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The Kentucky Derby is America's biggest race and so typically absurdly American. Yet, it's our biggest single race, a race that really does bring people together. A chance for every red-blooded male to be an American wiseguy for a day in a room full of decked out dames, and who doesn't love that?
Saturday was a golden opportunity to get acquainted with many of the Derby players, ammo for the Derby party.
If I run into anyone who prepped their Derby Day experience by watching these, it'll be a blush wave of happy.
There were no surprises Saturday as Aqueduct, Keeneland and Santa Anita all dodged bad weather and gave us more to go on for horses who are now Pricelining tickets to Churchill Downs.
In the Wood Memorial on Long Island, it went all Canoga Falls soap as Vino Rosso withstood a jockey objection to visit the winners circle over Enticed in the 94th running of the race Secretariat lost before his Triple Crown.
Remember, these are 3-year-olds, so some are more mature than others. As the two took control in the stretch, Enticed inside in the two-lane, he drifted out a smidge and (do they still have?) bumper cars ensued. Vino Rosso, a wide body if there ever was one, was all over his lane and traded paint with Enticed quite a few times. Vino Rosso really did have the upper hand and won by three.
But wait! Junior Alvarado, rightly and by his duty, lodged a complaint against John Velazquez. NBC analysts Randy Moss and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey pooh-poohed just some bumpin's by the boys. Then, during the first head-on replay, Bailey said "Wait. I don't know about that." They went Swiss, probably because both are in the Derby, with the "whatever happens . . ." argument.
The frowns of Vino's owners, Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola (also owner of the Florida Hurricanes), two "neighborhood" guys right out of Central Casting, turned upside down as Vino's win was upheld. The horse is the son of Curlin, out of a Street Cry mare, so he has the cred. I'm kinda diggin' him.
At Keeneland, some would call him much-maligned, others puzzling, but Good Magic, another son of Curlin, threw in a workmanlike performance in winning the 94th Blue Grass Stakes 1-1/2 lengths over Flameaway.
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old Horse of the Year came in with questions galore. He had only the one win in four races and lacklustered the Fountain of Youth a month back. He'd gone 82-89-100-89 in Beyer Speed Figures before this and scored a 95 in the Blue Grass. People really want to hype this horse, but I don't see it. Rising superstar trainer Chad Brown still has some work to do here.
But the Blue Grass also provided a subplot that, while it may have seemed funny at first view, was actually a very dangerous situation that also ended up having Derby implications.
The Tiznow colt Sporting Chance, under Luis Saez, was behind the two leaders and subtly but firmly angled inside under a right whip. Compensating, Saez whipped left side and Sporting Chance did an exit, stage right and veered very quickly and sharply six lanes out to his right. It was comical to watch, but it could have been disastrous.
On the replay, Bailey spoke as if he was riding the horse. "Sometimes you have to put away the whip. It's obvious this horse resents it." Bailey instructed. "Put the whip AWAY, young man!"
The stewards took him down and, guess what, Free Drop Billy was elevated to third and now has enough points to run in the Derby, although he has no business being there.
Out West, it was a two-horse race in the Santa Anita Derby. Bob Baffert's Justify, under Hall of Famer Mike Smith, got all the adulation, the heartthrob of millions. He took on Bolt d'Oro, son of the great Medalia d'Oro, who had come out of an epic struggle with McKinzie in the San Felipe, where he was placed first after a DQ.
With a grand total of two races under his saddle, a $54,000 maiden win and a $75K optional claimer win in Santa Anita mud, 104 and 101 Beyers respectively, Justify was gettin' the rhetoric of a great, even though he hadn't proven a thing.
NBC anchor Laffit Pincay III even said that "They talked about American Pharoah and said he breathed different air. We're starting to hear the same things about this horse, Justify." What? You just don't get that excited, or excited like that.
At a low price, I'll need a lot of convincing on Justify. But why the electric hype?
"Justify no doubt benefited by getting an uncontested lead on Saturday, but he was giving away plenty of experience to Bolt d'Oro, and he held Bolt d'Oro safe through the lane for a three-length victory," said the Daily Racing Form's Jay Privman. That's the weakest of endorsements.
Justify got a preliminary 107 Beyer, but that seems inflated. After the race, Bailey and analyst Randy Moss were falling all over themselves to say that there is no way either Bolt d'Oro or Justify will be "odds on" favorites in the Derby. It was a clumsy way of saying they don't deserve favoritism, and I agree.
For the record, Justify just ran his third race, his first stakes race. A race with only two real horses in it, as he tries to win in Kentucky after not running at two years old. Apollo, 1892.
Louisville is not a walk in the park, Justify.
Other Nice Things
* Eddie O. is back.
Eddie Olczyk was rocking the bet touch screen, looking stout, back in the swing. With a $500 NBC stake, Eddie made big wagers and lost $3 on one of the races. That's real, and why we love Eddie the horseplayer.
* Katie Gensler was doing the quick trainer and jockey interviews in the Keeneland paddock and I thought to myself, she looks familiar. Nine seconds later, I knew I knew her as Katie Mikolay, who did the same duty at both Arlington Park and Hawthorne Race Course.
She was good then and she's good now. She knew the trainers she interviewed and their horses, and how they might run with the other horses. She's always done her homework, and that's what horseplayers like.
Tom Chambers is the Beachwood's longtime railbird. He welcomes your comments.