Suddenbreakingnews went from an outsider on the Kentucky Derby trail to firmly on the path to the first jewel of the 2016 Triple Crown. (Coady Photography)
This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses whose chances for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands are not quite as strong as they previously were.
For this first edition for 2016, we’ll take a look at what happened during the key month of February, which often serves as a table-setting month for the upcoming major prep races that identify the elite contenders for the Kentucky Derby.
For this edition, the focus was on 3-year-olds who made significant moves into the Kentucky Derby discussion. Right now, Mohaymen and Nyquist look like a clear top tier with Mor Spirit right on their heels. Those three had announced their presence with authority well before the start of February, however, so the big head-turners are the focus here as well as the runners who are moving the wrong way.
With just one points-scoring prep race for the Kentucky Derby next week, the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, this blog will run weekly beginning March 16 and continue right through the Triple Crown.
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
This Mineshaft gelding rallied from out of the clouds to win the $500,000, Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on Feb. 15 at Oaklawn Park to vault onto the Triple Crown trail. The 108 Equibase Speed Figure was a new 21-point top for this deep closer and provided him with his first 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system used to determine the 20-horse field for the first jewel of the Triple Crown. Suddenbreakingnews’s trainer, Donnie Von Hemel, doesn’t have the name recognition of a Todd Pletcher or Bob Baffert, but he is a fantastic trainer from a family of horsemen. Von Hemel has 2,074 career wins (19.2% win rate) and 328 stakes victories through Feb. 29, so he knows what to do with a quality runner. I like that Suddenbreakingnews was back on the workout tab on Feb. 27, showing he came out of the career-best race in good order, and his pedigree is laden with stamina. He’s by 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft out of Uchitel, by Afleet Alex, who won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 2005. Uchitel is a half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to 2003 Santa Anita Oaks winner Composure and 2008 West Virginia Derby winner Ready Set, and Uchitel’s sire, Alleged, won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe twice. I don’t love closers in the Kentucky Derby — the new system has eliminated most of the speed horses who banked graded stakes earnings in sprints under the previous system — but I look at Suddenbreakingnews as a 3-year-old capable of making a bold run in the Derby stretch and passing a slew of tiring horses to find his way into contention with a sixteenth of a mile left.
2. Gun Runner
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
Gun Runner might have topped this list, except for the fact that I actually like the Kentucky Derby chances of the third-place finisher (Mo Tom) from the Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes just a little bit more. On the other hand, Gun Runner looked like a colt who needed a race after 12 weeks on the sidelines and still held on bravely in the closing strides to prevail against a field that looked as strong as any in a Derby prep so far this season. The owner-trainer combo of Winchell Thoroughbreds, which gave us leading sire Tapit, and Three Chimneys Farm with two-time Eclipse Award winner Steve Asmussen means he’ll have every shot to succeed, and he came out of the Feb. 20 race strong enough to record an easy workout just nine days later. The Risen Star was a nine-point jump to a career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure, so it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his momentum and avoid a regression off a taxing effort. Gun Runner is by Candy Ride out of a very talented and well-bred runner in Quiet Giant, a Grade 2 winner by 2000 European Horse of the Year Giant’s Causeway. Quiet Giant is a half-sister (same dam, different sire) to 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam. Gun Runner’s only defeat in four starts came when he led late but faded to fourth on a sloppy track in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. If you are willing to forgive that, Gun Runner looks like an incredibly appealing Derby hopeful.
The one has a long way to go to reach the starting gate on May 7 for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, but I’m willing to overlook the fact that he has only a single point on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard because of his upside. That point was earned when he finished a well-beaten fourth in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes, which was won by highly regarded 3-year-old Mo Tom, but you have to like the way he bounced back in his second start of the year in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 13 at Tampa Bay Downs. He ran the final five-sixteenths of a mile in about :30.50 and the final sixteenth of a mile in :06.27, so he was not running out of petrol as he pulled away to win by 2 ¼ lengths. It’s very fair to question the quality of the horses he defeated in that race, but he looks like he’s starting to mature nicely and was much more professional for trainer Todd Pletcher in earning a career-best 110 Equibase Speed Figure in the Sam F. Davis. By 2000 European Horse of the Year Giant’s Causeway out of Grade 1 winner Dream of Summer, a four-time graded stakes winner who earned $1,191,150, Destin has a very nice pedigree. Casual fans might remember his full-brother (same dam, same sire) Creative Cause, a Grade 1 winner who finished second in the 2012 Santa Anita Derby and third in that year’s Preakness. You might be noticing a theme here: another improving runner coming off of a big performance with a very nice pedigree. Be sure to keep an eye on this one.
