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When It Comes to the Derby, All Hoping, Many Groping

A closer look at the pluses and minuses for the contenders

By Steve Byk

With the 131st Kentucky now just a week away, preparations at and near Churchill Downs have heated up in earnest. Taking to the Churchill main is frequently an issue as many Derby hopefuls, some Hall of Fame performers, have had their worst career performances there.

Damascus and Point Given specifically come to mind when discussion of Derby favorites that were dull on in the Run for the Roses and whose efforts were dismissed by their conditioners as a disdain for the quirky Downs surface. Of course both confirmed their superiority to their division counterparts two and five weeks later winning the Preakness and Belmont...

When it comes to this period before the Derby, the connections of every entrant have hope that the stars will align for their charge and that racing immortality will be there's by dusk on the first Saturday in May.

But as we know from watching this annual spring spectacle, many more owners and trainers are groping in the attempt to etch their horse's name in green and white on the victor's placards that ring the paddock of the Downs.

With that in mind, let's pull a page from last year's pre-race analysis and look at what gives each of this year's participants 'hope', but why each may be just as much of a 'grope'...


Hope: That Nick Zito's Concerto colt can come close to duplicating his record Wood performance where he equaled Riva Ridge's 31 year old track record for 9f scoring a 120 Beyer and -5 on the Thoro-Graph sheets.

Grope: George Steinbrenner's best Derby horse in years stands to get pressure earlier, longer and from more competitors than he did at Aqueduct, and he collapsed when faced with that scenario in his third career start at two (the 7th place fade in the Gr. I Breeder's Futurity at KEE).


Hope: That the 8 length romp with fast close in the AK Derby is indication that Tim Ritchey's 6-time winning Northern Afleet bay is back in top form for what could be the perfect pace set-up for his stalk and pounce tactics.

Grope: Young jockey Jeremy Rose, who clearly has a rapport with his mount, rides in his first Derby and can ill afford to be nervous or panicky while reserving Alex through the likely quick early fractions.


Hope: That Todd Pletcher's #1 candidate for his first Derby win truly matured with his Blue Grass score after antics derailed his Fountain of Youth bid versus High Fly.

Grope: Blue Grass was a "must win" for earnings and the all-out effort at KEE made for a sizeable fig jump that could presage a Derby bounce: Blue Grass winner hasn't copped the Derby since Strike the Gold in '91.


Hope: That Charlotte Weber's tactical chestnut homebred augment his consistent career performances with a slight figure improvement under Jerry Bailey in perhaps his final Derby try, and that five week break that may be a plus for this one after logging 35f in competition this year.

Grope: No horse since Needles (1956) has won the Derby off more than a 30 day hiatus, and High Fly also must prove that the extra eighth of mile will be a problem.


Hope: That Bobby Frankel's bias-aided LA Derby winner received necessary seasoning in the Blue Grass 2nd to overcome the Derby bugaboos of just four career and two sophomore starts.

Grope: Maria's Mon bay is bucking history that reaches back to Exterminator (1918) with the light conditioning and is just one of a half dozen entrants that may need to be in front to be successful.


Hope: That pricey red from Zito made the needed improvement in FL Derby second, his stakes debut, to take logical next step under three time Derby victor Stevens.

Grope: Giant's Causeway progeny took 4 tries to gain diploma and couldn't best Bandini or Dearest Mon along the way. Also faces the 30+ day voodoo.


Hope: That speedy Mr. Greeley son can emulate War Emblem and parley IL Derby romp into KY Derby glory despite the slight resume and lack of a juvenile campaign.

Grope: The last time there was a Derby winner that didn't race at two, America had 38 states.


Hope: That former top Zito hopeful can forget Blue Grass non-effort and return to level of 104 Beyer season debut or game October tries in the Champagne and BC Juvenile.

Grope: Zito's best Derby performers all ran well in their final tune-ups, and this dark bay by Charismatic has just not looked like the competitor he was at 2.


Hope: That BC Juvenile surprise is over the hoof woes that interrupted his training and had him at less than 100% in his last three starts giving Nakatani chance to use his tactical speed and good closing kick off the CD turn.

Grope: Dollase's Awesome Again chestnut has failed to boost his figs and could not get past Consolidator, Giacomo, Don't Get Mad in the San Felipe or Buzzards Bay and Gen. John B in the SA Derby.


Hope: That developing Marco Bay chestnut can continue to improve and utilize his :12 second/panel pace under hungry Guidry.

Grope: Jeff Mullins' 3rd straight SA Derby winner from hails from Sire Line that has never produced a Derby winner and a female family that last wore the roses in 1888 (Macbeth II).


Hope: That wide berth AK Derby is a throwout and return to Rebel/Southwest efforts is in the offing at Intidab bay's home track where Derby speed on the front end could give him the desired target.

Grope: Despite pace scenario that should suit, closer has yet to run anywhere near fast enough to impact Derby tote like a Monarchos.. or even an Imperialism or Atswhatimtalknbout.


Hope: That son of Distorted Humor (Funny Cide) can reach new fig top under Monarchos pilot Choppy after pair of excellent efforts in Lane's End and AK Derby.

Grope: Third participant with but four career starts has benefited from slow paces while earning his black type, as well as in maidenbreaker.


Hope: That division's most likeable also-ran pulls a Funny Cide by annexing Derby without the benefit of a win at three. Grey son of Holy Bull looks to avenge sire's mysterious rose run failing under same pilot as pop.

Grope: John Shirreff's game colt seems "win shy" and unable to finish despite versatile tact: a male version of Hollywood Story with whom he shares barn.


Hope: That "sure to be overlooked" Zito #5 turned corner with fig improvement and late run in Ozarks showing behind "Flower" and "Alex". Has found best stride when no one was watching in last pair (9f), and has been ultra-professional making 6 career starts at 6 different ovals.

Grope: LaPenta's son of Fusaichi Pegasus looks to be just too darn slow...


Hope: That Lukas' Golden Missile son, working well at Louisville, was just plain dull in the Wood, hated the Blue Grass slop and can show any of the quality that won the Sham and San Miguel.

Grope: Bob and Bev Lewis $600,000 KEE buy is horribly off form not having a single break since September '04 debut.


Hope: That Derby pace meltdown allows Baffert Stonerside buy a chance having run pretty well since LA Derby where no one was moving late on slick strip.

Grope: Out of Place chestnut's best efforts came on the AQU inner tube against competition that wilted on Derby Trail.


Hope: That strangles epidemic resurfaces in the next week to claim all 19 other Derby entrants.

Grope: San Rafael 'hero', over Texcess and Iced Out, couldn't win Derby if they shortened it to 6f. Here to assist Bandini who doesn't need the help.


Hope: That son of Anees has another forward move in him after pairing up figs in ALW/Lex scores.

Grope: Late developing Pletcher #3 loses Castellano to Bellamy Road and makes demanding 5th start in <100 days. (Not the way Eclipse winning conditioner usually runs them).


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