02/10/2009 1:00AM

Questions seem to loom larger this year


The early consensus assessment of this year's crop of Kentucky Derby hopefuls is more harsh than usual. Outside of a couple of abnormally fast sprint performances, the word most often associated with this group seems to be "uninspiring." Certainly a big reason for that is the leaders of this division are shakier propositions than you would usually expect. Three-year-olds of prominence at this time of year always have at least some questions to answer. But this year, the questions are bigger and speak to much deeper issues.

Of course, all of this can change in the time it takes just one member of this class to deliver a truly compelling performance. But even if such a watershed moment never comes to pass this year, it is important to realize this: No matter how flawed this Derby crop might be, the Kentucky Derby will still be run on the first Saturday in May, and some horse will win it. Maybe the winner will be one of the 23 individual betting interests in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. On a chance that it might be, let's take a closer look at them:

1. Beethoven - Was a respectable fourth in the Holy Bull in his first start this year after being compromised by a tough outside post and a speed-favoring track, and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes he won in his final start at 2 got a big boost when third-place finisher Capt. Candyman Can won the Hutcheson Stakes in his 3-year-old bow. Beethoven is trained by John Ward Jr., a Kentuckian who will give this colt every chance to make the Derby, a point that should not be underestimated when it comes to participating in future wagers like this. Has yet to run fast, but precious few in his age group have.

2. Big Drama - Kicked himself in the shin, which forced him to miss his scheduled 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull. The money he earned winning the Delta Jackpot in his final start at 2, his fifth straight win, assures him a starting berth in the Derby, certainly another major consideration for Derby future wagers. Might well be a significantly bigger price than others who look no better than him.

3. Capt. Candyman Can - His nice Hutcheson win ensures he will attract plenty of action here. But he did not relax when a narrowly beaten third as the strong favorite after setting the pace in the Kentucky Jockey Club, and since that was his only attempt around two turns, it raises distance questions.

4. Chocolate Candy - Was odds-on in the California Derby in his first start this year due to his close third in the slowly run CashCall Futurity in December, and he got the job done in less than attractive fashion. Sure, there are a lot of horses here who have yet to run fast, but so far, he's slower than most.

5. Flying Pegasus - The first of three consecutive horses here coming out of the Risen Star. His second in that race to Friesan Fire, beaten only two lengths, was a very good performance considering he was making his first start in five months and was caught five wide on the first turn and three wide on the far turn. Friesan Fire will be bet in this pool for what he has recently accomplished, as will the one after him, Giant Oak, because of the bad trip he had in the Risen Star. That means there's a chance this one might fall through the cracks and be a bigger price here than he should be.

6. Friesan Fire - While his victory in last week's Risen Star, and in the Lecomte Stakes before that, didn't knock anyone's socks off in a visual sense, they do make him the most productive 3-year-old so far this year. He has clearly improved since the addition of blinkers, but the feeling is he will be an underlay in this pool because of his recent success.

7. Giant Oak - Showed he is capable when he finished a neck behind Beethoven and a neck in front of Capt. Candyman Can in the Kentucky Jockey Club in his first start on dirt and with blinkers, and you can just draw a line through his fifth as the favorite in the Risen Star as a traffic-filled trip cost him any chance of winning. A potential play here, if, that is, the whole world doesn't jump on him expecting value because of that bad trip at Fair Grounds.

8. Haynesfield - Won the Whirlaway and Count Fleet stakes at Aqueduct so far this year, but there are issues beyond the fact that he victimized suspect opposition in those races. He has yet to earn a penny of graded stakes money, which is important since these days we should automatically count on the Derby having to invoke its graded earnings clause to cap the field at 20. And, he is sprint-bred, although Derby wins last year by Big Brown and by Smarty Jones in 2004 suggest distance pedigree in the Derby isn't as important as it used to be.

9. Hello Broadway - Creditable seconds as the favorite in the Hutcheson and Nashua in his last two starts mean that he shouldn't be a million-to-one in this. Just know that in the one race he actually did win, a maiden race last summer at Saratoga, the runner-up was lengths the best.

10. I Want Revenge - Despite solid, consistent form, he's a hard one to get a handle on. Might have won the CashCall Futurity had he not lost focus down the backstretch, but a big reason why he came back on that day and gave the impression of being best when he missed by a nose to Pioneerof the Nile is the race fell completely apart late. And then, he was no match for Pioneerof the Nile when third in last week's Robert Lewis Stakes. Has never raced on dirt, and probably won't be quite as big a price as he should be.

11. Midshipman - Last year's champion 2-year-old on the strength of his workmanlike win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he will take money just because of his reputation, and yet he still might be a bigger price than many expect. That is because he has yet to race on dirt, and now being the property of Godolphin, he would attempt to become the first to win the Kentucky Derby after prepping in Dubai. He won't get a cent of mine. That said, Barbaro, Street Sense, and Big Brown have caused a variety of Derby "rules" to crumble in the last three years. That trend, combined with the potential weakness of this group, could result in some more Derby "rules" being shattered this year, like perhaps a horse winning the Derby after prepping in Dubai. Just sayin'.

12. Notonthesamepage - The 115 Beyer Speed Figure he got for romping in the Spectacular Bid Stakes on Jan. 3, since adjusted down to 114, was at the time the highest Beyer ever assigned to a horse at this stage of his career in the 17 years Beyers have been published in Daily Racing Form. Seventeen years. That distinction lasted exactly three weeks, until This Ones for Phil got a 117 for winning the Sunshine Millions Dash, since adjusted down to 116. In any event, there is always some peril in going against a member of a Derby class who has one of the two best Beyers by a wide margin, but everything this colt has shown on the track so far says he's a sprinter.

