COMING UP ROSES
Menifee joined the Derby fray with an inspiring win at the Blue
Five weeks ago, shortly after the start of the thoroughbred
breeding season, a promising young studhorse named Harlan--a
well-bred fireball who had earned more than $400,000 in his days
as a racehorse and at one time was ranked among America's
fastest sprinters--was breeding to a mare at Stone Farm in
Paris, Ky., when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. At age
10, Harlan was only just beginning to stamp his get. The master
of Stone Farm, Arthur B. Hancock III, had been banking on Harlan
to supplant the older studs at Stone and lead the 2,000-acre
nursery into the 21st century. Then, suddenly, Harlan was gone.
"It was devastating," Hancock says. "We were just so hopeful
that he'd carry the farm."
No wonder, then, that the 56-year-old Hancock was seen
levitating around Keeneland Race Course late last Saturday
afternoon in a kind of dewy-eyed daze after Menifee won the Blue
Grass Stakes, becoming the first baby of Harlan to win a graded
stakes race. Hancock looked every bit as stunned as he was when
two horses that he once co-owned, Gato Del Sol and Sunday
Silence, came bounding home to win the Kentucky Derby in 1982
and '89, respectively. "I can't believe it," Hancock said over
and over. "A month after losing Harlan, we've now got his best
son to take his place on the farm someday."
After losing much ground while racing four wide on the first
turn, Menifee stayed in touch with the pacesetters down the
backstretch and around the last turn. There, under some artful
steering by Pat Day, the colt zigged to the rail to cut the
final corner, zagged to the outside nearing midstretch to get
clear, then powered past the leaders in the closing eighth,
drawing off to win by a length and a quarter. His time for the
nine furlongs, 1:48 3/5, was respectable enough, and he covered
the final eight in a nifty 12 2/5 seconds. Thus, in a turn of
events as romantic as any to occur in the 75-year history of the
Blue Grass, Harlan not only left Hancock with an heir to his
male line, but also left him and his 73-year-old co-owner, New
Orleans businessman James H. Stone, with one of the favorites
for the 125th running of the Kentucky Derby, on May 1.
Menifee, with four wins in five lifetime starts, will come to
the Downs as a largely unsqueezed lemon. He started and won
twice as a 2-year-old, easily breaking his maiden at Monmouth
Park last July 16 before winning an Aug. 21 allowance race by
three at Saratoga, only to undergo surgery in late August to
remove a bone chip in his knee. He was away from racing for six
months, but trainer Elliott Walden had him wound like a watch
for his Feb. 27 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream Park, where he
won a seven-furlong allowance race by nearly four lengths in a
swift 1:22 2/5. In his first stakes race, the March 21 Tampa Bay
Derby, the colt traveled wide around two turns, giving away at
least four lengths, and tired in the drive to finish second,
beaten by a length by Pineaff.
Menifee needed the work. Twenty days later he bounced into the
paddock at Keeneland. "This is his crossroads," Hancock said
before the race. "He's stepping up against the big boys. He runs
well here, he's on his way to Churchill Downs."
A half hour later, Menifee was Derby-bound, and this Blue Grass
had become his sire's epitaph.
VALHOL BREAKS MAIDEN IN STYLE
Of all the horses who will descend on River City for the 1
1/4-mile Derby--from the gelding General Challenge, the probable
favorite, to the Dubai-trained Worldly Manner--perhaps none will
excite greater curiosity than a chestnut colt out of Texas named
Valhol. That's not just because he is trained by a former
bullrider, Dallas Keen, who wears a black, 10-gallon cowboy hat
and guffaws in the grim face of convention.
History says that horses who do not race at age two are not
seasoned enough to withstand the pressures generated by training
and racing them toward the first Saturday in May. Valhol was
unraced in 1998. Conventional wisdom says that you do not throw
lightly raced maidens into major stakes events against lean,
battle-toughened competitors. Keen has ignored these
admonitions. He's also been laughing a lot lately.
On Feb. 12, in his only bow to orthodoxy, Keen debuted Valhol in
a six-furlong maiden race, at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
Valhol finished second, 2 1/2 lengths behind Abajo. Did Keen
then wheel his horse back in another maiden race, the standard
thing to do? No. On March 14, a month later, he ran the colt in
the $600,000 Grade II Louisiana Derby at 1 1/16 miles, a race in
which he got caught in traffic and had to steady. Yet he
finished a solid fourth, beaten by only 2 1/2.
Now back to the maiden ranks? Not a chance. "Everybody asked me,
after we ran him in the Louisiana Derby, where we were going,"
Keen jokes. "I said, 'Well, I heard there was a $500,000 maiden
race at Oaklawn Park.'"
That was last Saturday's Arkansas Derby, a Derby prep that
engaged four stakes winners, including last year's 2-year-old
champion, Answer Lively. Sent off at 30-1, Valhol and jockey
Billy Patin pulled off the most sensational upset of the season.
They stalked the pace to the far turn, galloped to the lead
there and drew off to win by nearly five lengths. "He's going to
the Big Show," Keen says. "I think we're going to be tough."
But surely not yet tough enough.
IS ADONIS DERBY CALIBER?
While trainer Nick Zito was at the Blue Grass watching
Wondertross finish a disappointing sixth, another of his Derby
prospects, Adonis, convincingly won the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial
at Aqueduct. Running just behind the pacesetters all the way,
the powerful colt raced four wide into the top of the stretch,
where Jorge Chavez whipped him twice on the right side. Adonis
responded eagerly, drawing clear and galloping home in 1:47 3/5,
two lengths ahead of the charging Best of Luck and only two
fifths of a second off the fastest Wood in history.
The impressive performance was a far cry from the bay's showing
four weeks earlier in the Florida Derby. In that race Adonis ran
greenly, wound up seven wide on the far turn and finished sixth.
Zito, acting on a suggestion from Chavez, added blinkers to help
the colt focus. "He was more professional today," Chavez said of
Adonis, who has won three of his last four starts. "I had plenty
of horse when I asked for it."
Even after such a convincing victory, it's hard to believe that
Adonis will give Zito his third Derby champion this decade. The
Wood isn't what it used to be. The field for the Grade II race
included only one winner of a Grade I stake, The Groom Is Red,
and since 1982 only one horse that ran in the Wood, Zito's Go
for Gin, in 1994, has gone on to win the Derby. "It's Nick's
decision," says Adonis's owner, Ernie Paragallo, on whether the
colt will run at Churchill Downs. "He's got a world of talent. I
think he's done enough to deserve it." --Mark Beech