Kentucky Derby picture cloudier by the day

How fitting that the final two major preps for the 137th Kentucky Derby, last Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes and the Arkansas Derby, were won by 19-1 and 25-1 long shots, respectively.

That’s the way it’s been this year so far with this crop of 3-year-olds, none of whom can establish any sort of consistency that would warrant Derby favoritism.

So who will be the favorite when the Derby gates open May 7? Your guess is as good as mine, although I assume Florida Derby winner Dialed In will get more than his share of support:

My latest Derby rankings:

1. Dialed In — Come-from-behind style may be suited for Churchill Downs’ long stretch
2. Nehro — Loved his runner-up effort in the Arkansas Derby; may be the real deal
3. Uncle Mo — Could still go postward as Derby favorite if he makes the race
4. Midnight Interlude — Figures to be in perfect tracking position
5. Jaycito — Don’t like the fact he might race with only one Derby prep
6. Toby’s Corner — Wood winner could be this good in wide-open year
7. Pants On Fire — How much did Jump Start colt beat in Louisiana Derby?
8. Archarcharch — Will he like Churchill as much as he enjoys Oaklawn Park?
9. Stay Thirsty — As others fall, this guy finds himself back in our rankings
10. The Factor — Proved in Arkansas Derby he can’t rate

Santa Anita closes books on 2010-11 meet

Santa Anita wrapped up its 74th season Sunday, but it didn’t come with a nice little bow on top. Yes, the 18,018 who showed up on track on closing day was a nice send-off, but the handle figures and the inconsistent new main dirt track cast a dark cloud over the meeting as a whole.

Track officials reported average daily on-track handle was down 3 percent and average daily all-sources handle was down 9 percent.

But when you look at the numbers overall, this is what you get, remembering that this year’s meeting was eight days shorter than in 2009-10:

Win/Place/Show wagering — down $36.3 million, or 19.2 percent
Exotic wagering — down $86.6 million, or 21.6 percent
Total wagering — down $122.9 million, or 20.8 percent
Wagering per race — down $108,000, or 12.4 percent
Wagering per day — down $891,000, or 11.8 percent

Field size this year was down from 7.81 horses per race to 7.63. So much for the bigger fields that the increased takeout in exotics were supposed to bring.

The horseplayers’ boycott did nothing to help Santa Anita’s business this year, and to management’s credit they plan to meet with the bettors in the near future to discuss ways to improve the product.

Also, the terrrible weather back east in December and early January plainly took its toll in terms of Santa Anita’s out-of-state business, as did closure of the New York Off-Track Betting hubs.

There were 19 fatalities over the dirt track — 12 during racing, including one horse that fell over a downed horse that had clipped heels, and seven in the morning, including one horse dying after a collision with another horse and one sudden death.

Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, attributes much of the inconsistency to the fact the track was not given enough time to settle. He believes it will perform better for Santa Anita’s autumn meet beginning Sept. 28.

On a brighter note, the Bob Baffert-trained Game on Dude was voted Horse of the Meet in Santa Anita’s annual media poll for his victory in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap. Game on Dude was ridden by Chantal Sutherland, who became the first female jockey to win the Big ‘Cap.

Baffert won his record ninth training title and became the first trainer since Jimmy Jones in 1953 to win the Santa Anita Handicap and Santa Anita Derby (Midnight Interlude) in the same year.

Joel Rosario unseated Rafael Bejarano and won his first Santa Anita riding title. It was his sixth in Southern California.

Results of the 2010/11 Santa Anita media poll:

Horse of the Meet: Game on Dude
Older Horse: Game on Dude
Older filly/mare: Always a Princess
Grass horse: Fluke
Grass filly/mare: Cambina
3-year-old: Midnight Interlude
3-year-old filly: Cambina
Sprinter: Amazombie
Claimer: Separate Forest
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Jockey: Joel Rosario
Apprentice: None
Race: San Luis Obispo Handicap
Owner: Arnold Zetcher
Achievement: Baffert’s Big Cap/Derby double

Latest Kentucky Derby rankings

It’s tough to remember a year when there weren’t at least two or three horses that appeared to be solid picks in the Kentucky Derby. This year it’s a total crapshoot, with virtually all prospective starters having a question mark or two.

