May 4, 2002

In This Issue...

Kentucky Derby 128

As the bold, colorful print advertisements for the great Emerald Downs state: "Racing, simply." If there's ever an issue of this here e-newsletter to adopt that same philosophy, this is it. Therefore, no e-commerce today, no hyperbole (not unless it's handicapping- related, anyway), no seductive come-ons. We have 51 other weeks a year to slather all that blather upon you. Today, a tasty treat, so we hope you enjoy it. Simply put: Racing, simply. It's good every now and again to zig when they all expect you to zag. You gotta keep 'em honest. So here we are: Racing, simply.

The sound and the fury preceding this year's running of the Kentucky Derby have been particularly discordant. Whereas the past two years brought harmony courtesy of strong consensus choices Point Given (a well-beaten fifth in his only defeat as a three-year-old) and Fusaichi Pegasus (the first post-time favorite to win in more than 20 years), the chatter before the 2002 edition of the Run for the Roses has befitted a Thoroughbred Tower of Babel. No one seems capable of speaking the same language about this race, and the prospects of emerging with a unified voice are nil.

So, a little less than 24 hours before post time of America's horserace, they're all tuning up, and it sounds like the audience before the curtain rises. But when it does and the gates spring open, one of them -- maybe two -- will utter the winning phrase, clearly, unmistakably, simply.

For some, the only way they'll be heard is if everyone else in the room comes down with laryngitis. They are the horses whose entry in the race is met by a response that's pretty much in unison: What's he doing in the race? And no horse has elicited that remark more than Danthebluegrassman. When trainer Bob Baffert put through his phantom entry just hours before the post draw, it spelled doom for such ballyhooed contenders as U S S Tinosa, Sunday Break and Windward Passage. It was the latter who was slated to be in the race as of Wednesday morning, before Danthebluegrassman went in. Reports of a blood-feud between Baffert and Windward Passage's owners, Southern California-based Team Valor, surfaced shortly thereafter, but the rules are the rules. Leave it to Baffert to engage in some gamesmanship and stir up some controversy before the game even began.

It'sallinthechase also seems unlikely to have much say in the outcome, and is fittingly positioned directly outside of Danthebluegrassman. If he wins, the world will gasp in utter shock. But if you like him, you like him, and we'll be the first to congratulate you if he somehow manages the so-called impossible.

Easy Grades has shown some talent, and a botched application of his equipment in the Santa Anita Derby reportedly prevented him from showing more in that race. If so, he might not be as disadvantaged as he appears in this race; however, he still is a longshot.

Blue Burner had the misfortune of trying to rally all winter long at such notoriously early-speed-favoring tracks as Gulfstream and Aqueduct. He was rarely successful, though, in his defense, it was the nominal best of his generation he was trying to make up ground on. He figures to pass several of these late, but he'd need to get appreciably better on his own -- not by default via the shortcomings of the others -- to have a good chance. Maybe Pat Day is the guy to get it out of him.

Wild Horses is getting better, no doubt, and even changed his style a little last time in the Arkansas Derby. That's normally a pattern of success at the lower levels -- indeed, Wild Horses is eligible to run in an entry-level allowance -- but it doesn't count for much in the nation's biggest horserace.

War Emblem looks eerily similar to last year's frontrunning fool, Balto Star, just with one fewer Graded stakes win. His gameplan is simple: go to the lead and try not to be too concerned about all those hoofbeats he hears entering the stretch. But it's likely War Emblem will be out of contention by that time, as long as Proud Citizen breaks alertly. Those two can be involved for a big chunk of the race, up to the far turn, but that may be the extent of it. In an odd bit of existential coincidence, it is 1990s Derby rivals Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas who train the leading duo, and who may wind up canceling each other out. If they do, they're likely to burn up at least one or two others along the way -- notably Ocean Sound.

Several will try to seize the opportunity of a lifetime at that point of the race, including Request For Parole, Medaglia d'Oro, Private Emblem, Harlan's Holiday and Came Home. Clearly, not all will be successful in launching a winning bid from this position. The least likely to survive the gang charge to secure a winning spot at the head of the long stretch are Request For Parole and Private Emblem.

On the other hand, Medaglia d'Oro, Harlan's Holiday and Came Home will attempt to sustain that momentum by spurting away from each other and hoping they can hold the balance of the field -- all deep-closers -- safe. Medaglia d'Oro seems unlikely to draw on the class and foundation of the other two, who have been tried and tested in this situation, against the best of the best, before. Who will 'Harlan and Came Home need to repel to win the Derby?

