12/17/2009 12:00AM

A good source of Derby candidates

Email

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - If a tree falls in the forest, and there's only a TVG cameraman there to see it, did it really happen? And if it did, will anyone remember by Kentucky Derby Day?

Hollywood Park has taken "Zen and the Art of Ontrack Attendance" to new heights this dwindling autumn season. There were 3,530 announced in the house last Saturday and 3,165 the following day. But to say that a total of 6,695 fans felt the need to see Thoroughbreds compete in the flesh last weekend might be stretching it, because the Hollywood gate right now seems boiled down to its most hardened core. It is very likely that after last Saturday's meeting of the organization, 365 of the members simply failed to show on Sunday.

That may be unfair. There was weather - a rare challenge for Southern Californians - no stakes racing of particular note, no pick-six carryovers, and no goodies at the door. This Saturday, however, the everlasting appeal of the giveaway will be tested once again when a duffel bag will be awaiting loyal patrons. There is also the CashCall Futurity, worth $750,000, which will probably end up being the most prize money given away in front of the fewest people at any American Thoroughbred track this year.

Never mind, though. Consider Saturday's crowd to be a privileged studio audience for the 29th running of what has become, without question, the most significant 2-year-old event of the California season. Part of that is a function of the calendar - by late December many of these young lads are looking like they want to be serious 3-year-olds, and soon. And then there is the natural impact of late bloomers, who may not have been quite ready for races such as the Del Mar Futurity, the Norfolk Stakes, or, from time to time, a locally staged Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

So the race becomes worth winning, both in terms of purse and value as a developmental springboard. It is no real accident that six of its runners have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby - the most recent was 2004 runner-up Giacomo - compared with only five Derby winners who have the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in their past performance lines.

Whether or not there will be a 30th running of the Futurity remains in the hands of Hollywood Park's owners at the Bay Meadows Land Company, whose owners envision nice housing of a certain density where the winner's circle currently sits. It is always worth savoring the Futurity's brief history.

It wasn't for lack of trying that Futurity winners Best Pal, Lion Heart, and Pioneerof the Nile failed to win the Kentucky Derby, but had to settle for second. And there were any number of Futurity winners who had Derby horse plastered all over - including Roving Boy, Grand Canyon, A.P. Indy, and Declan's Moon - but failed to make the Churchill dance for reasons of injury (or, in the case of Grand Canyon, mortality).

A.P. Indy did manage to win the Belmont, the Breeders' Cup Classic, and Horse of the Year. Futurity winner Point Given won the Preakness, the Belmont, the Travers, and Horse of the Year. Futurity winner Snow Chief took the Preakness and the

3-year-old championship. Futurity winner King Glorious won the Haskell. Five Futurity winners won the Santa Anita Derby, at the very least.

However, only one Futurity winner went on to bag the big one. That was Real Quiet, who wasn't even considered the best of the Mike Pegram/Bob Baffert 2-year-olds earlier in the season. They liked Johnbill, a son of Slew City Slew (later the sire of Lava Man), whose $110,000 price tag as a yearling was as much as Pegram ever paid in those days.

Real Quiet, on the other hand, cost $17,000 and couldn't win in New Mexico. By the time he got to the Futurity, though, he was on the way to becoming the Real Quiet everyone discovered the following spring. He beat Artax by a length, which turned out to be just fine, since Artax went on to win the Santa Anita Derby and later earned a sprint championship. Real Quiet, besides winning the 1998 Kentucky Derby, came closer to winning the Triple Crown than any other horse who didn't.

Pegram and Baffert took another Futurity in 1999 with Captain Steve, who went on to win a Dubai World Cup, and now they have Lookin at Lucky primed for Saturday's running. On paper, Lookin at Lucky has got the opposition over a barrel, after winning the Del Mar Futurity, the Norfolk Stakes, and finishing a no-luck second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But then, it's the races you're supposed to win that are sometimes the toughest to nail down.

"He's got a little Silver Charm in him," Baffert said, summoning the memory of his 1997 Kentucky Derby winner, who missed the Hollywood Futurity. "You can put him in the race, and he'll fight off horses if he has to, as long as you give him a chance.

"In the Breeders' Cup, he was so far back he never had that chance," Baffert added. "When I saw him down the backstretch, and they were going so slow up front, I didn't think he'd even hit the board."

Surprise. He was second, beaten a head, which did nothing to tarnish Lookin at Lucky's status as the front-runner for an Eclipse Award. Garrett Gomez rides him again on Saturday.

"I'm confident he's going to run his race, as long as Garrett's got him in the right spot," Baffert added. "And he should be, cause he's got more speed than he showed in the Breeders' Cup. I think he'll redeem himself."