Uncle Mo? In the Wood, he looked like a horse that wanted no part of the Derby’s 1 1/4-mile distance. Was it the G1 tract infection that he was diagnosed with this week or his pedigree? There’s a good chance he might not even be fit or healthy enough to run in the Derby. We’ll see.

The Factor? At one point earlier this year, trainer Bob Baffert thought about keeping the speedball in one-turn races. But he’s developed to the point where he can now go two turns and win. Whether he can win Saturday’s Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles or negotiate the Derby distance is still a question.

Our latest 2011 Kentucky Derby rankings:

1. Dialed In — Looked good closing to win the Florida Derby over speed-favoring surface
2. Santiva — Like Super Saver, he won Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill as a juvenile
3. The Factor — We’ll know more after Saturday’s Arkansas Derby
4. Uncle Mo — Don’t give up on him yet; Secretariat also finished third in the Wood
5. Jaycito — Derby distance and long stretch might be this guy’s cup of tea
6. Midnight Interlude — Don’t dismiss improving colt, especially when he’s trained by Baffert
7. Nehro — Louisiana Derby runner-up will get tested in Arkansas Derby
8. Toby’s Corner — Won Wood while rallying against a slow pace; intriguing
9. Astrology — Only one Derby prep works against him
10. Pants On Fire — Won Louisiana Derby, but what did he beat?

Shear to be released from hospital Saturday

Here is some great news, courtesy of the Santa Anita publicity folks. I think John Shear deserves to be saluted by Santa Anita and the whole racing industry very soon, and I think he will be:

ARCADIA — John Shear, Santa Anita’s 90-year-old Paddock Guard who was gravely injured while protecting a 6-year-old girl from a runaway horse on March 12, will be released from Huntington Memorial Hospital on Saturday, according to his son, Michael.

“My dad wishes to thank you all for your prayers, generosity, and well wishes,” said Shear. “It has been a tremendous strength to him over these past difficult weeks. He’ll be released from the hospital this Saturday and will be going home, where he will continue with physical therapy.

“His doctors are amazed at the progress he’s made. He was badly injured and he was in very, very bad shape the first few days following the accident. He lost quite a bit of blood internally and his blood pressure got very low. My dad has always prided himself on eating well and staying physically fit and there’s no doubt this has helped him immensely.”

Shear, a former rider, who has been employed seasonally at Santa Anita since Dec. 23, 1961, sustained a fractured pelvis and other injuries as a result of the incident which took place prior to the third race on March 12.

Shear was in his customary position, holding a perimeter rope on the east end of the track’s walking ring. As the field of 10 horses were readying for the upcoming race, Sea and Sage, a 3-year-old gelding, wheeled, freeing himself from his handler and in a 180 degree about-face, sprinted towards the opening Shear was guarding.

As seen on live television, Shear threw himself in front of the young girl, in an act of selfless heroism that could well have saved her life.

“By any accounting, John Shear is a hero,” said Santa Anita President George Haines. “He is an amazing human being and we are elated that he is going to be going home much sooner than was originally thought. Through all of these years, John has been a great employee, a man that his peers looked up to. He loves this business and as he’s said many times, he loves being around it, the horses, the people and show that we all work so hard to put on.

“On behalf of all of us here at Santa Anita, we want to wish John a speedy recovery and look forward to honoring him this coming fall. He is truly one of a kind.”

The young girl had been brought to the track by her father, who wanted her to see that small people, jockeys, can be very successful, was uninjured, as was Sea and Sage.

Santa Anita’s winter/spring meet comes to a close this Sunday. Live racing will return to Santa Anita on Sept. 29.

Hollywood Park to offer low-takeout pick five

I’ve bashed the California Horse Racing Board and the Thoroughbred Owners of California plenty of times, but when they do something that’s positive for the industry, they deserve kudos.

Santa Anita is suffering through a terrible meet handle-wise, and it’s due partly to the increase in takeout for exotic bets that went into effect this year.

Something had to be done, and although it should have been done earlier, the new early low-takeout pick five during the upcoming Hollywood Park meet is a step in the right direction.

Here’s hoping the CHRB and TOC continue to make similar moves for the bettors rather than alienating them with head-scratching decisions.

Here’s the press release Hollywood Park revealed earlier today:

INGLEWOOD — After receiving approval from the California Horse Racing Board and the Thoroughbred Owners of California, Hollywood Park will offer a reduced takeout Pick 5 on its wagering menu when the Spring/Summer meet begins Thursday, April 21.

