12/01/2008 1:00AM

Early peek at Derby prospects


For all of this decade it has been no secret that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum desperately wants to win the Kentucky Derby. It also has been no secret that he wants to do it his way - by training his prime Derby prospects on his home course at Nad Al Sheba in the United Arab Emirates.

With poor results so far, most Americans believe that Sheikh Mohammed's game plan, which does not incliude a prep race in America, will not work. Maybe so, but the sheikh's home-based approach has proven experts wrong in too many situations for him to cave in now.

For all of this decade it has been no secret that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum desperately wants to win the Kentucky Derby. It also has been no secret that he wants to do it his way - by training his prime Derby prospects on his home course at Nad Al Sheba in the United Arab Emirates.

Among many important victories, Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Stable won Europe's most difficult, most prestigious race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, in 1995 with the lightly raced Lammtarra and similarly has won many Grade 1 races in America, including a number of Breeders' Cup events. While hardly relying strictly on his homebreds, many of the sheikh's Godolphin and Darley stables' Derby prospects have been American-breds he swooped in to buy for princely sums at auction or after they demonstrated Grade 1 talent as 2-year-olds. This year is no different, consider:

Probable 2-year-old champion Midshipman, winner of the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Oct. 25 at Santa Anita, was perfectly developed by trainer Bob Baffert, yet the son of Unbridled's Song is off to Dubai for his winter preparation for the Kentucky Derby next May 2. Using the Dubai road to the Derby means that Baffert, a three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, is out of the picture while Midshipman will be pointed for the $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby on the Dubai World Cup card in late March for his key prep race.

Sheikh Mohammed also bought two other prospects for the Kentucky Derby: Vineyard Haven and Jose Adan.

Vineyard Haven won the seven-furlong Hopeful at Saratoga and the one-mile Champagne at Belmont Park before he was bought and shipped to Dubai. Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel was quite impressed by this colt and was hoping he would be given the chance to train him in 2009.

Jose Adan, who finished first but was disqualified in the Arlington-Washington Futurity on Sept. 13, also was bought by Godolphin and will be at Nad Al Sheba in Dubai this winter.

There are other young horses, including well-bred Girolamo, who are among Sheikh Mohammed's Dubai-based Derby prospects, but as anyone who has followed the Triple Crown chase in recent years knows, there is no safety in sheer numbers.

Todd Pletcher and Nick Zito nominated more than 150 horses for the Derby between them since 1999, with no Derby wins to show for them. So, while Sheikh Mohammed can hope that 2009 may be his year, having a handful of good prospects may not be nearly enough. We already have seen more than a dozen other top 2-year-olds with the breeding and foundation to deserve following through the winter and early spring:

Break Water Edison, a son of 1999 Belmont and Travers winner Lemon Drop Kid, showed good late speed while rallying wide to win the one-mile Nashua Stakes at Belmont Park over promising Hello Broadway. Hello Broadway, a half-brother to the versatile Nobiz Like Shobiz, finished well despite some traffic issues in a performance that also put him in the mix.

Trinity Magic, unbeaten in three races for Steve Asmussen, is headed for the $1 million Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs on Dec. 5. Asmussen also has several maiden graduates in his loaded barn, including Nuclear Wayne, a solid winner in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race at Fair Grounds on Nov. 30. Sired by 2004 Horse of the Year Mineshaft out of a Storm Cat mare, the sky is the limit for this one.

Terrain, an okay fourth to Midshipman, Square Eddie, and Street Hero in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, previously won the Arlington-Washington Futurity on Sept. 13, via the rare double disqualification of Jose Adan and Advice. Much improvement will be needed if Terrain is going to be a legit Derby threat, but his consistency is a plus he can build upon.

Square Eddie was in modest form in Europe when bought by America's J .Paul Reddam to very positive results to date. His form on the synthetic Keeneland Polytrack in the Breeders' Futurity on Oct. 4 was impeccable, and he ran well enough for second in the BC Juvenile on the Pro-Ride synthetic surface at Santa Anita to validate his improved form.

While the Kentucky Derby will not be on a synthetic surface, as a son of Smart Strike there is no reason he should have trouble handling dirt at Churchill Downs. Nevertheless, it would seem important to see him prove that in a Derby prep at Gulfstream Park or the Fair Grounds in March, or Aqueduct and/or Oaklawn Park in April.

Street Hero, a son of the versatile Godolphin star Street Cry, trained by low- profile Myung Kwon Cho, narrowly defeated Midshipman in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept 28, but lost three close decisions to that rival this year. He was second to Midshipman in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race at Del Mar on Aug. 17; third in the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 3, and second in the BC Juvenile. Yet, from what I saw, there is significant room for Street Hero to improve as he matures. Frankly, I believe Street Hero could surpass Midshipman at classic distances no matter where Midshipman trains.

Pioneerof the Nile, a long-striding son of 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, developed slowly for trainer Bill Mott, but did show some flashes to suggest that he will be stronger at 3. This late-developing colt seems a natural for distance racing.

There also were a few good Derby prospects in action over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Among them were Beethoven, Giant Oak, and Capt. Candyman Can at Churchill and Old Fashioned at Aqueduct.

Old Fashioned, a son of Unbridled's Song, toyed with a modest field in the $200,000 Remsen to remain undefeated in three starts. Old Fashioned is trained by the talented Larry Jones, who did such fine work in 2007 with Hard Spun.

Beethoven, trained by John T. Ward, who developed the colt's sire, Sky Mesa, and also trained 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at 1 1/16 miles around two turns with a game inside rally under Calvin Borel. This is another colt with the breeding and trainer to suggest he will belong on the Triple Crown chase. The same might be said for at least one of the two horses Beethoven narrowly defeated, Giant Oak and Capt. Candyman Can.

Giant Oak, son of the stamina influence Giant's Causeway, nearly overcame the extreme outside post in this race and was right there after making a very wide move into contention. Meanwhile, third-place finisher Capt. Candyman Can, a gelded son of Candy Ride, already had won the Iroquois Stakes at one mile over the track Nov. 1 and was only beaten two necks for the whole pot in the Kentucky Jockey Club. While I suspect that Capt. Candyman Can is a miler, at this point he deserves to be included on any early Derby watch list.

Charitable Man, impressive winner of the Futurity at Belmont Park on Sept. 13, is another son of Lemon Drop Kid who will be worth following in 2009. Kept out of the Breeders' Cup due to minor physical issues, this Kiaran McLaughlin trainee figures to be a serious Derby contender if he returns in good health and competes in the classic Triple Crown prep program. That program usually includes at least two, preferably three prep races, culminating in a 1 1/8-mile test against other high class 3-year-olds in New York, Florida, California, Arkansas, or Kentucky in late March or early April.

Such a classic Derby prep program has worked quite well for many sensible horseman, but apparently not for Sheikh Mohammed.