NEW ORLEANS -- Each stop along the road to the Kentucky Derby raises new questions. The questions can be friendly and non-threatening at first -- how many rungs are on your ladder to success? -- but then they pry and become intrusive -- are you really good enough to compete at this level? -- and gradually they assume a more serious tone until they're downright urgent. For many, the urgency arrives this weekend with the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.
Yes, for horses on the road to Kentucky the questions are about to become earnest and the answers crucial. Whether an answer is right or wrong or just inconclusive could determine whether the journey continues to Kentucky or veers in the general direction of Peter Pan or West Virginia.
Can Shanghai Bobby handle the distance? Can Revolutionary avoid trouble? Can Departing step up and remain effective? Is Orb dependent on the pace? After a solid effort in the Risen Star Stakes, will Palace Malice move forward Saturday?
How good is Revolutionary? You don't know. It's impossible to know. And so the Louisiana Derby looks wide-open to me.
”-- Al Stall, Jr., trainer of Departing and Sunbean
From here, the Louisiana Derby poses more questions and so is the more intriguing race Saturday. The Florida Derby, on the other hand, barring something completely unforeseeable -- Are You Kidding Me improves 12 lengths in his first start on dirt and leaves thousands in attendance and thousands more nationwide mumbling his name as an interrogative imperative; minutes before post time, Sharaz Jek lands in the Gulfstream Park infield looking for specimens to take back to his native planet, Androzani Minor, and so he kidnaps the entire the field, along with Frank Stronach -- comes down to a question of whether Itsmyluckyday can duplicate his performance in the Holy Bull, which he won by two lengths. And there's no reason to think he won't.
"I've got a horse that couldn't be feeling any better," said his trainer, Eddie Plesa, Jr. "He's just tearing down the barn. He's a very, very happy horse."
And he should enjoy a perfect trip, tucked in behind the speedsters, Shanghai Bobby and Merit Man. That, at least, is the obvious scenario, and the variations are numerous, but Itsmyluckyday, the 2-1 favorite in the morning line, looks like a winner from here. Shanghai Bobby probably won't be able to slow the pace down to a lullaby. On the other hand, the pace probably won't go all Metallica, as it did in the Fountain of Youth, where Majestic Hussar sped through an opening half-mile in 45.45 seconds, setting the race up for Orb. Trouble and circumstances can always intervene, of course, but the Florida Derby appears to be playing Itsmyluckyday's song.
"I just want the best horse to win," said Plesa, sounding very much like a trainer who believes he's saddling the best horse. The gargantuan question awaiting him down the road is whether he can take his Gulfstream Park form on the road.
But, to return to more pressing questions, the Louisiana Derby seems much more enigmatic, largely because its morning-line favorite, Revolutionary, remains an enigma.
"How good is Revolutionary?" asked trainer Al Stall, Jr., who'll saddle two horses, Departing and Sunbean, in the Louisiana Derby. And that question indeed seems to be the overriding one, for if the answer is that Revolutionary is as good as his No. 4 ranking in the ESPN.com Top 10 poll suggests, then all the other questions become unimportant. But is he that good? "You don't know," Stall continued. "It's impossible to know. And so the Louisiana Derby looks wide-open to me."
Here's why Revolutionary remains a mystery: Only once in his five-race career has he given a performance that might, only might, be good enough to win Saturday. That was his maiden victory, on the inner track at Aqueduct, where he won by more than eight lengths. That also happens to be the only race where he left the starting gate with interest and without incident.
His troubles began, well, at the beginning. For his debut last September, on closing day at Saratoga, he had the bad luck of drawing post position No. 3, which wouldn't have been so unfortunate except that a horse named Stage Street drew No. 1. And Stage Street took a right turn immediately out of the gate, slamming into the No. 2 horse, Clawback, who caromed into Revolutionary, who quickly retreated. But he displayed his talent and potential when he charged through the stretch to finish third.
In his second outing, perhaps showing some hesitation because of that initial experience, Revolutionary left the gate rather sluggishly, and the horse to his inside stumbled into him. Still, Revolutionary ran well and finished second behind Little Distorted, who gave a jaw-dropping performance that he hasn't come close to duplicating. In his third start, Revolutionary again broke a little slowly, as if looking for trouble. He found it when the horse to his outside ducked inward.
Bad things just seem to happen around him; even worse, he waits for them to happen, anticipates them. In the Withers Stakes, the horse to his inside, Valid, stumbled badly and momentarily into Revolutionary's path. From there, he dropped back to last and remained blocked behind horses for much of the race; he couldn't find a clear path until about mid-stretch, where he charged through a narrow opening and then drew clear to win by two lengths.
How good is he? As Stall said, it's impossible at this point to determine just how capable the strikingly handsome colt might be. But knowing how to employ talent is almost as important as having it. Revolutionary's talent is conspicuous, but so are the habits and mistakes that compromise his talent. And Saturday, he's No. 3 in a 14-horse field. In other words, he'll have to stand in the gate for a fraught moment before suddenly having to deal with more traffic than he ever has seen. Can he handle such circumstances? That question also looms large.
And so from here, his stablemate could pose the winning question in the Louisiana Derby: Can Palace Malice improve in his second race around two turns?
In the Risen Star Stakes here, his first two-turn adventure, Palace Malice hesitated a step away from the gate and then got shuffled back in the first turn. Blocked in traffic, he rallied when clear and then angled out four-wide for the run down the lane. He finished third, but only a half-length behind Ive Struck A Nerve and Code West, who had a ground-saving trip. With a move forward Saturday, Palace Malice could move into the winner's circle.
Many more questions arise, of course. Is little Code West, who had the lead and dropped back but came on again to be second in the Risen Star, going to love the 1 1/8 miles Saturday? Can the Louisiana-bred, Sunbean, who has been dominant, take his talents to this larger stage? How far will Titletown Five, who's making only his second start after knee surgery, take them? And the Departing question could provide a most telling answer.
Departing overcame trouble to win his debut; he won his next without being asked; and then he won a minor stakes race at Sam Houston with an explosive final quarter-mile in 24.40 seconds. He's unbeaten in three races, but just how good is he?
Well, he just might be this good. He looks like a top-class stakes horse, and he trains like one, too. Thursday morning, in a routine gallop, he was a ball of controlled energy gliding around the Fair Grounds oval. Yes, he could have all the answers Saturday.
But, of course, the questions will keep coming. In groups and pairs, tufted and bundled but most of all relentless, the questions will continue so that this journey to the Kentucky Derby becomes an endless examination, or deposition, before a panel of captious and unforgiving inquisitors. And so it goes, question after question, until somebody sweeps them all aside with a resounding answer on May 4 at Churchill Downs.