At long last, the field for the Kentucky Derby is beginning to take shape.
After a final round of major prep races yesterday, several contenders emerged as potential favorites for the Derby May 1, including an unlikely, unbeaten colt named Smarty Jones.
Smarty Jones ran his undefeated streak to six with a dominating victory in the $1 million Arkansas Derby. A win in three weeks at
And Nick Zito will have a Derby horse, after all. The Cliff's Edge ran down pacesetting Lion Heart and won the $750,000 Blue Grass at Keeneland, saving what had been a week of disappointment for the two-time Derby winning trainer.
Zito scratched Birdstone from the Blue Grass Thursday because the colt had a high white blood cell count, just a week after pulling Eurosilver out of the race with a gland infection.
In New York, Tapit punched his ticket to the Derby with a half-length victory over Master David in the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
The road to the Derby has been so confusing this year, it's still tough to pick a clear-cut favorite. But a contender's list of nearly 40 horses was reduced quite a bit after the three 1 1/8-mile races.
"It's wide open," said Bobby Frankel, who trains Master David. "Everyone is so close."
The maximum Derby field is 20, and if more enter, the starters are determined by graded-stakes earnings. That meant finishing among the top three was imperative for any horse needing to improve his bankroll -- starting with Smarty Jones.
Although he won his first five starts, including the Rebel at Oaklawn Park, none of the colt's victories came in graded stakes. Smarty Jones entered the Arkansas Derby with a big fat zero in graded stakes money -- the win in the Grade II race was worth $600,000, boosting him into the top 20.
The Cliff's Edge, with his first win in three starts this year, solidified his Derby status with a $465,000 payday. Tapit soared into the top 20 with his Wood win -- coming in, the gray colt was 28th with just $80,000. The win was worth $450,000.
Besides Tapit, runner-up Master David also earned his way into the Derby, while favorite Value Plus (sixth) and Sinister G (10th) remain in contention. Eddington, who was third, likely won't make the top 20.
From the Blue Grass, Lion Heart, Limehouse (third), and Action This Day (sixth) would also make the cut, while Preachinatthebar (seventh) remains a possibility.
Borrego, second in the Arkansas Derby, also sealed a spot in the field.
At Hot Springs, Ark., even-money favorite Smarty Jones stalked the pace set by Purge and took command around the turn to pull off to a 1 1/2-length win over Borrego.
The victory put Smarty Jones, trained by John Servis and ridden by little known Stewart Elliott, in position to earn a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn should he win the Kentucky Derby. The bonus goes to a horse who wins the Rebel, Arkansas, and Kentucky derbies.
Winning time for the race was 1:49.41 over a muddy track.
At Lexington, Ky., The Cliff's Edge, named for longtime Equibase chart caller Cliff Guilliams, beat odds-on favorite Lion Heart by a half-length in the Blue Grass.
Zito won the race for the third time -- Strike the Gold won in 1991 before winning the Derby, and Halory Hunter won in 1998.
The Cliff's Edge, a physically impressive son of Gulch, was a fast-closing third behind Friends Lake in the Florida Derby in his last start. The colt has now won four of seven career starts -- and is 2 for 2 at Churchill Downs.
Winning time was 1:49.42.
At New York, Tapit rebounded from a sixth-place finish in the Florida Derby and a lung infection to turn back 10 rivals in the Wood.
The Wood has produced three of the last four Derby winners -- Funny Cide last year, Monarchos in 2001, and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.
Tapit, under Ramon Dominguez, rallied from last place to edge Master David.
"Believe me, I am as surprised as anyone," said trainer Michael Dickinson, who is set with his first Derby starter.
The son of Pulpit will try to become the first horse since Sunny's Halo in 1983 to win the Derby off just two starts as a 3-year-old. Tapit won both starts as a 2-year-old.
Winning time was 1:49.70.