“There were these two fellars standin’ on a bridge, a-goin’ to the bathroom. One fellar said, “The water’s cold” and the other fellar said, “The water’s deep”. I believe one fella come from Arkansas. Get it?”
Billy Bob Thornton’s memorable character Carl from the film Sling Blade may as well have been talking about the depth in this year’s crop of 3-year-old thoroughbreds when he uttered the memorable phrase quoted above. While everyone, including myself, plods away at the ubiquitous “top 10″ lists for the 2009 Kentucky Derby, there’s an interesting story line running right beneath the surface that is only beginning to be touched upon. If we are willing to accept, as many are, that 2007 was a uniquely deep year for 3-year-old thoroughbreds, and that the emergence of Street Sense, Curlin, Hard Spun, Any Given Saturday, and the filly Rags to Riches represented one of the most talented overall crops our eyes have been blessed to see – than the prospects for 2009 look extremely bright. While this past weekend at Turfway Park was hardly the type of high-profile marquee racing action needed to return the sport to it’s glory days, some happenings throughout the week provided clues as to just how deep this field may be.
So, with gratuitous top 10 lists on the brain, Let’s start by taking a look at our current rankings here at The Aspiring Horseplayer.
(Note: until they are definitively pointed to the Derby, I’m assuming Stardom Bound and Rachel Alexandra are headed to the Oaks…for the record I’d probably be inclined to rank Rachel Alexandra #1 overall at the moment if she did point to the Derby, and if she weren’t #1, she’d be darn close. Stardom Bound is more difficult to rank. My heart says to rank her high, but my gut tells me no higher than 4th behind Pioneer and The Pamplemousse…for the moment that is).
- #1 Friesan Fire – deserves to be ranked #1 off his impressive victory in the Louisiana Derby. Appears to be getting a rest before the Triple Crown, something that will cause some to downgrade his chances slightly. Trainer Larry Jones is as good as they get, so if he’s training smartly once he sets foot at Churchill, he’ll be hard to dethrone as the likely favorite.
- #2 The Pamplemousse – Folks seem to either LOVE this guy or have serious questions about him. I started off in the latter camp and have been dragged kicking and screaming into the former. He’s as visually impressive a colt as I’ve seen this year. Only trouble is, if he wins the Derby, make sure you aren’t out driving while trainer Julio Canani is still in a celebratory mood.
- #3 Pioneer of the Nile - I started out the year determined to not become over-infatuated with the California runners, and look what’s become of me! “Look what they done to my Santino! Look what they done to my boy!!! “ He can leapfrog The Grapefruit if he can beat him in the Santa Anita Derby in two weeks. It’s showdown time in the wild, wild, west.
- #4 Dunkirk - It’s almost inexplicable. A colt with $0 in graded stakes earnings just over a month before the Kentucky Derby, who did not run as a 2-year-old, is taking the future wagers action by storm! Clearly we all saw something in that allowance victory that hints at greatness. My thought after watching the race was that it reminded me of seeing Curlin or Big Brown in their 3-year-old allowance victories. I think that’s exactly why this guy is so popular. People see his potential and they associate the recent success of Curlin and Big Brown off of similarly lightly raced resumes. It’s just that we must temper that expectation a bit by the realization that he’s certainly running in a deeper crop of 3-year olds than Big Brown did, and he might be running in a deeper crop than even Curlin did…and he’s even more lightly raced than those two were. He’s hyper-lightly raced. We’ll find out if he’s the real deal in the Florida Derby next weekend. A loss will send him plummeting. A win might make him the Derby favorite.
- #5 I Want Revenge - it’s not improper to actually have this guy ranked ahead of the other California colts (and Dunkirk) all the way up at #2 by virtue of his impressive 113 Beyer performance in the G3 Gotham. He’ll get tested again in the Wood in April and bounce candidates will likely be looking to feast, but now there’s rumor that IEAH is attempting to purchase the colt after their “A-horse” (Patena) did not run particularly well in the Louisiana Derby last weekend. Is Joe Talamo going to win a Derby before he’s old enough to legally consume a Mint Julep in the winner’s circle?
- #6 Quality Road - he’s often my forgotten horse. My head-scratcher. Like I Want Revenge, he also owns a 113 Beyer figure that seemingly towers over the competition. He’ll have to prove he can do that going longer than the abbreviated Fountain of Youth. He’s capable of beating the runners ranked above him.