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
I’m including this talented Colonel John colt on this list because reports indicate Mark Casse has taken him off the Kentucky Derby trail after a dismal performance in the Risen Star Stakes, in which he was beaten by 39 ½ lengths. It came as a shock to me, but I have to admit I’m bullish on his future and just a little skeptical that we’ve seen the last of him on the Derby trail, provided he is completely healthy. If Casse reroutes Airoforce back to the grass, a surface on which he finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and is a graded stakes winner, Airoforce figures to develop into one of the top 3-year-old turf runners with a chance to win some big races, both in prestige and purse size. As for the Derby, Airoforce does own a win on the dirt at Churchill Downs against a quality field that included Mor Spirit, Mo Tom and Gun Runner in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, albeit on a sloppy track. Churchill also has a reputation for having a main track that is fairly kind to runners who prefer grass. Paddy O’Prado, third in the 2010 Derby, and 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom are recent examples of colts who experienced success on turf/synthetic surfaces and then performed powerfully in the Derby. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Casse take a shot at the Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes on the synthetic surface at Turfway Park on April 2 and then, given a promising effort, perhaps keep an eye on the weather leading up to May 7.
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
Year after year, I’m lured to the Smarty Jones Stakes winner and, in fairness, Flat Out, Caleb’s Posse, Will Take Charge and even Far Right turned out to be very nice racehorses. I’m hopeful 2016 Smarty Jones winner Discreetness will rebound after finishing seventh, beaten by 10 ½ lengths in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on Feb. 15, but from what I saw in the Southwest stretch he did not look like a serious player on the Kentucky Derby trail. He’s a two-time stakes winner with a nice foundation of seven races, so I’m sure he’ll be given another opportunity. For now though, he has a lot to prove.
TIE-3. Collected (below), Awesome Banner
I paired these two together because in my estimation the issue is not talent — both clearly are gifted runners — but distance limitations. Collected looks like a versatile City Zip colt who could thrive in races up to a mile on turf or dirt. Heck, I’ll bet he’d be formidable on synthetic surfaces, too. I think we saw in the Grade 3 Southwest, when he was in striking distance in the stretch but came up empty, that he’s most likely not a 1 ¼-mile horse. That’s fine for his future, because there are plenty of opportunities for 3-year-olds who can get a mile and run well on multiple surfaces. As for Awesome Banner, he looked like a sprinter entering the Xpress.com Fountain of Youth Stakes and even more like one after he was beaten by 26 lengths by Mohaymen. With talent like his, it was worth finding out if he could stretch out and become a player on the Triple Crown trail. A track record-setter at 4 ½ furlongs who romped in the Grade 3 Hutcheson Stakes at three-quarters of a mile and the Grade 2 Swale Stakes at seven furlongs, Awesome Banner can drill a hole in the wind when sprinting, just don’t ask him to carry that blistering speed around two turns.
Allowance race – A race for which the racing secretary drafts certain conditions to determine weights to be carried based on the horse’s age, sex and/or past performance.
Also-eligible – A horse officially entered for a race, but not permitted to start unless the field is reduced by scratches below a specified number.
Apprentice – A rider who has not ridden a certain number of winners within a specified period of time. Also known as a “bug,” from the asterisk used to denote the weight allowance such riders receive.
Blinkers – A cup-shaped device that limits a horse’s vision. Blinkers, often used to try to improve a horse’s focus, come in a variety of sizes and shapes to allow as little or as much vision as the trainer feels is necessary.
Bullet – The fastest workout of the day at a track at a particular distance.
Claiming race – A race in which each horse entered is eligible to be purchased at a set price.
Closer – A horse that runs best in the latter part of the race, coming from off the pace.
Connections – Persons identified with a horse, such as owner, trainer, jockey and stable employees.
Disqualification – Change in order of finish by stewards for an infraction of the rules.
Dam – The mother of a horse.
Entry – Two or more horses with common ownership that are paired as a single betting unit in one race.
Front-runner – A horse whose running style is to attempt to get on or near the lead at the start of the race and to continue there as long as possible.
Furlong – An eighth of a mile.
Graded race – A non-restricted race with added money or guaranteed purse value of $100,000 or more which has been run at least twice under similar conditions and on the same surface and has been assigned graded status for the year contested by the American Graded Stakes Committee.
Handicap – This race type refers to a race where the weights are assigned by the track’s racing secretary or handicapper based upon past performances.
Length – A measurement approximating the length of a horse, used to denote distance between horses in a race.
Off track – A track that has a wet surface and isn’t labeled as “fast”.
Pacesetter – The horse that is running in front (on the lead).
Past performances – A horse’s racing record, earnings, bloodlines and other data, presented in composite form.
Prep – A workout (or race) used to prepare a horse for a future engagement.
Post Parade – Horses going from paddock to starting gate past the stands. The post parade provides spectators with a chance to get a final look at the horse before the race.
Post Position – Position of stall in starting gate from which a horse begins a race.
Rabbit – A speed horse running as an entry with another, usually a come-from-behind horse. The rabbit is expected to set a fast pace to help the chances of its stablemate.
Rank – A horse that refuses to settle under a jockey’s handling in a race, running in a headstrong manner without respect to pace.
Scratch – To be taken out of a race before it starts.
Silks – Jacket and cap worn by jockeys.
Sire – Father of a foal.
Stakes – A race for which the owner usually must pay a fee to run a horse. The fees can be for nominating, maintaining eligibility, entering and starting, to which the track adds more money to make up the total purse. Some stakes races are by invitation and require no payment or fee.