Haskin’s Derby Dozen for Feb. 28

RacingContent provided by Blood-horse
Horses contest the early lead in the Feb. 19 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, won by My Boy Jack (not pictured).

Award-winning BloodHorse senior correspondent Steve Haskin presents his Derby Dozen for the week, which offers an opinionated overview of leading contenders for the 144th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 5.

After a dormant week for Road to the Kentucky Derby points races, the action picks up on Saturday with the Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, which offers qualifying points on a 50-20-10-5 scale to the top four finishers. The race is expected to mark the 3-year-old debut of Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic.

Check out America's Best Racing's Triple Crown page to keep up to date with stories and statistics on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.


Eclipse Sportswire

1. Good Magic

He makes his long-awaited debut in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, and tuned up with a strong half-mile breeze in :48 1/5, in which he switched leads smoothly, then lowered his head and was striding out powerfully, followed by a strong gallop-out. It was encouraging to see his workmate all winter, Economic Model, win the Hal’s Hope Stakes. So there is no reason why he shouldn’t be fit and sharp for his all-important debut. When you are limited to only two starts prior to the Derby, both races are important. That’s not saying he has to win to still be considered one of the top two Derby contenders, but if he gets beat, it better be to a darn good horse and he better get a lot out of the race and use it to move forward. He has done extraordinary things in his brief career, so it would not be surprising in the slightest if he comes back with another monster performance, as long as he leaves something in the tank. But he appears to have made a great transition from 2 to 3 based on his works.


Eclipse Sportswire

2. Bolt d’Oro

Owner-trainer Mick Ruis is really tightening the screws for his debut in the San Felipe Stakes, working him six furlongs from the gate in 1:12 flat, going out a strong seven panels in 1:25. He broke about three behind his workmate, but just kept coming and was a powerhouse down the stretch. Even when reined in by the pony he had a jump to his step and showed good energy. He is still the only horse on the Derby trail to have run a negative Thoro-Graph number, which came in the FrontRunner Stakes. And he ran a faster number than Good Magic in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, despite getting beat 5 ¼ lengths. In short, we really have no idea just how gifted this colt really is off only four starts. We do know that his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was a toss, considering the huge amount of ground he lost that would have left most horses floundering up the track. His demolition of Solomini in the FrontRunner is the race that defines him, and if we see that horse again, then it would be wise for most of his fellow Californians to high-tail it out of town if they hope to pick up much-needed points in the Santa Anita Derby. As I’ve said all along, it would have been preferable had he not suffered a pulled muscle and was able to debut in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, but that is in the rear view mirror now, and all the focus should be on the San Felipe, where he will run into the usual Bob Baffert roadblock that has discouraged many an aspiring 3-year-old from continuing on to Churchill Downs.


Susie Raisher/NYRA photo

3. Catholic Boy

He hasn’t worked since the February 10 Sam F. Davis Stakes, where he finished second, but is scheduled to return to the work tab next Friday or Saturday. Trainer Jonathan Thomas is wisely being cautious with him. Having such a hard race in the Sam F. Davis over that quirky surface off a layoff and with only four short breezes, it had to take something out of him, and it is understandable why it might take a bit longer to recover. It is extremely important for him to be in top form next time in order to get points, whether that is in the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby or a return to Aqueduct, the site of his impressive Remsen Stakes victory. When you’re having only two starts, it’s good to have the first one early to give you options in case of a gut-wrencher like he had at Tampa Bay Downs or a minor setback. But when you do that, you are giving up those valuable 50-point races later on that can take the pressure off the 100-point races. So, currently with 14 points, he will need a first- or second-place finish next time to assure a spot in the Derby field. A third-place finish could make it close.


