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Kristufek: This Derby is a three-horse race
By Joe Kristufek | Daily Herald Handicapper

Kentucky Derby favorite Big Brown smells the air before beginning his morning workout Friday at Churchill Downs. Big Brown has yet to face stiff competition, and Daily Herald handicapper Joe Kristufek believes he can be challenged.

 

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Published: 5/2/2008 11:55 AM | Updated: 5/2/2008 9:19 PM

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Five weeks ago, following Big Brown's monstrous win in the Florida Derby, I stated in my Horseplayer PRO blog that he would not hit the board in the Kentucky Derby.

The vultures quickly descended.

How could I be against racing's potential messiah?

I wasn't against him. I just thought there were too many other variables: inexperience, bad feet, never having been looked in the eye …

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Well, his feet have held up quite nicely, the reports out of Churchill are sparkling, and trainer Rick Dutrow Jr., whom I have the utmost respect for, says he can't lose.

But he still hasn't been looked in the eye.

Big Brown has run three times and has won three times, distancing himself from the competition as if they were in slow motion and he was in fast forward.

The Kentucky Derby is different. The crowd is raucous, the competition is stiff, and he has post position No. 20, which is rough. To win, he will need to put forth an effort for the ages.

He just might do it.

I've been wrong before, but I don't believe there is a Giacomo in this year's field. To me, it's a three-horse race, and I believe either the California flash Colonel John or Curlin's adopted brother Pyro will be covered in roses today at about 5:10 p.m.

Big Brown is my third choice in the race, and I'll surely use him in gimmicks. Let's take a look at my two top contenders and other horses I'm going to consider in the Trifecta, Superfecta and High Five.

Contenders

Take the Y out of Pyro's name and what do you get?

Pro.

He was the consummate professional throughout his 2-year-old campaign, and that polished persona carried over to this spring. He scored a rousing win in the Grade III Risen Star, and followed up with an equally impressive effort in the Louisiana Derby, a race in which he was hopelessly boxed in before exploding down the lane.

Hailed as the Kentucky Derby favorite following those Louisiana runs, he entered the starting gate as the even-money favorite for the Blue Grass. He didn't run a jump that day, crossing the line in 10th place.

Here's the dilemma: Do you excuse the race and evaluate him based on his dirt form, or do you believe that even if he didn't like Polytrack he should have run a lot better? If you haven't jumped off the Pyro bandwagon, you should be thrilled with your price today.

Not only has Colonel John not missed a beat his entire career, he actually appears to be getting better with the smell of roses. From six starts, he has collect 4 wins and a pair of seconds, and his recent Grade I Santa Anita Derby score was almost too good to believe.

Shuffled back and hopelessly beaten on the turn for home, he shook free and uncoiled a venomous stretch rally, getting up in the final jump to catch Bob Black Jack. He galloped out seemingly miles in front of the rest of the field.

The question with this horse is his ability to handle dirt surfaces. All of his runs have come over synthetics, but he calmed some fears with a big 5-furlong drill over the Kentucky Derby strip last week.

The others

Is Denis of Cork good or not? One of the great mysteries in this year's Run for the Roses, this son of Harlan's Holiday hopes to return to the form he displayed earlier in the season. He rattled off 3 consecutive victories to begin his career, including a visually impressive score in the Grade III Southwest at Oaklawn.

His connections decided to skip the Grade II Rebel and instead point for the Grade II Illinois Derby at Hawthorne.

Bad move. The colt ran in place the entire way over a track that appeared to favor inside speed types. He almost didn't get into the Kentucky Derby, but a late defection by Behindatthebar allowed him to sneak into the top 20.

He has flourished at Churchill Downs this week, and his fans are willing to toss out the Illinois Derby debacle. Do you think jockey Calvin Borel will try to get him to the rail?

Trainer Todd Pletcher had five live wires in the Kentucky Derby starting gate last year, but one month ago it didn't look as if he had any horses to hang his hat on this spring. That changed in the Grade I Blue Grass when Monba and Cowboy Cal ran 1-2.

Monba, Pletcher's best sophomore when the spring began, is the son of Maria's Mon and finished 12th (and last) as the Grade II Fountain of Youth favorite. He got beat up that day and subsequently was given six weeks off. He fired fresh in the Blue Grass, and since then he hasn't been used too hard. He may be ready to step up big time today.

Sure, his big win came over Polytrack, but closer examination of past performances reveals a first-level allowance win over Churchill Down's main track.

The next tier

Sure, Gayego won the Arkansas Derby, but Z Fortune probably ran the best race. He was caught wide on both turns and missed by less than a length. I'm not sure what happened in his Rebel clunker the race before, but he's back on track and may be ready to run the race of his life.

You can't help but recall War Emblem when you think of Recapturetheglory. He wired the field and looked good doing it in what was a breakout performance, and there's no way he will get the respect he deserves today.

Not to mention the fact that trainer Louie Roussel last went to the Kentucky Derby 20 years ago with eventual Preakness and Belmont winner Risen Star and named this horse hoping to recapture that glory.

The rail may have been the place to be on Illinois Derby Day over a beachy Hawthorne strip, but Recapturetheglory ran a monster race nonetheless.

I haven't been a big fan of Court Vision, but I do see improvement in his future. He has been consistent, and he finishes with energy. The blinkers addition could help the cause, and there's no better rider going than Garrett "Go Go" Gomez.