At the outset of 2003, the contenders for the Kentucky Derby appeared to be a formidable group. But almost every horse with good credentials has either been injured or discredited himself, and there is no leading contender now. Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby -- the richest and most important prep race to date -- will not necessarily clarify the picture.
This has been the dispiriting story of the 3-year-old crop: Vindication, the regally bred, undefeated winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, damaged a suspensory ligament in January; Toccet, the Maryland-based winner of four graded stakes races, briefly inherited the Derby favorite's role, but he too was sidelined by an injury; Sky Mesa, undefeated in three starts as a 2-year-old, was considered a star in the making, but last week trainer John Ward acknowledged that a bruised foot was forcing him to put the colt's Derby plans "on hold."
But there were still two formidable and healthy 3-year-old colts: Badge of Silver, a fast, undefeated sensation; and the Bob Baffert-trained Kafwain, runner-up in the Breeders' Cup. They met in last Sunday's Louisiana Derby, a confrontation expected to produce the clear-cut favorite for the Run for the Roses. Both flopped, losing to the lightly regarded Peace Rules. Kafwain finished a disappointing second, looking like a horse who will never handle the 11/4-mile Derby distance; Badge of Silver tired to finish sixth.
In the wake of their failures, racing fans may look to the Florida Derby -- which has produced 19 Kentucky Derby winners in 51 years -- to produce the leader of this thoroughbred generation. The 11/8-mile event pits Trust N Luck, the runaway winner of the recent Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, against trainer Bobby Frankel's California invader, Empire Maker.
Empire Maker has been a much-touted horse for months. Before he had ever run, I got an e-mail from a friend in Europe asking if I could place a Kentucky Derby future bet on the superbly bred colt. Empire Maker seemed to confirm the hype when he made a visually impressive move to win his debut at Belmont in October. That encouraged Frankel to put the colt into a tough stakes race, where he finished third; in a subsequent stakes try at Santa Anita he was defeated as the 2-to-5 favorite. Empire Maker still hasn't beaten an opponent of consequence or run exceptionally fast; skeptics are beginning to wonder if he is more hype than substance.
While Empire Maker remains an enigma, Trust N Luck's assets and liabilities are well known. He is the son of a sprinter, and there are doubts whether he has the stamina to win at the Kentucky Derby distance. But he possesses superior speed that makes him hard to beat when he gets an unchallenged early lead. When none of his rivals pressed him in the Fountain of Youth last month, he routed them by more than five lengths. He did the same when he won his previous start, a stakes race at Calder. And he appears likely to do it again on Saturday.
He has a near-perfect setup. The Florida Derby drew only a field of seven, and none of the other six is a speedster capable of putting significant pressure on Trust N Luck. The colt's trainer, Ralph Ziadie, said, "I don't really see any other speed. I expect him to be on the lead." His rivals know this too. Jerry Bailey, Empire Maker's jockey, said, "Trust N Luck is the only speed in the field; he'll control the race. I just hope I can stay a little closer to him."
If this scenario develops, and Trust N Luck wins after securing an uncontested lead, racing fans will know no more about his ability to withstand the kind of pressure that he will surely face at Churchill Downs. And if Trust N Luck is able to control the race from start to finish, Empire Maker may remain an enigma even longer.
Another stakes race for 3-year-olds this weekend might certify a legitimate Derby contender. Atswhatimtalknbout has been the subject of increasing buzz in California after winning two of his three career starts; he's been so hyped that he is listed as the co-favorite in the morning line for the current round of Kentucky Derby future betting being conducted this weekend. He still hasn't had a serious test, but he'll finally get one Sunday when he runs against a solid field in the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. Maybe he'll be the 3-year-old to give the first convincing performance of 2003.