Eclipse Sportswire

4. McKinzie

You had to love his seven-furlong work in 1:25 2/5, in which he broke about six to seven lengths behind his workmate, closed in quickly nearing the head of the stretch, switched leads right on cue, eased clear late when Drayden Van Dyke started pushing on him, and continued strong past the wire. He is as beautiful a mover as you’ll see, with an absolutely gorgeous intelligent head, and he still has the fastest Thoro-Graph number this year in the Sham Stakes. Trainer Bob Baffert has had horses with flawless action over the past few years, such as American Pharoah and Mastery, and this colt is right up there with them. It was American Pharoah’s extraordinary mechanics that helped propel him to a Triple Crown sweep. We’ll see how far McKinzie’s mechanics and his class can take him. He first has to prove himself at home against Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes next week, if that is the path Baffert chooses for him – and let’s not forget, his stablemate Solomini did finish ahead of him in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, although McKinzie was giving away a great deal of experience and ran a gutsy race coming off one maiden sprint. And of course, he was flattered last week when a colt he handled easily in the Sham, My Boy Jack, ran away with the Southwest Stakes.


5. Solomini

Bob Baffert said he is “really doing well.” Any questions of fitness and sharpness were answered with his seven-furlong work in 1:24 4/5. There was no video, so I don’t know how this work looked compared to his previous works, but the way Baffert emphasized the word “really” is all I needed to hear. Baffert doesn’t telegraph his feelings with words, but he does with the enthusiasm, or lack thereof, in his voice. Even before his most recent work, Justin Zayat tweeted that he was “doing awesome and maturing each and every day.” He will need to keep doing that if he hopes to be able to handle Bolt d’Oro and stablemate McKinzie, if they do face each other on the Derby trail. He did demonstrate a never-give-up attitude in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity when he kept coming at McKinzie and Instilled Regard until he was able to overtake them in the final yards, despite getting knocked onto his left lead from the bumping incident that caused his disqualification. All questions likely will be answered in two weeks.


Lauren King/Coglianese Photo

6. Audible

He finally returned to the work tab, breezing a half in :49 2/5 at Palm Beach Downs. It seemed apparent after his monster effort in the Holy Bull Stakes that his connections would skip the Fountain of Youth Stakes and go straight to the Florida Derby, and right now that appears to be where they’re headed. One of the biggest fears on the Derby trail is the big bounce at the wrong time and peaking too early, and the way he ran off from Free Drop Billy and crushed Tiz Mizchief and Enticed in fast time and with rapid closing fractions, there was no way he wasn’t going to be given some extra time. Year after year we see Todd Pletcher hotshots run huge early. Last year, he played it differently with Always Dreaming, giving him easy spots at Tampa Bay Downs and in a slowly run Gulfstream Park allowance race before he ran through the roof in the Florida Derby. Audible now has seven weeks between the Holy Bull and Florida Derby and then five weeks to the Kentucky Derby, so there should be no concern about bouncing. Although the timing of his races should be fine, the main question with him is his ability to get a mile and a quarter, as he does have a number of speed influences top and bottom in his pedigree to overcome.


Keeneland/Coady Photography

7. Free Drop Billy

He followed up his half-mile breeze in :48 with a solid five-furlong work in 1:01 2/5 for the Fountain of Youth Stakes.  He does have an edge on Good Magic with the Holy Bull Stakes under his belt and a sharp performance against a horse who ran a freaky good race. He should be ready for a big effort and could very well be the Derby overlay right now, considering his running style and pedigree and having made improvement from 2 to 3. On top of that, as mentioned last week, the horse he defeated by four lengths in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, Bravazo, has won both his starts this year, including a victory in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford. With the form of the Breeders’ Futurity holding up, and with his good second and Bravazo’s win, that pretty much wipes his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile performance off the slate, enabling one to attribute his poor showing to a disdain for the track and an unfavorable rail trip and early move. Of the top seven horses ranked, he is the one who would be the best value in the future book.