No doubt, a pair of them will be the Europeans trained by Aidan O'Brien. Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo, accustomed to laying back in the slower-than-slow turf races on the Continent, will not begin running in earnest until the field straightens for home. Can they get there? In Johannesburg's case, a light training schedule in 2002 might not have him as fit as he'll need to be to win this ultimate test. In Castle Gandolfo's, he just might be too late, given the different way of going in the United States.

Perfect Drift will arrive on the scene between the three-sixteenths and the finish. Is he good enough? He peaked last time, but his trainer has given him a nice, long rest to counteract the symptoms of the proverbial performance bounce. It's unorthodox, surely, but unorthodox has been the order of the day in the Derby lately.

Lusty Latin won't be heard from until after that, if at all. But if he puts on the head of steam as he's wont to do, he'll make an impression, class be damned!

Essence of Dubai knows what it's like to assert himself in the wearying final yards of a 10-furlong race. He did it six weeks ago. He's not the most brilliant horse in the world, but Came Home and Harlan's Holiday won't have any idea.

Finally, there's Saarland. The same Saarland they say has been a classic-distance-horse manque in his middle-distance preps. The same Saarland they say has been like a Samuel Beckett play. The same Saarland who, unfortunatley, has been touted up by more than a few squares, sharps and wiseguys alike. The pedigree is the thing, the horse had his surgery and Shug is ready for a Derby winner.

In the end, it plays out thusly: 'Harlan and Came Home trying to resist the final-furlong challenges of each other and the late-on-the-scene Perfect Drift, Lusty Latin, Essence of Dubai and Saarland. Can it be?

No, not in real life. Not in the flesh-and-blood actuality of the sandy loam realm of the racetrack underneath. No Derby ever makes it to a five-horse shootout in the shadow of the wire. Two horses, yes, and an outside, outside chance at three. But not four or five.

There have been no bigger-money riders in the sport than Eddie Delahoussaye and Chris McCarron; indeed, McCarron proved as much earlier this afternoon when he zoomed in the last 660 feet of the Kentucky Oaks at 20-1. And Delahoussaye ran down the field in the Aegon Turf Sprint.

Yes, David Flores, Edgar Prado and John Velazquez are fine, fine young riders. Yes, they'll have their chances to win the Derby. But they also will have their chances to effectively end their mounts' Derby hopes by moving too soon, or getting shuffled back along the turn or panicking with the whip in the long and desperate Churchill Downs homestretch.

It's more difficult to imagine McCarron and Delahoussaye costing their horses that way. It's less difficult to envision these Hall of Fame riders giving their charges every possible chance to be in the one spot on Earth necessary to have a great shot at winning.

It would be grand if Laffit would make it an in-their-prime-time-again rerun of "Three's Company," but it doesn't look like it.

In the end, in the year of the wide-open Kentucky Derby, past winning experience in the saddle has to count for something, and we'll take our chances with "McCarron in the feature" and the incomparable, coolheaded and coolhanded Eddie D. And how interesting it is that on the eve of America's biggest horserace, in a newsletter in which we constantly discuss the merits of horses and, sometimes, trainers, it's the jockeys we turn to for guidance. Yes, the horses will decide it, but the horses have to be in a position to be able to decide it. We feel Chris J. McCarron and Eddie J. Delahoussaye will have Came Home and Perfect Drift, respectively, where they can prevail.

Let's call it Perfect Drift to outlast a noble Came Home at the wire. Saarland gets up for third, in front of a similarly closing Essence of Dubai. From a wagering standpoint, perhaps Perfect Drift and Essence of Dubai will merit win bets. At this late hour, the early odds on these four are lower than expected, with Saarland and Came Home vying with Harlan's Holiday for favoritism. Perfect Drift is a bet-down 7-1, while Essence of Dubai settles at 13-1. In the exotics, beating out one of the top two favorites should result in a healthy-paying exacta, trifecta and superfecta. The most lucrative exacta combination by our reckoning involves Perfect Drift and Essence of Dubai, either way.

Now, will it turn out the way we visualize? Most likely not! The Derby is a crazy race, and this year, it's crazier than ever. But will we hoist a mint julep, sniffle during the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" and scream down the lane?

Ah, finally, something we can all say together! Best wishes for a happy and prosperous Kentucky Derby.

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