Bellamy Road might be horse to beat
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Trainer Nick Zito has flatly refused all week to pick a favorite among his record-tying five Kentucky Derby starters.
Today, Bellamy Road should do it for him.
The Wood Memorial champion is the horse to beat in today's 131st Kentucky Derby -- at least on paper.
Bellamy Road, the 7-2 second-choice behind Afleet Alex, enters the Derby coming off one of the most visually impressive and statistically dominating prep races in years. A similar effort today could place in jeopardy the sport's most hallowed record, Secretariat's Derby-winning time of 1:59.2.
But don't ask Zito to single out Bellamy Road for a glowing review. The New York native is training five horses with five different owners, including George Steinbrenner (Bellamy Road), Barnes & Noble chairman Leonard Riggio (Noble Causeway) and Campbell's Soup heir Charlotte Weber (High Fly). Zito has skillfully eluded playing favorites, spreading his praise among those three, along with Sun King and Andromeda's Hero.
"I have to be diplomatic," Zito said.
Bellamy Road demands superlatives, even from the loyalty-torn Zito. Steinbrenner, for his part, isn't talking to the media this week, not wanting to deflect attention from his Derby favorite.
Bellamy Road, who will be ridden by first-time Derby jockey Javier Castellano, is an imposing colt who has earned the nickname "Big Cat" in the stable area. He possesses an effortless, long stride, which he used to decimate the field in his 17-length Wood Memorial victory at Aqueduct one month ago.
"He's a very big horse with just a dynamic way of doing things," Zito said. "But his racing is what really impresses more than anything. His races were unbelievable."
Steinbrenner's Ocala, Fla.-based Kinsman Stables purchased Bellamy Road, the son of Concerto, for $87,000 in April 2004. After Bellamy Road's seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Futurity in October, Steinbrenner fired trainer Michael Dickinson and replaced him with Zito.
Bellamy Road was laid off for five months, returning to win a $35,000 allowance race at Gulfstream Park by nearly 16 lengths on March 12. Then came his Wood Memorial rampage, which broke a 32-year-old track record and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 120. The Beyer -- a grading system to determine the relative strength of a horse's performance -- was the highest ever awarded in a 11/8-mile Derby prep race.
By comparison, no other Derby entry has a Beyer Figure higher than 108 (Afleet Alex). Eleven of the 20 horses in the race have career-best figures of 98 or lower.
Zito is comfortable Bellamy Road can overcome an outside post (No. 16) and get near the front in what promises to be a heated pace. Bellamy Road has led wire-to-wire in each of his past two races.
"He'll have a shot to do what he wants to do," Zito said. "He should be in the clear.
"He's never had to (come from behind), but we'll find out."
Not everyone is sold on Bellamy Road. Three-time Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert this week called him a "one-dimensional horse" and predicted he will need a "War Emblem trip" to win the 1 1/4-mile race.
War Emblem, trained by Baffert, won the 2002 Derby with an unpressured, wire-to-wire romp.
"He needs a good trip," Baffert, who believes Afleet Alex is the horse to beat. "I think (Bellamy Road) is going to drag himself into the lead. He's just a high cruiser, like War Emblem is. But if he can get out there cruising by himself, he'll just keep on going."
Said Zito, "That's Bob Baffert. This is Bellamy Road. It's not War Emblem. It's a different horse."
If Bellamy Road is going to win, he will have to earn it. Spanish Chestnut's connections have made it known the speedy sixth-place finisher in the Blue Glass is entered in the Derby to provide a fast pace for their other horse, Bandini. Other need-the-lead horses incude Coin Silver, High Limit and Going Wild.
Gary Stevens, who will be on another Zito-trained horse, Noble Causeway, is certain Bellamy Road won't get a "War Emblem trip."
"There are at least nine horses that have (speed) in there, and I know they're not going to be single-file," he said. "It will be honest."
131st Kentucky DerbyWhen : 6:04 p.m. today
Where : Churchill Downs
TV : WPXI-11, WJAC-6, WTOV-9
At stake : $2.4 million in purses, $1.64 million to the winner