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.
Two major Derby preps were held last weekend: the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, won by Always Dreaming; and the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, won by Girvin. Each of those horses earned 100 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby with their wins, and several of the also-rans in both races are under consideration for the 143rd Derby as well.
As big as last weekend was, this one is bigger, as three more major prep races will be run on Saturday, April 8: the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course; the $750,000 Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct; and the $1 million Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park. Each of these preps offer Kentucky Derby qualifying points on a 100-40-20-10 scale to the first four finishers.
This move will draw mixed reviews, and it is understandable. We’ll see after Saturday’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes if this will be a permanent home for him. Sometimes a special horse can transcend speed figures early in their career, and this colt took a sledgehammer and shattered his paltry speed figs with the kind of performance we’ve been waiting for all winter. Regardless of what you may think of Todd Pletcher as a Derby trainer, credit him for knowing what he had and having the patience to run him in that allowance race and let him come around at his own pace and not rush him into graded stakes company, which he often does with more precocious youngsters. He had enough confidence in the colt to give him only one shot to make the Derby and in a Grade 1 race. And remember, John Velazquez gave up an entire day of mounts at Gulfstream Park to go to Tampa Bay Downs in order to ride this colt in a maiden race. Always Dreaming also showed in his Gulfstream allowance win that sometimes the visual supersedes the statistics, as he looked like a star in the making despite the agonizingly slow time and speed figs. Not all fast horses have the ability to slow it down when asked to, but he adjusted to the track and did what he had to and got a lot of bottom in him on that extremely slow surface, while going out a full mile and a quarter. His last couple of works were extraordinary, especially his strong gallop-outs. In the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby, with all the points on the line and on a fast surface, he put on a dazzling display of tactical speed and finishing power, by :23-ing his opponents off their feet, rattling off fractions of :23 2/5, :23 4/5, :23 3/5, :23 4/5 and coming home his final eighth in :12 2/5 to complete the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47 2/5, which is only three-fifths off Arrogate’s track record. So he has excelled on two totally opposite surfaces, not to mention Tampa’s quirky surface. How legitimate was this race? There is no way to tell, but again I go by the eye test with this colt and he just does things like an exceptional horse.
Yes, there were rumors floating around about him before the Florida Derby and several experts who have seen him in the flesh say they believe he had lost weight since winning the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes, but if so, many horses thrive and gain weight going from Florida to Kentucky. If he has a good month, do not give up on this colt. I’m just going to wait to see how he bounces out of this race and how he looks and trains in the next couple of weeks and at Churchill Downs. I have not lost faith in him one bit. First off, let’s remember, his Thoro-Graph number in the Fountain of Youth was through the roof, well into the negative figures, which is much faster than any 3-year-old has run and was almost a six-point jump from his previous two races, so it was not surprising that he would regress in the Florida Derby, which was fine in the long run in order to give himself some leeway to move forward again and peak on Derby day and not before. This was reminiscent of when Monarchos won the Florida Derby in spectacular fashion, and then was 4-5 in the Wood Memorial. But when Congaree got loose in the stretch, running the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47 4/5, Jorge Chavez was content to finish a clearly-beaten second and not gut the horse trying to catch him. Monarchos went on to run the second-fastest Derby in history. When Snow Chief opened up a big lead in the Santa Anita Derby, Bill Shoemaker, on Ferdinand, didn’t push his horse hard and settled for third, beaten seven lengths, and then came back and crushed the Derby field. Gunnevera also had to overcome the 10-post, which has been the kiss of death in two-turn races at Gulfstream. And Javier Castellano elected to make a sharp left-hand turn coming out of the gate, and by running sideways all the way to the rail while the others were going forward, it left him 15 lengths back early and more than a dozen lengths back off a :47 half-mile. The way Always Dreaming ran, he had zero chance to win, but still managed to come home in :23, :23 4/5, and :12 flat. That’s a final five-eighths in :58 4/5. You can’t ask a horse to close much faster than that from so far back. Yes, he was being asked, but only to get up for a piece of it. Winning was out of the question a long way out. So let’s just monitor him closely in Kentucky and see how he looks and trains.
