Not long ago a newspaper reporter was taking a poll of his press-box colleagues to compile a consensus list of the top 10 candidates for the Kentucky Derby. The answers he got went something like this: “Number one, Easy Goer. Number two, uh, um, let me think about this a minute.”
Rarely have the ranks of contenders for the spring classics looked so thin. While the current generation of 3 year olds is an exceptionally talented group, many of the top prospects from last season have suffered setbacks that have put them on the sidelines.
King Glorious, the unbeaten California speedster who was the second-ranked 2 year old last season, has been knocked out of action by an injury. Is It True, who upset Easy Goer in the Breeders’ Cup, is starting his 3-year-old training belatedly and won’t be able to make the classics. Easy Goer’s stablemate, Fast Play, is also on the sidelines.
So it isn’t easy to come up with a meaningful roster of candidates for the Kentucky Derby, but after poring over my speed figures and consulted experts in various parts of the country, I have compiled a list of the Top Seven. (I couldn’t stretch it enough to make a Top Ten.)
1. Easy Goer: As a 2 year old, Easy Goer displayed the potential to become a genuinely great champion, winning two major stakes in New York in dazzling fashion before his upset loss in the Breeders’ Cup took away some of his luster. Plenty of things can go awry for promising 2 year olds, of course, but none of them has happened to Easy Goer. He has grown and matured; he has avoided injuries; he made his return to competition by running away with a seven-furlong stakes at Gulfstream Park in fast time. He will get his serious Derby preparation in Aqueduct’s Gotham Stakes April 8 and the Wood Memorial April 22, and if he does as well as everyone expects he will go to Churchill Downs as an overwhelming Derby favorite.
2. Houston: Few horses have made such a dazzling impression as Houston did when he won has first start at Belmont by a dozen lengths last July. He has run only once since then, however, and plenty of people have written him off -- but not Wayne Lukas. The trainer still speaks of Houston as a potential superstar, and will ship him from California to New York for Saturday’s seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct. It is hard to know what to make of the son of Seattle Slew -- he could be a complete fraud -- but he is the one colt who could have the talent to give Easy Goer a legitimate challenge. We should know on Saturday.
3. Sunday Silence: Trainer Charlie Whittingham’s top 3 year old won the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Sunday, but on paper the effort didn’t look terribly impressive. The time wasn’t fast, and the winner was weakening at the end. But the West’s ace handicapper, Jeff Siegel, related this description of the race: “Sunday Silence went to his nose at the start of the race and lost three or four lengths. Patrick Valenzuela rushed up to go after the speed, went four-wide at the first turn and must have gone the second quarter in :22. He opened up at the quarter pole but was life and death to win -- his last quarter was in :27 on my watch. I think that if he’d had an easy trip, if he’d sat off the pace and made one run, he would have blown the field away.”
4. Music Merci: He finished a disappointing third as the odds-on favorite in the San Felipe, but he has been an in-and-outer for his whole career. In his previous race -- a nine-length stakes romp -- he had earned a speed figure as good as Easy Goer’s best. It is hard to know what to make of Music Merci, and it is very possible that he is only a miler, but a horse with so much raw ability has to be respected.
5. Open Mind: If Houston doesn’t live up to his potential and Is It True isn’t ready, Lukas made find that his top 3-year-old prospect is the filly Open Mind. And he is so Derby-obsessed that he might take a shot and run her against males instead of going against members of her own sex in the Kentucky Oaks. Open Mind doesn’t have the raw talent of Winning Colors, Lukas’ heroine of last year, but she does have a powerful stretch kick that has carried her to four straight stakes victories.
-- 6. Kerosene: Last month, Dixieland Brass won the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream by running 1 1-16 miles in 1:44 3-5. Earlier on the same afternoon, Kerosene had won a low-level allowance race -- also in 1:44 3-5 for 1 1-16 miles. This was only the third start of the colt’s career, and his future prospects are excellent; trainer Scotty Schuhofer is aiming him for the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah. But the lessons of history say too clearly that late bloomers like Kerosene almost never win the Kentucky Derby.
7. Olympiad: A superbly bred son of Raise a Native and Reminiscing, Olympiad won a six-furlong allowance race in impressive fashion at Hialeah a week ago. He is an even later bloomer than Kerosene and precedent argues strongly against his Derby chances. But trainer Leroy Jolley will put him on the fast track to the 3-year-old classics.
There is growing hype for trainer Bud Delp’s undefeated Dispersal, who won the Louisiana Derby. But I think the colt is a phony -- he beat bad horses by a length in slow time -- and I couldn’t put Dispersal on a realistic list of Kentucky Derby candidates.
And while plenty of people have been impressed by Jolley’s Cantrell Road, who has won his only two starts by eight lengths each, he still has to convince me. I would like to believe that there may be some genuine competition and excitement at Churchill Downs on May 6, but as of now it seems that the greatest uncertainty about the Derby is the identity of the horse who will finish second to Easy Goer.