Can you feel it? It’s getting closer now, so close. I can hear the echo of the track announcer’s call. I can smell the freshly-poured whiskey topped off with a sprig of mint. I can almost see the twin spires from here. And the roses, they’re budding as we speak.
This Saturday features what will the last prep race for many a Kentucky Derby contender, culminated in three historic races: the Santa Anita Derby, the Wood Memorial, and the Illinois Derby. And on Sunday, the fillies are pulling up their bootstraps for their own last dance before the Grade I Kentucky Oaks. Oh, what a weekend it shall be.
It’s coming down to a last matchup between rising stars, one final time to prove they’ve got what it takes to be a Kentucky Derby challenger. For the first time, Baffert’s Pioneerof the Nile, who’s yet to lose a race this year, will be facing The Pamplemousse, a big, roan horse who carries with him a story worthy of Hollywood. Over in New York, I Want Revenge won’t be allowed to rest on his laurels, and will be pitted against Imperial Council, who is determined not to let the California invader steal the race this time around. And here in Illinois, Musket Man will set out to prove he’s the real thing.
One of the interesting takes on this weekend will be the totem after the races are run. I Want Revenge has been bested by Pioneerof the Nile twice before, and so if The Pamplemousse beats Pioneerof the Nile, The ‘Mousse must be considered a real Derby threat. The thing about both Pioneer and The ‘Mousse is that neither have run on dirt before, which is where I Want Revenge has found his calling.
As for the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, the equation is further complicated by two factors: one, the presence of Chocolate Candy, a solid horse everyone seems to have forgotten about, and two, what appears to be the entrance of a rabbit in Z Day. Pioneerof the Nile has an opposite running style to The Pamplemousse, preferring to pour it on in the final moments of the stretch like a grass horse. The ‘Mousse runs on the lead, but according to his trainer, Julio Canani, he doesn’t need to do so to win the race. This statement will be tested with the presence of Z Day, who is a known sprinter and will likely shoot to the lead like a bat out of hell. If the ‘Mousse can lay back and let Z Day set that frantic pace, he will be able to pick up the pieces when the horse folds before the final turn. It will be up to The ‘Mousse to take charge from there. Will he be able to hold off the late-coming Chocolate Candy and Pioneerof the Nile, his sinister shadows? Add to the fact The Pamplemousse is breaking from the outside post, and Mr. Hot Stuff, Colonel John’s brother, is in the race, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a showdown.
Since his dominating win in the Gotham, I Want Revenge has been shipped back to California, worked over there, shipped back to New York, and partially sold. At once salivating at the sight of a potential Derby winner, IEAH bought 50% of I Want Revenge, who will now be racing under their red, white, and blue silks. Let’s just hope IEAH doesn’t start a Kentucky Derby monopoly.
Revenge will be facing only seven contenders in the Wood, including Imperial Council, Lime Rickey, Atomic Rain, and Lord Justice. And though he has enough graded earnings to make it into the Derby, West Side Bernie’s connections, in a state of denial, have entered him here to prove his lackluster performance in the Lane’s End Stakes was a fluke. Don’t bet on Bernie to prove them right. I Want Revenge should eat up this field and have room for dessert. His only real contention will be Imperial Council, who needs to either win or place second in the Wood to have enough graded earnings for the Derby. Edgar Prado will be back in Imperial Council’s irons, so the colt should have a better chance at licking Revenge’s heels. That will be Imperial Council’s only taste of Revenge.
The pulse in the Grade II Illinois Derby may not be racing, but that could change if any of the contenders puts in a stellar performance. Though Musket Man’s name hasn’t been topping anyone’s list of Derby favorites, he’s a venerable colt who’s only lost one race in five starts. In his only loss, Musket Man was third to General Quarters and Sumo, two colts he went on to zoom by in his last start, the Tampa Bay Derby. He beat the then-hyped Hello Broadway, too, who didn’t end up in the money. So is it that Musket Man hasn’t really faced what some would consider to be “worthy” contenders, or are people simply not giving this horse credit? If the Tampa Bay Derby showed anything, it was that distance will benefit this hardy colt. He will be facing Giant Oak, an Illinois-bred who showed great promise as a two-year-old, but hasn’t won yet this year. And if distance will benefit Musket Man, it will likely hurt Giant Oak, who is now being seen as more of a miler. If Hawthorne gets rain on Saturday, look for Giant Oak to scratch and be shipped to Keeneland for next week’s Blue Grass Stakes. Other factors in the race are Al Khali (Pletcher’s new colt), Lord Justice, and Perfect Song.
Sunday will feature two stars of the filly circuit, Stardom Bound and Rachel Alexandra. For the first time, Stardom Bound will be racing outside of California. But instead of opting for a dirt test, her new trainer, Rick Dutrow, is trying her over Keeneland’s Polytrack in the Grade I Ashland Stakes. Right on her heels are the three fillies who shared her photo finish in her last outing, the Santa Anita Oaks: Third Dawn, Hooh Why, and Nan. Also up to the challenge of the gray wonder are Dream Empress, who has a thing for Keeneland, What a Pear, an unbeaten filly at 4 for 4, and Gozzip Girl, who looks to be a rising star herself. After Stardom Bound’s narrow victory in the SA Oaks, it seems fillies have seen the champ’s weakness and are chasing her across the country like a pack of hungry wolves. But her regular rider, Hall-of-Famer Mike Smith, will be on hand to guide the gray to what may be her sixth Grade I win in a row.
Rachel Alexandra, easily one of the top three-year-old fillies in the country, will be cutting her teeth on the Grade II Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn in preparation for the Kentucky Oaks, or maybe even the Kentucky Derby. As she water-skied to victory in the Fair Ground Oaks with little urging, Rachel Alexandra showed just how versatile she was, nabbing her third victory in a row. Her regular rider, Calvin Borel, compares her class and smarts to his 2007 Kentucky Derby winning mount, Street Sense, in that she can turn on like a light switch when asked. Rachel Alexandra will be facing the Larry Jones-trained Just Jenda, the winner of the Grade III Honeybee Stakes, and Bon Jovi Girl, who finished third in the Honeybee. Let’s just hope Calvin doesn’t stand up before he hits the finish this time.
Aqueduct’s Grade III Bay Shore Stakes is set to post at approximately 4:13 ET. HRTV/TVG covers.
The Grade I Wood Memorial is scheduled to post at 5:19pm ET. HRTV/TVG covers.
The Illinois Derby is race 7 on the Hawthorne program and will go to post at 4:15 p.m. CDT. HRTV covers, and inexplicably, NBC, too.
The Grade I Santa Anita Derby is scheduled to post at 2:36pm PT. HRTV/TVG covers as well as NBC.
The Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap, featuring Acoma, is scheduled to post at 4:57pm ET. HRTV/TVG covers.
The Grade I Ashland Stakes at Keeneland has an approximate post time of 5:05 p.m EDT. TVG covers.
The Grade II Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park time can be found on equibase.com. HRTV covers.