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.
Last Saturday’s Derby prep, the the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, was won by the Todd Pletcher-trained Malagacy, who made a big class jump into stakes company a successful one by posting a two-length win.
This weekend, Derby watchers will widen their lens to a global view, focusing on three prep races offering qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby: the $2 million UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai; the $500,000 JACK Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky; and the $800,000 Sunland Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico. The Spiral Stakes and Sunland Derby are both held at 1 1/8 miles and offer qualifying points on a 50-20-10-5 scale to the first four finishers, while the UAE Derby is run at 1 3/16 miles and is the first Derby prep race to bump up its reward, offering a distribution of 100-40-20-10 points to the top four.
Returned to the work tab with an easy five-furlong breeze in 1:04 3/5 at Gulfstream Park West (formerly Calder), with exercise rider Edgard Zayas crouched down and hands motionless. The colt seemed his usual enthusiastic self as he jogged on his toes alongside the pony and was striding out beautifully at the wire over the deeper surface. He has very recognizable action and you can easily identify him. Does anyone remember how popular dosage used to be? The first thing trainers would ask about their Derby horse is, “What is his dosage?” Well, Gunnevera’s pedigree, mentioned several times in past weeks, is an absolute throwback to 30 years ago, as he has chef-de-race points in all five categories (Brilliant, Intermediate, Classic, Solid, and Professional) with the highest total in the Classic category (7-8-10-2-3). Good luck finding another pedigree today that can boast that. As former DRF Bloodlines columnist Ed Fountaine said, “That is almost unheard of today. This is the kind of Derby contender that Leon Rasmussen and Steve Roman would have jumped on back in the glory days of the dosage system.” As an aside, there is a short video on Gunnevera on YouTube, including footage of him selling as a yearling. To show how popular he was (hence the $16,000 selling price), all you have to do is look at the section of seats behind him and observe that there is not a single person seated in the entire section. Slipped through the cracks, as they say.
I absolutely loved everything about his work Monday morning. He went smoothly throughout, hugging the rail turning for home, down the stretch, and around the clubhouse turn galloping out, while striding out beautifully. I find it hard to believe the clocker’s fractions of :26 1/5 for the opening quarter and then the next quarter in :22 flat, but I do believe the final eighth in :11 4/5 to complete the five furlongs in 1:00. Because trainer Ian Wilkes feels he’s a different horse now who has filled out and is stronger, he is starting to believe that missing the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby might have been a blessing in disguise. Because of the preposterous nature of this year’s Derby trail, with top contenders self-destructing every week, he keeps looking better and better just by staying in the barn and letting Tapwrit boost his reputation. As long as McCraken has no other setbacks, he should come back loaded for bear in the April 8 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. With the Oaklawn Park, Fair Grounds, Aqueduct, and Santa Anita Park form all gone haywire to some degree, it looks as if McCraken and Tapwrit have provided the only sense of sanity, especially with the same two horses, State of Honor and Wild Shot, finishing right behind them in the Sam F. Davis Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby. McCraken also is one of the few horses who actually has all the qualities you look for in a Derby horse – the explosive turn of foot, the ability to rally outside or inside of horses, the pedigree to run all day, and to top it off an affinity for the Churchill Downs surface, having won all three of his starts there.
No, it doesn’t seem as if he beat much in the Tampa Bay Derby, just the same horses he finished ahead of in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, but nobody has beaten much, with every major stakes falling apart to some degree, and he at least has done it with style and looks to still be on the improve. He should get enough stamina from his tail-female family to get him the Derby distance, and he’s come a long way in his last three races, going back to the Pulpit Stakes when he began loafing on the lead, seeing a five-length advantage at the eighth pole dwindle down to a one-length victory over stablemate Master Plan. Master Plan could boost Tapwrit’s reputation even further if he can pull off the UAE Derby in Dubai Saturday. It was as if the proverbial light bulb went on in the stretch run of the Sam F. Davis Stakes when Tapwrit swung to the outside after he seemingly was going nowhere turning for home and watched McCraken run right by him. But once taken to the outside, Tapwrit shifted gears, leveled off, and began closing in on McCraken. He took it to another level in the Tampa Bay Derby and now looks to be getting stronger with every race.
