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.
1. Bolt d’Oro
Bolt d’Oro returned from a four-month layoff to run a monster race in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, in which he earned a new career-best Equibase Speed Figure of 118. Detractors might argue that his win via disqualification was a poor decision. While I would disagree, I thought racetrack stewards made the right call, it’s impossible to dispute what a strong race that was in his first start since a third-place finish in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I was a little worried about Bolt d’Oro after he lacked punch in the stretch of the Juvenile and then had a setback in training that caused him to miss the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes, but he looks like a more mature, improved racehorse after the time off and I loved his push-button acceleration on the turn. I think he’s the one to beat on May 5 and went into more detail on why I really like his Derby chances in this week’s Making the Grade. He’s on top of my list of Kentucky Derby contenders.
After a dominant win in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes on March 10, I think it’s now safe to just draw a line through his dud in the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes in February and look at the rest of his résumé when considering his chances on the Kentucky Derby trail. He won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November 2017, a race that produced Holy Bull Stakes winner Promises Fulfilled (third in Kentucky Jockey Club), Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Quip (seventh in Kentucky Jockey Club), and Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford victor Bravazo (10th in the Kentucky Jockey Club). Enticed also ran third in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at 2. He earned a new career-best 113 Equibase Speed Figure for his Gotham win and he’s bred to be a star by top sire Medaglia d’Oro out of multiple Grade 1 winner It’s Tricky. This colt could be the one owner Godolphin Racing has been looking for to nail down its first Kentucky Derby win.
I know it’s borderline heretic to have Justify third here but let’s be honest, there is a reason no horse has won the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882: horses need that foundation to be at their best on the first Saturday in May. Sure, his speed figures are tantalizing — a 103 Equibase Speed Figure for his Feb. 18 debut and a 108 for his 6 ½-length runaway allowance win on March 11 — but he’s never been tested, much less against graded stakes quality horses, and he has so much ground to make up in an extremely short time. Judging by Twitter, you’d think someone cloned a combination of Man o’ War, Secretariat, Easy Goer charged with a thunderbolt from Zeus’ backside. He looks like a colt with superstar potential, but let’s not put him in the Hall of Fame — or the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle — just yet.
Honorable Mentions: I thought, perhaps, Promises Fulfilled capitalized on a speed-favoring track at Gulfstream Park to win the Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 3. I’m a little concerned about his ability to excel at 1 ¼ miles, but he’s improving, his 115 Equibase Speed Figure from the Fountain of Youth says he belongs, and he has the points to qualify for the big dance. … I’m a Quip fan. I liked him before his clunker in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and didn’t give up on him in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. He showed significant improvement in a hard-fought, one-length victory and he finished well, but he needs to get faster to be a top threat. I think he can take a step forward in his next start, but I need to see it to believe it. … It was also tough to leave McKinzie off this list, but he did about what I expected of him in the San Felipe. He ran a huge race and finished with his head in front of a terrific opponent. But I had him second a week ago and that’s where he remains for me, one spot behind Bolt d’Oro and a legitimate top contender to win the Kentucky Derby.
It’s probably a bit unfair to place a horse who was a 26.90-1 longshot in the San Felipe Stakes on top of this list, but his Robert B. Lewis Stakes win (107 Equibase Speed Figure) was strong cause for optimism and he just packed it in when challenged by McKinzie and Bolt d’Oro. I really respect the top two, but Lombo finished last of seven, beaten by 21 ½ lengths, and sure didn’t look like a Kentucky Derby horse. Let’s hope he rebounds in his next start, because a 23-point speed figure plunge isn’t a good sign.
This talented Tapit colt has returned to training for Eclipse Award winner Chad Brown. His 6 ¼-length runaway win in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes in January was exceptional and he’s unbeaten in two starts. So why is here in this spot? Because Brown was very clear that he will not be targeting the Kentucky Derby with Mask and plans to take the patient path with him. Long-term, it’s the best decision for Mask and I expect we’ll see him again on the Triple Crown trail, it just won’t come in time to make the first jewel. Keep an eye on him as a dark-horse contender for the Preakness or Belmont Stakes.
I was really disappointed with Free Drop Billy’s third in the Gotham Stakes on March 10 as the 1.70-1 favorite. I strongly believe a one-turn mile is not ideal for him, which is why I did not have him atop this group, but the fact that he didn’t accelerate in the stretch is problematic. In fairness, Free Drop Billy did encounter some traffic nearing the turn, but after making a nice rally into contention following Enticed, he was no match whatsoever for the winner and finished 6 ¾ lengths behind. While the Gotham third-place finish earned him a career-best 102 Equibase Speed Figure, my main concern is that he’s just not fast enough.
Of note: Good Magic easily could have found his way into the cooling down list, but I’m willing to give him a second chance. I never thought trainer Chad Brown would have him fully cranked for his season debut in the Holy Bull Stakes after four months off, so I was not shocked that he didn’t win as the 7-10 favorite. I was, however, disappointed that he seemed to flatten out noticeably in the stretch. He earned a speed figure almost identical to his win in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile — 108 for the Holy Bull, 109 for the Juvenile — and I think we’ll see a big race from this Curlin colt in his second start of the year. … The buzz about Vino Rosso galloping out so strongly after running third in the Sam F. Davis Stakes reached a crescendo a few days after that race. He became a wise-guy horse and was sent off as the 2.10-1 second betting choice in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby while Sam F. Davis WINNER Flameaway was sent off at 6.30-1. In a sport where it pays to be contrarian, so many horseplayers climb aboard the same bandwagon. Long story short, Vino Rosso finished fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby, beaten by six lengths, with his speed figure dipping from a 104 to an 88. He’s in a tough spot now with only seven Derby qualifying points and the level of competition about to become more challenging. … I thought the Gotham Stakes was the perfect setup for Firenze Fire, cutting back to what looks like his best distance in a one-turn mile against a fairly weak group, he should have been a prime player. Instead, he ran fourth, beaten by 9 ¼ lengths. It was unusual for a 3-year-old colt who typically is a real fighter, but I’m becoming convinced Firenze Fire might just be a cut below the best 3-year-olds from a talent perspective while also battling some distance limitations.