It has been 120 years since the last horse that didn’t race at two won the Kentucky Derby. That was Apollo in 1882.
Atswhatimtalknbout qualifies to fall into that infamous category, even though he missed running as a 2-year-old by only five days, and despite the fact that his trainer had every intention of starting the $900,000 son of 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy as a 2-year-old.
Ron Ellis is fully cognizant of the trend that has gone well beyond a century, and the 42-year-old trainer is not about to quibble over five days. He knows what he has in Atswhatimtalknbout, the favorite for Saturday’s $750,000 Santa Anita Derby at 11/8 miles, and among most experts’ top three horses to win the Run for the Roses on May 3.
As it is, Atswhatimtalknbout made his debut on Jan. 4 of this year, closing from last in a field of 11 to win by a half-length going six furlongs. He did it with an electrifying turn of foot in the final yards under his regular rider, David Flores. The Kentucky-bred colt was third next out in a paceless one mile race, then won under mild urging going 11/16 miles before finishing second by a nose to upstart Buddy Gil in the 11/16 mile San Felipe Stakes on March 16.
"I didn’t want to rush him at two just to be on track for the Kentucky Derby," Ellis explained. "Plus, he bucked his shins at two and he’s a real big horse, so I didn’t think he needed to be running any sooner than he did. I wanted to do right by the horse. (Bucked shins are an inflammation of the covering of the bone of the front surface of the cannon bone, to which young horses are particularly susceptible).
"I had him up to three-quarters in workouts and was getting ready to run him at Del Mar last summer," Ellis said. "That’s when he bucked his shins, so I just fired them (a procedure used to increase blood flow to the leg to promote healing). I didn’t take him to Del Mar. I waited to run him when I did because he was just too big to run any earlier."
Atswhatimtalknbout was purchased by Public Storage magnate B. Wayne Hughes out of the February 2002 Fasig-Tipton sale. The 69-year-old Hughes recently sold a minority share of the colt to a group headed by Hollywood movie moguls Steven Spielberg, Gary Ross and Frank Marshall. In his last two workouts, Atswhatimtalknbout was ridden by recently retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, who just Monday (March 31) assumed duties as Santa Anita’s new general manager. Atswhatimtalknbout has been written up in Sports Illustrated, so he already has a big following, and it will only grow should he win the Kentucky Derby.
Ellis, with leading-man good looks and an easy-going manner, has handled the hype to date with casual candor, as is his wont. He’s unlikely to change on the way to the Derby, even though it would be his first. As for Atswhatimtalknbout staring down the unflinching face of a 120-year-old "jinx," the trainer is taking it in stride.
"He just naturally got ready when he did," Ellis said of his horse. "The streak is history, but after all, it’s just a trend. Hopefully, we can break it."
HOMESTRETCH: Handicapping guru Andrew Beyer on Atswhatimtalknbout: "Although he’s quite a talented horse, he’s been cramming so much preparation into a relatively short period of time. My personal feeling is that in the short term, from now until the Kentucky Derby, he might be just as likely to regress as keep improving." Beyer wouldn’t commit to a Santa Anita Derby pick at press time. "I’m not really on top of California racing," the Washington Post and Daily Racing Form columnist said. "Since the race hasn’t been drawn yet, I’ll hedge on that. You can say I’m not leaping on the Atswhatimtalknbout bandwagon." Beyer said he "had no real knocks against (Florida Derby winner and Kentucky Derby favorite) Empire Maker at this point, but I don’t see him as an unbeatable colossus just on the basis of beating a weak field (in the Florida Derby) with a (Beyer) figure of 108."
. . . Bob Baffert issued a statement through the Santa Anita public relations department after Kafwain was disqualified by Louisiana racing officials from second-place money of $150,000 in the Louisiana Derby, due to an excessive amount of clenbuterol. "The deal is, clenbuterol is legal in every state, but almost all of them have different levels on withdrawal times," Baffert said. "In this case, we did everything we could to comply with the rules, cutting off a week in advance, as our records show. I have no idea what tests Louisiana does or doesn’t do, or how much money they spend on their testing compared with California, New York or other states where I race. I do know if I contest this, under Louisiana rules, the horse can’t run until the case is resolved (which would prevent him from running in the Santa Anita Derby). We’ll take our lumps on this, but we look forward to the day when the sport has uniform medication rules and uniform testing in every state." Baffert wasn’t the only one to take his lumps. Not only was jockey Victor Espinoza taken off Kafwain by Baffert after the Louisiana Derby for what the trainer deemed was a bad ride, but Espinoza said he lost his riding fee for that race because the purse was redistributed.
. . . The California Horse Racing Board reported that Advance Deposit Wagering handle totaled $216 million from Jan. 25, 2002, through Feb. 28, 2003, representing 7.8 percent of the $2.76 billion combined California on-track, off-track and ADW handle for that same period.
Southern California-based 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown Trail
Rated by ED GOLDEN
Horse Trainer Next Race Comment
1 Empire Maker Frankel April 12 Wood Primed to peak May 3
2 Peace Rules Frankel April 12 Blue Grass Frankel’s backup
3 Atswh’t’mtalkn’bout Ellis SA Derby Saturday Set to strut his stuff
4 Midas Eyes Frankel April 19 Lexington Frankel’s third string
5 Buddy Gil Mullins SA Derby Like Rodney Dangerfield
6 Ocean Terrace Hess Jr. SA Derby Unbeaten and overlooked
7 Kafwain Baffert SA Derby Can’t blame Espinoza now
8 Ministers Wild Cat Drysdale SA Derby Adds blinkers, new rider
10 Man Among Men G. Mandella April 12 Ark. Derby Lost weight, needs time
11 Domestic Dispute Baffert SA Derby Must put up or shut up