LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John Ward Jr. isn't sold on Point Given. In fact, the veteran trainer says, he believes that Congaree is the better horse.
The Bob Baffert-trained duo of Point Given and Congaree will likely be the bettors' first and second choice today in the Kentucky Derby. But Ward, an astute horseman making his first serious assault upon the Derby, says he's more than content with his entrant, a sleek, gray colt with a shockingly quick turn of foot.
Monarchos exhibited that quickness March 10 in the Florida Derby. In his first stakes effort, the son of Maria's Mon was 11th when he began accelerating into the final turn. By the end of the turn he was first - and still accelerating. He won by 4 1/2 lengths.
According to experienced observers, that was one of the most electrifying moves ever by a 3-year-old in a Kentucky Derby prep race. It was the kind of final turn, athletic move that wins the Kentucky Derby.
One month later, April 14 at Aqueduct, Monarchos ran what appeared to be a lackluster race in the Wood Memorial Stakes, finishing second to Congaree in Congaree's first stakes. But Ward said he was ecstatic with Monarchos' effort in the 1 1/8 -mile race. He closed on a speed-biased track but, Ward says, left plenty in the tank for the primary goal, the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles.
"I think Congaree, not Point Given, is the horse to beat," Ward says. "If I get Monarchos' Wood back with that extra eighth of a mile, I think that's all it will take."
Bill of goods?
Dollar Bill has presented as impressive an appearance on the track during morning training as any horse in the Derby, with the possible exception of Express Tour.
Trained by Dallas Stewart, a former assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, Dollar Bill finished fourth in the Louisiana Derby and third in the Blue Grass Stakes after early predictions ranked him among the top Derby contenders.
In Louisiana, the son of Peaks and Valleys clipped heels and nearly fell. He recovered and with a burst of speed claimed fourth. In the Blue Grass, he banged his head on the starting gate, languished far back but closed for third.
"The last couple of trips he hasn't had the chance to show what he can do," Stewart says. "He's taken a licking and kept on ticking. But I'll tell you this: We're taking our horse over there [today] with a good feeling about him."
And if you don't believe Stewart, sign onto Dollar Bill's personal Web site, www.dollarbill.ws, and hear it from the horse's mouth. Says Bill: "Yes, indeedy, at 15-1 or so, I like my chances."
Sheik and his Derby
Although Tom Albertrani, the assistant trainer of Express Tour, said early in the week that Sheik Mohammed, the force behind Goldolphin Racing, probably wouldn't be coming to the Derby, the sheik and his entourage flew in Thursday from the Middle East.
Despite winning nearly every major race in the world, Godolphin has been unsuccessful in two attempts at winning the Kentucky Derby. Express Tour represents its third try.
"It is a pleasure to be back," Sheik Mohammed said, as his staff passed out blue Godolphin hats, shirts and jackets.
Of Godolphin's single-minded quest to win the Derby, he said: "Watch for us, we are coming. If not this year, then next year."
'Money' iffy investment today
John Scanlan, the Laurel-based trainer of Talk Is Money, says his colt is fine, despite Wednesday's impromptu consultation with Dr. Alex Harthill.
Harthill, a Louisville veterinarian, watched Talk Is Money walk forward and backward after his midweek breeze. The colt seemed to be favoring a hind leg.
Even if Talk Is Money is sound, his unpredictable mind-set is troubling given that he is expected to cope with a Derby crowd projected at 150,000.
Before the Florida Derby, he lunged and reared in the crowded paddock. At the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico, his antics forced his rider to dismount.
If Talk Is Money makes it through the race without incident, his connections should call their first Derby a success.
Balto Star: Let him run
Todd Pletcher, trainer of Balto Star, says: "We're not going to change what's not broken. He's a free-running horse, and we're going to let him run."
If Balto Star wins the Derby gate-to-wire, he would become the sixth horse to win on the lead since 1947, and the first since Winning Colors in 1988. The speedy son of Glitterman would also become the first gelding to win the Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. Pletcher said Balto Star's owners had no choice but to geld him after his first start at Belmont Park.
"He was completely unacceptable," Pletcher said. "He was trying to breed everything in the paddock."
Pletcher's second Derby horse, Invisible Ink, became so sick one year ago that the insurance company carrying his $200,000 policy gave his owners permission to euthanize the Thunder Gulch colt. Suffering from a variety of ailments, including ulcers and a reaction to medication, Invisible Ink had lost 400 of his 1,000 pounds.
His owner, the John Fort-led Peachtree Stable, persevered and so did the horse.
By the numbers
If you believe in the Dosage index, here's the scoop. (Dosage is a numerical formula based on breeding that predicts horses' capability of winning at 1 1/4 miles in the spring of their 3-year-old season. The lower the number, the more stamina in the pedigree.)
In the past 70 years, only three Derby winners have had a Dosage index higher than 4.00 - Strike the Gold (1991), Real Quiet (1998) and Charismatic (1999). Three horses in today's Derby have numbers higher than 4.00 - Express Tour (5.67), Millennium Wind (5.33) and Fifty Stars (4.82).
Now, onto "dual qualifiers." There are horses with a Dosage index of 4.00 or lower that accomplished enough as 2-year-olds to be weighted within 10 pounds of the high weight of the Jockey Club's annual Experimental Free Handicap. (You either understand it, or you don't.)
Dual qualifiers have an uncanny knack for finding the Derby winner's circle. Dual qualifiers in this year's Derby are A P Valentine, Dollar Bill and Point Given.
Fleet Renee not so quick
Flute, the filly Michael Dickinson feared, won the Kentucky Oaks yesterday in front of 102,904 patrons at Churchill Downs. Dickinson's Fleet Renee, the 8-5 favorite, finished fourth.
"She didn't kick in at all," said Dickinson, who trains the filly at his farm in Cecil County.