- #7 Old Fashioned - Hard to drop him too far off one lifetime defeat, but things don’t seem to be going the right way here. Was the near-consensus #1 just a few weeks ago.
- #8 Win Willy - I’m hoping to be out in front of the bandwagon on this guy. Looking over his effort against Old Fashioned, I can’t help but sing: “…then I saw his face. Now I’m a believer!” Or in keeping with my Sling Blade theme, I could always fall back upon the following defense if this guy fails: “They turned me loose from the nervous hospital!” It is interesting to keep in mind that someone (IEAH?) tried to purchase him after his upset of Old Fashioned, so at least someone else out there liked what they saw as well.
- #9 Imperial Council - Does anyone really think this guy can’t jump up and win the Wood? If he does take the Wood, he’ll be “Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone!” and probably have the fastest rising stock of the group. If he turns in a sub-par performance and I Want Revenge waltzes away with it, it’ll be back to square one.
- #10 Chocolate Candy – We haven’t heard from this guy in a while, but he’ll get a crack at Pioneer of the Nile and The Pamplemousse in the Santa Anita Derby this April. He appears to be the third best of that group, but I’m not ready to count him out of this fight just yet. It’ll likely be a small but talented field in the SA Derby, including Mr. Hot Stuff.
Most fans have some combination of the same runners in their top selections: Friesan Fire, The Pamplemousse, Pioneer of the Nile, Dunkirk, and I Want Revenge.
Depending upon how one feels the “filly saga” will play out, Rachel Alexandra and Stardom Bound certainly deserve mention among those competitors. Rachel Alexandra in particular could be the best of the entire crop, as she’s been running faster than the boys on dirt, but for now appears bound for the Oaks. Stardom Bound is a gutsy competitor who reminds me in many ways of Zenyatta with her sheer determination to win. Many are holding out hope that IEAH decides to point her to the Derby instead of the Oaks.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. The logical win candidates for the Derby do not end with those horses. You’ve got to at least mention Quality Road and his gaudy 113 Beyer. After all, that’s the same figure I Want Revenge earned. It’s just that Quality Road only went a mile, but he looks like he’ll go longer with no problems.
Then there’s Dunkirk. He’s the x-factor of the crop as he’s been heavily played in future wager pools despite having a whopping total of $0 in graded stakes earnings. It’ll be all or nothing for Dunkirk in the Florida Derby next week. If he’s harassed by the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe entering the far turn…no wait, scratch that…wrong Dunkirk. Although he does need a clean trip.
How about Old Fashioned? Remember that guy? Just a few weeks ago he was the consensus #1 among most of us pundits, now here he is towards the bottom of the list. He’s only been beaten by 1 horse in his career, but there are storm clouds on the horizon. Larry Jones has stated Friesan Fire is the best colt in his barn, and there was a comment made during the ESPN broadcast yesterday that it’s “now or never” for Old Fashioned. He’s got the talent and class to reach down and run a big one, but as of right now I think you have to rate others higher.
So who was that one horse who managed defeat Old Fashioned? Oh yeah, Win Willy! Honestly he’s the guy I”ll probably take the most flak (there’s my 2nd gratuitous World War 2 reference of the post) for continuing to rank in my top contenders. I’m trusting my eyes on this one, and my eyes told me that this was a fine colt with big races still ahead of him.
That’s 10 horses already that have legitimate shots to win the Derby. And guess what, we can still go deeper. Imperial Council will go into the Wood as either the 2nd or 3rd choice on the morning line behind I Want Revenge and (possibly) Quality Road. He may not have the same foundation as Pioneer of the Nile, but he could still wind up being the best of the Empire Maker offspring in this crop. It wouldn’t take much to imagine him finding a way to prevail in the Wood, and if he did than he’d obviously leapfrog I Want Revenge.
And the list goes on and on. I’m going to bypass Dubai for the time being. Suffice to say there are a couple of runners who could still ship to the U.S. and make some noise this spring, but until they do I’ll view them as outsiders. Add to this list the likes of Chocolate Candy, Musket Man, Theregoesjojo, and Papa Clem and you get the picture.
So how deep is this year’s field? it’s Arkansas -fellar pissin’ on a bridge deep! That’s how deep we’re talking about here.