With his win inthe Wood Memorial, a focused Nobiz Like Shobiz took center stage among KentuckyDerby contenders
EARLY IN 2006trainer Barclay Tagg went to a farm in central Florida to take stock of theracehorses that would soon be under his care. One of them was Nobiz LikeShobiz, a colt so impressive that Tagg immediately pulled out his cellphone andcalled Nobiz's owner, Elizabeth Valando, at her winter home in Palm Beach."Mrs. Valando," Tagg said to the widow of former Broadway musicpublishing tycoon Tommy Valando, "if this isn't a Triple Crown horse, Idon't know what one looks like." Never before had Tagg so swiftly called anowner to praise a horse's potential, and never had he touted a 2-year-old sohighly.
More than a yearhas passed, and Tagg, who won the first two legs of the 2003 Triple Crown withthe popular gelding Funny Cide, was right about Nobiz Like Shobiz. Following awin in the Wood Memorial at frigid Aqueduct last Saturday, Nobiz is one of thefavorites for the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Yet heading into the final prepraces—this Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Kentucky's Keeneland Race Course,and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs—no horse has separatedhimself from the pack.
Scat Daddy, oneof prolific trainer Todd Pletcher's small army of potential Kentucky Derbystarters, has won five of his eight lifetime starts, including the FloridaDerby on March 31. On the same day as the Wood, Pletcher's fast-improvingCowtown Cat won the Illinois Derby, and Tiago, a half-brother to long-shot 2005Derby champ Giacomo, was the upset winner of the Santa Anita Derby.
So the KentuckyDerby picture remains muddled, which makes Tagg's deft handling of Nobiz LikeShobiz particularly significant. After winning two of his three starts as a2-year-old, Nobiz beat Scat Daddy in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park onFeb. 3 but then ran erratically and finished third in the Fountain of Youth onMarch 3. In that race Nobiz ducked in on the straightaway, apparently spookedby crowd noise in the homestretch.
To combat what hecalled the colt's "immaturity," Tagg put blinkers on Nobiz and cottonin his ears. Nobiz responded by dismissing Pletcher's highly regarded Any GivenSaturday and holding off the fast-closing Sightseeing to win the Wood by half alength in a relatively pedestrian 1:49.46.
During FunnyCide's run Tagg was often terse with the media, squirming under the spotlightas he tried to manage a high-strung horse and 10 fun-loving owners. "I gota reputation for being a grump," he says. With a calmer horse and ninefewer owners, he is better prepared this time.
After theFountain of Youth, a writer reminded Tagg that football teams often prepare forhostile crowds by pumping loud noise through speakers during practices."Maybe I can get people to honk their car horns on the turn when [Nobiz]works in the morning," said Tagg, laughing. However, he is clearly seriousabout making a deeper footprint in horse racing history. "When you win oneDerby, people can say it was a fluke," he said a week before the Wood."They don't say it when you win two."
ONLY AT SI.COMMore horse racing news and analysis from Tim Layden.
Ready or Not?
The final two major Kentucky Derby prep races—the BlueGrass Stakes at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park—will be runthis Saturday. Here are the top contenders in each.
BLUE GRASS STAKES
Street Sense (right)
Last year's 2-year-old champion bids to become first Breeders' Cup Juvenilevictor to win Kentucky Derby.
California's best 3-year-old was easy winner his last time out on March 3; ineight starts he hasn't finished worse than third.
Common sense says he isn't accomplished enough to win; that was the thinkingabout Tiago before he won Santa Anita Derby.
Runaway winner of Oaklawn's Rebel Stakes will be making only third start, whichDerby history suggests won't be enough.
Owner B. Wayne Hughes, the Public Storage billionaire, still seeking firstKentucky Derby win after two fourth-place finishes.
If colt runs well enough here, trainer Todd Pletcher is likely to have at leastfive starters at Churchill Downs.