04/05/2009 11:00PM

I Want Revenge upstages his Ky. Derby rivals


NEW YORK - There's a famous story in rock history about a friendly dispute between The Who and Jimi Hendrix when both played the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. Both were known as explosive live performers and neither wanted to follow the other. After a coin flip decided the matter, The Who preceded Hendrix on the stage.

The Who put on a fantastic set, culminating with Pete Townshend smashing his guitar to bits. But Hendrix, during a performance of Wild Thing, managed to do one better. He didn't just smash his hand-painted Stratocaster, he sacrificed it by setting it on fire. Almost instantly, Hendrix became an international superstar.

It seems we were watching the same sort of "can you top this" rivalry after what happened Saturday at Aqueduct. Last week, virtually the entire American racing community was taken with Quality Road and Dunkirk's one-two finish in a Florida Derby, which was obviously a strongly run race even before the winning Beyer Speed Figure grew from 103 to 111. Their excellent performances made Quality Road and Dunkirk very tough acts to follow. But in Saturday's Wood Memorial, I Want Revenge did his best Hendrix imitation and stole the show.

By now, so many plaudits have been thrown I Want Revenge's way for what he did Saturday that he's probably drowning in them, but he deserves them all. Almost everything that could go wrong for a horse in a race did for I Want Revenge in the Wood. He lost four or five lengths when he broke in the air. The Wood looked absolutely over for him as he trailed going around the first turn, because in his recent races he performed like a horse who wanted to be fairly close early.

Even when I Want Revenge worked his way into contention on the far turn, he was bottled up behind a wall of horses, then was blocked and bounced around between opponents in midstretch. When I Want Revenge finally did get a seam late, he shot right on through to record one of the most implausible wins you'll ever see from a 1-2 shot. From overuse, the term "hundred lengths the best" has lost its impact. But it applies here.

The funny thing is, all of I Want Revenge's trouble Saturday could well turn out to be a blessing. For one, thanks to an exceptional ride from Joe Talamo, who in this situation was wise far beyond his years, I Want Revenge barely ran an eighth of a mile. He was not rushed when last early, he was allowed to reach contention on his own power, and was set down only when a path cleared for him, all of which means this race took nothing out of him. All the adversity I Want Revenge overcame has to give horse and rider confidence when it comes to facing a big field in the Kentucky Derby. Unlike for other horses, the Derby won't be over for I Want Revenge should he find himself less than perfectly positioned early.

Although both did the expected, winning as favorites in Saturday's other two major Kentucky Derby preps, the performances by Musket Man in the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne and by Pioneerof the Nile in the Santa Anita Derby paled in comparison to I Want Revenge's. With his decisive victory, Musket Man proved his win in the Tampa Bay Derby was not merely the result of being an opportunist when that race fell apart late, and that he can indeed handle a distance. But while I Want Revenge humbled the highly regarded Imperial Council in the Wood, Musket Man didn't beat much Saturday. In fact, he has yet to face a highly ranked contemporary, and with so much strength at the top this year, he still looks like a Derby outsider.

Pioneerof the Nile is more problematic. He won ugly again in a Santa Anita Derby made much softer with the scratch of morning-line favorite The Pamplemousse. But the chorus claiming Pioneerof the Nile will be much more effective in Kentucky because he will finally get a hot pace to rally into seems to be getting louder. There might be some validity to that. At the same time, that position assumes Pioneerof the Nile will perform at least as effectively on dirt, which he has never raced on. It also assumes that he will run significantly faster than he ever has, for he has yet to earn a triple-digit Beyer. That assumes a lot, particularly for a colt who has the unappealing trait of waiting on competition when he gets the lead. Don't worry, there will be plenty of competition for Pioneerof the Nile at Churchill Downs.

A couple quick thoughts on some other weekend stakes results:

* Taking nothing away from Kodiak Kowboy, who got up to beat Fabulous Strike by a head in Saturday's Carter at Aqueduct, but Fabulous Strike did not deserve to lose that race after setting a hot pace under pressure.

* Whether it's due to her failing to develop sufficiently from 2 to 3 or simply being out of form, Stardom Bound's loss at 3-5 in Saturday's Ashland at Keeneland makes it clear that she just isn't anywhere near as dominant as she was last year. In fact, there is no doubt that Stardom Bound has been overtaken by Rachel Alexandra, who was awesome again winning Sunday's Fantasy at Oaklawn.