He turned in another sharp work in company, going five furlongs in 1:01, with Rosie Napravnik again in the saddle and husband Joe Sharp on Cool Arrow. Sharp, Girvin’s trainer, said the work was even better than they expected. This time working outside Cool Arrow, Girvin quickly opened up on his workmate as soon as Rosie asked him and then galloped out very strongly. Rosie tweeted afterward, “He’s as talented as any 3-year-old I’ve ever sat on.” Having had a gut feeling about this horse since the Risen Star Stakes, it was reassuring to hear such high praise from someone as sharp (no pun intended), as Rosie Napravnik, as biased as she may be. Sometimes you see something in a horse that makes you feel there is a special quality about him, and I feel I saw that in the Risen Star. But considering how many of my leading contenders in the first few weeks lay strewn alongside the Derby trail – either off of it for good or hoping for a miraculous comeback – I can’t get too excited about anyone I really like. So I will let Girvin’s husband and wife team get excited for me. Normally, I would never rank a horse with such little experience this high up, and I wish he had another race under him, but I’m making a exception with him because he looks like a horse physically and mentally mature beyond his years, like the kid who enters high school at age 12.
5. J Boys Echo
He returned to Gulfstream Park and breezed an easy half-mile in :52 2/5 in preparation for the Blue Grass Stakes. The jury is still out on him, as he defeated a colt with only one six-furlong maiden race to his credit, but we really have no idea what to make of Cloud Computing, who did finish far ahead of 2-5 favorite El Areeb. I normally like to wait for a horse to get off Aqueduct’s inner track before getting too excited over him, but the pickings are slim at the top half of the Dozen and J Boys Echo is improving rapidly and has enough stamina in his pedigree to suggest he’ll get the distance. With so many speedy types this year and several top-class closers, he looks to have the perfect running style, being able to sit in midpack without falling too far off the pace and still unleash a strong stretch run, which should allow him to get the jump on horses like Gunnevera and McCraken. That, of course, is the scenario in a perfect world. I’m sure Dale Romans can’t wait to get this colt back to Kentucky, where he has run well at both Churchill Downs and Keeneland, breaking his maiden at the latter track by 5 ½ lengths.
Breezed a sharp half-mile in :48 3/5, which trainer Chad Brown called a super work. Brown said he has narrowed down his decision regarding the colt’s next start to either the April 1 Xpressbet.com Florida Derby or the Blue Grass Stakes one week later. Brown said he will enter in the Florida Derby to see where he draws and how the race shapes up. He also said Practical Joke got a lot out of the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes, in which he made a big early run around the far turn but was unable to sustain it, as Gunnevera blew right on by him. But Brown was happy with his effort in his first start since the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The fact is, as impressed as I was with his gutsy victories in the Hopeful Stakes and Champagne Stakes – the latter in a brilliant 1:34 3/5 – in his two races around two turns he lost nearly four lengths in the final furlong in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 5 ¼ lengths in the final furlong of the Fountain of Youth. That is not a pattern you want to see in a Derby horse, so he has one shot left to either time his move better or come home stronger. He needs to show some signs that a mile and a quarter is within his scope. So far, he hasn’t. Preps nowadays are no longer for learning or experimenting. They are about getting points, which means win or bust, especially when you schedule only two pre-Derby preps. I like this colt a lot, but I’m just not sure he wants to go classic distances. Hopefully, his next race will help provide some encouragement that he can be effective going two turns and is eligible to take it to another level on the first Saturday in May.