He could easily be No. 1 after the Blue Grass Stakes. I jumped him with Always Dreaming mainly because I believe you have to give preference to horses who have completed all their preps and gotten through their big mile and an eighth race in great shape. McCraken still has a big race ahead of him against very tough opponents and is returning off a physical setback and a missed race, so let’s wait and see how he fares in the Blue Grass and then assess where he is as far as the Derby is concerned. He still is the quintessential Kentucky Derby horse who is made for the race. His turn of foot is deadly and consistent and he can sustain his run, getting stronger the farther he goes. For a horse who sustained a minor injury smack in the middle of his Kentucky Derby journey and was forced to miss the second of his three scheduled starts, you couldn’t ask a horse to be coming up to his big test in the Blue Grass in better shape, judging by his outstanding works, and he has had three of them now, all well within himself and with sensational gallop-outs. In his last, he breezed a half in :49 2/5, coming home in :12 2/5, his rider high in the saddle and hands motionless, and going out another eighth in :12 flat, again hugging the rail tightly and showing terrific balance and athleticism around both turns. He’s just been gliding over the Keeneland surface in his usual professional manner, and it is apparent that trainer Ian Wilkes has him sharp and fit in much the same manner and style he and Carl Nafzger had Street Sense sharp and fit with a series of super works at Churchill Downs. If he can knock off the likes of Tapwrit, J Boys Echo, and Practical Joke, it is going to make for an interesting and challenging scramble for the top three spots. And let’s not forget that his jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. is going to have to choose between him and Girvin, and that is not going to be easy unless McCraken forces him to stay on him with another huge effort and remains undefeated.
I have had him at No. 4 since the Risen Star Stakes and no reason to move him now, unless up. Once again we have a horse who has completed all his preps leapfrogging another leading contender, in this case Tapwrit, who still has a tough task ahead. I shot this colt way up the ladder after the Risen Star based mainly on the eye test, as with Always Dreaming, and he did nothing to change my opinion that he is a very talented and tough colt who loves to run and has a maturity far beyond his years, which is why he has been able to do what he’s done in only four career starts, something I usually frown upon going into the Kentucky Derby. And it shows why he has been able to outrun his pedigree in regard to stamina. He still has to stretch it out one more time, but he has shown no indication that it will be a problem. My previous comments on him pretty much say it all, and he once again showed what kind of grit and determination and natural ability he has for a young horse with his victory in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. Granted, he defeated a colt with only two lifetime starts by 1 ¼ lengths and his come-home splits in :24 3/5 and :12 4/5 were solid, but not spectacular, and he still has issues with his lead changes, drifting in and jumping back to his left lead in the final furlong. But it seems apparent that he is still learning and does just what he has to to win. And he has a huge stride that will allow him to wear down his opponents. In short, he knows where the finish line is and how to get there first. And as I’ve been saying all along, I love the way he pins his ears and is all business. He has the potential to be one of those tough, durable throwbacks from years ago. He just needs to expand his already impressive résumé a little more.
He, like McCraken, lost a spot this week, but has a chance to gain it back with a big performance in the Blue Grass, which I am totally expecting. Losing a spot certainly doesn’t mean I feel he has less of a chance or is regarded any differently than he was last week. It’s all about timing and getting past that big final test and keeping up with those who have already completed their racing preparation. Of all the leading contenders, I feel he is progressing as rapidly as any of them, and has the most adaptable running style, as evidenced by the strong closing kick he has developed since the Sam F. Davis Stakes stretch run when he was pulled out for clear sailing. He has made remarkable strides since the Pulpit Stakes, which was flattered by Master Plan’s big effort in Dubai. He turned in a sharp half-mile breeze in :48 4/5 in his first work since winning the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. Todd Pletcher was pleased how energetically he galloped out. The colt then shipped to Kentucky soon after to prepare for the Blue Grass Stakes, where he will face off with McCraken, J Boys Echo, and Practical Joke in what looks to be the toughest prep of the year. Pletcher was quoted as telling the owners after the work they were going to have to seriously consider running again before the Derby because the horse was telling them that was the prudent path. Yes, he was, perhaps because he’s a racehorse and doesn’t particularly enjoy hanging out in his stall and not running for eight weeks, especially going into the biggest race of his life. That didn’t quite work out for Destin last year, and that supposedly was done out of necessity because of the huge jump and very fast Ragozin number in the Tampa Derby (one of his owners owned the Ragozin Sheets). I guess I still haven’t gotten used to this ultra-conservative method of training and less-is-more philosophy, especially for the Derby, but I’m trying. At least Tapwrit will go into the Derby off two one-mile races, two 1 1/16 mile races, and one 1 1/8-mile race. That’s more like it.
