Many people believe that once the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Remsen Stakes, and Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity are run, that is the end of the 2-year-old season as far as seeing potential Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve hopefuls in action.
However, that is not the case at all. History has shown us that the winners of those three graded stakes are not necessarily where you want to look to find the Derby winner. A good place to look actually are the December maiden races, as trainers all over the country try to get a debut race into their most promising colts, partly so that they don't have to deal with the dreaded Apollo curse that we hear about every year, Yes, we are all aware that no horse has won the Kentucky Derby who did not start at 2 since Apollo in 1882. To put things in perspective, that is six years after the Battle of Little Bighorn.
So, while most trainers will dismiss the so-called curse, be sure that they are aware of it, and that is why we see a mad rush of first-time starters in maiden races as we get closer to the end of the year. It could very well be timing, and trainers will claim this is when those colts just happen to be ready to make their debut. Let's just say there probably is truth to both.
As for the trainers running maidens who have already run, what better way to end the year than with that elusive maiden victory to get that out of the way and launch their promising juveniles onto the Derby trail?
To demonstrate the rush to beat the New Year, this past week alone there were 10 maiden special weight races run, to go along with one two-turn allowance race and three stakes – two minor sprints and the $400,000 Springboard Mile at Remington Park, which seems to attract better horses each year, and which showcased a very talented winner this year in Greyvitos.
Not only did we see a parade of maidens this week, we saw many of them come from the more powerful barns, such as Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, Jerry Hollendorfer, Bill Mott, and Mark Casse. What we came away with was a boatload of promising colts who, whether they won or lost, look to have enormous potential.
Pletcher, who has two monster maiden winners – Montauk and Noble Indy – sitting in the barn waiting for bigger and better things, was back in action at his favorite playground, Gulfstream Park, where he sends out overwhelming favorites like they are produced on an assembly line. Pletcher saddled three promising winners this week, starting with Impact Player, who survived a match race-like duel with a tough first-time starter from Jeremiah Englehart's barn named Projector, as the two battled head to head every step of the way, with Impact Player prevailing by a nose. More important, there was a 10 ¾-length gap back to the third in the six-furlong race run in a snappy 1:09 4/5 It's just a question how far both colts want to go.
Then on Dec. 16 came victories at Aqueduct and Gulfstream with classic types Marconi and Navistar. Marconi, a $2 million yearling purchase by Tapit, out of the dam of Mucho Macho Man, was particularly impressive despite running his second straight slow race. But I cannot recall seeing any 2-year-old make the first two starts of his career at 2 in 1 1/8-mile races on dirt. That is asking a lot of a 2-year-old, and when they run back-to-back races in 1:54 2/5, you would think that would dull a young horse, having never asked him for speed and running him that far on two occasions. But Aqueduct has a tendency to get very deep late in the year, especially running in December with the inner track gone, so I don't judge a horse by time going that distance.
As unorthodox as running in two nine-furlong races may be, I have to admit I was extremely impressed with Marconi, who broke several lengths behind the field, then made a big early run from last the length of the backstretch that usually results in a suicide move. Marconi steadily closed the gap and moved right up behind the leaders only to steady behind horses and lose his momentum. It took him a while to gather up momentum once again, but once he got rolling for the second time, he charged to the lead on his own and drew off to a 5 ½-length victory. It's hard to tell what he beat, so you can't get overly excited, but from a visual sense, this was an impressive performance that makes him one to watch, even if he is in New York rather than in Florida with Pletcher's main string. It's just a question of sharpening him up to see what kind of speed he possesses.
As for Navistar, he looked good winning a six-furlong maiden race first time out at Gulfstream. Typical of Pletcher firsters, he was 2-5 and had a perfect trip stalking the leader, taking over in the stretch and maintaining a 1 ½-length lead to the wire. Unlike Marconi, this son of Union Rags cost "only" $900,000. This race was not just about the winner, as the runner-up, He Takes Charge, another expensive Tapit colt ($675,000) from the barn of Mark Casse, had nowhere to run, was stuck on the rail, and closed well after being shifted to the outside, while third-place finisher, Locomotion, trained by Bill Mott, had a hole close on him in the stretch, moved to rail but had that close up as well, and then had to move out to launch his bid, and was running on late, getting beat only three lengths, The mile was run in 1:37 3/5 and it would pay to keep an eye on the first three finishers, all of whom are bred to run long.
Pletcher did actually lose a maiden race, but that was at Tampa Bay Downs when first-time starter Regal Quality closed well, but couldn't threaten the winner Mister Bister. Regal Quality is by Quality Road, out of a Bernardini mare.
Another top trainer who had a big week was Steve Asmussen, who has a potential major star in Principe Guilherme, yet another Tapit (this one a $600,000 yearling purchase), who ran in the only allowance race of the week, having broken his maiden in resounding fashion by 6 ¼ lengths at Churchill Downs. Stretching out from seven furlongs to a mile and 70 yards at Fair Grounds, he went right to the front at 2-5 and was never in any danger at any point, cruising to an 11 ¾-length romp. Physically, he looks like a pure athlete who is light on his feet and has a world of potential. He was able to use the two longest stretches at Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds to his advantage, increasing his lead with every stride. He no doubt will be in the Top Five of everyone's Derby rankings and is primed perfectly for his stakes debut.
