By John Piesen:
I've always been a sucker for numbers in sports, and there have been some beauts this week, not to mention Rick Pitino and the 14-year-old China midle-schooler who shot a one-over (beating the defending champion) in the first round of the Masters.
No, on the countdown to the final two major Kentucky Derby preps, I'm talking horse numbers.
a) On a perfectly nice spring afternoon in Ozone Park, N.Y., a not-so-grand total of 51 horses competed on the nine-race card at the Aqueduct Racino. That means five-plus a race, and two-thirds made the superfecta, assuming there was one.
I thought like many that when the casino opened up that the quality of NYRA racing would spiral. Instead it has spiraled downward. It's reached a point that these short fields have produced 30 per cent winners (albeit mostly short) by the public handicappers. In days of yore, the Harrises, Priccis, and, yes, the Piesens, would have given up their Christmas bonuses for 30 per cent.
Why is this?
One reason is the downturn in shippers because of all that pesky paperwork involved. Workmen's comp is one reason. Various license fees another. The list goes on. Bottom line: despite the purse increases, most horsemen do as well racing in neighboring states, particularly Pennsylvania and Delaware.
b) There are 25 horses entered in the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes, and guess how many of them have won a Grade One, or have registered a triple-digit Beyer number?
The answers are zero and zero.
c) And my personal favorite number. Steve Assmussen is running a horse in all 12 races Saturday at Oaklawn Park, and Ricardo Santana Jr. is riding all 12. I've checked around and found that no one recalls a similar circumstance.
Santana, who with 65 victories in Hot Springs, has opened up a lead of 23 on runner-up Albarado, capped by a five-bagger on Thursday, four for Super Steve.
It says here that Santana, who will turn 20 in August, will follow in the footsteps of fellow Panamanians Pincay and Baeza as superstar whippersnappers. His next stop will be Keeneland/Churchill, where he will number Larry Jones among his customers.
Santana's mount in the Arkansas Derby will be Curve, a Claiborne-bred colt who shows two modest wins, and a troubled sixth in the Rebel in his brief career. Then again trainer Asmussen won the AD back in '07 with a nice colt named Curlin, who was making his third start. Curve has been training bullets, has the one-hole in a field of 10 going a mile and a furlong for a $1 million purse...and switches to Santana.
Don't overlook the importance of inside posts going two-turns in Hot Springs. You need look no further than the Razorback last month when the three insides ran 1-2-3.
Strange but true, Curve may be the longest price of Asmussen's dozen on Arkansas Derby Day, which will draw its usual 60,000 fun-loving thrill-seekers on a perfect post-tornados day in Hot Springs. The closing-day card is so strong that Fort Larnard, the reigning Horse of the Year, can be found on the undercard -- as the favorite in the 500K Oaklawn Handicap.
And truth be told, unlike previous years, when the AD produced the likes of Smarty Jones, Lawyer Ron, Afleet Alex, Curlin and Bodemeister, there is little chance that Saturday's renewal will produce a major Triple Crown horse.
For proof, look at the favorite. His name is War Academy. He has the same 2-for-3 record as Curve...but he has a race-high 99 number, his trainer is Baffert, and his rider is Smith, neither of whom will ever again be required to pick up a check in Hot Springs.
In fact, War Academy may not even be Bullet Bob's best horse in the race. Uncoupled entrymate Den's Legacy has been right there with the best 2-year-olds in the land, and, last out, was beaten a mere two lengths while down on a dead rail in the Rebel. Albarado rides back from the five-hole.
Even Baffert is surprised that War Academy, who was fourth as part of a three-horse uncoupled Baffert entry in the San Vicente, his lone stakes try, is the favorite.
"They must think he's another Bodemeister," he says. "I hope they're right."
Assuming War Academy is no Bodey, he figures to get tested big-time by one or more of three heavyweights in the training business -- Frac Daddy (McPeek), Overanalyze (Pletcher) and Oxbow (Lukas) from the three outside posts.
Lebron (Victor not James) replaces Lanerie on Frac Daddy, whose best hour was a narrow second in the Kentucky Jockey Club. Bejarano was summoned from California to replace the injured Johnny V on Overanalyze, the Remsen and Belmont Futurity winner...and with Smith occupied on War Academy, D. Wayne chooses Gary Stevens to ride Oxbow.
In a previous lifetime, the 50year-old Stevens won Kentucky Derbys for DWL on Winning Colors and Thunder Gulch.
Gary will have to be at his best on Oxbow, who draws the 10-hole for the thid straight time, and outside for the fifth time in six starts.
Closers have been doing well at Oaklawn, and with a ton of speed in this race, it figures to set up for a late-running type. And chances are the winner will be double-digits.
My selections for the Arkansas Derby, the full Oaklawn card, and for the Blue Grass and Keeneland full card will be up and running online and on the John Piesen Hot Line 1-888-612-2283. Last week on Wood Day at Aqueduct, my top picks included four winners and six seconds, as well as the $137 Wood superfecta box, on the 12-race program.
Speaking of the Blue Grass, it's as wide-open as the Arkansas Derby.
Contenders in the 750K renewal at a mile and a furlong on the Keeneland plastic are Palace Malice (Gomez); Java's War (Leparoux); My Name Is Michael (Bridgmohan); Channel Isle (Rocco); Uncaptured (Mena); Charming Kittem (Bravo), and Rydilluc (Prado).
If the AD is likely to produce a double-digit winner, the Blue Grass is certain to.
Trainers Pletcher, Lukas and McPeek are gunning for AD-BG doubles an hour apart, but Baffert is taking the Blue Grass off rather than splitting War Academy and Dan's Legacy.
A longshot in the field of 15 for the Blue Grass is Undrafted, who has not been worse than third (2-0-4) in six starts, all stakes. Nakatani rides for trainer Ward and owner Welker, the same Welker who can be seen on Fall Sundays as a slot receiver for the Patriots (oops, the Broncos).
If Undrafted runs one-two in the Blue Grass, at the Derby Welker can again match up with his buddy Brady, a Derby regular.
That reminds me. In this space last Friday, I discussed old friend Pitino shooting for a major weekend double with Louisville and Goldencents. The rest of the sports media caught up to the story on Tuesday.
Finally, Asmussen will take a break from running a dozen in Hot Springs to watch the Aqueduct Saturday feature on TV. Reason is, he will be running the unbeaten Cluster of Stars (4-for-4) at odds-on in the 200K Distaff. With previous riders Dominguez (injured) and Castellano (at Keeneland) unavailable, jockey Alvarado gets the call from the four-hole in a field of seven going three-quarters.
Bet against at your own risk.
The Kentucky Derby figures to be more of a challenge. With the big day three weeks away, here's my updated Top Ten:
|4. Normandy Invasion||C. Brown||Castellano||8-1|
|8. Will Take Charge||Lukas||Court||15-1|
|9. Java's Gold||McPeek||Leparoux||20-1|
|10. Black Onyx||Breen||Bravo||20-1|
Thanks for checking. Good luck this weekend, and make sure you join me for Saturday's Preps and Full Cards. See you back here next Friday.
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