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.
Last week saw the rankings of top contenders shuffle as three prep races offering qualifying Derby points were held – the San Felipe Stakes, the Gotham Stakes, and the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. This Saturday brings two more points races – the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, with 85 total points distributed; and the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park, with 34 points up for grabs.
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.
1. Bolt d’Oro
In the context of the Kentucky Derby, both Bolt d’Oro, placed first from second in the San Felipe Stakes, and McKinzie, disqualified from first to second, are two exceptional colts who ran their hearts out, got a lot out of the race, and are for now clear-cut favorites for the Run for the Roses, at least in the normal sense.
Both colts are brilliant and game with tons of class. And kudos to owner-trainer Mick Ruis for having Bolt d’Oro ready for battle first time out in over four months and after having to miss his scheduled debut due to a pulled muscle.
Briefly, here is my take on the disqualification. If you do not take into consideration the bumping incident nearing the top of the stretch and feel it is inconclusive, then you really can’t argue with the stewards’ decision. If you firmly believe that Bolt d’Oro came in and smacked into McKinzie pretty hard as it at first appeared, then you can claim it was a wash. But the stewards, by not getting a definitive and conclusive look at the first incident, had no recourse but to disqualify McKinzie. We really don’t know who was at fault. It looked from here as if Bolt d’Oro was on even terms or even might have stuck his nose in front just as McKinzie came out several paths on two occasions and made contact with him. It could have been enough of a hindrance to affect the outcome.
And let’s not forget that Bolt d’Oro did not have as clear a trip as McKinzie did, breaking from the rail and being stuck down on the inside behind horses, which allowed McKinzie to get first run on him on the far turn. The bottom line is that this was the real Bolt d’Oro, who has shown that he can fight you eyeball to eyeball, can rally and wear you down in the final yards, and can crush you, as he did Solomini in the FrontRunner Stakes. And he can do it from anywhere on the track – battling on the lead, racing just off the pace, or coming from the back of the pack.
Okay, so now he is 1-and-1 in the stewards’ stand. He is a Grade 1 winner thanks to the stewards, who added $120,000 to his bankroll in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, and he had $160,000 taken away from him in the San Felipe. So he’s down $40,000 in earnings and up a Grade 1 victory. It sounds like he’s ahead of the game, considering it was immaterial in the grand scheme of things whether he was disqualified or not or even whether he finished first or not, just as we mentioned with Bolt d’Oro. There was no winner and loser; it was a perfect prep for both horses, who ran equally courageous races.
All that is important is that we have seen how gutsy McKinzie is in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity in only his second career start, and we saw it again in the San Felipe Stakes the way he dug in when headed at the top of the stretch by Bolt d’Oro, who looked as if he was going to blow by him. All you have to do is look at the head-on photo of the race and see his teeth clenched to know how hard he tries. We also saw his dominance over a top-class horse like My Boy Jack in the Sham Stakes. Now comes the question of whether trainer Bob Baffert wants to subject him to another possible slugfest in the Santa Anita Derby. Certainly neither Baffert nor Ruis wants to risk gutting their horse before the Kentucky Derby. With Justify running another monster race, don’t be surprised to see Baffert ship McKinzie out of town. It’s just a question of where he would go, with Solomini heading to the Rebel Stakes and possibly a return trip for the April 14 Arkansas Derby if he runs a big race. Baffert likes the Arkansas route and could run both horses, but he has plenty of time to decide after he sees how Solomini runs on Saturday.
3. Good Magic
I have to admit I was surprised to see that his Thoro-Graph number in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes, where he finished third, was a full point faster than that of winner Promises Fulfilled and even faster than his Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win last November, and the same figure that Audible earned in his sensational victory in the Holy Bull Stakes. That could put a whole new light on the Fountain of Youth and Good Magic in general. Trakus has him running 34 feet farther than Promises Fulfilled. But that number still came as a surprise.
Promises Fulfilled’s trainer, Dale Romans, has an interesting theory about Good Magic. He said Chad Brown did everything he could to get Good Magic fit, but he feels horses like him who have a big cardiovascular system have to run once or twice to get fit. “You can’t train them fit,” Romans said. “Remember, he lost his first two races before firing that big race in the Breeders’ Cup. It was good that he wasn’t ready, because now he doesn’t have to go into the Derby and try to win three races in a row. You watch him come back and run a super race in the Blue Grass Stakes (on April 7). He’ll be the horse we all have to contend with in the Derby.”
