Saturday's trio of Kentucky Derby preps confirmed what has been fairly obvious.The Run for the Roses goes through Bob Baffert's barn. Mucho Gusto, considered no better than Baffert's third string, dominated the Robert B. Lewis at rainy Santa Anita. Among those trailing him home was Sham winner Gunmetal Gray, who is probably the top colt on the left coast not in Baffert's barn. At Gulfstream, the wheels came off the Maximus Mischief bandwagon in the final stages of the Holy Bull as 29-1 Harvey Wallbanger ran by the previously unbeaten, untested colt. To add insult, a 129-1 shot beat MM for the place. The Withers was a good horse race, with three together on the wire, but is unlikely to produce a serious player for rich races down the road.

Bob Baffert probably slept very well Saturday night even with heavily favored McKinzie’s failure to hold off Battle of Midway late in the San Pasqual.

Saturday was all about Kentucky Derby hopefuls and if nothing else, the three preps established that Baffert's third-string is superior to anyone else's first string.

With his one-two punch of undefeated colts, Game Winner and Improbable, relaxing in their stalls, Baffert sent out Mucho Gusto to a workmanlike triumph in the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita. In winning for the third time in four starts, Mucho Gusto has been beaten to the wire only by Improbable.

Mucho Gusto's most immediate victim was Gunmetal Gray, who had moved to the head of the non-Baffert West Coast class last month winning the Sham, beating among others Baffert's ridiculously over-hyped Coliseum.

Gunmetal Gray put in his characteristic game effort, closing from last, a style which is exciting to the eye but doesn't often get the money in the biggest stakes. He’ll be a factor wherever he goes but Jerry Hollendorfer ought to send him someplace Baffert’s stars aren’t. Then again, Bullet Bob has so many stars, it might be hard to do that.

Although there is no reason to diminish Mucho Gusto's ability, the soupy texture of Santa Anita's main track after a night and day of torrential rain mitigates against reading too much into the result other than Mucho Gusto would be the standout in any other barn.

Getting back to ridiculously over-hyped colts (I am guilty), Maximus Mischief, the colt Baffert had to be most concerned about in the East, came up flat in the stretch of the Holy Bull, settling for third in not the strongest renewal of the stakes ever.

The winner, 29-1 Harvey Wallbanger, had only a maiden victory in four starts and Everfast, who got up for the place in the final strides, was a well deserved 129-1 after being beaten more than 80 lengths in five starts since breaking his maiden at Ellis Park.

Maximus Mischief had no excuses. Jose Ortiz had him in the dream position most of the way, second with daylight in front of him and daylight behind him. The fractions were reasonable—23.18, 46.76, 1:10.89. Nevertheless when Ortiz asked his colt to pick it up going to the turn, he took forever to close on pace-setter Epic Dreamer, who was coming out of a sixth in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park.

The effort took so much out of Maximus Mischief, who was turning back from the Remsen’s 9 furlongs, that he had nothing left to hold off Harvey Wallbanger and Everfast.

Butch Reid speculated MM might have been a little short of conditioning, having not raced since Dec. 1. But prior to the race, Reid said, “No excuses.” The same could be said after he checked in third.

Harvey Wallbanger could be one of those horses who makes a big leap from 2 to 3. His juvenile races were all solid, although you have to look warily at any horse who finishes second in three straight races. Ken McPeek said his colt learned his lessons from those efforts. He did get the money in his final start in Kentucky.

McPeek and Reid said the Fountain of Youth on March 2 is a possibility. However, McPeek has Signalman being pointed for that spot and said he wants to keep the two colts apart.

Even more disappointing (for everyone but Baffert) were the performances of Mucho Macho Man winner Mihos, who never got involved and finished fifth, and Todd Pletcher’s two-for-two Federal Case, who was tipped before the race as training exceptionally well. He beat only two of the nine.

The Withers in New York didn't seem like it would be a significant stop on the Derby trail and it lived down to this billing. Only three horses did any serious running—former claimer Tax, who went favored at 2-1, New York bred Not That Brady and Our Braintrust--and they finished lapped on each other at the wire. Tax, who managed to slip up the rail after a ground-saving trip, had a head on Not That Brady, who had a neck on Our Braintrust.

When three horses finish that close, it's either a very special race or just a race. The Withers was not a very special race.

Pletcher had another bust, Moretti, who went off a very close 2-1 second choice off a second in his debut followed by a convincing maiden breaker. Saturday, he beat one horse.

On the way out, another media member asked me, “Who’s Pletcher’s top Derby horse now?”

Without attempting sarcasm, I replied, “I don’t know that he has one.”

Positive Feedback

The most impressive performance Saturday at Gulfstream was turned in by Chad Brown’s 3-year-old filly Feedback. Brown said before the race that he didn't have her fully cranked for the Forward Gal, her first race since a sensational maiden-breaker at Saratoga.

The three-time Eclipse winning trainer estimated Feedback was at about 80%. Heaven help the rest of her generation when the other 20% kicks in.

Feedback toyed with a field of accomplished fillies, who took turns taking shots at her. She broke alertly and went to the lead. Fashion Faux Pas, coming off a five-length romp in Tampa's Sandpiper, charged up the rail in a full drive and briefly went past her.

This lead lasted only as long as Irad Ortiz Jr. on Feedback wanted. As soon as he let his filly go, she dusted Fashion Faux Pas like flicking dandruff off a collar.

Bye Bye J was up next. She took her shot on the turn and looked like she was going to go by Feedback. Ortiz gave Feedback a little nudge and that part of the race was over, too.

Champagne Anyone was the final one to take a shot, rushing up the rail late but her rally was an optical illusion as Ortiz allowed Feedback to cruise to the wire.

Brown said he ran Feedback at less than her best because he had to get her started if she is to make the Kentucky Oaks. "She's that good."

No one who witnessed the Forward Gal would dispute this.