Award-winning BloodHorse senior correspondent Steve Haskin presents his latest Derby Dozen, taking a look at his leading contenders for the 143rd Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 6.
The Kentucky Derby prep season concluded on April 15 with the last two points races, and much of the focus has shifted to which horses are confirmed for the 20-horse Derby field, evaluation of their cedentials and how they look on the track at Churchill Downs or where they are currently stabled while completing final preparations for the first jewel of the Triple Crown.
I’m not interested in bouncing, Todd Pletcher’s Derby record, a speed-favoring track in the Xpressbet Florida Derby, and his slow allowance race. All I see is a fast horse when he needs to be with push-button acceleration, beautiful action, class, an overall presence and consistently impressive workouts and super gallop-outs. He also is the only horse with two victories at 1 1/8 miles. In other words, all I see is a horse with unlimited potential. We all know the Kentucky Derby can jolt you back to reality in a hurry and you don’t see the same horse after the race that you saw before the race. But sometimes you just have to go by your gut feelings and initial impressions, and there is nothing about this colt I don’t like or even question. No, he hasn’t faced adversity, but they said the same thing about American Pharoah. As for his allowance win, it’s easy for a fast horse to run fast, but it takes a special horse to be able to turn off that speed at will when he doesn’t need to use it and run fast only when you ask him to. That’s called versatility. And as for the speed-biased track in the Florida Derby, based on the first race when they obviously watered the heck out of the track, let’s remember closers won the Gulfstream Oaks and Sir Shackleton Stakes and the times of 1:42 4/5 and 1:22 4/5 were OK, but nowhere near as eye-popping as that ridiculous first race and not in the same stratosphere as his 1:47 2/5 in the Florida Derby. I just think this horse can do whatever he needs to do and whatever is asked of him, and if Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez are ever going win a Derby together, this certainly looks like the horse that can do it for them. He has had no setbacks and is a horse who you can say has superstar potential.
I paid him a visit at Fair Hill Training Center on April 22 and he looks fantastic. He seems to have really settled nicely into his old home, where it’s much quieter than Palm Meadows. He is scheduled to work April 29, as Graham Motion always give his horses three weeks after a race, as he did with Animal Kingdom. He ships to Kentucky on May 1. The key with him is getting him to relax early, especially with Kentucky Derby cavalry charge into the first turn. Once he settles into stride down the backstretch, he has the ability to relax on the front end or stalk the pacesetters. He’s always been a bit precocious and we have seen his good side and bad side, but it’s obvious the good far outweighs the bad, as the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets made everyone forget about the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes debacle, for which there is still no explanation. Like Always Dreaming, he has a tremendous presence about him, and he will go into the Derby with the fastest Thoro-Graph figure, which he earned in the Wood, and because of his big number in the Holy Bull and pair of strong figures at 2, he could certainly win the Derby even if he “bounces” several points off the Wood. He does have pretty much the same running style as Always Dreaming, so there could be some cat-and-mouse between Velazquez and Rajiv Maragh. He is another with star potential.
It was time to get more serious in the morning and he responded with a solid five-furlong workout in 1:01 over the slower Gulfstream Park West surface, coming home his last quarter in :24 2/5. Working in blinkers, he was all business, and as usual had his ears pinned down the stretch to the wire, as he does in his races. Trainer Antonio Sano said, never in his life has he had a horse work like this, adding that after a race or workout he is never breathing hard and rarely has his head in the water bucket. He is the only 3-year-old who has a Thoro-Graph figure anywhere near Irish War Cry, and in fact it is only a quarter of a point slower, so he has already had his “bounce” in the Florida Derby, yet still managed to come home his final five-eighths in a sensational :58 4/5 and three-eighths in under :36. With Always Dreaming throwing in all four quarter-mile splits in :23 and change and closing in :12 2/5, Gunnevera had absolutely no chance to win or even get close to him after trailing by 15 lengths early. With Javier Castellano deciding to stick with him, he will again have the services of the Hall of Fame rider. If this year’s Derby were a feast, he would be considered the comfort food. You just feel good watching him run, no matter the surface or the distance. Because of his dependability, I just trust this horse.