If there has been a more frustrating horse on the Derby trail, I can’t recall who it could be. Once again, he pulled his Jekyll and Hyde routine and refused to work on Sunday. When Dr. Jekyll comes out we’ve seen what he’s capable of, but Mr. Hyde brings out all of his worst qualities, and unfortunately we’ve seen that result too often. Trainer Mark Casse sent him to the Ocala Training Center to gallop on Polytrack the next day and he was a happy camper. He is scheduled to work there (and I use the word scheduled very loosely) this week and then will be sent to what they hope will be the more friendly and familiar confines of Keeneland, where he had his best days last year. Frankly, I have no idea what to do with him. It would be an understatement to say we need a healthy, happy and sound-of-mind Classic Empire on the Derby trail this year. Let’s not forget he was last year’s 2-year-old champion male and a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, who has displayed his immense talent on more than one occasion. His connections still believe they can make the Blue Grass Stakes with him, and all we can do is hope everything goes as planned at Keeneland and he is mentally sound and physically fit and sharp on Blue Grass day. This has to be extremely frustrating for Mark and Norm Casse, knowing what a talented horse they have who simply has been incapable of behaving on a regular basis.
He will head a three-pronged Doug O’Neill attack in what promises to be a very wide-open Santa Anita Derby on April 8 that lost its star appeal when Mastery was injured and Gormley tired badly in the San Felipe Stakes. Iliad needs to settle off the pace again and show he can come home strongly in his second two-turn race. He apparently needed his first. Although he was no match for Mastery in the San Felipe, it was encouraging the way he rated in third in his two-turn debut, especially having pressed the pace in three previous sprint races, in which the opening half was run in :44 flat, :44 2/5, and :44 4/5. The San Felipe should set him up nicely for the Santa Anita Derby. Remember, Iliad’s sire and grandsire both won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, his half-brother Melmich won stakes in Canada at 1 ¾ miles and 1 ¼ miles, and his maternal great-grandsire Swoon won the San Marino Handicap at 1 ½ miles and placed in the 1 ¾-mile San Juan Capistrano Invitational, so he should not be lacking in stamina. He was always highly regarded by his former trainer Bob Baffert, and now it’s time for him to take a big step forward and save something for the stretch run. And remember, the two trainers he’s had have combined to win six Kentucky Derbies.
9. One Liner
After not working for a month following his impressive victory in the Southwest Stakes, he finally returned to the work tab, and one would have hoped to seen a stronger move, at least from a visual point of view. His half-mile time of :50 1/5 was fine, even working in company, but he was aggressively ridden in the stretch, having the reins shaken at him, yet failed to catch his workmate, who was going much easier of the two. And he was left far behind on the gallop-out. I normally refrain from being critical of works because you don’t know what the trainer was looking for, but I was just reporting what I saw in this particular work. He is one of three Todd Pletcher hopefuls who will have to buck history by going in the Kentucky Derby with only four lifetime starts, and one of two who will have only two races around two turns, with his first two starts coming at 5 ½ and six furlongs and his first start happening way back last July. So he will be attempting to do something that hasn’t been done in 99 years. There is also a question of how far he wants to go, and he will be carrying 11 pounds more in the Kentucky Derby than he did in the Southwest. With all that said, let’s wait to see how he works next time. There is no question he is a very talented colt, and that is the main reason he is still ranked as high as he is. But there are question marks. No decision has been made on his next start; most likely the Blue Grass or Wood Memorial, both on April 8.
Here is another Pletcher horse who will be bucking history, and he also has the so-called Apollo curse to overcome, not having raced as a 2-year-old. He obviously is fast and talented, but like One Liner, will try to win the Kentucky Derby off only four lifetime starts, two of them sprints. And like One Liner in the Southwest Stakes, he carried only 115 pounds to victory in the Rebel Stakes in his first start around two turns and will be carrying 11 pounds more at Churchill Downs. He also defeated a 112.30-1 maiden with eight starts. But, like One Liner, he no doubt is immensely talented and showed how fast he is in his two sprint victories. His 91 Beyer Speed Figure in the Rebel was nothing to rave about, so with California invaders American Anthem and Royal Mo not showing up, and Uncontested tiring badly once again, we really don’t know the quality of this field. It should also be noted that the first six horses finished within 3 ¾ lengths of each other. Although his pedigree at first glance indicates a horse who might be better at shorter distances than the Derby, he is inbred 3x4 to distance influence and dual classic winner Pleasant Colony, a son of champion sire His Majesty, who has helped perpetuate the Ribot line.