8. Vino Rosso

He returned to the work tab for the first time since his third-place finish in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, breezing a solid half-mile in :48 3/5. What he has going for him in addition to his talent is his cool, calm disposition. He’s always been a laid back, intelligent colt who does everything the right way, which will help him come Derby Day. He also has tremendous room for improvement, as he seemed to put it all together in deep stretch of the Sam Davis when he found another gear and began closing in fast on Flameaway and Catholic Boy. As I’ve mentioned, I like the fact that he didn’t blow his rivals away in his first two starts, but won in a professional manner, as if he knew not to exert himself when he didn’t have to. He will do whatever the jockey wants and seems very responsive. With his classic pedigree top and bottom, distance will not be a problem. If he comes back in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby next week it would give him that all-important fifth career start before the Derby. If he skips the Tampa Bay Derby he will only have four career starts and that means bucking history.


Chelsea Durand/NYRA photo

9. Avery Island

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he will return to the work tab Friday or Saturday and will be pointed to the March 24 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. He added that both his Derby hopefuls, Avery Island and Enticed, are doing well. He may not be the most brilliant 3-year-old with his workmanlike performances, but what he has going for him is his consistency and his ability to carry his tactical speed a long way. When horses are able to sustain their run it gives them the advantage of not being pace dependent, meaning they can adapt easier to any kind of pace. That usually is a trait of horses who can run along at that steady clip and have the pedigree to keep going. For a horse with his accomplishments, he is under the radar right now, mainly because he’s not flashy and hasn’t run fast. But there is no doubt the class is there and he is eligible to keep improving. I can see him being one horse who will peak on Derby Day. But he will have to get faster if he’s going to keep up with the heavy hitters.


Leslie Martin/Coglianese photo

10. Flameaway

The key to his success on the Derby trail is how far his versatility and tenacity under fire can take him. He is no doubt a fighter, but so far he has had to be on the lead to use that tenacity when others look him in the eye and try to get by him. What he has to show now is the ability to settle off the pace and kick home, where raw talent is more important than tenacity – in other words using his competitiveness to run down horses rather than holding them off.  But for those who didn’t see it last week, it is worth repeating that he has won five races at five different racetracks on five different surfaces (Polytrack, mud, slop, grass, and fast dirt), at four different distances (from 4 ½ furlongs to 1 1/16 miles), and has been ridden by four different jockeys. You don’t see that kind of versatility very often. It is also important to note his Beyer Speed Figures keep climbing with every race. His sire was a tenacious stretch runner who kept coming at you, and that is who he needs to emulate. And it is my belief that had Fusaichi Pegasus, the 2000 Derby winner and this colt’s broodmare sire (maternal grandfather), been sound and had a longer career, he would be regarded as one of the greats. Few horses made the impression he did. He took your breath away on and off the track, and proved to be brilliant at a mile to a mile and a quarter.


11. Instilled Regard

After analyzing everything closer, I felt he deserved to start creeping back up the rankings. He’s back home again and wasted little time getting back on the work tab, breezing a half-mile in :49 4/5, which is a great sign. He really threw a monkey wrench into the Fair Grounds form and the Derby form by self-destructing after looking like a sure thing nearing the head of the stretch. But it’s not easy to fly to Louisiana, win a stakes, fly back to California, and then fly back to Louisiana and expect to perform just as well. So he definitely deserves another chance, especially considering he was only beaten 2 ¼ lengths in the Risen Star Stakes despite doing everything wrong in the stretch. There is nothing wrong with taking a step backwards in February after having shown so much in December and January. And shipping cross-country to do it. If he had run another bang-up race in the Risen Star, the criticism would have been he was peaking too soon and wasn’t given a break from 2 to 3, racing pretty much every month since September and having a hard race in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity. It was the ducking in and drifting out in the Risen Star that initially bothered me, but that could have been the result of getting tired after racing wide from the 9-post and all the traveling. To come back right back and work a half-mile a week later says a lot about the horse and alleviated any concerns about his antics. And remember, he did jump five points on his Thoro-Graph numbers in the Los Al Futurity and then paired up in in his winning Lecomte Stakes effort, while running back-to-back 92 Beyers after jumping up from a 74. So the more I look at everything, the more I am starting to like him again.


