In many ways, this year’s Kentucky Derby, just 11 days away, will be a horse of a different color.

The actual two minutes of racing should not be a departure from the past. There will be a large field. The start will be a cavalry charge. The best horse may or may not win, depending on jockey pilot success in finding a crack in the usual Great Wall of Churchill that the horses create as they turn for home.

Other similarities will remain. The mint juleps will taste like medicine and be overpriced. New boundaries, in design and common sense, will be pushed in women’s hats.

And, within 30 seconds of the winner’s crossing the finish line, the horse’s connections will be asked about winning a Triple Crown.

Indeed, the Derby is the happiest time of the year for racing. But then, this year’s especially needs to be, because much in the sport leading up to it hasn’t been a belly laugh.

Here’s a scorecard of current-day horse racing:

Item: Hollywood Park’s summer meeting begins Wednesday and goes through July 19. It is held at a time when weather in Southern California is near-perfect and the interest of the wagering public is rekindled by Triple Crown season.

Problem: The land developers from Northern California who purchased Hollywood Park for its real estate value have not committed to racing at the Inglewood track past the close of the 2009 fall meeting, which ends just before Christmas. This now appears to be more about grading land than graded stakes.

Item: Santa Anita, during its Oak Tree meeting last October, held what Breeders’ Cup officials termed its “best-ever” event, and is scheduled to do it again this year, Nov. 6-7.

Problem: Santa Anita, a profitable track, is owned by Frank Stronach’s Magna Entertainment, an unprofitable corporation currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Monday, the Breeders’ Cup gave Santa Anita an April 30 deadline to establish a plan assuring that whoever owns the track in November can actually put on the event. Ron Charles is president of Santa Anita and an officer of Magna. He says the situation is close to being fixed but there is “still a little cloud” right now. Remember Charles in your prayers.

Item: The second leg of the Triple Crown, the favorite among the three for most horsemen, is the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore on May 16. Pimlico has as much tradition as it has peeling paint. It is a charming dump.

Problem: Pimlico is also owned by Magna, and the bankruptcy proceedings have Maryland politicians — many of the same people who hemmed and hawed while neighboring states added slot machines to their tracks and not only saved racing but enticed away many Maryland horses — in a panic of breast-beating and oratory. The fear is that the Preakness will be taken from Maryland, and with it more than a century of horse racing tradition.

Last week, the state passed emergency legislation that authorized, if necessary, the takeover of Pimlico by eminent domain. The New York Times quoted interested developer Carl Verstandig, who says that he never said he would tear down Pimlico, as saying the politicians “have been going off half-cocked into a rampage of political chaos and showboating.”

Item: Last year, the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. (NTRA) established its Safety and Integrity Alliance. It has a group that travels to tracks, inspects them and hands out accreditation. Its stated mission is to “protect the sport’s integrity and increase public awareness of horse racing’s safety and integrity programs.”

Problem: Ernie Paragallo, a prominent owner and breeder from New York, was arrested April 10 on charges of animal cruelty for allegedly allowing horses under his care to become malnourished. Various animal protection groups have been vanning away horses from Paragallo’s farm and describing some of them as “bags of bones, literally walking hides.” Paragallo is not some small player in horse racing. He owns half of super-stud Unbridled Song, winner of the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial in 1996 and a fifth-place finisher in that year’s Kentucky Derby.

Problem: California trainer Jeff Mullins will saddle I Want Revenge for the Derby. On the day I Want Revenge won the Wood at Aqueduct in New York, security guards found Mullins giving one of his horses (not I Want Revenge) a substance called Air Power with a syringe. The substance has been likened to cough medicine. Horses are not allowed medications on race day, but Mullins said he thought it was OK because he had been allowed in the area with the material to administer the substance. Then, last week, Mullins watched one of his horses train at Churchill Downs without having a license to do so, and when confronted, said he had been told the licensing office had been closed that day. It wasn’t.

Mullins was given a one-week suspension and a $2,500 fine for the Aqueduct incident and was not penalized for the Churchill Downs incident. Apparently, the “sport’s integrity” is best protected during weeks other than those of the Triple Crown races. Mullins’ one-week penalty will start the day after the Kentucky Derby.