11. Guest Suite
I decided to go back to one of the original Top 12 and I was encouraged by his bullet five-furlong work in 1:00 1/5, fastest of 10 works at the distance. I will also forgive his fourth in the Risen Star, in which he came from 13 lengths back to be beaten only 4 ½ lengths, coming home in an impressive :23 4/5, :23 4/5 and :06 1/5. Off that, and the lack of confidence in any of the new faces, I felt, why not go back to my original instincts? As you will see by the next horse, I am in a forgiving mood this week. Perhaps I am just rooting for one of the real good guys, Neil Howard, to get back to the Derby, in which he finished second in 1990 with Summer Squall. The Howard–William Farish association is one of the longest in the sport, which is so refreshing these days, and loyalty in good times and bad deserves to be rewarded. But before making it sound like this is strictly a personality-driven decision, Guest Suite is a darn nice horse and a Grade 3 stakes winner with a strong and consistent closing punch, who has delivered it at Fair Grounds, Keeneland, Ellis Park, and twice at Churchill Downs, where he was third to McCraken in the Street Sense Stakes and an impressive 6 ¼-length victor in a one-mile allowance race carrying 122 pounds.
12. Mo Town
I decided to go back to two of the original Top 12, this one a former No. 3-ranked horse who John Velazquez said emphatically did not handle the Fair Grounds surface when finishing fifth. Bringing him back to the rankings would seem to go against all logic considering the terrible form last fall’s Remsen Stakes has produced from its top horses, but Mo Town’s six-furlong work in 1:13 1/5, out in 1:27 1/5 at Gulfstream suggests that he too deserves another chance. He has never been highly regarded in the polls and public opinion, but it is not his Remsen win on which I am basing my opinions of this colt; it is his maiden victory. That was one of the most impressive maiden wins I saw last year, coming at a flat mile, in which he defeated a good horse in Everybodyluvsrudy by seven lengths and did it the right way, coming home his final quarter in a shade under :24 3/5. The fact that he worked so sharply over the dull Payson Park surface all winter and then threw in his first clunker of his career, makes me believe that his poor race in the Risen Star was a throw out. I really would have loved to seen him come back in a sprint to get all that dullness out from the Remsen, and he actually did run well for six furlongs in the Risen Star. Now, you don’t want to have throw-out races with only two preps for the Kentucky Derby, and wherever he shows up next, he is going to have to demonstrate that big closing punch again and finish close enough to get much-needed points. I still feel this horse is much better than people think and Tony Dutrow knows how to train a horse.
Knocking on the Door
Never have so many leading Derby hopefuls turned in such dismal performances. Every week, a prominent name plummets off the list, leaving us with new faces who come out of the woodwork, each one with so few career starts we hardly know who they are or who they will be come Derby time. Todd Pletcher alone can fill at least a quarter of the starting spots in the Derby, as his lightly-raced horses as a whole continue to stretch out from sprints and perform Herculean deeds. In fact, three of Pletcher’s main Derby hopefuls, like so many this year, will attempt to win the Derby off only four career starts – Battalion Runner, One Liner, and Malagacy. For One Liner and Malagacy, two of their starts came in sprints. The last horse to win the Derby with as few as four career starts and having only two or fewer races at a mile or longer was Exterminator 99 years ago. And Malagacy, as mentioned earlier, will also try to become the first horse since Apollo, 135 years ago, to win the Derby without having raced at age 2.
