Colonel comes BIG

April 29, 2008 7:02 PM
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Golden Edge by Ed Golden | There is one sure thing in this year’s Kentucky Derby: Big Brown will be favored.

If you don’t believe me, just listen to Rick Dutrow. He trains the horse, and he’s been lobbying unabashedly for the son of Boundary since before he won the Florida Derby to remain unbeaten and unchallenged in three starts.

To hear Dutrow tell it, Big Brown is Secretariat, Curlin and Man o’ War all rolled into one.

"It’s a horse race, and I have the best horse in the race. It’s that simple," Dutrow said last Thursday.

The frightening thing is, he might be right. It may not merely be trainer speak.

Big Brown has much in his favor. In addition to a competent and confident trainer, he has a resurgent and experienced rider in Kent Desormeaux, who has two Derby victories on his glowing resume, with Real Quiet in 1998 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. Desormeaux’s faith in Big Brown was established early on with little indecision. The Hall of Fame jockey had several Derby prospects, but readily committed to Big Brown.

The defection of 2-year-old champion War Pass, as forecast in my GamingToday column of April 8, 11 days before trainer Nick Zito announced the colt would not run due to an ankle fracture, increases Big Brown’s chances of winning the Derby, at least on paper.

War Pass, like Big Brown, has a passion for speed. Thus, they figured to pressure each other through much of the mile-and-a-quarter Derby, thereby producing an ideal scenario for a horse that comes from off the pace.

Several fit that category, among them Anak Nakal, Court Vision, Monba, Pyro and Tale of Ekati. But the best of this ilk is Colonel John.

Granted, a Santa Anita Derby winner has not won the Run for the Roses since Sunday Silence in 1989. And granted, Colonel John’s rider, Corey Nakatani, is winless in 13 previous Derby rides. And granted, Colonel John will be making his first start on a traditional dirt track, but Eion Harty has been successful with this modus operandi before.

And granted, in retrospect, there wasn’t much behind Colonel John in the Santa Anita Derby. Only Bob Black Jack, who succumbed by a half-length after looking every inch a winner in deep stretch, may prove worthy of greater things down the road, of those who were victimized by Colonel John in the Santa Anita Derby. Time, of course, will tell.

But Colonel John is battle-tested, which is more than can be said for Big Brown, who has never had a straw in his path, and who would become only the second horse to win the Derby going into it with just three previous starts. The filly Regret did it, but that was nearly a century ago, in 1915. In fact, only 11 horses with three starts prior to the Derby have run in it, including Curlin, who finished third last year, so Big Brown is bucking some serious history.

Colonel John is a survivor, too, having endured the rigors of training on Santa Anita’s maligned and fickle Cushion Track this season. Harty, his 45-year-old trainer, was able to dodge the bullets and the raindrops, bringing Colonel John up to the Sham Stakes on March 1 in impeccable fashion, and duplicating the feat for the Santa Anita Derby on April 5.

Colonel John has not missed a beat. Harty had two workouts scheduled at Santa Anita after the Santa Anita Derby, and each was accomplished as mandated. Harty termed the final California drill of :59.40, breezing, for five furlongs on April 20, "perfect."

Harty had one workout on tap at Churchill Downs before the Derby, and Colonel John accomplished that in style Sunday, going five furlongs in a scintillating :57.80 under exercise rider Karine Lhullier. Remarkably, Colonel John’s path to the Derby has been unimpeded.

As has been my fate, due to deadline constraints, my Derby selections must be made before post positions are selected. Fortunately, it has made little difference, as my choice of Street Sense last year, Smarty Jones in 2004 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, would attest. Any slot from five through 12 would be ideal. Beyond that would be better than the inside, say one, two or three.

Despite that Sports Illustrated is on record as picking Colonel John, so am I, and I had him first, at least since March 1 when he won the Sham. Make the 134th Kentucky Derby Colonel John, Big Brown, Gayego and Pyro, with Big Brown the 8-5 betting favorite, Colonel John a distant second choice at 5-1 and the third choice 8-1 or higher, with the others any number. Longshot: Court Vision.

The homestretch

Although she finished fifth as the even-money favorite in the Ashland in her 3-year-old debut, Country Star will win Friday’s Kentucky Oaks.

• Even though his house is for sale and he endured a subpar meet, winning just 10 races from only 78 starters (13 percent), Bob Baffert says he is not moving his base of operations from Santa Anita, where he has been a fixture for two decades. Baffert captured seven consecutive training titles at the Arcadia track from 1996-97 through 2002-03, winning no fewer than 33 races at a single meet and in 1997-98 set a record of 47, since eclipsed by Doug O’Neill (56) in 2006-07.

Baffert says he is merely downsizing from his 5,755-square foot home with five bedrooms and seven bathrooms in Arcadia. If anyone is interested in Baffert’s elaborate abode, the asking price is $3.5 million. Of greater importance to Baffert at the moment perhaps is the future surface of Santa Anita’s main track. Currently it is a bastardized version of Cushion Track and Pro Ride, which held up well after pure Cushion Track failed to drain properly from early season rains, causing cancellation of 11 racing days.

Two factions of horsemen now exist: those who want a return to traditional dirt (Baffert, John Shirreffs and John Sadler among them), and those who want another synthetic surface.

Some jockeys are wary of being harmed from the chemical makeup in the synthetic mishmash. Corey Nakatani, for one, was taking no chances. He wore a surgical mask when he rode. Stay tuned.