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’s top spot was a slam dunk for me. Always Dreaming needed to run big to secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby, and did he ever in the Florida Derby on April 1. He overcame adversity early when stumbling after Three Rules cut across in front of him entering the first turn and put that opponent away impressively at the top of the stretch. The winning time for 1 1/8 miles was just a shade over three-fifths of a second slower than the Gulfstream Park track record Arrogate set when winning the $12-million Pegasus World Cup Invitational in January. And, perhaps most importantly in my estimation, Always Dreaming came home fast with a final furlong in 12.53. I’m not sure who I’m going to pick to win the Kentucky Derby in 4 ½ weeks – there is still much to sort out this weekend and next – but this Bodemeister colt is on my short list. For a more in-depth look at Always Dreaming, including his connections, running style, and pedigree, check out this week’s Making the Grade profile.
After setting the pace and fading late in both the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes and Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, State of Honor was taken back off the pace and ran well to finish second to Always Dreaming. He was beaten by five lengths in the Florida Derby, but he earned his way into the Kentucky Derby field and has four seconds and a third, all in stakes, in his last five races. I happen to think he chased pretty talented winners in his last three starts – McCraken in the Sam F. Davis, Tapwrit in the Tampa Bay Derby and Always Dreaming – and he’s been pretty consistent for trainer Mark Casse. Can he win the Derby in four weeks? I don’t see it. But I could see him running reasonably well to factor in the top six, and that’s something I would not have considered a week ago.
Perhaps he should be a spot above, but the reality is his status didn’t change a whole lot for me. Don’t get me wrong; this is a very nice 3-year-old. But I thought entering the Louisiana Derby on April 1 that he needed a big race to prove he was a legitimate contender to win the Kentucky Derby, and he essentially delivered a duplicate performance of his Risen Star Stakes win five weeks earlier (102 Equibase Speed Figure for both). He’s a very nice 3-year-old with a better shot to actually win the Kentucky Derby than State of Honor, but the thought was that he did pretty much what he was expected to do and didn’t take a huge step forward. There’s value in that consistency, but he drifted a bit and shifted back to the wrong lead again in the stretch. I was hoping to see that type of thing cleaned up in his final prep and for him to finish a bit faster, so right now he just lacks a bit of the professionalism I’d like to see in my Derby pick.
HONORABLE MENTION: The results of the last few weeks have really flattered McCraken, who will make his final prep for the Kentucky Derby this weekend in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. Tapwrit, who McCraken beat by 1 ½ lengths in the Sam F. Davis, came back and won the Tampa Bay Derby. (McCraken and Tapwrit will face off again in the Blue Grass.) State of Honor, who ran third to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis, finished second in the Tampa Bay Derby and Florida Derby; and Wild Shot, second to McCraken in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at two, finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby. … I also really liked what I saw from Patch in his third career race and his stakes debut in the Louisiana Derby. He earned his way into the Kentucky Derby with a runner-up finish to the aforementioned Girvin, and I think the future is very bright for this homebred of historic Calumet Farm who is missing his left eye. By 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, Patch is out of the winning A.P. Indy mare Windyindy and is a half-brother (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to Grade 2 winner Tiz Windy and from the family of champion Banshee Breeze.
1. Guest Suite
The Lecomte Stakes winner was mildly disappointing when fourth in the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 25. Many, myself included, expected a bounce-back effort from him in the Louisiana Derby, but instead the Quality Road gelding finished a nonthreatening seventh in the nine-horse field. He just never really got on track in the Louisiana Derby and he’s on the outside looking in when it comes to points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard. It’s also safe to say you probably don’t want to go into the most important race of a horse’s career off back-to-back dull performances. Let’s hope trainer Neil Howard finds the key to getting this well-bred runner from the family of A.P. Indy and Summer Squall back to his best.
2. Three Rules
I firmly believe this is a gifted runner who probably just reached his distance limitations. After gamely holding on for third in the Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 4, he faded to fifth after setting the pace in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. With only 10 points, he’s well short of what it most likely will take to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, and at this point it might be worth it to consider cutting back in distance with this Gone Astray colt, who won three stakes sprinting as a 2-year-old and also a stakes at 1 1/16 miles against lesser competition. Three Rules also ran second earlier this year in the Grade 2, seven-eighths-of-a-mile Swale Stakes and looks like he could be a top sprinter should his connections opt to target shorter races.
I was not entirely disheartened by his third-place finish in the Florida Derby – he closed willingly in the stretch and passed five horses in the final three-eighths of a mile – but entering the race he was atop my Kentucky Derby list, and he took a significant drop. It’s tough to look at a 17-point drop from a 107 Equibase Speed Figure in the Fountain of Youth to a 90 in the Florida Derby and make a strong case for Gunnevera as the Kentucky Derby winner. I still think he has the potential to run a big one with the extra eighth of a mile in the Kentucky Derby, plus perhaps a little faster pace, but now I’m looking at a deep closer like Gunnevera to fill out my trifecta, not win the first jewel of the Triple Crown. Look, I think it’s a mistake to write him off completely, but you definitely prefer to see a Kentucky Derby runner entering the race off a career-best (or equaling a career-best) race rather than a dull third-place finish.
OF NOTE: Jerome and Withers Stakes winner El Areeb will miss the Triple Crown races after undergoing surgery to remove a chip from his knee. The good news is the injury was not career-ending, but this talented Exchange Rate colt is expected to be sidelined for a few months. Read more at BloodHorse.