This has been Pletcher’s m.o. over the years, where five starts is close to maximum, so we’re not talking Carry Back here. If he keeps training this way for the Derby I suspect one of these years he’ll get it done when all the conditions are right, unless someone beats him to it. But until then, let someone win the Derby with so little mileage in them and then I will ignore the historical trends in the future.
In addition to Tapwrit, Pletcher also has Master Plan running in the UAE Derby Saturday, and this forgotten horse should have a good chance to win and become the first horse in history to complete the OBS Championship and UAE Derby double. If he does emerge victorious, remember it usually takes World Cup horses coming from America about two months at least to make it back to the races. It’s a pretty tough trip for a horse going to Dubai and back, and then have to get ready for the Kentucky Derby. One of Pletcher’s more dangerous Derby horses might be Always Dreaming, who had a terrific half-mile work in a bullet :48 flat this week in company with Theory. To me this was the best work by a Pletcher horse this week, as he did it in hand and galloped out very strongly. He has never been tested for class, but this looks to be a year that a horse might not need to be tested for class, as we have so many lightly-raced hopefuls filling in the spots vacated by all the big-name failures and dropouts this year. But despite the slow time and fractions of his allowance victory against at best mediocre opponents, I liked what I saw, which is a horse loaded with class and with a tremendous amount of upside. Minority interest in him recently was sold to West Point Thoroughbreds, who look to have a future star.
Pletcher had mentioned Always Dreaming and Battalion Runner as possible starters in the April 1 Florida Derby, but with the Santa Anita Derby one week later seemingly ripe for the pickings, Pletcher could split them up and run Battalion Runner at Santa Anita Park, and he could be made for that track. It would make sense because both colts desperately need points and by racing together they’ll be lessening their chances. As if these weren’t enough, Pletcher also has maiden winner Hedge Fund, who is slated for Sunday’s Sunland Derby.
If Pletcher does get five or even a record six to the Derby, you can bet the pressure will be on to win or at least finish second, considering how often his record in the Derby is brought up by fans and the media. The last thing he wants to do is tack on five or six more losers in one shot.
To demonstrate how little we know about this year’s 3-year-olds (and they are proving that this year), if you take the majority of horses who have graced the Top 12 this year, and add a couple of graded stakes runners-up like Cloud Computing and Untrapped, you have a total of 13 horses who have made an average of four lifetime starts. Four of them have made five starts, four have made four starts, four have made three starts, and one has made two starts. In other words, we know very little about them and how talented they really are. It makes you appreciate a horse like Gunnevera, who has made eight lifetime starts. At least we can embrace a horse like this and have some idea who he is and give him an identity. And he’s the cheapest purchase of the lot.
It has reached a point where I am actually ready to put my old favorite Irish War Cry back on the list. He is scheduled to have his first work since the Fountain of Youth debacle this week, and if he works well and looks good doing it, I am willing to throw out his shocking 22-length defeat and put him back. Graham Motion said nothing new has come up as to why the son of Curlin ran so poorly in the Fountain of Youth. He said he believes it probably was a perfect storm of laying too close to the pace on a drying-out, cuppy track and also bouncing from his Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes performance. Right now Motion plans to breeze his colt one time at Palm Meadows and then ship him to Fair Hill, where he likely would point for the April 8 Wood Memorial. Irish War Cry does have two very fast Thoro-Graph figures as a 2-year-old to fall back on, as well as his huge number in the Holy Bull. But he desperately needs to sit back off the pace and relax. If he can run the way he did in his career debut, he would be right back up or near the top of the list. But so far, for some reason, he simply has been unable to duplicate that effort or style of running, especially that explosive move around the turn. You just have to hope that the need for the lead hasn’t become habit forming.
With the aforementioned self-destruction of so many early Derby contenders, it is time to watch out for a third wave to hit, made up of allowance winners ready to step up to stakes company. Always Dreaming and Battalion Runner were already mentioned, and there is also Battle of Midway and Reach the World, one-two in a recent allowance race at Santa Anita. The latter, who had a rough trip in that allowance race and was running strongly at the finish after a slow start and encountering traffic problems, turned in a bullet five-furlong work in :59 4/5, fastest of 35 works at the distance, while Battle of Midway also worked sharply, going a half-mile in :47 3/5, second fastest of 31 works at the distance.
