by Greg Melikov - 02/27/2006
One of my favorite racing writers is Steve Haskin, the award-winning veteran renowned for his Kentucky Derby commentary.
Haskin, who spent nearly three decades with the Daily Racing Form, joined Blood-Horse Publications as senior correspondent in 1998. I asked him two questions about the Triple Crown and he responded after finishing an online chat.
"What Kentucky Derby preps do you consider the most important this year and why," I inquired.
"Each year is different," he replied via e-mail. "There's no way to tell which will be the most important. Recently, the Arkansas Derby has been the best, and with the Wood (Memorial) moved back a week, I'd have to guess it'll be the Arkansas Derby again."
Winning the Arkansas Derby, set for April 15, only catapulted two colts into the winner's circle at Louisville: Smarty Jones in '04 and Sunny's Halo in '83. But quite a few have distinguished themselves in Triple Crown races.
Smarty Jones, a length short in the Belmont, and Afleet Alex, a length shy of taking the '05 Kentucky Derby, followed their Arkansas Derby triumphs with four victories in Triple Crown events. Each also won the Eclipse Award for 3-year-old of the Year.
Three horses that hit the board in Oaklawn's premier race smelled the roses: Grindstone, second, '96; Lil E. Tee, second, '92; and Gate Dancer, third, '84. Other winners of Triple Crown legs came out of Hot Springs: Temperence Hill, Pine Bluff, Victory Gallop, Tank's Prospect and Caveat.
I also asked, "And what 3-year-olds do you believe have a chance emerging from dark horse status to surprise the experts at Churchill Downs on May 6?"
Haskin replied, "I'd keep an eye on Barbican, Sunriver and Hesanoldsalt, but there are a lot more."
On Jan. 15, those horses raced at Gulfstream Park:
Hesanoldsalt captured an allowance contest at 1 1/8 miles in 1:50 2/5 by three-quarters of a length after angling outside the leaders leaving the far turn and running down Sunriver inside the eighth pole. Barbican defeated allowance company at a mile, coming from far back to win by 4 ½ lengths at 1:35 4/5 after circling the field four wide.
On Feb. 18 at Tampa Bay Downs, Hesanoldsalt finished sixth behind Bluegrass Cat in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. On Feb. 4 at Gulfstream, Sunriver ran seventh behind Barbaro in the Holy Bull. Barbican missed the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 25 at Oaklawn because of a throat ulcer, but is scheduled to go March 18 in the Rebel Stakes.
In Haskin's recent online chat, he talked about other preps:
Question: Do you think that the Florida Derby will lose its prominent place as a prep race for the Kentucky Derby given that many trainers seem reluctant to run at the mile and an eighth distance there after the track was reconfigured?
Answer: "The Florida Derby has always been a mile and an eighth. What is going hurt this race is its bad scheduling. Being run five weeks before the Derby basically tells horsemen: Here is our race and here is our money. We don't care if it messes up your Kentucky Derby plans.
"Five weeks before the Derby is a terrible time for a prep, as it either forces trainers to try to do something that hasn't been done in half a century -- win the Derby off a layoff of more than four weeks -- or run in the Lexington Stakes (at Keeneland) three weeks later and two weeks before the Derby. Not many options there.
"The best thing for horsemen to do is run in the Fountain of Youth (Saturday at Gulfstream) and then leave town to run in the Wood Memorial (April 8 at Aqueduct) or more ideally the Arkansas Derby or Keeneland's Blue Grass (both April 15)."
Barbaro will await the $1 million Florida Derby on April 1, but the $300,000 Fountain of Youth could have a large field, including horses that finished second through fifth in the Holy Bull: Great Point, My Golden Song, Flashy Bull and Itsallaboutthechase. Others are First Samurai, second in the Hutcheson Stakes on Feb.4, and Corinthian, winner of an allowance race Feb. 2.
Q: Can you name any long shots or are keeping an eye on any horse(s) for the Derby that you haven't talked about? Besides (Todd)Pletcher, (Nick) Zito and (Bob) Baffert, which barn has the most nominations and or potential to make a dent in the prep races?
A: "Steve Asmussen has several nice horses in addition to Private Vow and Doctor Decherd (sixth in the Holy Bull after winning the Aventura). (Bobby) Frankel has two who are playing catch-up but have a lot of potential -- Latent Heat and On Board Again. People ask about Dr. Pleasure, but (John) Ward has another one who might be better in Strong Contender, who has been working brilliantly."
Strong Contender made an impressive sophomore debut on Feb. 22 winning a mile allowance race by 4 ¾ lengths at Gulfstream. Doctor Decherd finished a disappointing eighth in the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park on Feb. 26.
Latent Heat might run against San Rafael Stakes winner Brother Derek, the early Kentucky Derby because of two victories around two turns, in Santa Anita's $200,000 Santa Catalina Stakes on March 4.