So, if Romans is correct, Good Magic ran a career best Thoro-Graph figure when he wasn’t totally fit. Now I really can’t wait to see how he bounces back. If all this true, Brown probably is counting the days to the Blue Grass. There usually are logical reasons for everything in racing, and Romans could have a point. But if Good Magic wasn’t as fit as Brown had thought, you wouldn’t have thought he’d run such a fast Thoro-Graph number. It looks as if we still have no idea how good this colt really is. But if Romans is correct, and he does take a big step forward in the Blue Grass, who knows what kind of number he’s going to run.
4. Catholic Boy
Yes, he’s still hanging around up here. I may be stubborn, but there is just something about this horse I really like. He continues to work well, breezing five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 at Bridlewood Farm. Like he did at Tampa Bay Downs prior to finishing second in the Sam Davis Stakes, I would like to see him have at least one work over the Gulfstream Park track before the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby on March 31. He just needs a good second-place finish in his final prep to set him up for the Kentucky Derby, and the Florida Derby looks to have the best pace setup for him, likely facing three very talented horses who want to be on the lead or sit right off it.
As I said, I am still a huge believer in this colt, and his loss to Flameaway in the Sam Davis was an excellent effort. I still wish he had three preps before the Kentucky Derby, but with all his eggs in the Florida Derby basket, his connections just have to hope it’s not going to be a speed-favoring conveyor belt racetrack, because Audible, Promises Fulfilled, and Strike Power are too talented to come back to him on that kind of track, so he needs a contentious pace on a fair track and then needs to kick into gear like he did in the Remsen Stakes last year and in his grass races. Of course, his connections would love to win the Florida Derby, but the main goal is making it into the Kentucky Derby field, so finishing second would be very satisfying, especially on a track that doesn’t suit all horses. Remember, Super Saver lost both his preps, but ran well and kept moving forward, saving his best effort for the first Saturday in May. So how he runs is the most important factor. He just has to run good enough to get second.
I moved him up after seeing his Brisnet late pace figures. In his four starts he has run a triple-digit late pace figure three times, including a sensational 118 in his career debut and a 112 in the Holy Bull Stakes, the fastest of any 3-year-old this year. So, the numbers and his closing splits say this horse can motor home, which makes him extremely dangerous. Now I just have to try to make a case for him going 1 ¼ miles. As I’ve been saying, Into Mischief is a terrific sire, but his offspring need help from their dams’ pedigree to get classic distances, and with this one, you just have to find enough stamina in Gilded Time and Timeless Moment and hope he can get enough from that strong Easy Goer – Classy Cathy mating in his fourth generation. One thing for sure is that WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and their partners are lighting up the Derby trail with three horses in the Top 12. It was a good move skipping the Fountain of Youth Stakes with him considering how powerful a race he ran in the Holy Bull. He is the new prototype for a Kentucky Derby winner, running just off the pace, and if he can come close to duplicating his Holy Bull performance going 1 1/8 miles, then you have to start thinking that he just may be able to get those 10 furlongs.
That’s more like it. His most recent five-furlong work in a bullet :59 was by far the best he’s had this year and was the fastest of 61 works at the distance. I have always felt his grinding style of running would suit him being on or just off the pace, and this time Bob Baffert had him break off in front of his workmate, and he was flawless, doing everything in a professional manner and galloping out strong. He seemed much more focused and happy to be on the lead this time. He was striding out beautifully in the final furlong and continued at a brisk pace past the wire, cutting the corner sharply into the clubhouse turn, which is always something you want to see. He is going to meet some stiff competition in Saturday’s Rebel Stakes and a big field, so post position is going to be important. After this work, assuming he breaks sharply, you can bet he will be close to, or on the pace, using his ability to maintain a strong pace and sustain it a long way. Remember, he does have a ton of stamina top and bottom. He did show in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity that he can close from off the pace and get up, but that was a much easier setup for him than what he’ll likely face on Saturday. Although he will face some talented local horses, he’ll have a distinct class edge.
I admit I am totally clueless what to do with this horse. I never thought I would I even rank a horse with two lifetime starts and none in a stakes in the Top 12, never mind this high. But then again part of me feels he should be even higher. That will require a little more thought.
It is difficult to deny that this colt might be something out of the ordinary. We did see another extraordinary horse go into his final Derby prep having only a maiden race and a one-mile allowance race under him, and that was Big Brown. After the Florida Derby he became the overwhelming favorite for the Kentucky Derby, despite his three starts. Could we see that again? Heck, he’s almost there now. Certainly the masses think this is a freak of a racehorse, making him the 6-1 favorite in Churchill Downs’ third Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool, which borders on insanity at this point in his career. But that is the spell he has cast.
I have come to terms that racing has changed dramatically, with a “less is more” mentality. We went 93 years without a horse winning the Derby with only three career starts until Big Brown did it. We went 24 years (and 36 years before that) without a horse winning the Derby with only two starts at 3, and now, not only do horses win the Derby with two starts all the time, it is the preference of many trainers. And is it finally time for the so-called Apollo curse to join the others in the graveyard of historical trends?
