Bobby Frankel (pictured) won’t be running in the Kentucky Derby this year. In fact, he has never won the world’s most famous horse race.
His best finish from nine starters came in 2003, when 5-2 favorite Empire Maker finished second to Funny Cide. But that doesn’t mean Frankel doesn’t have an opinion on the Run for the Roses that will unfold for the 135th time at Churchill Downs on May 2.
Rarely a conformist in conventional thought or training, Frankel didn’t deviate when asked to evaluate the 3-year-old picture after three major Derby preps were decided on March 14: the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park; the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds; and the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.
Win Willy, a 56-1 shot, dealt 2-5 favorite Old Fashioned his first defeat to win the Rebel by 2¼ lengths on a "good" track; Friesan Fire, the 2-1 favorite, rolled to a 7¼-length victory on a sloppy (sealed) track to win the Louisiana Derby; and 3-10 favorite Pioneerof the Nile did what was expected in vanquishing five overmatched rivals to win the San Felipe by 1¼ lengths.
So who does Frankel like to win the Derby, based on those performances?
"Win Willy is the horse I think will win the Derby," Frankel said. "The Rebel was a good race. I was impressed with it."
Suggested that Old Fashioned "faded" in the stretch, Frankel wasn’t buying.
"What do you mean, he faded? If Win Willy isn’t in the race, Old Fashioned wins by 10," Frankel countered. "Only one horse ran by him, and that was Win Willy. Everybody gets the idea that because he was 56-1, he can’t run."
With the defeat of Old Fashioned, Pioneerof the Nile has entrenched his position as a major Derby player, but the son of Empire Maker still has something to prove, in Frankel’s eyes.
"He didn’t run good, but maybe it’s a blessing," Frankel said. "Right now, I’ve got to like The Pamplemousse (if he faces Pioneerof the Nile in the Santa Anita Derby on April 4). I think he likes this track (Santa Anita’s synthetic Pro-Ride) better. But when they get on conventional dirt (such as Churchill Downs), it might be a different story. There’s still Quality Road and Dunkirk, but right now, I like Win Willy."
As far as taking the Middle East route for a successful route to winning the Derby, consider Dubai debunked. Last year’s 2-year-old champion, Midshipman, purchased by Sheikh Mohammed, already is out of the Triple Crown picture with an injury, and Vineyard Haven, winner of two Grade I races when trained by Frankel last year, bombed in his 3-year-old debut in Dubai after he was purchased by the Sheikh from Frankel last year for a reported $12 million.
"I’m not worried about the horses over there," Frankel said. "I’m not thinking about them. I can’t get a line on those horses."
Baffert, meanwhile, has a good line on his horse, Pioneerof the Nile, and that’s his sole focus as he hones in on his fourth Kentucky Derby victory. He won in 1997 with Silver Charm; 1998 with Real Quiet; 2002 with War Emblem; and missed by a nose with his first Derby starter, Cavonnier, in 1996. The 56-year-old trainer has had 17 Derby starters, but none the last two years. Pioneerof the Nile has been his Derby horse this year since Day One, and despite a workmanlike victory in the San Felipe, Baffert is unwavering.
"I wanted to win but I didn’t want to put on a show," Baffert said. "There was no pace for him and he had to go to the lead too early, and he pulls himself up when he does that. That’s why his win in the (Robert B.) Lewis (Stakes on Feb. 7) was more impressive. He had to accelerate late to catch the horses in front of him. He would have accelerated in the San Felipe, but there was nothing to accelerate to. That was the problem. I’ve worked him with horses and I have to give him a big head start. Otherwise, when he gets to them, that’s it. It’s good, though. Horses stay sounder that way."
The Santa Anita Derby looks like the Kentucky Derby prep of the year, with the contrasting running styles of Pioneerof the Nile and The Pamplemousse.
"The Pamplemousse is a very good horse," Baffert said of the front-running winner of the Sham Stakes, trained by the enigmatic Julio Canani. "The Pamplemousse is quick, he’s fast. We’re fast, but he’ll have a little bit of an edge on me in this race. But we’re looking for the big picture, and that’s the Kentucky Derby."
• Baffert wasn’t nearly as impressed with Win Willy’s Rebel victory as was Frankel. "Win Willy won by default," Baffert said. "Old Fashioned was out there at a ridiculous pace. Friesan Fire looked extremely impressive (winning the Louisiana Derby), but it was in the mud, and sometimes they really move up on that. But he is a really good horse. I think he gets the I Want Revenge move of the week (referring to I Want Revenge’s 8½-length romp in the Gotham Stakes on March 7).
"Friesan Fire will get all the talk now. I think Papa Clem (second in the Louisiana Derby after leading into the stretch) ran a good race. This is a tough bunch of 3-year-olds. Last year, it wasn’t very deep at all. Going into the Derby, you want to be in the top five, and I feel I have one in the top five."
• Word has it that IEAH Stables, which won the Kentucky Derby last year with Big Brown, has offered $7 million for a half share of I Want Revenge.
• It’s tax time. I wish Obama would appoint me to his cabinet so I wouldn’t have to pay.