By Gene Kershner
We’re inching closer to Kentucky Derby weekend as we are a month away from the First Saturday in May and the last two races of the second leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series are upon us tomorrow. The Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn highlight this weekend and will be featured on NBC (Ch. 2, 4:30 p.m.) as the final telecast leading up to Derby day. The two races will be worth 100-40-20-10 points to the top four finishers in completing the most lucrative stage of the Series.
I've posted my Kentucky Derby spreadsheet which currently lists the top 15 contenders on the Championship Series leaderboard with some interesting statistics as we head towards the First Saturday in May. I developed the sheet several years ago to try and collect valuable information including pedigree, speed figures, distance and wet Tomlinson figures and post position statistics in the Run for the Roses.
This week's interesting news surrounded key jockeys and the decision made by John Velazquez, who was injured on Sunday afternoon, to choose Verrazano over Orb. Joel Rosario will ride the Florida Derby winner, who could be the favorite on May 4.
The Bluegrass has drawn a large and deep field of horses trying for a last gasp attempt to qualify for the Derby. The race to be run on Keeneland's polytrack has an interesting group of 3-year-old colts, some who have never run on anything but turf or dirt trying to capture the biggest race of the spring meet in Lexington. A horse who made this year's Derby wings column on the mild list is Rydilluc (pronounced Ry-Dill-Luke) who is 4-1 on the morning line.
Trainer Gary Contessa is sky-high on the Medaglia d'Oro colt who has won three straight on the turf, including the Palm Beach Handicap at Gulfstream by over three lengths. "You know, watching him rain in the morning, he does everything with ease. His stride is probably one of the greatest strides I’ve ever seen in a horse in 30 years of training horses," said Contessa during this week's press conference with the national racing media.
Rydilluc drew post 13, a post that Contessa was prophetic about earlier in the week during the press conference. "My lucky number is 13 and if I got post 13, I’d just feel it was karma. I think from out there, if a horse is acting up in the gate, you’re not going to be sitting in that gate for five minutes; you’re going to be in and out fairly quickly," said Contessa. Sometimes you get what you wish for.
His main competition will be morning line favorite Uncaptured (7-2, 30 points), trained by Mark Casse, the second place finisher in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on the polytrack last month. The Canadian-bred horse sired by Lion Hart has won four of six races on all-weather surfaces and has shown that he can win on dirt winning twice at Churchill Downs.
Another horse that made my Wireplayers.com Derby Dozen list is Java's War (4-1, 22 points) the co-second choice along with Rydilluc. He just missed making the pollsters top 12, but would have if it had been a baker's dozen.
Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas will be the scene for a very competitive running of the Arkansas Derby. Three colts headline the field of 10, that will be going after the $1 million purse. This race has produced terrific champions in the recent past such as Curlin, Afleet Alex and Lawyer Ron.
The surprising morning line favorite is the Bob Baffert-trained War Academy (2-1), a lightly raced colt who has three career starts, only one in graded competition. He ships in from the west coast for his first race away from Southern Califorina and will face a stiff class test in his third off the layoff with Hall of Famer Mike Smith in the irons.
The second choice Oxbow (5-2) currently sits in 13th place on the leaderboard with 36 qualifying points, so even if he suffers a poor showing, he should still make the gate in Louisville. Quinquagenarian Gary Stevens has come out of retirement to seek another Derby victory for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and gets the call aboard Oxbow.
Rafael Bejarano will fly in in to ride Overanalyze (4-1, 10 points) for trainer Todd Pletcher, who already has two colts in the Derby and also will send two colts to the gate in the Bluegrass. The Dixie Union coltcould be sitting on a big one coming in second off the layoff after a lackluster performance in the Gotham. He's won at the 9 furlong distance and should sit off the pace and try to pounce on the field at the top of the stretch.
Falling Sky (10-1, 20 points), finished third behind Verrazano and Java's War in the Tampa Bay Derby after winning the Sam F. Davis could be a nice price for trainer John Terranova. His connections chose the Arkansas Derby over the Bluegrass to avoid "the wildcards" running in the Keeneland race. Martin Garcia takes over the ride for Jose Espinoza in a jockey change trumpeted by owner Jim Covello. When the Bafferts ship horses to New York, they’re stabled with the Terranovas and there’s been obviously a number of times over the last few years where Martin has come east and ridden one of Bob’s horses in the big graded stakes races, and so they have a very close working relationship. Our view is that he’ll fit the horse really, really well."
Thoroughbred racing hits the main stage on NBC this weekend so be sure to watch the Road to the Kentucky Derby as both races will be nationally televised on Saturday afternoon.