Dick Jerardi | No hometown hero in this year's Derby

Posted: April 23, 2007

I LOST COUNT QUITE a while ago of how many times I have been asked in the last few months: "Is there a Philly horse for the Derby?"

My answer has been and continues to be, not really. But if you want to adopt Great Hunter, Hard Spun or Chelokee (if the horse actually makes the race), be my guest. There is a connection, just not the incredible connection we have had the last three springs.

Smarty Jones was the ultimate Philly horse - born in Chester County, stabled at Philadelphia Park (where he won his first two races), trained by one of the Pha's best (John Servis), ridden by the Pha's best (Stewart Elliott) and owned by Roy and Pat Chapman, who lived at the time in New Hope and were already rather well-known in the area for the Chapman Auto Group. That was a Philly horse.

Afleet Alex may have been bred in Florida but had a trainer (Tim Ritchey) and jockey (Jeremy Rose) from Delaware Park (definitely close enough and Philly's kind of track anyway). Alex was Philly through and through because of his wild Philly ownership group that wanted to party early, long and late. The most visible owners, Chuck Zacney and Joe Lerro, both went to Catholic high schools in the Northeast.

Barbaro may have been bred in Kentucky. His jockey (Edgar Prado) may have ridden in New York. But trainer Michael Matz lives in Chester County. Owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, both Penn grads, also live in Chester County. Then, when the colt's right hind leg was shattered in the Preakness, it was the veterinarians at New Bolton Center in Kennett Square who tried so hard to save the colt. Philly got Barbaro, too.

As much as we want this to be the same, it just isn't. Great Hunter and Hard Spun were born in Pennsylvania, but . . . Great Hunter was sold and then sold again. He is owned by a Californian and trained in California. His dam remains in Chester County so there is a connection, just not the same kind of connection.

Hard Spun was sold, too. Servis bought him for owner Rick Porter. Then, last year, Porter and Servis broke up, with the owner giving his horses to several trainers. Larry Jones, a Kentuckian, got Hard Spun. Now, if you want to go with the DelPark connection, that works. Like Alex and Barbaro, Hard Spun broke his maiden at DelPark. Jones has horses at DelPark. And Porter is from Wilmington. So there is a something there. It is just not quite Philly.

Also, consider that Smarty was the Kentucky Derby favorite. Alex and Barbaro were the second choice in their years. Great Hunter and Hard Spun will take some money, but they are not going to be among the favorites in a Derby that gets more confounding with each prep race.

The Chelokee connection is that Michael Matz, Barbaro's trainer, is in charge of the colt. Now, that would be a story Philly would get. But after the weekend, Chelokee is still just out of the top 20 in graded stakes earnings. If more than 20 are entered in the Derby, those outside the top 20 don't get in.

Appropriate ending

Saturday's Lexington Stakes at Keeneland was a fitting finale to the 2007 Derby prep season where up was down and down was up. The longest shot (40-1 Slew's Tizzy) went wire-to-wire on the Polytrack where no horse ever wins on the lead. The second-longest price (36-1 Starbase) was second. The exacta paid $1,000.20. The superfecta paid $97,128. Few in the record crowd (33,821) could have had much of that.

Saturday's Lexington Stakes at Keeneland was a fitting finale to the 2007 Derby prep season where up was down and down was up. The longest shot (40-1 Slew's Tizzy) went wire-to-wire on the Polytrack where no horse ever wins on the lead. The second-longest price (36-1 Starbase) was second. The exacta paid $1,000.20. The superfecta paid $97,128. Few in the record crowd (33,821) could have had much of that.

Slew's Tizzy's trainer Greg Foley (a licensed vet) promptly announced that, "Philosophically, we don't run horses back in 2 weeks." Philosophies have been known to change when owners get Derby Fever. The $201,500 first prize is enough to get Slew's Tizzy into the field should owner Joseph Lacombe, owner of 1997 Horse of the Year Favorite Trick (as a 2-year-old), get the fever. Matz is hoping the owner doesn't get that fever. By the way, the last six Lexington winners have run in the Derby.

Half the field

Three trainers (Todd Pletcher, Doug O'Neill and Steve Asmussen) appear likely to have 10 of the 20 horses in the Derby. Pletcher has five (Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Cowtown Cat, Sam P., Scat Daddy). O'Neill has three (Cobalt Blue, Great Hunter, Liquidity). Asmussen has two (Curlin, Reporting for Duty).

Three trainers (Todd Pletcher, Doug O'Neill and Steve Asmussen) appear likely to have 10 of the 20 horses in the Derby. Pletcher has five (Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Cowtown Cat, Sam P., Scat Daddy). O'Neill has three (Cobalt Blue, Great Hunter, Liquidity). Asmussen has two (Curlin, Reporting for Duty).

Pletcher's five have combined to win the Sanford, Hopeful, Champagne, Fountain of Youth, Gotham, Louisiana Derby, Illinois Derby and Florida Derby. America's dominant trainer has never won a Triple Crown race.

New blood

From 1995 to 1999, two trainers dominated the Derby. Wayne Lukas won three, Bob Baffert the other two. At this moment, neither Baffert nor Lukas has a Derby horse. Nor does Nick Zito, who won the Derby in 1991 and 1994 and, just 2 years ago, had five starters in the race.

From 1995 to 1999, two trainers dominated the Derby. Wayne Lukas won three, Bob Baffert the other two. At this moment, neither Baffert nor Lukas has a Derby horse. Nor does Nick Zito, who won the Derby in 1991 and 1994 and, just 2 years ago, had five starters in the race.

So who do I like?

That is the other question I have gotten countless times in the last few months. By this time, I usually have a pretty good sense of where I am leaning so I can begin to consider scenarios. This year, I just don't.

That is the other question I have gotten countless times in the last few months. By this time, I usually have a pretty good sense of where I am leaning so I can begin to consider scenarios. This year, I just don't.

You could make a legitimate case for a dozen horses. I won't be making up my mind until 2 days before the race after I have watched everything and listened to everyone during Derby Week. Show up as many times as I have and you get a sense of what to look for and what to ignore, who to believe and who to doubt.

The Derby winner is often determined in those final days when some horses begin to fall apart under the hard training and a precious few thrive. Smarty Jones and Barbaro thrived. Both trainers told me they were certain their horses were going to run great. Each, of course, was spot on.

Now, that Lexington superfecta looked rather appetizing. Here is one prediction: The Derby super payoff will be even more appetizing. Knowing it is going to be a big number is one thing. Getting the numbers right is quite another.

Send email to jerardd@phillynews.com 

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