Item: On April 4, the Santa Anita Derby, one of the top prep races for the Kentucky Derby, attracted 50,915. Most were there to see two great 3-year-olds, Pioneerof The Nile and The Pamplemousse. It had the makings of a match race.

Problem: Most fans were on-site when they learned that The Pamplemousse had been scratched that morning because of a tendon injury. The determination of the injury had been made by state veterinarian Jill Bailey. Trainer Julio Canani was so furious that he could be heard yelling at track officials. Word even circulated that the horse would be fine, that Bailey had overreacted, and that The Pamplemousse would race the next weekend at Keeneland in another Derby prep.

By Monday, it was announced that The Pamplemousse would be out for at least six months. And at the end of Santa Anita’s meeting Sunday, the track announced that Jill Bailey had been named “employee of the meeting.”

Item: On March 7, Einstein, a Brazil-bred horse handled by Florida trainer Helen Pitts-Blasi, won the Santa Anita Handicap. Pitts-Blasi became the first female trainer to do that. It had been another well-attended day, 31,496, during a Santa Anita winter meeting full of upticks.

Problem: A month later, lawyers Bill Gallion and Shirley Cunningham were convicted of stealing millions of dollars from clients for whom they got large settlements in the fen-phen diet scandal. Each faces more than 100 years in prison. Einstein, a likely favorite for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, is owned in part by Gallion and Cunningham.

Also, the largest purse-winning horse in North America, the recently retired Curlin, is owned and beloved by Kendall-Jackson Winery founder Jess Jackson. His partners, inherited in the purchase deal, are Gallion and Cunningham.

Item: Racing is the sport of kings, and in so many ways, deservedly so.

Problem: The kings are the animals who compete, not the people who surround them.

I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but what I saw yesterday at Santa Anita is most disturbing.

As the horses loaded into the gate for the seventh race, the Grade 3 San Simeon Handicap, MR GRUFF was listed at 4/1 on the tote board. After breaking cleanly and getting to the front, his odds dropped to 5/2. He went on to win while paying $7.60, instead of the $10 or so bettors were expecting at post time.

In the 10th race, a maiden claimer for 3-year-olds, favorite FOREIGN TAUREAN was 8/5 going into the gate, but took a huge drop to even-money after breaking well and setting the pace. Again, wire-to-wire, paying $4.00 instead of $5.20 or $5.40 that was expected. In both cases a payoff drop of about 25% from what horseplayers could have expected to receive even if they had wagered at the last possible moment.

To add insult to injury, Pick 4 “will pays” into the final race showed ‘TAUREAN returning $443. However, when the actual payoff came back at $401, winning bettors had been dinged another 10%. As if beating the races isn’t hard enough, winning gamblers lost large percentages of their profits due to the above examples.

Batch betting? Past posting? Taking advantage of the seven-second delay afforded to mutuel clerks in order to cancel (or not cancel) a ticket after the gates open? Something had a very foul odor in the air on the last Saturday of the meet. These problems (loopholes?) need to be fixed immediately.

It’s tough enough trying to handicap the Kentucky Derby without the added guessing game of whether the synthetic horses can successfully transfer their form to dirt.

There’s no doubt Pioneerof the Nile, the Empire Maker colt who gave trainer Bob Baffert his record fifth Santa Anita Derby victory April 4, should be among the favorites when the horses load into the starting gate May 2.

But will he be as successful over Churchill Downs’ main surface as he has been on Cushion Track and Pro-Ride?

“He beat us twice and we’ve run against him twice, so I am scared of him,” said David Lanzman, co-owner of another of the Derby favorites, I Want Revenge. “I’d be stupid not to be. But I wouldn’t trade positions with anybody.

“We’ve answered a big question by running over the dirt and running the way we did, and he’s not going to be able to answer that question until May.

I Want Revenge was runner-up to Pioneerof the Nile in last December’s $750,000 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park. He finished third, behind Pioneerof the Nile and Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem, in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 7 at Santa Anita before shipping east to continue Derby preparations.

