Archive for May 2008

WINE OF THE MONTH- MAY

May 17, 2008

Before it gets too hot outside, I couldn’t resist highlighting a certain new world wine that has really impressed me on more than one occasion. A friend of mine who grew up in Botswana gave me a bottle of this to sample last year around the holidays, and insisted that I give it a try. I was blown away by this stunning example of Pinotage, a grape that all too often is poorly made and ends up tasting like liquid beef jerky. Recently I ran across it again at a tasting, and my notes compared well with my first experience. If you’re into new world wines, this one might be worth seeking out. It’s easily the best Pinotage that I’ve ever tasted, and it’s ready to drink now.

KANONKOP ESTATE PINOTAGE SIMONSBERG STELLENBOSCH 2004, 90 Points, $30, 800 cases imported

A heavy, complex mix of smoky meat, black and red currant fruit, graphite, leather and banana on the nose. Complex body of dark raspberry and blackberry, smoked meat, strong mocha, burnt tea and graphite above a nice dash of peppery spice. Long, chalky, minerally finish of red fruits and pepper, full and exciting, velvety and well-balanced.

Spain- Fine Dining Recap

May 14, 2008

While in Spain, we had the privilege of dining at two of the world’s greatest restaurants. El Celler De Can Roca, located just north of the city center of Girona, is renowned as one of the hottest culinary spots on the planet. It was ranked as highly as #11 in the world in Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 list for 2007 (I believe it fell to #26 on the 2008 list, but we won’t get picky). We made the short day trip to Girona from our base in Barcelona mostly for our lunch reservation here, although I will say that the town is quite charming and would recommend the day trip regardless. After that, we headed for San Sebastian, which is widely regarded as the current culinary capital of the world. Boasting more Michelin starts that any other city in the world (that’s right, including London and Paris) and posting three in the aforementioned top 50 list (and two in the top ten), we headed here solely for the beach and the cuisine. We only had two nights to spend in San Sebastian and decided to devote one night (and most of our food budget) to a world-class dining experience at the famous Arzak restaurant, which currently ranks as the #8 restaurant in the world. Chef Jean Mari Arzak is credited with the innovation of modern Spanish cuisine, and the restaurant has continued its domaince in the culinary world since his daughter Elena has assumed the head chef duties. Earlier in the trip, we also dined at Cal Pep in Barcelona, which is worth a mention as well due to its unique upscale tapas-style dining and nearly perfect cuisine. It also has had its turn in the Top 50, earning “Best Value” honors back in 2005 when it ranked as highly as #31. Here’s a brief recap of our experiences. (Prices in Euros, with one bottle of wine).

El Celler De Can Roca, Girona, Spain: 175 Euros (four-course classic menu 65 Euros)

After spending a relaxing morning exploring the inner-workings of the quaint city of Girona, we made our way through Devasa Park. The restaurant was an easy half-hour walk through park and across the river. El Celler De Can Roca is the creation of the Roca family, composed of head chef Joan Roca, dessert chef Jordi Roca, and sommelier Josep Roca. The restaurant has recently moved to a new location, and the fresh decor was immediately inviting. The contemporary dining room has a non-pretentious feel, with simple white table cloths and a beautiful garden of trees en glassed in the middle of the restaurant below a sunroof which allows a good amount of light to enter during the day. We were seated immediately despite being about a half hour early for our 2 p.m. lunch reservation, and an English speaking waiter and sommelier were provided for us without a second thought. I was quickly excited as the sommelier brought over the wine list on a rolling apparatus! The list was so large that it was separated into large red, white and dessert wine books and placed on the easel-like structure (below). I’d certainly never seen this before. We ended up going with the Finca Sandoval Syrah Manchuela 2005.

A few amuse bouche arrived, including a very salty cod-chip creation and a delicious chocolate bon bon. We of course decided to go with the four-course tasting menu which seemed reasonable enough for lunch. The first course was duck liver covered in a carmelized vanilla, and it was absolutely mind-blowing. The sweetness and crunchiness of the carmelized top layer blended amazingly with the rich, delicate nature of the liver. Lisa couldn’t finish it all because it was so rich, so I gladly helped her out against my better judgment simply because I couldn’t stop eating it. The richness of this dish was beyond measure! The consistency and intensity of flavors reminded me of creme brulee. (below)

The second course was a succulent lobster in a mushroom sauce above mashed potatoes. The lobster was rich, tender and fresh, with a classic salty flavor that left no doubt that this creature had been swimming in the ocean earlier than morning. And of course, any use of mashed potatoes at a fine-dining establishment makes the course a sure winner in my book. It was utterly delicious. (below)

Having consumed two incredibly impressive courses, we readied ourselves for the meat course of roasted suckling pig. We’d enjoyed this Spanish specialty earlier in the week at the world famous Sobrino de Botin in Madrid, and it was great, but something told me this baby pig had potential to be spectacular, and I wasn’t incorrect. The pig was incredibly tender and had a perfectly roasted layer of pig skin that added a delicious crunch to the tender, flavorful meat. (below)

For our final course, an intensely flavorful chocolate souffle arrived wrapped in a ginger paper and served with ginger ice cream. This was a truly interesting and innovative combination that balanced wonderfully. (below) After just four courses, wow, we were full!

