Blurry picture could be cleared up soon

The Baltimore Sun

War Pass, the 2-year-old champion, finished last in his last Kentucky Derby prep race.

Double or Nothing, a 3-year-old who won the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park last Saturday, earned a higher Beyer's speed figure (the scale used by many prognosticators to determine a horse's effort) than Adriano, who won the Grade II, $500,000 Lane's End at Turfway in Kentucky the same day.

Elysium Fields, who could wind up the betting favorite in today's Florida Derby because of his big second-place performance in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, was 0-for-3 as a 2-year-old and couldn't break his maiden at Laurel Park in two November attempts.

To say the crop of 3-year-old contenders vying for the opportunity to win the Kentucky Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs has yet to sort itself out would be an understatement.

The picture, however, should become clearer over the next three weeks as five of the season's biggest Derby prep events - the Florida Derby, the Wood Memorial, the Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes - unfold.

At Gulfstream today, the Florida Derby will reveal at least two more horses that have yet to show their stuff in the most elite company: Big Brown, who has run just twice in the past six months, and Tomcito, even less familiar having run all of his races in Peru.

Since War Pass' nightmare finish in the Tampa Bay Derby, Pyro, who won the Louisiana Derby, has moved to the top of most betting lists. But Big Brown has become the darling in Florida, where he is the morning-line favorite despite drawing the outside post position for the $1 million Grade I race.

Since Gulfstream was redesigned four years ago, horses starting from the No. 12 spot are 0-for-11 at the Florida Derby distance of 1 1/8 miles.

But this, evidently, is the year of the unexpected. How else to explain War Pass' last-place finish in a race in which he was the hands-down, 1-20 betting choice at post time? How else to explain the rise of the Barclay Tagg-trained Elysium Fields? Or the skewed speed figures where Double or Nothing earns a 94 to Adriano's 92?

How else to explain a horse like Big Brown, who has been sidelined twice with quarter cracks in his hooves, who has some people talking about him being the favorite for the Kentucky Derby before he's even run 1 1/8 miles on dirt? Or faced really good horses. Or run in two races less than a month apart - which he'll have to do to compete in the Kentucky Derby.

But his trainer, Richard Dutrow, left little doubt during a conference call that he is 100 percent sure of his horse.

"He's taken my breath away," Dutrow said. "We feel very confident with our chances."

Dutrow told Jay Privman of the Daily Racing Form after the draw that not even the outside post worries him.

"I like it," Dutrow said. "As long as he breaks good, I think it's going to be to our advantage. It eliminates any chance of him getting into trouble. He'll get a clean trip, which is half the battle going in. ... Look, we're not going to cry. We get to play the intimidator from out there, instead of being intimidated. We are ready, babe."

In other weekend races, Preakness winner and 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin is another star bucking the odds today in the $6 million Dubai World Cup. Curlin will attempt to become the first winner from the No. 12 post.

Fans wanting to watch the races from Dubai can catch the last three races on the card at Laurel Park beginning at 11 a.m.

The Laurel stakes race for the afternoon is the $80,000 Harrison Johnson Handicap in which five horses will compete, including Forty Crowns, who won the Maryland Million Day Turf.

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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