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 were last week.
This week the main focus is on the results of the Grade 1, $1,002,415 Santa Anita Derby, the Grade 2, $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets.
This week’s top three spots in both sections were relatively straightforward, but this top placing was a very difficult choice between Irap and Irish War Cry, the horse I think has a far better shot to win the Kentucky Derby. But ultimately it came down to how big of a leap Irap made going from maiden — the racing term for a racehorse without a single win on his record — to Kentucky Derby starter with a three-quarter-length victory in the Blue Grass Stakes. Like the betting public that sent Irap to post in the Blue Grass at 31.30-1 odds, I did not see this bay Tiznow colt factoring in the top three in Kentucky’s signature Derby prep after a couple of disappointing races at Sunland Park in New Mexico. I’ve learned a valuable lesson: never underestimate a Doug O’Neill horse on the Triple Crown trail. Of course, there’s a 99 percent chance I’ll underestimate Irap’s chances in the Derby, so maybe I’m just a slow learner. Four things I like about Irap: high cruising speed, pedigree (he’s a half-brother to champion sprinter and sire Speightstown), connections and volatility of this group of 3-year-olds. Two things I’m not crazy about: might not be fast enough and won’t get the same pace setup in the Derby that he got in the Blue Grass. For a more in-depth look at Irap, check out this week’s Making the Grade.
Right now, it feels like my top two choices for the Kentucky Derby are Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming and Irish War Cry, the runaway winner of the Wood Memorial Stakes on April 8. I never jumped off the Irish War Cry bandwagon after his poor performance when seventh, beaten by 21 ¾ lengths, in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes. He’d been consistently fast in winning his first three starts — very fast, in fact — so I was willing to forgive a clunker and give him another chance. Irish War Cry bounced back in a big way in the Wood, pulling clear to win by 3 ½ lengths in a performance much more in line with his first three races. The 108 Equibase Speed Figure he earned was just two ticks off the 110 figure he received for winning the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes by 3 ¾ lengths on Feb. 4. Irish War Cry rated off the pace, which was nice to see, launched his bid entering the far turn and wore down front-running Battalion Runner in the stretch. He reminds me of his sire Curlin in that he has good natural speed but is more of a grinder than a runner with an explosive burst. I would have liked to see him finish a little bit faster — his final furlong was approximately 13.14 seconds — but he’s been about as consistently fast as any of the 3-year-olds other than injured Mastery and I could definitely see him winning the Kentucky Derby. He can be a bit headstrong early, which probably rates as my biggest concern entering the 2017 run for the roses.
After finishing fourth, beaten by 9 ¾ lengths in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, Gormley rebounded to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita derby by a half-length on April 8 for trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss, the same connections that raced Hall of Famer Zenyatta and 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo. Perhaps I should be a little higher on Gormley after he returned to top form in the Santa Anita Derby and showed a new dimension by winning from well off the pace. That certainly improves his chances for success on May 6 at Churchill Downs. But he’s been just a little bit too up and down for my taste, sandwiching lackluster efforts between his last three wins with volatile speed figures (104-90-116-98-108). Two-time Grade 1 winner Gormley clearly is a talented racehorse, but I like a little more consistency from my Kentucky Derby pick and he finished just a little slow (13.51 seconds) in his final eighth of a mile in the Santa Anita Derby.
HONORABLE MENTION: Battle of Midway, who finished second in the Santa Anita Derby to punch his ticket to Louisville, is facing the “Curse of Apollo” as a Derby hopeful who did not make his debut until his 3-year-old season. Apollo in 1882 was the last horse to win the Derby after not competing in a race at 2. While Battle of Midway won’t be my pick to win, I very much like his chances to be a factor in the race. He’s fast enough, consistent and he has a solid pedigree (by leading sire Smart Strike out of Grade 1 winner Rigoletta). I could see him taking the lead on the turn before giving way in the stretch and possibly holding on for a top-four finish. … Battalion Runner earned his way into the Kentucky Derby field with a second to Irish War Cry in the Wood Memorial. He’s posted Equibase Speed Figures of 108, 108 and 104 in his last three starts and should be a pace factor. I thought he needed to win the Wood to be considered a serious player in the Kentucky Derby and my opinion didn’t change much, but he’s in the race, he’s fast and there is room to improve with only four career starts.
The biggest disappointment of the weekend for me was Tapwrit’s fifth-place finish, beaten by 11 ½ lengths, as the second betting choice in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. Coming off a visually impressive victory when winning the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby by 4 ½ in a race that continued a steady ascent from a 96 to a 101 to a 106 Equibase Speed Figure, I fully expected Tapwrit to run a big one in the Blue Grass even if he didn’t win. A top-three finish with a couple of lengths separating the top runners would have been acceptable, but I just didn’t like what I saw from him in the Blue Grass. Typically, horses that run a dud in their final Derby prep don’t come back and win the first jewel of the Triple Crown. Trainer Todd Pletcher pointed to a couple of factors that contributed to the dull effort: poor start, wide trip and lack of pace. Those are legitimate excuses, so there’s a chance he bounces back on May 6.
2. Mo Town
The 2016 Remsen Stakes winner needed a top-two finish in the Wood Memorial to earn enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, but he really seemed to hit a wall entering the final turn and faded badly. Seventh, beaten by 31 ¾ lengths, Mo Town’s Derby hopes went out the window on April 8 at Aqueduct. I still believe he’s a very talented racehorse with a bright future, but there are no roses in his immediate future. Let’s hope talented trainer Tony Dutrow finds the key to get this Uncle Mo colt back to the elite form he showed in 2016.
I loved Iliad’s chances to win the Santa Anita Derby on April 8, and he didn’t disgrace himself when fifth in the 13-horse field, but with only 20 points (No. 24) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard he’d need several defections to qualify. I admit to being a little smitten with Iliad entering the Santa Anita Derby. There is an element of brilliance to this colt, who has clicked off four straight triple-digit Equibase Speed Figures. He might be best-suited to sprinting, but the fact that he was only beaten by two lengths in his first try at 1 1/8 miles indicates he’s got some stamina. I could see him being an intriguing presence in the Preakness Stakes if trainer Doug O’Neill opts to target that race. He has the speed to rate just behind the pace and launch his bid approaching the stretch, which is historically pretty effective at Pimlico Race Course.
OF NOTE: The connections of unbeaten Southwest Stakes winner One Liner opted to bypass a planned start in the Arkansas Derby and a shot at the Kentucky Derby because they were not pleased with the way he was training. The 117 speed figure One Liner earned for winning the Southwest was the best this year by a 3-year-old in a stakes race. No injury was reported, but One Liner will be given a break before he resumes training. Read more at BloodHorse.