A few minutes after the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, 80-year-old Merv Griffin was dazzling the media at the news conference at Belmont Park. Merv was aglow after Stevie Wonderboy's victory and in rare show-biz form. The lines were flowing, and the former "boy singer" even broke into a rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home."
"It'll be great to have Merv at the Derby," said one writer who doesn't cover racing regularly.
I almost whispered, "Yeah, if the horse doesn't get hurt," but I bit my tongue and decided not to foul the scene.
On Monday, the bad news came. Stevie Wonderboy fractured his right ankle during a workout at Hollywood Park and is off the Triple Crown trail. It was a shock, but certainly no surprise to any horseplayer or racing journalist. As my friend Craig said, "Well, that didn't take very long."
So for the 27th straight year, the 2-year-old champion won't win the Kentucky Derby, and the Juvenile jinx lives on, too. No Juvenile winner, starting with Chief's Crown in 1984, ever has won America's Race.
Not to be mean, but anybody who took 7-1 odds on Stevie Wonderboy last month in the first Derby Future Wager was daring fate. The price was lousy, even though he looked good finishing second in the San Rafael on Jan. 14. Considering how hard it is to just get to Louisville in one piece, let alone win the race, the risk/ reward factor was totally out of line. When you're trying to project more than three months down the road, there's no future in the prediction business.
It's hard enough to pick a winner the day before a race, which I've been attempting to do in this column for the past two-plus years. Last week the results were so-so (1-for-4), though the price on High Limit ($8.80) in the Strub Stakes was very generous, since he won in a runaway. I'm 7-for-13 during the past month, and I'll try to keep the roll going Saturday in three stakes, two at Santa Anita and one at Gulfstream.
10th race, Gulfstream, Grade III Appleton Handicap (mile, turf)
If Host can avoid the traffic trouble he often finds, he should be powering through the stretch to outfinish a solid but unspectacular group. Host, another of Todd Pletcher's legion of stakes-winners, has a class edge, having won the Grade I Shadwell Mile last year at Keeneland. He also came up only three lengths short in the Breeders' Cup Mile despite a very bad trip. If Johnny Velazquez can produce a clean trip, which Rafael Bejarano couldn't do that day at Belmont, Host should get the money. Drum Major looked sharp winning a minor stakes Dec. 31 at Calder, and L'Oiseau d'Argent has the speed to lead into the stretch. Unfortunately for L'Oiseau d'Argent ("silver bird" in French), Gulch Approval is likely to press the pace. Another contender is Saint Stephan, who's 0-for-3 in stakes but has solid back figures. He'll probably be underbet after finishing fifth and seventh in his last two after very bad trips.
1. Host 2. Drum Major 3. L'Oiseau D'Argent
7th race, Santa Anita, Grade I Santa Maria Handicap (1 1/16 miles)
The quality of racing in Southern California is far from what it was even 10 years ago, so later in the year, beware of overrating horses that win most stakes starting with the word Santa. Proposed, with her combination of tactical speed and willingness to rate, should be tough. She probably can sit a nice trip behind speedsters Seafree, Healthy Addiction and Star Parade.
1. Proposed 2. Star Parade 3. Healthy Addiction
9th race, Santa Anita, Grade I Las Virgenes Stakes (mile)
Wild Fit moved into Patrick Biancone's barn after a strong second in the Juvenile Fillies behind divisional champion Folklore. Biancone is very strong off the layoff, and I expect that he'll have Wild Fit ready for her 2006 debut. Her closing punch should set her up nicely in a race where Diplomat Lady, Meetmeinthewoods and Dance Daily should be going at it early up front.
1. Wild Fit 2. Itty Bitty Pretty 3. Diplomat Lady