In olden times, April was when pilgrims began their journeys to the religious shrines of Europe. If you had to read "The Canterbury Tales," you may recall that Geoffrey Chaucer's ragged band started its trek to the grave of St. Thomas a Becket in early spring. The tradition of spring pilgrimages lives in the New World, with the quest for horse racing's Holy Grail, the Kentucky Derby.
On the road to Louisville, the thoroughbreds and their connections are as varied as Chaucer's motley crew that included every strata of society. Obscurely bred colts mingle with blue-blooded animals that cost millions, and no owner or trainer is immune to Derby Fever. April is when it gets really serious, when Churchill Downs is in sight, and just one more strong race will get you there.
No one has more quantity and quality in his stable than Todd Pletcher, and on Saturday he will send out two Derby hopefuls, Keyed Entry in the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and My Golden Song in the Grade II Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. Out west, there will be a rarity, a stakes without a Pletcher horse, when Brother Derek, the leading 3-year-old, will be odds-on in the Santa Anita Derby.
Trainer Tom Albertrani's Deputy Glitters beat one of Pletcher's top Derby prospects, Bluegrass Cat, last month in the Tampa Bay Derby. Now Deputy Glitters must beat another one. Those who oppose the Pletcher assembly line of standouts can't catch a break.
"Todd's such a good horseman, and I've got a lot of respect for him," Albertrani said Tuesday. "And he's got such a deep bench. When you have a lot of horses, you get to pick the ones that are at the top of their game. You know you have several horses aimed for the same race. When you get to pick the one that you know is doing well, it gives you a big edge.
"We've been second to Todd in a lot of different races. He's certainly got a lot of ammunition."
Despite becoming the most dominant trainer in North America, the Derby has escaped Pletcher. He's 0-for-12 in America's Race, but everyone assumes he'll get it eventually, since he's won almost everything else. Part of the Derby's charm is its elusiveness, and even the great ones are never guaranteed the ultimate prize.
Besides the three Derby preps, I'll take a shot at a turf stakes at Santa Anita, the Arcadia Handicap. From 4-5 p.m. ET, ABC will show the Wood, the Carter Handicap and the Bay Shore Stakes, and from 5-6 p.m., NBC will provide live coverage of the Illinois and Santa Anita Derbys.
Last week: The picks went 3-for-4, with favorites Honey Ryder (4-5), Barbaro (8-5) and Drum Major (5-2) winning. Those prices won't make you rich, but cashing always beats the alternative.
Wood Memorial (1 1/8 miles)
Keyed Entry never has tried 9 furlongs, but the race shape and likely footing are in his favor. He ran a huge number in taking the Hutcheson Stakes on a sloppy track at Gulfstream, and the New York forecast calls for rain. He's also the controlling speed, so expect very short odds on a horse that could go wire to wire. Bob and John ships in from Santa Anita for Bob Baffert, and although he's never set foot on a wet track, he's won at 1 1/8 miles and has a great off-track pedigree (by Seeking the Gold out of a Deputy Minister mare). If Keyed Entry stumbles, look for him to capitalize. Deputy Glitters was far back last fall in his only wet-track try, and he may regress off his career top last out.
1. Keyed Entry 2. Bob and John 3. Deputy Glitters
Illinois Derby (1 1/8 miles)
My Golden Song is 5-1 in the morning line, and though I think he'll go off at 7-2 or so, they would be excellent odds on a talented and improving Pletcher horse. He's faced far better fields than any of his rivals in here, having taken on Barbaro, First Samurai and Corinthian, and he's never been worse than fourth in his five starts. He could be sitting on a career top against a suspect group, so he's my play of the day. I'll bet him to win and place and key him in exacta boxes with likely favorite Sweetnorthernsaint, Bobby Frankel's Racketeer and Cause to Believe.
1. My Golden Song 2. Racketeer 3. Sweetnorthernsaint
Santa Anita Derby (1 1/8 miles)
I hate to pick odds-on horses, but I couldn't get past Brother Derek, who is the controlling speed in a small field (six) and should cement his position as the Kentucky Derby favorite. If he loses, it will say more about the California-bred standout than if he wins. Point Determined and A.P. Warrior are his main challengers. I'll be watching but not investing.
1. Brother Derek 2. Point Determined 3. A.P. Warrior
Grade II Arcadia Handicap, Santa Anita (mile, turf)
I'll take a bit of a flyer with trainer Neil Drysdale's Terroplane, who looks like an overlay with resources. He lost by only a length last time to likely favorite Milk It Mick, and I'm not sure that horse can run a third consecutive lights-out race. Terroplane is a strong finisher, and there's enough speed to set up his late move if Aaron Gryder can work out a trouble-free trip. Chinese Dragon loves Santa Anita's turf course, where he's a head away from being 5-for-5. He also likes the distance (4-for-7) and would be no surprise in the winner's circle.
1. Terroplane 2. Chinese Dragon 3. Milk It Mick