A Promise To Keep

by John Piesen

Unlike previous years, it's much too early to be making my Kentucky Derby selection, but I will confess the leader in the clubhouse is Noble's Promise.

At this point in time, Noble's Promise is kind of the forgotten horse in the run-up to the Triple Crown, but it says here that the folks who are leaving him out of their current Derby Top Tens are making a serious error in judgment.

...Much as they did in previous years at this point with horses named Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin.

Let it be said they are making a mistake, a very big mistake.

As a 2-year-old, Noble's Promise, a $10,000 Keeneland Sales purchase trained by Ken McPeek, compiled a perfectly acceptable 3-2-1 record from six starts for earnings of $733,500, and only once in those six starts did NP go favored -- his maiden win on the grass at Ellis Park.

The Cuvee colt parlayed that victory into a pair of stakes wins, a race called the Johnson Memorial at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., and the Breeders' Futurity (Grade One) at Keeneland.

Sent off at 6-1 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Noble's Promise made the lead in mid-stretch, but yielded late to finish third behind Lookin at Lucky and Vale of York, beaten a mere three-quarters of a length.

A month later, NP finished second to Lookin at Lucky, the Eclipse champion and winter book favorite for the Kentucky Derby, in the Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park.

At the closing last week of leg one of the Churchill Downs Derby Futures Book, Lookin at Lucky was 8-1 (second choice to the field), and Noble's Promise was dismissed at 36-1.

That's what I call value.

That said, I put in a call Tuesday morning to McPeek, expecting to find him hard at work at his Gulfstream Park barn.

The conversation went like this:

JP: "Morning, Ken. Where are you?"

KM: "Out of the country."

JP: "Where?"

KM: "Rio."

JP: "As in Rio de Janiero?"

KM: "Right. They're having a carnival, and a friend invited us (wife Sue) down for the week. We're having a great time. Be back to Florida Saturday."

Since my call woke the poor man up out of a sound sleep, there wasn't too much left to talk about, but he did pass on two pieces of news about Noble's Promise:

First, Noble Promise will be heading to his trainer's native Arkansas to make his 3-year-old debut in the Rebel Stakes on March 13 at Oaklawn Park...and, if all goes well, cap his KD preparations return for the Arkansas Derby on April 10.

And, second, there will be a rider change -- Albarado for Bejarano.

That will make five different riders for Noble's Promise in seven starts. Prior to Bejarano, NP was ridden by jockeys Mena, Desormeaux and Martinez.

With due respect, the change to Albarado, a two-time Oaklawn champion, and the regular rider of two Horse of the Years (Curlin and Mineshaft), make that 36-1 look even better.

"Noble's Promise is doing super," McPeek added. "I wouldn't change places with anyone."

I left this quote for last because every trainer says the same thing about his horse.

Even Todd Pletcher.

Like McPeek, Pletcher has won one Triple Crown race, in each case the Belmont, but that's where the resemblance ends.

While McPeek nominated two to the Triple Crown this year, Pletcher nominated 20 (one more than mentor Lukas), and four of the 20 -- Rule, Super Saver, Eskendereya and Interactif can be found on many if not most Derby Top Tens.

Rule in fact climbed into the top three in most lists in the wake of his wire-to-wire victory last Saturday in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

No knocking Rule, a John Piesen Hot Line (888 612 2283) selection, but the horse who impressed me most from that race was Uptowncharlybrown, who made up a dozen lengths closing widest and fastest to get third. Fact is, Charly was more impressive in defeat than he was in beating some cupcakes in two prior starts at Tampa.

(Oh, yes. For those keeping score at home, Rule, who paid $4, was the poor stepchild of the Hot Line's winners last weekend, which included a pair of first-starters (Tiz the Love at $9.20, Much Rejoicing at $15.60), and the $44.60 exacta in the Hurricane Bertie Stakes, all at Gulfstream.)

Otherwise, nothing captured my eye in the two Santa Anita stakes for 3-year-olds, the Lewis and San Vicente, and the Southwest at Oaklawn Park, scheduled for Monday, was postponed to Saturday because the jockeys took off after the fourth race.

Would have loved to be a fly on the wall when Pletcher and Baffert got the news.

But shed no tears for Pletcher.

The Toddster, who, with 17 winners thus far at Gulfstream (10 more than runner-up McPeek), is well en route to his seventh straight Gulf title.

Last Saturday was a typical day for Pletcher. Not only did he win the Davis with Rule, he won the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship 20 minutes later with Munnings, who likewise was the stick.

But I will continue to be my obstinate self, and leave The Toddster out of my updated Derby Top Ten, which follows:

1. Noble's Promise McPeek Florida
2. Lookin at Lucky Baffert California
3. Buddy's Saint Levine Florida
4. Jackson Bend Zito Florida
5. Uptowncharlybrown Seewald Florida
6. Conveyance Baffert Arkansas
7. Ron the Greek Amoss Louisiana
8. Vale of York bin Suroor Dubai
9. Dryfly Whiting Arkansas
10. Lentenor Matz Florida

Two notes here...

1) Lentenor, the full brother to Barbaro, will run Wednesday in an allowance race at the Gulf, and 2) Many media folks continue to put Winslow Homer in their Top Tens despite the fact that the colt was injured after winning the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, and is off the Derby trail.

In other news, you probably noticed that jockey Lopez did not sweep the 10-race Aqueduct card on Saturday as predicted despite the fact that he was riding virtually every favorite. Chuckie settled for three winners, showing once again what a tough game this is.

Then there was a middle-aged lady at Tampa on Saturday, who was flashing a wad of cash after the eighth race on Saturday.

Seems our gal played $2 across on all 12 horses in the race...and when Woodruff Ridge ($52.80) led a parade of longshots across the line, she more than doubled her $72 investment.

Talk about a system...

And then there was jockey Borel.

Who else but Calvin would go on a Saturday morning radio/internet program co-hosted by Oaklawn Park announcer Terry Wallace and Arkansas radio icon Tom Nichols, and tout another horse in a race he was riding?

The conversation went something like this:

Tom: "You are riding a horse named Jozi's Turn for your brother (trainer Cecil Borel) in the fifth race today. How do you like his chances?"

Calvin: "Sir (Calvin calls everyone sir or maam), our horse is doing very well, and I think he'll run good...but Tim Ritchey has a horse in the race they say can really run."

Any one who listened to that broadcast, and didn't get to the window to play Ritchey's horse (Hi Heels N Jewels) should be ashamed.

Hi Heels N Jewels aired at 4-1, while Jozi's Turn finished fourth.

Finally, there now will be three major 3-year-old stakes on Saturday's calendar: the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, in which Buddy's Saint will make his season debut off a '13 work; the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, and the Southwest.



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