By Gene Kershner
The Derby Trail turns to two tracks that would have to be the most unlikely to produce a Kentucky Derby winner, but in reality have given us two of the last three champions. Sunland Park, N.M., and Florence, Ky., will become the center of the Derby Trail universe Saturday. A national television audience (NBC Sports Network, 5 p.m.) will be tuning in to the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence.
The Spiral produced last year's Kentucky Derby champion, Animal Kingdom, who made a tremendous move at the top of the stretch to move forward in his progression before doing the same thing at Churchill Downs on the First Saturday of May in 2011. This year's edition has attracted more than its share of top trainers, with John Servis, Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Todd Pletcher and last year's winner, Graham Motion, all putting forth horses to claim a chance to obtain a treasured gate in the Derby.
Motion, Animal Kingdom's trainer, puts out the Gulfstream maiden winner Wait The Day Well. When asked where he compares to Animal Kingdom at this point, Motion thinks he is actually ahead from a maturity standpoint at this stage.
"You know, this is a horse that's benefited from his races in this country, without a doubt. I've seen an improvement in him from before we ran him the first time at Gulfstream. I saw a significant improvement in him after he ran when he was fourth in the maiden, and I think I've seen him progress since then, and I think we were in somewhat of a similar situation last year with Animal Kingdom. You know, Animal Kingdom was a very, sort of green, very laid back horse this time last year who I would never have imagined, to be honest, he would have been my first Kentucky Derby winner, had you asked me this time last year. So, I think developmentally they're probably in very similar stages, perhaps even Went the Day Well is a little further ahead even," said Motion.
Ironically, another maiden winner has stepped up as the morning line favorite. It's Heavy Breathing, from the dynamic duo of trainer Pletcher and jockey Javier Castellano. The Giant's Causeway colt had won two straight and did not have a problem winning at the 9-furlong distance in his last outing.
Trainer John Servis, last on the Triple Crown scene with 2004 Derby champion Smarty Jones, will have Ill Conceived in the Spiral gate with Smarty's ride Stewart Elliot aboard. He comes off a second-place finish at Turfway in the Battaglia several weeks ago and should be a factor in Saturday's nationally televised race. Servis isn't afraid of taking a shot with a horse who has been working well.
"We were just really looking for something to get him around two turns where he could hopefully start to improve and show his stuff and there just weren't a whole lot of options, so that was one of the reasons why we leaned toward the Battaglia ... as a guess really just to see how he would handle the synthetic and how it would go. And he did well so we decided to move on to the Spiral."
The $800,000 Grade 3 Sunland Derby produced the 50-1 winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby in Mine That Bird, and has made the racing nation pay attention to this race since that fact. A boatload of graded earnings is available and it hasn't kept the country's biggest trainers from making the trek to the New Mexico track. Red-hot Bob Baffert sends out the winner of the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, Castaway, who skipped last weekend's Rebel that showcased most of the horses that ran in both divisions of this years' Southwest. Baffert knew exactly what he was doing as jockey Rafael Bejarano rode Secret Circle to a nice victory in the Rebel and will now ride Castaway at Sunland.
He won't have it easy though, as East Coast rival Pletcher ships his talented colt Ender Knievel west to try and join the Derby fray with a good showing at Sunland. An impressive 7-length winner at Gulfstream last out, the Distorted Humor colt may only get better on the stretch out in distance.
The Smarty Jones colt Isn't He Clever will try and redeem himself after a tough go in the Robert Lewis, and also sports a win over the Sunland strip, so he shouldn't be ignored when placing your hard earned dollars at the window. He draws Woodbine phenom Luis Contreras in the irons for the first time and could be a horse for the course.
The race has also drawn Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby winner Daddy Nose Best and talented jock Julien Leparoux. The fact that JuLep will make his second cross country trip to ride this horse has to make one take notice. My only worry is his inexperience on real dirt (7 of his 9 races have been on synthetic or turf surfaces).
I fancy Ender Knievel in the Sunland Derby and Ill Conceived in the Spiral, but think both races should be wide open. Don't count out Baffert's horse in the Sunland nor Motion's challenger in the Spiral.
Good luck this weekend and let's go cash some tickets!
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace.