The big filly named Sweet Catomine walked in circles outside her barn last Friday morning at Santa Anita Park. A TV camera tracked her every move because she seemed certain to beat a weak field of colts the following day in the Santa Anita Derby, the preeminent West Coast prep race for the Kentucky Derby. She would bring not just order but also a seductive story line to the Triple Crown chase.
Yet even as the towering bay cooled down, that scenario was in danger. Her owner, 65-year-old multimillionaire Marty Wygod, stood nearby and pursed his lips. "I don't believe she's coming into this race in peak form," Wygod said. "She's lost at least 80 pounds since the Breeders' Cup [last October]. She's just come into season [heat] this week for the first time, and she's got some other problems." (Wygod would reveal after the race that she'd suffered bleeding in her lungs after an April 3 workout. On Monday the California Horse Racing Board filed a complaint against Wygod, alleging "conduct detrimental to the best interests of horse racing" for failing to disclose Sweet Catomine's problems before the race.)
Here, then, was the reminder that comes annually in the chaos of April: The Triple Crown charts its own course. It pays no heed to predetermined narratives, historical precedents or odds-on favorites. It lets the horses run and coldly eliminates the unfit.
On a postcard California Saturday over a fast track, Sweet Catomine didn't run a threatening step while finishing a soundly beaten fifth behind 30--1 long shot winner Buzzards Bay. Wygod was right: His gifted filly was not in peak form, and now she will not even try to become the fourth filly to win the Kentucky Derby.
Sweet Catomine's loss was the third and final act in a frenetic play that unfolded at three tracks four weeks before the Run for the Roses. When it was over, George Steinbrenner's Bellamy Road had rushed to the top of the 3-year-old leader board with a jaw-dropping, 171/2-length win in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in what was easily the most impressive race by any 2005 Derby hopeful.
Bellamy Road was an unlikely candidate to become the most viable of trainer Nick Zito's five Derby contenders. Idle since Oct. 9, he finally made his 3-year-old debut on March 12 by winning an allowance race at Gulfstream by 153/4 lengths. On Saturday he rolled through crackling fractions, including a mile in 1:34.41. His winning time of 1:47.16 in the 11/8-mile race is considered the equal of Riva Ridge's 32-year-old track record, because times were not then recorded electronically. Bellamy Road may have beaten bad horses, but he beat them running very fast, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 120, better than the 110 that mysterious Blues and Royals turned in while winning the United Arab Emirates Derby in Dubai on March 26.
Before Bellamy Road had dug into his postrace feed tub, Greeley's Galaxy rolled to a 91/2-length victory in the Illinois Derby, the race that launched War Emblem to Derby and Preakness wins in '02. Greeley's Galaxy is not nominated to the Kentucky Derby, but owner B. Wayne Hughes is expected to write the $200,000 check for a supplemental entry.
That amount is more than the $175,000 San Francisco--area business partners Bill Bianco and David Shimmon gave trainer Jeff Mullins to buy Buzzards Bay early last November. The colt's victory was sweet consolation for Mullins, who won his third consecutive Santa Anita Derby after a winter in which he was sanctioned for "milkshaking" his horses (force-feeding them alkalizing agents to aid in stamina and recovery) and was quoted by a Los Angeles Times columnist calling horseplayers "idiots."
In fact, to have any chance of success in the coming weeks, bettors will have to begeniuses. ‚ñ†
One more Super Saturday remains on the road to the May 7 Kentucky Derby--this weekend, when the Blue Grass Stakes and Arkansas Derby will be run. Here's a look at the contenders.
Blue Grass Stakes (Keeneland): Colts trained by three of the game's most accomplished horsemen square off, as Nick Zito's Sun King meets Bobby Frankel's High Limit and D. Wayne Lukas's Consolidator.
Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park): Trying to take the Smarty Jones route to Louisville, Greater Good attempts to complete the Southwest-Rebel-Arkansas Derby triple for trainer Bob Holthus. He is expected to face Afleet Alex, who was slowed by a lung infection in the Rebel.