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I'll take "Derby Preps" for $500,000, Alex!

In Jeopardy of not getting a shot at The Wheel of Fortune, these Derby contenders need to make sure The Price is Right

4/7/05... Author Steve Byk thinks the upcoming Derby Preps are going to play out a lot like a game show, with some of the contenders in Jeopardy of missing the starting gate the first Saturday in May unless they can come up with a big effort this weekend.

By Steve Byk

If the Kentucky Derby were a TV game show, it would certainly have to be the long-running "Jeopardy". And with the popular quiz show currently engaged in an "Ultimate Tournament of Champions", the comparison seems appropriate.

The early season Gr. II and III preps with $100,000-$200,000 purses are similar to Jeopardy's first round. The richer March-April preps stand in as the lucrative "Double Jeopardy" round, and the first Saturday in May is obviously "Final Jeopardy". Of course, Blue Grass farm habitué and Derby regular Alex Trebek remains the ideal host.

We propose this "Derby Trail as Jeopardy" allusion because there are a great number of Derby Trail contestants that are in immediate need of boosting their bankrolls in the next three weeks to earn a spot in the "Finale" barely a month from now. With only six prep races left available, three coming Saturday, the desperation for graded stakes earnings adds even greater tension and drama to what are generally some of the year's best races anyway.

On tap Saturday are the Wood Memorial (Gr. I, $750,000) at Aqueduct, the Illinois Derby (Gr. II, $500,000) at Hawthorne, and Santa Anita's Derby (Gr. I, $750,000), and despite claims to the contrary, they are more likely to impact the Derby field than the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby April 16. Virtually every Wood entrant, and at least five of those intended for the Santa Derby, are in the precarious position of having to hit the board at the minimum to expect the opportunity to make a run for the roses May 7.

In the last few years, earnings of around $200,000 have been the benchmark to make the "big dance." By our reckoning, 12 horses are already certainties for the Derby field should they choose to run and remain healthy between now and then:

That leaves just eight slots available for at least 20 sophomores that hope to enter the gate in the Churchill Downs feature 5/7/05. Here's a prep-by-prep look at the projected fields of the six remaining races offering graded earnings to the three-year-olds and the challenge facing many of the players.


This is a brutally difficult situation as it's hard to believe that both NY-breds (Grocer, Naughty) as well Going Wild could end up excluded from the Derby. Dom Schettino may have figured out Grocer's '05 problems with a bit change, but has it come too late? Pat Kelly has not done New Yorker any favors with a campaign that did not take advantage of his distance abilities. Bellamy Road is in the least awkward position going into the Wood, and is really the only entrant that could "get away" with finishing third ($75,000). The McGaughey-Phipps color-bearer Survivalist will only go to Louisville if he impresses his connections with a forward effort off his Gotham win.

MUST WIN ($450,000): Scrappy T, Pavo
MUST AT LEAST PLACE ($150,000): Survivalist, Galloping Grocer, Going Wild, Naughty New Yorker
MUST AT LEAST SHOW ($75,000): Bellamy Road, Survivalist
COULD STILL GET IN WITH FOURTH ($37,500): Bellamy Road

IDEAL FINISH FOR THOSE WE THINK DESERVE TO MAKE DERBY FIELD: 1. Naughty New Yorker, 2. Going Wild, 3. Survivalist, 4. Bellamy Road


Something of a bizarre field passed the entry box for the Chicago classic at "The Thorne", with six quality colts making their graded stakes debut along with three runners that have already shown some mettle amongst black-type types. Magna Graduate wheels back quickly off his frustrating fourth in the sealed track Lane's End struggle, and could conceivably make the Derby with a placement here. Kansas City Boy is in about the same position and didn't get any help from the racing secretary with the #9 pill at the draw. He has run better than anyone wants to give him credit for this year. Medigating chased Sun King in the Tampa Bay Derby, but needs more than second to go on for Niall O'Callaghan.

