The Kentucky Derby is four weeks away, and not a single 3-year-old has compiled the type of credentials that Derby winners are supposed to possess. Empire Maker, No. 1 colt in the Daily Racing Form's ranking of contenders, has won only one stakes race in his life. Atswhatimtalknbout, No. 2 on the list, has never won a stakes.
With the Derby picture so unclear, the final round of prep races will determine the lineup for the race and may well reveal the probable winner. Three preps are being run today -- the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, the $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne and the $250,000 Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream Park -- and they are linked in a national Pick Three wager that may offer some interesting possibilities. Three more important races are scheduled next Saturday, including the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, where Empire Maker will try to confirm his status as the nation's leading 3-year-old.
The Santa Anita Derby, the most important of today's events, has produced three of the last six Kentucky Derby winners, and many Californians believe it will produce another in Atswhatimtalknbout. The colt began his career Jan. 4 and has shown talent in all four of his races; in his last start, the San Felipe Stakes, he rallied from last place and finished powerfully to lose by a nose. "He's learned from every race," trainer Ron Ellis said, "and he's come a long way in a hurry." The conventional wisdom holds that Atswhatimtalknbout will keep improving as he gains more experience and runs longer distances, and thus should dominate his nine rivals today.
The California cognoscenti may know more than I do, but I am not convinced by these arguments. The son of A.P. Indy has had to do so much in such a short period of time that he is just as likely to regress as he is to keep improving race by race. Moreover, he has not yet run fast enough to certify that he is a star of his generation. (His Beyer Speed Figure in the San Felipe was a modest 102.)
Atswhatimtalknbout has a lot to prove in the Santa Anita, as does the probable second choice, Kafwain. Trainer Bob Baffert's top Derby candidate has finished first or second in seven stakes, but his stamina is suspect; he hasn't displayed a strong kick at the end of 1 1/16-mile races, and today's 1 1/8-mile distance will be more difficult. The Santa Anita Derby is wide open; Buddy Gil, upset winner of the San Felipe, has a chance to repeat; Logician, the fourth-place finisher in that field, has an outside chance.
The Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream is unlikely to have any bearing on the Kentucky Derby, but the field may contain one of the best horses of this equine generation: Dynever. The colt has run only twice in his career, finishing second in his debut before winning a maiden race by eight lengths, and he has been visually impressive in both. Trainer Christophe Clement is a prudent man and he won't get Derby fever with such an inexperienced runner, but he is confident enough to move Dynever from a maiden race into stakes company. The colt should have enough raw talent to handle his more experienced rivals in the Aventura.
The Illinois Derby's status was enhanced last year when War Emblem won it and subsequently went on to glory at Churchill Downs. There are no horses with War Emblem's talent in today's field, but there are plenty of fast front-runners who should nullify each other's chances. The favorite Alysweep won a stakes race at Aqueduct in his last start by setting a moderate pace and leading all the way, but he won't benefit from such a scenario today.
The fleet Runnin' on Nitro won on a fluky speed-favoring track at Gulfstream last time, but he doesn't have the stamina for 1 1/8 miles. I'm throwing out both of them. Lone Star Sky and Ten Most Wanted appear the best of the group. The Maryland invader Foufa's Warrior also has a shot at astronomical odds; though his speed figures are anemic, he is the only bona-fide stretch runner in the field.
With some of Saturday's favorites looking vulnerable, I am taking a shot at the national Pick Three wager, as follows:
* Aventura Stakes: Dynever (No. 3).
* Illinois Derby: Foufa's Warrior (1), Ten Most Wanted (2), Lx Commander (4), Lone Star Sky (10.)
* Santa Anita Derby: Buddy Gil (4), Atswhatimtalknbout (6), Kafwain (8), Logician (9).
Racing fans who want to see an exciting Kentucky Derby hope that an exciting star emerges from at least one of these races. But if the big-name horses -- particularly Atswhatimtalknbout -- should falter, we may as well try to profit from their failure.