There is always some concern when a horse comes off a layoff and wins a Grade 1 stakes in a hard-fought effort and then has to come back in three weeks to run in the Kentucky Derby. But judging from all his speed figures he has a left a lot in the tank and put himself in position to actually improve off this race. Remember, three weeks used to be considered a long time between a final Derby prep and the big race, back when the Blue Grass Stakes was run nine days before the Derby and the other major final preps were two weeks out; and it is important to note that the Mark Casse barn is known for running their horses more often than most of the major stables, and three weeks is nothing unusual for them. He did switch to he left lead several yards from the wire in the Arkansas Derby, but he didn’t do that in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile or Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, so it doesn’t seem like anything of importance. He had every right to get a little tired toward the end of the race, coming off a layoff and some missed training and having to run down a good horse. If he does move forward off the Arkansas Derby, he is the classiest horse in the race, having maintained top form since last July when he won his first graded stakes. People don’t realize what a mess he was coming off the van the day of the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes and in his stall before the race, and with the foot abscess thrown into the picture, he actually did well to finish third when many horses would have folded their tent. Let’s also not forget the natural speed he has. He did break his maiden going 4 1/2 furlongs and then, thrown into the Bashford Manor Stakes, he came home in :23 flat, making up four lengths in the final furlong, covering the 6 furlongs in a blazing 1:09 1/5 … both these races at Churchill Downs.
He looked happy to be back home on his favorite track, as he was very impressive working five furlongs in 1:00 3/5, with a final quarter in :24 1/5, galloping out a strong six furlongs in 1:13, pulling up seven-eighths of a mile in 1:26. As in his :47 4/5 workout last week, he had jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. pulling back on the reins trying to slow him down galloping out past the five-eighths pole. This horse would go around again of you let him. I loved that he was so far behind his workmate and had to make up some seven lengths, which should help get him back to his usual style of running after the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes debacle. I am a firm believer that a horse’s performance at Keeneland often has nothing to do with how he runs at Churchill Downs, as I have seen too many horses run a terrible race at Keeneland and come back with huge performance at Churchill and vice versa. The fact that major stakes winners McCraken, J Boys Echo, and Tapwrit all showed nothing in the stretch in the Blue Grass and waltzed home as if on an assembly line, leads me to believe that none of them relished the track. If you feel he’s going to bounce back big-time he should be an enticing overlay considering he was atop the NTRA poll for most of the year. His Blue Grass also can be excused considering he missed the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby with a minor setback and went into the race off a two-month layoff. On top of that, he did not have a good trip and was way too close to the pace for his liking, yet still was able to show a good turn off foot, even if he was unable to sustain it.
6. J Boys Echo
I have been waiting for my gut feeling about this horse to dissipate, but it refuses to go away. I cannot make a logical excuse for his uninspiring effort in the Blue Grass Stakes other than to say I have seen way too many horses run poorly at Keeneland only to come back with a big effort at Churchill Downs. Last week I stated all the reasons why I am throwing this race out, and in a crazy year like this, we need to always have a potential overlay in the back of our minds that people are simply going to forget about, and at around 15-1, I can certainly see him as that overlay, especially trained by the always dangerous Dale Romans, who has picked up pieces of the Kentucky Derby pot with several horses who either seemed distance challenged or were grass and/or synthetic horses. Unfortunately, he loses his jockey Robby Albarado to injury, which is never something you want to happen, especially at this late date. And I do have to add that I would like to see a stronger, smoother finish in his next workout than he showed in his most recent five-furlong drill in 1:02 1/5, in which he came home in :13, switching to his left lead and back to his right lead in the final sixteenth. But I do like the way he was striding out on the turn. If you believe in history repeating itself, the last time Albarado lost a Derby mount due to injury, his horse, Animal Kingdom, captured the roses. I also look back to 1957 when Calumet lost its big star, Gen. Duke, only to win the Derby with Iron Leige, who upset Gallant Man, Round Table, and Bold Ruler. And now 60 years later, we have the Albaugh Family losing its big star, Not This Time, and still having a chance to win it with J Boys Echo. And for what it is worth, J Boys Echo’s sixth dam is by Bull Lea, the sire of Iron Leige.
The Sunland Derby form keeps getting better. Although third-place finisher Hedge Fund was just nipped at the finish line in the Illinois Derby, he did finish nearly five lengths ahead of the third-place horse, and added to Irap’s Blue Grass victory and Conquest Mo Money’s gutsy second in the Arkansas Derby, this has to be the most formful of all the preps. And that, of course, boosts the reputation of Hence, whose Thoro-Graph numbers keep steadily improving to where he is now poised to have a major say in the Kentucky Derby. Everything just seems to be falling into place with this colt, and he is quickly becoming the buzz horse who many people seem to be latching on to. He demonstrated his sharpness working five furlongs in 1:00 flat at Churchill in company with Local Hero, who is an excellent work horse, then galloped out six furlongs in 1:13, up in 1:26 3/5. I keep bringing up his remarkable maiden victory, but only to demonstrate just how athletic this colt is and his ability to recover from extreme adversity in a race and jump right back into the fray as if nothing had happened. It takes a special kind of horse to be able to do that. Even trainer Steve Asmussen said he was amazed how, after ducking in so badly, he was able to stop in his tracks and then start running again from a dead standstill. He added that what impressed him most about the Sunland Derby was the colt’s energy under the wire after separating himself from the field. His ranking just shows that this may be a much deeper field than most people think.
