Derby Trail: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down for Feb. 22

Epicharis (inside) won the Hyacinth Stakes in Japan on Feb. 19, earning a spot in the starting gate for this year’s Kentucky Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

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 3, $500,000 Southwest Stakes on Feb. 20 at Oaklawn Park, but we also had the Grade 3, $200,450 El Camino Real Derby as well as a few other interesting races during the last week of action.

Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard


1. One Liner

One Liner (Eclipse Sportswire)

One Liner earned the highest Equibase Speed Figure (117) recorded by a 3-year-old in stakes competition this season for his Southwest Stakes win. That also earned a very good 102 Beyer Speed Figure and the best TimeformUS speed figure (124) to date from the Road to the Kentucky Derby scoring races. He’s an unbeaten colt ridden by a Hall of Famer (John Velazquez) and trained by a future Hall of Famer (Todd Pletcher) … with only three starts under the saddle. Does his pedigree raise some stamina concerns? No doubt, but he finished very well in the 1 1/16-mile Southwest and this is an electric talent with limited experience and plenty of upside. For a more robust analysis of One Liner and his Kentucky Derby chances, check out this week’s Making the Grade profile.

2. Epicharis

Japan-based Epicharis earned a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby with his fourth win in as many starts in the Hyacinth Stakes on Feb. 19. It’s very difficult to gauge the level of competition in that race for a number of reasons, most notably because turf racing is the main attraction in Japan while dirt races play second fiddle. But Epicharis showed some tenacity in his first start as a 3-year-old, outfinishing game runner-up Adirato, who entered the Hyacinth with wins in his two previous tries on dirt. Epicharis raced on the inside in the Hyacinth in a large field, waited for his cue in the stretch and looked like he won with something left. He wasn’t as dominant as he had been at two, when he won three times by a combined margin of 25 lengths, but it was his first race in 3 ½ months. By one of Japan’s very best dirt sires, Gold Allure, Epicharis is a grandson of 1989 Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner Sunday Silence. His dam (mother), Stapes Mitsuko, is by 1994 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Carnegie. Stamina should not be an issue. It will be interesting to see what his connections decide to do next – the United Arab Emirates Derby on March 25 has been mentioned – but if Epicharis is sent to the U.S. for the Derby in May, his starting gate spot is locked up and I have to admit I’m far more intrigued by him than I was by Lani a year ago.

3. Petrov

I thought Petrov ran a huge race in defeat when I first watched the Southwest, and I liked it even more after seeing the speed figures. Petrov was 8 ¼ lengths clear of the third-place finisher in the Southwest one race after he was a well-beaten second in his first try on a wet racetrack in the Smarty Jones Stakes on Jan. 16. He’s improved in each of his four starts going from an 85 Equibase Speed Figure to a 91 to a 97 and then a 111 for the Southwest. He’s only got one win to his credit, but he’s clearly capable of handling graded stakes competition. His pedigree is pretty light on class – he’s the only stakes-placed runner in the first two generations – but he looks like a consistent type who will pick up checks and points on the Derby trail and find himself in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. If he pairs another 110+ Equibase Speed Figure in his next race, Petrov might even become a live longshot to consider.

Honorable Mention: I admit I’m not sure what to make of Zakaroff , who closed willingly to win the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on Feb. 18 (102 Equibase Speed Figure) and reeled in a horse I like in Ann Arbor Eddie. But, he’s not nominated to the Triple Crown and to date he’s only raced on synthetic surfaces. I could see him running well in the March 25 JACK Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, which is raced on Polytrack, but I’m very skeptical when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. … I was really impressed with Bronze Age’s maiden win on Feb. 18 at Santa Anita Park for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. The Mineshaft colt led from start to finish in the one-mile race and earned a nice 103 Equibase Speed Figure. … Souper Tapit was visually impressive in his career debut, rallying from last to first after a slow start, launching a sweeping bid while giving away a ton of ground and battling bravely in the stretch to win at Fair Grounds at one mile and 70 yards. He’s by leading sire Tapit and is the first starter out of multiple Grade 1 winner Zo Impressive. Souper Tapit’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Zoftig, was a Grade 1 winner and a multiple Grade 1 producer. … I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention O Dionysus, who won the Miracle Wood Stakes by three lengths at one mile on Feb. 18 at Laurel Park. He gave Irish War Cry all he could handle when finishing second by a nose to him in the Marylander Stakes on Dec. 31. He’s already run in five stakes races and I could see him making a run at the Preakness.


1. Uncontested

I’m always willing to give a good horse a second chance, and I think Uncontested is a very nice 3-year-old. He did take a significant step back in the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 20, however, as he finished sixth by 12 ¾ lengths. The Smarty Jones Stakes winner was pretty much unchallenged on the lead in the Southwest before fading. In hindsight, the top two horses appear to have run huge races and Uncontested was only a length out of third. But a nine-point decline in Equibase Speed Figure is indisputably a step in the wrong direction for late February of a colt’s 3-year-old season, and Uncontested already had some ground to make up on the elite 3-year-olds. He’ll need a big-time bounce-back race in his next start, which is expected to be the Arkansas Derby on April 15, to be any threat on the first Saturday in May. That leaves no margin for error.

2. Sheer Flattery

After finishing third in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes and posting his second-straight triple-digit Equibase Speed Figure, Sheer Flattery did not really run a step in the El Camino Real Derby on Feb. 18. He was fifth early and never threatened before fading to last of seven. I was a bit skeptical of the quality of competition in the Lewis – even more so now – but this was a really disappointing result for the Flatter colt. The one bright spot, and it’s significant, is that the dud came on the synthetic Tapeta Footings surface at Golden Gate Fields. His best races have come on the dirt, and a return to a dirt main track should lead to an improved performance. But I’m still not sold on Sheer Flattery and any misstep on the Derby trail can make a huge difference.

3. Classic Empire

Classic Empire (Eclipse Sportswire)

From a talent perspective, Classic Empire is definitely one of the top 3-year-olds in training. I’m not telling you anything new about the 2016 champion 2-year-old male. What is concerning to me is that he will miss a planned start on March 5 in the Lambholm South Fountain of Youth Stakes. Trainer Mark Casse said a popped abscess on his right, front foot was the cause of a disappointing third-place finish in his season debut in the Holy Bull Stakes and he is, rightfully, allowing more time for the minor injury to heal. Look, it’s not time to sound the alarm bells on a horse this talented, but the reality is this: for a Derby contender, every cleaned feed tub, gallop, workout and race matter. The idea is to get to the first Saturday in May in absolute peak physical condition. A break in training and only one more prep race before the big dance make the chances of that happening less likely than they were a week ago. Let’s hope for a speedy recovery, because I really believe Classic Empire is special.

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