Searching for answers

NEW ORLEANS -- "He looks the part," trainer Steve Margolis says, confident that the brief description will do for an introduction. And then, as if on cue, Cigar Street comes strolling up the shedrow with a swagger that says he owns this barn, along with everything else in the Fair Grounds stable area, and won't tolerate trespassers. No mistaking him: This city has seen smaller Mardi Gras floats. Tall and glistening, with a piercing curiosity, Cigar Street has the look of a special racehorse. But how special?

The answer comes in Sunday's $1 million Louisiana Derby. These last few months, sometimes witnessed with quizzical fascination, have raised many Triple Crown questions, some of them inevitable, such as how far can this horse carry his impressive speed or that horse sustain his powerful move, and who's developing at just the right time and in exactly the right way, and who will have the necessary bankroll to reserve a stall in Churchill's starting gate. And then there's the question, which always holds allure, of who's going to prance onto the track on the first Saturday in May as the Kentucky Derby favorite. That one could be answered Saturday at Gulfstream Park, in the $1 million Florida Derby. Yes, after months of questioning and skepticism and speculation, the time for some answers has arrived, starting this weekend, with two jackpots that string out the zeroes like so many Christmas lights.

And will there be an upstart, a parvenu that was virtually unknown only a moment ago, whose talent suddenly emerges in a coruscating flash, just in time for the Derby? Perhaps, and he just might be rolling around a certain Fair Grounds barn as if he owns it.

"If he wouldn't have won the way he won," Margolis says about Cigar Street, "we wouldn't be taking this route. But with the talent he has and the way he does everything so easily, and since this is in our own backyard, well, we decided to give it a try."

Three weeks ago, in a jaw-dropping spectacle of a maiden race, Cigar Street won here by nearly 14 lengths. Neither asked nor expected to be on the early lead, he dragged jockey Shaun Bridgmohan to the front and to a narrow advantage shortly after the start. And when Bridgmohan dropped his hands and gave Cigar Street some rein, the colt instantly spurted away, like a bar of soap in a shower.

Since then, Margolis explains, everything has been positive for the son of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense. Cigar Street eats whatever's in front of him, trains eagerly and walks around the barn as if he owns it. And so without a superstar in the lineup, the Louisiana Derby became the place to find an answer.

Is he indeed special? And if so, how special? He's owned by Rashard Lewis, a forward with the Washington Wizards who has averaged 16.1 points in his NBA career, in partnership with Jake Ballis of Houston. And Cigar Street is out of an unraced mare, Arcadiana, who's a half-sister to the great Cigar, the two-time Horse of the Year who earned $9.99 million.

So, yes, he was special from the start. Given plenty of time to develop because of his size, Cigar Street was a promising 2-year-old, Margolis explains, but sore shins and "baby stuff" prevented his racing until this year, which raises yet another question. Not since Apollo in 1882 has a horse won the Kentucky Derby who didn't race as a 2-year-old.

Recent years have dispelled many of the traditional assumptions about what's needed to win the Kentucky Derby, how much racing and preparation are ideal and how the preparatory races should be spaced. Only the assumption about the need to race a horse at 2 remains, and, more than anything, its persistence emphasizes the importance of experience.

Cigar Street, as it turned out, got plenty of that the first time he raced. In February, after some head-turning workouts, he made his debut at three-quarters of a mile. He wanted to race farther, his best distance, it was obvious, would be around two turns, but, Margolis explains, the big colt needed to start somewhere.

But this start wasn't quite what the trainer had in mind. Slammed at the start, Cigar Street tried to recover, only to get stopped in traffic and end up having to try to rally five-wide. He finished fifth.

Five weeks later, he romped. And Sunday, he'll address a serious question. But he's hardly alone in that. None of the 14 horses entered in the Fair Grounds' million-dollar feature has a sufficient bankroll to put himself in the Kentucky Derby, where the field is limited to 20 based on earnings in graded stakes.

"The jury's still out on all these horses," says trainer Tom Amoss in the clocker's stand, where he's watching one of his horses gallop. Amoss will saddle Shared Property in the Louisiana Derby.

Last year, Shared Property won the Arlington-Washington Futurity. Third in the Lecomte Stakes in his seasonal debut, he finished fifth in the recent Risen Star Stakes after being compromised by a slow pace and a wide trip. Since then, Amoss says, the colt seems to have stepped forward in his training with the addition of blinkers. And if the pace heats up Sunday, as it certainly could, will he improve with the new equipment? The time for answers has arrived.

"There's no standout in the Louisiana Derby," Amoss says. "But, of course, there might be a standout when it's over."

There's no standout in the Louisiana Derby. But, of course, there might be a standout when it's over.

-- Shared Property trainer Tom Amoss

And how good is Mark Valeski? In the Risen Star Stakes he took advantage of a dawdling pace to finish second, beaten a nose by El Padrino. On the other hand, he ran the fourth quarter-mile in 23.63 seconds and then fought gamely to the wire with a horse who could be the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, and Mark Valeski's trainer, Larry Jones, says the powerful looking colt has improved significantly since then, and so how good might he be? Yes, the time for answers has arrived.

But did somebody say El Padrino could be the Kentucky Derby favorite? Was that actually said, in defiance of a swarm of press clippings about Union Rags? Well, El Padrino could make his argument Saturday in Florida, where he'll meet Union Rags.

The 6-5 favorite in the morning line for the Florida Derby, Union Rags won the Fountain of Youth with such authority and aplomb in his seasonal debut that he indeed seems poised to step forward and seize the favorites' role. But he'll probably have to step forward to win Saturday.

The day he won the Fountain of Youth by four lengths, the Gulfstream surface was especially favorable to horses racing in the outside paths. Every winner on the main track that day (Feb. 26) raced outside, in fact, even a 2-5 favorite who started from the No. 1 post position; he moved out to the three-path when clear and drifted further outside down the stretch. And, of course, Union Rags raced outside, all of which suggests that his performance, good as it was, might not have been quite as overwhelming as it appeared.

Either way, it didn't quite measure up to El Padrino's Risen Star that same weekend. On a Fair Grounds surface that was kind to speedy types (they won four of the seven races on the main track), the big chestnut rallied into the testudinal pace (48.72 for the half-mile) while racing four-wide.

And so who proves himself special Sunday at Fair grounds, and who steps forward Saturday in Florida, possibly to be the Kentucky Derby favorite? Yes, the time for answers has arrived.