Don’t go by the eighth-place ranking too much, as that is based mostly on the questions regarding his pedigree, which is enigmatic to say the least, and the fact he is winless in three attempts around two turns. But each race is getting stronger, and he was better at 1 1/8 miles than he was at 1 1/16 miles. In addition, from a physical and observational standpoint, I like what I’m seeing: from his powerful frame to the way he is moving on the racetrack, he really catches the eye. And I found it very interesting that trainer Chad Brown had him in front in his latest workout, in which he breezed an easy half-mile in :49 4/5, breaking off two lengths in front of his workmate and then holding him at bay down the stretch with his ears pinned. What makes the Blue Grass such a quizzical race was that he had demonstrated an exceptional will to win and the ability to out-duel his opponents at 2 in winning the Champagne and Hopeful Stakes. So it was surprising to see him unable to get his head in front of Irap in the Blue Grass, despite having the entire length of the stretch to do so. In fact, Irap increased his advantage at the wire. Was it the distance that got to him in the final eighth or was he simply short coming off the one third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth, in which he made a huge move on the turn only to have Gunnevera blow right by him in the stretch? He is the horse I am most uncertain of regarding how I perceive his chances of winning. But as a huge fan of the Champagne Stakes, I can’t help but note that only eight other Champagne winners since the distance was changed to a mile in 1940 broke 1:35 (he went in 1:34 3/5) and five of them are classic winners, including two Triple Crown winners (Seattle Slew and Count Fleet), four Kentucky Derby winners, three Preakness winners, and three Belmont winners. And seven of the eight were 2-year-old champions. There goes that gut feeling again.
Talk about calling an audible, trainer Joe Sharp canceled his Monday workout at Keeneland after originally looking at a Saturday work and instead will now wait until Friday to work him, giving him only one more work instead of the originally scheduled two workouts. That is a pretty drastic change in plans, and normally you don’t like to see such drastic changes at this late stage. His only explanation was that he decided at the last minute to give him only the one workout. This is a horse who hasn’t run in five weeks. Sharp also said the colt will remain at Keeneland until the required 72 hours before the Derby, shipping in as late as possible. Turning to the Thoro-Graph figures for those interested, he did not improve his number from the Risen Star Stakes to the TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby and still needs to improve a good 4-to-5 points to be competitive. And he does not have an extensive resume with only four career starts. But there is still something about this colt I like a lot. With him, it’s not about speed figures or even bucking history with so few starts; it is strictly visual, and I still see a horse who has gotten six races worth of experience in those four races and who simply knows how to win and will run only as fast as he has to in order to do so. The Louisiana Derby form, considered suspect, did get a boost when sixth-place finisher Senior Investment just got up to win the Lexington Stakes at 11-1. Bottom line, with only four career starts, I would have preferred to have seen him get in a couple of workouts leading up to the race.
It is apparent what John Shirreffs is attempting to accomplish with him, breaking him off four lengths behind his workmate in his six-furlong workout in 1:15 4/5 and then having him drop six lengths back before closing in and purposely cutting sharply to the inside rather than stay outside his workmate as most horses would do. This is vintage Shirreffs, who always seems to have something cooking as he tries to get inside his horses’ heads. Gormley now looks like a totally different horse than the speedball we were used to seeing. Shirreffs is a thinking man’s trainer and has had great success getting horses to peak for a particular race. No one ever accomplished that better than he did with Giacomo in the 2005 Derby, as he was more than satisfied with losing all his preps as long as the colt was ready to run the race of his life on the first Saturday in May. Gormley has shown an almost machine-like inconsistency, alternating good efforts with bad ones, and it will be very interesting to see if Shirreffs can get him to run two good races in a row, even though most people dismiss the Santa Anita Derby as being a subpar race.
