tiago -- in the Apple Blossom and Oaklawn Handicap. And, sure 'nuff, both  won at respectable prices.

Mike also told the people that he will be back the next week to ride Gayego in the Arkansas Derby and he loves this horse too.

So maybe it's a good idea to Be Like Mike...or maybe not.

Gayego has a terrific record on the synthetic tracks in California, but this will be his first time on dirt.

Should he be favored?

Probably.

But at 5-2?

Hardly.

This race is so wide-open that nothing should be less than 5-1 at post.

Incidentally, the Arkansas Derby is so big this year that the good folks at ESPN will be on hand for the race, rather than at Keeneland for Pyro and the Blue Grass.

One of the ESPN crew is a fellow named Jerry Bailey, and he will be my seminar guest Saturday morning -- at 11:30 at Players' Restaurant. Hopefully, no one will ask him about the Smarty Jones Belmont, this being Smarty Jones country.

Ironically, Smarty -- in '04 -- was the first of four straight superstar 3-year-olds to win the Arkansas Derby. For those scoring at home, Smarty was followed in '05 by Afleet Alex, in '06 by Lawyer Ron, and last year by Curlin.

Each time, I could have had my race lead written by the first turn.

But this year is a whole new ballgame. There are no stars in the field, and the field is so big because the second-level 3-year-olds need to run first or second to make the Kentucky Derby.

So that's the deal Saturday. The first two finishers -- whomever they may be -- will go on to the Derby. The rest will not.

Then there's the jockey angle.

The two biggest riding stars last year clearly were Calvin Borel and Robby Albarado. Between them, they virtually swept the board with Street Sense and Curlin, respectively.

What a difference a year makes!

This year, Borel and Albarado will have to finish one-two with Blackberry Road and Z Fortune, respectively, in the Arkansas Derby just to get to the Kentucky Derby.

Blackberry Road and Z Fortune will be major players in the Arkansas Derby, as will seven or eight others. Even old buddy Rich Migliore is coming halfway across the country to ride a colt named Indian Sun, who, at least on paper, looks to be one of the few in the race who have no shot.

For my Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes selections and full card at Oaklawn for Saturday, call my office at 1-888-612-2283 or sign up right here online.
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Steve Asmussen will be at Keeneland on Saturday for Pyro, leaving assistant trainer -- a young lady named Kristin Crawford -- to saddle no less than 11 horses on the 12-race Oaklawn card.

Three of the 11 are in the Arkansas Derby, and two of them -- Ablaze With Spirit and Z Fortune -- had the misfortune to draw 11 and 12, respectively. Steve's third, King's Silver Son, landed the four-hole.

The Blue Grass, incidentally, will be shown on tape delay during ESPN's 90-minute telecast.

Asmussen and Gary Thomas are the only Arkansas Derby trainers to have won the race before.

Asmussen won the AD with Private Emblem in 2002, and, of course, last year with Curlin.

Thomas, a wily old Arkansas hardboot, won the AD back in 1986 with a colt named Rampage.

Old-timers will recall that a month later Rampage, ridden by Pat Day, and Ferdinand, with Bill Shoemaker up, went for the same hole at the head of the stretch in the Kentucky Derby. Ferdinand got there first, and went on to win -- much to the delight of my thousands of fans at the New York Post.

Thomas has a horse named Golden Yank in this year's Arkansas Derby, and this guy has a big shot. Too bad The Boss doesn't own him.

In a related development,  an amazing piece of news came out of Kentucky this week.

Here's the deal...

The owner of Denis of Cork, a guy named William K. Warren, issued a statement, which reads in part:

"Hindsight shows that we should have raced Denis in the Rebel at Oaklawn."

"I take sole responsibility for the decision to run Denis in the Illinois Derby. His poor showing was not due to the jockey or the trainer. The disaster was my fault alone."

Wait...there's more:

"I herewith apologize to everyone who placed a bet on Denis of Cork in the Illinois Derby.

"I am sorry."


A personal footnote: In all my years covering the Triple Crown, I have never seen such mismanagement of a talented 3-year-old. I guess the owner deserves kudos for coming clean, but the damage has been done. Denis of Cork has as much ability as any colt of his generation...but, now, he likely can't even  get to the Derby because of lack of graded stakes-money.

There will be at least a dozen in the Derby field who couldn't warm up Denis of Cork.

And, in his statement, Warren didn't even address the fact that the real reason he didn't send Denis to the Wood Memorial was because he couldn't find another horse to share the flight expense.

But Warren did say he's out the $86,000 he's already spent on Derby hotels, tickets, et al.

I'm still leaving out hope that Eight Belles will go to the Kentucky Derby.

Trainer Jones, conservative by nature, believes that Eight Belles is the season's best 3-year-old, regardless of gender, but he feels that Eight Belles -- unlike 1988 Derby winner Winning Colors --  does not have sufficient speed to clear the Derby field at the first turn.

"I spoke to D. Wayne the other day," Jones was telling me this morning, "and he told me that Winning Colors was so fast from the gate, and made the lead so easy, that she didn't know if there were boys or girls or whatever behind her.