6. J Boys Echo
The Gotham Stakes winner turned it up a notch with a sharp five-furlong work in 1:00 3/5. With him, McCraken, Tapwrit, and Practical Joke about to collide in the Blue Grass, something has to give, as the Tampa Bay dominators face off against the best of Aqueduct’s inner track. It seems as if he is a bit under the radar, because horses who excel on the inner track generally have to prove themselves at the larger venues against classier opponents. But what he has shown so far has been impressive and he has run well at Keeneland, breaking his maiden there by 5 ½ lengths, and also at Churchill Downs. And Dale Romans is always dangerous in Kentucky. And as mentioned in the past, it would make a great story for Romans, born and raised in the shadow of Churchill Downs and training in the same Churchill barn for 40 years, teaming up with Robby Albarado, who is on the comeback trail after losing the 2011 Derby mount on Animal Kingdom the day before the race after being involved in a spill. This colt has excellent mechanics, with a smooth way of going, and still has a great deal of room for improvement. A victory or big effort on Saturday certainly would move him up near the top.
With the No. 3, 5, 6, and 7 horses facing each other in the Blue Grass Stakes, expect a major shakeup near the top next week, He turned in his second straight five-furlong work in 1:00 4/5 and he should be razor-sharp for the Blue Grass. He’ll have to be, facing McCraken, Tapwrit, and J Boys Echo. Brown obviously has a great deal of confidence in him passing up the Florida Derby to run against that crowd at Keeneland. You can expect him to make a big move somewhere in the race, but we don’t know where. I doubt it will be as early as he moved in the Fountain of Youth, but the big question with him is whether he can sustain it and for how long. We know he doesn’t mind mixing it up in the stretch and has won both his photos in Grade 1 stakes, but he has to put himself in that position, which means a well-timed move. Chad Brown feels he is physically imposing enough to stretch out successfully to longer distances, but he has yet to prove it, losing both his two-turn races. This is a tough spot for him, and if he should come up short of expectations and show he’s not quite ready to tackle a mile and a quarter, he could be one of those dangerous types laying in wait for the Preakness. The same can be said of another Brown-trained colt, Cloud Computing, who gets his big test in this Saturday’s Wood Memorial. I’m a sucker for a Champagne Stakes winner, especially a 2-year-old who can run a flat mile at Belmont Park in 1:34 3/5 and do it from off the pace, so I’m going to keep having faith in him until he proves otherwise.
The roller coaster rankings continue as he moves up again this week following a sharp :59 1/5 work at Winding Oaks Farm followed by another huge five-furlong drill in :59 3/5 in company, out six furlongs in 1:12 1/5, which jockey Julien Leparoux called “awesome.” It was impressive the way he left his workmate far up the track. Perhaps he is indeed feeling the spirit of former residents Dr. Fager and Ta Wee. Assistant trainer Norman Casse said the colt is doing so well in Ocala that his team is inclined to keep him there as long as possible. If this is the Classic Empire we’re going to see through the Derby, in the morning and afternoon, then we can start thinking about ripping out all those tattered pages of the past this year. It seems like a wise move to skip the Blue Grass Stakes against a very strong field and give the colt an additional work and an extra week before his final prep, which now will be the April 15 Arkansas Derby. As long as his works keep going according to plan and there are no shenanigans, it is still very possible we will see the Classic Empire of last year, or at least something close to it. The main concern is that he didn’t get much out of his race in the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes, and following all the interruptions, both mental and physical, it is imperative that he gets a lot out of the Arkansas Derby and comes through that race with flying colors. Nothing less will be acceptable if they expect him to come back and be a factor in the Kentucky Derby. But if everything goes smoothly, then he will shoot back up near the top, where he started out. Just remember what you thought of him after his Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity victories. He was special then, and if he is back on track he could be special again on the first Saturday in May.