11. Battalion Runner
He breezed a half-mile in :48 4/5 on the Belmont training track in his first workout since finishing second in the Wood Memorial. I liked the way he was moving over the Churchill Downs track Tuesday morning, and he seems to have taken to it immediately. If you follow or are influenced by Thoro-Graph numbers, your big question is whether he can pair up his career-equaling best figure, something he failed to do after his second career start, as also indicated by his Beyer Speed Figures. With only four career starts and more than a two-month layoff after his workmanlike allowance victory on Feb. 3, you just have to wonder how much foundation he has with regard to stretching out to a mile and a quarter. But there is no doubt he needed the Wood to move forward Also, his on or near the pace running style is similar to a number of the major players, so you also have to ask yourself if he’s ready to withstand that kind of heat. His connections have elected to run him back in the Derby, even though the owner also has Always Dreaming, so they must have great confidence in him to overcome all he will have to. There is no questioning his talent, but we’ll see if he is ready for this kind of challenge.
If there is one thing you don’t even want to attempt to analyze it is Doug O’Neill’s training procedures and how he works his horses. So when you see this colt work a mile in 1:44 after fractions of :53 for a half-mile and 1:06 for five furlongs, you don’t sweat it. You just watch it and see how much the horse is getting out of it. And Irap, after two-minute licking to the pole, seemed to be moving very well and just kept going and going, indicating this was an excellent stamina builder. We already know this colt has tactical speed and is tough as nails, taking after his sire, Tiznow, and he certainly looked strong in the closing stages of the Blue Grass Stakes, despite being on the wrong lead the length of the stretch. There is no doubting this colt’s ability to get the mile and a quarter, and it’s just a question of whether O’Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam can pull another rabbit out of their hat, in which lucky rabbits seem to breed at an alarming rate.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
With the field pretty well set, there is no need to mention the activity of all the 3-year-olds as in the past, so I’m just going to profile the remaining possibilities in alphabetical order.
BATTLE OF MIDWAY – It is very sad that Rick Porter was forced to sell this colt because of health problems. Like Shirreffs did with Gormley, Jerry Hollendorfer had Battle of Midway lag some five lengths behind his workmate and still was a length or so back turning for home, but he came down the stretch with good energy without being asked, suggesting both trainers are trying to get their colts to take back and come home. Gormley has already shown he can do that in the Santa Anita Derby and Battle of Midway was able to sit off the pace in his allowance victory going two turns for the first time. Frankly, I have no idea how he wants to run, but he can’t do what he did in the Santa Anita Derby, although he did hang in there gamely. I also have no idea how good he is, at least right now. But I have little doubt he has a bright future. His Thoro-Graph and Beyer figures suggest he needs to get considerably faster to be competitive in the Derby.
FAST AND ACCURATE – He worked a lively five furlongs in 1:00 1/5 over at the Trackside Louisville training center, where he seems to be training extremely well. He is purely a guess, with his last three victories coming on synthetic or grass, and his only dirt start resulting in a well-beaten fifth-place finish a Parx Racing maiden race. In addition, his speed figures are well below what it will take to be competitive in the Derby, but his Thoro-Graph and Beyer figures are improving with every race, just not enough. As mentioned, he is training great on the dirt at Trackside, and if anything, he could be a pace presence in the Derby.
LOOKIN AT LEE – I know one thing speaking to trainer Steve Asmussen. He loves this hard-knocking colt, who tries every race, and he is certain he will be flying at the end. As Asmussen said, “He never blinks, he never gives up. Nothing will bother him; he will keep coming. The question is whether he is mature enough.” A barn pet who is very low-keyed and just loves to eat, he runs with that same easy going demeanor, which often works against him, especially when the pace is moderate. We saw a similar type horse last year in Suddenbreakingnews, who just kept coming too late. Lookin At Lee will be passing horses in the stretch; we just don’t know how many of them and how much ground he will have to make up. One thing you can count on, it will be a lot. But he will be coming, especially after his powerful, meandering stretch run in the Arkansas Derby.
MALAGACY – I could have sworn they had made a decision to pass the Derby and possibly wait for the Preakness, which I still believe they will do, but he has not officially been ruled out. He has proven he is a brilliant colt with excellent tactical speed, but, with only four starts, two of them sprints, and getting tired at the end of the Arkansas Derby, why they would run him instead of waiting for the Preakness or even shortening him up in the Pat Day Mile escapes me. This is a horse Todd Petcher said earlier in the year looks like he prefers one turn, and he already has three horses in the Derby with pretty much the same running style. You would think Pletcher would save one of his bullets for the Preakness considering he never runs his Derby horses back in two weeks, unless of course they win the Derby and he’s pretty much forced to.
