Had Bellamy Road run any faster in the Wood Memorial last Saturday he might have sprouted wings and flown like Pegasus straight out of Aqueduct. The colt's 17 1/2-length score left trailing jockeys in need of binoculars, not goggles, and should go down in history as one of the great Kentucky Derby prep races, especially if Bellamy Road can duplicate the performance in Louisville when it matters most.
Nobody following closely, however, would dare compare the horses that ate Bellamy Road's dirt in New York with the ones lining up for the Grade I $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes this afternoon at Keeneland. Horse for horse, the Blue Grass far and away assembles the most talented group of 3-year-olds this year.
Sun King, trainer Nick Zito's first string -- ahead of Bellamy Road -- is only second choice in the morning line behind High Limit, the Louisiana Derby winner in the hands of Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel and undefeated in three starts. Also running are Consolidator, a blazing $1.25 million son of Storm Cat racing for D. Wayne Lukas; Bandini, second in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and the top 3-year-old in the powerful Todd Pletcher stable; Holy Bull Stakes winner Closing Argument; the talented Mr Sword; and San Rafael Stakes winner Spanish Chestnut.
While trainers with Blue Grass runners admit they admire what they saw in Bellamy Road, none was left quaking in his boots.
"Bellamy Road was great and we go on to the next week and the next step," said Patrick Biancone, who trains speedy Blue Grass long shot Spanish Chestnut. "You have to be impressed with Bellamy Road, but a month ago we were impressed by High Limit and we don't talk about him anymore. The week before that it was Spanish Chestnut."
Even with Bellamy Road's sensational run in the Wood, Sun King goes into the Blue Grass the leader of the impossibly deep Nick Zito stable.
Both horses could go down with injury and Zito would still have Florida Derby winner High Fly and runner-up Noble Causeway as well as another fringe Kentucky Derby contender in Arkansas Derby entrant Andromeda's Hero.
Asked if it was demanding trying to steer so many stars toward the Kentucky Derby, Zito said, "I don't think so at all. It's demanding on the other people."
Sun King proved his talent last fall, running a close third after leading briefly in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. This after finishing third in the Grade I Champagne Stakes by only 1 3/4 lengths. A little change of fortune and the son of 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Charismatic might have been named juvenile champion.
"Well, he was extremely unlucky in the Breeders' Cup although he lost at less than a length," said Sun King's owner, Tracy Farmer, a Kentucky businessman who has campaigned many top horses but never one in the Derby. "If you watch the replay, you'll see that he hit the inside rail, which threw him off stride. He was unlucky in that aspect, but, again, the races that he's been in have been extremely competitive. We always need racing luck. We'd rather be lucky than smart in this business, as you know."
Avoiding the Bounce
In assessing the performance of Bellamy Road in the Wood, Frankel ventured to wonder whether the horse had, rather than stamp himself as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, already fired his best shot.
"A negative about him is he might have run too fast in that race and sometimes the old 'bounce' comes in," Frankel said. "We've figured out that having your horses fresh and everything for these kinds of races, they run their best races. But the negative part about it is when you run them so fresh and they run so hard like [Bellamy Road] . . . they're subject to bouncing a lot easier than a horse that's been having steadier races and more races and a better foundation."
With his High Limit having had only three lifetime starts, Frankel said it is critical the horse run hard in the Blue Grass to get fit for the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby.
"He's going to be 100 percent fit, my horse, for this race and, hopefully, he . . . can come back in three weeks," he said.
One trainer with a Derby prospect who doesn't have to worry about that is Robert Holthus, whose Greater Good is favored to win the Grade II $1 million Arkansas Derby today.
Greater Good has won three straight stakes races -- all around two turns -- by a combined 3 1/4 lengths, leaving virtually no margin for error.
Holthus loves the fact the horse does only enough to win.
"He has won four races going two turns, none of them by very much, but he usually doesn't make you sweat," Holthus said. "You know he's going to get there about the 16th pole, and he kind of does what he has to do, and, luckily, he does that because he doesn't draw off to win by no 10 or 15 lengths. That can take a lot out of you."