He worked six furlongs in 1:13 4/5 in company, sitting a half-length off his workmate, then easing 1 ½ lengths back, with the rider’s hands well down on his neck . In the stretch, he was doing everything on his own with no urging, while his workmate was being hard ridden to stay with him. He eased clear by a length and continued strong past the wire, while taking the clubhouse turn wide. This work would indicate he’s ready to tackle the 1 1/8 miles in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby. Of the four races he’s run in his life, his fastest on Thoro-Graph was the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, and considering he was beaten soundly by Mastery in the San Felipe Stakes, he still ran a good enough Thoro-Graph number to suggest he can handle a further stretch-out in distance. He would need to slightly improve or at the worst pair up his San Felipe figure in the Santa Anita Derby to move on to the Kentucky Derby with any confidence. Also, the key is his ability to settle off the pace, and it was encouraging that he was able to sit off a :46 3/5 half-mile in the San Felipe after scorching a half in :44 flat in the San Vicente. And the way he has settled in his works also is encouraging.
10. One Liner
He breezed five furlongs in 1:01 4/5, and although I didn’t see this work, it would seem to be a big improvement from his work two weeks ago after having lost some training time after the Southwest Stakes. Although he is a big question mark at a mile and a quarter and will be going into the Kentucky Derby off three starts in 9 ½ months – one of them at six furlongs – his Beyer figures have improved significantly with each start, as have his Thoro-Graph numbers. It’s just a matter of keeping that progression going or maintaining it as the distances increase. The truth is, he doesn’t need to improve his Thoro-Graph number from his victorious Southwest Stakes. It was the second-fastest by any 3-year-old this year, so if he can run that fast or close to it going 1 1/8 miles and not regress, then perhaps he has a shot to stretch out to 1 ¼ miles, despite the speed influences in his pedigree. But with so little mileage under him it’s going to be a tough task. His Southwest number could easily win this year’s Derby, but doing it at 1 1/16 miles carrying 115 pounds is a far cry from doing it at a mile and a quarter carrying 126 pounds, and in a 20-horse field. He had been targeted for the Wood Memorial, but it looks as if Todd Pletcher once again is re-routing one of his Derby horses. That leaves the Arkansas Derby against his equally lightly-raced stablemate Malagacy as the logical final prep, which allows him to get an extra much-needed work in.
He breezed a half in :48 4/5 for the Arkansas Derby. Unlike another of Todd Pletcher’s lightly raced horses (that phrase seems to be redundant), One Liner, whose Thoro-Graph numbers have increased with each race, Malagacy’s actually have gotten slower the farther he’s run. His career debut was so fast it would be difficult to move forward off it. His second start also was very fast, although a slight regression, but his Rebel Stakes number in his first two-turn race regressed several points. It still puts him within range of the top horses, but he definitely will have to improve off it at Oaklawn Park, at least enough to show he has a chance at a mile and a quarter. He never raced as a 2-year-old and, like One Liner, two of his three starts have come in sprints, so once again there is a big question mark regarding foundation. Let’s not forget, these horses are preparing to go an arduous 1 ¼ miles for the first time and against 19 opponents… and in addition to having to overcome a pedigree not exactly inundated with stamina, Malagacy and One Liner were born two days apart on March 30 and April 1, respectively, so they just turned three. Also like One Liner, Malagacy will have to carry 11 pounds more in the Kentucky Derby than he did in his 1 1/16-mile prep. I can’t help but think back to Pletcher’s quote after his two sprint victories saying he’s probably best in one-turn races. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for an aspiring Kentucky Derby horse, but if this colt has one thing going for him it is extraordinary talent, so we’ll see how far that talent can take him.