Coady Photography

12. Bravazo

Back at Oaklawn Park, the Risen Star Stakes winner breezed a half in :49. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said he has really improved and is only going to get better as the distances get longer. Lukas especially looks at this one as a Belmont Stakes horse. He also realizes it’s going to start getting tougher from now on with the big names returning, but added that you never know how a horse is going to make the transition from 2 to 3. And Bravazo has already answered that question. I don’t know how good a race the Risen Star was and how to interpret Instilled Regard’s performance. But there is no doubting the improvement Bravazo has shown and how he twice this year has come out on top in stretch battles. That certainly says a lot about his will to win. And he has already run huge at Churchill Downs. There is more than enough to suggest that his poor effort in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall was a fluke and should be put him behind him.


Knocking At the Door

Other than Sunday’s Mine That Bird Stakes at Sunland Park, this was the one and only dead weekend on the Derby trail, allowing everyone to take a deep breath and reflect on the events of the past several weeks and look ahead to the beginning of the make-or-break 50-point stakes of the next two weekends – the Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes followed by the San Felipe Stakes, Gotham Stakes, and Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 10, in which we will get our first glimpse of heavy hitters Good Magic, Bolt d’Oro, and Solomini, as well as McKinzie. Only then will the Derby trail really come into focus.

This week’s trivia: Take these four horses – Free Drop Billy, Firenze Fire, Hollywood Star, and Givemeaminit, who have two seconds and two out of the money performances in Derby prep stakes this year – and compare them to My Boy Jack, Flameaway, Catholic Boy, and Snapper Sinclair, who have two graded stakes wins and two seconds in graded stakes, including a nose defeat. It is pretty obvious that the latter group has fared much better. Well, to show how much the Derby trail has changed in recent years, the first group of four all ran in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the second group of four all ran in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Now, that most likely will change in the next few weeks, but it is still unprecedented to see so many successful Derby horses come out of the BC Juvenile Turf, and we haven’t yet seen Untamed Domain’s dirt debut, which will come in the Tampa Bay Derby. He was sent to Tampa Bay Downs to work, breezing five furlongs in 1:03.

Reride (Coady Photography)

The only stakes race over the weekend was the Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park, and the result was pretty interesting, as it was a slugfest right from the start, with the 2-5 favorite Runaway Ghost eyeballed on both sides all the way down the backstretch. Although he had every chance in the stretch, it was second choice Reride who withstood all the pressure, turned back the favorite’s bid and drew off to score by 2 ½ lengths. What made this race so interesting is that Reride’s first three dams were all bred by the Winchell family; the dam is a half sister to the Winchell-owned and bred Tapiture, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, West Virginia Derby, Matt Winn Stakes, and Ack Ack Handicap and second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile; and the broodmare sire, Tapit, and maternal great-grandsire, Olympio, both were owned and bred by the Winchell family. Add another Derby hopeful to the Steve Asmussen arsenal. Reride has now won four of his five career starts, including back-to-back stakes scores at Delta Downs and Sunland Park, while training all winter at Fair Grounds. Last year he won at Churchill Downs and on the Keeneland turf. The question with him is whether he’s fast enough to compete with the top horses.

There was quite an impressive maiden performance at Aqueduct on Sunday, as the Tom Morley-trained Westerdale, coming off third place finishes to the highly regarded Mask and the talented Talon, demolished his field by nearly 15 lengths going a flat mile with the addition of blinkers. The son of Flat Out had indicated his sharpness two works back when he breezed five furlongs in a bullet :59 3/5 over Belmont Park’s inner track, fastest of 24 works at the distance. It wasn’t exactly a stellar field he defeated, but this definitely is one to keep an eye on, based on the way he just glided over the sloppy track, winning all on his own with an effortless stride. What I love about his tail-female family is that he has Round Table in his fourth generation, and you rarely see this great racehorse and sire that close up anymore. And he also traces to a strong Darby Dan Farm family, with his fourth dam being a half-sister to mighty mite True Knight, a pint-sized colt who won eight major stakes and defeated Forego, who appeared to be twice his size, in the Suburban Handicap, in addition to placing in numerous major stakes. What made True Knight so endearing is that he almost always came from over 20 lengths back and closed like a rocket. This female family also traces to the legendary Blue Hen producer La Troienne. So there is a lot to like about this colt, who was named after the Yorkshire town where his English-born trainer grew up.

