ALL THE MAJOR prep races have been run and we know as much about the May 5 Kentucky Derby as when this exercise began 3 months ago. Everything is ambiguous.
You could make a reasonable case for at least 10 horses. If you find the winner of this Derby among the probable 20 horses in the starting gate, you should immediately re-invest in Powerball.
The likely favorite is a horse whose first start was not until Feb. 3. All the logical contenders are within 2 lengths of one another on the speed figure scale. There are two Pennsylvania-breds that have a chance, but both are enshrouded in a bit of mystery. And Michael Matz, Barbaro's trainer, has a live contender that he wants to run in the race, but the colt may be denied a spot if, when entries are drawn May 2, he is not among the top 20 in graded stakes earnings. That is your 133rd Derby with 19 days until post time at Churchill Downs.
When unbeaten Curlin won Saturday's Arkansas Derby by 10 1/2 lengths for his third career win (by a combined 28 1/2 lengths), he really looked like the one. It was a performance so powerful that it did not take a leap of faith to imagine the colt in the Derby Winner's Circle.
Sure, Curlin would have to overcome one of the many Derby eliminator stats that have been disproved one after the other in recent years. You know the ones - no geldings, no horses with 5-week layoffs, no horses without certain breeding attributes.
Curlin's historical issue is that Apollo (1882) is the last Derby winner that did not race as a 2-year-old. If Curlin doesn't win, I don't think that will be the reason. Even though Curlin looked awesome (and I may very well pick him), the cold, hard facts are that his Beyer speed figure of 103 is not much better than the rest of the contenders, certainly not large enough to convince me that he is the one.
By this time in 2004, Smarty Jones had already separated himself from the pack on the numbers. So had Afleet Alex in 2005. Barbaro did his separating in the Derby itself. That may be what happens this year. The trick is to find the horse that is about to separate. This is much less complicated when a horse has already done it.
Forget Pennsylvania-bred Great Hunter's fifth-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. In fact, forget the race entirely. The pace was so slow that all the closers were taken right out of their comfort zones and a good speed figure was impossible to accomplish. The Derby is never run like that. Horses such as Great Hunter and Street Sense will run much better when they are farther off the pace and get a chance to make one powerful run.
Great Hunter probably will never be in another race where he is tracking the leader the whole trip. Who knows where Great Hunter finishes if he does not get cut off in the stretch? Certainly much closer, but it still would not have helped us understand where he fits in this Derby.
Pennsylvania-bred Hard Spun has lost just once. His five wins have all been by big margins, but the colt has never raced against any of the other serious Derby contenders. Now, he is going for the Derby following a 6-week layoff.
Some have tried to make Smarty Jones comparisons because of the running style and the colt's Pennsylvania roots. Here's the big difference: Smarty Jones showed that he was freaky fast in the second start of his life and eventually proved he could take that speed a classic distance. Hard Spun has never run close to as fast (by the figures) as Smarty Jones ran in that second start. Which, in 2007 at least, sort of makes him like all the rest of the Derby horses.
Matz is at Keeneland waiting for his Derby horse to arrive in Kentucky tomorrow morning from Florida where the colt had a workout yesterday morning. He thinks Chelokee has a chance to win the Derby. And he may be right. But the colt may never get that chance.
"We're going to train like he's going to go in," Matz said yesterday. "If he doesn't go in, I'll sit down, talk to the owners and we'll figure out where they'd like to go next."
As of this moment, Chelokee, with $100,000 in graded stakes earnings, is right around 20th on the list. Blue Grass winner Dominican and Teuflesberg (fourth in the Blue Grass) passed him Saturday. The Lexington Stakes winner (this Saturday at Keeneland) will also pass him.
Notional, who was in the top 10 by earnings, dropped out after fracturing the cannon bone is his left front leg Saturday morning. Ironically, it may be Notional that keeps Chelokee out of the Derby. Chelokee was third in the Florida Derby, three-quarters of a length behind Notional in second. If Chelokee does not encounter severe traffic trouble at the head of the stretch, there is no question he would have been second. The additional $90,000 for second would have moved Chelokee way up the list.
"I feel quite good about the horse," Matz said. "Each time we've asked him to step up he's done that. The horse has a great disposition. I don't think if it was 200,000 people [on Derby Day], he would [be upset]."
After the Florida Derby, Matz spoke to Chelokee's jockey, Ramon Dominguez, who told him, "I think you had the best horse in the race."
Scat Daddy, ridden by Edgar Prado, won that race. When Matz's assistant Peter Brette spoke to Prado, Barbaro's rider last year, Prado said he wanted to ride Chelokee because of the way the colt galloped out after the race.
"He flew by me galloping out," Prado told Brette.
"If it's an extra furlong in the Florida Derby, for sure he's a winner," Matz said.
The Derby is that extra furlong from a mile-and-an-eighth to a mile-and-a-quarter.
Beyond just waiting to see if the horse will get into the race, Matz also has a rider issue. It is going to be hard to get a commitment from a top rider such as Prado if he does not know if the horse is going to get to the gate.
"He's improved each time," Matz said hopefully.
Barbaro, of course, made his dramatic jump forward in the Derby itself. Nobody is suggesting Chelokee is Barbaro. After all, the colt has won just two of six races. Barbaro was unbeaten coming into the Derby.
This year, it is not likely to take a Barbaro-like performance to win the Derby. It will just take a very good performance by the horse that hits the first Saturday in May in peak form. Matz proved last year he knows how to make that happen. He would really like a chance to do it again. *