04/06/2010 11:23PM

Wild Things


Now that the dust has settled, the fires are out, and radiation levels have returned to the acceptable range, it is time to ponder the deeper impact of the Santa Anita Derby just run.

All of the easy questions have been answered: Sidney's Candy is the real deal. Lookin at Lucky needs a name change. Victor Espinoza committed a suspendable offense. Garrett Gomez was guilty of a $750 temper tantrum. And Bob and Jill Baffert are the most entertaining buddy cops since Cagney and Lacey. What remains debatable are those everlasting intangibles. Was there malice in Espinoza's heart when he tightened things up on Gomez? Did Gomez, a national champion four years running, flagrantly disregard Bob Baffert's instructions and put Lookin at Lucky in a tough spot? Did Richard Mandella not understand the eligibility rules for the Kentucky Derby in bringing the massive Setsuko to the front of the class very late in the game?

Sidney It is to the everlasting embarrassment of my profession that the scuffle between Gomez and Espinoza over their traffic snarl on the final turn made nearly every lead alongside the runaway win of Sidney's Candy. It was diverting entertainment, but hardly a bench-clearing brawl. There were even apologies accompanying the reports, as if it was an uncomfortable obligation to hype the hissy fit in lieu of proper appreciation of the impressive athletic performance duly witnessed. Sidney's Candy was every bit as dominating as Point Given, Sunday Silence, Winning Colors in winning the historic event, but I've seen better fights in the Home Depot return line. Back in the jocks' room, there was a certain amout of derisive laughter when Espinoza deployed his kung-fu moves on Gomez. Dang, you'd think it was hockey, or figure skating.

As for the Bafferts, the wounds they inflicted on Gomez and Espinoza cut a lot deeper, and they were impossible to ignore. Bob, rising to the defense of his colt, who finished a distance third, took Gomez to the public woodshed like no trainer since Buddy Delp crucified Ronnie Franklin for not winning the Florida Derby easily enough. Baffert usually cools out quickly and with a degree of good humor, but there is always a residue left behind, and jockeys have learned it is the price they sometimes pay for riding the Ferraris that issue from his barn.

Some of that residue may have lingered in Espinoza's system after he was unceremoniously dumped earlier this year from Misremembered, who went on to win the Santa Anita Handicap for the Bafferts in March. As for Jill Baffert's public flogging of Espinoza for his Santa Anita Derby transgressions--both real and inferred--she expressed sincere regrets for the display later that day, while insisting her concern was only for the safety of horses and riders. Still, her passionate tirade had the full attention of just about every major media outlet on the scene to cover the race.

An owner or a trainer should be able to replace a jockey without fear of that jockey going postal down the line. At the same time, there are subtle, non-lethal ways for riders to even the score if they feel there is a score that needs to be evened. Lookin at Lucky, reigning champ and one-time pre-Kentucky Derby favorite, seems to wake up with a bullseye painted on his rump. He has now had three straight races in which his best efforts have been sorely compromised by troubled trips. Gomez clearly reached his frustration point when Espinoza forced him to take up on the turn.

"I've only been in three fights since I've ridden out here," said Gomez, who came West a dozen or so years ago. And who, pray tell, were the others. "Matt Garcia and Pat Valenzuela," Gomez replied.

As for Setsuko, a towering son of Pleasantly Perfect who has now finished second in the Sham Stakes and Santa Anita Derby, he has the look of a Kentucky Derby colt and plenty of support at juicy odds in future books among the hardcore Mandellistas out there. Mandella, though, is an abstract impressionist in a Norman Rockwell world, probing at the roses in his own way in his own good time. But if there is, in fact, a Derby out there with Mandella's name on it, why do they keep spelling it Servis, Tagg, or Woolley?

Back in the days before the Derby mandated a 20-horse field (they call it a "limit," but that's a laugh), the runner-up in the Santa Anita Derby would be able to pack up and head for Louisville without a second thought. Now, he must wait in line, hat in hand, behind the first three finishers at places like Sunland Park, Delta Downs and Meydan, because his bankroll does not necessarily make the grade, even though his ability is beyond reproach.

The last time a true contender was crowded out of the Derby came in 2004, when Rock Hard Ten--who was DQed from a narrowly beaten second to third in the Santa Anita Derby--came up short on qualifying cash. Rocky went on to be second in the Preakness won by Smarty Jones, then came to full flower the following season. If Setsuko is left out in the cold, then ascends to immediate glory somewhere along the Triple Crown trail, he could kickstart a badly needed reform of the Kentucky Derby selection system. That would be a good thing. But Mandella would rather run.

