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Apr 03, 2009

Thru the Binoculars

By: John Piesen


Where is ESPN when you need it?

If memory serves, ESPN was always right there for us on the Saturday afternoon they ran the Wood Memorial, Illinois Derby, and Santa Anita Derby.

But this time we're on our own because ESPN instead will be airing Pistons-Sixers.

Obviously NTRA refused to come across with the green necessary to subsidize a racing telecast.

Too bad because the three races are barnburners.

First up -- all times Eastern -- will be the $500,000 Illinois Derby from Hawthorne at 5:15 p.m. Second will be the $750,000 Wood Memorial from Aqueduct at 5:19, and last, but not least, will be the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby from Santa Anita at 5:36.

Who needs the Magna 5?

Naturally, the red-hot John Piesen Hot Line will be up and running at 888 612 2283 with selections for all three races as well as full cards from all three tracks.

Let's start at the top...


You'd never make a living second-guessing trainer Todd Pletcher, but you have to wonder why The Toddster chose to run Dunkirk last Saturday against Quality Road in the Florida Derby inasmuch as Dunkirk would have been 1-9 in this spot, and a win would have guaranteed him a spot in the Kentucky Derby field.

So no Dunkirk in the Illinois Derby, a race I staffed for Daily Racing Form in 1999 when Bill Mott won it with Vision and Verse, who went on to finish second to Lemon Drop Kid in the Belmont Stakes.

What I recall most from that race is 1) I got to visit with the late and great Chicago scribe Dave Feldman for the last time, and 2) I somehow managed to write four advance articles without once mentioning Vision and Verse by name.

Back to the present.

No Dunkirk, but The Toddster entered three for the Illinois Derby -- Lord Justice, Al Khali and Il Postino -- but he says he will scratch Lord Justice and run him in the Wood.

This is important because Lord Justice was the only horse in the race with the speed to run with Perfect Song.

Instead, it looks like Perfect Song, who will be making his fourth start over four different tracks for trainer Mike Trombetta, will be the lone speed. And lone speed has been very successful in this race in recent years, going back to War Emblem in 2002.

As for Il Postino and Al Khali, both come in off Gulfstream victories, and both are drawn wide (nine and 10) in the 11-horse field, which will scratch down to 10.

Musket Man, the likely favorite off his Tampa Bay Derby win, will break from post eight in the nine-furlong race.

I was surprised to say the least to see that Eibar Coa has the call on Musket Man, replacing Daniel Centeno, who gave the $15,000 colt a terrific ride to win the Tampa Bay Derby.

That makes Musket Man the only stakes-winner in the Illinois Derby field.

So this morning I called Danny Mellul, the long-time agent for Joe Bravo, and now booking mounts for Centeno:

JP: "So Danny, what gives?"

DM: "John, I have no idea. I guess the owner didn't like my ride."

It is rare for a jockey to get canned after winning a major stake, but it happens. In fact it's happening in the Santa Anita Derby. (See below)

It even happened to Mike Smith years back after he won the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Skip Away. Mike promptly lost the mount to Jerry Bailey.

That said, Musket Man has been working lights-out since the Tampa Bay Derby, and he has enough tactical speed to stay somewhat close to Perfect Song.

As for Giant Oak, who knows?

The stretch-running colt comes off nightmare trips behind Friesan Fire in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, but he may be a force Saturday.

After all, Giant Oak is 2-for-2 in his native Illinois; his trainer, Chris Block, is a major player in Obama Country; he gets a positive rider change to Bridgmohan, and he's drawn well in gate two.

And don't overlook old buddy Nick Zito.

Nowhere to Hide, trained by Saint Nick, was beaten a mere three lengths by Musket Man in the Tampa Bay Derby, and the same margin by Friesan Fire in the Risen Star; Eclipse apprentice Lopez comes up from Florida to take the call; he's got the rail, and sheds the blinks.

Finally, notice that Eddie Razo give up several live mounts on Apple Blossom Day at Oaklawn Park to take the call from trainer Ken McPeek on Free Country.

Three races back, Free Country beat Atomic Rain, a Wood player, in an allowance at Gulfstream.


Unlike the wide-open Illinois Derby, we are looking at a 2-5 for the nine-furlong Wood. That is of course I Want Revenge, who -- off his Gotham blowout -- would have to bounce to Juniper to lose.

If the Wood were a handicap, I Want Revenge would be asked to concede 8-to-10 pounds to his seven rivals. But it's not. And IWR will be toting the same 123 pounds as everyone else.

Jockey Prado, who was at Santa Anita on Gotham Day, gets the mount back from the Shugster on Imperial Council, who needs to find a way to make up the eight lengths he was beaten by I Want Revenge in the Gotham. Both horses pick up seven pounds off that race.

Look for Imperial Council to sit a lot closer than he did in the Gotham.

The Jersey-based Kelly Breen will look to upset with the coupled entry of West Side Bernie and Atomic Rain.

West Side Bernie was the 2-1 favorite in the $500,000 Lane's End. He made an inside middle move under Prado, but had nothing left in the stretch.

Maybe it was the synthetic track. Maybe not.

But Breen is being aggressive running WSB back in two weeks.

This will be the colt's seventh race -- at seven different tracks. On his best day, he can give I Want Revenge all he can handle.

As for Atomic Ran, he was second to Old Fashioned in the Remsen over the track, and Joe Bravo is taking off three or four winners at Gulfstream for the mount.


Racing can be a strange game.

One Saturday, Aaron Gryder is winning the $6 million Dubai World Cup on Well Armed by 14 lengths.

The next Saturday, here's Gryder on a rabbit in the Santa Anita Derby.

Of course Z Day is a very good rabbit. He's been one-two in four of his five starts, and his trainer, Mike Mitchell, currently is the top dog at Santa Anita.

But it's obvious that the Zayats entered Z Day as a rabbit for Pioneer of the Nile. And they got lucky when Z Day drew the two-hole in the nine-furlong race, while The Pamplemousse -- the rabbit's target -- drew widest in post 10.

Under the conditions, no way The Pamplemousse will stage the same wire job he accomplished so well in the Sham and San Rafael.

But, on the other hand, may be even more effective with a stalking trip.

The Santa Anita Derby is billed as a two-horse race, but Chocolate Candy and Mr. Hot Stuff can be major players.

Like Musket Man, Chocolate Candy gets a significant jockey change.

Despite winning two Derbys at Golden Gate on Chocolate Candy, Russell Baze, the world's winningest jockey, is being replaced on CC by young lion Rosario.

CC was beaten a mere 1 1/2 lengths closing for third to Pioneer in the CashCall Futurity, has won twice since, and gets the rail Saturday.

Mr. Hot Stuff, fresh from a closing third in the Sham, is a stablemate of Well Armed.

So if you can't find your way to a simo parlor for these three races, there's always Pistons-Sixers.

Finally, at Oaklawn, we are looking at two solid chalks in the $500,000 stakes that kick off the Racing Festival of the South -- Acoma, from David Carroll, in the Apple Blossom, and Honest Man, from Larry Jones, in the Oaklawn Handicap.

But Stardom Bound is a vulnerable favorite over the speed-favoring Keeneland strip in the Ashland.

See you back here again Monday for a look back at the weekend action, including Pistons-Sixers.

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