Looking ahead, my sleeper of the week, who will be a huge price in the Fountain of Youth Stakes is Storm Runner. First off, how can you not be intrigued by a colt who cost $5,000 as a yearling, went off at odds of 159.60-1 in his career debut at Ellis Park, and was conditioned at the time by a trainer who was battling bone marrow cancer. And he is out of a mare who is by a South African Triple Crown winner.  He was picked out of the Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale by trainer Larry Demeritte for group of friends, headed by Dave Burnett of Gemstone Stables and sent to the farm to develop. Demeritte, who is recovering from his illness, told his friend Burnett the first day the colt arrived at the barn that this was a “two-turn, Saturday horse” and “He’ll be there Derby Day.”

After Storm Runner finished second in his debut, finishing ahead of future Derby hopefuls Tiz Mischief and Dream Baby Dream, and his rider losing his whip, the offers came pouring in to Burnett, who was in Alaska at the time.

The reason I am mentioning him in detail is the promise he has shown while still not having his act together, and the way he went by the leader with such ease in his last two dirt races. Both times he made an early move and just cruised by the leader like he was standing still and quickly opened a clear lead. In his last start, a win at 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream, he went from five lengths back to two in front in the blink of an eye, with the jockey never moving a muscle. But again he showed his greenness in the stretch, refusing to change leads, running with his head up, and drifting in, yet still held on to defeat the highly regarded Coolmore colt Mississippi.

If he can run a mile in 1:35 3/5 and 1 1/16 miles in 1:42 2/5 while doing so many things wrong in the stretch, who knows what he’s capable of once he matures and gets his mind straight. After a series of :48 and change and :49 and change works he suddenly turned in a blazing :46 3/5 work last week and followed that up with an equally brilliant five-furlong breeze in :59 flat on Saturday. Now trained by Dale Romans, I made numerous inquiries to his connections to find out if he wore blinkers in those two works, but to no avail. So, all you can do is wait for the entries. If he is listed with blinkers, which would certainly make sense, then you naturally can assume he wore them in his last two brilliant works, which means we could be seeing a much more improved Storm Runner in the Fountain of Youth. If he doesn’t have blinkers added, then he still showed tremendous improvement in the morning on his own and just needs to stay focused in the stretch and be more professional. He will be a longshot on Saturday, going up against champion Good Magic and several other top-class colts. But one thing is sure; he won’t be 159-1, and he will make his presence felt. If he does, a more detailed backstory will appear next week.

Justify (BENOIT photo)

Taking advantage of the slow week, let’s look back at one particular horse from last weekend. It seems as if more people are talking about a Santa Anita Park maiden sprint winner than the winners of the Risen Star and Southwest Stakes. Then again, that maiden winner, Justify, did justify all the talk and superlatives by putting on a spectacular display of speed, power, and overall brilliance. For a horse to run as fast as he did who possesses such a big long stride and seems to do everything so effortlessly, there is no telling what his ceiling is. But let’s step on the brake a little, as it was the colt’s career debut and there will have to be a great deal to squeeze in just to have three career starts going into the Kentucky Derby. And considering only one horse in the last 103 years has won the Derby with only three career starts, and only one horse in the last 100 years has won with four career starts, and no horse has won the Derby without starting at 2 since 1882, you shouldn’t go too overboard in your enthusiasm for Justify as a Derby contender. But you sure can get excited about his potential as a racehorse and as a future star. The only way he can make the Derby with even only three starts is to go the Rebel StakesArkansas Derby route. That is really pushing it, but if any horse can destroy the history books it is this gifted colt. He returned to the work tab, breezing five furlongs in 1:01 2/5.