12. Irish War Cry
It’s redemption time. This is it; his one chance to prove that the Fountain of Youth fiasco was a monumental fluke, an aberration of the highest degree. I have no idea how he’s going to run in the Wood Memorial, but I liked his six-furlong work in 1:13 1/5 at Fair Hill, and I’m putting him on here for old times sake, having previously had him at No. 1 for several weeks, and because I cannot bring myself to put five Pletcher horses in the Top 12, especially one with only three career starts and with another, Battalion Runner, poised to thrust himself into Derby contention. I don’t believe even trainer Graham Motion has a clue how he’s going to run at Aqueduct or if he’ll even settle back off the pace. Let’s just say he is hopeful. Where oh where did that Irish War Cry we saw break his maiden in such magnificent style go? There just doesn’t seem to be any reason why he turned into a speed horse who has had problems settling off the pace. Another old favorite originally ranked very high at No. 3, Mo Town, also is seeking redemption in the Wood, and I have no clue how he’s going to run either. Irish War Cry still is a thing of beauty to look at, especially in action, and we’ll just wait and see what happens on Saturday, after which the Derby Dozen should have a totally different look.
Knocking on the Door
There is an interesting dynamic developing on the Derby trail that typifies the stark difference in old-school philosophy and the current less-is-better philosophy. The second and third-place finishers of the Florida Derby, State of Honor and Gunnevera, will go into the Kentucky Derby having made a combined total of 19 career starts for an average of 9.5 career starts, while Todd Pletcher’s six, I repeat, six, leading Derby hopefuls will go into the race having made a total of 26 career starts for an average of 4.2 starts. Once again, that’s an average of 4.2 career starts going into the Kentucky Derby.
Considering all six of Pletcher’s horses at this point look to have the credentials to either win or finish in the money, it will be interesting to see how they fare with such little racing experience. If he has a big Derby, then you can bet we’ll be seeing Derby horses with fewer and fewer starts in the future. If he should have a bad Derby, perhaps trainers will think twice about running horses with so few starts. So, this year’s Derby could have a profound effect on future runnings of the race.
Pletcher isn’t the only trainer with such a conservative approach. Louisiana Derby and Risen Star winner Girvin will have only four career starts; Holy Bull winner Irish War Cry would have only five starts; Gotham runner-up Cloud Computing would have only three starts; Santa Anita Derby starters West Coast, Reach the World, and Battle of Midway would have only three, four and four starts, respectively; San Felipe runner-up Iliad would have only five starts; undefeated McCraken would have only five starts; Remsen Stakes winner Mo Town would have only five starts; and Blue Grass starter It’s Your Nickel would have only five starts.
In addition, four prominent horses – Malagacy, Cloud Computing, Reach the World, and Battle of Midway – will be attempting to put an end to the so-called Apollo curse, as they try to become the first horse since 1882 to win the Derby without having raced at two.
As if he didn’t have enough Derby trail horses already, Pletcher will be represented in the Wood Memorial by Bonus Points, who is 1-for-9 in his career, hasn’t run since Feb. 4, and was well-beaten in four stakes appearances, along with Battalion Runner, and watch the way they bet down the latter with the roll Pletcher is on. He has been handling Battalion Runner with kid gloves, giving him over two months between races and targeting him for just about every prep on the schedule, including the Santa Anita Derby, only to finally decide on the Wood Memorial. If he is as good as most people think he is and the one-time big names in the Wood don’t bounce back from their sound defeats, then he has a very good chance of securing his spot in the Kentucky Derby.
If he wants, Pletcher also has Master Plan, a fast-closing third in the UAE Derby, but he likely is more of a Belmont Stakes horse after having made a trip to Dubai and back, which usually takes several months from which to recover. Although it is an unprecedented achievement, imagine the pressure of having six or seven horses in the Derby, all with a good chance. That would be a lot of defeats to add on to his Derby record if he should get shut out. But no matter how you look at it, that is a lot of quality horses to get to the Derby. Only time will tell if they are ready for it, with several being so lightly raced. We will just have to see how the conservative approach plays out once again for Pletcher, who also has speedballs Theory and Syndergaard waiting in the wings for shorter races, with Theory heading for the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes.