The food, the service and the ambiance at El Celler De Can Roca made it a truly memorable experience. Most notably, I thought the price was incredibly reasonable for the quality of the food not to mention the stature of the place. My only complaint was that after we’d finished, the staff pretty much ignored us and let us enjoy ourselves without ever asking if we needed anything else. If they had, I’d have told them that I needed the check! But I suppose you can’t fault a place for not pushing you out the door, especially in Europe. If I’m ever near Girona again, you can bet I’ll be making a stop here!

Arzak, San Sebastian: 380 Euros ( six course tasting menu 150 Euros)

I should preface by noting that my entire vacation was nearly ruined when I woke up with food poisoning the morning of my 9:00 p.m. Arzak reservation. I couldn’t keep anything down for hours and was horrified that I’d have to cancel the reservation that I’d made six months ago and had essentially planned the trip around. Luckily, by about 6:00 p.m. I started to feel as though I could make a run at the tasting menu. Fortunately, food this good quickly makes you forget about anything that might be ailing you.

Again we arrived a bit earlier than our reservation was made for, but trust me when I say that if you choose to eat dinner at 8:45 anywhere in Spain on a Saturday night, you’ll have the place to yourself for a good while. We arrived and were seated immediately, and to my surprise were greeted by a friendly young captain who spoke English impressively (being in Basque country, I was very concerned about the possible language barrier at this restaurant, but the staff eased those fears right off the bat). I was surprised by how elegant the decor was; I guess I was expecting more of an old country style, but instead the restaurant was predominantly sleek and black. And while I admit that paying the equivalent $250 a person for a tasting menu is a bit of a ridiculous proposition, (especially when, in my case, you’ve been throwing up all day) we were at one of the best restaurants in the world, and a splurge was well within reason. I ordered a bottle of the Finca Valpiedra Rioja Reserva 2001 and we braced ourselves for a barrage of food.

The amuse bouche were nearly a meal in themselves. Our friendly server, dressed in a simple kitchen apron, succeeded admirably in her English explanation of our five mini-courses. Our favorites included a roasted chicken with pear, a delicate bite of stone crab, some escargot and an interesting gazpacho soup topped with a strong cheese. (below) It was evident that this place was serious about its food.

We decided to sample as much food as we could, so we ordered different choices at each tasting point and shared. The first of our choices to come out was a carmelized escalloped apple topped with foie gras, which was sweet and delicate with the slightest hint of crunch. (below)

I enjoyed a soft and refreshing oyster course by myself. The presentation continued to amaze us as they brought to our table an out-of-this-world lobster dish. The lobster was drenched in an amazing sauce which our server brought out from the kitchen after making an additional trip. The dish itself was incredibly rich and flavorful and cooked to perfection, not chewy in the least bit. (below)

The next course took imagination to a whole new level. It was a poached egg surrounded by peas, mushrooms and ham, which combined beautifully to create a soft, delicate breakfast dish in the middle of our meal. The yoke spilled out and mixed with the vegetables and meat. Lisa was a huge fan of this course. (below)

I was nearly full by this point, but the fish and meat courses were still to come, and since we had split our orders, that meant that I had four courses yet to sample. We absolutely loved the sole dish, which came in a sweet, creamy sauce and was perfectly tender. The balance of flavors was perhaps displayed best in this course, which was far from “fishy” and tasted more like dessert! (below, top) The monkfish came wrapped in a crust of bronze! (below, bottom) It was also very tasty, although we both enjoyed the sole the most of the two, which says a lot more for the sole than it takes away from the monkfish.

Perhaps my favorite course of the night among so much amazing food was the lamb loin, which came served medium rare in an au jus and the perfect amount of subtle mint. It was melt-in-your-mouth tender, gamey and packed with flavor, cooked to utter perfection. (below, top) Lisa ordered the beef course, and the small bite that I had was fantastic. (below, bottom) I noticed well-concentrated flavors including a tasty hazelnut character.

I was beyond stuffed by this point, but that didn’t stop what seemed like a never-ending string of dessert courses from finding their way to our table. First there were chocolates, including jelly-like chocolate balls (below, top) and another course of creamier mint balls filled with dark chocolate. Wow did these go well with the subtle chocolate undertones of our delicious Rioja! The next set of desserts included an amazing “champagne ravioli” as well as dry ice of pineapple along with a steaming hot creme de cocoa that oozed onto the dish (below, bottom), all again with careful design and presentation.

My highlight came shortly after, as Jean Mari Arzak himself came over to our table to thank us for coming to his restaurant! In his limited English, he asked us “Where from?” When we told him Chicago, he replied, “Oh, Charlie Trotter!” Small world, I suppose. He was even nice enough to pose for a picture with us at our table.

Overall, we found the service to be spotless, incredibly unpretentious, welcoming and accommodating. The food was obviously inventive and approaching perfection, using an impressive combination of innovation and mastery of classic cuisine to create a tasting menu with great balance. Our friendly server made us souvenir copies of our menu selections, which of course are unintelligible since they are written in Basque. After perhaps the most expensive dinner of our lives (it has to be at least tied with The French Laundry) we left incredibly satisfied, which is always such a wonderful feeling after such a splurge. I don’t think we could have asked for anything more, and this is certainly in our top five dining experiences ever.

