Commentary

Clarifying the Derby trail chaos

Updated: April 6, 2012, 1:33 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

Lower the drawbridge, and chaos ensues: The Two-headed Mamba, the Foul-breath Dragon, the Forked-tongue Serpent, the Palm Tree King and the Bison Beast all rush into the gateway. They all have enough graded earnings to demand entry, along with a table on Millionaire's Row.

What a chaotic mess. But that's where we are, trapped in a food-fight interlude, during a fire drill, with the lights flickering alarm and Owen Wilson asking directions to the nearest wormhole. Last weekend's Florida Derby was saved from complete meaninglessness only by the fact that nothing means nothing, and the Louisiana Derby became an instant masterpiece in irony, a million-dollar prep for the Kentucky Derby won by a horse that isn't even nominated to the Kentucky Derby.

This is where the road to the Triple Crown detours through the land of Nod. But such detours are not uncommon: They're annual, in fact. And the good news, the refreshing-gulp-of-lemonade news, is that clarity usually follows all this chaos, as any psychologist, mythologist, physicist or two-dollar punter will tell you.

Perhaps the clarity motorcade will turn onto the Triple Crown trail Saturday, when Gemologist and Alpha meet in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and when Creative Cause takes on I'll Have Another and Liaison in the Santa Anita Derby. Maybe clarity will wait for the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass or even wait until May, but it will arrive.

As for the chaos, it invites analysis if only to understand what it doesn't mean. The Florida Derby, for example, doesn't mean that Take Charge Indy and Reveron, who were the first two across the finish line, are better or more talented than Union Rags and El Padrino, who ran third and fourth. Actually, on a surface that was profoundly biased, it was circumstances, more than any rivals, that defeated Union Rags and El Padrino.

Last Saturday at Gulfstream, no horse on the main track rallied from more than two lengths back after a half-mile to win. As Michael Matz, Union Rags' trainer, said afterwards, "You had to be close to the pace." And neither Union Rags nor El Padrino raced close enough to the pace. Union Rags was 3 and El Padrino 2 back after the opening half-mile of the Florida Derby.

With the surface assisting front-runners and stalkers, Take Charge Indy and Reveron were able to go around the track one-two for the entire 1 1/8 miles. Moreover, the dawdling pace of the Florida Derby meant Union Rags, the odds-on favorite, and El Padrino, the second-choice in the wagering, had no chance.

For an understanding of the Florida Derby pace, look at the day's other two-turn races. In the Rampart Stakes, Awesome Maria closely stalked an opening half-mile in 47.61 seconds and three-quarters in 1:10.52 -- yes, the surface was extremely fast -- before drawing clear. In the Skip Away Stakes, Fort Larned raced with the leader through a half in 47.45 and took control after three-quarters in 1:10.62. In the Gulfstream Oaks, Grace Hall raced a length behind a half-mile in 47.19 and three-quarters in 1:10.80 before romping home to win by more than six lengths.

And in the Florida Derby, Take Charge Indy was allowed to grab a clear, ground-saving, whistling-Dixie lead while strolling through an opening half-mile in 47.71 and three-quarters in 1:12.09. The Florida Derby, in other words, was the slowest-paced race on the main track all day, proving that whatever furnishings might be found in a jockey's head, a clock isn't among them.

With the speed-favoring bias established, the outcome was predictable. And then, With Union Rags in a box and El Padrino racing wide, the outcome became inevitable.

"We didn't think he ran horribly … the way the track was playing," El Padrino's trainer, Todd Pletcher, said about the effort in the Florida Derby. Pletcher said El Padrino's "overall body of work suggests" the colt still deserves to be included among the best 3-year-olds.

And, of course, so does Union Rags. But their ovipositing in the Florida Derby has left them in a difficult place. Even considered in the context of a wide trip -- giving up about six lengths -- the Florida Derby suggests El Padrino hasn't progressed since his first start of the year. And Union Rags remains at his juvenile level of performance. Both horses will need to step beyond the chaos and step forward significantly to win in Kentucky. And so will Take Charge Indy.

Looking like a horse that had grown up and become physically stronger, Gemologist gave what was arguably the most impressive performance of his career.

But clarity is coming. And it might not just be a speck in the distance. Winning the Kentucky Derby is all about timing, which means hitting the moment squarely, and development, which means progressing as a 3-year-old. Gemologist and Creative Cause are clearly moving in a positive direction.

"The horse physically has blossomed," Pletcher said about another of his Triple Crown candidates, Gemologist, "and he's just been a pleasure to train all spring. He's willing in his works, he's not overzealous and he's got a great temperament."

Unbeaten in three races last year, Gemologist won his seasonal debut, a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park, by seven lengths. Looking like a horse that had grown up and become physically stronger, Gemologist gave what was arguably the most impressive performance of his career.

In the Wood, where The Lumber Guy is stretching out after winning two sprints, Gemologist, won't be able to control the pace. In Alpha, Gemologist will face a multiple stakes winner. And no matter the outcome, the Wood will provide some measure of clarity simply because it will determine whether Gemologist even gets to run in the Kentucky Derby. With $103,855 in graded earnings, he needs to finish at least second Saturday to ensure himself a place in the starting gate on May 5.

After the chaos of Florida, the Santa Anita Derby could very well produce the Kentucky Derby favorite. When Creative Cause won the San Felipe, he gave the best performance of the year by a 3-year-old, and something like it Saturday would send him to Kentucky with the momentum of a locomotive.

To win the San Felipe, he overcame a wide trip and his own inclination to drift in the stretch, but one of the most impressive elements in the performance occurred after the wire. Creative Cause won by less than a length, but he won with brio and flair; and then he galloped out so strongly that when he finally allowed himself to be pulled up the gray colt was many lengths ahead of any rival.

Creative Cause has always been physically impressive; as a juvenile, he was conspicuously precocious. His development, his trainer, Mike Harrington, explained, has largely been mental. Creative Cause sometimes yielded to playful inclinations as a juvenile, but as a 3-year-old he has become more focused.

"He's a little more serious," Harrington said. "Used to be I couldn't lead him back and forth to the track with my pony without him trying to attack the pony … I think he's grown up mentally quite a bit."

And Saturday, in response to his waywardness when running in the stretch, Creative Cause will race without blinkers for the first time. Clarity, in other words, could arrive Saturday in the form of a gray streak down the stretch at Santa Anita.