As mentioned, Pletcher realistically could send six horses to the Derby, but at some point he had Derby aspirations for eight others, having run Sonic Mule in the Tampa Bay Derby, Hedge Fund in the Sunland Derby, Monaco in the Louisiana Derby, Made You Look in the Fountain of Youth, Action Everyday in the Gotham, Win With Pride in the Jerome, and Fact Finding in the Sam F. Davis, with Bonus Points slated for the Wood on Saturday.
As for the other horses who competed last weekend, State of Honor is not the fastest or most talented horse, but you have to admire his resolve and grit, and most of all his consistency. He is like two different horses in a race. Whether wearing blinkers or not, he looks awful early, throwing his up and not being able to settle at all. But he always finds his groove at some point and eventually settles in stride, and although he can’t outrun the top horses, he fights for whatever he can get, and that is always a piece of the purse. Since breaking his maiden last year, he has finished second in four stakes and third once, while chasing the likes of Always Dreaming, McCraken, and Tapwrit. His early career was extremely unproductive, with some bad efforts, but since breaking his maiden he’s been a money machine.
Patch ran a terrific race in the Louisiana Derby, especially for a horse with only two lifetime starts. He was running on strongly in the final furlong after getting through traffic and obviously is a colt with a bright future. Local Hero rated behind Girvin’s rabbit and opened a clear lead after taking over on the turn, but couldn’t match strides with the winner and Patch in the stretch, while just holding on for third. It’s too bad the improving Hollywood Handsome had to settle for fourth-place points, because he looks like he could have been this year’s Golden Soul and Commanding Curve for Dallas Stewart, as he closed well again, just missing third by a nose and getting beat three lengths for all the money, despite going six-wide turning for home. This horse is vintage Stewart when it comes to snatching up the place spot in the Derby with a late run at a huge price.
Not only will Irish War Cry be seeking redemption in the Wood Memorial, so will former No. 3-ranked horse Mo Town, who added his name to the list of inexplicable flops this year. It’s hard to believe this colt is as bad as looked in the Risen Star Stakes, and he supposedly couldn’t handle the track, so it would not be a surprise to see him bounce back on the same track over which he won the Remsen Stakes. But the Remsen form has not held up at all this year, so we’ll see what he has to offer on Saturday. I still believe this is a top quality colt, which means little this year. But I can’t believe the horse I saw break his maiden going a flat mile and win the Remsen is anywhere near as bad as he looked at Fair Grounds.
Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill will be doing their best impersonation of Todd Pletcher when they run seven horses between them in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby. O’Neill’s best chance obviously is with former Baffert colt Iliad, while Baffert looks to pick up some crumbs left over by the unfortunate Mastery with the one-time leading contender American Anthem, who worked five furlongs in 1:00 flat and is another seeking redemption after throwing a shoe in the Rebel Stakes; the long-striding Reach the World, who turned in a bullet five-furlong work in :59 4/5 with a very strong gallop-out; and the lightly-raced Irish Freedom, who has been working very well, but has only two lifetime starts, one of them finishing well behind Battle of Midway and Reach the World. The quick-footed West Coast, who also has been training brilliantly, was being considered, but Baffert feels he’s not ready.
I really liked American Anthem’s work, especially the way he made the turn into the stretch and the extension of his stride. He came down the stretch with great determination and his neck stretched out, and continued strong well past the wire while leaving his workmate far behind. Baffert had him working in front, so no monkeying around this time. Expect to see him on or close to the lead.
John Shirreffs could have two in the ever popular “seeking redemption” category. He has been targeting Sham Stakes winner Gormley since his disappointing effort in the San Felipe Stakes and has been thrilled with the way the colt has been training. The status of Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Royal Mo depended on his Monday work under Gary Stevens and the son of Uncle Mo went his five furlongs in 1:01 1/5 in a solid enough work.
I particularly liked Gormley’s work, in which he broke off some seven lengths behind his workmate, closed in quickly around the turn, and when his workmate took the turn into the stretch wide, Gormley cut to the inside and steadily drew clear under no urging to finish about four lengths in front, completing the six furlongs in 1:14 flat. I have no idea what happened to him in the San Felipe, but I would expect to see the good Gormley return in the Santa Anita Derby. But expectations and results have not been compatible this year.