Cal Pep, Barcelona: 110 Euros, 6 Courses

What an exciting and lively experience it was to dine at Cal Pep. After searching some of the narrow streets of Barcelona’s gothic quarter looking for the restaurant, we ended up finding it in a much more wide-open area than we had anticipated thanks to a long line already formed at the door. It was 8:10 p.m., a full twenty minutes before the famous restaurant was supposed to open, so we took our place in line in hopes of attaining one of the twenty-some seats at the bar of the tiny place. Unfortunately, we ended up about three or four back in the line after all of the seats were occupied, so we were forced to wait for other patrons to finish before we could have a seat. However, what could have been a frustrating experience actually turned out to be a lot of fun, as we were able to get a feel for the chaotic nature of the place while watching what other people were eating and while the staff served us Rioja on the house.

The best way to describe the atmosphere at Cal Pep would be to call it organized chaos. Pep, the owner and chef, barks out orders with what seems to be a damaged voice box, while waiters and cooks scramble to prepare the large tapas portions for their guests in the tiny kitchen that is placed wide open inside of the bar. Needless to say, when we got our seats after a very reasonable 45-minute wait, I was all excitement. Our waiter poured us some more wine and asked us what we wanted to eat. That’s simple enough, I thought! After explaining that I wanted to leave it up to him with the exception that Lisa wanted to avoid shellfish, he offered some suggestions, and away we went.

The first course was a tuna tartare, which was impossibly tender and flavorful while still modest in its own right. It was served simply with sesame seeds which added a nice crunch, but the attraction in this course was the sheer flavor and melt-in-your mouth texture of the jello-esque tuna. (below)

The next course was a lightly fried baby squid which was served similarly to how we eat calamari in America, except without any marinara or cocktail dipping sauces. (below) Luckily, no dipping sauces were necessary for this dish, as it contained a freshness and saltiness of flavor that was plenty satisfying.

In Spain, especially near the sea, they are all about the squid. I found this out the hard way later in the trip when I may have gotten food poisoning from a lightly sauteed octopus that I decided to eat. But my favorite squid-related dish of the whole trip was our next dish at Cal Pep, the grilled calamari, and it really wasn’t even close. This dish was served hot in an impressively simple and delicious tomato and onion broth. The calamari was cooked perfectly and wasn’t the least bit chewy as calamari can often be when grilled instead of fried.

Finally, the monkfish course arrived. Ah, monkfish. Is there a better combination of steakiness and mildness out there in that giant ocean than these specimen? Cal Pep knew how to take advantage of the possibilities, and after deboning a generous portion of monkfish (below), we dug into a perfect example of this fantastic fish. It was steaky without being fishy or overly rich, and was prepared simply with olive oil and garlic, which were perfect complements. Anything more would have been overdoing it. Probably the best piece of monkfish that I’ve ever had.

It really was entertaining to just sit back and watch the action as Pep frantically gave orders to his workers with his strange voice and bright red glasses. We soaked it in and decided that we weren’t ready to leave yet. The courses had been so good that we decided we couldn’t leave without trying a meat dish, so we ordered the “beef”, which turned out to be medium-rare pieces of filet that melted in our mouths with an amazing intensity of flavor. (below) This turned out to be the best course of our night, and pulled the meal together wonderfully by showcasing the wide range of food that this place can absolutely knock out.

I suppose if there were any negatives at Cal Pep, the desserts didn’t seem quite as inspired as the courses. Of course, at that point I was about to order another helping of the beef so I might not have been giving the dessert the full attention that it deserved. I ordered a glass of Noval Tawny port to close the evening as we picked away at a bizarre lemon-flavored whipped cream along with a chocolate napolean which was like a pastry on the outside with intense dark chocolate on the inside. Satisfied, we forced ourselves to give up our seat at the bar to other eager (and hungry) patrons, but not before yelling “Pep!” as the man walked past us, briefly startling him in an attempt to thank him for such a memorable meal. For an exciting night of what seemed like bottomless food and wine, not to mention the quality of all of the above and the rowdy atmosphere, the “Best Value” tag that this restaurant earned is still well-deserved.

Tasting Report- Spanish Wines

May 11, 2008

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my wife and I recently returned from a ten day trip across Spain, visiting the Madrid, Barcelona and San Sebastian areas. After we returned, I had the opportunity to further expand my knowledge of Spanish wines by participating in some tastings across the Chicago area. Here’s a brief rundown on some of Spain’s better current offerings in both the bargain and collectible categories. (Tempranillo unless otherwise specified).

TOP BARGAINS FOR THE PRICE:

