Only five weeks before the big race, and there are no large bandwagons for any 3-year-old. Oh, out in California they're psyched about Brother Derek, and in Arkansas there's no doubt that Lawyer Ron is a standout. Still, the national hype machine hasn't found a colt to focus on yet, which is most unusual.
By this time, many people usually have their Derby horse, although making your mind up too early often leads to pain. On Saturday, undecided handicappers will be looking at the undefeated Barbaro, the 8-5 morning-line favorite for the Florida Derby. With no rain forecast for Gulfstream Park, Barbaro will make his first start on a dry track after three turf races and one in the slop.
Michael Matz, his Maryland-based trainer, said he's not concerned. "I have no reason to think he won't run well on a dry track, because he trains really well on the dirt,'' Matz said Tuesday. "I just have no reason to think he won't do the same as he does in his training."
If the son of Dynaformer performs well, he'll head for Louisville trying to become the first horse in 50 years to win the Kentucky Derby off a layoff of five weeks or more. It sounds as if this is pushing the "fresh horse" angle, but Matz disagrees. His experience with the United States equestrian team in the 1976 Montreal Olympics was traumatic and instructive.
"Everyone on the team was fighting with each other to see who would ride in the last spot," Matz said, "and when we did get to ride in the Olympics, I had no horse left. And I said from that day that whatever I do, whatever competition I go in, I want to be competitive in it, not just say I went there."
The long-striding Barbaro dominated his three grass tries, including two minor stakes, by a total of more than 20 lengths. If he'd done that in England, he would be the overwhelming favorite for the Epsom Derby. In his first run on the main track, he took the 1 1/8-mile Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream by three-quarters of a length on a very sloppy track. He showed more speed there than he did on turf, but he's never been worse than second at any call. Edgar Prado, who's been on him the past two races, thinks he'll be fine Saturday against a rather weak field.
"He's the best horse in the race, and I don't think I should be worried," Prado said. "He is very easy to ride. He has speed when you want to use him early, and if you wait and sit, he has a couple of gears."
Even if he handles a dry track, the question of the competition there and the pre-Derby layoff will follow Barbaro to Louisville. That's fine with Matz.
"If it comes up weak and we're lucky enough to win the race, I feel it's even better,'' he said. "We're going to have a fresh horse, and we didn't have to travel around. We'll go up to Churchill Downs and hopefully he can keep his winning days going."
Besides the Florida Derby, I'll try to cash on three other stakes on Gulfstream's dynamite card.
Last week: With a $10 win bet on each of my three picks, you would have broken even, and free action is almost as good as winning. Sabatini and Laity did nothing in stakes for 3-year-olds at Turfway Park, but Take The Ribbon ($6) broke his maiden at Santa Anita.
8th race, Grade III Orchid Handicap (1 1/2 miles, turf)
Marathon specialist Honey Ryder won the Orchid last year and she had an excellent tightener four weeks ago when third at 1 1/16 miles, a distance far short of her best, in her 2006 debut. Honey Ryder is 5-for-8 in her last eight tries from 1? to 1? miles, never finishing more than three lengths behind. Dynamite Lass and Olaya should chase her home.
1.Honey Ryder 2. Dynamite Lass 3. Olaya
10th race, Grade III Pan American Handicap (1 1/2 miles, turf)
Go Deputy's late rally just fell short at 1 7/16 miles after Einstein walked on the lead and lasted on a yielding Gulfstream course. Einstein won't be allowed to set a ridiculously slow pace this time, and Go Deputy should get all the money.
1. Go Deputy 2. Silver Whistle 3. Einstein
12th race, Grade I Florida Derby (1 1/8 miles)
At short odds from post 10, the unbeaten Barbaro is no bargain, but I can't find anyone else I want to bet on. The speedy Flashy Bull ran a solid, troubled third behind the disqualified Corinthian and First Samurai, but Flashy Bull is only 1-for-8 lifetime, which inspires little confidence. Saint Augustus, from Todd Pletcher's endless assembly line of well-bred 3-year-olds, was far back in his only two graded stakes but could hit the board. Gifted sprinter Sharp Humor should ensure a fast pace in his two-turn debut.
1. Barbaro 2. Flashy Bull 3. Saint Augustus
13th race, Lure Stakes (1 Mile, turf)
Drum Major had no chance in a troubled trip from post 11 last time after being shipped to Santa Anita for the Grade I Kilroe mile. He drops significantly in class, draws post 3 and gets turf standout Rafael Bejarano, who has won on him. Drum Major is the best finisher in the field and there should be enough pace to make his late run count. One nagging question, though: Why no workouts since late February? I rarely if ever play horses showing no recent works, but this time I'll break that rule. Maybe George Weaver has been using long gallops to get Drum Major ready, and I'll give this underrated young trainer the benefit of the doubt. Rebel Rebel and Saint Stephen are the main threats.
1. Drum Major 2. Rebel Rebel 3. Saint Stephen