Upsets further blur hazy Derby picture

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- So, this is how horse racing clears up the picture for its May 3 Kentucky Derby? A weekend of three Derby prep races and not one favorite wins?

In the Wood Memorial, here at Aqueduct Racetrack, favorite War Pass ran hard but was beaten by a half length by Tale of Ekati, who had finished sixth in his previous race.

In Chicago, Illinois Derby favorite Denis of Cork suffered his first career defeat, finishing fifth. Recapturetheglory, whose only other victory had come in a maiden race, won for trainer and owner Louie Roussel.

Roussel's name is not totally unfamiliar. Though he has been out of the training business for four years, Roussel is known for training Risen Star to victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1988. Yes, that is 20 years ago.

And, in California, favorite El Gato Malo finished fifth in the Santa Anita Derby, while Colonel John punched his ticket to the Derby by coming from ninth place to win by a half length.

Colonel John's trainer, Eoin Harty, noted horses who run well in the Santa Anita "historically" show up and do well on Kentucky Derby day.

"That's what we're hoping," Harty told the media there after the race.

Lately, though, California horses have not been held in high regard outside that state. This year, with the tracks there having switched to artificial surfaces, their abilities are being regarded as even more suspect.

That means going into this Saturday's races - the Grade I, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Grade II, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park - Big Brown and Pyro remain at the top of the list of Derby prospects. Big Brown dominated the Florida Derby, and Pyro won the Louisiana Derby last time out.

Tampa Bay Derby winner Big Truck, who like Tale of Ekati is trained by Barclay Tagg, could move forward with another winning performance if he goes in the Blue Grass.

But the competition will be stiff.

Cool Coal Man, trained by Nick Zito and winner of the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, is in the field, as is Pyro and possibly several of trainer Todd Pletcher's prospects, as well as Gotham winner Visionaire, trained by Michael Matz.

The horse who wins the Blue Grass will leave no one in doubt of his credentials.

Tagg had no doubt about Tale of Ekati's credentials yesterday after watching a replay of his horse stalking the pace Saturday in the Wood and then coming on strong down the stretch to snatch a half- length victory from War Pass.

Saturday night Tagg and Tale of Ekati flew to Keeneland, where the trainer said yesterday: "Everything is right. He's going into the Kentucky Derby in the right way."

Tagg said he still has to make a final decision on his two other prospects, Big Truck and Elysium Fields.

"I'm still not sure if I am going to run both of them here in the Blue Grass or run one here and one in the Arkansas Derby," he said.

Zito was still in New York yesterday morning, but War Pass had already shipped out. The trainer said he also felt good about the results of the Wood.

"It's the only big race that I finished second in that I appreciated it as a win," Zito said. "He ran as tough as he could and showed what kind of horse he is."

War Pass was coming back from a 27-length defeat in the Tampa Bay Derby in which he broke badly, was squeezed by two horses and then suffered breathing problems.

Note -- Bsharpsonata came out of the Grade I Ashland Stakes, in which she ran second, in good shape according to John Salzman, who is handling the horse's training for his son, Tim, who is based at Laurel Park. The elder Salzman said the filly is expected to go today to Churchill Downs, where she will train up to the Grade I Kentucky Oaks, which is run the day before the Derby.

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