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Apr 23, 2010

THRU THE BINOCULARS

By: John Piesen


THE DERBY'S CALIFORNIA ANGLE

Of the top dozen 3-year-olds in most Kentucky Derby polls, five have done most of their racing, and have made their reputations on the southern California circuit.

Before the legendary Swaps came along in the mid-'50s, the racing establishment tended to thumb its proverbial nose at West Coast horses.

But this anti-West Coast bias has changed dramatically in the last half-century. West Coast horses have performed very well in the Derby -- Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Gato Del Sol, Giacomo, Fusaichi Pegasus and Ferdinand to name but a few.

Now you may ask what does this have to do with 2010?

The answer is plenty.

What do with Lookin at Lucky and Sidney's Candy, who will be the second and third Derby choices at post time next Saturday? And what about Line of David, American Lion and Conveyance? All have departed California this spring to wire graded stakes in the Central Time Zone?

Three other California 3-year-olds -- Setsuko, Make Music For Me and Caracortado -- have also shown serious flashes this year, but at this point all are below the earnings cut, and figure to miss the Big Dance.

From a handicapping perspective, what does the California Connection mean? Simply put, the west coast horses are as likely to finish 1-2-3-4 in the Derby as they are to finish up the track.

It's a question that handicappers will have to wrestle with for the next week.

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At this point, there is only one Derby prep remaining -- the $200,000 Derby Trial to be run Saturday, opening day at Churchill Downs.

Of the 13 entered in the mile race, only one -- Hurricane Ike -- can be described as a West Coast horse. The son of 2000 Arkansas Derby winner Graeme Hall has only a maiden-special win to show for seven starts, but he exits a strong second in the Bay Shore at Aqueduct, and Calvin Borel was sufficiently impressed by that performance to take the return call for the Derby Trial.

But Hurricane Ike is merely third in trainer John Sadler's current pecking order, behind Sidney's Candy, the Santa Anita Derby winner, and Line of David, the Arkansas Derby victor.

Line of David was going to be the 50-comething John Court's first ticket to the Kentucky Derby, but on Tuesday Sadler pulled the plug on Smilin' Jon, and announced that Rafael Bejarano would ride David in Louisville.

In a nutshell, this move exemplifies everything that is wrong in racing.

Bejarano, who had ridden Line of David in his two previous races in California, took off to ride Interactif for trainer Todd Pletcher in the Blue Grass. That opened the door for Court to ride David in the Arkansas Derby, and the veteran rode the race of his life to get David home by necks and noses over Pletcher and Lukas in the $1 million race.

The next day, a fellow approached me at a Hot Springs crawfish boil, and asked:

"John, will (Jon) Court ride the horse back in the Derby?"

Being the sometimes naive guy I am, I replied:

"Of course he will,"

Of course I was wrong.

I guess it's too much to ask where has the loyalty has gone in this game.

John Piesen, long time handicapper at the NY Post and Daily Racing Form.
His record includes one stretch in which he picked one or more winners a day for 207 days in a row as documented in the Daily Racing Form.

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  • STEVE ASMUSSEN, Trainer of '09 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, of '07 Horse of the Year Curlin & a 5-time national champion: "John is very accurate assessing how a race will be run.
  • JOHN SERVIS, trainer of '05 Kentucky Derby/Preakness winner Smarty Jones calls Piesen
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  • MIKE SMITH, Hall Of Fame jockey, and rider of the immortal Zenyatta, "I have huge respect for John as a handicapper, especially in stakes races."
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Jon is such a good guy that the folks who filmed "The Jockeys" needed 20 takes to photograph Court tossing his helmet at the wall after a bad beat at Santa Anita.

But my favorite Jon Court story took place years ago at Monmouth Park.

Court came in from Kentucky to ride a grass horse named With Anticipation for Long Jon Sheppard in the United Nations. That's right: Smilin John riding for Long Jon!

With Anticipation won the U.N. virtually wire to wire, but the inquiry went up.

