Trainer Charlie Whittingham says the critics say every year that the 3-year-old crop isn't much. But this year, observers of the Kentucky Derby prospects seem to be knocking the current generation far and wide, and there can be no stronger disparaging words from this precinct than those of Johnny Campo.
Campo, who trained Pleasant Colony to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 1981, has seldom left anything to interpretation. Jack Klugman once said that Campo's breeding was by Damon Runyon out of a Don Rickles mare.
"This is a bad bunch of 3-year-olds," Campo said the other day. "Every one of 'em keeps getting beat."
A survey by Russ Harris of the New York Daily News shows that 31 horses have won 35 stakes races for 3-year-olds this year. The only double winners have been Cryptoclearance, J.T.'s Pet, Masterful Advocate and Demons Begone.
J.T.'s Pet has been withdrawn from Derby consideration because of a sore leg. As for Masterful Advocate, who finished second, 5 1/2 lengths behind Temperate Sil, in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby, Campo has a low opinion.
"I trained his sire (Torsion), so I know what he can do," Campo said. "This is a mile-and-a-sixteenth horse at best. The mile and a quarter in the Derby? He can't go that far."
If this is so weak a crop, what does that say for Pleasant Variety, the son of Pleasant Colony, who'll run Saturday at Aqueduct in the Wood Memorial?
Pleasant Variety has beaten only maidens in four starts and finished seventh, about 16 lengths back, when Gone West won the Gotham at Aqueduct April 4. The Gotham was run in the slop, and Campo expects a better performance in the Wood if the track is fast, but he's not predicting an upset.
"I got some better 3-year-olds that you'll see later," Campo said. "One's a Blushing Groom colt that might run in the Preakness. This horse I'm running in the Wood is made like Pleasant Colony, but he doesn't look like him.
"If Pleasant Colony's horses don't look like him, they usually don't turn out to be very good runners."
The 1 1/8-mile Wood is one of four Kentucky Derby preps Saturday. Others are the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields, and the Garden State Stakes at New Jersey's Garden State Park.
Most of the interest will be focused on Aqueduct and Oaklawn. In the Wood, there will be about 10 starters, and even though the 1 1/8-mile race is a virtual rerun of the horses that raced in the Gotham, it is difficult to find the favorite.
Some say that distinction could go to Shawklit Won, who ran second and trailed Gone West by a length in the Gotham, but was gobbling up the winner with every stride at the finish.
Gulch and Capote, two of last year's top 2-year-olds, finished third and fourth, respectively, in the Gotham and will run again Saturday.
Campo doesn't like any of them. "If it's a fast track this time it wouldn't surprise me if the first four from the last race don't even hit the board," he said.
A small field--probably just five horses--will race Demons Begone in the Arkansas Derby. Two of the starters--Lookinforthebigone and Fast Forward--will be from trainer Wayne Lukas' barn. Fast Forward, another son of Pleasant Colony, will be running only a week after finishing fourth in the Alabama Derby.
Lukas also has 3-year-olds in Saturday's other races. Capote is in the Wood, Barb's Relic is in the California Derby and Clever Secret will be running in the Garden State.
Lukas is definitely planning on running Capote and Talinum in the Kentucky Derby May 2, but says other possibilities, including War, are less likely.
"We're not going to Churchill Downs just to load up the field," Lukas said. "But these horses have different owners and naturally they're all interested in running in a Derby. But the way I see it, they're going to have to earn their way in."
Hay Halo and Chart the Stars recently dropped out of the Kentucky Derby picture.
Hay Halo, a multiple stakes winner out of the same mare as Broad Brush, suffered a muscle injury that could heal in time for him to run May 16 in the Preakness at Pimlico, his home track.
Chart the Stars, who ran last in the Santa Anita Derby after winning the San Felipe Handicap, is thought to be ailing, although trainer Dick Mulhall isn't sure what the problem is.
Another Derby hopeful, Mr. Zippity Do Dah, a sprinter who beat Bet Twice and Gulch at Hialeah in February, died after suffering a fever and hemorrhaging.
Alysheba, who missed the Santa Anita Derby because of a fever, had another high temperature at Keeneland this week, which prevented him from running in a prep race for the Blue Grass Stakes. Alysheba is still expected to run in the Blue Grass next Thursday.
Horse Racing Notes If only five horses start Sunday in the $400,000 San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita, Charlie Whittingham has a 60% chance of winning the stake for the 5th straight time and the 13th overall. Whittingham is planning to start three--Louis Le Grand, Rivlia and Rosedale. The only others expected to run are Long Mick and Schiller. . . . Manila, last year's male grass champion who easily won his first 1987 start at Keeneland Tuesday, is scheduled to run May 1 at Churchill Downs in the $150,000 Early Times Turf Classic. . . . The next start for Lady's Secret is scheduled to be the Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct April 26. Lady's Secret, last year's horse of the year, was a disappointing sixth at Gulfstream Park in her only outing this year. . . . Snow Chief is entered to run Friday in the Oaklawn Handicap. . . . Santa Anita will be offering betting on 10 races Saturday, supplementing its nine-race program with wagering on the California Derby, which will be shown at the track on closed-circuit TV. . . . Leslie Bito, who won Golden Gauntlet, a 3-year-old colt, in a contest at Santa Anita, has sold the horse back to the track for $15,000, which was one of the owner's options. Golden Gauntlet earned $8,700 in two races after Bito won him, but then was injured and probably won't be able to run for six months. Bito, a retired factory worker from Venice, estimated that it would have cost him $5,000 to keep the horse before he was able to run again.