As for Justify, all you have to do is watch him. Although he’s only run twice, he does things other horses just don’t do and does it with the utmost ease. The way he cut the corner into the stretch in Sunday’s stroll in the park shows how athletic he is, especially for a big strong horse. And you can’t even see this horse change leads he does it so smoothly. To win that easily and still earn a reported 101 Beyer Speed Figure is pretty remarkable. He makes his rider nothing more than a passenger and uses his enormous stride to bury his opponents without taking a deep breath. And if you look at him close up, he has the proverbial look of eagles.
Yes, it is easy to get carried away with a beast like this, but, as Bob Baffert admitted, he still has to get lucky. And by winning his races so easily against inferior competition, what is he going to do when he has to outrun Bolt d’Oro and Instilled Regard with only two easy wins under him? Can’t wait to find out. So, for now I will put the history books away, rank him somewhere in the middle at No. 7 and try to figure out just how much of a freak this horse is.
I admit I am late to jump on this colt’s bandwagon; out of sight, out of mind. Watching all his races, he just has the look of a class horse, and it takes a very good horse to win the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby in his 3-year-old debut, and in a dogfight all the way with a very fast horse. He had to be good enough to put away a horse in World of Trouble who had won the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes at Tampa by almost 14 lengths is a blistering 1:21 2/5 and then hold off a horse (Flameaway) who had won the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa in stakes-record time. And he did it coming off a 3 ½-month layoff.
Watching his previous races, you cannot ask a first-time starter to be any gamer than he was in his career debut, losing the lead twice to the favorite and battling back with a final thrust at the wire. It was a tremendous display of a horse’s will to win. In his second start, going two turns, he was very green in the stretch, switching leads all over the place, yet still drew off to win by 6 ½ lengths. In the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, he broke from post 11 and didn’t have the clearest of runs, stuck between horses all the way down the backstretch and having to steady behind the leaders. He could do no better than seventh, but it is important to note that five horses in that field have come back to win stakes this year, four of them graded – Quip, Enticed, Promises Fulfilled, Bravazo, and Reride. In the Tampa Bay Derby, Florent Geroux had a good hold of him early as he settled beautifully just off World of Trouble. The first inclination of how good a horse Quip is came around the far turn when Jose Lezcano had Flameaway in a full-out drive right behind him, but he couldn’t make up an inch of ground, despite Geroux not even moving on Quip. His closing two fractions of :24 2/5 and :06 2/5 were excellent. I love this horse’s presence and his way of going, and if you have no idea who Rodolphe Brisset is, trust me, he is an excellent horseman, having worked for Bill Mott for many years. Brisset was in charge of some of Mott’s biggest horses, like Royal Delta, when they shipped to the Breeders’ Cup. Talking to him and watching him, he is the kind of young fresh trainer I would want handling my horses.
From a visual standpoint, this colt has Kentucky Derby written all over him and he looked great in the post parade and looked equally as great coming back after his Gotham Stakes victory, strutting along as if the race took nothing out of him. He had to run down a strong horse on a clear lead and still won under wraps in the final 70 yards. And those Maryland shippers are never to be taken lightly. Although the time of 1:38 1/5 was very slow for Derby hopefuls, it was another of those dead Aqueduct winter tracks. Top-class sprinters went 1:11 1/5 in the Tom Fool Handicap and allowance horses dawdled in 1:20 1/5 for 6 ½ furlongs. But more importantly, the two other stakes on the card, both at a mile for older horses, were
run in 1:38 flat. However, it must also be noted that in both those races the winners came home the final half in :50 2/5 and :50 3/5, while the last half of the Gotham was run in :51 2/5, with Enticed coming home his final quarter in :26 flat. But again, he was being eased late, so all in all his time fits right in with the other races. It is hard to tell what all that means. It is also hard to tell what his drubbing in the Holy Bull Stakes means, except that he has now put that race behind him and is back in top form. According to Daily Racing Form, Enticed did earn a 95 Beyer figure in the Gotham, so that makes it a pretty fast run race under the circumstances. As mentioned earlier, the form of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes that he won has really held up this year, with five horses in the field winning stakes (four of them graded) and one finishing second in a graded stakes. He has the pedigree and the looks and we’ll see if he can continue moving forward. With Godolphin announcing the injury to Avery Island, who they currently regard as questionable for the Kentucky Derby, it looks as if Enticed, at this point, will be the stable’s lone U.S. representative.