  1. Alta Moncayo Grenache Campo de Borja 2005, $45, 93 Points: Tons of burnt toast, floral spice and red current fruit on the nose. Mouthfilling flavors of black cherry and raspberry with a nice spicy backbone. Elegant and layered through the long length as floral notes linger with the powerful toasty fruit and a well-intertwined spiciness, impressive.
  2. Bodegas del Cenit Zamora Toro 2004, $45, 92 Points: Perfumey and minerally with a strong nose of blackberry and blueberry along with hints of orange peel. Rich, creamy body of blackberry and violet with layers of caramelly chocolate behind. Seamless, smooth finish lingers long. Full and rich overall with unique elegance, subtle spice adds complexity.
  3. Sierra Cantabria Privada Rioja 2005, $40, 92 Points: Inviting nose of crushed flowers and dark raspberry with hints of leather. Big body of aggressive red berries, a bit austere but lots going on with floral undertones, cinnamon spice and vanilla adding complexity through the long length. Could amaze with age. Finishes with a medicinal note.
  4. Bodegas Aalta Ribera del Duero 2004, $50, 92 Points: Perfumey black fruit aromas with notes of chocolate and clove. Supple, suave mouthfeel of zesty blackberry fruit, licorice, chocolate, caramel and oak with hints of leather and clovey spice. Long length loaded with fruit flavor, well-balanced.
  5. Alonso Yerro Maria Ribera del Duero 2005, $55, 92 Points: Dark, perfumey cassis fruit on the nose above hints of mocha powder. Mouth-coating blackberry, licorice and violet layered nicely above hints of coffee, spice and mineral. Fine tannins through the long length, elegant and delicious.
  6. Finca Sandoval Syrah Mancheula 2004, $40, 91 Points: Rich aromas and flavors of dark berry fruit, licorice, blackberry and peppery spice. Light traces of leather and chocolate but predominantly fruity, robust and spicy.
  7. Bodegas Paganos El Pundito Rioja 2003, $50, 91 Points: Oaky on the nose with notes of red currant and dark raspberry. Creamy body of delicious cherry, plum and cassis fruit above soft vanilla. A very pretty wine, with long length and amazing complexity and balance.
  8. Cepa 21 Ribera del Duero 2004, $40, 90 Points: Toasty nose of mocha above black fruit nuances and hints of smoky bacon. Mouthfeel of crème de cassis, blueberry, licorice, strong mocha and smoke are all well-intertwined. Medium to long length of fruit and mineral, complex elements, rich body.
  9. Torremilanos Cyclo Ribera del Duero 2005, $40, 89 Points: Subtle, soft black fruit and oak aromas. Elegant body of perfumey blackberry fruit and licorice with well-intertwined oak and a hint of spice. Plush and smooth through the long length, lots of black fruit and subtle oak here along with understated smoke and spice.
  10. Bodegas y Vinedos Maurodos San Roman Toro 2003, 89 Points: Lots of oak on the nose with ripe, almost inky black fruit. Lightly perfumed body with licorice, blackberry, undertones of spice and heavy oak. Graphite creeps in through the length along with lots of fruit and spice. Still very tannic, needs time.

TOP HIGHER-END COLLECTIBLES:

  1. El Nido Red Wine Jumilla 2005, $140, 95 Points: Smoky and loaded with chocolate, mocha/espresso and blackberry. Just so rich, with layer upon layer of blackberry liquer, violet and lavender evolving into soft chocolate and coffee before lingering for minutes with smokiness. Soft finish, amazing complexity and balance. Cabernet Sauvignon and Monastrell.
  2. Bodegas Muga Torre Muga Rioja 2004, $90, 94 Points: Complex nose of perfumey blackberry, licorice and violet with notes of smoky bacon and mineral. Delcious, elegant body of black cherry, blackberry fruit and a backbone of silky vanilla that evolves into a long, chalky length. Perfumey and fruity initially and then spicy and minerally through the long length.
  3. Sierra Cantabria El Bosque Rioja 2004, $140, 92 Points: Minerally nose with tons of cassis, elements of lead and leather, and a hint of mocha. Onslaught of black fruit flavors leads into leathery undertones through the long length. Intense black fruit layered throughout with notes of mocha lingering in the finish with a slight minerally bite. Delicious.
  4. Bodegas F Callejo Family Reserva Ribera del Duero 2003, $100, 91 Points: Perfumey nose of violet, blackberry and a hint of mocha. Full-bodied and packed with creamy, chewy cassis fruit. Elements of chocolate linger underneath with light mineral and chalk. Medium to long length.
  5. Joan Simo Les Eres Priorat 2004, $65, 90 Points: Complex nose of black fruit, earthy mushroom and spice. Loads of black cherry, blackherry and strong notes of earth, truffle and mineral. Long length with an aggressive tannic grip. Grenache and Carignane.
  6. Mas Doix Costers de Vinyes Velles Priorat 2004, $125, 90 Points: Perfumey aromas of red currant fruit above hints of cinnamon spice and orange peel. Flavors of oak and hazelnut are backed by raspberry and cherry fruit. Full-bodied, tannic finish. Grenache.
  7. Alvaro Palacios Finca Dofi Priorat 2005, $90, 90 Points: Vibrant nose of floral elements, hints of violet, orange peel, caramel and mineral. Elegant body of red currant fruits, rose petal and undertones of caramel and mineral. Long length without any jamminess. Refreshing, well-balanced and delicious blend. Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Final Thoughts on the Kentucky Derby

May 6, 2008

Well, I was unable to extend my streak of correct Derby choices to two, as Big Brown proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he is a monster. Whether or not he can make history and win the Triple Crown remains to be seen, although I doubt they’ll be too many challengers in the shorter Preakness in two weeks, so the 12 furlong Belmont will probably be his main hurdle.

