Focus on the Kentucky Derby becomes clearer by the day. After the Santa Anita Derby April 7 and the Wood Memorial April 14, the picture should be sharper still.
Two appealing match-ups are on the horizon in those two races: Point Given vs. Crafty C.T. in the Santa Anita Derby; Congaree vs. Monarchos in the Wood.
Those four horses are the nations leading 3-year-old colts, in the opinion of no less an authority than Gary Young, nationally recognized clocker, gambler and bloodstock agent.
"Congaree is a great moving horse," he said. "He hasnt beaten anything yet, but he moves really nice. He could be any kind of horse. Point Given went (five) wide and won (the San Felipe by 2Â¼ lengths). Other than that, everything went as good as you could like. He had three horses going head and head up front.
"I think Monarchos against Congaree is a great match-up, and Crafty C.T. against Point Given would be a very good match-up, as well," he said.
Young said its difficult to get a line on the April 14 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
"Thats a tough race to call. Youve got two horses pointing to that race, Dollar Bill and Heros Tribute, who had big-time trouble in the Louisiana Derby.
"If you wanted to duck the big players, theres the Illinois Derby (April 7 at Sportsmans Park), the Arkansas Derby (April 14 at Oaklawn Park) and the Lone Star Derby (April 7 at Lone Star Park). They would be good places to go for a lot of money."
Unless fate deals D. Wayne Lukas a better hand, the Hall of Fame trainer could have his streak of 20 consecutive Kentucky Derby starters come to an end May 5.
Lukas had his first Derby starter in 1981, when Partez finished third. Lukas has four Kentucky Derby wins, but when Gold Trader was euthanized after suffering a broken leg in the San Felipe, one of Lukas major Derby hopes was gone. One of his last Derby hopefuls, Buckle Down Ben, was beaten some 24 lengths in Saturdays Spiral Stakes.
It looked like the Lukas Derby streak would end in 1997, but he made an 11th-hour decision to enter Deeds Not Words, who finished 13th and last at 32-1. That subjected the Hall of Fame trainer to a raft of criticism from the media, who said he only put the longshot in the race to keep his string alive.
Young would be the last to find fault with Lukas.
"Im not going to sit here and knock Wayne Lukas after all the success hes had in the game," Young said. "If he doesnt make the dance, so be it. He had an awful rough weekend (when he lost Gold Trader). If youve never been through it, then you can sit there and poke fun at him or snicker at him. But if youve been through it, then you know its nothing to laugh about. I wont condemn Wayne Lukas. If he doesnt make the Derby this year, so be it. Hell probably make it the year after that."
My top five Derby contenders: Congaree, Point Given, Monarchos, Dollar Bill and Outofthebox . . .
Tony Matos said two jockeys back East and one in Southern California have asked to be represented by him. The vereran agent will lose Kent Desormeaux April 24 when the three-time Eclipse Award winner takes a three-month sojourn to ride in Japan. "Ill only take a top rider," said Matos, who will still handle business for Victor Espinoza. Desormeauxs decision to ride in the Orient was made primarily so he, his wife, Sonia, and their oldest son, Joshua, can devote quality time to the familys 2-year-old son, Jake, who was born deaf. Jake recently had a device implanted that enables him to hear sounds. Kent will ride less in Japan and become Jakes "speech therapist" during the next few months. Desormeaux will return to ride at Del Mar this summer. He expects to ride Palmeiro or another horse in the Kentucky Derby . . .
If Point Given makes it to the Kentucky Derby, fans shouldnt have difficulty seeing him when he hits the track. "Hes the biggest horse Ive ever trained," Bob Baffert says of the son of 1995 Derby winner Thunder Gulch. "Ive never measured him, but he weighs about 1,260 pounds. Hes huge. Thank God hes not mean." . . .
Bob Hess Jr. plans to ship Penny Marie and Housekeeper for stakes engagements at Churchill Downs when Dwildcat runs in the Derby Trial April 28. Hess said hell ship Dwildcat to Kentucky "around April 20" and breeze him once over the track before the race. Corey Nakatani, who rode Dwildcat to his 10Â½-length romp in Gulfstreams Swale Stakes, retains the mount . . . Ron Ellis, on the love affair Malabar Gold has with Santa Anitas downhill turf course, where the $600,000 purchase was unbeaten in three starts: "Obviously, he likes the course, but I dont think hes one-dimensional. Its just by circumstances that were always running him down the hill. I wanted to stretch him out, but the race never came up at the right time. I think hell run longer (than 6Â½ furlongs). As hes gotten older, hes gotten more mature. When he was two, he broke his maiden, and then they ran him right back in a Grade I (Hollywood Futurity, where he was beaten 29 lengths by Captain Steve). That set him back a bit. Now hes got some confidence. I dont think he has to stay on the grass. But we dont want to change anything right now because were going to run in the San Simeon (April 16) and then hopefully in the Shoemaker Mile. If he were to win those two, I wouldnt mind trying him back on the dirt. I think hes just as good a dirt horse as he is on the grass." . . .
Tyler Baze is still winning races in bunches despite the loss of his five-pound apprentice allowance. A journeyman rider at age 18, Baze has ridden at a 20 percent clip since Feb. 1 and moved into third in the jockey standings with 44 wins . . .
Hollywood Park president Rick Baedeker is looking forward to Tiznows participation in The Californian June 10. "Hes obviously captured the imagination of the fans. We dont see that very frequently anymore, so wed love to have him here," Baedeker said. "The Californian will be on CBS, so it would be great for the NTRA to kick off its series with the Horse of the Year." Jay Robbins now says Tiznow could return in the May 12 Pimlico Special, then point to The Californian.