02/14/2011 5:56PM

2011 Kentucky Derby: Under the Radar - Wilkinson

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Lynn Roberts
Wilkinson, shown winning the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, will be pointed to the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Welcome to Under the Radar. Each week, I’ll select an up-and-coming Derby prospect for my stable of Radar Runners.

Neil Howard may be best known for his thoughtful and patient handling of young horses. Rarely will you see a Howard juvenile pop first-time out. In fact, according to DRF Formulator statistics, Howard is only 3 for 51 (6 percent, 0.85 return on investment) with debuting 2-year-olds over the past five years.

Mineshaft, arguably the most accomplished horse Howard has ever trained, was unraced at 2 and only a maiden graduate from seven tries in Europe at 3. Howard didn’t get his hands on Mineshaft until November of his sophomore season but masterfully guided him to a Horse of the Year campaign at 4.

Howard also has been mostly immune to “Derby Fever,” an affliction that can send the most even-tempered horsemen over the moon with unrealistic expectations for their developing sophomores.

In recent years, Howard has been content to let his best 3-year-olds mature before setting them loose against top competition. In 2008, Mambo in Seattle, merely a maiden winner while the leading 3-year-olds were preparing for that year’s Preakness, emerged from relative obscurity to finish a nose shy of Colonel John in the Grade 1 Travers. The previous season, Howard’s Grasshopper followed a similar pattern. Grasshopper didn’t start his 3-year-old crusade until June 10 but still ended up a close second to Street Sense in the Travers.

KENTUCKY DERBY NEWS: Track all the 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail

Howard will go to the Derby when he feels he has the right horse, however.

Summer Squall, unbeaten in five tries at 2, roared into Louisville as the 2-1 second choice in the 1990 Derby following victories in the Jim Beam at Turfway and the Blue Grass at Keeneland earlier that spring. On the first Saturday in May, Summer Squall took jockey Pat Day to the lead after a mile but faltered to finish second behind Unbridled. Summer Squall would go on to win the Preakness and the Pennsylvania Derby at 3 and the Grade 2 Fayette Handicap the following year.

Howard’s only other Kentucky Derby entrant was Parade Ground in 1998. Parade Ground won the Tampa Bay Derby before the colt finished sixth at Churchill Downs. Subsequently, Parade Ground won four graded races on grass.

In 2011, Howard has been hitting on all cylinders, especially with his 3-year-old colts. Machen, an unbeaten son of Distorted Humor, was listed at 15-1 by Daily Racing Form national handicapper Mike Watchmaker in the initial Derby Watch poll. Close Ally, a Giant’s Causeway colt, rallied from 10 lengths behind to win his debut at 30-1 odds at Fair Grounds on Jan. 20. Prime Cut, a $475,000 offspring of Bernstein, was beaten a scant nose in his two-turn debut in New Orleans last week.

Then, there’s Wilkinson, the curious enigma of the Howard 3-year-old set, and this week’s Under the Radar runner.

A son of Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid, Wilkinson is the first foal from Tasha’s Delight, an Afternoon Deelites mare that was Grade 3 placed going a one-turn mile on grass at Woodbine. Tasha’s Delight’s full sister, Miss Pickums, won the Grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes at 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs as a juvenile filly of 2000. This is the female family of Delicate Vine, winner of the Grade 1 Arlington-Washington Lassie at two in 1986.

Bred and owned by Gaillardia Racing, Wilkinson was foaled in Kentucky on March 3, 2008. He made his career debut on Oct. 21 during the Keeneland fall meeting at the about seven-furlong distance over the Beard Polytrack course. Bet down to 6-1 from a 15-1 morning line despite Howard’s modest first-out statistics, Wilkinson displayed some grit. He stalked the pace while racing in behind horses before being bumped hard on the turn. After being wheeled to the outside for the stretch run, Wilkinson gave a sustained rally, falling short by a head to favored Rampaige, the next-out runner-up in a listed race at Parx Racing.

Considering Wilkinson’s good late rally and route-oriented pedigree, Howard was eager to stretch his charge out in distance. On Nov. 24, Wilkinson resurfaced in an off-the-turf maiden special weight at 1 1/16 miles. Breaking from the far outside post in the field of 10, Wilkinson chased a slow pace while three wide around both turns but still finished evenly for second behind Private Prize, a colt that returned to finish second in the $100,000 Tropical Park Derby on grass at Calder.

Wilkinson shipped to Fair Grounds for his winter campaign and made his final start at 2 in a maiden special weight at mile and 40 yards on Dec. 10. After bobbling ever so slightly leaving the gate, Wilkinson tracked the leader along the rail before being eased out to the two path at the quarter pole. Wilkinson had to be set down hard by jockey Robby Albarado to get by the pacesetter, but he did so late to win by a length. The fifth-place finisher that afternoon, Ghost Is Clear, came back to graduate by more than seven lengths with an 89 Beyer.

For his first start against winners, and first start at 3, Wilkinson caught slop in an entry-level optional claimer on New Year’s Day. He raced widest throughout, and it was a bit disappointing that he failed to hold down second in the stretch after chasing the erratic favored winner, Justin Phillip.

Howard remained confident with Wilkinson and entered him three weeks later in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at a mile and 40 yards. Racing over fast going, Wilkinson got his revenge on Justin Phillip, settling along the rail for the backstretch run before squeezing through a narrow opening along the inside in upper stretch. Jockey Garrett Gomez had to work on Wilkinson, but he caught the pacesetting Pants On Fire right on the wire to win by a head.

It wouldn’t be a fair-and-thorough analysis if we didn’t study some of Wilkinson’s possible flaws. Although professional and game, Wilkinson lacks an explosive burst. He seems more of a grinder than a horse that can break a race open at the drop of a hat. Also, he hasn’t run a fast race. In the Lecomte, his quickest effort to date, Wilkinson earned a mediocre 82 Beyer.

With $60,000 in graded stakes earnings under his belt, Wilkinson has options. Howard may decide to train Wilkinson up to the Grade 2, $1 million Louisiana Derby at nine furlongs on March 26. In any event, Wilkinson must continue to improve if he is to be considered top of the class, but he has shown enough to run his way into our Radar stable.