Several weeks ago, I profiled in detail the backstory of Vino Rosso prior to his fast-closing third in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. Well, Justify just happens to be bred and was raised by the same person, John D. Gunther. And no one is closer to the Gunther-bred horses than his daughter Tanya.

For those who think Justify is simply late getting started, he actually was in training at Keeneland last fall before being sent to Bob Baffert. According to Tanya, Justify stood apart from the others from the outset – “truly and not just in hindsight.”

She added, “The event of his birth provided the first sign that he might be special. Born on March 29, 2015, he arrived just hours after we had the graded double as breeders when Tamarkuz won the Godolphin Mile in Dubai on Dubai World Cup day and later that day Materiality won the Florida Derby and marked himself as one of the leading contenders for the 2015 Kentucky Derby. That was a very exciting day for us as breeders, and along came this colt while we we’re still trying to get our head around the odds of having two horses bred and raised at Glennwood winning these prestigious races on opposite sides of the world on the same day.

“As a newborn colt foal, Justify was well made and strong and it didn't take long for him to develop the cheeky, energetic nature that would become his trademark throughout the time we raised him at Glennwood. He was clearly the dominant one and seemed to get only more so as the months went by. As I mentioned earlier about Vino Rosso, he was so laid back and nothing bothered him, compared to other colts that are perhaps a shade too full of themselves and constantly on the lookout to sample your arm if you aren't paying close enough attention. The specific colt I had in mind when drawing the comparison was Justify. He developed into a big colt, who filled your eye with his strength and power. He looked more like a 2-year-old than a yearling through the summer months of sales prep. And of course he knew he was the ‘King’ early on, making it readily apparent that you wouldn't want to challenge him and that he was simply humoring his handlers by allowing us to think that we were in charge.

“When he was a weanling, I have a distinct memory of taking him out to the field one afternoon. His buddies were already out and of course he was a bit miffed that they were out before him and was keen to join them. I am a pretty fast walker (my dad would likely laugh and say that is a big understatement) and I remember being impressed how this colt outwalked me to the field. He was just a weanling and he was not half-jogging to do it – just striding forward with a purpose and covering so much ground. I cannot recall handling a weanling at his age doing this as easily as he did and it left an indelible impression on my mind. Needless to say, when he got bigger and stronger as a yearling, he usually was the first to go out.

“Another memory that has lodged itself in my mind about him is how he adapted to being at Keeneland for the sale. I always find it interesting to see how our yearlings respond to the sale setting. This colt loved the action. He was confident, not nervous or stressed, rather just intrigued like he was soaking it all up. I love to see that in a young horse because you hope that this demeanor and attitude may bode well for how they will handle the big race days you dream about them having down the road one day. With a little luck, maybe even one Saturday in May.”

It was Bob Baffert on parade Saturday, with his two big guns, McKinzie and Solomini, working seven furlongs. But don’t forget about Restoring Hope, who was right there with them working seven panels in a sharp 1:25 flat. The talent is there. We just don’t know how fast he is and how he stacks up with top-class stakes horses. So far, he is moving forward nicely and could be a sleeper down the road. Baffert also sent out the game San Vicente runner-up Nero for a bullet half-mile breeze in :48 flat, fastest of 39 works at the distance.

Mark Casse sent out Curlin’s Honor for his second neck victory in as many career starts, both at six furlongs; this time in the slop at Fair Grounds. The son of Curlin ran a remarkable race overcoming a horrific trip in which he was in tight quarters every step of the way, then found himself hopelessly trapped behind horses in the stretch, with every hole closing up on him. He finally had to alter course to the outside and rallied on his left lead, then finally switched to his right lead inside the sixteenth pole. He showed great determination to just get up and galloped out like he wanted to go around again. Shortly after the wire, he was already six lengths in front and still running strongly. Casse also sent out his exciting maiden winner Telekinesis for a sharp half-mile breeze in :47 4/5. Both of these talented colts are obviously way behind, but I can’t wait to see what Curlin’s Honor, with that extra start, can do stretching out to two turns. His second dam is a half-sister to the brilliant Tartan Stable colt Ogygian.

