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 appear regularly to analyze the biggest movers approaching the first leg of the Triple Crown.
I admit I was skeptical of Mendelssohn before the United Arab Emirates Derby. I didn’t love his season debut on a synthetic surface at Dundalk in Ireland, but he looked like a monster in his first try on dirt, pulling away to an 18 ½-length romp against a UAE Derby field I thought was pretty strong. I went into greater detail on the reasons why Mendelssohn has a chance to be the first UAE Derby runner to finish in the top three in the Kentucky Derby in this week’s Making the Grade, but to condense it down to a few factors: he set a track record at 1 3/16 miles carrying 126 pounds; he’s bred to be a star on dirt (half-brother to four-time champion Beholder); he has Hall of Fame-quality connections; and his 106 Beyer Speed Figure and 116 Timeform Speed Figure indicate he’s a contender. The trip from Dubai to the U.S. is a taxing one and the climate change is significant, but this is the first time I’ve actually thought a UAE Derby winner had a shot on the first Saturday in May.
Audible turned heads with a runaway 5 ½-length win in the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 3, but for me his Xpressbet Florida Derby victory was far more impressive. He showed he was adaptable by dropping well off a very fast pace, made a bold move to seize command, and drew away with a final eighth of a mile in 12.52 seconds. He was still moving well in the stretch. He earned a new career-best 111 Equibase Speed Figure and also earned a 107 Brisnet Speed Figure that was not only a personal best, but the best of this group of 3-year-olds. Timeform also rated his performance very highly with a 122 speed figure, just two points behind the 124 McKinzie earned when second via disqualification in the San Felipe Stakes. Daily Racing Form was not quite as impressed, but his 99 Beyer Speed Figure places him squarely among the contenders. I still have my concerns that his pedigree could catch up to him in the final eighth of a mile on Kentucky Derby day, but so far Audible has answered the call in two terrific starts this year and I moved him up two spots to fourth on my top-ten list.
Gronkowski, named after the New England Patriots All-Pro Tight End Rob Gronkowski, earned a spot in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve via the European Road to the Kentucky Derby when winning the 32red Burradon Stakes on March 30 at Newcastle in England. The win was more of a grinding score than an eye-catching victory, but Gronk (the horse) got the job done by 1 ¼ lengths for trainer Jeremy Noseda. The Lonhro colt extended his winning streak to four, which coincided with a shift from grass to the synthetic main tracks in Europe. While his sire (father) was a Group 1 winner on grass, the bottom half of this pedigree does look better-suited to dirt racing. His dam (mother), Four Sugars, is by 2010 Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky and grandam (maternal grandmother), Iridescence, earned both of her wins on the dirt and produced 2007 Stephen Foster Handicap winner Flashy Bull and Pink Viper, a multiple stakes winner on dirt. From the eye test, Gronkowski does not look fast enough to compete with what I consider a strong cast of Kentucky Derby hopefuls. But horses can surprise in their first try on dirt (see Mendelssohn) and this one has his starting spot locked up.
Honorable Mentions: I really toyed with placing Hofburg third here, but I’m not convinced Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott won’t take a conservative approach and give Hofburg some additional seasoning before throwing him into the Triple Crown waters. He improved from a 102 Equibase Speed Figure for his maiden win on March 3 to a 107 for his Xpressbet Florida Derby runner-up finish on March 31. The half-brother to multiple Grade 1 winner Emollient has a world of talent and made up ground late before coming up a couple of lengths short of Audible.
I think this list has to begin with McKinzie, who will be sidelined for the Triple Crown series as he recovers from soreness that developed in a hock, which is a large joint just above the shin bone in the rear legs. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said he will point McKinzie to key 3-year-old races this summer. The Grade 1 winner most recently battled stride for stride with Bolt d’Oro in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, finishing in front before being disqualified for interference in the stretch. McKinzie was on target for a much-anticipated rematch with Bolt d’Oro in the Santa Anita Derby, before Baffert said on Saturday at the Dubai World Cup that McKinzie would miss the race with the injury. Last week, I had McKinzie listed at number two on my list of Derby contenders, and he was a major win contender, but now the Kentucky Derby trail has lost a top contender.
Last week, in this blog, I outlined how rare it is for a Kentucky Derby starter coming off an unplaced finish to have any sort of impact on the outcome of the race. Thus, Promises Fulfilled’s ninth-place finish, beaten by 35 ¼ lengths, in the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby does not bode well for his chances in the Kentucky Derby should his connections ship him to Churchill Downs, and it sounds like they will. Granted, Promises Fulfilled’s chances in the Florida Derby were ruined by a blistering pace duel with Strike Power. But the odds are against a bounce-back performance strong enough to make Promises Fulfilled a threat in the Derby after he dropped from a 115 Equibase Speed Figure for his Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes win to a 59 in the Florida Derby. Only one of the 30 horses over the last 10 years to finish in the top three in the Kentucky Derby finished worse than fourth in their final prep (Denis of Cork, 3rd in 2008 Kentucky Derby). Only Mine Than Bird (4th in Sunland Derby) won the Derby off an unplaced finish in the last 10 years and only four horses have done so in the last 60 years.
3. Strike Power
Like Promises Fulfilled, Strike Power had nothing left after dueling through an opening quarter-mile in :21.95 and faded to finish eighth, beaten by 34 ¾ lengths, after running second in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes. It sounded after the race like trainer Mark Hennig planned to shorten the Speightstown colt back to sprinting. He won his first two races in sprints by a combined margin of 10 ¾ lengths, including a dominant win in the Grade 3 Swale Stakes. I think this is an elite racehorse with a bright future, but 1 ¼ miles was always a bit of a longshot with him. It was worth finding out how far he could stretch his speed before the Kentucky Derby, but it looks like the first jewel of the Triple Crown is no longer on the table.
Of note: Catholic Boy could be on the outside looking in when it comes time to draw entries for the Kentucky Derby after only finishing fourth in the Xpressbet Florida Derby. His 22 points total currently rank 22nd on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with five prep races left on the schedule. Beaten by 12 lengths, the Florida Derby is not a race I would be excited to back Catholic Boy off of, even if he did get in the Kentucky Derby field, and he took a significant step backward from a 105 Equibase Speed Figure for his runner-up finish in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes to a 93 in the Florida Derby.
Mike’s Top 10
1. Bolt d'Oro
2. Magnum Moon
3. Good Magic
7. Noble Indy
10. My Boy Jack