Kentucky Derby Questions
by Trevor Whenham - 04/25/2008
This is the time of year when horseplayers struggle to figure out what is going to happen in the Kentucky Derby. The prep races are all done, the field is becoming clearer, and we have too much time to just sit around and try to outsmart ourselves. The Derby is always a big challenge, but I think that it's shaping up to be even tougher to call than normal this year. The field is deep but not as strong as we see some years, and even the top contenders have more questions and concerns than in most years. As I sit here more than a week away from the Derby trying to make it all make sense, here are 10 questions which I am wrestling with:
Is Pyro okay? - Going into the Blue Grass Stakes I was pretty sure that Pyro was going to be my Derby horse. I loved his race in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and I had been blown away by his wins in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. He was strong and powerful, and I loved his style. But then he came out in the Blue Grass and laid a massive egg. He was a totally irrelevant 10th, and he never showed any life. Now we have to figure out if that was just a fluke based on the synthetic surface, or if it was a sign of bigger problems. To make it tougher, we don't know how he is training since the Blue Grass. He had a timed work at Keeneland on Monday, but the fog was so dense that the clockers couldn't see him to time the run.
Is Big Brown for real? - This horse has been sensational, but he only has three starts, he's only run twice this year, and he is coming off a foot injury that kept him out of action for months. His form is amazing, but a horse can't win off of that little experience, can he? I would have said no, but Curlin was inexperienced heading into the Triple Crown and he turned out okay.
Can the fillies compete? - As many as two fillies - Proud Spell and Eight Belles, could be entered in the Derby. There haven't been many fillies entered in recent years, but Winning Colors won it all in 1988, and so did Genuine Risk in 1980. You can't rule a good filly out, but a lot of money has been burnt backing fillies who aren't what they seem. Which group do these fillies fit into?
Will synthetic form transfer? - The synthetic surfaces seem like a bigger factor than ever. The horses out of California like Colonel John and Bob Black Jack have never seen dirt. Horses like Monba and Cowboy Cal are coming in off of races in which they looked great, but which weren't on dirt. Pyro and others bombed in their run on synthetics, but looked good on dirt before that. Figuring out how to handle the synthetics is the biggest challenge of the year.
How good is California this year? - In recent years the horses out of California have been disappointing. The last horse to win the Derby after prepping in California was Real Quiet in 1998. This year Colonel John is very exciting, and others will be worth a look. Should we discount them because of where they are from, or is it time for California to rise again? The fact that California tracks are all synthetic now complicates the issue. There is a good indicator that this California class measures up well, though - Gayego raced in California and did reasonably well before moving to the dirt and winning the Arkansas Derby.
Who can handle the crowds? - This is a question that we face every year, but familiarity with the question doesn't make it any easier to answer. Twenty horses on the track creates mass confusion, and when you add in 160,000 screaming spectators you have total chaos. Horses that are nervous or that get easily distracted should be in for a long day.
Did the Blue Grass really happen? - The Blue Grass Stakes are a major headache. Monba won impressively, and stablemate Cowboy Cal was a strong second. Normally that would mean that they would be highly considered. The problem is everyone in that race who was supposed to do well didn't. Pyro was disastrous. Cool Coal Man hit a wall and faded badly to ninth. Big Truck was even worse than Pyro and ended up 11th. Was something up with the race or the track that caused the race to be so bizarre? Can we throw the race out for the horses that did badly? Can we do that and still give credit to Monba? My head hurts just thinking about it.
Will the Arkansas Derby stay hot? - This race has been impressive in recent years. Just look at the last four winners - Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron and Curlin. There are five Triple Crown wins among that group. Will Gayego continue in that trend? He's not as eye-popping as the others, but his time was better than Curlin's.
Does experience matter any more? - It used to be that you would throw out a horse that didn't have a good base of prep races as a three year old. This year that seems to have been ignored. The winners of the Blue Grass, Florida Derby, Illinois Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial have all run only twice this year. Do we just accept that horses don't need the work they used to, or do we seriously question whether the winners of most of the major prep races are ready for the big time?
Was War Emblem a fluke? - The Illinois Derby was moved so it could be a Derby prep in 2001. War Emblem grabbed the lead and ran away with it in Illinois, and then did the same thing in Kentucky. Since then horseplayers have paid attention to this race. Ten Most Wanted, Greeley's Galaxy, Sweetnorthernsaint, and Cowtown Cat all looked quite good winning in Illinois, and all of them burned a pile of money in Kentucky. Is this year's winner, Recapturetheglory, destined for the same fate, or can his front-running Illinois win translate to Churchill?