The Pick 5, which will have a takeout of 14%, the lowest for any multiple race wager in California, will be a 50-cent minimum bet. It will consist of the first five races daily.

There is a carryover provision with the Pick 5 if there are no perfect tickets. The carryover rules are the same as those applicable to the Pick 6.

Formerly available on the first four races, the early Pick 4 will now cover races 2-5. The late Pick 4 remains on the final four races.

Baffert: Don’t give up on Uncle Mo just yet

Raise your hand if you have a strong opinion on who will win the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 7.

I sure don’t.

There were a lot of skeptics concerning prohibitive Derby favorite Uncle Mo even before he faded in the stretch at Aqueduct on Saturday and finished third in the Wood Memorial. Now they’re coming out of the woodwork, wondering how there could have been such a fuss made over an Indian Charlie colt whose bloodlines cast a huge shadow over his ability to negotiate the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles.

At this point, if you like a horse, I wouldn’t let anyone talk you off it. This Derby, as we prepare to watch The Factor run in the Arkansas Derby and Santiva take part in the Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday, appears as wide open as any in recent memory.

But Bob Baffert, who has three legitimate Derby contenders in surprise Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude, The Factor and Jaycito, cautions those who are ready to jump off the Uncle Mo bandwagon.

“Secretariat lost before the Kentucky Derby,” Baffert said Saturday after his Midnight Interlude rallied in the stretch to post a 13-1 upset in the 74th running of the Santa Anita Derby. “I still think (Uncle Mo’s) a very good horse and he’ll bounce back.”

Baffert will find out more about The Factor on Saturday when he contests 1 1/8 miles for the first time.

“If he runs well, we’ll send him on (to Churchill Downs),” he said. “If he doesn’t run well, we’ll bring him home.”

Midnight Interlude’s owner Arnold Zetcher wasn’t shocked by his colt’s victory despite the fact it was Baffert’s first Santa Anita Derby win with a horse that had just broken his maiden. Baffert’s won a record six Santa Anita Derbies.

“We thought we had a good shot,” Zetcher said. “He’d been training unbelievable, and he’d just won by nine in a race where he could have won by 14.”

At this stage, nothing would surprise me with regard to the Run for the Roses.

Comma to the Top may be back on Derby trail

Trainer Peter Miller said last week that his talented 3-year-old, Comma to the Top, would get a break following Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby even if the gelding won the race by 10 lengths.

But Sunday, less than 24 hours after Comma to the Top lost by a head to the onrushing Midnight Interlude in the Santa Anita Derby, Miller said he and the gelding’s owners will huddle and decide whether to run in the Kentucky Derby. He said a final decision may not be made until the beginning of Derby week.

Enter the following web address in your browser for the entire Daily Racing Form story by Steve Andersen:

Apple Blossom attracts top field of distaffers

Three of the best distaffers in the country are set to line up against each other in Friday’s $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

Havre de Grace, Switch and Blind Luck are all expected to go postward in the Grade I race, which is run at 1 1/8 miles on the dirt. Life At Ten was assigned co-high weight of 119 pounds for the race, along with Havre de Grace and Switch, but the Todd Pletcher trainee is not expected to run.

Of course, Zenyatta won the Apple Blossom two of the past three years. Last year’s running was supposed to pit the past two Horses of the Year, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, until the latter was pulled out of the race after she lost her comeback in Louisiana.

Talkin Santa Anita Derby

I liked Premier Pegasus to win today’s Grade I Santa Anita Derby, but his defection because of a hairline fracture in the cannon bone of his left foreleg means this race is wide open.

Down to nine runners from the original field of 11 after Jaycito’s scratch Friday, I think five horses could find the winner’s circle today:

Mr. Commons — John Shirreffs wouldn’t have him in here if he didn’t think he had a shot.
Silver Medallion — Could be one of best 3-year-olds in the country if he takes to the dirt.
Comma to the Top — Is this guy regressing after five straight wins? We’ll see.
Anthony’s Cross — Shouldn’t be far off the lead and gets services of Joel Rosario.
Bench Points — Might be better in his second try around two turns.

I’m going to go with Mr. Commons in a mild surprise and key him top and bottom with the other four.

I like Caracortado in the Arcadia Stakes. He appears to have turned into one of the best grass horses in the country.