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May 02, 2008

Thru The Binoculars


You need to recall that my Monday column on this venue touched on the fact that the majority of Kentucky Derby winners since 1980 have broken from outside post positions.

That's why I found it interesting that Big Brown, who will be the short-priced favorite in Saturday's 134th running of the Derby, on Wednesday drew post 20 in a field of 20.

But what was really interesting is the fact that trainer Dutrow, given the choice of Posts 1,2, 18, 19 and 20, somewhat arrogantly chose the 20 despite the fact that post 1 has been the starting point for the most Derby winners whereas only one winner - Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 - has left from the 20. And that was from a walk-up start.

As a public service, I dug out the footnbotes of the '29 chart, and they read in part:

"Clyde Van Dusen took the lead after the first quarter, saved ground while setting the pace, and responded to light shaking up in the stretch to hold his opponents safe."

That said, I have to believe that if Big Brown makes the lead after the first quarter (that being the first turn), he will be awful hard to catch judging by the Florida Derby.

But will Big Brown make the lead - and the rail - at the first turn?

Now this is where it gets sticky.

In the absence of War Pass, there are four other speed horses in the Derby - and, wouldn't you know,  three of the four drew posts 17, 18 and 19. They are, in order -- Cowboy Cal, Recapturetheglory and Gayego. And the fourth, Bob Black Jack, is in 13.

What does this mean?

I think it's fairly obvious.

The three riders in 17,18 and 19 - especially Johnny Velazquez on Cowboy Cal and Mike Smith on Gayego - no doubt will leave the gate smokin', and the result is that Big Brown will be fanned wide - who knows how wide? - going to the critical first turn.

Yes, we all know how easily Big Brown cleared a 12-horse field from post 12 in the Florida Derby. But that was 12, and this is 20. And obviously much classier stock.

There is only one way that Gayego, the winner of a key race in the Arkansas Derby, can win the Kentucky Derby...and that is to break running, and somehow get a position somewhere near the inside

That's how Gayego won the Arkansas Derby...but that was from the four-hole.

The bottom line is that Big Brown - who will attract more action than any "20" in history -- will have one helluva time avoiding a wide trip from the 20. In fact, I doubt he'll save an inch of ground through the mile and a quarter.

But, of course, if Big Brown indeed is Seattle Slew, he'll win the Derby no matter what they throw at him.

Speaking of Seattle Slew, kudos to Billy Turner, Slew's trainer, for saddling three straight winners Wednesday on opening day at Belmont Park. This is the same Billy Turner, who, the last we looked, is not - repeat NOT - enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame.

Speaking of the post position draw, we got yet another example Wednesday of how television treats our favorite sport.

The draw was scheduled for 5 to 6 p.m. in a downtown Louisville mall, and was to be televised live by ESPN2.

ESPN spared no expense sending stars Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey - and a cast of thousands - to the draw.

So what happened?

A soccer match from Great Britain ended at 5:10. Surely, ESPN would switch to the Derby draw at that point.

But, no.

They ran a 20-minute post-game show.

Finally, after the smoke had cleared, ESPN ran the Derby Draw from 5:30 to 6:30. The entire program was on delayed tape - a fact that ESPN never found it necessary to mention.

Moreover, five minutes into the taped program, when Big Truck's name was called as the second horse drawn, his rider was identified as Eibar Coa. This had to come as news to Javier Castellano, who is named on Big Truck.

But all was not lost.

Hank Goldberg was called upon to speak during the program's 59th minute, and gave his Derby selection.

Fortunately, for Gayego's connections, Hank did not pick the Arkansas Derby winner. Fact is, I don't remember whom Hank did pick.

Gayego, one of four Oaklawn Park horses to make it to the Derby, would be a story for the ages if he pulls it off.

When Gayego was in Hot Springs, we learned that owners Jose Prieto and Carlos Juelle are Cuban refugees who are living the American dream in California.

But what we didn't know at the time was that  Prieto was a political prisoner for five years under Castro, and somehow cheated death by firing squad on many occasions.

Prieto, a physician, and Juelle, an accountant, met by chance a few years back, and became partners on some cheap horses, never figuring they would ever get a good horse --  much less a Derby horse.

Yet, here they are with an Arkansas Derby winner who has a fighting chance in THE Derby- even from the 19-hole.

Certainly, if any rider can find a way, it would be Mike Smith.

And Gayego has some recent history on his side.

The four previous Arkansas Derby winners were Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron - and Curlin!

Finally, here is a capsule look at the 20 Derby starters:

#1 -- Cool Coal Man: The second-stringer for owner LaPenta and trainer Zito, he enjoyed a perfect trip winning the Fountain of Youth from the one-hole. This will be his fourth straight start from post one. Obviously, jockey Desormeaux took off him to ride Big Brown. Leparoux, his replacement, is looking for his first big-race win.

#2 - Tale of Ekati: He required 40 seconds to run the last three-eighths of the Wood Memorial. Tale of the Cat, a hot, young sire, has not as yet sired a Classic winner. Jockey Prado took off him to ride Adriano, but he gets a top deputy in Coa.