13. Old Fashioned - He's undefeated, and no matter what future book vehicle you look at, he is currently the favorite for this Derby. And barring the bizarre, he'll be the favorite among the individual betting interests in this pool, too, although it's very hard to understand why anyone would really want to take a meager price on anyone in a wager like this. While he is one of the few of his generation who seems to have the potential to supersede the mundane, his reputation was really built on only one race, his romp in last fall's Remsen. Sure, he won that race easily, and the fact that he was still able to earn a 100 Beyer going 1 1/8 miles at that time bodes well for what he might be capable of when more physically mature. But the field behind him in the Remsen was weak, and he walked on an easy lead through slow fractions. In fact, he has never faced adversity or a quality opponent, so there are big question marks here to go along with all the potential.

14. Papa Clem - Forced his way into this group by virtue of his game second in last week's Robert Lewis Stakes, a race that maintained his trend of improvement from start to start. His effort in the Lewis was also commendable because he didn't have control of the early pace, as it looked like he might on paper. There is some ability here. But in truth, Pioneerof the Nile seemed much more than a half-length better than him in the Lewis, even though that was the margin that separated them at the wire.

15. Patena - Was purchased privately by IEAH Stable - who raced last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Big Brown, and campaigns Stardom Bound - and was turned over to trainer Rick Dutrow after finishing second to Friesan Fire in the Lecomte in his first start on dirt. He was withheld from the Risen Star so that Dutrow can work with him before he starts in next month's Louisiana Derby. That alone makes him worth a flyer at the right price, what with the prospect that he might sharply improve.

16. Pioneerof the Nile - Earned an important two-turn stakes win at 2 when he got up to win the CashCall Futurity, often an attractive point on the resume of any Derby hopeful. In this case, his CashCall was not respected because it was so slowly run and visually weak. If you're a fan, hope that the betting public remains fixated on that race or gets hung up on the fact that the Derby might be his first start on dirt, because his comeback win in last week's Robert Lewis Stakes was a strong effort accomplished with a powerful finish. It's another plus for him that only Armageddon could stop his owner and trainer from running him in the Derby.

17. Silver City - Paired up comparatively fast Beyers in easy wins in his last two starts. The jury is definitely out as to whether he actually wants to go very far, but there is no debate that he can run. That said, it's important to remember that it's unreasonable to expect good prices in future wagers on horses with no flaws. Truly good prices are only available on horses with significant questions to answer. It's up to you to determine if your horse has the talent to answer those questions affirmatively.

18. Stardom Bound - Last year's champion 2-year-old filly began her 2009 campaign for new connections, the same owners of last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Big Brown, with her fourth straight Grade 1 win in last week's Las Virgenes Stakes. And after having to run for only about an eighth of a mile to win the Las Virgenes, she's going to get the opportunity to prove she merits a start in the Kentucky Derby as her next start may be against males in the Santa Anita Derby. She has never raced on dirt, and she has yet to really run that fast. But she has not only won her races with great style and a devastating late kick, she has done so while giving the strong impression that she has barely scratched the surface of her abilities. She'll be supported in this pool, probably to the extent that her price will be unacceptable.

19. Taqarub - Triple-digit Beyers for 3-year-olds at this time of year seem to be rapidly becoming a rarity, so it's noteworthy that in his romp in the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes last time out, his third win from as many starts, he earned one of the few such Beyers to be found in this group. Distance ability, however, is a major question with him, so much so that it almost obscures concerns over the soft company he's kept so far.

20. The Pamplemousse - Has some talent, as evidenced by his solid win in the San Rafael over Square Eddie, winner of the Breeders' Futurity and second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in his first two U.S. starts. The question is dirt (he's never raced on it) and distance (he is sprint-bred on both sides). But if enough of the betting public gets off him because of those concerns, he just might drift out and become a playable overlay.

21. This Ones for Phil - He's the only individual betting interest in Pool 1 who is not yet nominated to the Triple Crown, but there is a plausible reason for why that is the case. The first deadline for nominating to the Triple Crown at a cost of $600 was Jan. 24, the same day as his much discussed win in the Sunshine Millions Dash in his first start for trainer Rick Dutrow. But he can still be nominated by March 28 at a cost of $6,000. He coughed up leads in two of his four attempts around two turns last year, but that might not mean anything. The staggering 40-point Beyer improvement he engineered in his first start for Dutrow over his last start for his prior connections suggests he's a different horse now.

22. Vineyard Haven - No dirt issues here. He won the Champagne and Hopeful on dirt last year. He's not slow, either. The 99 Beyer he got for winning the Champagne is good in this day and age for a 2-year-old in October. The big question here is Dubai. Like Midshipman, he is now property of Godolphin, and he will be attempting to buck a pretty tough trend to become the first to win the Derby after prepping in Dubai. Like Midshipman, he might have picked the right year to try it. But like Midshipman, his odds don't figure to be nearly big enough to make taking the risk worthwhile.

23. West Side Bernie - Like Beethoven, he was compromised by an outside post and a speed-favoring track in the Holy Bull, and his third-place finish just ahead of Beethoven after a strong move late on the far turn will probably get some wise guys thinking about playing him here. His strong 2-year-old foundation built exclusively on two-turn races helps his appeal factor. There are far worse in here to take a flyer on.