The Kentucky Derby is less than a month away and the picture remains more scrambled than eggs in a Denny’s kitchen on a Grand Slam Sunday.
Even after Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, which has produced seven winners of the Run for the Roses but none since Sunday Silence in 1989, and with important 3-year-old preps like the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, the Arkansas Derby and the Wood Memorial coming up this Saturday, there is no standout.
"A month and a half ago I thought the only chance the West Coast had to win the Derby was Action This Day, and though he’s had some excuses, he’s been a disappointment," said professional clocker, gambler and horse trader Gary Young. "I don’t think anyone would argue that fact.
"Yet the Eastern horses that appeared to be the best back there have been a disappointment, too. Jerry Bailey and I were talking the other day and I said to him, ”˜Hypothetically, if you could pick a Derby mount right now, who would you take?’ He looked at me and said, ”˜I have no idea.’ That’s about the same way I feel."
And who can blame him, because all that was said before the Santa Anita Derby, when a horse whose trainer wasn’t sure he was going to run until the last minute, and whose jockey got the mount because no one else wanted to ride him, won the race at odds of 30-1. That would be Castledale, an Irish-bred colt that was up the track in the San Rafael Stakes in his first start on dirt. He won his first U.S. race in a minor one-mile turf stakes, but trainer Jeff Mullins hemmed and hawed all week before the Santa Anita Derby when asked if Castledale would run.
"The consensus was he was a better horse on the grass," said Mullins, who won last year’s Santa Anita Derby with another horse that had won on turf, Buddy Gil. "We breezed Castledale back on the grass and even though he worked good, he looked horrible. His second breeze back we worked him on the dirt and there was no comparison, so that’s why we took the chance."
Sort of like the chance Mullins took on jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., who rode Castledale to a head victory in the Grade I race at 1 1/8 miles. Valdivia wasn’t named to ride Castledale until two days before the race, when entries were taken.
"I didn’t pick up the mount until the morning of the draw," said Valdivia, a 29-year-old native of Peru who recently came off a 73-race losing streak. "Mullins was waiting on Russell Baze to see if he would come down (from Northern California) and ride him. I guess I’m going to have to send Russell a thank you note."
So just what will it take to win the Kentucky Derby?
"The ability of the horse means a lot but so does preparation for the race," says Eddie Delahoussaye, the retired Hall of Fame jockey who won the Derby back-to-back in 1981 and 1982 aboard Sunny’s Halo and Gato del Sol.
"If you can prep the horse without pushing it too much and have him fresh going into the race, that’s a big plus. It’s nice to win the prep races but it’s not essential. The important thing is to win without abusing the horse and not punishing it to win.
"Sunny’s Halo is a good example. Before the Derby he ran in the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby and won both races easy. Then he won the Derby to make it three races in a row, and he picked them right off.
"But every horse is different. The Derby is a rough race, an aggressively-run race and you need luck to win it. But if you have a horse coming in that’s fresh and healthy and can run, you have a great chance."
THE HOMESTRETCH: Castledale isn’t even the best 3-year-old in the Mullins barn. That would be Mud Light, a California-bred son of Mud Route who won his debut race Saturday with such ease jockey Victor Espinoza never moved a muscle. This horse has a future . . . The other shoe has dropped in the roller-coaster life of Pat Valenzuela. Santa Anita stewards ruled Friday that their previously issued suspension of the 41-year-old jockey will remain in effect through this year, but left the door open for possible reinstatement in 2005. "Having participated in a formal hearing to evaluate the conditional license contract entered into by jockey Patrick Valenzuela and the California Horse Racing Board on Dec. 31, 2003, it is the finding of this Board of Stewards that the contract has been violated and considered to be void," read the official ruling, adding, "Furthermore, it is the (stewards’) recommendation that Patrick Valenzuela be eligible to participate in a fitness for license hearing for re-evaluation as of Jan. 1, 2005." But don’t bet on another comeback being granted. After a suspension on Feb. 11, 2000 for use of amphetamine, nearly two years later the CHRB issued Valenzuela a one-year license on Dec. 14, 2001. It was subject to 12 conditions specified in the contract, including that he report to the CHRB office each race-day morning, at which time he could be tested, and that such tests be conducted at least eight times a month. On Jan. 22, 2004, Valenzuela telephoned the stewards to report that an injured ankle would prevent him from riding that day. He was told to report for a test. He agreed but never showed, thus the suspension, the ninth of his career for similar violations . . . Trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Tyler Baze will answer questions and autograph pictures at the Gold Coast in Las Vegas on Monday, April 12 at 9 a.m. Ralph Siraco will host.