The final major preps produced four new Kentucky Derby starters -- that is, four horses who with their performances Saturday earned sufficient points to secure a place in the starting gate on May 4 at Churchill Downs. Also emerging from those preps are two new, one of them entirely new, members of the ESPN.com Top 10 Kentucky Derby Contenders poll. But, in truth, Keeneland's Blue Grass and Oaklawn Park's Arkansas Derby produced almost as much confusion as clarity.
Quick, who was the last winner of the Blue Grass Stakes to win the Kentucky Derby? You might have to reach deeply into the old memory barrel to retrieve that one, might even have to plunge down to your elbow perhaps, to find Strike The Gold in 1991. And since 2006, when Keeneland installed its Polytrack surface, no Blue Grass winner has finished better than third in the Kentucky Derby, and Dullahan did that only last year. So in the context of the race's recent history, what can be made of Java's War, who won Saturday's Blue Grass by a neck over Palace Malice?
Well, it's hard to say. But Java's War isn't a horse who excels just on synthetic surfaces and/or turf. Prior to the Blue Grass, he finished second to Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby. And there's a compelling argument for the chances for Java's War in Kentucky. The Derby is often won in the second turn; most winners don't wait for the long Churchill Downs stretch to make a bold move but begin earlier and run the second turn effectively, which is why Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas would instruct riders to move when they see the track kitchen. And Saturday, Java's War ran the quarter-mile that included the second turn, from the three-eighths pole to the eighth pole, in 23.93 seconds, which is the second-fastest turn-time in any of the major preps this year. (Normandy Invasion needed 23.88 in the Wood.) Palace Malice ran the turn in 24.33, the fourth-fastest quarter-mile around the second turn. (Verrazano needed 23.98 in the Wood.) So despite the Blue Grass history and the modest final time for the 1 1/8 miles (1:50.27), Java's War and Palace Malice just might be players.
As for the Arkansas Derby, which in recent years has been the most productive Triple Crown prep, it, too, was more confusing than clarifying simply because it was so, well, slow. In winning by more than four lengths over Frac Daddy, Overanalyze ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.94. Two races earlier, Cyber Secret won the Oaklawn Handicap in 1:49.67. Cyber Secret, in other words, ran about 11 lengths faster than Overanalyze. On the other hand, the Oaklawn surface had been chronically dull, which might explain, at least in part, why so many visitors ran poorly during the famed Racing Festival of the South. Grace Hall finished last as the even-money favorite in the Apple Blossom Handicap, for example, and Fort Larned, the winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, finished fifth as the 1-2 favorite in the Oaklawn Handicap. And so, to look at the Arkansas Derby another way, Overanalyze ran about as well as Fort Larned.
And so Overanalyze, who was No. 10 for two weeks prior to disappointing in the Gotham, and Java's War, who makes his first appearance, join the ESPN.com vanguard, replacing Oxbow, who finished fifth in the Arkansas Derby, and Mylute, who Sunday at Churchill Downs, in what appears to be an outstanding move, worked three-quarters of a mile in 1:12.20 and galloped out a mile in 1:39.
Two wild-card races remain where horses can earn Derby points, Saturday's Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and the Derby Trial on opening night at Churchill. Among those expected for the Lexington are Cerro, Title Contender, Pure Fun, Forty Tales and Johnny Handsome.
The winner of the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby worked an easy half-mile in 48 seconds Sunday at Payson Park in Florida. His regular exercise rider, Jenn Patterson, said the big colt, who has won four consecutive races, seems to improve with each workout. He's expected to have one more in Florida before traveling to Kentucky.
To nobody's surprise, jockey Johnny Velazquez, who regularly rides for trainer Todd Pletcher, has decided to ride Verrazano in the Kentucky Derby. Velazquez also had been the rider on Orb. Verrazano arrived Monday at Churchill, settled in comfortably, according to his trainer, and had his first gallop around the famed oval Tuesday.
Like Verrazano, the Louisiana Derby winner is to have two workouts at Churchill, on April 21 and April 28, prior to the Kentucky Derby. With Revolutionary's regular rider choosing to ride Normandy Invasion instead, Calvin Borel has picked up the Derby mount. Borel, of course, has won three Kentucky Derbies. In 2010, he won on Super Saver, who, like Revolutionary, is owned by WinStar.
4. Normandy Invasion
The Wood runner-up also arrived Monday in Kentucky, and he, too, is scheduled to have two workouts at Churchill before the Derby. Jockey Javier Castellano, who won the Louisiana Derby on Revolutionary, has decided to ride Normandy Invasion in the Kentucky Derby.
In winning the Santa Anita Derby, Goldencents delivered one of the best performances seen on the road to the Triple Crown. He's to have two workouts in California before traveling to Churchill Downs about a week prior to the Kentucky Derby.
The winner of the Holy Bull Stakes worked five-eighths of a mile last week at Calder in 1:01, which was the fastest move of the morning there for the distance. He's to have two more workouts in Florida before traveling to Churchill on April 26.
Overanalyze was No. 10 in each of the first two polls but then dropped out of the top 10 after he finished fifth as the 8-5 favorite in the Gotham. But with his victory at Oaklawn Park, he returns at No. 7. The Arkansas Derby winner arrived Sunday at Churchill Downs, where he's to have one workout prior to the Kentucky Derby.
8. Java's War
A big, improving colt who has raced only twice this year, he ran the final three-eighths of a mile in 35.81 seconds while overcoming a slow start to win the Blue Grass. He rallied from last at Keeneland, and in the Derby, that style usually requires an assist from Lady Luck.
Third in the Wood Memorial, Vyjack came out of the race with some mucus in his airways.
Since then, he reportedly has been receiving regular treatments in the hyperbaric chamber at the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center.
10. Will Take Charge
The improving winner of the Rebel Stakes skipped the big finale in Arkansas to train up to the Kentucky Derby. Friday at Oaklawn, he worked a mile in 1:40.80, which might seem rather pedestrian. But Rudy Quevedo, his regular exercise rider, was aboard, and he weighs more than 140 pounds. And the only mile race that day at Oaklawn was won in 1:42. Will Take Charge, along with stablemate Oxbow, arrived Monday at Churchill Downs.
Also receiving votes: Mylute (21), Lines Of Battle (16), Palace Malice (15), Oxbow (11), Govenor Charlie (6), Flashback (4), Dreaming of Julia (3), Black Onyx (2).
How they voted: To see how our experts voted, please click here.