It's called the Derby Trial, but it's been a long time since the traditional opening-day feature at Churchill Downs lived up to its name. Not since Tim Tam in 1958 has its winner repeated in the Run for the Roses. Tim Tam was only the fifth horse to pull off that rare double, and probably the last. The Derby Trial was downgraded last year and lost its Grade III status, and trainers of serious Derby contenders no longer even consider this one-turn mile when mapping out a Triple Crown schedule.
But horses on the fence for the Derby still run in it, and last year Don't Get Mad earned a shot at the big race after dominating the Derby Trial the week before. The California-based colt surprised a lot of handicappers by rallying for fourth in the Derby, and his owner, B. Wayne Hughes, might go for an encore if his speedy Mister Triester performs well Saturday. Dawn of War is another Derby Trial runner that could be entered Wednesday for the 132nd Derby if he runs a big one.
There rarely if ever is a buzz about the Derby Trial, which doesn't matter. Its significance is that it signals there's only a week to go before the insane rite of spring in Louisville. If you're a serious racing fan, you owe it to yourself to spend Derby weekend at Churchill Downs. The quality of the racing and the anticipation of the big day can even make the obscene price-gouging almost bearable. It's unquestionably a trip worth taking. Nothing worthwhile is free, or even cheap.
Besides the Derby Trial, I'll take a shot at two turf races at Aqueduct, where the atmosphere will be a bit less festive than in the 'Ville. The huge gulls in the Big A's parking lot have never inspired sentimental tunes. There isn't much of a ring to "My Old Ozone Park Home."
9th race, Churchill Downs, Derby Trial (mile)
With Mister Triester, Record, Dawn of War and likely favorite Noonmark in here, there should be plenty of speed to set up Protagonus for a victory in his stakes debut. The George Steinbrenner-owned colt was very impressive in three races at Gulfstream, the last two at 7 furlongs. He's shown the ability to finish strongly and could make the winning move in midstretch.
1. Protagonus 2. Noonmark 3. Mister Triester
4th race, Aqueduct, maiden special weight (1 1/16 miles, turf)
Monarchos, winner of the 2001 Kentucky Derby, is off to an excellent start as a grass sire. Horses from his first two crops have won 33 percent of their turf starts, including 25 percent first time on the green. Granted, it's a small sample, but I'll go with the flow. Moneypenny, trained by Todd Pletcher, looks like a solid play. She's by Monarchos and makes her grass debut against an unimpressive group after starting her career 0-for-3 on dirt. I hope the wildly erratic Jose Santos can work out a ground-saving trip from post 3.
1. Moneypenny 2. Hostess 3. Moya
9th race, Aqueduct, Grade III Beaugay Handicap (1 1/16 miles, turf)
There are plenty of directions to go in here, but I settled on Brunhilda. She comes out of a key race at Gulfstream, a second-place finish between Wend and third finisher Honey Ryder, both of whom won a graded stakes at Keeneland their next time out. Brunhilda is hardly the soul of consistency, though, having won only 1 of 8 at the distance and going 3-for-12 overall the past two years. But I think the distance is too short for deep-closing Angara, who is coming off a long layoff. Laurafina and Naissance Royale are in-and-outers and Asti has chronic seconditis.
1. Brunhilda 2. Asti 3. Laurafina