My father used to tell me that a good jockey never rides a bad horse. That’s why I’m picking Wimbledon to win the Kentucky Derby.
When it comes to picking horses to ride, Jerry Bailey is in the same enviable spot Elvis was when it came to women. He can have anyone he wants. Bailey could have had Read The Footnotes. He could have had Eddington, if he gets in. He could have had Quintons Gold Rush. But the world’s premier rider chose Wimbledon, impressive winner of the Louisiana Derby but a futile fifth, beaten nearly 10 lengths, in the Santa Anita Derby.
In what could be the most wide open Run for the Roses in its 130-year history, with the post time favorite unlikely to be lower than 6-1, Wimbledon will be 10-1 or higher. Only Bailey’s presence and the fact that trainer Bob Baffert has won the Derby three times prevents Wimbledon from being 20-1.
Bailey and his agent, Las Vegas native Ron Anderson, pointed to an eye-catching five-furlong workout by Wimbledon in :58.40 on April 17 at Churchill Downs when asked why they decided to ride the son of Wild Rush. But I’m here to tell you it was more than that workout.
Wimbledon was a steam horse before he ever raced. He was 9-10 as part of an entry with Cooperation when they debuted at Del Mar last Aug. 2. And Wimbledon was favored at 7-5 in three subsequent second-place finishes at Santa Anita, finally breaking his maiden by eight lengths as the 7-10 favorite. He was 7-1 when he won the Grade II Louisiana Derby by 2 1/4 lengths before his debacle in the Santa Anita Derby on April 3.
After the Santa Anita Derby, Baffert reached into his familiar bag of excuses trying to explain away Wimbledon’s sorry effort. Primary among them were "he was too close to the pace" and "he never liked this track."
One crutch Baffert didn’t use was, "We didn’t want to empty the tank for the Santa Anita Derby when the Kentucky Derby is the race I want to win again so badly I’d dye my hair black to do it."
Bottom line: there will be no holds barred come Saturday.
Consider this: Bailey rode Quintons Gold Rush to a picture-perfect 2 1/2-length victory in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes on April 17. Quintons Gold Rush, who was trained by Kentucky-based Steve Asmussen for the Lexington, was trained by Mike Mitchell when he beat Wimbledon convincingly by 3 Â½ lengths at Santa Anita on Jan. 18.
Logic, current form and the fact that Satish Sanan bought into Quintons Gold Rush with the express purpose of trying to win the Kentucky Derby would indicate that Quintons Gold Rush was the better choice for Bailey.
"His win in the Lexington didn’t surprise me at all," said Mitchell of Quintons Gold Rush, like Wimbledon a son of Wild Rush. "Ten minutes after the Santa Anita Derby (in which Quintons Gold Rush finished fourth, 6Â½ lengths in front of Wimbledon), I told Satish (who races as Padua Stables), ”˜He can win the Lexington.’ I contacted Bailey the next morning through his agent. Ron and I have been close friends for a long time. He was in Dubai and I was trying to get him on the horse after P.Val (Pat Valenzuela) got suspended. By the time I finished talking with Ron, he knew all about the horse and was ready to jump on him."
And jump he did, in time to win the Lexington and its $325,000 purse. But Bailey has opted for Wimbledon in the Derby, with its $1 million purse.
"They would love to have Bailey on Quintons Gold Rush," Mitchell said just before Bailey’s decision was made public. "To get a rider like him in a race like the Derby would be really awesome."
One jockey Mitchell was not ready to recommend for Quintons Gold Rush was Valenzuela, recently reinstated to ride after receiving a stay on his latest suspension.
"No, I wouldn’t put him on," said Mitchell, who has used Valenzuela extensively in the past. "Not because he’s been away, but because his style doesn’t suit the horse. He gets horses running early and Quintons Gold Rush is much better if he settles. When he beat Wimbledon, Valenzuela had him in the bit and I think this horse needs everything a rider can do to settle him early. That’s what Bailey did, but the Derby is going to be a different story. You hope Quintons Gold Rush will get that kind of trip, but Bailey sure is the guy you’d want to have on him."
But it’s not going to happen, because Mr. Baffert sold Mr. Bailey a bill of goods about Wimbledon, and that’s good enough for me. Beyers schmeyers, Sheets schmeets and pedigrees schmedigrees. Stuff ”˜em in a sack. I’m sticking with human nature.
THE HOMESTRETCH: My Kentucky Derby $1 superfecta: key Wimbledon on top with Smarty Jones, Master David and Tapit, a $6 bet that could return hundreds . . . Never have I heard a trainer as high on a horse as Julio Canani is on Silent Sighs for Friday’s Kentucky Oaks. She should be at least 4-1 in a race resplendent with class . . . The whole of Southern California’s jockey colony is against the reinstatement of Pat Valenzuela. The jocks in good standing cite a conflict of interest by California Horse Racing Board chairman John Harris, a prominent owner and breeder in the Golden State who has ridden Valenzuela on his horses; a double standard, feeling other riders with fewer violations similar to Valenzuela’s would not have received as many chances; and the blatant breaking of a contract that had no margin for error, not to mention Valenzuela’s proliferation for winning most of the races on the circuit. "This is a very controversial issue and we’ve let the CHRB know how we feel," one rider told me. "It’s going to get a little messy." The CHRB has scheduled May 18 to hear Valenzuela’s appeal for the suspension that banned him until Dec. 31, 2004. Even trainer Mike Mitchell, a long-time Valenzuela supporter, has grown weary of Valenzuela’s one-trick pony show. "I’ll ride him," said Mitchell, who won four races the first two days of the Hollywood meet, "but I’m not going to take other riders off to put him on like I’ve done in the past. He’s a great rider and before I’d pull riders off for him, but I’m not going to do that anymore.". . . Look for Martin Pedroza to get a clearance from his doctors to resume riding on May 12.