The main mistake that I made when handicapping this race was to assume that the pace was going to be super hot. Bob Black Jack got to the lead easily but definitely didn’t race through scorching fractions (:23.3 first quarter? I was thinking more like sub :22…) Recapturetheglory and surprisingly, Big Brown, didn’t go to the lead as expected. As a result of the slower than expected fractions, there wasn’t really a pace disintegration, and therefore none of the deep closers really had a prayer. Colonel John was my pick and he closed nicely to finish 6th, but the slow pace had left him too far back without enough time to make up the ground he’d given up early. And it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as Big Brown’s explosive stretch move certainly put to rest any doubt that he could get the distance (he earned a career best Beyer of 109). I actually muttered the words “Big Brown is finished” as he hung five wide of the rail in sixth place coming around the final turn. This certainly wasn’t the race anyone expected Big Brown to run if he were to win, which made his five-wide trip and eventual domination all the more impressive. Had he been able to get to the lead earlier or even had a slightly decent trip, he might have won this race by 15 lengths.

Of course, all of this excitement came to a screeching halt when Eight Belles, whose energetic runner-up performance was probably even more surprisingly strong than Big Brown’s was, suddenly broke down during the gallop out. It’s always horrifying when a horse has to be put down on the track, but this was so uniquely tragic considering the timing of the breakdown, not to mention that this was the second place horse (and a filly to boot) that had just run impossibly well and was galloping out normally. I suppose those class concerns that lead me to label her a “throw out” caught up with her after all, but not before she ran the race of her life to ruin my exacta (I had Big Brown-Denis of Cork, which wouldn’t have been to shabby!) In any event, I hope we don’t have to deal with anything like this again for a long time.

On to the Preakness, where there might only be five horses for all I know, and I can’t say I blame the others.

WINE OF THE MONTH- APRIL

May 4, 2008

Pardon the delay. I’ve been out of the country for awhile and just returned last week from a fantastic ten day trip to Spain. During my trip, I had the chance to sample a lot of great wine from this underrated wine-producing country. My wife and I enjoyed the wine I have selected as April’s wine of month while we dined at the exceptional El Celler de Can Roca in Girona.

FINCA SANDOVAL SYRAH MANCHEULA 2004, $40, 91 Points, 500 Cases Imported

Rich aromas and flavors of dark berry fruit, licorice, blackberry and peppery spice. Light traces of leather and chocolate are present as well but this Syrah is predominantly fruity, robust and spicy throughout the body and the long finish.

Kentucky Derby Analysis and Picks

May 1, 2008

I feel like I say this every year, but this year, I mean it: Wow, this race is really wide open! After weeks of careful research, I finally felt comfortable with how I felt this race was going to play out. Then the post position draw happened and threw the whole race into an even murkier ball of confusion than it was to begin with. Sigh. As I always say when handicapping a race, determining the pace scenario is everything, so I again will break down each contender for the 134th Kentucky Derby by their projected placement as the race unfolds. Considering that arguably the three fastest horses in the race drew posts #18, #19 and #20 respectively, that certainly makes things trickier, but I think you still have to assume that these horses will try to go to the lead. After all, it’s a long straightaway to the turn. Overall, this is one of the first Derbys that I can ever remember where I can come up with reasons for picking just about any horse in the race. Because of that, I’ve decided to break down each horse by their pros and cons, and then weigh those out to form a conclusion. Here are my thoughts:

PACESETTERS:

RECAPTURETHEGLORY, PP#18, 102 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: He was impressive in wiring the field in the Illinois Derby and earned a speed figure that seems to put him in contention here. His connections have said that he will go to lead and if he really is that fast, who knows, he could put enough distance between himself and the rest of the field as War Emblem did in 2002. He came home in :12.2 for the final furlong in the Illinois Derby which isn’t anything to snuff at.

Cons: The track at Hawthorne had a huge speed bias and there are questions as to whether or not his race was truly as fast as it looked. He hasn’t beaten much and faces a big step up in class, and there are also distance questions based on his pedigree (Cherokee Run). Perhaps his biggest obstacle will be getting to the lead from the auxillary gate, and if he does, he might have to give up a lot of ground to get there.

Conclusion: If he wants to set the pace, he’ll have to really move quickly across towards the gate, and being forced to go that fast will likely compromise his chances at this longer distance. I see him fizzling well before the homestretch.

BOB’S BLACKJACK, PP#13, 94 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: With blinkers on, he’ll be vying for the lead for sure and should get there first since the rest of the speed is outside of him. He ran a game second to Colonel John at Santa Anita before being caught at the wire. He’s another one that is fast enough to get away and wire the field.

Cons: As with Recapturetheglory, there are distance questions with him from a pedigree standpoint. He’s also never raced on dirt and has finished behind both Colonel John and Gayego on the synthetic surface.

Conclusion: He’s worth a look since he’ll be at a decent price, but I like others better and fear he won’t take to the dirt or be able to get the distance after what is likely to be a fast pace.

GAYEGO, PP#19, 103 Beyer, 15-1 Morning Line

Pros: He’s been incredibly consistent, never finishing worse than second in five starts. His performance in the Arkansas Derby was a step forward as he went to the lead and gamely held off Z Fortune down the stretch, and he earned one of the best speed figures in the field with that effort. Many onlookers have described him as one of the most athletic colts in the field, and he’s been working effortlessly at Churchill.

Cons: He hasn’t yet beaten top competition and is bred for shorter distances (by sprinter Gilded Time). He held off Z Fortune, but might have more trouble with some of the more talented closers in this field, although his come home time of :12.7 isn’t bad. The biggest knock is that he probably couldn’t have drawn worse, as he’ll be split between two horses both trying to get to the lead as fast as they can.