Curt A Vassallo More than 1 year ago
How many times must I repeat myself ? One horse has never beaten any males of any grade whatsover, on dirt. One horse has beaten proven winning males of Grade 1 competition, all in one year, 3 times, as a baby. All the speculation & rhetoric does not constitute anything of value. One horse even took it one step further. She beat males on dirt, in open company, Grade 1 staus, open to any horse in the world, including Z., which opted NOT to run. That was 2009. It's over. 2010 is here & upon us. That other horse has the opportunity to erase all doubt. W/ or w/o, the reigning HOY. Will she take the chance ? I hope so. Because, I'm quite simply tired of all the supposition. One horse did it. One horse didn't...& one horse received the HOY award, & one horse didn't...
blackseabass More than 1 year ago
Not trying to start a war but VQ were Big Brown and Barbaro Turf or Dirt horses? John Henry didn't run in the Derby but was he a Turf or a Dirt horse? I could go on and on.
C More than 1 year ago
"What can be proved by winning the BC Classic again at a bush track in Ky." Oh, I don't know... maybe beating open company DIRT horses on DIRT. Churchill Downs is a "bush" track?
blackseabass More than 1 year ago
OOPs make that proven. C, your not a curmudgeon you just have an opinion. You and I are really just misunderstood grizzly bears with a taste for red meat.
blackseabass More than 1 year ago
C, If Z was mine I'd try to take the Milady, Vanity and Holywood gold cup.If she made it through that unbeaten I'd rest her and try the Zenyatta.If she won that I'd pull a JJ or a Farrish and say my horse is best and now she's done. What can be proved by winning the BC Classic again at a bush track in Ky.
Kate Harper More than 1 year ago
"Churchill needs to say Graded money in DIRT races only period. No turf No rubber....we want the top 20 Dirt horses in America period...that is the best way" Posted by: dan c on April 07, 2010 at 12:11 AM Ah, Dan, why should synthetic runners be excluded from the Derby? They've clearly proven they transfer their form to dirt while the reverse is rare. I think it is entirely possible to see California horses take 3 of the top 4 finishes in this year's Derby. It will be a shame if the talented Setsuko doesn't make the starting gate, but he'll have the opportunity to demonstrate his potential after the Derby. The graded earnings criteria should be replaced with a tiered point system based on graded stakes placings. Curt Vassallo's dismissing comments about Zenyatta and the Mosses is typical of those naysayers who said Zenyatta was simply a synthetic specialist, untested on dirt and discredited her for staying in California but now need to explain why only 4 horses were at the Apple Blossom? There were 43 horses nominated for that race but no one showed up. If she is so unproven where are all those world beaters who would top her? Whoops, maybe they realized they didn't have a shot in hell of beating her. Maybe Jess Jackson realizes his filly had no chance as well.
Curt A Vassallo More than 1 year ago
Seabass, We've butted heads a few times before. Although we don't see eye to eye, your response to me was aptly germane, as to what I was indeed asking. It seems you were the only one, that was able to respond w/ the information I was seeking. So, with that, it's a thanx. Having said that, if Z & her connections want to keep going down the slippery slope of having defeated sub class inferior competition, so be it. Until she beats G1 winning males on DIRT, she will be forever stamped as an older female winning award winner only. They can use the word "Duck", in any context they wish. Rachel ducked no horses. Witness her 3 G1 wins, on DIRT, vs. male, G1 winners, all in one year. There is no reason for her to wait for Rachel. Take the high road, beat G1 males on dirt. That would forever cement her legacy. In closing, I have said again & again, I in no way am belittling the horse. But, she has NOT approached nearly anything of the magnitude of Rachel's one year campaign. She lost her chance last year to meet up w/RA. IMO, had Rachel Alexandra not did what she indeed did do last year, she would have been retired. When they meet this year, & it will happen, Zen better win the race, or all hell will break loose...
C More than 1 year ago
... I say that because I like Zenyatta. Forget Rachel and Eclipse awards for a minute. What will running her in SoCal this year prove? We've already known she is better than that group for years now. She has run against them repeatedly and that's the one legitimate knock the critics still have on her place in history at this point: same group in SoCal for most of her races. Wouldn't it be great if she ends her career by leaving absolutely no possibility of such a discussion... no questionmarks whatsoever, no possible chance for anyone to even compare her to Personal Ensign or any other mare? THAT should be the goal of her 2010 campaign... Zenyatta best, everyone else not, no room for a case to be made for any other mare. Keeping her in SoCal will not accomplish this and the questions about her competition will simply never go away. This is their chance to end that discussion once and for all. They have the best horse in the country, so what would they be afraid of? Nothing.
C More than 1 year ago
"I think they should bring her home and stay here with her." What a complete waste of talent that would be. Boring. I agree with Robert that great horses scare away a lot of competition, which is exactly why Zenyatta should be pointed to the very best open G1s around the country. From now on, she should be running, exclusively, in presitigious races against males at Saratoga, Churchill, Belmont, wherever. This is the Breeders Cup Classic winner. Sending her back to SoCal to beat up on the same outclassed and severely overmatched crew she's been bashing in the majority of her 16 races is not the campaign a champion of her magnitude deserves. If that's the path they choose, the door for 2010 HoY will be left wide open again. Zenyatta deserves better much than that. Run her like a champion because she is one.
blackseabass More than 1 year ago
Curt V, There was 45 or 48 horses pre-entered for the Apple Blossom. 40 or so that thought they'ed have a chance to take a million dollar 2nd place check from RACHEL. When 2nd dropped to 100 grand nobody wanted to spend the money to fly in there and get thumped. The best F&Ms in the country (the ones that live at SA& Hol)Sure weren't going to go trying to track down Zenyatta. After seeing Z 10 times live i'll say that she usually at some point starts picking them up and laying them down. The 2010 Apple Blossom is the 1st time I've seen a deep closer win going away without ever taking a long stride or breaking a jog, EVER,EVER. If you think people that have nice mares are going to go out of their way to face The Reflection of Perfection, forget it. I think they should bring her home and stay here with her. Where we love her. There is no point in trapsing around to face 3 or 4 horse fields of local horses. If they want to face the champ let them get on the plane.