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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 nights 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 its 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 colts lifetime best effort came in the 2007 Breeders 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.

I dont like wet tracks, said trainer Barclay Tagg, who saddles Tale Of Ekati. Wet tracks favor particular horses sometimes and you dont get an honest opinion of how your horse ran, he explained. A wet track favored War Pass, a wet track favored Pyro, Tagg added, referring to his colts 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. Heres a brief look at some of the major horses contesting Saturdays 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 hes 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 its true he hasnt run as fast as some members of his class, he showed development with a lifetime best effort in the Fountain of Youth. Hes 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 seasons 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 hes 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 classs 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. Thats what makes the preps so compelling.

Written by John Pricci


Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Friday, April 04, 2008


Which War Pass Shows Up in Wood Memorial?


SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 4, 2008---He made it here and he made it everywhere. In fact, War Pass made it all the way to a juvenile championship.

Now well see if the pre-season Kentucky Derby favorite can make it all the way to Louisville four weeks from Saturday.

After drawing post position five in a field of 10, the Nick Zito-trained War Pass was installed the 6-5 early line favorite by New York Racing Association linemaker Eric Donovan for Saturdays Grade 1 Wood Memorial, having its 84th renewal.

His work last week was great, said Zito. From what I can see, hes going to put in a good effort.

For sure, it certainly will be better than his Tampa Bay Derby debacle, for which Zito is still seeking answers. For whatever reason, he just didnt show up. You want to be confident and draw a line through the Tampa race.

Which is about all anyone can do. Seeking redemption, War Pass will be sent to the front by Cornelio Velasquez, or it will be another rider at the controls for his next start. Which War Pass shows up is anyone's guess.

Given that War Pass likely gained nothing from his Tampa non-effort, the champion needs to run big Saturday or there might not be a Derby in his future. Zito will also start Anak Nakal, whos run terribly in both starts at 3. The 20-1 outsider will be adding blinkers, but leaves from an extreme outside post.

Texas Wildcatter, beaten in the final jump by Visionaire in the G3 Gotham after adding blinkers, gets the pole and a switch to Eibar Coa. He improved dramatically with the head gear last time and might have moved prematurely on that fog-enshrouded occasion. Like Bill Mott and Zito, this will be one of two Todd Pletcher players.

Court Vision, winner on this track at the nine furlong Wood distance while taking the Remsen at 2, leaves from post three under Garrett Gomez. He figures to be shorter than his early odds of 6-1 indicate. In his seasons debut, he was a good-finish third in the Fountain of Youth.

He ran well considering it was a speed favoring track, said Mott, and hes been doing very well since. Court Vision is owned in partnership by WinStar Farms--who also owns Santa Anita Derby favorite Colonel John--and IEAH Stables, who own the majority interest in undefeated Florida Derby sensation, Big Brown.

Previously unbeaten Giant Moon, who detested the sloppy Gotham track, gets a chance to make amends beneath a rejuvenated Jorge Chavez. Leaving from post 7, Chop Chop figures to keep War Pass within his sights on the first turn. His chances will depend on just how heavy Fridays forecasted heavy rains will be.

Tale Of Ekati had little chance in his three-year-old debut when in the grasp of an assistant starter while leaving the gate in Pyros G2 Louisiana Derby. Also working well in Florida, Edgar Prado takes the re-ride on another well regarded member of this field seeking redemption. Barclay Tagg will saddle the 9-2 early second choice from post eight.

The Wood and Santa Anita Derby are part of a national NBC broadcast from 5 to 6 p.m., EDT. At Hawthorne on Saturday afternoon, undefeated Denis Of Cork heads a field of seven in the G2 Illinois Derby.

Written by John Pricci


Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Thursday, April 03, 2008


Horn Happy Hallandale


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.--As a native New Yorker; Corona, Queens, actually, Ive been taking abuse all my life. You people have no patience. Youre rude. Youre always in a hurry. And so it goes.

But know that the city, a.k.a. Manhattan, runs a bad second to this place. Now I dont know about Miami or Pembroke Pines or nearby Hollywood or Ft. Lauderdale. Cant speak to those locations, although Aventura might be in the conversation.

With the exception of the hard-trying staff people at Gulfstream Park, who fight through a tough PR battle every day, Hallandale Beach Blvd., that stretch from Biscayne Blvd. to the ocean, is the Rude Capital of the World.

Now in some circles, Im known for my impatience. Some might even say Im famous for it, especially behind the wheel. But here, many wait staffers and service personnel are treated as less-than by impatient, superior customers who look them in the eye only when theyre in their face.

Pardon the digression.

If I were a police officer with my own cruiser, the only traffic tickets I would dispense is for failure to keep right. The left lane is the passing lane. Capice? I hate selfishness and lack of attention on the road. It causes accidents.

Here, in the Rude Capital of the World, the millisecond a traffic signal turns green, the person behind me is on the horn. Im no :21 and :44 guy away from the light, but Im a solid :22 4/5 and :45 3/5. But that simply wont do on HBB.

My wife refuses to drive here. These people are crazy, she says.

Highway drivers differ in Florida depending on where you are in the state. When I was traveling north from Tampa to Ocala on I-75 three weeks ago, I nearly was put in a ditch by a large RV with Volkswagon in tow.

I was passing the RV at 80 m.p.h.--the speed limit is a realistic 70 on that stretch of highway--and my right fender had reached nearly even with his cab. At that instant, he changed lanes; no signal, nothing. And not that a signal would have helped at that point.

Fortunately, my peripheral vision is good and I reacted quickly. More fortunate was the fact there was a left shoulder separating my car from what appeared to be an eight-foot ditch. Going 80, depth perception can be a bit tricky. I was further distracted by a bright white light flashing before my eyes.

Parenthetically, there were at least three other incidents on that trip in which drivers changed lanes directly in front of me without signaling as I prepared to pass in the speed lane.

On west coast highways, I will give left-lane habitus credit for this: If you pass on the right they will move into the right lane immediately. They dont just camp out there daydreaming. At least they pay attention.

But not so much here in Horn Happy Hallandale. Between the blue-haired crowd, the South Florida snowbirds from north of the border, and heavy-footed short-tempered locals, youre always driving defensively. Every days an adventure.

Adding to all this, theres no cell phone ban here. Imagine? There are two states in which driving is a well known challenge. But in Florida and California, go right ahead and chat away at the peril of the other guy.

I only need to survive another 24 hours in HHH. My return to New York was delayed by a small medical emergency until Thursday morning. Im scheduled to be in the air when entries for the Wood Memorial are drawn at Aqueduct.

Next stop, South Ozone Park, where if I commit a driving faux pas, a middle finger will be raised in salute, pointing out, as it were, the error of my ways.

In the interests of full disclosure, I wasnt in Hallandale 30 minutes when involved in a minor fender-bender with a pre-med student. She was concerned that the slight damage she incurred would be an inconvenient delay to her taking title to a 2008 model. She later explained that her 2004 BMW was getting a little old.

Fortunately, I was in good hands. And no one was hurt.

Written by John Pricci


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