Aidan O’Brien has entered six horses in Friday’s one-mile listed Patton Stakes run over the Polytrack surface at Dundalk, in which the winner will earn 20 Kentucky Derby points. Two of those, Mendelssohn, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and second in the group 1 Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket, and Seahenge, winner of the group 2 Champagne Stakes at Doncaster and third in the Dewhurst Stakes, are nominated to the Triple Crown. Both colts are by red-hot sire Scat Daddy, and Mendelssohn also is a half-brother to Beholder and Into Mischief. Of the other O’Brien horses entered, Family Tree won his only career start last September at Gowran Park, and Spanish Point, by Frankel, finished second at Limerick and Tipperary over heavy ground. One horse who has already started this year is the filly Ship of Dreams, trained by Joseph O’Brien, who won over seven furlongs at Dundalk on Jan. 5.

In watching the Southwest Stakes again several times I came away more impressed with the performance of Combatant. On an inside rail-biased track, he swung to the far outside, showing an excellent turn of foot. He was forced to circle the field and looked as if he was going to be right there until he ducked in from a right-handed whip a couple of times, nearly colliding with Sporting Chance and losing his action. He then jumped back to his left lead inside the sixteenth pole and still finished well enough to be second to My Boy Jack. He needs to find a way to win these races, but he does have the talent and is moving in the right direction.

D. Wayne Lukas said Sporting Chance came out of his third-place finish in the Southwest Stakes in good shape and he was pleased with his performance, especially considering the trouble he had in the stretch.

“It was good, coming off the layoff,” Lukas said. “We only started training him Dec. 10, so I was really pleased. He’s going to be a lot tighter in the Rebel Stakes; a lot tighter having this race under his belt.”

In addition to Bravazo and Sporting Chance, Lukas has another tough customer in Transgress, who has been in a dogfight in all four of his career starts. In the allowance race following the Southwest, he appeared to have Steve Asmussen’s highly regarded New York Central beat, but the latter took advantage of a huge rail bias in the mud and came again to nip him on the wire. Both colts likely will now head to the March 25 Sunland Derby.

I’ve been waiting for the Feb. 3 Withers Stakes starters to return to the work tab, and it was good to see Firenze Fire back with an easy :51 1/5 half-mile breeze at Belmont Park. Third-place finisher Marconi turned in a sharp half-mile breeze in :48 2/5 at Palm Beach Downs for Saturday’s Fountain of Youth, second fastest of 24 works at the distance. It will be interesting to see how he makes the transition from cold to hot weather and how much he has matured since the Withers. I am still a big believer in this colt and a solid performance against this group most likely would put him back in the Top 12, where he started.

Another interesting horse to watch in the Fountain of Youth is the fast-closing runner-up in the Swale Stakes, Gotta  Go, who breezed five furlongs in 1:01 1/5 at Palm Meadows. Winner of the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs, he had a dreadful trip in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, finishing 13th, so it was great to see trainer Ian Wilkes go old school and drop him back to seven furlongs for his 3-year-old debut and sharpen him up, and also great to see the son of Shanghai Bobby respond with such a big effort at 15.70-1. For years I’ve been preaching the importance of top-class 2-year-olds who had been racing at a distance of ground starting off in a sprint at 3, and Gotta Go has been the only one to go that route after an injury prevented Bolt d’Oro from debuting in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes.

If Greyvitos makes it to the Derby after undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from his knee at the end of the year it would be the comeback story of the year. Winner of the Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar and Springboard Mile at Remington Park in 2016, he is back working, going three furlongs in :37 1/5 at Del Mar. So while it would be a rush job getting him to the Derby, if that’s the path his connections want to take, there is still time to have him ready, but he likely would have to ship out of California again, possibly going the Rebel – Arkansas Derby route.

