The Jim Beam Stakes that will be run Saturday at Turfway Park in Kentucky is not going to be a horse race of great magnitude, but it will yield vital information that could point out the future winner of the Kentucky Derby.
In most years, the Derby itself offers the first important confrontation between the best 3-year-olds on the East and West coasts. With no lines of comparisons between the two groups of horses, handicappers can only guess which is superior. They guessed wrong in last year’s Derby, when the favored Californian Mister Frisky was trounced by the East’s Unbridled. They guessed wrong in 1989, when the West’s Sunday Silence beat odds-on favorite Easy Goer.
This year, however, a preliminary East vs. West duel will take place in the Jim Beam, and it ought to be enlightening.
The key horse in the Jim Beam is Apollo, a speedster who recently lost a photo finish in the San Rafael Stakes, the most important 3-year-old race in California so far this year. He will take on three colts who have been chasing Fly So Free, the champion of their generation, in Florida this winter: Richman, Hansel and Subordinated Debt. If Apollo were to be trounced by horses who can’t beat Fly So Free, it would indicate the whole West Coast crop can be written off.
Many Easterners already think that is the case, since no single horse emerged as a star in the West while Fly So Free was dominating his rivals at Gulfstream Park. But California handicappers say the reason they don’t have a standout 3-year-old is that they have so many good ones who are evenly matched. I think they are right. The San Rafael Stakes, in which Apollo ran, may have been the strongest race of the year for Derby-age horses.
The time of the one-mile San Rafael, 1:35 4-5 over a dull Santa Anita racing strip, was dazzlingly fast. My speed figures suggested it was at least five lengths better than any race run by 3-year-olds in the East.
The top three finishers in the five-horse field -- Dinard, Apollo and Best Pal -- finished eight lengths ahead of Mane Minister and Excavate. Yet after that trouncing, Mane Minister came back to win a minor stakes at Santa Anita by five lengths. And Excavate proceeded to beat a strong allowance field by 3 1/2 lengths.
Apollo can further verify the strength of the California group Saturday afternoon. In some respects, the conditions of the Jim Beam are against him. The 1 1/8-mile distance of the Beam is farther than he wants to run. And his outside post position, No. 11, on the tight little Turfway track, is a horrible disadvantage.
Nevertheless, I will be wagering that Apollo wins the Jim Beam, and I suspect he will annihilate his 10 rivals. If that happens, it will be a clear sign that handicappers should look westward, to either Dinard or Best Pal, for the star 3-year-old of 1991.
If the merits of a horse like Apollo, who is one member of a strong, competitive group, are easy to overlook, racing fans are often too easily impressed by horses who beat weak fields by big margins. And thus has Wide Country become the standout 3-year-old filly in Maryland and the odds-on favorite to win Saturday afternoon’s Pimlico Oaks.
Wide Country has been trouncing her contemporaries in Maryland this winter, winning her last five races by a combined total of 23 lengths. But in these races she has been as lucky as she has been good. She always finds herself in a small, uncompetitive field. She almost ways gets to the lead in a slow pace, with minimal pressure.
When Wide Country won her last start, the Genuine Risk Stakes at Laurel, she was in front after travelling the first half-mile in 48 2-3 seconds. Cheap maiden claimers running the same day covered their first half-mile in 48. It would have been hard for any decent horse to lose under such optimal conditions.
The $200,000 Pimlico Oaks figured to attract top out-of-town horses who could beat Wide Country, and I was salivating at the prospect of betting against her. But none of the big names among the nominees chose to come to Pimlico.
Moreover, Wide Country drew the No. 1 post position in a field in which only one of her rivals, the undefeated local sprinter Silver Tango, could possibly put any early pressure on her. If the two of them engage in a duel, the stretch-running Ritchie Trail could end the favorite’s winning streak. But Wide Country’s luck is likely to hold for one more day.