ON A damp,drizzly morning at Aqueduct last Friday, trainer Jeff Mullins got a look at thenew blinkers that his horse, I Want Revenge, would be wearing the following dayin the Wood Memorial, the Kentucky Derby prep race for which he would go off asthe 1--2 favorite. Four days earlier IEAH Stables had purchased a 50% stake inthe horse, prompting the wardrobe change. "I hope they're still clean whenhe gets back," Mullins said of the red, white and blue headgear, mindfulthat his horse could get stuck in traffic and wouldn't run as well as he did inthe Gotham Stakes on March 7, when he coasted to an 8½-length victory.
Less than 36hours later I Want Revenge proved he's one of the horses to beat in the May 2Derby, but his blinkers and silks were anything but spotless. Startled afterthe horse next to him, Lord Justice, shook the starting gate, theCalifornia-based colt broke dead last. But 19-year-old jockey Joe Talamo workedhis way through the other seven horses in the field to win by 1½ lengths overWest Side Bernie.
"Pretty good,huh?" the ever-succinct Mullins said as he made his way to the winner'scircle. Though his horse had already qualified for the Derby before the Woodbased on graded stakes earnings, a poor showing wouldn't have given Mullinsmuch reason to believe that I Want Revenge would contend in the Triple Crownraces. "When you blow the break, it's pretty tough to get back in thegame," Mullins said. "He blew the break, got trapped, had to find ahole and still won easy."
I Want Revengewasn't the only favorite to make a Derby statement on Saturday. Musket Man, the3--1 cofavorite in the Illinois Derby, looked dominant in a two-length win overGiant Oak at Hawthorne. And trainer Bob Baffert took his record fifth SantaAnita Derby with Pioneerof the Nile, who went off at 4--5 odds after highlyregarded The Pamplemousse scratched because of an injury to his front-lefttendon. Pioneerof the Nile, who has beaten I Want Revenge twice in the pastfour months, overcame a slow pace to win by one length over Chocolate Candy."He's not going to dazzle you," said Baffert. "He just keepswinning. If you can win four in a row in California, you've got a pretty goodhorse."
Baffert's horsehas been winning, but questions remain about how he'll fare at Churchill Downs,since Pioneer of the Nile has only raced on turf and synthetic surfaces in hiseight starts. "We'll know more about him—whether he's going to accelerate[on dirt]—once he starts working out in Kentucky," said Baffert, athree-time Derby winner.
With two majorDerby prep races remaining (box, below), trainer Todd Pletcher's best Derbycontender is a horse that may not even qualify for the 20-horse field. In threestarts Dunkirk won twice before finishing second to Quality Road in the FloridaDerby on March 28. "I thought he ran a huge race for a third-time starter,and he's come out of it very well and is training great," Pletcher said ashe stood in the paddock at Aqueduct on Saturday. "We're hoping he gets in,because we certainly feel like he belongs."
If any horseproved he belonged at Churchill Downs it was I Want Revenge. Talamo deftlymaneuvered through a seam between two horses in the stretch and didn't evenhave to go to his whip to coax his horse for more. Said an exuberant Talamo,"We've saved plenty for the Derby."
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Derby news and analysis from Tim Layden.
The last two major prep races for the May 2 KentuckyDerby are set for this Saturday in Hot Springs and Lexington.
Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park): In the Rebel Stakes onMarch 14 Old Fashioned appeared on his way to a fifth straight victory until56--1 shot Win Willy chased him down over the final furlong. Win Willy (above)looks to enhance his Derby chances as the two square off again.
Blue Grass Stakes (Keeneland): Hold Me Back won theLane's End at Turfway on a synthetic surface and could snag another victory onthe Polytrack before heading to the dirt at Churchill Downs. The horse ranfifth in his last dirt outing, at Aqueduct on Nov. 29.
WORST TO FIRST After a poor break, Talamo (right) steered I Want Revenge to victory.
[See caption above]
DANNY JOHNSTON/AP (WIN WILLY)