Conclusion: He’s getting a lot of press since the big win in the Arkansas Derby, but I think he’s susceptible to a pace duel and have big questions about how he’ll handle the extra furlong, especially since he’ll have a tough time getting to where he wants to be. I don’t think he is quite talented enough to get the win but if he can split the speed, get behind the hot pace and hang on after some of the pace disintegrates, he could be in the mix. I see a few too many obstacles though and he looks to me like this year’s “Wise Guy Horse”, could be the fourth choice.

COWBOY CAL, PP#17, 92 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: Ran pretty well when setting the pace in the Blue Grass on polytrack, but got run down at the wire by Monba. He’s bred for the distance though (Giant’s Causeway).

Cons: There are concerns that he’s a synthetic and turf specialist, as his only effort on dirt was a dismal one. His speed figures aren’t anything special either, especially on dirt.

Conclusion: The only positives I see are that he’ll be a huge price and his pedigree says he can get the distance, but there’s too many question marks about his ability to handle to surface. There are others here I like a lot better.

JUST OFF THE PACE:

BIG BROWN, PP#20, 106 Beyer, 3-1 Morning Line Favorite

Pros: The likely favorite boasts the highest speed figure in the field, and appears to be the most talented colt here. He’s shown blazing speed and has yet to be beaten, or even challenged for that matter, and looked like a monster winning the Florida Derby in his last outing. He became the first horse to win a race at Gulfstream coming out of the #12 post since its reconfiguration. His running style fits in well here, especially if the pace isn’t blistering.

Cons: He’s very lightly raced with only three career starts. He’ll also be coming off a long layoff that is often (but not always) a disadvantage in the Derby. It’s also been debated that his Florida Derby wasn’t as good as it looked, as the following allowance race that day produced a track record from an unknown horse. He’s also won his races easily on the lead and has yet to “look another horse in the eye”, and will have to work a little harder to position himself coming out of the widest post. His come home time of :13.0 in the Florida Derby wasn’t awe-inspiring, but then again, he was under a hand ride. He has also had trouble with tenderness in his hooves, which could be a factor on a fast Churchill track.

Conclusion: His odds are going to be too low to bet him outright with all of the obstacles he faces in this 20-horse field, but he appears too talented to leave out of exotic bets in any way. He’ll most likely have the lead as they make the turn for home, and whether or not anyone can run him down will depend on how fast the pace is early and how gassed he is after making the long run from the far post to the rail.

COOL COAL MAN, PP#1, 98 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: He won the Fountain of Youth wire to wire in somewhat of an upset and came home in :12.5. He also won an allowance race at Churchill last year, so we know he likes the track.

Cons: He benefited from a ground-saving trip in the Fountain of Youth from the #1 post and isn’t likely to have it so easy this time around. Although he will be coming out of that post, there will be a lot more speed this time and if he tries to go with it, he’ll be fried. He threw in a clunker in the Blue Grass but a lot of strange things happened in that race. Despite his relatively impressive come-home time, he actually lost ground to the place and show horses in the Fountain of Youth, which poses questions about the distance. He’s also never run a Beyer over 100, which is usually a red flag.

Conclusion: I don’t see enough here to include him in my picks. He figures to lurk in the middle and hang in my opinion, so I’m going to look elsewhere, although I’ll admit that he has a chance if he can rate in the second flight of horses and wait for an opening.

Z HUMOR, PP #11 , 96 Beyer, 30-1 Morning Line

Pros: His pedigree bodes well for the Derby distance (Distorted Humor) and he’s been improving with each race, most recently in a third place finish in the Illinois Derby. He seems to be working well at Churchill.

Cons: He has yet to win a race or really even factor in a race this year, so he faces a big step up in class here. His Beyer figures don’t jump off the charts.

Conclusion: There are too many better arguments for others, and he’ll be one of the longest shots in the field. Pass.

SMOOTH AIR, PP #12, 98 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: He ran a respectable second in the Florida Derby and has never finished out of the money.

Cons: He has been plagued with fever since arriving at Churchill which can’t be good for his already questionable chances. He’s bred for sprint distances (Smooth Jazz) and hasn’t even beaten any horses of much quality. He wasn’t exactly closing ground in the Florida Derby, and it would be tough to imagine that he wants more distance.

Conclusion: I can’t really see a scenario where he factors, and the health issues are the icing on the cake. Throw out.

STALKERS:

TALE OF EKATI, PP#2, 95 Beyer, 15-1 Morning Line

Pros: He won the Wood Memorial last time out closing modestly, albeit slowly. The female side of his pedigree (Silence Beauty, grandsire Sunday Silence) bodes well for the distance, and he’s been improving steadily leading up to the race.

Cons: As I said, the Wood Memorial time and speed figure were both surprisingly slow, and he’ll need to go a lot faster to have a chance to hit the board here. He’s also likely to run into traffic trouble or get boxed in behind the leaders as he starts near the rail. The male side of his pedigree (Tale of the Cat) would seem to indicate a preference for shorter distance, so we’ll have to see how it plays out.

Conclusion: I’ve never really thought of him as a distance horse and was honestly pretty surprised that he won the Wood Memorial. But he didn’t quite do enough in that race to jump on his bandwagon. I like others more and see him mid-pack for most of the race, and don’t think that he has quite the turn of foot that some of the other stalkers and closers have. I hope I’m not sorry, but 1:52 and change at 9f leaves something to be desired.

