SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 6, 2008---In the overall, if you’re Steve Asmussen or Rick Dutrow, nothing that happened on Saturday has you quaking in your boots. Although neither should dismiss Colonel John too quickly.

Eoin Harty’s long-striding son of Tiznow from the Turkoman mare, Sweet Damsel, a.k.a. the horse that runs too slow, was the only three-year-old performer Saturday that looked like a real Kentucky Derby horse.

Yes, yes, the first three finishers in Colonel John’s Santa Anita Derby were in a drive from the quarter-pole to the wire but it was the Colonel’s overdrive spurt and lengthy stride that made an indelible impression on what was the most important prep weekend of the year.

Next Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes will complete most of the rest of the picture, but the way this prep season has gone, we all had better assess the Lexington and Holy Bull, too. It’s been that kind of season.
As previously stated, I’m patient and forgiving when it comes to still developing three-year-olds. I think I now know enough to believe that not only is this group inferior to last year’s but, in the main, is beginning to look very undistinguished. Except for the handful at the very top.

While I number myself among those willing to line up against the visually impressive Pyro four weeks from now, I respect him for this: He always runs the same very good race. Credit his talent, consistency and Asmussen’s preparation. In the absence of demon speed, “class” is by far the best thing to have.

Big Brown, a.k.a. Big Bad, Big Bad Brown, the coolest horse in the whole damn town, does freakish things. As long as Dutrow, in his own words, stays out of his way, and the colt’s not compromised by quarter cracks, extreme greenness, or the plague, Big Brown might not face a horse that can warm him up, much less seriously challenge him.

Someone brought this up in a horse chat last week, but with everyone going gaga over Big Brown’s Florida Derby, how soon they forget Pyro’s Risen Star. Guilty as charged. But now that I think about it, Big Brown’s performance was more compelling. At times like these, a reliable stopwatch really comes in handy.

The first three out of the Wood Memorial ran well. And the slowest renewal since 1952 doesn’t look nearly as bad when compared to the Grade 3 Excelsior for older horses run under identical conditions a half-hour earlier.

Tale Of Ekati needed almost all of 14 seconds to finish his final of nine furlongs after chasing early splits of :22.46 and :46.07 from very close range; too close thought trainer Barclay Tagg. Well, it took the gelded five-year-old Temporary Saint 13 seconds to cover the same ground after being left on his lonesome in :23.92 and :48.43.

War Pass was the three-year-old responsible for the fast Wood fractions and he was beaten only in the final few jumps. The horse that pressured him, Inner Light, finished last of nine.

Court Vision gives a good impression of the fast-finish suck-up that breaks your heart every year on Derby day. But he’s not had even half a chance to win both of his starts this year. Part of it is his own doing; the rest is happenstance, and he does always come running late.

Court Vision may be slow but tries very hard, also not to be taken for granted. Garrett Gomez may not have had a good option the instant he wheeled him around a rival at the five-sixteenths pole, but the move came at the apex of the turn. It’s impossible to win from there, especially when he was forced to labor in the deepish center of a drying-out strip.

The Illinois Derby “looked like the ninth at Yonkers Raceway,” Paul Moran said after watching the Hawthorne nine furlongs on the press box monitor. During the stretch run, another observer was heard pleading: “Will someone please make a move?”

The finish of the race was what Harvey Pack might have termed “your basic five-speed number.” No one ever moved. David Carroll expected his favorite, Denis Of Cork, to bounce on Derby day. That’s why he gave him extra time between starts.

But Carroll is new to speed figures. This was the race in which Denis was susceptible to react to his last effort, which apparently he did. But Denis Of Cork wasn’t going to win the Illinois Derby, anyway.

There was no pace on in the Grade 2 event and no one ever challenged the winning leader. A horse like Denis Of Cork has no chance to rally successfully given that scenario on an oval that essentially plays like a bullring. His race looks like a throw-out the way War Pass’s Tampa Derby did. Further consider that Denis just might like Churchill the way Street Sense did.

Undeniably, Colonel John was the star of the weekend. He ran nine furlongs in 1:48.16, which until the data is processed, nevertheless looks like a forward move. And trip types must love the way he dug in despite veering out, then in, willing his way to the wire first.

Runnerup Bob Black Jack might have distance limitations but is extremely fast, and figure that Richard Migliore squeezed every ounce of speed out of him in a good performance by both horse and rider. Favorite El Gato Malo had a troubled start, rallied wide on the second turn, but essentially never fired. He may no longer be headed in the right direction.

So, what happens when Colonel John makes his dirt debut in the Kentucky Derby? Who knows, although there probably are easier spots to find out. But Harty has been to the big dance many times as Bob Baffert’s assistant. He knows what to expect, except for that special pressure that goes with having your name inscribed on a track program.

And now, Pyro, let’s see what you’ve got in Lexington on Saturday.