04/07/2008 11:00PM

Weekend brings Derby field into focus

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Benoit & Associates
Colonel John overtakes Bob Black Jack to win Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The winners of the three major Kentucky Derby prep races last Saturday will continue to Churchill Downs for the Derby on May 3, but the situation is uncertain for those who chased them, in many cases because of either questionable performances or the critical factor of earnings in graded stakes races.

Colonel John, who won the Santa Anita Derby, will remain here for the next 2 1/2 weeks before leaving for Kentucky, trainer Eoin Harty said. Recapturetheglory, who led from start to finish in the Illinois Derby, will get to Kentucky just as soon as his trainer and co-owner, Louis Roussel, can get there to meet him. Tale of Ekati, the Wood Memorial winner, was sent to Kentucky on Sunday along with War Pass and Court Vision, who finished second and third, respectively, in the Wood.

Of the three winners, Recapturetheglory got the best Beyer Speed Figure, a 102. Colonel John got a 95, and Tale of Ekati a 93.

Colonel John finished furiously to win the Santa Anita Derby after getting bottled up in traffic on the turn.

"I can't believe the horse won," Harty said. "I thought he had so much to do. When [El Gato Malo] went by him, it looked like he wasn't firing. At that point, I would have been content to be third. How he did it, I don't know. I thought it was a phenomenal race.

"When he accelerates, he just lengthens his stride. Some horses drop their heads down when they accelerate. His stride gets longer."

Colonel John will work twice at Santa Anita before leaving for Kentucky about 10 days before the Derby. He will have his final work at Churchill Downs, Harty said.

Bob Black Jack, who was second in the Santa Anita Derby, is on the bubble for the race, in large part because that's where he may end up in terms of earnings in graded stakes races. If more than 20 horses enter the Derby, as seems a certainty this year, the tiebreaker is earnings in graded stakes races.

With the fillies Eight Belles and Proud Spell headed to the Kentucky Oaks on May 2, and Kodiak Kowboy sticking to sprints, several horses with rich bankrolls are off the list. But Bob Black Jack still could be leapfrogged by horses currently below him who are racing this Saturday in the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

"We're thinking about the Derby a little bit," James Kasparoff, the trainer of Bob Black Jack, said Monday. "You can build a case that he belongs, but it's a tough race to win. We'll see where he stands on earnings after this weekend, too. I wouldn't even go back there unless I was sure he could get in. But everything's still up in the air. If he's not doing exactly what we want, he won't go."

David Hofmans, the trainer of third-place finisher Coast Guard, already has decided he won't go.

"We'll stay home and look for something at Hollywood," Hofmans said.

Yankee Bravo, who was fourth, likely did not make enough money to get into the Derby anyway.

"It seemed like he made his run and didn't go on with it," trainer Paddy Gallagher said.

El Gato Malo, who was fifth as the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby, remains a possibility to go to Kentucky, though he is in a precarious position with graded stakes earnings. His connections are mystified by his performance. His jockey, David Flores, said after the race that he thought El Gato Malo might have bled. But a postrace exam showed that did not happen, trainer Craig Dollase said Monday.

The Wood's first three finishers are all, at this point, headed to the Derby.

Tale of Ekati will train at Keeneland until just before the Derby, trainer Barclay Tagg said.

"I've always thought he was a very good horse," Tagg said. "We've always had some trouble with him at the gate, but I think we got that ironed out a week before the race. He ran like I expected him to run the time before but didn't, but at least he got enough out of that race to run like he did."

War Pass and Court Vision are already at Churchill Downs.

Court Vision ran "a good, solid race without being earth-shattering," said trainer Bill Mott, who said jockey Garrett Gomez told him Court Vision did not handle the Aqueduct track and slipped a couple of times.

Richard Schosberg, the trainer of fourth-place finisher Giant Moon, said he would point for the May 17 Preakness, but was keeping the Derby open as an option in case of prominent defections. However, he is far down the graded stakes earnings list.

Recapturetheglory's Illinois Derby victory put him in the Kentucky Derby, justifying the $6,000 Roussel paid to make him a late Triple Crown nominee just before the March 27 deadline.

Roussel said Recapturetheglory would have two works at Churchill prior to the Derby.

"I think he's improving immensely," Roussel said. "I saw him improving a great deal at Fair Grounds. His third race back, the Derby, I think it probably will be his best race."

Golden Spikes, who was second in the Illinois Derby, needs some defections from those above him on the graded stakes earnings list to get into the Derby. That's not a problem for third-place finisher Z Humor. Atoned, who was fourth, is above Golden Spikes but still in a precarious position in terms of earnings. Denis of Cork is in a better spot in terms of earnings, but is coming off his worst performance, a fifth-place finish that, if he goes in the Derby, will be his lone start between Feb. 18 and May 3.

The Derby picture will change further this weekend. A full field of 14 is expected for the Arkansas Derby, which has a first prize of $600,000. Blackberry Road, Gayego, Indian Sun, King's Silver Son, Liberty Bull, and ZoFortune are among the prominent 3-year-olds expected for that race, and all are in need of graded stakes cash.

The Blue Grass has better quality, with Pyro heading a field also expected to include Cool Coal Man and Visionaire, but the top contenders in that race are in a better position in terms of graded stakes earnings. It will, however, be a crucial race for horses like Cowboy Cal and Miner's Claim.

And at Gulfstream, Hey Byrn is expected to head the field in the Grade 3, $150,000 Holy Bull Stakes on Saturday. Even with a win, though, the purse money in that race is unlikely to be sufficient to get a horse into the top 20 in graded earnings.

Also of interest this weekend will be an expected workout at Churchill Downs by Lane's End Stakes winner Adriano. That work, trainer Graham Motion said, would be used as a gauge to see if he likes the track and should run in the Derby, or instead remain on Polytrack in the Grade 2, $325,000 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 19. Motion said Adriano was unlikely to run in both races.

- additional reporting by David Grening, Marcus Hersh, Byron King, Mary Rampellini, and Mike Welsch