Some folks' ideas of packing for a week-long Kentucky Derby junket require big, clunky hat boxes and garment bags. Me, I'm toting 102 years of Xeroxed past performances.
Hey, to each their own on Derby Week.
But if you're looking to seriously analyze next Saturday's "Greatest Two Minutes in Sports," the best tools you can bring to the party don't fit in your carry-on.
It's time to use your eyes and ears, God's gifts.
The paper trail puts you on the path toward the horses that have a puncher's chance in Louisville; but after the horses arrive in Derby City, that all just becomes expensive litter. Horses will either blossom or bust on Derby Week. It happens every year, and 2008 should be no different.
I cannot think of a single horse in my years of scouring Churchill Downs' backstretch on Derby Week that outran his poor looks. And, you'll hear the proverbial, "He couldn't be doing better" line from just about every trainer. But as horseplayers, you need to entrust your own eyes with every bit of workout video you can find -- and read only the handicapping information from analysts whom you trust. Everyone has an opinion Derby Week. If you want to swoon with talk of the Derby Gods and place your hard-earned cash on soft-core angles, enjoy the show.
As a serious handicapper, these are the items I'll be evaluating first-hand once I set foot on the hallowed grounds of Churchill later this week.
Big Brown: Demeanor amongst the throng of media and any starting gate schooling.
The likely favorite has been holed up at tranquil Palm Meadows training center in Florida and has never seen anything like he's about to encounter. He's expected to arrive on Monday of Derby Week, so Tuesday morning should be a real show. I want to see a Bob Baffert or Carl Nafzger-like appearance, where Big Brown is brought to the track after the morning renovation break, able to stand and gawk at the masses around him and soak up the hub-bub before the track is re-opened. That has worked so well for horses like Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Street Sense. Bringing Big Brown out at the crack of dawn may keep his nerves down during the week, but won't do much to simulate Saturday.
Also, Big Brown bucked and hesitated before loading in front of a smallish crowd on Florida Derby Day. In the big one, he'll have to load at the top of the stretch with huge bleachers overlooking and a crush of onlookers surrounding the gate. I want to see him make a gate schooling appearance or two Derby Week to let the local gate crew get acquainted with his habits. Of course, any raceday paddock schooling would be must-see as well -- watch the Churchill Downs' simulcast signal during the week for a host of Derby schoolers. The track typically tries to graphically identify them, or have their paddock hosts mention verbally, when Derby runners are dress rehearsing during the weekday races.
Adriano: Leg action and paddock schooling.
Still photos of turf/Polytrack ace Adriano working at Churchill Downs have been a wee bit of a concern. The Lane's End winner has tons of pedigree for dirt and a wonderfully long stride, but his high leg action captured in the still photos looks awfully turfy. Of course, Barbaro had the same action, a far cry from the daisy-cutter efficiency of a Smarty Jones, though Barbaro was able to be just as effective.
But nothing in Adriano's repertoire yet has hinted to Barbaroan feats. My personal "two eyeball test" will mean a lot when I get to see Adriano in motion, and not relying on still photos. And after his ungluing in the paddock at the Fountain of Youth, it will be interesting to watch master horseman Graham Motion massage Adriano's psyche with paddock schooling all week, in the a.m. and p.m.
Colonel John: Final Derby workout.
With everything on his resume accomplished over synthetic tracks, the Colonel's final drill at Churchill Downs will be our only feel for his ability on natural soil. Trainer Eoin Harty is a disciple of the Baffert camp, and Colonel John's recent, blazing workouts out West are very Baffert-esque in terms of indicating a big effort. Don't be surprised to see a :59-flat workout at five panels on Derby Week from this guy. In fact, if he loafs a 1:01 or 1:02, there's cause for concern.
Pyro: Presence and workmate.
I'll be following the Steve Asmussen barn all week long as part of the official Kentucky Derby Notes Team, an assignment that takes added importance after the mystifying effort by Pyro in the Blue Grass Stakes. The fact that the Louisiana Derby winner's first drill after that non-effort came in company against graded-stakes class sprinter Noonmark tells me that the Asmussen camp knows they have a lot of work to do to tighten Pyro for Derby Day. Will he work solo, or with a barnmate? And, just who will that barnmate be? That could go a long way in helping handicappers gauge Pyro's ability to rebound on the first Saturday in May.
Quick Hitters: Around the Derby horn.
I'll be very interested to see first-hand how Bill Mott responds to Court Vision's final tuneups. Mott never dances into hyperbole, and any visual cues of excitement from him should be a big sign. Court Vision's blazing local drill last week is the kind of move that screws in the light bulb of a horse waiting to break through ... Read very closely any comments you might find online or in your papers where non-Derby trainers remark about Derby horses. Those are especially prudent when a lesser-known horse arrives in Louisville and takes the "name" trainers by surprise. Baffert's effusive praise of Smarty Jones in 2004 is an example. I'd be excited to hear name trainers step up with positive remarks about horses like Smooth Air, Gayego or Bob Black Jack, who hail from lesser-known stables.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributing columnist since 2000. He's also the managing partner of the all-new website Horseplayerpro.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@horseplayerpro.com.