Since switching to the dirt at Aqueduct, I Want Revenge has been the most impressive of the Derby hopefuls, winning the Gotham Stakes by an eye-opening 8 1/2Â lengths March 7 and then overcoming a terrible start and traffic trouble in the stretch to win the Wood Memorial on April 4 like he’d had a clean trip.

He and Pioneerof the Nile are just two of four California horses that figure prominently in the Derby, joining Papa Clem and Chocolate Candy, the latter of whom won two stakes over Golden Gate Fields’ Tapeta synthetic surface this year before finishing second to Pioneerof the Nile in the Santa Anita Derby.

But Chocolate Candy, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, is another who has never raced on dirt. All nine of his career starts have come in California. It’s debatable whether his closing kick will be as effective at Churchill Downs as it has been on artificial surfaces.

Ahmed Zayat, Pioneerof the Nile’s owner, doesn’t think the dirt will be a detriment to his colt, pointing out that his sire finished second in the Derby and won the Belmont. His dam won by 11 1/2 lengths at Churchill Downs in record time.

“And his trainer really likes dirt better,” Baffert cracked.

Here’s a look at our top five heading into Derby week:

1. I Want Revenge: If this son of Stephen Got Even runs back to his New York form, it’s all over. His victory in the Wood, when he lost four or five lengths at the start, was one of the most impressive Derby preps in years.

Of course, he might also have had a fondness for Aqueduct, meaning he won’t run like a monster at Churchill. Point Given, who won the Preakness and Belmont in 2001 and wound up Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old, didn’t fire on Derby Day and wound up fifth.

2. Pioneerof the Nile: If Garrett Gomez doesn’t opt for this guy over Dunkirk as his Derby mount, it will be a surprise. But Baffert doesn’t seem too concerned over the uncertainty.

“If Gomez doesn’t ride him, I might go down to Los Alamitos and find a jockey down there,” he joked.

3. Friesan Fire: The Louisiana Derby winner will go into the Derby off a seven-week layoff, which could prove beneficial. He might be fresher than many of the other colts.

Oh, and the horse the A.P. Indy colt beat at the Fair Grounds on March 14?

Papa Clem, who gained more supporters with his victory in the Arkansas Derby last weekend.

4. Quality Road: A quarter crack in his right hind foot doesn’t figure to cost the Florida Derby winner a start in the Kentucky Derby, according to foot specialist Ian McKinlay, who treated Big Brown’s famous quarter crack before last year’s Belmont Stakes and is watching over Quality Road.

The fact it cropped up a month before the Derby and not a week before the big race like Big Brown’s also plays in Quality Road’s favor.

5. Chocolate Candy: The son of Candy Ride’s closing style is perfect for the Derby if he proves he can handle the dirt.



In addition to the big four of Pioneerof the Nile, I Want Revenge, Papa Clem and Chocolate Candy, two other California-based colts – Square Eddie and Mr. Hot Stuff, third in the Santa Anita Derby – also have Kentucky Derby aspirations. “It just shows you the quality of horses in California is pretty strong … there’s a lot of nice horses, and this is a tough Derby field,” said BobBaffert, trainer of Pioneerof the Nile. “There are six, seven, eight horses there … I think it’s going to be a very competitive race. I’m just glad that I’m part of the top five.”

Former jockey Gary Stevens, winner of three Kentucky Derbies during his Hall of Fame career, agrees with Baffert that this is a nice batch of 3-year-olds. “I think it’s an outstanding crop,” he said. “At the top of my list right now I’ve got I Want Revenge, Friesan Fire … Quality Road ran huge the other day. It’s as good a 3-year-old crop at this point in time as I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s a quality bunch.” Stevens, a racing analyst for NBC and Horse Racing TV, said he doesn’t miss riding. “Not so much, because of that adrenaline rush of doing live shows,” he said. “It’s the same feeling, and I know when I’ve done a good job and I know when I’ve done an OK job and I know when I’ve done a poor job the same way as when I rode.”

Contact Art Wilson at

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