While interviewing Court in the jocks' room, the numbers on the TV screen were reversed. With Anticipation was placed first...and Jon Court was unfairly deprived of what would have been his first Grade One victory.

Court had every right to go ballistic. Instead, he shrugged, and walked over to the other end of the jocks' room to congratulate Robbie Davis, whose number they put up.

The bottom line?

How does a class guy like this get screwed out of his first Kentucky Derby mount?

I would love to see Setsuko, a legit Derby horse, get into the Derby...with a new rider, because Bejarano took off Setsuko (currently No. 25 on the money list) to bump Jon Court off Line of David.

Of course, all of this is academic if Eskendereya runs back to his Fountain of Youth and Wood blowouts.

I know that I for one will try to beat him. After all, this is the fifth anniversary of Bellamy Road. You'll recall that Bellamy Road won the Wood for George Steinbrenner by double-digit lengths in track record time, and went to Louisville a lock.

But no two races are the same, and sure enough, Bellamy Road dragged home fifth to Giacomo as he 5-2 favorite. And, yes. I knew Bellamy Road...and Eskendereya is no Bellamy Road, a pale imitation at most.

Speaking of anniversaries, this Derby marks the 30th and 20th anniversaries of my first and last Derbys for the New York Post, during which time I had the pleasure of nailing eight of the 11 Derby winners.

On Tuesday morning of Derby Week 1980, I watched in awe as Genuine Risk -- who would go off at 13-1 -- outwork Plugged Nickle -- would go off 5-2 -- by three full seconds.

I was all set make Genuine Risk my top pick for the Post, but wound up picking Jenny second to an obscure 68-1 shot from California named Bold'n Ruling.

"When I called in my selections to the Post, sports editor Greg Gallo threatened to revoke my credentials.

"Piesen." he said, "are you nuts?. We spent a fortune to send you to the Derby, and you give us a 60-1 shot!"

Historians will note that Bold'n Ruling slipped through on the rail to make the lead at the three-eighths pole, but faltered through the lane, and finished fifth of 13, beaten four lengths.

"I thought I was home," jockey Valenzuela told me in the jocks' room, "...I hadn't asked him to run when he made the top."

Later, it was determined that Bold'n Ruling broke a bone during the race, and never ran again.

Fast forward to 1990, and after nailing the likes of Gato Del Sol, Ferdinand, Alysheba and Sunday Silence, I felt confident of my choice of Unbridled, who would go off at 10-1 under Craig Perret.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't pick Unbridled for my newspaper," I asked Perret at the draw.

"John, I can't," he said. "Unless I screw up, my horse is a cinch."

Well, Perret did not screw up, and Unbridled won by three-plus lengths at $23.60. The obvious exacta, completed by favored Summer Squall, paid $65.80...and, once again, I received a hero's welcome when I returned home. No ticker-tape parade, but a lot of thank-yous.

Ohy, yes. The streak continued when I hit '91 Derby winner Strike the Gold ($11.60) for The Form.

Back then, the highlight of my professional year was Derby week.

On Saturday, I would fly down to Blue Grass Airport, three miles from Churchill, catch the Derby Trial, drive my rental across the state to Lexington, and spend Sunday with breeder-friends at Keeneland, the jump-up races, and the lavish breeding farms. Then motor back to Louisville first-thing Monday morning for the Derby Week festivities ...if you call standing five-deep at a Lukas presser festive.

As for the 2010 Derby Trial, it could be a classic.

Of the 13 horses, only one Eightyfiveinafifty -- is a graded stakes-winner, and he'll come out with guns blazing from his outside post. If he wins, he'll crack the money barrier, and trainer Contessa no doubt will run him back in he Derby.

But that's a story for another day -- Tuesday. See you then for more Derby details and my final Derby Top Ten, and don't forget to check out the JP Hot Line. Who knows? Maybe we'll be coming at you with the next Gato Del Sol, Ferdinand, Alysheba or Unbridled.



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