Jury out on which horse will win Kentucky Derby

Apr 18, 2006 12:26 AM

There are more opinions at the race track than cell phone users on LA freeways, denials of leaks by the White House, tattoos above teenage female butt cracks, pierced body parts on rebels of all ages, and baseball caps worn backwards in an immature effort to be different.

And at no time are the opinions more rampant and at the ready than prior to the Kentucky Derby. Everyone seems to be a self-proclaimed expert when it comes to the world’s most famous horse race, and with the 132nd Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs around the corner on May 6, theories as to which 3-year-old will win the $2 million race at a mile and a quarter are as plentiful as costume jewelry at a swap meet.

Every major 3-year-old prep race is over. Those desperate for graded earnings have only the Grade II Coolmoore Lexington Stakes, with a pot of $325,000, on April 22, remaining for an 11th-hour bid to qualify for the Derby. Thus, barring the unforeseen, the major and minor players likely to fill all 20 stalls for the Derby are counting down to the big day.

They include Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron, Barbaro, Sweetnorthernsaint, Discreet Cat, Bob and John, Point Determined and A.P. Warrior in the upper echelon. If there’s a Giacomo lurking beneath them, it won’t be known until after the greatest two minutes in sports.

Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said he would make Brother Derek the morning line Derby favorite after the California-bred son of Benchmark won the Santa Anita Derby as expected, leading four rivals on a merry chase and winning by 31/4 lengths in 1:48 for a mile and an eighth. Still, Brother Derek has detractors.

"The Santa Anita Derby didn’t decide anything," said professional clocker Gary Young. "The horse went to the lead, he relaxed and he won. Sweetnorthernsaint (winner of the Illinois Derby by 91/4 lengths) didn’t beat much, but he ran very well. Bob and John ground out the win in the Wood. He’s a nice horse, but I don’t think he’s going to wear roses. Lawyer Ron supposedly worked like a raped ape at Oaklawn (before roaring to his sixth straight victory in the Arkansas Derby), and (his trainer) Bob Holthus is a good ol’ boy. I’d go for him and Brother Derek right now."

Retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner currently analyzing races for NBC and TVG, says Brother Derek is "awesome," but adds, "I’d have to throw (undefeated Florida Derby winner) Barbaro into the loop now."

The last Santa Anita Derby winner to capture the Run for the Roses was Sunday Silence in 1989. Last year, undefeated male 2-year-old champion of 2004 Declan’s Moon was pointing to the Santa Anita Derby but was hurt and never made the race. Horses that have run in the Santa Anita Derby have done well in Kentucky, however, with 15 winning, including one-hit wonder Giacomo at 50-1 last year.

"They’re just statistics," says jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., who won the 2004 Santa Anita Derby on 30-1 outsider Castledale. "The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby jinx I would say has merit, because young horses are being asked to go a mile and a quarter so early in their careers. The best horse doesn’t necessarily win the Kentucky Derby. Giacomo is a nice horse, but Mikey (his rider, Mike Smith) got everything his own way that day, weaving in and out of horses."

Dan Hendricks, trainer of Brother Derek, also pooh-poohs the fact that no Santa Anita Derby winner has won the Kentucky Derby in the last 16 years.

"You can’t put much credibility into that stat," Hendricks said. "How many horses came out of the Santa Anita Derby and won the Kentucky Derby? That’s the stat to go by. I can’t worry about it. I ain’t giving back the win."

Whether Sacred Light qualifies for the Derby remains to be seen, but Nick Cosato, the agent for the colt’s jockey, Aaron Gryder, says critics of Derby prep races are as prolific as profanity in prison.

"In the last five year’s there’s only been one Derby prep race that everyone bragged about the horse’s performance," Cosato said. "That was last year’s Wood, when Bellamy Road won by 17½ lengths (he finished seventh as the 5-2 favorite in the Derby). Every other year, they knocked everyone. But somebody’s got to win the Derby. As an agent, I would ride Brother Derek. He’s the most talented horse."

THE HOMESTRETCH

Battaglia said he would make Brother Derek the morning line favorite in the Derby, but I’m here to tell you Lawyer Ron will be the betting favorite when the gates open.

”¡ If you were impressed with Sinister Minister’s freakish front-running win by nearly 13 lengths in the Blue Grass Stakes at the skating rink that is Keeneland’s main track, consider this — he was beaten almost 14 lengths by rank outsider New Joysey Jeff in the San Vicente Stakes. New Joysey Jeff finished more than 33 lengths behind Lawyer Ron in the Arkansas Derby.

”¡ One racing insider estimates Benchmark’s stud fee would increase five times — from the current $10,000 to $50,000 — should Brother Derek win the Derby.

”¡ Good news, bad news on schlock jock Howard Stern: The bad news, he’s lost 10 million listeners since going to satellite radio. The good news, fewer people hear his perverse preaching.