Speaking of Asmussen and Tapit, that combination came through once again last week when Zing Zang rallied from well back in a 12-horse field in his third career start, winning going away by 2 ½ lengths at Fair Grounds. His time for the mile and 70 yards was 1:44 compared to 1:42 4/5 for Principe Guilherme, Needless to say, the Tapits were running wild last week. Asmussen wasn't through, however. He sent out another runner in Combatant, an impressive Churchill Downs maiden winner by Scat Daddy who ran a bang-up race to be second to Greyvitos in the Springboard Mile, finishing 5 ¼ lengths ahead of the third horse in the 12-horse field. I really like the way this colt was running in the final furlong, pulling away from the rest of the field. I like that he is inbred top and bottom to Damascus and that his fourth dam is the great Canadian filly and producer Fanfreluche, who produced three champions.
Although Bob Baffert did not have a winner last week, sending out a pair of second-place finishers in maiden races, one of them, first-time starter Restoring Hope, looks destined for stardom. The son of Giant's Causeway was up against two more experienced and classy colts in All Out Blitz and Concur, as well as the highly touted first-timer Montmartre, a Jerry Hollendorfer-trained colt who was favored based on a series of sensational five- and six-furlong workouts.
Restoring Hope, a Gary and Mary West homebred, was brought to my attention several weeks earlier when Baffert said he had a Giant's Causeway colt who he was very high on. Dropping back to seventh early at Los Alamitos, he unleashed the most explosive turn of foot I've seen by any 2-year-old this year and then had to fan some six-wide turning for home. Down the stretch, he kicked into another gear and was a thing of beauty in motion, with a big powerful stride that was as good as you could ask from a young horse. He was perfectly balanced, kept a perfectly straight course, and was as professional as a veteran campaigner. He closed relentlessly, but his run fell a nose short of catching All Out Blitz, who had two good starts under his belt, including a solid third at Del Mar in his last start. He did beat a game Montmartre, who tried to wire the field, and Concur, a Curlin colt coming off two good second-place finishes. And six furlongs no doubt is too short for him. He is only going to improve the farther he goes.
All Out Blitz tracked Montmartre the whole way and had a tough time putting him away, but take nothing away from him and Montmartre, who were both very game down the stretch and both of whom will be heard from. I look for this to be one of the strongest maiden races of the year.
Baffert's other runner-up finish was with another West homebred, Destiny Awaits, a son of Curlin who improved big-time with the addition of blinkers. Like Restoring Hope, he was just nipped by a nose at the wire by Dark Vader, a 10.10-1 shot trained by Peter Eurton, who also finished third in the race with Draft Pick, a $450,000 yearling purchase by Candy Ride.
Two other maiden races this week were won by first-timer starters Mister Bister at Tampa Bay Downs, as noted above, and the Mike Maker-trained California Night (by Midnight Lute) at Aqueduct. The latter upset the 3-4 favorite Holland Park, by Tapit, out of Round Pond, owned and bred by Godolphin, winning wire to wire by three lengths in a four-horse field. The final two maiden races were won by the Tom Amoss-trained Drena’s Star at Fair Grounds and P R Radio Star at Hawthorne. Before dismissing Hawthorne, note that P R Radio Star absolutely demolished his opponents by 12 ½ lengths in 1:10 3/5 and looked like a man against boys. This performance really caught the eye.
As for the three stakes races, how can you not love the story of Greyvitos, a San Luis Rey Downs survivor, who overcame the 12 post in the Springboard Mile and being pushed out seven-wide going into the first turn. He still was able to get good position down the backstretch, right off the leaders, put them away with no trouble and held off the strong run by 2-1 favorite Combatant to win by 2 1/4 lengths. The son Malibu Moon has now won back-back stakes, having scored in the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar for trainer Adam Kitchingman. To ship to Oklahoma and beat a good field the way he did after the trauma he went through, he must be a pretty extraordinary colt, and one many will be rooting for.
At Tampa Bay, 2-5 favorite Tricks To Doo showed his 5 ¾-length maiden win at Laurel Park was no fluke, as he crushed his field in the six-furlong Inaugural Stakes, winning by 7 ¼ lengths in a sharp 1:09 2/5. By Into Mischief, out of a Polish Numbers mare, there is no reason why he shouldn't stretch out to longer distances. And finally we had the six-furlong Sugar Bowl Stakes at Fair Grounds won by Land Battle, who wired 1-5 favorite Steel Shot, trained by Mark Casse, in only a three-horse field.
So that is quite a 2-year-old smorgasbord for a week in December heading into Christmas. You can be sure that a number of horses mentioned here will be heard from in the months to come, including several of those who are still maidens. There were some fantastic performances that will propel these maiden, allowance, and stakes winners and those who ran big in defeat into Derby contention. And many of those firsters who made the starting gate no longer will have Apollo hanging over their head. In looking for potential Derby horses, you couldn't ask for a more exciting conclusion to 2017. Now let's see if any others sneak in under the gun in the final week.