04/05/2012 1:49PM

Crist: Wood, Santa Anita Derby overdue to produce something positive in Kentucky Derby


Whoever wins Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial will immediately join the ranks of favorites for the Kentucky Derby on May 5, if they aren’t there already. They will also, however, be joining a list of horses that for two decades now has amassed an astounding record of disappointment and defeat at Churchill Downs.

In the 23 years since Santa Anita Derby winner Sunday Silence and Wood winner Easy Goer ran one-two in the Derby, the winners of those two races have combined to go 1 for 34 in the Kentucky Derby. A $2 win bet on each would have cost $68 and returned $6.60, the Derby mutuel on 2000 Wood winner Fusaichi Pegasus.

[COLUMN COMPANION: Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial history]

Each of the last 13 Santa Anita Derby winners has run in the Kentucky Derby and their record is 13-0-1-0 – the only 1-2-3 finish among them was Pioneerof the Nile’s distant second to Mine That Bird in the slop in 2009. The last two winners, Sidney’s Candy in 2010 and Midnight Interlude in 2011, ran 16th and 17th at Churchill Downs. At least those 13 all made it to the Derby starting gate: The last three Wood winners – I Want Revenge in 2009, Eskendereya in 2010, and Toby’s Corner in 2011 – all were sidelined with injuries by Derby Day.

Have these 22 years of repeated failure marked a permanent shift in where we should look to find Derby winners, or merely been a run of bad luck and a statistical anomaly? My tepid vote goes to the latter theory, while acknowledging that the vastly expanded schedule of Derby preps has certainly widened the possibilities for where winners have their final preps.

The 2012 Wood, with a $1 million purse sponsored by Aqueduct’s new roommate, the Resorts World Casino New York City, drew a modest field of eight. The headliners and morning-line favorites are 8-5 Gemologist, who is 4 for 4 but has run in just one stakes, winning the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club last fall, and 2-1 Alpha, who is unraced since winning the Count Fleet in January and the repositioned Grade 3 Withers in February. They are the only graded stakes winners in a field of eight.

The Santa Anita Derby looks a bit tougher with a field of 10, including Grade 1 winners Creative Cause and Liaison and Grade 2 winner I’ll Have Another. Creative Cause, third and just a length behind Hansen and Union Rags in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall, is one of the few 3-year-olds this year to have taken a big step forward as a sophomore already, raising his game by several lengths to win a fast San Felipe on March 10. A definitive victory Saturday could make him the pro-tem Derby favorite after Union Rags’s third-place finish in the Florida Derby a week ago.

The best horse race of the day could come half an hour after the Wood in a six-horse, seven-furlong race: the Grade 1 Carter, which drew the 4-year-olds Caleb’s Posse, Emcee, and Shackleford, and the 5-year-olds Calibrachoa, Jackson Bend, and Tahitian Warrior. It’s so talented (a combined 25 triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in their past performances) and competitive a field that Shackleford, last year’s Preakness winner and Breeders’ Cup Mile runner-up, is the outsider on the morning line at 8-1.

It’s an excellent group of sprinter-milers, and they should put on quite a show both Saturday and then next month in the Met Mile at Belmont.

Critic stands by initial judgment

Last Saturday’s column in this space about The New York Times’s front-page “Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys” March 24 article included a reference to criticism of the piece’s methodology by Jeff Scott of The Saratogian. Scott had theorized that the Times’s statistics regarding breakdown “incidents” at Saratoga had included horses leaving the course in steeplechase races; the Times later said it had not included such races in its survey.

“The Times used only flat races.” Scott wrote in a follow-up column last week. “However, I stand by my opinion that a rating system for comparing tracks that gives equal weight to, for example, fatal breakdowns, bleeding incidents, and horses that are vanned off – without providing the number of incidences of each, and without somehow allowing for the fact that horses are vanned off for a variety of reasons, some of which are a lot less serious than others -- can produce misleading results.”