A Classy Champion, 1989 Belmont Stakes Winner Easy Goer
This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses whose chances for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve are not quite as strong as they were last week.
With the action on the Derby trail percolating, this column will now appear regularly to analyze to biggest movers approaching the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard
For the second week in a row, a colt I was very skeptical of earned the top spot after a dominant race. In this case, Justify rode a hype express into the Santa Anita Derby and exceeded, in my opinion, expectations with a three-length win over Bolt d’Oro, the horse who last week ranked first in my Kentucky Derby top 10. I viewed the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 as a major class hurdle for Justify with only two lifetime starts entering his stakes debut, and he won in such a way that he stamped himself the favorite for the first jewel of the Triple Crown. The speed figures indicate he’s as fast as any 3-year-old in this class. Daily Racing Form gave him a 107 Beyer Speed Figure, the best for any Derby contender to date this season. His Brisnet figure was a 114, the top number it has assigned in the Kentucky Derby points era; while TimeForm gave him a jaw-dropping 132 rating. With Hall of Fame connections – jockey Mike Smith and trainer Bob Baffert – and a world of talent, there is much to like in Justify. As I wrote in my latest Making the Grade profile about Justify, am concerned enough with his inexperience and lack of foundation that I will look elsewhere for my top pick for the Kentucky Derby, but right now Justify sure looks like the most likely winner.
2. Vino Rosso
Vino Rosso got the edge here just because he made a much bigger jump than Good Magic, a colt I stayed relatively high on even after he lost the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes in March. Vino Rosso, on the other hand, I’d washed my hands of after he ran fourth in the Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, even going so far as to take a shot at his supporters who loved his gallop-out when second in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes. Well, they were right and I was wrong. I really liked how Vino Rosso was moving in the stretch of the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on April 7 as he swept past Enticed on his way to a three-length win. The 106 Equibase Speed Figure was a new two-point, career-best and a nice rebound from the 88 he earned when fourth by six lengths in the Tampa Bay Derby. One of four 3-year-olds from the barn of Todd Pletcher to secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby field, Vino Rosso is bred to relish 1 ¼ miles as a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin out of a Street Cry mare. He did not finish especially fast – final eighth of a mile in 12.81 seconds – and I’m not sure he beat a great group in the Wood Memorial, but I think he’ll be passing horses in the Churchill Downs stretch on Kentucky Derby day with a real shot to finish in the top three.
3. Good Magic
I had Good Magic third last week despite his season-opening defeat in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and that’s where he stayed for me this week after winning the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 7. My opinion of Good Magic didn’t change, but seeing him get a convincing win made me feel significantly better about his Kentucky Derby chances. I believe he probably needed his first race to get back to top form for two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown, even though in his season debut he equaled his career-best Equibase Speed Figure (108), and in the Blue Grass he looked focused and professional while pulling away from a game Flameaway to win by 1 ½ lengths. Many of my biggest concerns with Justify have already been answered with Good Magic, who has raced in big fields facing 11 or more opponents three times in graded stakes, been challenged in the stretch and responded, and overcome adversity to win. Good Magic broke from post-position 11 and was jostled and forced wide entering the first turn in a 14-horse field for the Blue Grass, but he settled into a nice rhythm on the backstretch before launching his winning bid on the final turn. He does not have the explosive kick of some of his 3-year-old peers, but this Curlin colt boasts a terrific combination of cruising speed and stamina.
Honorable Mentions: Outside of the winners of the big three Kentucky Derby prep races on April 7, not many of the other contenders really impressed me as viable Kentucky Derby contenders. I did come away from the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes impressed with Flameaway’s tenacity. He set a solid pace and fought hard when challenged by Good Magic. He could not match strides with the victor but he did hold on for second to guarantee his spot in the first jewel of the Triple Crown, where he will be a pace factor early and could shape the complexion of the race.
In January, I looked at Instilled Regard as a consistent 3-year-old and a top Kentucky Derby prospect from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. But since his win in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes, Instilled Regard has moved in the wrong direction with a fourth-place finish as the favorite in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford and another fourth, beaten by 10 ¾ lengths, in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. The most recent fourth probably cost Instilled Regard a spot in the Kentucky Derby as he is 22nd on the points list with 29 points and two Road to the Kentucky Derby races remaining. He really needed a big race in the Santa Anita Derby to prove he was capable of competing with the best 3-year-olds, and even a close third would have been enough to lock up a Derby spot and warrant moving on to Louisville. Now, it’s tough to predict what Hollendorfer will do with a 3-year-old who clearly has serious ability but might be a tier below the best of his division.
Enticed finished a respectable second, beaten by three lengths by Vino Rosso, in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets to further secure his already solid spot in the Kentucky Derby field. I’m torn on this race. On one hand, the goal is to have Enticed in absolute peak form on Kentucky Derby day not Wood Memorial day. On the other hand, he looked so much better in the one-turn Gotham Stakes and had no response when Vino Rosso blew past him in the stretch. The drop from a 113 Equibase Speed Figure for his 2 3/4-length Gotham win to a 102 for his Wood Memorial runner-up finish indicates a horse possibly headed in the wrong direction and one who may not improve with added distance, which comes as a surprise give his pedigree. Enticed is by a terrific stamina sire in Medaglia d’Oro out of It’s Tricky, a Grade 1 winner at 1 1/8 miles by 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft. He’s a tough read, but I think at this point I have to leave Enticed completely off my Kentucky Derby tickets.
3. Bolt d’Oro
It’s strange that a 3-year-old I’m still seriously considering as my top pick for the Kentucky Derby found his way to the cooling off section, but the reality is he dropped from first on my Derby top 10 to fourth. Note: I try to create my top 10 list with horses ranked by most likely winner. While it’s true that Justify controlled the race and had the Santa Anita Derby his way thanks to a Hall of Fame ride from jockey Mike Smith, it’s also true that Bolt d’Oro had a shot at Justify near the top of the stretch and could not match strides with him, AND Justify looks like a potential superstar. Bolt d’Oro came out of the race with a minor cut that could have contributed to the defeat in a small way and he figures to get a much better pace setup in the Kentucky Derby. He’s still one of the more consistent 3-year-olds I’ve seen in recent years with push-button acceleration and a terrific stamina pedigree. I’d be shocked if he didn’t finish in the top three in at least one Triple Crown race in 2018, but I no longer view him as the most likely Kentucky Derby winner.
Of note: Kanthaka is a very fast 3-year-old racehorse. He proved that when winning the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes by 3 ¼ lengths on Feb. 1 to earn a 114 Equibase Speed Figure. I was encouraged by the Jimmy Creed colt’s third-place finish (108 Equibase Speed Figure) behind Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes in his first attempt navigating two turns, but he came up empty in the stretch of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes when fading to sixth and it looks like he might be better suited to one-turn sprints. … I never viewed Old Time Revival as a serious Kentucky Derby contender, even after he held on for second in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes after setting the pace, and his Wood Memorial Stakes clunker (eighth, beaten by 25 lengths) tells me 1 ¼ miles for the Derby or even 1 3/16 miles for the Preakness is out of the question.
Mike’s Top 10
2. Magnum Moon
3. Good Magic
4. Bolt d'Oro
7. Noble Indy
8. Vino Rosso
Four on the bubble: My Boy Jack, Hofburg, Runaway Ghost, Free Drop Billy