Trainer Dick Lundy has been saying there are more good 3-year-olds in the West than in the East. Jockey Chris McCarron says the crop of Western 3-year-olds is the deepest since he started riding in California 13 years ago. And Jose Santos, who is Santa Anita-based but also the rider of Fly So Free in the East, agrees with Lundy.
But nobody knows for sure.
“It’s more competitive in California, but that’s because Fly So Free has made it so boring by winning everything in the East,” said Jerry Bailey, who has ridden 3-year-olds on both coasts. “The only way to find out which group is better is to have them all run against each other. That’s what the Kentucky Derby is for, isn’t it?”
Racing fans may not have to wait for the May 4 Derby to assess the strength of the East versus the strength of the West, which before Unbridled last year had supplied the four previous winners at Churchill Downs. Today, there are two Derby preps, in Kentucky and Arkansas, that are more intersectional in makeup than any races for 3-year-olds this year.
In the $500,000 Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., Apollo, considered one of the best 3-year-olds running in California, will face 10 rivals, including Richman, Hansel, Subordinated Debt and Discover. The first three have shown some ability, but they were no match for Fly So Free, the Derby’s future book favorite, at Gulfstream Park. Discover wasn’t quite good enough to beat Hansel and Richman when they were 2-year-olds, but the Cox’s Ridge colt scored a seven-length victory around two turns over the Turfway track two weeks ago in his season’s debut.
Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., is running the Rebel Stakes, and trainer Wayne Lukas, who hasn’t missed starting at least one horse in the Derby since 1981, has shipped in Corporate Report, who is undefeated in two starts at Santa Anita. Lukas will also saddle Battle Creek, who ran some terrible races in California before he started winning at Oaklawn.
Arkansas horses are frequently sprinters who can’t hack the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance, and Fenter, the best local horse running in the Rebel, appears to be from that mold.
Quintana, another entrant in the Rebel, used to be trained by Lukas until he was claimed for $50,000 at Santa Anita last month. The son of Affirmed runs for David Cross, who saddled Sunny’s Halo to win the Rebel, the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby in 1983.
The Jim Beam is 1 1/8 miles, the farthest Apollo has been asked to run. He won four consecutive sprints, then barely missed hanging on against the highly regarded Dinard and lost the one-mile San Rafael at Santa Anita by a head.
Bringing Apollo to Turfway made good sense, because the Ohio River track has frequently favored speed horses. Last Monday, Apollo worked six furlongs in a blazing 1:11 2/5, galloping out an extra eighth of a mile in 1:25 3/5. “He obviously likes the track,” trainer Gary Jones said. “Anytime a horse finishes by getting his last three-eighths of a mile faster than the first three-eighths, you have to like the work.”
Whether the outside post position is likable is something else. In the nine previous Beams, the winner came from Posts Nos. 1 or 2 five times, and no one has won from as far outside as Apollo. Richman, who has been on the lead most of the time while winning eight of 12 starts, will break from No. 7 today.
“I love my post position,” Jones said. “He’s loaded (without waiting for other horses) and out right right away. He doesn’t have to stand in the gate, and that’s good for a speed horse. If I’m not in front, I can settle in behind whoever does make the lead.”
A week ago, Aqueduct officials called the trainers of several horses that had been nominated to run in today’s Comely Stakes, and didn’t find anybody that wanted to test Meadow Star.
However, four horses have been entered in the one-mile, $100,000 race, presumably to run for second place. Meadow Star, undefeated in eight starts, is expected to run against colts in the Wood Memorial, and that will determine whether she gets a shot at the Kentucky Derby.
One of the Comely entrants is I’m a Thriller, who has won two insignificant stakes. “I’m not crazy about running against Meadow Star,” said her trainer, Mike Kelly. “But unless I want to put her on a plane, this is where we have to run.”
In 1980, LeRoy Jolley trained Genuine Risk, one of three fillies to win the Kentucky Derby, and he also has Meadow Star. Jolley’s latest hopeful is not nearly the size of Winning Colors, the filly who won the 1988 Derby. Winning Colors might have been the biggest horse in the field.
“Meadow Star has grown physically,” Jolley said. “She’s a little stronger, but she’s still very young. She was a May 19 foal, so really she’s not even 3 yet.”
The first three finishers in the Santa Ana Handicap Feb. 10 are entered in Sunday’s $200,000 Santa Barbara Handicap at Santa Anita.
Annual Reunion and Noble and Nice finished in a dead heat in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Ana as Bequest was third, a length back. Annual Reunion and Bequest will each carry 117 pounds Sunday. Noble and Nice has been assigned 114 pounds and will be ridden by Alex Solis instead of Kent Desormeaux, who is recovering from a broken wrist. Desormeaux also would have ridden Apollo in the Jim Beam today, but he has been replaced by Chris McCarron.
Others in the field for the Santa Barbara, at 1 1/4 miles on grass, are Louve Bleue, 114 pounds; Appealing Missy, 116, and Marsha’s Dancer, 111.
Horse Racing Notes
Other Kentucky Derby preps today are the $150,000 Tampa Bay Derby and the $100,000 Cherry Hill Mile. Link, who was fourth in the Florida Derby, is favored in a field of nine at Tampa Bay Downs. The Cherry Hill, at Garden State Park, is a nine-horse grab bag that includes Fire in Ice, a Wayne Lukas trainee who has won five of 12 starts at six tracks.
He Is Risen, the Jim Beam entrant owned by former NBA referee Arnold Heft, was foaled on March 30, 1988, which was Easter. . . . Horses sometimes win after throwing shoes during races, but not Laxey Bay and Exbourne in their last starts. Laxey Bay, last as the favorite in the San Luis Rey, lost a shoe and hurt his foot. Exbourne, second in a photo finish with Forty Niner Days in the San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate Fields, also finished a shoe short.