By John Piesen
One look at the rankings for 3-year-olds, and that's all you need to know that this is going to be one crazy Kentucky Derby trail.
The Experimental Free Handicap rankings were released this week, a bible of sorts, and the top four on the list of 107 male 3-year-olds were New Year's Day, Havana, Shared Belief and Honor Code.
These four have one thing in common: all four are on the disabled list for one reason or another.
New Year's Day, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, already has been retired; Shared Belief, the 2-year-old Eclipse winner, has an ankle chip, and his return to the races is up in the air, and Honor Code and Havana, both of whom were being pointed for the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, will miss the race.
Not a good sign.
That leaves Cairo Prince, the Holy Bull Stakes winner, and Rise Up, the winner of the Delta Jackpot, at the head of the class at least as far as I'm concerned. And who knows how long that will hold up.
We may get one or more Derby horses out of Saturday's two stakes for Derby hopefuls -- the Withers at Aqueduct, and the Sam Davis at Tampa Bay Downs.
I remember back in the day when the Withers was run at Belmont Park the week before the Preakness, and was immortalized forever in 1982 when Aloma's Ruler won both races.
Now the race will be run on the first day of February, no doubt in front of scores of Super Bowl visitors; the race will be run at Aqueduct instead of Belmont, and the distance stretched from one mile to 1 1/16 miles.
Only six were entered, and I would not be shocked if we get an Indian Charlie exacta.
Uncle Sigh is a son of Indian Charlie, and Samraat, the only stakes-winner in the field, is a grandson of Indian Charlie.
Uncle Sigh, named for a character in the hit TV show Duck Dynasty, will be the sentimental favorite as well as the betting favorite. He races for the Wounded Warriors Stable of George McEwen, and 10 per cent of his earnings are going to various veterans' charities.
Gary Contessa trains the colt, who exits a 14-length maiden-special romp, from which he sheds four pounds, and he breaks from the rail, a huge edge going two-turns on the speed-favoring inner track. He also has the top Beyer, if that's what floats your boat.
And, oh yes, he shows two bullet five-furlong works since his maiden win a month back.
I've always been a sucker for a good story, and Uncle Sigh would be just that. But Samraat also would be a good story.
He's by Noble Causeway, who was my top pick at 25-1 in the 2010 Kentucky Derby. Price be damned. He made the lead turning for home, and looked like a winner until jockey Borel (on Super Saver) blew by on the rail en route to his third Derby winner in four years.
As for Samraat, he's never been headed in winning his three starts, including the Damon Runyan, by a combined 25 lengths. He'll leave from the five-hole with regular jockey Ortiz.
The other four chasing the 250K pot are Classic Giacnroll, Honorable Judge, Street Gent and Scotland. None of them look to be in the same time zone as Samraat and Uncle Sigh, but as we all well know, you never know.
I'll have my Withers picks among others up on-line at www.johnpiesen.com and on the red-hot John Piesen Hot Line 1-888-612-2283.
Todd Pletcher is sitting out the Withers, but he'll have two -- Harpoon and Vinceremos -- in the Sam Davis, like the Withers a mile and a 16th test for a 250K purse.
After three seconds, Harpoon broke his maiden going a mile at Gulfstream, and the gray Tapit colt figures to leave running with jockey Saez from the one-hole in a field of eight.
Like Saez, jockey Prado will journey up from Gulfstream to ride Vinceremos, who overcame a horror trip to break his maiden at the Gulf in his second start.
Between them, the two Pletcher colts brought 840K at the yearling sales.
The only stakes-winners in the Davis are Asserting Bear and Matador, both at 2 at Woodbine. Gulf-based Rocco and Leparoux are the respective riders. Other major players in the wide-open race are Noble Cornerstone (Desormeaux) and Cousin Stephen (Centeno).
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It pays to note that Wes Ward, the trainer of Noble Cornerstone, is four-for-six this year.
The Ortiz boys will play prominent roles in the 100K Busher at Aqueduct.
Jose will ride Fierce Boots, the lone stakes-winner in the field of eight -- and the controlling speed -- for the Toddster. The inner has been very kind to speed, and if this 200K filly shakes loose, she'll be long gone.
Brother Irid will be tough with Ballylee, a sheiks filly from the Albertrani barn. She won her debut by three-plus lengths with speed to spare, and obviously she may be a good one.
Another contender is Joint Return, who exits two Parx wins for trainer John Servis, who is no stranger to good horses. Just ask Smarty Jones.
And talk about wide-open races. The 100K Correction for fillies and mares at six furlongs attracted a dozen runners, and there's not a throwout in the bunch.
There is a ton of speed in the race, and I would expect to see a closer take this -- perhaps Uno Duo, perhaps Lion D N A, perhaps Masasi. Can't wait to see my selection in this one.
Thanks for tuning in. Have a great weekend, enjoy the Super Bowl (love the dog), and see you back here next Friday.
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