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Crowded Derby picture still scrambled
With the exception of Big Brown and Colonel John, there is a good chance that not one 3-year-old will be coming into this year's Kentucky Derby on May 3 off consecutive winning races. Form, in many cases, has been inconsistent or inscrutable this spring, and has led - even at this late date less than three weeks from Derby Day - to an overflow number of horses still seeking berths in the race.
The upset victory by Monba in the Blue Grass Stakes last Saturday at Keeneland, coupled with the dull effort turned in by heavily favored Pyro, created chaos with the graded stakes earnings list and has emboldened the connections of some 3-year-olds to put their horses into the Derby picture, or at least give them another chance at qualifying.
For instance, the filly Eight Belles, who might be the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks on May 2, is now under consideration for the Derby, even though she has yet to face males. And the Grade 2, $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes this Saturday at Keeneland has become a critical race for Atoned and Tomcito, who were leapfrogged on the graded stakes earnings list last week by runners in the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby, and now must run again in order to have a chance of making the Derby field.
If more than the maximum of 20 horses enter the Derby, as seems a certainty, the field is determined by earnings in graded stakes races. Graded races restricted to fillies count just as much as open graded races, so Eight Belles, as of Monday, would have enough to run.
Atoned and Tomcito, however, do not have enough cash, and that is one reason trainer Todd Pletcher on Monday said Atoned would run in the Lexington.
"He has galloped so well over the Polytrack, and then breezed lights-out on it on Sunday," Pletcher said. "I'm not so much looking at it as a Derby prep as I am a race he needs to be in."
The winner's share of the Lexington is $201,500, and second is worth $65,000.
Pletcher had not won a Derby prep all spring until Saturday, when Monba and Cowboy Cal ran one-two in the Blue Grass. Both came out of the race well, Pletcher said, and will continue to train at Keeneland before eventually moving over to Churchill Downs.
"Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Curlin all had their final works last year at Churchill Downs, but, at the end of the day, they might have been the best 3-year-olds anyway," Pletcher said of the first three finishers in last year's Derby. "Rags to Riches and Octave," whom Pletcher sent out to a one-two finish in the Kentucky Oaks, "had their final works at Keeneland. Monba has trained well at Keeneland, so there's extra consideration to stay at Keeneland."
Monba got a Beyer Speed Figure of 92 in the Blue Grass. That was better than the 88 recorded by Hey Byrn in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, but less than the 103 earned by Gayego in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
Visionaire (fifth), Halo Najib (seventh), Cool Coal Man (ninth), Pyro (10th), and Big Truck (11th) are Blue Grass also-rans who are expected to return in the Derby.
Trainer Steve Asmussen said Pyro came out of the Blue Grass "fine." It was his first and, one would assume by Asmussen's comments, last start on a synthetic surface.
"What can I say other than I sure won't run him in the Breeders' Cup," Asmussen said, referring to the synthetic surface at Santa Anita, where this year's Breeders' Cup will be run; Churchill Downs has a dirt main track.
Asmussen said Pyro would work next Monday at Keeneland, then head to Churchill Downs, where he will have his final drill for the Derby.
"The 21st horse shouldn't expect him not to enter," Asmussen said.
Asmussen also was encouraged by the second-place finish of Z Fortune in the Arkansas Derby. He came into the race off a fifth in the Rebel Stakes.
"Obviously he's better than how he ran in the Rebel," Asmussen said.
Z Fortune flew to Kentucky on Monday.
Gayego also traveled to Kentucky on Monday. His trainer, Paulo Lobo, won the Kentucky Oaks in 2002 with Farda Amiga.
"He tracked a very fast pace and finished very strong," Lobo said of Gayego. "He finished in 12 and change the last eighth. And this is the kind of thing that you want to see to run a mile and a quarter. I think he tracked a very fast pace and finished strong."
Tres Borrachos, who was third in the Arkansas Derby, and Indian Sun, who was fourth, remain under consideration for the Derby, but both need defections from those above them on the graded stakes earnings list in order to get in.
Hey Byrn also will be trained with the Derby in mind, trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said, but his chances of getting in are also doubtful. The $90,000 he won in the Holy Bull was insufficient to put him in the top 20.
Those on the outside looking in may have their chances further reduced if owner Rick Porter enters Eight Belles in the Derby.
"It's getting to be more of a possibility all of the time," said Larry Jones, who trains Eight Belles. "I know Mr. Porter's leaning to wanting to do that. They'll get to crunching all their numbers in the next couple of days. But the way the races shaped up [Saturday], it looks like he may be leaning that way."
Adriano, the Lane's End Stakes winner, worked his way into the Derby with a half-mile drill on Sunday at Churchill Downs in 50 seconds, which satisfied trainer Graham Motion.
"It wasn't a flashy work, but he seemed to handle everything fine," Motion said Monday.
Now Motion needs to see if he can retain jockey Edgar Prado, who also won the Blue Grass on Monba and the Wood Memorial the previous week on Tale of Ekati. Depending on which way Prado goes, there are a host of riders lining up to replace him on whichever two he abandons.
Nick Zito also will need a rider for Cool Coal Man, because Kent Desormeaux is committed to Big Brown, the current Derby favorite. Zito said he also would run Anak Nakal in the Derby, but had yet to decide on a rider for him, too.
Zito's best-known Derby prospect, champion War Pass - who was second in the Wood Memorial - has been "given some easy days" since arriving in Kentucky, Zito said Monday.
"So far, so good," Zito said. "But the Wood was tough on him. It was a tiring track. We'll play it by ear."
War Pass is atop the graded stakes earnings list with $1.47 million.
Colonel John (47.40 seconds) and Bob Black Jack (48 seconds), the one-two finishers in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, both worked a half-mile on Monday at Santa Anita in their first drills since that race. Colonel John will work again on Sunday and ship to Churchill Downs next Monday, trainer Eoin Harty said.
Bob Black Jack wore blinkers in Monday's work and may wear them in the Derby, trainer James Kasparoff said.
- additional reporting
by Steve Andersen,
and Mike Welsch