Three Derby preps carry major stakes

The road to the Kentucky Derby only gets more interesting as May 2 draws closer. Three major preps — the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Illinois Derby — will be run Saturday.

The most likely winner among the three preps is I Want Revenge at 4-5 in the Wood. His eight-length win in the Gotham at Aqueduct was scintillating. Trainer Jeff Mullins was trying him for the first time over organic dirt and was rewarded for shipping east from Santa Anita.

The meeting between The Pamplemousse and Pioneerof the Nile in the Santa Anita Derby could be the day’s best race. It will be an intriguing contrast in running styles — The Pamplemousse prefers to lead or race close up, and Pioneerof the Nile sits far back and makes one run.

The Illinois Derby appears to be wide open. The tepid 7-2 favorite is Musket Man, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby. Tampa horses have a well-earned reputation of shipping out and running well.

Nowhere to Hide, Giant Oak, Perfect Song and Free Country figure to challenge.

BALLY’S — Harrah’s closure of the Bally’s race and sports book this week reveals a few things.

A few years ago, the Bally’s book under Johnny Avello was one of the most vibrant in town. Now it’s gone.

A Harrah’s news release said the book would reopen in time for football season. I’ll believe that when I see it.

DUNKIRK — It’s open season to criticize Churchill Downs and the graded earnings system it uses to cull the Kentucky Derby field.

Dunkirk, a talented colt, made $150,000 in graded money for finishing second in the Florida Derby. It’s doubtful that amount will be enough to make the 20-horse Derby field. But the real lapse in judgment lies with Dunkirk’s trainer, Todd Pletcher.

As flawed as the graded earnings rule is, all trainers and owners know about it. If Pletcher had one shot to make graded money for Dunkirk, he should have picked the easiest stakes possible. That should have been Saturday’s $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne.

Dunkirk would have been a 1-2 favorite to claim the $300,000 winner’s share, more than enough to make the Derby field.

BOULDER STATION — The first local qualifier for the 2010 DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship is today at Boulder Station. The entry fee is $25.

Palace Station will host a $25 qualifier on April 10.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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