2003 Kentucky Derby Preps Wood Memorial, Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, and Arkansas Derby
After this weekend, trainer Bobby Frankel, who has never won the Derby before, is in the enviable position of having the top two likely favorites for the Kentucky Derby in his barn. Both Empire Maker and Peace Rules did exactly as expected and won their final Derby preps today, setting them up perfectly for the Kentucky Derby. Frankel has only had four other Derby entrants: Pendleton Ridge and Burnt Hills in 1990 who finished 13th and 14th, Aptitude in 2000 who was 2nd, and Medaglia d'Oro in 2002 who was 4th. He finally broke his Breeder's Cup jinx in 2001, so it is probably time to break his Derby jinx this year now that he is on a roll as the top trainer in America. (check here for Frankel's comments on the say after the races)
Empire Maker winner of the Wood Memorial and likely post time favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
The first big race of the day was the Grade 1 $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Heavy 1-2 favorite Empire Maker took on New York Hero and Funny Cide in a field of eight. As expected New York Hero went to the front and led the procession through fractions of 23.50, 47.21, and 1:11.19, with Funny Cide and Empire Maker keeping him within sight. Turning for home New York Hero weakened and gave way to his stalkers. Empire Maker, wide around both turns, needed very little encouragement from jockey Jerry Bailey to hold off Funny Cide down the lane for a half-length win in 1:48.70, the fastest time of the three prep races despite being run over a muddy track. Bailey said afterwards, "He always has a tendency to get distracted. If I hit him, he would have gotten back into it, but I let him goof off a little bit. If I had
Really gotten into him, and we would have won by more, it would have defeated the purpose of saving something for the Kentucky Derby." Funny Cide's trainer Barclay Tagg said, "If he hadn't run as well as he did, it would have taken pressure off of going to the Kentucky Derby. Now, we have to go. At a mile and a quarter, he just might beat that other horse. Funny Cide showed a lot of maturity today. I couldn't be happier." It is worth noting that four Triple Crown winners - Gallant Fox, Count Fleet, Assault, and Seattle Slew won the Wood in their final Derby preps, while Omaha and Secretariat were third and second place Wood finishers.
Peace Rules starts to draw off from Brancusi in the Blue Grass Stakes.
Next up was the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, also a Grade 1 event for $750,000 at 9 furlongs. Edmund Gann-owned Peace Rules, also trained by Frankel, was sent off as the 3-5 favorite in a field of ten that included the likes of Lion Tamer, Offlee Wild and Brancusi. Jockey Edgar Prado didn't waste any time aboard the favorite, immediately going for the lead and keeping the competition at least a length back. Peace Rules set fractions of 23.40, 47.10, 1:11.33, and a mile in 1:37.80, with Brancusi in hot pursuit. Down the lane Prado struck his mount three times which was more than enough, as Peace Rules stretched his advantage over Brancusi to 3 1/2 widening lengths at the line. He completed the distance in 1:51.73 over a fast track. It was another 4 1/2 lengths back to Offlee Wild in third. Winning jockey Edgar Prado said, "I'd like to dedicate this win to all the troops fighting in Iraq. Let peace rule around the world. He broke real strong and I had to slow him down. My saddle began to slip at the 7/8th pole and I just tried to get comfortable. I just let him move freely on his own. He just pulled me to the lead today and he had a lot left at the end." Second place jockey Tony Farina aboard Brancusi said, "He ran very good. He was trying hard at the finish. Today, he was very good and he improved a lot from his last start.
Trainer Bobby Frankel
Hopefully in the Kentucky Derby, he will improve off this effort. The 1 1/4 miles should be no problem for him. He has a good action and maybe the longer distance will be better for him."
Frankel said of his two Derby horses, "I'm in a good spot. It looks easy when you write about it and everything. We still have to get there and run around the racetrack. Peace Rules ran really well, the only question about him is the distance. But he looked fairly strong coming out of this race. The inside post sure helped him. He got an easy lead; he's a game horse.
Empire Maker was the best he's ever been today going into the gate; the best
he's been coming out of the gate and the best he's been in the paddock. They will arrive at Churchill Downs tomorrow. I might just breeze them once before the Derby and give them a few strong gallops. To win the Derby would be the biggest accomplishment of my career. I've always watched it on TV and I've been jealous that other people were there and I wasn't. I'll be there this year."
Sir Cherokee upset winner of the Arkansas Derby.
Twelve horses faced the starter at Oaklawn Park in the $500,000 Grade 2 Arkansas Derby. This was a much more wide-open affair with favorite Man Among Men sent off at over 5-2 odds and second choice Cat Genius at 4-1. However, unlike the first two preps of the day, this event was not won on the pace or by the favorite. Cat Genius set a very quick early pace of 21.93 and 45.42 and was done soon after, eventually finishing last. 6-1 chance Eugene's Third Son, who stalked Cat Genius, inherited the lead and ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.98 and the mile in 1:35.94. But from out of the clouds came local 55-1 longshot Sir Cherokee. Trailing the field in last early, he circled six wide on the final turn, and rallied in the lane to run down Eugene's Third Son inside the 1/8 pole and win going away by 1 3/4 lengths. The running time was 1:48.39 over a fast track. Favored Man Among Men was never in it, running wide around both turns and giving way down the backstretch to finish a disappointing tenth. Trainer Mike Tomlinson said: "This horse has beat himself on several occasions. He won his maiden and then got taken down. He's really coming around at the right time."
These three races also comprised the Big 3 Pick 3, a national pick three wager offered since 1997. Thanks to Sir Cherokee, the pay-off for the $1 wager was a handsome $365.00 while a win parlay bet on the same races would only have paid $280.70. This wager has routinely generated the highest Pick 3 handle figures in North America and this year's handle of $1,010,482 was the fourth highest ever. Here is the history of the Big 3 Pick 3: