ON A damp, drizzly morning at Aqueduct last Friday, trainer Jeff Mullins got a look at the new blinkers that his horse, I Want Revenge, would be wearing the following day in the Wood Memorial, the Kentucky Derby prep race for which he would go off as the 1--2 favorite. Four days earlier IEAH Stables had purchased a 50% stake in the horse, prompting the wardrobe change. "I hope they're still clean when he gets back," Mullins said of the red, white and blue headgear, mindful that his horse could get stuck in traffic and wouldn't run as well as he did in the Gotham Stakes on March 7, when he coasted to an 8½-length victory.
Less than 36 hours later I Want Revenge proved he's one of the horses to beat in the May 2 Derby, but his blinkers and silks were anything but spotless. Startled after the horse next to him, Lord Justice, shook the starting gate, the California-based colt broke dead last. But 19-year-old jockey Joe Talamo worked his way through the other seven horses in the field to win by 1½ lengths over West Side Bernie.
"Pretty good, huh?" the ever-succinct Mullins said as he made his way to the winner's circle. Though his horse had already qualified for the Derby before the Wood based on graded stakes earnings, a poor showing wouldn't have given Mullins much reason to believe that I Want Revenge would contend in the Triple Crown races. "When you blow the break, it's pretty tough to get back in the game," Mullins said. "He blew the break, got trapped, had to find a hole and still won easy."
I Want Revenge wasn't the only favorite to make a Derby statement on Saturday. Musket Man, the 3--1 cofavorite in the Illinois Derby, looked dominant in a two-length win over Giant Oak at Hawthorne. And trainer Bob Baffert took his record fifth Santa Anita Derby with Pioneerof the Nile, who went off at 4--5 odds after highly regarded The Pamplemousse scratched because of an injury to his front-left tendon. Pioneerof the Nile, who has beaten I Want Revenge twice in the past four months, overcame a slow pace to win by one length over Chocolate Candy. "He's not going to dazzle you," said Baffert. "He just keeps winning. If you can win four in a row in California, you've got a pretty good horse."
Baffert's horse has been winning, but questions remain about how he'll fare at Churchill Downs, since Pioneer of the Nile has only raced on turf and synthetic surfaces in his eight starts. "We'll know more about him—whether he's going to accelerate [on dirt]—once he starts working out in Kentucky," said Baffert, a three-time Derby winner.
With two major Derby prep races remaining (box, below), trainer Todd Pletcher's best Derby contender is a horse that may not even qualify for the 20-horse field. In three starts Dunkirk won twice before finishing second to Quality Road in the Florida Derby on March 28. "I thought he ran a huge race for a third-time starter, and he's come out of it very well and is training great," Pletcher said as he stood in the paddock at Aqueduct on Saturday. "We're hoping he gets in, because we certainly feel like he belongs."
If any horse proved he belonged at Churchill Downs it was I Want Revenge. Talamo deftly maneuvered through a seam between two horses in the stretch and didn't even have to go to his whip to coax his horse for more. Said an exuberant Talamo, "We've saved plenty for the Derby."
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Derby news and analysis from Tim Layden.