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Saturday, April 05, 2008


A Wet Wood Would Muddle Derby Picture


SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 5, 2008---It was an unexpected dark day in New York Friday, owing to Thursday nightís heavy rains that promised to continue into Wood Memorial Saturday, annually the biggest of the New York spring racing season.

With the precipitation scheduled to end by midday Saturday, the sealed track could be in great shape by post time for the Wood in which War Pass, despite an unexpected abysmal effort in the Tampa Bay Derby, is still regarded the one to beat.

Even though itís counter-intuitive, surely trainer Nick Zito is hoping that somehow the Aqueduct surface will be fast by 5:15 p.m. despite the knowledge his coltís lifetime best effort came in the 2007 Breedersí Cup Juvenile over a sloppy Monmouth Park surface.

Why Zito would want to give away a perceived edge is easy to understand: Unless the Churchill Downs track comes up a sea of slop on Derby day, what would a romp in a wet-track Wood prove?
Everyone, including Zito, knows that War Pass loves a wet track. The Hall of Famer needs to know for certain that he can put the Tampa Bay Derby behind him. So should Kentucky Derby fans.

A wet Wood not only would cloud the issue for the 6-5 early line favorite but those of his rivals, both in relation to their Wood chances against the favorite and their own Derby aspirations. Wet track form is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate.

Is a good or poor performance the result of the footing? Is the horse's current conditioning, good or bad, the result of racing on a wet surface? The biggest question is how any effort will translate to Churchill Downs, wet or dry.

ďI donít like wet tracks,Ē said trainer Barclay Tagg, who saddles Tale Of Ekati. ďWet tracks favor particular horses sometimes and you donít get an honest opinion of how your horse ran,Ē he explained. ďA wet track favored War Pass, a wet track favored Pyro,Ē Tagg added, referring to his coltís fourth place Juvenile finish.

Unlike New York, where conditions are likely to be unfavorable, the Santa Anita Derby and Illinois Derby are expected to be contested over dry surfaces. But there are many contenders with Derby questions to answer at those tracks, too, surface conditions notwithstanding. Hereís a brief look at some of the major horses contesting Saturdayís three major preps:

On a fast track, the Wood Memorial could go to any of the logical pre-race contenders. Texas Wildcatter should be formidable on any surface. His Gotham was his best effort to date on the Equiform figure scale, but of greater significance could be that heís never taken a backward step on career figures. The rail position and rider switch to Eibar Coa adds to his appeal.

Many handicappers believe Court Vision too slow to contend in the Derby but that assessment might be premature. While itís true he hasnít run as fast as some members of his class, he showed development with a lifetime best effort in the Fountain of Youth. Heís a battler, as he proved on this track winning the 2007 Remsen, and if he moves forward dramatically here he could be poised to explode on Derby day. First things first, of course.

Longshot Roman Diplomat is fast enough to contend if he rates kindly. Trainer Steve Klesaris said the colt would not settle down in the Gotham, fighting his jockey all the way. A repeat of his two-back effort puts him in this from a performance figure perspective.

The same can be said of Tale Of Ekati, who ran very fast winning the Belmont Futurity at 2 before meeting War Pass and Pyro at Monmouth. He had no chance to win his seasonís debut when he found himself in the grasp of an assistant starter at the start of the Louisiana Derby. Edgar Prado sees fit to ride him back.

On paper, the Santa Anita Derby will be a battle between the two early line favorites; Colonel John (2-1) and El Gato Malo (5-2). Both ran well in the Sham Stakes at the same distance, Colonel John enjoying a tactical edge even if his best races come when he has a target.

Main rival El Gato Malo was trapped most of the way in the Sham and has faster back figures. Both have trained very well since. Yankee Bravo, third choice on the early line, showed promise when third in the Louisiana Derby, his debut on dirt, and now returns to a synthetic surface over which heís never been defeated.

The Illinois Derby will shed more light on the talents and development of lightly raced, undefeated Denis Of Cork, who worked very well at his Churchill base earlier this week. His Equiform figures are in the second tier among this classís elite and he must show continued development. To his credit, he never has taken a backward step and was classy enough to win his two-turn debut over a sloppy track he hated.

His main rivals are Atoned and Z Humor. Atoned showed development with a lifetime best Equiform performance as the Tampa Derby runnerup, and Z Humor only need add some consistently to become a major sophomore player. His lifetime best efforts came at Belmont Park and Delta Downs at 2, and he would seriously contend here if able to duplicate that form.

Indeed, many Derby questions remain. Thatís what makes the preps so compelling.

Written by John Pricci


Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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