Annual WinStar Derby to feature top horses, jockeys
There's one thing that's absolutely certain about this year's WinStar Derby at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino -- jockey Victor Espinoza will not win it a third straight time.
Espinoza won't be here today, which means he won't get a chance to sweep both the WinStar Oaks and the WinStar Derby as he did in each of the past two years.
But just because the defending jockey champion isn't here doesn't mean this year's $600,000 WinStar Derby isn't full of strong horses, jockeys and big-name trainers.
The morning line favorite (5-to-1 odds) in today's featured race (No. 11 on the 12-race card) is Liberty Bull, which is trained by Tom Amoss.
Liberty Bull is coming of a big win in the $50,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park, and the horse has two firsts and two seconds in four career starts.
Amos said the length of today's WinStar Derby, 1êmiles, is a significant difference from the horses recent races, which were 1-mile in length.
"I think that with Liberty Bull, one of the most encouraging things I've seen, besides being a stakes winner, was at the Southwest Stakes (Feb. 18 at Oaklawn). It wasn't a winning race, so that may sounder counter-intuitive, but that was a race when Liberty Bull didn't have a good trip, but at the end of the race the horse was finishing strongly. We think that extra distance will be something the horse is going to enjoy.
"An eighth of a mile is a tremendous difference in distance."
One thing that could affect wagering is that Liberty Bull's regular jockey, Eddie Razo Jr., won't be aboard today.
Razo Jr., the leading rider at Oaklawn, suffered an injury this week. Amos, who is scheduled to be in town for today's race, has tabbed Gerard Melancon to ride Liberty Bull.
"He has not been on him before, but he's a leading rider at Delta Downs. The reason we picked Gerard is Delta doesn't race on Sunday. Our choices were limited to riders not racing on that day."
Even so, Amos is confident Liberty Bull will continue to be a strong contender -- even after drawing the No. 10 post position in today's field of 10 3-year olds, as his past performances have shown a great deal of consistency.
"As time has gone on, you're seeing the horses he beat or got beat by, they're all developing. All the fields have panned out to be quality horses. I think competitive is the word. The horses he's been competitive with have panned out to be nice horses."
The 5-to-1 favorite is Ablaze With Spirit, which will be ridden by 2007 Eclipse Award winner Garret Gomez and is trained by Steve Asmussen. Gomez is scheduled to ride in 10 of the 11 races on today's card.
"Garrett is the leading rider in the country, and his resume may be even more accomplished than Victor (Espinoza's)," Sunland Park publicity director Eric Alwan said.
Ablaze With Spirit is a little closer to the rail in the No. 3 post, and it is coming off a win in the 1-mile Jim's Orbit race at Sam Houston Race Park on Feb. 16.
Two horses coming in at 8-to-1 odds are No Jepordy from the No. 4 post and Screen To Screen from the No. 9 position.
No Jepordy is trained by Doug O'Neill and will have Corey Nakatani riding today. O'Neill twice has had horses win the WinStar Derby (2003 with Excessivepleasure and 2005 with Thor's Echo).
Screen To Screen is trained by Bob Baffert -- who said Wednesday during the WinStar draw that the horse got its name from a friend who constantly was shifting his focus from one flat-screen TV to another at an off-track-betting site -- and will be ridden by another national jockey coming to town, Aaron Gryder.
But a horse that shouldn't be overlooked is Steve Asmussen-trained Poni Colada (9-to-2 odds), which will have Alfredo Juarez Jr. aboard and is coming out of the No. 1 post.
Poni Colada won the $100,000 Borderland Derby, a 1 and 1/16 mile race, on Feb. 16 at Sunland Park.
Alwan likes the way Poni Colada looks.
"He's Asmussen trained, he's stabled here and he won the Borderland Derby by 8 lengths," he said, but also added, "Poni Colada and Liberty Bull raced at Oaklawn and Liberty Bull beat him. But of the horses that have run here, Poni Colada has beaten them all."
Local trainer Henry Dominguez won last year's WinStar Derby with Song of Navarone, and he brings 20-to-1 longshot Capetown Royal into this year's race.
But Dominguez warns not to count his horse out.
"He's run in two stakes races and has a lot of talent," he said. "But he's been unlucky. Some little bitty things have been nagging him, but he's coming up to this race as good as he can be. We expect a very good effort out of him.
"He's a maiden, but people don't know much of the background on him at all. He had a bunch of things going against him that kept us from training him the way we wanted to. But he's getting right when the big money is down, and we're glad of that."
Joe Martinez will ride Capetown Royal, and he, like Juarez Jr., is having a good meet.
"We've been using Joe a lot all winter long. He knows the horse and he'll ride him with a lot of confidence," Dominguez said. "We're real high on this horse, because we know what he's capable of."
After winning the WinStar Derby last year -- especially with so many horses from top trainers in the event -- Dominguez said it was a memorable experience.
"To our staff and the owners, it was a great accomplishment," he said. "It's something we really look forward to. It's one of our goals and, if you can attain it, it's like icing on the cake."
The WinStar Derby is the richest ungraded stakes race in the world at $600,000.
It will be preceeded on today's card by the New Mexico Breeder's Derby (8th race), the WinStar Sunland Park Oaks (9th race) and the Harry W. Henson Breeders' Cup Handicap (10th race).
In the WinStar Oaks, Tough Tiz's Sis is the 9-to-5 favorite from the No. 3 post with Gryder aboard. Tough Tiz's Sis, another Baffert-trained horse, won last year's WinStar Oaks.
In this year's Oaks, the favorite is Grace Anatomy, which comes out of the No. 4 gate and will have Nakatani aboard. Grace Anatomy is owned by pro baseball player Paul LoDuca.
Post Pos., horseOdds
1. Poni Colada 9-2
2. Winsome Charm 7-2
3. Ablaze With Spirit 5-1
4. No Jepordy 8-1
5. Bankers Way 20-1
6. Capetown Royal 20-1
7. Cape Time10-1
9. Screen To Screen 8-1
10. Liberty Bull 3-1
John Erfort, El Paso Times
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