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All spring we’ve been waiting for a breakout performance by one of the Derby hopefuls. We got it today. Facing a modest field in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, CURLIN made it three-for-three with a romping 10 1/2-length victory. What made the win so impressive was the way the son of Smart Strike finished, running the final 1/8th in under 12 seconds. That’s the way good horses finish. Not the 13 and change final furlong we saw in the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby.

Now, to play devil’s advocate, CURLIN sat behind overmatched leaders setting a slow pace, so he was supposed to come home well. But he has the look of a special horse and will almost surely go favored in the Derby off this effort, especially since he has taken the same Arkansas path that gave us Derby winner SMARTY JONES and AFLEET ALEX (third in his Derby), who both won two-thirds of the Triple Crown while clearly the best 3-year-olds of their generation.

Of course, the traditionalists will point out that CURLIN didn’t start as a 2-year-old, and it’s been a zillion years since a Derby winner didn’t start as a juvenile. Draw a line through him, they will say. But those same traditionalists last year told us BARBARO couldn’t win off a five-week layoff, and not too many years ago it was the Dosage enthusiasts who thought they could narrow the contenders down based on pedigree. Funny, we don’t hear much about Dosage anymore. I guess if CURLIN had made his career debut on January 31, 2006, instead of Feb. 3, 2007, he could be considered a legitimate Derby favorite. I think I’ll take my chances anyway.

By the way, where was Lukas-trained FLYING FIRST CLASS? Thought he was going to be much more cranked up this time. As I wrote earlier, no offspring of Perfect Mandate that I can think of wants to run long. Good thing he doesn’t have any graded stakes earnings or he would be thrown into the Derby meat grinder by D.Wayne.

At Keeneland, the Blue Grass was exciting but ultimately unfulfilling. Four horses hit the wire together, with improving DOMINICAN edging STREET SENSE right on the wire. ZANJERO and pacesetter (if you can call fractions of :26, :51.2 and 1:16.3 “pace”) TEUFLESBERG were heads back. GREAT HUNTER was impeded in deep stretch but wasn’t punching home and probably was going to finish fifth anyway. Give the winner credit for rallying from behind the walking fractions but might he be a Polytrack specialist? STREET SENSE ran a solid race but he’s now been in two gut wrenchers since coming back. He’s still a very strong Derby contender, especially since trainer Carl Nafzger is so good at having his horses ready to peak on the right day. And GREAT HUNTER will run better on Derby Day when he gets a realistic pace in front of him.

At Santa Anita: Nice closing kick by Jim Cassidy-trained GOLDEN BALLS to nail odds-on favorite DESERT CODE on the wire in the La Puente…BALLADO’S THUNDER won nicely in the restricted Santa Lucia a couple of races earlier…for the second straight day there was only one winning ticket in the Pick Six…Joltin Joe Talamo has “star” written all over him. Three more winners today, all ridden patiently from off the pace. We see speedball-riding apprentices all the time–they are used by trainers on front-runners who theoretically benefit from the weight break. However, these bug boys are a dime a dozen and rarely make it in the big leagues. Talamo is different. He already looks like a top-five rider on this circuit and figures to have a huge Hollywood meet. Along with rising young star Michael Baze, these guys should be fun to watch for years to come…you have to admire a horse like BLUE STELLER. At 9-years-old, the full horse is now competing in the mid-grade claiming ranks but won the 10th race of his career (only 37 starts) by running down EASTERN SAND in the 9th…the stewards got it right by making no change in an inquiry involving runner-up THRILL AFTER DARK in the 5th. But what takes these guys so long to make a decision? While I have agreed with almost every call at the meet, most seem so obvious that the announcement should come several minutes earlier. The officials seem to take an agonizingly long time over the most basic calls (like the DQ of juvenile winner CARBELLA in Wednesday’s 1st).

Although I had three top choice winners and two nice trifecta hits ($195 in 8th race and $121 in 10th) on my Premium Play sheet today, I am still trying to shake off results where my top choice finished second six times. My hand still stings from slamming the desk when Free Pick of the Day and KLAA 830 AM “radio play” THRILL AFTER DARK got run down in the 5th. To get beat by a Steve Knapp-trained horse only adds insult to injury.

To view Free Samples of Friday and Saturday Premium Plays, click on the links below: Premium Plays for Apr. 13Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Premium Plays for Apr. 14

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