Z FORTUNE, PP#6, 102 Beyer, 15-1 Morning Line

Pros: He ran a very game second in the Arkansas Derby, losing by less than a length after a wide trip. He’s improving in a hurry and gets a great post to stalk the pace and make his move. He should benefit if the track is wet as well, and seems to qualify as a sleeper here. His stretch run with Gayego at Oaklawn added some toughness, and the 102 speed figure he earned in that race puts him right there with the best here.

Cons: He hasn’t exactly been consistent this year, and his 5th place finish in the Rebel two starts back still raises questions. He had every chance to pass Gayego at Oaklawn and appeared to hang, although probably would have won that race with a better trip than that one, which he should get here. He’s yet to face (or beat) top competition, so he faces a step up in class, and his pedigree (Siphon) poses some questions about whether or not he wants the extra furlong, although his daddy did wire a couple of 10f races.

Conclusion: He seems to be improving steadily and sitting on a big race. If the pace completely disintegrates, he could be in pretty good position to grab a piece of the board, although I don’t think he can win. I’ll be using him underneath in exotics as a live longshot.

EIGHT BELLES, PP#5, 100 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: She’s shown a great turn of foot in winning her last four races against the girls. She’s large enough to compete here and her speed figure in her last race is competitive. Her stalking style should benefit her coming out close to the rail.

Cons: She tends to have problems breaking from the gate, which might be a small detail against lesser competition, but in the Derby it can mean curtains immediately. She also might not take well to being banged up by the boys, and is certainly taking a giant step up class-wise. She’s never even run a 9f race, so going all the way to 10f is asking a lot. And of course, fillies winning the Kentucky Derby are a rarity, the last being Winning Colors in 1988.

Conclusion: A lot of people like her but I think she’s close to a toss. I just can’t bring myself to support a horse that is going to be running so much further than it has ever run before, filly or not. I’ll be shocked if she is near the board, but crazier things have happened. I just don’t think she has proven enough class-wise to compete here; she doesn’t look like the next Rags to Riches to me.

MONBA, PP#14, 92 Beyer, 15-1 Morning Line

Pros: He closed nicely to win the Blue Grass on polytrack last time out. He has an allowance win at Churchill as well, and his stalking style is well-suited to the probable pace scenario.

Cons: He might be better suited to synthetic surfaces. His Blue Grass reminded me a bit of Dominican last year, who closed to win on the polytrack but never fired in the Derby. In the Fountain of Youth, he finished last after suffering a leg bruise out of the gate. His speed figure numbers leave a lot to be desired, and there’s no real reason to think that he will excel at 10f. He doesn’t usually train well, and his workouts at Churchill have been average at best.

Conclusion: I’m sticking with the Dominican analogy. There’s too much uncertainty about his ability to win on the dirt against top competition, and even if there wasn’t, how many consecutive Blue Grass winners have bounced in the Derby? It sure seems like a lot.

ANAK NAKAL, PP#3, 87 Beyer, 30-1 Morning Line

Pros: He looked talented last year, threw in a few clunkers this year but has been steadily improving.

Cons: He hasn’t really factored this year, and finished 5th in a very slow Wood Memorial. His top speed figure is the lowest in the entire field, and he’ll need to improve it nearly 20 points to be in contention. That isn’t likely.

Conclusion: If I don’t like the horse that won the Wood, it’s hard to like him. There just isn’t a logical reason to use him, one of my few tosses.

CLOSERS:

COLONEL JOHN, PP#10, 95 Beyer, 4-1 Morning Line

Pros: He closed quickly in winning both the Santa Anita Derby and San Felipe on a synthetic surface, powering home in :12 or less in both of the final furlongs, the two fastest come home times in the field. He’s never raced on dirt, but his pedigree (Tiznow) suggests he should move up and relish the added distance of the Derby. He worked a bullet :57.4 workout Sunday which seemed to ease any questions about his ability to handle the dirt. He’ll break from the middle of the pack and should benefit from a good trip and should have every opportunity to make his move if the pace melts down.

Cons: He hasn’t yet run a speed figure above 100, which is usually a red flag in this race, although all of the polytrack figures seem to be lower than the dirt figures in these preps. He’ll also be switching to dirt for the first time.

Conclusion: After seeing Gayego improve from 92 to 103 after making the switch to dirt, I can only imagine what the Colonel is going to do (consider that he’s more likely to move up on dirt than that one, but even an equal jump would put him at a 106 Beyer, which would tie for tops in the field). I think he’s just dying to run that extra furlong and I’m not worried that he’s not fast enough after his workout. His post position couldn’t be better for his running style, and boy did I love his daddy. The pick.

PYRO, PP#9, 105 Beyer, 6-1 Morning Line

Pros: He showed a commanding turn of foot in winning his first two starts this season, the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby, beating such contenders as Z Fortune, Visionaire and Take of Ekati. He showed talent and versatility in those races, overcoming traffic trouble and finishing powerfully. He posted strong numbers during his two year old campaign and is well seasoned. He’ll benefit from his post and should be in the third or fourth pack of horses before he makes his move. On the dirt, he’s never missed the board.