#3 - Anak Nakal: His trainer (Zito) has won two Derbys, and his sire, Victory Gallop, should have won the Derby. His best race - a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club - came last year at Churchill Downs. He will be about the same price (45-1) that he was in the Wood when he was beaten mere three lengths.

#4 - Court Vision: Like Anak Nakal, his best race - a victory in the Iroquois - came last year at Churchill. If this race was 20 years ago, he would be coupled in the betting with Big Brown (same owner). He is the best (and only?) deep closer in the field.

#5 - Eight Belles: Will try to become the first filly since Winning Colors in 1988 to win the Derby, and only the fourth in history to do so. Saez is the best young rider in the land, but this is his first Derby. The 30-1 morning-line price is much too high.

#6 - Z Fortune: If they reversed the posts, this guy would have beaten Gayego in the Arkansas Derby, which, in recent years, has become the key prep
for the Kentuky Derby. A dangerous second bullet from trainer Asmussen, and jockey Albarado obviously is a major plus.

#7 - Big Truck: Trainer Tagg's second bullet has been beaten handily by several members of the Derby field, and his Tampa Bay of Pigs victory was a fluke. Would be the second time Tagg wins the Derby with a New York-bred.

#8 - Visionaire: Trainer Matz won a Derby with Barbaro from the eight-hole. No surprise that he chose the 8 with this guy given the first choice. His race in the Blue Grass was much better than it looks on paper. Would be no shock if he cracks the first four.

#9 - Pyro: No one can safely predict how he will fare in the Derby after his terrible effort in the Blue Grass. It's easy to blame the polytrack, but it may not be quite that simple. Never discount Asmussen.

#10 - Colonel John: Getting all the buzz at Churchill off that :57 work which shows he can handle dirt. But he is 5-1 while Bob Black Jack, the horse he beat by all of one half-length in the Santa Anita Derby, is 30-1.

#11 - Z Humor: Has yet to run back to his dead-heat victory in the $1 million Delta Jackpot. Then again, the entire Delta Jackpot field, is since a combined 1-for-27...and that includes Turf War. He did beat Denis of Cork three lengths in the Illinois Derby, a race trainer Mott won in '99 with Vision and Verse.

#12 - Smooth Air: One of the great stories of  the Derby because of trainer Stutts, who, at age 70, has his first good horse. Nothing wrong with his second to Big Brown in the Florida Derby, but he missed three days last week due to a minor illness.

#13 - Bob Black Jack: As we said, if you like Colonel John at 5-1, you have to like this guy at 30-1. Jockey Migliore spent all day in transit  to work him a half-mile last Monday. Before that, he was beaten a mere length by Gayego in the San Felipe.

#14 - Monba: Does his best work on synthetic surfaces, but he did win a race last year at Churchill, beating Derby Trial winner Macho Again. Not a good sign that Prado took off. Dominguez took off Eight Belles to ride him. The Toddster is 0-for-19 in the Derby, but has come close.

#15 - Adriano: Prado took off Tale of Ekati and Monba to ride this guy, but mostly because trainer Motion was instrumental in launching Edgar's career...and this is payback. He has the best pedigree in the field, and was beaten a pole in his only dirt start.

#16 - Denis of Cork: Borel, looking to become the first jockey since Delahoussaye in the early '80s to win Derbys back to back, is 2-for-2 on Denis, who figures to outrun his 30-1 odds. Denis broke his maiden at Churchill, and has worked well over the track for the Derby. Sweet sixteen?

#17 - Cowboy Cal: Jockey Velazquez will have to bust him out of there from this post. The Pletcher trainee appears to prefer grass.

#18 - Recapturetheglory: The connections who gave us Risen Star 20 years ago are back with this aptly-named 3-year-old. Faces tough task from here with Derby neophyte aboard.

 #19 - Gayego: How can you not like a horse who has finished no worse than second in five starts, and got a triple-digit Beyer winning the Arkansas Derby. Jockey Smith knows how to win the Derby. Will he float Big Brown to the first turn?

#20 - Big Brown: The 20 will be a popular number at the windows, and with good reason. The #1 question of this Derby: Do you like Big Brown or do you not like Big Brown? Only knock is the price.

One final note...

Much as I look, I can find no mention of the Kentucky Oaks in the national media coverage coming out of Louisville.

For shame.

The Oaks - the filly equivalent of the Derby - has been won by dozens of champions, including most recently Rags to Riches, and drew an outstanding field for Friday's renewal, which, the last we looked, will be aired on ESPN.

Old friend Proud Spell will be favored under Gabriel Saez, but there are at least a half-dozen fillies in the field who can knock her off if she doesn't bring her "A" race.

While the racing media may be all to consumed in Saturday's Derby and overlooking Friday's big racing day at Churchill Downs, highlighted by the Kentucky Oaks (the Filly equivalent of the Derby), I will be handicapping the complete card, all 11 races .  Plus there are 5 Stakes races.  (Aegon Turf Sprint Stakes, Louisville Stakes, Edgewood Stakes, Alysheba Stakes and Crown Royal Stakes.).  It it is available right here on the site now for just $50 and I'll also include my best bet plays at Belmont park. 

Good luck this weekend, and we'll be back on Monday with the post-mortems.

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