I nearly put Reach the World in the Top 12 this week for one reason. The last thing you want to do is corner a badger, especially a wounded one. Even lions and leopards know not to mess with a badger. Well, consider Bob Baffert a wounded badger, the result of losing Mastery to injury and the dismal performance of American Anthem in the Rebel Stakes, in which he reportedly lost a shoe. You can bet Baffert, with his back up against the wall in the Santa Anita Derby, will be baring his teeth and will come out fighting mad in the Santa Anita Derby with Reach the World. The thought of Baffert having two major Derby contenders one week and then possibly having nothing for the Derby seems unthinkable. He does have maiden winner Bronze Age, who turned in a sensational work this week for Sunday’s Sunland Derby, and another maiden winner, West Coast, but they are far behind the others and would have so much catching up to do to be considered a serious Derby horse. The same goes for Irish Freedom, who also has been working sharply. All three look like horses for down the road, although a huge performance by Bronze Age at Sunland could propel him into the Derby picture, even if it would be a rush job. Even Reach the World has only three career starts, so you can add him to the list of horses bucking history, not only with possibly having four lifetime starts going into the Derby, but also by facing the Apollo curse as well, as he did not make his first start until January of this year. To Baffert’s credit, he nearly pulled off a historic win on both counts with Bodemeister, who blew a five-length lead in the stretch in the 2012 Derby to finish second to I’ll Have Another.
As for the beaten horses in the Rebel, kudos to trainer Keith Desormeaux for ignoring the fact that Sonneteer was still a maiden after eight starts and running him in the Rebel, where he rallied along the inside to get up for second at odds of 112.30-1. Desormeaux proved once again, as he did with Texas Red and Exaggerator, that he knows his horses as well as anyone and always must be respected. Sonneteer had been running consistently well against some talented horses in maiden races and Desormeaux had enough faith in him to ship all the way to Oaklawn to run him in what seemed like one of the toughest preps of the year. What does that do to the form of the Rebel? Your guess is as good as mine. The last maiden to win the Kentucky Derby was Broker’s Tip in 1933.
Untrapped once again looked like a winner inside the eighth pole but once again was unable to sustain his run, finishing third in the Rebel. Considering he was running back in three weeks after his second in the Risen Star, in which he ran hard against a very good horse in Girvin, you can excuse him for regressing or “bouncing” off that race. He is as tough and honest as they come, but I just don’t know how far he wants to go and if he can sustain his run at longer distances. His Rebel performance at odds of 8.80-1 boosted the form of the Risen Star and the reputation of Girvin.
I was disappointed in Petrov’s fourth-place finish in the Rebel, but it had more to do with his trip than the horse. This was the race where he should have taken back and made one run, and instead, there he was again down on the inside chasing his nemesis Uncontested, two lengths off the lead. He was pretty much one-paced throughout most of the running, then had to alter course after turning for home, missing second by two noses and losing valuable Derby qualifying points. I can certainly see him returning to the list, but he has to quit chasing the speed. Silver Dust is still a work in progress and ran well to finish fifth, beaten 3 ¼ lengths and finishing just ahead of Lookin At Lee. One of these days when he puts it all together, he could make his presence felt in major races. With the first six Rebel finishers all within 3 ¾ lengths of each other at the finish, one has to be suspect of the form of the race, in what looked to be a quality field. But with the California invaders American Anthem and Royal Mo finishing at the back of the pack, it really threw the race into turmoil. Royal Mo, despite the bad defeat, may still join stablemate Gormley in the Santa Anita Derby grab bag.
