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Just like that, Derby wide open

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By John Grupp
Tuesday, April 26, 2011, 12:00 p.m.
 

The Kentucky Derby picture is so fuzzy right now the likely favorite finished second in an optional claiming race last month.

A combination of injuries, upsets and prep race flops have left the most wide-open Derby field in years.

For sure, an uninspiring crop of 3-year-olds, led by Florida Derby winner and likely post-time favorite Dialed In, is headed to the 137th Run for the Roses on May 7 at Churchill Downs.

"To say anybody can win might be stretching it, but 10 different horses can win," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who will saddle Fountain of Youth winner Soldat. "It is very open."

In a one-week span this month, undefeated champion Uncle Mo lost at odds of 1-10 at Aqueduct, and The Factor finished seventh in the Arkansas Derby.

That has left Nick Zito-trained Dialed In, who finished second in a $62,000 optional claiming race on March 6 at Gulfstream Park, as the favorite by default.

Meanwhile, Uncle Mo and The Factor are questionable for the $2 million Kentucky Derby. Uncle Mo, trained by Todd Pletcher, is dealing with a gastric infection, and The Factor, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, may have displaced his palate in the Arkansas Derby.

Baffert said The Factor's Derby chance will hinge on his workouts at Churchill Downs next week, while Pletcher said Uncle Mo's status will depend on how the son of Indian Charlie handles the next two-plus weeks. Uncle Mo arrived Monday at Churchill Downs.

"I think he's in the same position that every horse in this race is in, that they need to have a really good 19 days," Pletcher said. "We feel like he's making progress and that he's doing well but, like I said, he's got to have a really good 19 days."

They weren't alone in their disappointments. None of the favorites won in the six major prep races, spanning from Santiva's ninth-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes to Soldat's fifth-place effort in the Florida Derby.

Throw in earlier injuries that sidelined strong Derby hopefuls Boys of Tosconova, Premier Pegasus and To Honor and Serve, the race is without a clear-cut leader on the tote board.

The field is so watered down that owners are willing to send their horses across the Atlantic Ocean to take a shot. The connections of Irish-based Master of Hounds,

runner-up in the $2 million UAE Derby, announced last week that they are going to ship their Adian O'Brien-trainee for the race.

At least 27 horses are Derby hopefuls, but the race is limited to 20 starters based on graded stakes earnings.

While the Derby doesn't have a superstar and the hero-starved sport appears certain to see its Triple Crown drought stretched to 31 years, the balanced 20-horse field is a rare opportunity for handicappers. The 1 14-mile classic will have a sampling of Grade I and Grade II winners in the odds-range of 15-1 to 20-1. The para-mutuel will offer remarkable betting value.

"I related it to the NCAA Tournament," said McLaughlin, a Kentucky native.

"This year was pretty wild. Every favorite who was certain to win got beat. Things happen. I just feel fortunate to have a horse with enough earnings to get into the starting gate because anything can happen."

DEVELOPING STORYLINES

Ladies Night

Jockey Rosie Napravnik and trainers Kathy Ritvo and Kathleen O'Connell will try to make history. In the previous 136 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, no female jockey (0 for 6) or trainer (0 for 14) has won the Run for the Roses. Napravnik, 23, who is only the second female to earn a Derby mount in the past 16 years, will be riding Louisiana Derby champion Pants on Fire. Ritvo trains Risen Star winner Mucho Macho Man, who finished third in the Louisiana Derby as the 3-2 favorite, and O'Connell conditions Tampa Bay Derby winner Watch Me Go.

On Fires

After training horses for nearly 50 years, Jinks Fires needed less than two minutes to earn his first Grade I victory and a long-awaited bid into the Kentucky Derby. Fires-trained long-shot Archarcharch won the Arkansas Derby to stamp his ticket to Churchill Downs. Fires, 70, is the second oldest of nine brothers in an Arkansas-based racing family, most notably Hall of Fame jockey Earlie Fires. Jinks' son-in-law, jockey Jon Court, is the regular rider for Archarcharch, whose owners, Bob and Val Yagos of Arkansas, turned down seven-figure offers for the son of Arch, purchased for $60,000 at the Keeneland sale in September 2009.

Springing upsets

The six major prep races included upsets ranging from Santa Anita winner Midnight Interlude (14-1) to Archarcharch (25-1) in the Arkansas Derby to Watch Me Go (43-1) in the Tampa Bay Derby. Of the major 28 3-year-old prep races, the favorite won only eight times. History is against some of the big names that faltered.

Since 1957, no horse that finished worse than fourth in its final prep race rebounded to win the Kentucky Derby. That's bad news for Soldat (fifth, Florida Derby), The Factor (seventh, Arkansas Derby) and Stay Thirsty (seventh, Florida Derby), among others.

MOVING BACKWARD

Updated Tuesday, April 26

Uncle Mo

Is Uncle Mo a go or a no-go• The undefeated 3-year-old star dropped out as the overwhelming Derby choice after a third-place finish

in the Wood Memorial as the 1-10 favorite. The son of Indian Charlie is taking medication for a gastric infection, and critics questioned his light training regimen following his champion 2-year-old campaign. "Everything has to fall into place," trainer Todd Pletcher said.

The Factor

Trained by Bob Baffert, The Factor became the clear-cut Derby favorite after Uncle Mo's collapse in the Wood. The Factor's top-rank status lasted seven days, when he finished seventh in the Grade I Arkansas Derby. Baffert said his star 3-year-old may have displaced his palate, but the race certainly gave ammunition to critics of the distance-challenged son of War Front. Update: Baffert said Tuesday that The Factor is still recuperating from throat surgery and will not compete in the Kentucky Derby.

Soldat

The son of War Front regressed to fifth in the Florida Derby as the 3-2 favorite, beaten by 10 lengths while noticeably uncomfortable under jockey Alan Garcia with dirt in his face. After two wire-to-wire wins, the Fountain of Youth winner appears to need the lead, which spells disaster in the Derby.

War Emblem (2002) is the only gate-to-wire winner since 1988.

MOVING FORWARD

Dialed In

Dialed In has made four career starts, but the Florida Derby winner has Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito in his corner. The deep-closing son of Mineshaft will be the likely morning-line Derby favorite by default. Zito has run 24 horses in the Derby, but only one was favored, seventh-place Bellamy Road in 2005.

Toby's Corner

Speaking of Bellamy Road, he is the sire of this improving Florida bred. A well-beaten third in the Grade III Gotham, Toby's Corner disposed of Uncle Mo in the Wood Memorial to join a jumbled collection of Derby hopefuls.

Mucho Macho Man

The son of Macho Uno ran the final 2 12 furlongs of the Grade II Risen Star in 30 15 seconds, an impressive turn of foot that few Derby contenders possess.

Archarcharch

The son of Arch went from a Kentucky Derby afterthought to one of the leading contenders after winning the Arkansas Derby at odds of 25-1. His sweeping four-wide win earned him a 98 Beyer Figure, putting him among the top runners in the field.

DIGITS

3: Derby contenders with triple-digit Beyer Figure (Uncle Mo, The Factor and Soldat).

103: Average final prep Beyer Figure for Derby winner since 1997

108: Average Kentucky Derby winning Beyer Figure for Derby winner since 1997

 

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