Talent Rising to the Top in Kentucky Derby Field

What/where: 135th Run for the Roses, Churchill Downs, Louisville

When, TV: Saturday, NBC, 5 p.m. ET; post time about 6:24 p.m.

Distance: 1 1/4 miles. Purse: $2 million. Favorite: I Want Revenge, 3-1.

A flurry of activity occurred before post positions were drawn for the 20-horse field when three possible contenders were withdrawn because of injury in three days. Florida Derby champion Quality Road was sidelined Monday when a quarter crack kept him from a scheduled workout at New York's Belmont Park. Square Eddie (shin) and Win Willy (ankle) soon followed.

The good news for racing fans is that plenty of talent remains.

"You are going to see a lot of horses who go unplaced (out of the top three) in the Derby scatter around the country and be very good horses," says trainer Larry Jones, who will saddle Louisiana Derby victor Friesan Fire.

A major question will be how some quality 3-year-olds accustomed to the synthetic tracks in California adjust to the traditional dirt track at Churchill Downs.

PHOTO GALLERY: Scenes from Churchill Downs SAFETY: Eight Belles' legacy CONTENDERS: Derby Dozen video analysis; capsules of whole field

I Want Revenge already answered that with an exclamation point, which is largely why he is listed as the 3-1 favorite.

His first dirt start produced a rousing 8 1/2-length rout in the Gotham Stakes in early March that he followed with a 1 1/2-length decision in the Wood Memorial. He reared at the start in the Wood but found a way to reach the winner's circle.

"When he got to dirt," says Joe Talamo, his jockey, "it was unbelievable how he grabbed it and would get over it so well."

Talamo, 19, must hope he can handle his nerves that easily in his first Derby start. "I'm sure I will have butterflies on Derby day," he says. "But so far it's been an amazing ride."

While I Want Revenge answered the surface question, Pioneerof the Nile has not. He takes a four-race winning streak into the Run for the Roses, including a 1-length victory vs. fellow starter Chocolate Candy in the Santa Anita Derby. But he hasn't been off a synthetic surface until now for trainer Bob Baffert, gunning for his fourth Derby champion.

"I'm very confident in my trainer. I'm very confident in my horse," says Garrett Gomez, who has never lost on Pioneerof the Nile since he began riding him in December. "What is it they say? Let's get ready to rumble."

Baffert's greatest concern involves his colt's demeanor. "He's fit. He looks really fantastic. His mind is great. He's been handling everything," the trainer says. "I don't want him to get stirred up. So far, I haven't seen that. I'm really happy with that."

Jones, a runner-up each of the last two years with Hard Spun and star-crossed filly Eight Belles, thinks he might be able to break through with Friesan Fire. The colt is training sharply, and he is not concerned about a seven-week layoff since he splashed home first by 71/4 lengths on a wet track in the Louisiana Derby.

"If we get the right trip," Jones says, "we'll be right there."

Florida Derby runner-up Dunkirk, making his fourth start, was unraced at age 2 because of minor physical problems. No horse since Apollo in 1882 has overcome that lost time.

For long-shot lovers, four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas is talking the talk even though Flying Private was no better than fifth in the Arkansas Derby. Lukas is bidding to return to the winner's circle for the first time since he led in Charismatic in 1999. "Charismatic went on to be horse of the year," he said, "but at this stage, I think (Flying Private) is every bit as good."

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