Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
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 Group 2 United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by the Saeed & Mohammed al Naboodah Group at Meydan in Dubai and the Grade 3 JACK Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on March 25 as well as the Grade 3 Sunland Derby at Sunland Park on March 26.
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY LEADERBOARD
I struggle each year with how to assess the Sunland Derby winner, and this year is no different. I did not think the field Hence defeated was especially strong, but his last-to-first victory was visually impressive and he covered the final eighth of a mile in a solid :12.39. Sure, he’ll need to improve the 97 Equibase Speed Figure he earned for the Sunland Derby to be competitive on the first Saturday in May, but he does look like he’s starting to figure things out and as a deep closer I could see him passing tiring rivals in the stretch to be a factor for a top-five finish. There might be some concerns about distance limitations for this son of Street Boss, but his daughter Cathryn Sophia won the Kentucky Oaks last year and Hence is out of an A.P. Indy mare who is a half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to four stakes winners from a family with some serious back class.
2. Thunder Snow
Kentucky Derby runners coming out of the United Arab Emirates Derby are winless in 12 tries. Any number of factors could be the cause for the drought: quality of competition, the 7,500-mile trek from the Middle East, getting used to a different climate. In order for me to climb on board a UAE Derby winner as my Kentucky Derby horse, it’s going to take an absolute beast. I don’t think Thunder Snow is that horse, but he is very good. He’s got some speed, he showed determination in the stretch when he outfinished Epicharis and he has room to improve with maturity. I also think his pedigree could be a benefit going 1 ¼ miles with a sire who slanted more toward speed but a bottom half of the pedigree that offers a nice combination of speed and class. I’m intrigued and might include him on the bottom of my trifecta/superfecta tickets if he’s a big price and looks like he’s adjusting well to the U.S.
Of the three big winners from last weekend, I’m least optimistic about Fast and Accurate’s chances. Don’t get me wrong, he ran a big race to extend his winning streak to three and improved to a career-best 93 Equibase Speed Figure, up six points from his previous top. But I can’t look past the fact that he’s never won a race on a dirt main track. He’s got two wins on the synthetic Polytrack surface at Turfway Park and one on the grass at Gulfstream Park. The worst performance of his six-race career was a fifth-place finish on the dirt when beaten by 11 ¾ lengths in a maiden special weight race at Parx Racing in October 2016. He’s got a bright future and he earned his way into the Kentucky Derby with his Spiral win, but I’ll be looking elsewhere to fill out my Kentucky Derby tickets.
Honorable Mention: It’s worth mentioning that possible Kentucky Derby favorite McCraken seems to have put his minor issues behind him and is back working regularly and well for a planned start in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 8. I’ve included Classic Empire a couple of times on the cooling down half of this list, so it’s worth noting that’s he worked on both March 22 and March 28, the latter on Tuesday going five-eighths of a mile in a very solid :59.30. I still worry that he’s missed too much time to be at his best, but Classic Empire’s talent is undeniable and he’s now on target for the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 15.
The Japan-based runner-up from the United Arab Emirates Derby takes the top spot here only because I think he belongs in the Kentucky Derby, having wrapped up a guaranteed starting spot in the race in February when winning the Hyacinth Stakes in Japan. Instead, his connections have decided to target either the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes and give him some additional rest. I actually was very impressed with his second to Thunder Snow. He battled bravely despite coming up short and he has tactical speed. It sounds like the Belmont Stakes is the most likely option, but I actually think he’d fit nicely in the Preakness Stakes. We’ll see …
2. Kitten’s Cat
It was well worth the shot in sending two-time turf stakes winner Kitten’s Cat to Turfway Park for the JACK Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes. Heck, the Kitten’s Joy colt was sent off as the 2.70-1 favorite and plenty of turf runners have excelled making the transition to a synthetic surface. But Kitten’s Cat just didn’t seem to have the same kick on the Polytrack and finished a nonthreatening fourth. He dipped from a 105 Equibase Speed Figure for his runner-up finish in the Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes to a 90 for the Spiral, and my hunch is we’ll see Kitten’s Cat back on the grass moving forward and he has a terrific future as an elite 3-year-old grass horse.
3. Bronze Age
I mentioned Bronze Age in my Feb. 22 column after an impressive front-running win going a mile on Feb. 18 at Santa Anita Park. He was sent off as the favorite in the Sunland Derby off that win but after stumbling at the start, Bronze Age was eased late in the race. Initial reports indicated that he was not injured. I still like Bronze Age and think he could be a nice one to keep an eye on, but for all intents and purposes the Triple Crown races are no longer an option with just a maiden win to his credit entering April.
Notable: Unique Bella was never truly on the Kentucky Derby trail, in fact trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said the Kentucky Oaks was the target, but as arguably the best 3-year-old in training in the U.S. it’s worth noting that she will be sidelined for two months with a shin issue. Hate to see her miss the Oaks, but with a special horse like Unique Bella you take your time and make sure she’s perfect.