Cons: His last outing was a confusing showing in the Blue Grass. He finished a hapless 10th, which left most handicappers scratching their heads, even with the polytrack excuse. He’s also never run past 8.5f on dirt, and despite his strong closing kick there isn’t a ton of classic pedigree here (Pulpit), although he does have some A.P. Indy blood in him.

Conclusion: Good horses don’t become bad horses overnight. Maybe it was the polytrack, maybe it was a fluke, or maybe Steve Asmussen had his reasons for holding the horse back in the Blue Grass. I’ve loved him since I first saw him run last year, and he’ll be ready to fire Saturday on the dirt.

ADRIANO, PP#15, 92 Beyer, 30-1 Morning Line

Pros: He showed an impressive turn of foot in winning the Lane’s End on a synthetic surface, and will be running late. He has a strong dirt and distance pedigree (A.P. Indy) but hasn’t proven himself on the dirt. He’s somewhat of an enigma. Jockey Edgar Prado chose to ride him over Monba and Take of Ekati, and he knows something about horses.

Cons: In his only outing on the dirt, he finished a distant 9th in the Fountain of Youth. He’s also been known to be a bit temperamental, so it’s uncertain how he’ll handle the atmosphere of such a big race and field. His form during his workouts hasn’t been exceptional, as his leg action is reported to be more suited to turf running. His speed figures don’t really fit in with this field either.

Conclusion: I was interested in him early, and might take a small shot if his odds are higher than his morning line, but overall I think there are just too many question marks in a field where other horses have less. I will say that I’ll trust Prado and place him above Monba and Tale of Ekati, but probably like a few other horses better for the bottom of my exotics. Prado’s move probably did more to talk me out of those two than to talk me into Adriano.

BIG TRUCK, PP#7, 93 Beyer, 50-1 Morning Line

Pros: His claim to fame is a surprising win at the Tampa Bay Derby, a race in which the 1-5 favorite War Pass finished a perplexing last. He has some closing kick and could benefit from a pace meltdown.

Cons: He hasn’t really beaten anyone of quality since War Pass clearly wasn’t himself that day. He faces a big step up in class here and his speed figures aren’t very inspiring. The Blue Grass was a strange race and a lot of horses didn’t fire, but he may have been worst of all.

Conclusion: He’s listed as the longest shot in the field. While I’m not sure I agree with that exactly, he’s certainly going to be up against it, and I think there are much better value plays out there.

DEEP CLOSERS:

COURT VISION, PP#4, 90 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: This is a one-run grinder, the type of horse that can really benefit from a pace meltdown like Giacomo did a few years back. He’s been training marvelously at Churchill and there’s reason to believe that we haven’t yet seen his best. He was closing ground in the Wood Memorial to finish third, and also put in a marginal third place finish in his previous start in the Fountain of Youth in similar fashion. He should be knocking off horses down the stretch, the main question will be how far back he is when he starts to.

Cons: He had every chance to win the Wood Memorial after fast fractions, but could only come home in :13.3. This has led to some speculation that he is simply not fast enough to compete with these. His speed figures would seem to back up that assessment.

Conclusion: There’s always a surprise closer that makes his way into the superfecta after underachieving in his previous races, and this could be the guy this year. I like the way he’s been training, and I think with a little improvement, he could slip into the superfecta or even hit the board. Winning seems like a stretch, but I like him as a longshot at a price.

VISIONAIRE, PP#8, 98 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: His most impressive race came on a sloppy track, where he closed quickly to win the Gotham. Since then, he’s been beaten by Pyro after running too close to the pace, which isn’t his ideal style. He made a decent run down the stretch in the Blue Grass on the polytrack.

Cons: Despite his preference to make late runs, there’s nothing in his pedigree that suggests he wants to go any further than 9f, and this distance could be a serious stretch. He also hasn’t beaten a single contender here and has lost to more than a few, as there wasn’t much in the Gotham.

Conclusion: I’m going to look elsewhere unless the track turns up sloppy, and considering I drove into Louisville last year on Friday during one of the most terrential downpours that I’ve ever witnessed, I’m not counting on that. I like the other closers a bit better.

DENIS OF CORK, PP#16, 96 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: He has showed his talent early in the year, closing from off the pace to win the Southwest Stakes. He’s been among the sharpest workers at Churchill and has a maiden win here to his credit. He likes to come from way back.

Cons: He’s been very lightly raced, and finished an uninspiring 5th in the Illinois Derby after a 2 1/2 month layoff. It’s questionable whether or not he got what he needed out of that race, and his fitness is still a concern.

Conclusion: He has undeniable talent, and sometimes when that is the case and the workouts are going as well as his are, you have to take a leap of faith. I like closers in this race, and will be using him underneath in my exotics.

PICKS SUMMARY:

  1. Colonel John
  2. Pyro
  3. Big Brown
  4. Z Fortune
  5. Court Vision
  6. Denis of Cork
  7. Gayego
  8. Adriano
  9. Cool Coal Man
  10. Tale of Ekati
  11. Monba
  12. Bob Blackjack
  13. Eight Belles
  14. Visionaire
  15. Recapturetheglory
  16. Cowboy Cal
  17. Big Truck
  18. Smooth Air
  19. Z Humor
  20. Anak Nakal

Now that the easy part is over, I’ve got to figure out how to bet this thing!