Updated on 09/16/2011 7:08AM

Harlan's Holiday: What's not to like?

Trainer Ken McPeek with Repent (left), who is off the Derby trail, and top contender Harlan's Holiday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There is a widely held notion that this year's Kentucky Derby lacks a clear-cut favorite. Huh?

Harlan's Holiday has run nine times. He has won five and finished second in the other four races. He won the Florida Derby in his last start, by 3 1/2 lengths. He is a grandson of a Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, and the great-grandson of a Kentucky Derby winner, Northern Dancer, rendering pedigree questions moot.

He has, however, not captured anyone's strong fancy. Perhaps it is because he was foaled in Ohio. Maybe it is because his trainer has never won the Derby, and his owner never has had a starter in the Derby. But using any objective criteria, Harlan's Holiday is a solid, deserving favorite.


"Having two horses softened the blow," McPeek said Tuesday morning outside his barn. "If I had one, it would have been more difficult to deal with. But we have to keep everything in perspective. After all my wife and I went through the last year, this is nice."

McPeek's wife, Sue, had surgery for cancer while pregnant, then delivered a healthy daughter, Jenna, who is now 14 months old. All were at the track Tuesday morning. "Jenna doesn't care if daddy's horse comes in first or last," McPeek said.

Harlan's Holiday (Edgar Prado the jockey) and arch-rival Booklet (Jorge Chavez), who have met three times previously, will be the first and second choices in the Blue Grass, which is expected to have a field of six. Booklet should be the controlling speed in the 1 1/8-mile race, but he could have company on the front end. Trainer Dallas Stewart on Tuesday said that Bob's Image, the Louisiana Derby pacesetter, would run in the Blue Grass, with Lonnie Meche riding. The others expected to be entered on Thursday are Azillion (Corey Nakatani), Ocean Sound, and Straight Gin.

For Harlan's Holiday, Tuesday's work was a routine maintenance drill. That said, Harlan's Holiday went as well as could be expected. The track was sloppy from overnight rain. It was packed hard, however; the sound of horses training over it was loud, like a jackhammer. With Prado up, Harlan's Holiday turned in the best time of 18 at the distance. He worked at 8:45, after a renovation break, with owner Jack Wolf in attendance accompanied by his ever-present entourage of buddies. They should be nicknamed the Wolfpack.

"He went pretty well. I didn't want to do more than that," Prado said. "He went on his own. So far, so good."

Prado rode Harlan's Holiday for the first time in the Florida Derby. The colt was much the best that day, though his cause was aided by a hot early pace. Harlan's Holiday completed the final furlong of that race in 12.90 seconds. Someone asked Prado if he was worried the final furlong of the Florida Derby took too long.

"I was very happy being three in front," he said, smiling.

McPeek said he is "trying not to overdo or underdo" the training of Harlan's Holiday. "We've had him on the same schedule as the Florida Derby," McPeek said. "I'm trying to keep him on an even keel. His last work is four days out, just like the Florida Derby. I'm not sure he likes an off track, but he handled it well."

The forecast is for improved weather as the week progresses. Although it rained Monday night, it was mild Tuesday afternoon, with a high temperature in the mid-60's.

The forecast for Take Charge Lady is clear, too. Although the filly is owned by the same people - Jerry and Feye Bach - who own Repent, McPeek said he and Jerry Bach discussed the situation Monday night and concluded the May 3 Kentucky Oaks is where Take Charge Lady belongs, not the Derby.

"The filly's going to run in the Oaks," McPeek said. "We're both in agreement that the Oaks is the goal. If she runs in the Oaks like she did in the Ashland, then maybe we'd try the Preakness. But the Derby's not right for the filly.

"Winning Colors," McPeek said, referring to the third and last filly to win the Derby, in 1988, "had so much speed, and she was bigger, stronger, and heavier. This filly is more of a finesse filly. I don't want her in a 20-horse field, getting bumped around and shuffled back. I'd rather go for the two-foot putt. The Preakness has a shorter field and a track that suits her style."