PATCH – If this horse had one more start, preferably two, and continued to show improvement, he would definitely be considered a leading contender, but it is all about the future for him and one must question how effective he can be with only three career starts. And for those who follow the Thoro-Graph numbers, he regressed quite a bit in the Louisiana Derby from his maiden victory, despite turning in what visibly appeared to be a superior effort. He would have to improve six or seven points to be competitive in the Derby, based on those figures and also his Beyer figure for the Louisiana Derby. Considering that Calumet Farm also has Hence and Sonneteer, you have to wonder why they would rush this promising colt into the Derby off such little seasoning and experience and off such slow speed figures.
ROYAL MO – He is going to need some defections to get in the race, and trainer John Shirreffs said he would not be sent to Churchill Downs to wait to see if he makes it into the field. But he breezed a strong five furlongs in 1:01 Sunday, and Shirreffs said for now he is training him as if he is going to run. This is a big, strong, hard-running horse who is only going to get better as the year goes on and he fine tunes his muscular frame. He ran a terrific race to be a close third in the Santa Anita Derby after racing wide the whole way and battling on the lead. Churchill Downs would seem like a track that would suit him, but all we can do is wait and see who drops out.
SONNETEER – His last two races would normally would put him in the Top 12 or close to it, considering his strong finishes in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby and my respect for Keith Desormeaux as a trainer, but he is a maiden and he is picking up eight pounds in the Kentucky Derby off the Arkansas Derby. While I can certainly see him picking up a piece of it if the speed comes back, it would take a total pace collapse for him to break his maiden in the Kentucky Derby. Like Lookin At Lee, he will be passing horses in the stretch and didn’t get nearly as much attention as Lookin At Lee for his finish in the Arkansas Derby. Like Irap, maiden or no maiden, he’s been keeping good company and could very well make his presence felt if we get a fast, contentious pace.
STATE OF HONOR – While I would love to have this horse in my barn and would feel confident every time he ran because he is so honest, as far as the Kentucky Derby, I would first need to see him settle better early in a race and not run with his head way up in the air. He does always seem to settle better down the backstretch and keeps going at a strong, steady clip the rest of the way, always picking up a piece of it. But he is 1-for-10 lifetime and needs to figure out a way to win one of these. To his credit, he has finished in the money in his last six races against Always Dreaming, McCraken, and Tapwrit and you can’t knock his second-place finish in the Florida Derby. I truly admire this colt’s grit and durability, and we’ll just have to see if his grinding, one-paced style of running can enable him to pick up a piece of it once again.
TAPWRIT – You hate to drop a horse based off one bad race, especially after his big efforts at Tampa Bay Downs and previous high ranking. But unlike J Boys Echo and McCraken, who lost very little ground in the final furlong, he went from 2 1/2 lengths behind J Boys Echo at the eighth pole to 5 1/4 lengths behind him at the finish and went from 7 1/2 lengths behind the winner to 11 1/2 lengths behind at the finish. So, he left little to grasp onto in trying to excuse that effort and hope for a complete rebound performance. Is he much better than he showed at Keeneland? No doubt about that. Did he despise the track and was he compromised by a bad trip? That is certainly possible, but so was J Boys Echo and McCraken. We really have no answers and it’s difficult to keep him high up in the rankings with so many horses moving forward. But in a year like this, nothing will shock us if he does rebound with a big effort.
THUNDER SNOW – Now that he definitely is coming, we can’t ignore him any longer, and we can’t ignore what he has accomplished, both in Group 1 company in France and in England, and in his United Arab Emirates 2,000 Guineas and UAE Derby victories in Dubai. Although he has a great deal of miler in his pedigree, he already has proven himself at 1 3/16 miles, in which he broke from the 13 post and raced wide most of the way, making the UAE Derby more like a mile-and-a-quarter race. We have seen him decimate his opponents on grass and dirt, and we have seen how courageous he is when having to dig down and engage in a slugfest. He does seem to have better action for the grass and he does have issues with changing leads, and that is something he will have to improve upon. But all in all this is a very talented horse who should not be ignored.
UNTRAPPED – Until his sixth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby with blinkers added, he was looking like the State of Honor of Oaklawn and Fair Grounds, running his heart out every race and always getting second or third. With him, it all looks like it’s about timing his move right. He does have a turn of foot that puts him into the fray and gives him every chance to win, but he just hasn’t been able to sustain his move. He worked five furlongs Monday in 1:01 3/5, galloping out six furlongs in 1:14 2/5, up in 1:27 3/5, so he is ready fitness-wise if his connections decide to run him.