Among the graded stakes debuters, Monarch Lane (Todd Pletcher) and Unbridled Energy (Elliot Walden) were both well meant coming into 2005, but have been slow to getting to the main events. Both exit Gulfstream allowances; Monarch Lane, a third behind Sun King and Survivalist 2/26; and Energy, a 7.5f win over the solid Natural Phenomenon. Rikman spent the winter at S. Ozone Park for Bill Mott, winning thrice on the front end on the Aqueduct inner and main. The $900,000 Peterson-Paraneck purchase Pavo exits a runner-up try behind Cat Shaker in the Rushaway two weeks ago and makes his 5th start of the year. Win Me Over is the always intriguing "local" horse, and Windy City colts have a history of doing well in this event.

An emergent story from the IL Derby could be Greeley's Galaxy. Owned by B. Wayne Hughes, the Mr. Greeley colt has impressed at Santa Anita in his last pair of on-pace wins, a February maiden-breaker and allowance smasher 3/10. He is not nominated to the Triple Crown, but Hughes indicated that with a victory Saturday, he would use $200,000 of the $300,000 winner's share to put the chestnut in the Derby starting gate! Hughes finished fourth in Funny Cide's 2003 Derby with Atswhatimtalknbout.

MUST WIN ($300,000): All but Kansas City Boy and Magna Graduate
MUST AT LEAST PLACE ($100,000): Kansas City Boy, Magna Graduate
MUST AT LEAST SHOW ($50,000): Could only help the pair above



Unlike the preps that will go earlier in the day, the Santa Anita Derby isn't a "Wheel of Fortune" proposition for the major players that are lined up. Sweet Catomine and Wilko both need "big" Santa Anita performances looking forward to Kentucky, but neither "need" the generous purse money available Saturday. Giacomo has forced his way into the trifecta of every stake he's run in this year, and need only augment his $140,000 bankroll with a third or fourth here to start ordering up Mint Juleps.

As a result, Don't Get Mad and Wannawinemall find themselves in a tough spot and are a pair of colts deserving of the Derby field. Trainer Ron Ellis has had a trying first quarter in 2005, losing winter book Derby favorite and two-year-old champion Declan's Moon to injury. His Don't Get Mad is a particularly exciting hopeful for the big race given his timely off-the-pace acceleration and the developing pace scenario for a speedy Derby. Wannawinemall toiled in obscurity for Kristan Mulhall (Imperialism) until his good second to Uncle Denny in the El Camino Real. Unbeknownst to his handlers, the colt had been bleeding in his races. Since adding medication, he has trained brilliantly. (If you've been following the Derby Trail, you know we're big fans of this guy.)

Buzzard's Bay has had an up and down start to his sophomore campaign, but appears back on track for Jeff Mullins after the disastrous Louisiana Derby trip. (He certainly isn't the first or last visitor to come stumbling out of New Orleans!). He will need a placement Saturday to get a foothold on the earnings list. Any other potential starter in the Santa Anita Derby (Go Coyote Joe, Silent Bid, et al), will need to pull a Castledale (36-1 surprise last year) to find themselves in the Churchill receiving barn at the end of the month.

MUST WIN ($450,000): Any entrant not among the above.
MUST AT LEAST PLACE ($150,000): Don't Get Mad, Wannawinemall, Buzzard's Bay
MUST AT LEAST SHOW ($75,000): Don't Get Mad (but tenuous)

IDEAL FINISH FOR THOSE WE THINK DESERVE TO MAKE DERBY FIELD: 1. Wannawinemall, 2. Don't Get Mad, 3. Sweet Catomine, 4. Giacomo

(As long as Sweet Catomine runs well, the Wygods and Canani seem intent on running her in the Derby. We prefer she run well enough to go to Louisville, but not well enough to siphon of earnings away from those who need it!).

Looking ahead to the next round(s):

BLUE GRASS: Bandini and Closing Argument will be the pair that require top finishes.

ARKANSAS DERBY: Wild Desert will need just a third to wrap up a Derby slot.

LEXINGTON: Always the "Desperation Stakes"... Andromeda's Hero, Sort It Out and Spanish Chestnut are just three that are headed here bowling for Derby Dollars. News indicated that Rockport Harbor may be in this event if unable to run in the Arkansas Derby. A win in the Lexington by him would likely deny all other participants from the earnings they would require.


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