Making the Grade, which will run through the 2018 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
In horse racing, a little patience can often go a very long way. Such is the case with Bravazo, who returned in January from a seven-week freshening looking like a new racehorse. His victory on Feb. 17 in the Risen Star Stakes virtually guaranteed his place in the field for the 2018 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, so there’s no better time to assess his chances on the first Saturday in May.
Ability: One of the most important criteria for identifying legitimate Kentucky Derby hopefuls is: can the run horse fast enough to race close to an honest pace early and still finish fast?
Up until the Risen Star, Bravazo had never really demonstrated that trait, but navigating 1 1/16 miles at Fair Grounds the Awesome Again colt pressed the pace through a moderate half-mile in :47.96 and finished his final five-sixteenths of a mile in a very strong :30.10, with a final sixteenth of a mile in 6.20 seconds. It looked like a huge effort.
The speed figure makers support the sight and chart tests, as Bravazo recorded a career-best Equibase Speed Figure (110), Beyer Speed Figure (93), and Brisnet figure (98).
The Risen Star victory came after Bravazo showed significant improvement when winning his season debut going one mile at Oaklawn Park on Jan. 13 for a then-career-best 104 Equibase Speed Figure. He looked like a fresh horse in his 3-year-old debut after an uncharacteristically poor 10th-place finish in his final start at two in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.
Earlier in his juvenile season, Bravazo had shown plenty of promise. He posted a runaway win in his second career start going a mile at Churchill Downs and then ran second in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and third in the Street Sense Stakes.
One constant in Bravazo’s good races (drawing a line through the Kentucky Jockey Club) has been his ability to improve his position on the final turn. He’s made a couple of eye-catching rallies in his races, but this year he seems to be able to sustain his rally deep into the stretch. The solid foundation of races certainly should help as, perhaps, did the brief freshening, but he also appears to be relaxing a bit better early in his races. He still has not perfected switching leads coming off the final turn and entering the stretch, but that leaves some room for improvement. When he did switch leads in the stretch of the Risen Star, he leveled off and finished powerfully.
Running style: Bravazo has flashed a powerful middle move in several of his races, including his season debut win and his runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Futurity. He’s always been willing to rate off the pace and accelerate on cue, but this year he seems to be conserving energy better in the early stages of his races while not viewing every other contender as an immediate challenge. In a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field, I expect he’d rate at least a few lengths off the early pace and launch his bid on the final turn, where he has shown the ability to make up considerable ground.
Connections: Bravazo’s owner-breeder, Calumet Farm, has the most all-time Kentucky Derby victories as both an owner (8) and a breeder (9) with Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948) leading the way. Calumet also owns the record of 18 winners of Triple Crown races as an owner, most recently winning the 2013 Preakness Stakes with Oxbow. Indeed, historic Calumet Farm bred and raced a remarkable list of champions from the 1930s through the early part of the 1990s.
Bankruptcy in 1991 led to a downturn for Calumet Farm, but it has been revitalized in recent years under new owner Brad Kelley. Oxbow’s Preakness win in 2013 was a sign of good days to come, and last year Calumet had three starters in the Kentucky Derby, including Patch, who later finished third in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets.
Like Calumet, trainer D. Wayne Lukas is horse racing royalty. Inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1999. Lukas has amassed a record 14 victories in Triple Crown races, most recently winning the 2013 Preakness with Oxbow. A four-time Eclipse Award winner, Lukas last won the Kentucky Derby in 1999 with Charismatic.
“Gary [Stevens] had a commitment on a live horse [Streamline] in the Bayakoa [Stakes], so I made a phone call,” Lukas said. “I felt pretty good about getting the meet’s leading rider. Hell, he knows every grain of sand on the track.”
It sounds like Mena will be aboard for Bravazo’s next race as well, provided the colt emerges from the Risen Star in good order.
“We’ll get him back here with me and if everything checks out and goes right then I’m going to lock up Miguel Mena,” Lukas said. “I’ll pack him and the horse in Styrofoam and keep them under lock and key until the next race.”
Mena took out his jockey’s license in 2003 and has won 130 stakes and 32 graded stakes from 1,839 victories through Feb. 19. He finished unplaced aboard Backtalk in 2010 with his only previous Kentucky Derby mount.
Pedigree: From a pedigree perspective, Bravazo is very similar to the aforementioned Calumet-Lukas Preakness winner Oxbow. They share the same sire, 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again, and Cee’s Tizzy is the sire of both Bravazo’s and Oxbow’s dams (mothers).
I’ve always viewed Awesome Again as a home run sire – when his progeny is good, they often are exceptional. His best runner to date is 2004 Horse of the Year and sire Ghostzapper, but he’s also the sire of champion Ginger Punch, three-time Santa Anita Handicap winner Game On Dude, and Breeders’ Cup winners Round Pond and Wilko. Add in Oxbow and 2012 Belmont Stakes runner-up Paynter and you see a profile developing of racehorses who have elite speed and can carry it a long way.
Bravazo’s dam, Tiz o’ Gold, won seven of 30 starts with her last six wins coming at one mile or longer. Bravazo is her first starter.
Bravazo’s second dam (maternal grandmother), Pep o’ Gold, was a winner at 1 1/16 miles but her only foal to race was Tiz o’ Gold. There is very little black type under the first four generations – just a handful of stakes winners – but it is encouraging that both his dam and grandam won races going around two turns.
I’d like to see a little more class in the bottom half of this pedigree, and there is a chance Bravazo could react negatively in his next start to a career-best performance. Overall, Bravazo looks like an improving colt with a nice foundation and a spot in the Kentucky Derby locked up. His speed figures are headed in the right direction and he’s trained by a Hall of Famer with more victories than anyone in Triple Crown races.