NEW YORK — When Afternoon Deelites suffered his first defeat at Santa Anita last week, he lost his status as a formidable favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Suddenly the Derby appears wide-open, and several 3-year-olds have a chance to emerge Saturday as leading contenders.
Here at Aqueduct, Talkin Man heads a field of nine in the $500,000 Wood Memorial Stakes, and he is widely expected to deliver a performance that certifies him as one of the leaders of his generation. In the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Thunder Gulch and Suave Prospect renew the rivalry that produced two dramatic battles at Gulfstream Park.
Talkin Man was Canada's champion 2-year-old last year, but his dismal performance in the Breeders' Cup seemed to suggest that he was not good enough to handle top U.S. competition. However, trainer Roger Attfield discovered after the race that the colt was suffering from a virus, and that ailment kept Talkin Man out of action until March 25. Attfield didn't think his colt was in peak condition for the Gotham Stakes that day, but Talkin Man surprised him--and many handicappers--by running away to a seven-length victory in fast time. Although his opposition was of moderate quality, speed figures suggest that he is as good as the top 3-year-olds in California and Kentucky.
"The plan was for him to have two races prior to the Derby and have him at his best for the Derby while still being fresh," Attfield said. "We've cleared the first hurdle. Now we have to make the second jump."
That jump, the 1 1/8-mile Wood, shouldn't be too difficult for Talkin Man. Not only is the competition weak, but the field doesn't contain much speed, so the favorite--ridden by Shane Sellers--should be able to control the race from start to finish. The only entrant with a plausible chance to score an upset is Key Guy, a late bloomer who looked impressive winning a stakes at Turfway Park in his last start.
The $500,000 Blue Grass appears to be a much more competitive race. Thunder Gulch scored two photo-finish victories over Suave Prospect in Florida this winter.