Play Ball!

PLAY BALL!

by John Piesen

There have been years in which I stepped up to the Derby plate, the ball came in belt-high, and I drilled it up the alley.

In fact, there have been many such years and many such Derbys.

There was the crazy '80s at the New York Post when I nailed Pleasant Colony (and the cold $500 exacta); Gato Del Sol, Ferdinand, Alysheba and Sunday Silence; continued into the '90s at Daily Racing Form with Unbridled, Strike the Gold and the Real Quiet/Victory Gallop $200 exacta, and kept going in the new century with Smarty Jones (and the cold $63 exacta); the Big Brown-Eight Belles-Dennis of Cork 4K-plus cold trifecta, and continued through last year with the Super Saver/Ice Box $152.40 exacta box.

I remember the film Wall Street and financial wizard Frank Langella saying "getting old is not for sissies," I think you can pretty much say the same thing about the Derby.

"Picking the Derby winner is not for sissies."

But unlike the New York Times guy, who devoted an entire column the other day to the importance of his Derby selection, my Derby selection actually means something. Just ask the scores of readers of the Post and the Form, who cashed big-time, and/or those who made a
life-changing score here in '08, when the top three in my final Derby Top Ten went on to actually finish in that order a week later.

I'm not going to list a final Top Ten in this space this year, but you'll have no problem finding my Derby Top Four by clicking here to join me online, or ringing the John Piesen Hot Line at 888 612 2283. By the way, I tuned up for the Derby by hitting Derby Kitten at $20 in the Lexington, the final Derby prep.

This definitely this is one Derby not for sissies..

To wit...of the 23 singles in the original printout of this year's Churchill Downs Derby Future Book, only six will make it to the gate. Good ones have fallen like flies, and have been replaced by horses who don't stand a chance of hitting the board, much less winning.

Then again...didn't most of us say the same thing about Giacomo and Mine That Bird?

On the other hand, the other day I watched a tape of the '04 Derby. It was so simple. Lion Heart jumped to the lead, led for nine furlongs until the eighth pole when he was collared and passed by Smarty Jones....producing that cold $63 exacta in a 20-horse field.

The rest were nowhere. How nowhere? Well, the third finisher was a gray horse named Imperialism, unsighted since.

Maybe this year will be similar to '04. Maybe Horse A will get out there, and stay there until Horse B comes along and breezes by.

Unlikely.

This is a Derby field lacking in superstars, and it is more likely that at least a half-dozen will be in contention turning for home. Then it's survival of the fittest -- and the fastest.

The big question going in is: will Uncle Mo run? Trainer Pletcher has been coy all week on the subject, saying Mo won't run "unless he's 100 per cent." And that was before Mo drew the 18.

It says here that The Toddster is doing a major disservice to the betting public, which is prepared to pour in millions on the colt.

Mo's participation (or lack thereof) in the Derby is a major factor in handicapping the race. If he runs, he'll be up or near the lead, and likely burn out all who choose to go with him.

The Wood was a perfect example. Sure, Mo flamed out, but so did the horses who chased him early.

When Toby's Corner went on to win the Wood, he immediately made many "A" lists (mine included) for the Derby. But incredibly, Toby went down this week with an undiagnosed problem --becoming the third straight Wood winner to miss the Derby (I Want Revenge and Eskendreya).

So just how inscrutable is this Derby?

Exhibit A: Shortly after the Arkansas Derby, in which the wheels came off Elite Alex, jockey Borel's projected Kentucky Derby mount, I asked Jerry Hissam, Calvin's agent and biggest fan, whom he was looking to ride in the KD. I felt this was a pertinent issue because jockey Borel merely has been aboard three of the last four Derby winners.

"I like Master of Hounds," Hissam replied.

As it turned out, Hissam (and Borel) lost the mount on Master of Hounds to world champ Gomez.

Now, here's the kicker: Europe-based supertrainer O'Brien isn't even bothering to come for the Derby. He's sending an assistant!

(The last time that happened was in 1951 when Sol Rutchick, the trainer of Count Turf, thought so little of his chances that he stayed home to race a horse at Aqueduct. While he was doing so, Count Turf circled from last to first at Louisville.

For those scoring at home, that gives Rutchick a superior Derby winning percentage than present-day heroes Pletcher and Zito, who, the last we looked, are a combined 3-for-53.

The morning line-man makes the Zito-trained Dialed In the favorite this time around, and Saint Nick has been rehearsing his "thank you God" routine for months, or since Nov. 12 to be precise when Dialed In won first pop at Churchill.

That race impressed me as much as it did old buddy Nick, and I promptly made DI my long-range Derby pick -- much as I did at the same time on the calendar with Alysheba and Smarty.

At the time Dialed In was 100-1 in the Derby futures. Now he's the morning-line favorite. As such, it's my job to beat DI.

That brings us to Nehru.

You probably know by now that Nehru has been the "buzz" horse at Louisville off his fast finishes for second in the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbys. Part of the reason is that the experts finally have caught up to the fact that Oaklawn horses seem to run well in the Derby.

In fact, I was expecting Nehru to go favored in the Derby -- at least until he had the misfortune to draw 19. There must be a reason why no 19 has won the Derby. And, for what it's worth, no "buzz" horse has won the Derby.

On the other hand, Archarcharch, who beat Nehru in the Arkansas Derby, the Derby prep that produced the highest Beyer numbers, if that's what floats your boat, landed the 1, causing much anguish for Arch's Army.

Yes, I know all about Lookin at Lucky's horror trip from the 1 last year, but do you know which post has produced the most Derby winners? If you answered 1, go to the head of the class.

Derby jockeys tell you their top priority in the Derby is saving ground. Well, for Archarcharch and jockey Court, they're already there. And unlike Lookin at Lucky, Arch3 won't have a target on his back.

All these male horses well could be running for second money if Larry Jones and Rick Porter had decided to pull the trigger with their grand filly Joyful Victory, the best 3-year-old of either sex we've seen this year.

But in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy three years ago, the chances were slim and none that Jones and Porter would choose to run Joyful Victory in the Derby rather than the Oaks, in which she will be odds-on -- from the one-hole no less.

Finally, I can't imagine any trainer having a worse week than Todd Pletcher.

And still Todd manages to put up a good front to the the media, despite Uncle Moe's health issues, the injury that knocked second choice R Heat Lightning out of the $1 million Oaks, and now the sad news that Devil May Care, a multiple Grade One winner last year at
3, has been euthanized...not that Leroy Jolley needs confirmation when he said poignantly years ago that "this is a game not to be played in short pants."

Good luck this Derby weekend, don't forget to get with me Saturday, for the winner, exacta, trifecta and superfecta on the Derby. And I'm also offering the full 13-race card at Churchill Downs. It's going to be a big day of collecting, so click here and make sure you're a part of it.

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