Time to dream about Derby 137

| February 24, 2011

Another week of prep races for the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands is behind, but it’s tough to say that it produced any startling news or that any significant new contender was unveiled in a trio of Derby preps.

There are three clear favorites,  for Derby 137:

1. Unbeaten 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo.
2. Unbeaten Dialed In.
3. To Honor and Serve, who has lost only once in an impressive four-race career.

That perception was validated in three days of betting last weekend in the opening pool of the Kentucky Derby Future. Uncle Mo (7-2), Dialed In (8-1) and To Honor and Serve (10-1). The favorite in that pool, as it has been each of the future bet’s 13 years, was the mutuel field, or “all others.”

The latter is the bet that includes all 3-year-old Thoroughbreds other than the 23 individual horses in Derby Future Wager’s opening pool.

The favoritism of “all others” should be interpreted as confirmation that the ultimate issue of which horse wins this Kentucky Derby will be in doubt until the early evening of Saturday, May 7. But, aside from the emergence of Dialed In as a major player with his victory in Gulfstream Park’s Holy Bull Stakes, little has changed in the first seven weeks of 2011.

The three stakes races run last weekend confirmed a few things.

The Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Saturday provided redemption for Mucho Macho Man, who was a troubled fourth as the Holy Bull favorite behind Dialed In. At another track on another, Mucho Macho Man had a smooth journey and a solid win at 1 1/16 miles over a field packed with potential Derby runners.

Kentucky Jockey Club winner Santiva ran a solid second for Churchill Downs-based trainer Eddie Kenneally in his first start of the year, and trainer Ken McPeek’s Rogue Romance, third to Uncle Mo in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, was a solid third in his first outing of 2011.

Fourth-place Machen suffered his first loss in three starts for Louisville-based trainer Neil Howard, but continues to look like a horse that could develop nicely if he ever learns to get out of the starting gate.,  He’s 0-for-3 in the good start department.

Sunday’s San Vicente at Santa Anita confirmed that trainer Bob Baffert’s The Factor is a very fast horse and deserves to continue along the road to Derby 137. The colt named in honor of Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly is still a question mark at longer distances, but aren’t they all?

He had plenty left in the stretch to hold off runner-up Sway Away, who inserted himself into the Derby picture with a hard-charging finish.

Know this: The Factor is a very, very fast horse and Sunday’s victory in his stakes debut is more impressive when one considers that a bruised foot caused him to miss a good bit of training in the weeks leading up to the race.

And Monday’s Southwest at Oaklawn Park added a new name to the roster of Kentucky Derby hopefuls when Archarcharch held off favored California transplant J P’s Gusto. The winner is trained by Churchill Downs-based William “Jenx” Fires and was ridden by Jon Court, who is Fires’ son-in-law.

So the news was good, or relatively so, for all of those horses and their connections will continue to trudge on with a goal of reaching the big race on the first Saturday in May.

But the weekend’s most impressive horse – and perhaps one of the most important members of this year’s crop of 3-year-olds, was not a participant in any of those key Derby preps. In fact, it is unlikely – though not impossible – that he could make the Derby at this point.

Just remember the name of Bind, who hails from the stable that produced Blame, last year’s winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The son of Pulpit made his racing debut on Saturday’s Fair Grounds program and turned in a dazzling performance.

The son of Pulpit rallied from just off the pace to score a comfortable 9 1/2-length victory under jockey Anna Napravnik. He ran six furlongs in 1:08.80 – a scorching time over the New Orleans track, especially from a first-time starter.

Bind has the pedigree to get the job done. But the third week in February is far from the best time for a Derby hope to be launching a career.

The last horse to win the Derby without the benefit of a race as a 2-year-old was Apollo – and he accomplished the task in 1882. Curlin made his 2007 racing debut a week earlier than Bind and, although he went on to become a two-time Horse of the Year, he did not threaten Street Sense in a third-place finish in that year’s Run for the Roses.

Bind is owned and bred by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider and trained by Al Stall, who were patient with Blame and saw their cautious approach pay off with last year’s Breeders’ Cup win over previously unbeaten Zenyatta. Despite his remarkable debut, you can be certain that his connections will not rush him any more than Blame.

Check the names of the 364 horses nominated to the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown. You will not find Bind among them.

But his smashing debut instantly made the Claiborne colt one of the most intriguing 3-year-olds of this relatively young Derby season. Although the big three names at the top of the roster of Derby contenders are unlikely to change in the next three or four weeks, you can expect names like Brethren, Jaycito, Soldat and even Bind to become an increasing parts of the conversation.

Remember that only two favorites have won the Derby since 1969. With some 70 days to go until Derby 137, there’s no reason to simply focus on the big three. There’s still time to dream a little. After all, that’s what the Kentucky Derby is all about.

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