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 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park and Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs on March 11 as well as the Grade 2, $900,000 Rebel Stakes on March 18 at Oaklawn Park.
The top spot here came down to a simple question of which horse I think has the better shot to win the Kentucky Derby: Tapwrit or Malagacy. I liked Tapwrit’s Tampa Bay Derby win on March 11 a little bit more, he’s a little more explosive and he’s got a tremendous pedigree – by leading sire Tapit out of Grade 1 winner Appealing Zophie. I also really like the fact that Tapwrit has a little more foundation on him. He started running in September 2016 and has five races under his belt with nice, steady progression. I think he has a terrific chance to win his final Kentucky Derby prep race and go into the first jewel of the Triple Crown as one of the favorites.
I’ve been on the Malagacy bandwagon since after his first start in January 2017. I believed he’d be able to carry his speed around two turns and I thought his tactical speed would be even more effective when stretching out. He proved me right in the Rebel Stakes on March 18, but I’m less bullish on his chances for the Kentucky Derby because he’s so lightly raced and has so much ground to make up after getting such a late start to his career. I think Malagacy has an incredibly bright future – he’s one of my favorite colts from this crop – but if a two-time Horse of the Year like Curlin couldn’t break the curse of Apollo, I have my doubts that Malagacy can be the one to put an end to it. He might have the better long-term future than Tapwrit – although I think Tapwrit’s damned good, too – but my hunch is the Kentucky Derby will be too big of an ask too soon.
I’ll keep this one brief. I thought Iliad ran pretty well in the San Felipe on March 11 when stretching out in distance for the first time. Sure, he was well-beaten by Mastery, but I have a ton of respect for the winner and Iliad was clearly second best. In a Southern California circuit that no longer has a standout 3-year-old, Iliad has a big chance to emerge as its top Kentucky Derby threat.
Honorable Mention: Still a maiden, Sonneteer warrants a mention, because by making one final surge in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes he just may have put himself in position to make the Kentucky Derby. Sent off as the longest shot in the field at 112.30-1, the second-place effort earned Sonneteer 20 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard, a total that has typically been enough to earn a spot since the inception of this system. Despite never winning a race, he’s finished in the top three in six of nine career races, including three of four this year. Sonneteer also earned a career-best 103 Equibase Speed Figure in the Rebel that was only a one-point jump from his previous career top. But let’s get back to reality: he’s here because his chances to make the Derby have improved, rather than his chances to actually win the race. But you have to make the Derby first to have any chance.
1. Royal Mo
Outside of Mastery, I’ve not been especially impressed with the West Coast 3-year-old contingent for the 2017 Triple Crown trail. With Mastery now sidelined (see notable section below), the group looks pretty uninspiring after the last two weekends. Royal Mo came up empty in the latter stages of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 18, fading from third early to ninth, beaten by 11 ½ lengths. The Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner raced two lengths behind a moderate pace through a half-mile in the Rebel, so chasing swift fractions was not an excuse. He just fired a blank – it happens. Horses are animals, not machines. With only 10 points and coming off a 19-point drop from a 107 Equibase Speed Figure for the Lewis win to an 88 for the Rebel, Royal Mo faces a tough task to both earn enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby and show his connections he belongs with the best 3-year-olds in the U.S. on the first Saturday in May.
As bad as Royal Mo was in the Rebel, American Anthem was worse. A buzz horse after finishing second by a head in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes, the Bodemeister colt boasted the Hall of Fame connections of trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith and went off as the 8-5 favorite in the Rebel. Baffert was going for his seventh win in the Rebel in eight years, but it was not to be with American Anthem, who raced wide early and never fired when 10th, beaten by 13 ½ lengths. After earning a 115 Equibase Speed Figure in the Sham, he dipped 30 points to an 85 in the Rebel. With only four points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard, American Anthem would very likely need at least to post a top-three finish in a 100-point prep race to make the Kentucky Derby. He did not look like that type of racehorse in the Rebel and would need a major bounce-back performance in his next start to compete at that level.
It feels like I’m being hard on the Southern California horses, but in fairness it was a tough couple of weeks for a circuit that has produced the last three Kentucky Derby winners and four of the last five. Gormley finished fourth by 9 ¾ lengths in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes on March 11, a disappointing effort from the Grade 1 winner who started his season off with a victory in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes. Of the three on this list, I think Gormley has the best chance to rebound in his next start. He’s been a little up and down throughout his career and feels like and all-or-nothing type. He also lost to the best winner of the last two weeks in Mastery, who unfortunately is now sidelined with an injury. Gormley also has 25 points banked and probably qualifies for the Kentucky Derby with even a fourth-place finish in his next start for trainer John Shirreffs.
Notable: Mastery looked incredible in winning the San Felipe by 6 ¾ lengths in a dazzling performance that was soon overshadowed when Mike Smith quickly pulled him up after the race. He suffered a condylar fracture that will sideline him indefinitely. The bad news is one of the top Derby candidates is off the trail with a scary injury; the good news is he reportedly came out of surgery in good shape, is back at trainer Bob Baffert’s barn and will stand at Claiborne Farm after his racing career is over. Classic Empire for the second time refused to breeze during a planned workout on March 20 at Palm Meadows Training Center. The 2016 champion 2-year-old male also refused to breeze on March 3, after which his connections discovered discomfort in his back. He’s targeting the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 8, but the morning antics are not encouraging. I mentioned Souper Tapit in my Feb. 22 Heating Up, Cooing Down blog after an impressive debut at Fair Grounds. He finished fifth of seven against older horses in his second race on March 20 after a slow start in what can’t be viewed as a good sign of his prospects on the Kentucky Derby trail.