"On the other hand, Eight Belles doesn't have that kind of gate speed. It takes her a while to get going. And if she would draw 17 or 18, that would really be a problem."

That said, if Eight Belles passes the Derby, she and Proud Spell conceivably could run one-two in the Kentucky Oaks...just as two other Jones' fillies ran one-two in an Oaklawn hundred-grander on Wednesday.

Trainers generally are loath to compliment jockeys. It's usually an us against them mentality.

But this is what Jones told me about young whippersnapper Gabriel Saez:

"I have never seen a rider with a better seat on a horse. In fact, Gabriel is the best young rider in the game."

No, it's not too early for jockey Prado to move over, but it pays to keep Jones' opinion in mind.



Finally , here is my updated Derby Top Ten...and, I'm afraid, it doesn't look that much different from any other Top Tens:


HORSE JOCKEY / Trainer
ODDS
COMMENT
1. Big Brown Desormeaux/
Dutrow
3-1 
Nothing happened over the weekend to scare him in Louisville
2. Pyro Bridgmohan/
Asmussen
4-1
He'll face better in the Blue Grass than he handled in 'Orleans.
3. Colonel John Nakatani/
Harty
6-1
Showed he's best from the west, but he's never run on dirt
4. Tale of Ekati  Prado/
Tagg
19-1
Won a painfully slow Wood, but the Wood has become a key prep race.
5. Visionaire Lezcano/
Matz
19-1
Have to respect trainer Matz; we'll learn much more on Saturday
6. Court Vision Gomez/
Mott
19-1
Liked his closing third in the Wood; Mott's best chance ever at Derby
7. Gayego Smith/
Lobo
57-1
All West coast races are good; Smith has nice things to say about him
8. War Pass Velasquez/
Zito
14-1
Wow! From 3-1 to 14-1 says it all. But I can't leave him out altogether
9. Z Fortune Albarado/
Asmussen
54-1
Gets a chance to redeem himself in the Arkansas Derby; must respect connections
10. Blackberry Road Borel/
Carroll

46-1
Has been the hard-luck horse this year; Arkansas Derby may be turning point

 


From John Piesen, New York's most honored selector and former top handicapper at the NY Post & the Daily Racing Form®. He owns the most durable record in racing: he once picked winners 207 days in a row as documented in Daily Racing Form.

Don't think for a second that my 1-2-3 finishers in Saturday's
Bluegrass Stakes and Arkansas Derby won't pay BIG!


At Keeneland, the Blue Grass is shaping up to be a more competative race than at first glance...with any of 5 or 6 horses capable of getting to the winner's circle, if they can hold off odds on the Steve Assmussen trained favorite Pyro. Nick Zito's top Derby contender Cool Coal Man, Big Truck, conditioned by Barclay Tagg , and Visionaire (who's trained by Michael Matz of Barbaro fame), all have Derby Prep wins on their resume's and are sure to be in the thick of things, while two Todd Pletcher longshots Monba, with Edgar Prado aboard, and Cowboy Cal with rider Johnny Velazquez, can't be dismissed either.



Last year, Carl Nafzger, trainer of Street Sense, said, "If he runs a good 2nd or even 3rd in Arkansas, he'll still be in good shape to peak on the day that it counts" That's why I did NOT pick Street Sense for the Bluegrass. Trainer Larry Jones pulled his horse, Hard Spun, out of that race for the same reason. Result: I hit the trifecta box on Derby Day with two "saved up" horses - Street Sense and Hard Spun - plus Curlin!

We're going to win by design! Example, If you know how a lot of trainers use the Bluegrass not to win the race but as a tune up, you can turn that into money.

Here's the proof!

The Arkansas Derby is another matter. Oaklawn is my home turf. I have won this race 3 of the last 4 years! I had Smarty Jones in '04, Afleet Alex in '05 (in his 8 length runaway win) and Curlin last year (in his 10½ length win) because all three were physical specimens whose trainers thought they could win both races. - They came close enough for me to catch a lot of paydays!

Here at Oaklawn, Gayego leads a pack of solid contenders which includes , Z Fortune and King's Silver Son (2 of 3 horses trained by Steve Asmussen), Blackberry Road, My Pal Charlie, and local entry Golden Yank. I've done my homework and I'm ready for a big day of racing action on Saturday!

"John is very knowledgeable about horseracing, an expert handicapper.."
John Servis - Trainer of 2004 Kentucky Derby & Preakness winner Smarty Jones
"John is very accurate in assessing how a race will be run - a solid handicapper"
Steve Asmussen - trainer of Preakness winner Curlin and 3-time national champion trainer.
"John is one of the best handicappers of our time. He has a unique eye for a good horse, well before he is proven to the public. If John says it, take it to the window."
J. Larry Jones - Trainer Of Hard Spun, '07 Kentucky Derby Runner-up

So don't look my gift horses in the mouth! Not only will you get my real strong 1-2-3 payoffs in both...One will feature my Dark Horse Of the Year!

GET LISTED TODAY - It costs only $25 for BOTH Prep Races and the Full Card at both Keeneland and Oaklawn Park.

And you must win big or you get the Kentucky Derby FREE

Sign Up Right Here Online or call my office Toll Free at 1-888-612-2283

 



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