Strike Power (Eclipse Sportswire)

At Gulfstream, undefeated Strike Power, winner of the Swale Stakes, breezed a sharp half in :48 flat. I like the tactics, breaking him off five lengths behind a workmate. He then dropped some eighth lengths back before closing in at the top of the stretch. He looked terrific down the lane, striding out smoothly all on his own. He eased ahead late, and when his workmate tried to battle back, he dug in and wouldn’t let him get by. We’ll soon get an idea how far he wants to go and whether he is a legitimate Derby contender. Tiz Mischief, who was a well-beaten third in the Holy Bull in a disappointing effort, breezed five furlongs in 1:00 2/5, which is a good step in the right direction if he’s going to rebound off that effort. Also disappointing in the Holy Bull was fourth-place finisher Enticed, who strolled around there in :53 4/5 for his half-mile breeze at Palm Meadows. He is scheduled to come back for a more serious work either Thursday or Friday and is being pointed to either the Gotham Stakes or Tampa Bay Derby. It is certainly understandable getting away from Gulfstream. It will be interesting to see if Enticed and Tiz Mischief, who were heads apart in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, can bounce back to that form, especially considering that also-rans Bravazo (10th), Gotta Go (13th), and Reride (6th) have all come out of that race to win or run second in graded stakes this year. It was kind of odd to see both those talented colts show so little in the same race, in which so much was expected. They sure look to be a lot more talented than that, so we’ll have to see if the Holy Bull was some freakish type of race and just an aberration or if Audible is actually that far superior to them.

Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Lombo was well within himself working five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 wearing four bandages. The big question with him is how far he can carry his speed. Also at Santa Anita, San Vicente Stakes winner Kanthaka looked great working five furlongs in 1:00 3/5, easily handling his workmate. He was sensational in the San Vicente, especially his explosive turn of foot, but still has to show what he can do around two turns. That will come next. Let’s see if Richard Mandella gives Peace, a big disappointment in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, another chance following his six-furlong work in 1:12 4/5.

After Roaming Union finished third to Marconi at Aqueduct and then came back to break his maiden in magnificent fashion by 12 ¼ lengths, I was very surprised to see him show up in, of all places, the John Battaglia Memorial on Turfway Park’s Polytrack. In any event, he apparently didn’t handle it, finishing sixth at 2.90-1, beaten almost eight lengths. So I have no idea now where he stands on the Derby trail. I will assume a return to the dirt is forthcoming.

Higher Power, one of my main horses to watch, got back to serious training after his brief setback, working five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 at Oaklawn. There’s plenty of time to make the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. Mississippi, Coolmore’s $700,000 2-year-old purchase who is coming off a fast-closing second to Storm Runner, looked good working five furlongs in company in 1:00 flat, pulling away from his workmate in the closing strides. The Mark Casse-trained He Takes Charge bounced out of his impressive maiden victory on Feb. 10 in good shape, breezing a sharp half-mile in :48 1/5. Look for this $635,000 Tapit colt to go right into stakes company. The highly regarded maiden Personal Time, a full-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Orb, continues to work steadily, breezing a half in :49 2/5 at Payson Park for Shug McGaughey. He’s had two starts at a mile and a seven-furlong start and has improved dramatically with each race. But he needs to break his maiden next time out to have any shot at the Derby. And McGaughey is not one to rush a young, promising horse.

I have to admit I never thought of Hollywood Star as a grass horse, but he either is a future turf star or he’s just razor sharp right now following a dazzling five-furlong work in :57 1/5 on the Gulfstream turf course. Let’s just say he despised the dirt track at Tampa Bay and will move on from the Sam F. Davis debacle.

In closing, it’s as if we have two races going on. The battle at the top among the big stars from last year, and the new wave of brilliant latecomers who have not yet been tested in stakes and who will be up against it trying to make the Derby, but who look to be stars in the making. These horses include Justify; Magnum Moon, who I love and who has enormous potential; the aforementioned Telekinesis, the gifted Tenfold, who needs to get over his greenness; and the runaway maiden winners Machismo and Mitole. Watch out for these extraordinarily talented horses to break into the big-time in the near future.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!