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Apr 23, 2004

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


Before leaving Arkansas last Monday, I called trainer Steve Asmussen to discuss various racing topics. During the course of conservation, I mentioned that Smarty Jones will be my pick to win the Kentucky Derby.Asmussen"s response blew my mind."Tell you what, John," he said. "I"ll book everything you"ve got on Smarty Jones. The horse has no chance."Hey, this wasn"t some Joe Schmo talking. This was the guy whom I consider the sharpest trainer since Silent Tom Smith telling me that Smarty (6-6) Jones was a Derby washout.Two things came to mind:1) I remember Leroy Jolley telling me in the Aqueduct paddock a month before the 1992 Kentucky Derby that a colt named Arazi had no shot. Arazi at the time was considered a cinch. We all remember what happened. Arazi was beaten a pole.2) And this is the same Asmussen who ducked Smarty Jones in the Arkansas Derby. Asmussen had a horse in the barn named Two Down Automatic (not Two Down Atomic as reported on one web site). TDA was beaten less than a length by Smarty Jones in the Southwest, was regarded as the second best 3-year-old on the Oaklawn grounds, yet Asmussen chose to run him in the same-day Northern Spur-- which he won -- instead of in the Arkansas Derby.Steve"s explanation: "If I couldn"t beat Smarty Jones in the Southwest, I sure wasn"t going to beat him anytime soon."But what Asmussen neglected to tell me in that phone conversation was that he had just picked up another 3-year-old -- a speed horse named Quintons Gold Rush, who had just run a close-up fourth in the Santa Anita Derby.I found out the same day -- last Friday -- as the rest of the Western world when I picked up the Daily Racing Form and saw Steve Asmussen listed as the trainer of QGR.My mind raced back to our conversation four days earlier. Suddenly, it dawned on me why Steve put down Smarty Jones.Of course, I was too dumb to bet or pick QGR in the Lexington Stakes last Saturday at Keeneland -- but it wasn"t the first time I dumbed up. And it surely won"t be the last time.And, speaking of Quintons Gold Rush, why isn"t jockey Bailey (who rides 40 per cent winners for Asmussen) riding him back in the Derby? A day after the Lexington, Bailey announced his decision to ride Wimbledon for Robert Baffert in the Run for the Roses.What gives? In the one time they met, QGR smoked Wimbledon, and there"s no comparison between the colts" most recent races. Yes, I know the party line is that Wimbledon made a premature move in the Santa Anita Derby, leading to the firing of Javier Santiago, who wasn"t the next Shoemaker for long.So Bailey takes off Quintons Gold Rush and Read the Footnotes to ride Wimbledon...A point worth remembering.In the meantime, Asmussen still needs a rider for Quintons Gold Rush.OTHER ISSUESI"m now thinking that The Cliff"s Edge will be the Derby favorite because of the Nick Zito factor. This does not guarantee that Cliff will win. Only one favorite (Fusaichi Pegasus) has won the Derby in 25 years.The main reason why this is so is because the public has made a lot of bad Derby favorites. Hopefully, when Smarty Jones fires a :58 bullet on Saturday morning at Churchill, that won"t make him the favorite.You need to pick up the current issue of HorsePlayer Magazine, the one with (who else? Nick Zito on the cover. On Page 36 is a compelling piece on handicapping titled Match Race, a wildly-entertaining shootout between John Piesen (catch that photo) and Kurt Hoover. I make Hoover 3-5, but Piesen has a puncher"s chance. I don"t understand all this bewilderment about A-Rod"s awful start. Check the archives, and you"ll find I wrote last year that A-Rod is the most overrated professional athlete of our era.Of course, all will be forgiven if I see that A-Rod donates all or most of this year"s $27 million to charity.Spare me from bunt-crazy managers.A few years ago, someone conducted a survey and found that a team has a much better chance of scoring with a man on first and none out than it does with a man on second with one out. In this computer age, you would think that some managers would take the hint.A glaring example of the sacrifice bunt came Monday night. I had Seattle against Oakland, and was feeling pretty good when John Olerud opened the home 10th with a double. My glee turned to doom when they had Ichiro bunt him over. With the infield playing bunt, all Ichiro had to do was put it in play, and it"s ballgame.Of course, the bunt left it up to inferior hitters, and Seattle didn"t score. I turned off the game at that point, resigned to a loss, so I was shocked to learn on Sports Center this morning that Seattle actually won in the 14th -- on a balk, no less.But I"m not talking results. It doesn"t make the Seattle manager any less stupid.And, oh yes. Don"t you love it when the successful bunter returns to the dugout and gets high-fives all around...like he just put one over the wall.Personally, every time a manager calls for a bunt, especially with an Ichiro, I would sentence him to watching two and a half hours of Heat-Hornets.And, finally, boys and girls, in case you missed it, I went three-for-four with my picks in last Friday"s column -- including a $12 winner and an $8 winner. OK, I"ll throw back the $2.80 winner.



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