Last week trainer Bob Baffert, a perennial presence at the Kentucky Derby, surveyed the field of 3-year-old contenders for this year's race from a trackside perch at Santa Anita Park and concluded, "None of us know what we've got yet. We're going to find out this weekend."
The weekend passed. Prep races were run in California, Illinois and Ireland, and the Derby picture did not clear. If anything, it was further clouded. With three weeks left until the Run for the Roses, the only certainties are that My Old Kentucky Home will be played and, barring a small miracle, neither Baffert nor D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of 38 previous Derby starters, will have a horse in the field. Everything else is wide open.
Consider: Early Derby favorite Repent had won both of his 2002 starts before racing against a weak field last Saturday in the Illinois Derby. He lost by 6� lengths to War Emblem. On Monday, Repent's trainer Ken McPeek announced that the colt had a chipped bone in his left ankle, ending his Derby run. Meanwhile, Johannesburg, the mysterious 2001 Breeders Cup Juvenile champion who'd had an undefeated 2-year-old campaign, made his 3-year-old debut in Sunday's Gladness Stakes in Fetherd, Ireland. It was a daring plan for Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien—no dirt, just a single grass race to prepare for the Derby. Too daring, it turns out: Johannesburg was beaten a head by well-regarded 4-year-old filly Rebel-line. All signs say that Johannesburg lacks fitness and seasoning, and that the Derby's big-field mile and a quarter could be too much for him.
Front-runner status now falls to Came Home, who won Saturday's Santa Anita Derby by 2� lengths. He has now won seven of eight lifetime starts. But Came Home's pedigree suggests he won't relish the Derby's distance, and Saturday's winning time—1:50.02 for the mile and an eighth—was the slowest in 39 years. "He's going to have to finish a heck of a lot better than that if he's going to win the Derby? says Gary Stevens, who rode Easy Grades to second place. Stevens says his horse would have won if not for a misplaced bridle strap that made it hard to control Easy Grades through Santa Anita's two long turns.
On Saturday, Derby hopefuls Blue Burner and Saarland meet in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, and Harlan's Holiday and Booklet renew their rivalry in the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, the last major Derby preps. It's April now, and their connections want answers. If they can't have answers, they want clues. And if they can't have clues, they want hope. This year hope might be enough.