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Derby Loses Big Contender, Adds Hopefuls

If one more good horse is scratched off the Kentucky Derby trail, I swear I’m going to pull an Elvis and shoot my TV. News broke Saturday that Eclipse winning champion War Pass suffered a hairline fracture in his left front ankle and will take a break from racing until it is healed. The injury is not fatal, but it will keep him out of the entire Triple Crown, making War Pass just another head in the list of true competitors scratched off the Derby trail. He joins the company of Georgie Boy and Crown of Thorns, two talented horses who would have greatly improved the quality of the field in the Kentucky Derby were it not for small injuries.

The loss of War Pass from this year’s Kentucky Derby will be felt significantly in not only the betting windows, but in the speed of the race. If War Pass had been in the Derby, he would have put a lot of heat on Big Brown, the current favorite, to set a blistering early pace. And while in my heart I didn’t think War Pass would be able to hold off the imposing shadows of the late-kickers, he was a classy horse whose absence will be felt in the beginning of the race, when someone will be called to set the pace. From the looks of it, the early stages of the Kentucky Derby are likely to be slower than usual, unless Big Brown decides to show off.

With War Pass out, another post is available to a horse who didn’t have enough earnings before. But instead of a cliffhanging horse climbing up, some surprising developments have unfolded. Suddenly, the fillies are wanting in on the action.

Not satisfied with being the favorites for the Kentucky Oaks, the Grade-1 filly race the day before the Kentucky Derby, two fillies are being considered for a romp with the boys. Neither Proud Spell nor Eight Belles have raced against colts, but these girls have better records than half of them. Proud Spell likes dirt and never finished worse than second before she succumbed to Keeneland’s Polytrack and finished third. With rival Indian Blessing taking a break, Proud Spell is bound to become the more versatile filly, excelling around two turns and maybe showing the boys a thing or two.

Eight Belles is looking very impressive this year. Since January, the gray filly has been unbeaten in four starts. But she has yet to run in a Grade-1 stakes, and therefore may not have had the competition that Proud Spell has become accustomed to. Still, that 13 ½-lenth victory in the Martha Washington Stakes is hard to ignore, and this filly looks to have world domination in her sights.

Larry Jones, the trainer of both fillies, has disclosed that the plan is to enter the pair into both the Oaks and the Derby. Once the post positions are drawn, the owners will make the decision in which race to run their fillies, based on how close the girls are to the rail. The Kentucky Derby allows 20 contenders in the race, the Kentucky Oaks is limited to 14. It’s pretty much a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned; the addition of the fillies to the Derby will make for a better field, and if they pull out, there will be fewer horses to clog up the track.

Once April 30 comes around, we will know the official post positions for the entrants of the Kentucky Derby and the Oaks, and the cut and clean handicapping can begin. As for now, the whole thing is a mess. Thanks to new factors like synthetic surfaces messing up the records and earnings of good horses, it’s hard to tell where each horse stands. No one simply knows how good or bad horses can switch from one surface to another, or if Pyro’s performance on the fake stuff is a sign of him either disliking the surface or faltering in his abilities. The only horse looking pristine as a shiny new silver dollar is Big Brown, and of course, he has his question marks. One thing is for certain — it will definitely be an interesting year for betting.

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