I have no idea which of these nine horses, from only three trainers, is going to be on his A-game, but there is a good chance we’ll see the first three finishers go on to Louisville, assuming the third horse has enough points.
And then we have the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Battle of Midway, a grand-looking son of Smart Strike who is coming off an allowance score over Reach the World and recently turned in a bullet six-furlong work in 1:11 4/5, fastest of 21 works at the distance. These are the same connections as Songbird. Still another in the seeking redemption category is California Derby winner So Conflated, who never picked his feet up in the Gotham Stakes. Another trained by O’Neill, he tuned up for the race with a six-furlong drill in 1:15 1/5. O’Neill also will run Term of Art, a well-beaten third in the San Felipe and well-beaten fourth in the Robert B. Lewis. But he does have a decent closing kick and could pick up a piece of it. Cal-bred sprinter Milton Freewater closes out the O’Neill quartet.
Coming off a 4 ½-length maiden victory over eventual Rebel Stakes runner-up Sonneteer in 1:22 4/5 is Kimbear, who has been working lights out the past several weeks, rattling off one :59 and change work after another. In his latest, it was hard to believe he was going in :59 2/5, taking the turn so wide and merely cruising in the stretch. The son of Temple City was scratched out of the Sunland Derby to run here. It took him a while to break his maiden, but he’s been right there in every race in fast times and has a second to Iliad to his credit. We’ll see how he does stretching out to two turns for the first time. As for Sonneteer, he will skip the race and head back to Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby.
Although the Blue Grass looks like a four-horse race, don't underestimate It’s Your Nickel, who could pop in the frame at a good price. Visually, that was a stunning move he made in the March 4 John Battaglia Memorial Stakes, even if it was on Polytrack. He's had several solid works at Keeneland, including a bullet half in :47 2/5, and he's by the red-hot young stallion Dialed In.
One horse who is on the improve and could be a factor in the Arkansas Derby at a price is Silver Dust, fifth in the Rebel, beaten 3 ¼ lengths. He breezed a half-mile in company in :48, out in 1:12 2/5, coming home his last quarter in a sprightly :23 1/5. Steve Asmussen’s Arkansas Derby pair, Untrapped and Lookin At Lee, both turned in sharp five-furlong drills in 1:00 2/5. The hard-trying Petrov, who will win one of these big ones one day, breezed a half in :50 2/5, out in 1:03, with a final quarter in :24 flat.
Although the aforementioned Irish War Cry and Mo Town will be looking to bounce back off poor efforts in the Wood Memorial, two lightly-raced colts will be looking to move forward off big efforts. I mentioned one, Battalion Runner, earlier, and the other is Gotham runner-up Cloud Computing, who has run only twice in his life. He recently breezed a half-mile in :49 for trainer Chad Brown, who is very high on the colt, who was written about in detail last week.
Wild Shot, to whom I gave a big chance in the Tampa Bay Derby, but didn’t improve much off the Sam F. Davis Stakes, finishing a well-beaten third, tuned up for the Blue Grass Stakes, breezing a half in :48 1/5. His only appearance at Keeneland resulted in a game third-place effort in last October’s Breeders’ Futurity.
So far, the horses who have secured a spot in the Kentucky Derby, while completing their preps, are Always Dreaming, Gunnevera, Girvin, Patch, Thunder Snow, Hence, State of Honor, and Fast and Accurate. So, one-third of the field has been set, and we still have a lot of top horses looking for a spot in the starting gate.
Looking at Churchill Downs’ final Derby Future Wager, the smart play last week was to play two redemption horses, one lightly raced horse, and one making his stakes debut, all in the Wood Memorial. You could have gotten Battalion Runner at 26-1, Cloud Computing at 28-1, Irish War Cry at 21-1, and Mo Town at 38-1. There’s a good chance the Wood winner will be one of those four and you’ll at least have some good action going into the Derby. And if Irish War Cry does rebound and win, how good will 21-1 look?