As for Uncontested, I really thought this would be a big bounce-back race, but he stopped just as abruptly as he did in the Southwest. Not only that, but he was ridden the exact same way he was in the Southwest. I hated seeing him on the lead again, even from the second post position, but perhaps he is just not adaptable enough to be taken back. Seeing him geared down until the top of the stretch, you knew he wasn’t going to suddenly switch gears and outclose the closers. It’s time to go back to square one with a very talented colt who just seemed to lose his way on the Derby trail, as have so many this year. Trainer Wayne Catalano said he probably will be pointed for sprint races.
It is not unusual to see Doug O’Neill load up in one race with multiple horses, and that will be the case in what looks to be a very wide-open Santa Anita Derby, with last year’s Kentucky Derby-winning trainer looking to run the San Felipe Stakes second- and third-place finishers Iliad and Term of Art, as well as California Derby winner So Conflated, who finished up the track in the Gotham Stakes after scratching out of the Risen Star. This is shaping up as one of those races where you might as well throw the kitchen sink in there, because on the surface it looks like anyone can win it. There is nothing even resembling a standout with Mastery gone.
Another on the long list of horses who ran a disappointing race this year is El Areeb, who finished third, beaten 11 lengths, in the Gotham Stakes at 2-5 odds. But trainer Cathal Lynch is willing to forgive that performance and is pointing the son of Exchange Rate to the Wood Memorial following his half-mile breeze in company in :51 2/5 at Laurel Park. Going to the front in the Gotham was a step backwards for a horse who seemed to have found a home sitting off the pace and delivering a quick lethal blow to his opponents. If El Areeb is going to tackle what should be a much deeper field in the Wood Memorial he’d better revert back to his off-the-pace style of running that won him the Jerome and Withers Stakes.
It will be interesting to see if the well-bred Conquest Mo Money can extend his unbeaten streak to four when he takes on all comers in the Sunland Derby next Sunday. Yes, he’s another horse with only three career starts, but if he does win, remember he has always been stabled at Sunland Park, which has an altitude of almost 3,800 feet. Caracas, Venezuela has an altitude of between 2,500 and 3,000 feet. The two horses who came to the Derby after spending months in those two high altitudes were Canonero II and Mine That Bird, arguably the two most unlikely winners ever of the Kentucky Derby. Not only did they shock the racing world, both won the Derby in dominating fashion. It’s just something to think about if Conquest Mo Money, by Uncle Mo, from the family of Belmont winner Touch Gold, wins and makes the journey down to the 466-foot elevation of Louisville, Ky. Looking for reasons why Canonero II and Mine That Bird won the Derby, and by such big margins? Think about it.
In addition to Conquest Mo Money, Bronze Age, and Hedge Fund, Steve Asmussen could have a pair of starters in the Sunland Derby in Fair Grounds allowance winner Total Tap and Oaklawn maiden winner Hence, whose remarkable victory was written up on here several weeks ago. He has since finished up the track in the Southwest Stakes.
As for Saturday’s UAE Derby, there is quite a potpourri of horses in here, headed by Godolphin’s impressive UAE 2,000 Guineas winner Thunder Snow. The main threats look to be the Japanese invader Epicharis, who has already qualified for the Kentucky Derby, and the Todd Pletcher-trained Master Plan, second to Tapwrit in the Pulpit Stakes and winner of the OBS Championship. Aidan O’Brien will run Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up Lancaster Bomber and Spirit of Valor, an Ireland-based son of War Front, out of a Grindstone mare who has a maiden win at Naas to his credit and was second at Leopardstown last time out.
Also in the UAE Derby field are the one-two finishers of the Al Bastakiya Stakes, Cosmo Charlie and Qatar Man. The big favorite in that race, Fawree, broke through the gate and unseated his rider, and he gets another chance in the UAE Derby. You also have the one-two finishers of the UAE Oaks, Nomorerichblondes and Midnight Chica, who will tackle the boys. Finally, Fly At Dawn has run at 1 ¼ miles at 2 and has carried heavy weight consistently. We'll see if he wants to go this far, having run mainly at seven furlongs.