Derby fever is here, but beware of futures bets

February 12, 2008 4:18 AM
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The Kentucky Derby is less than three months away, but already hard core fans are smitten with traces of Derby Fever.

It’s a malady that’s indigenous to racing, and it begins when 2-year-olds turn three on Jan. 1. Aspirants with dreams of winning the Run for the Roses already have nominated 448 horses for the Triple Crown races, which consist of the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.

At Santa Anita, which has been plagued by a Cushion Track that took to water like a politician takes to truth, 11 days of racing were lost because the synthetic surface wouldn’t drain properly when it rained. Prior to a recent addition of Pro-Ride polymer and fiber, it had been irremediable and impeded training for days on end, but horsemen have soldiered on.

Southern California-based 3-year-olds that have created a Derby buzz include the undefeated El Gato Malo, Crown of Thorns, Into Mischief, Colonel John and Georgie Boy. The filly Golden Doc A, a stretch-running daughter of Unusual Heat and winner of the Grade I Las Virgenes Stakes, also is a Derby candidate. These horses inevitably will sort themselves out, but it is the job of Gary Young to probe beyond a single dimension for an honest and perceptive evaluation. That’s how he makes his living.

When he’s not buying or selling horses, or recommending same, he’s bent on making a Pick Six kill. But he pays the bills by clocking horses. It’s his profession.

"El Gato Malo (who won the one-mile San Rafael Stakes on Santa Anita’s sealed Cushion Track on Jan. 12 in track record time of 1:33.37) is a pretty nice horse," Young said. "But I want to see him do it under normal circumstances on a normal race track when he doesn’t have horses going at a suicide pace up front (the first quarter was run in 22.25, the half-mile in 44.34). That will be his true measuring stick. Until that time, he wouldn’t be my top choice."

Numero Uno would be one of two 3-year-olds trained by Richard Mandella, not Cash Call Futurity winner Into Mischief, but Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Crown of Thorns.

"Crown of Thorns is a good horse," Young said. "I don’t like the way Into Mischief is working lately. He’s lugging out and I think he’s got some mental issues. I haven’t liked his last few works, at all (this was before Into Mischief finished second by 3¼ lengths as the 11-10 favorite behind Georgie Boy in the San Vicente Stakes, so Young was on target). I think Crown of Thorns is the best horse in that barn, and in my mind, Crown of Thorns and Colonel John are the two horses most likely to bring the Derby back to California at this time."

Street Sense became the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to win the Derby last year, but Young has reservations about the distance bloodlines of undefeated 2007 Juvenile champion, War Pass, who is based on the East Coast with trainer Nick Zito.

"War Pass is by Cherokee Run, so I’ll believe it when I see it if he wins going a mile and a quarter," Young said.

Meanwhile, horses training at Santa Anita with designs on the Derby had little margin for error, due to a main track that had more black marks on it than a pack of Dalmatians.

"In the same way I have drawn a mental line through every race that was won on Polytrack at Del Mar last year, you almost have to do the same thing at Santa Anita this year," said the 46-year-old Young, who began his career in 1978, when he attended night school as a junior in high school. "This is my 30th year clocking horses, and in all that time, this is the most ridiculous, to tell you the truth," he said. "We rushed into putting in these synthetic surfaces without having full knowledge of possible repercussions, and we’re paying the price now.

"Santa Anita was supposedly going with Tapeta up until the time a decision was made on Cushion Track, but at the end of the day, the blame for this mess has to go with the person who ”˜mandated it,’" (a reference to California Horse Racing Board Chairman Richard Shapiro).

"It may someday be perfected, and it may someday be good. I think at the end of the novel, it will be a good surface to train on, but I think we should run on normal racetracks, and I’m not talking about the brickyards we’ve had out here for the last 30 years. Nobody can deny the fact that right now, we’ve rushed into something without knowing the facts, and we are paying the price."

But back to the merit, or lack of same, of future book betting.

"The value of future book bets has diminished somewhat," Young said. "I know a lot of people made a huge score when Winning Colors won the Derby (in 1988), and I made a score when Brocco won the Breeders’ Cup (Juvenile in 1993), but unless you can get in really early on a horse that hasn’t won a stakes yet, I don’t think it has quite the appeal it had."

The homestretch

”¡ Prominent owner Ahmed Zayat, who took his horses out of Del Mar last summer when he was unhappy with Polytrack and shipped them to Saratoga, recently jumped ship at Santa Anita, removing four horses that were trained by Bob Baffert. Two are Triple Crown candidates, Maimonides, a $4.6 million son of 2002 champion colt Vindication, who was an 11½-length maiden winner at Saratoga last August, and J Be K, a $350,000 son of Silver Deputy, who set a 5½-furlong track record at Saratoga in his debut last August, winning by 7½ lengths.

Each is nearing his 3-year-old debut. Zayat Stables has some 200 horses, trained by Bill Mott, Tony Dutrow, Dale Romans, Reade Baker, Scott Lake, Jonathan Sheppard and Patrick Biancone, before he was suspended.

”¡ Tom Brady might have been outplayed by Eli Manning in the Super Bowl, but he certainly wasn’t outhandsomed.

”¡ And I know politics is a highly controversial issue, so I won’t say who I’m endorsing for President. I’ll tell you this: they won’t be wearing lipstick.