He was forced to come from off the pace in the Tampa Bay Derby after breaking a bit slowly. It took him a while to get going, and he couldn’t match strides with Quip, while being asked on the far turn. Twice he ducked in from a right-hand whip in the stretch, but finally leveled off inside the eighth pole and found his best stride late, coming home the final sixteenth a little over :06 flat and galloping out strongly.
So this was new territory for him, this year at least, and although you would like to have seen more of a response when asked on the turn and a straighter path down the stretch, he did show that he can come from off the pace and run well, and he should appreciate it when the distances stretch out. This now gives him more options and showed he doesn’t have to be a prisoner of the pace. He did show last year he can come from off the pace, and you had to be encouraged at least by the way he came home the final sixteenth and the way he was striding out at the end. You also have to take into account that he had a very hard race in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, fighting off a good horse like Catholic Boy the length of the stretch, and it took Catholic Boy over three weeks before he returned to the work tab.
11. Instilled Regard
The better the California horses look the better he looks, and right now, the California horses are starting to look awfully good at the top, with the San Felipe finally providing some clarity to the Derby picture and the emergence of Justify. He demonstrated his sharpness and how well he recovered from a fourth-place finish in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford by working five furlongs in a bullet :59 1/5, fastest of 19 works at the distance. It looks as if he will stay home this time and run in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby against Bolt d’Oro and likely Justify, and he just needs to be competitive and closing well to move on to Kentucky in good form.
There are numerous reasons I believe he ran a subpar race in the Risen Star, as mentioned in last week’s Dozen. He seems to have gotten shoved under most people’s radar, but if you’re willing to forgive the Risen Star, his performances in the Lecomte Stakes and Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity against McKinzie and Solomini make him a very serious contender, especially with his stamina-oriented pedigree. He just has to make sure there is no more ducking in from the whip and he reverts back to his previous races, where he was much more professional.
Trainer Dale Romans said he still doesn’t know where the bottom is on this colt, but he issued a challenge to all those who dare run with him, saying that he is announcing now that in his next two races, the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, he again will be hitting the gas out of the gate and is “going wire to wire.” It worked for him in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, so Romans feels why mess with a good thing.
Breaking from the outside post in the Fountain of Youth, Romans knew he couldn’t afford a slow break, so he made his decision to send the colt right out of the gate at the last minute and not “monkey around with what he does best.” Romans also was thrilled with the fact that the colt hadn’t run since November and still finished up strongly and that no one passed him galloping out. Like his sire Shackleford, he can carry his speed a long way. How long a way is the big question. Having trained Shackleford, his first and only classic winner, Romans said seeing this colt run such a big race was like “watching your grandchild out there.” He calls Promises Fulfilled a little machine, and knew he had a special horse when he came off the fastest seven furlongs ever run at Keeneland by a 2-year-old and wound up popping a splint in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and was getting out the whole way, yet still finished third.
Knocking At the Door
I hated to drop Free Drop Billy, but there just wasn’t any room left. I have to give him another chance after dropping back to a one-turn mile over a dead racetrack, and he did seem to be laboring after having a not-so-ideal trip stuck behind and between horses down the backstretch and then making a bit of a run on the far turn. But the other reason I couldn’t keep him in Top 12 as that he was two lengths behind Enticed at the quarter pole, more than four lengths behind him at the eighth pole, and nearly seven lengths behind him at the wire. Obviously, you would rather see that reversed. This was after finishing 9 ¼ lengths in front of him in the Holy Bull. The one positive is that he pulled away from Firenze Fire in the final furlong, finishing 2 ½ lengths ahead of him, after the two passed the eighth pole heads apart. I would just like to see a bit more turn of foot from him. Although I felt he ran really well in the Holy Bull, he has now lost three straight by decisive margins and needs to rebound over his favorite track in the Blue Grass Stakes. If he can run big again, like he did when he dusted Bravazo in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity last fall, then he will return to being a serious Derby contender. He gets one more chance.
Of the other beaten horses over the weekend, I was quite surprised to see the addition of blinkers on Vino Rosso coming off a good third, where he put it in high gear late and finished strongest of all against two very good horses. He looked to be progressing nicely without them and has always had a good mind. In the Tampa Bay Derby, he looked to be a bit keen racing in third right behind the leaders and then just dropped out of contention. He did seem to find his legs again late, and although beaten six lengths, he did gallop out past everyone on the turn. It could have been that the addition of blinkers meant nothing and he just takes too long to find his best stride, at least at Tampa, with or without them. But they sure didn’t help him on Saturday and he regressed off his performance in the Sam F. Davis. I would like to see what he can do coming from farther back and stretching out in distance without the blinkers. I still believe he’s a talented horse who just hasn’t been able to put it all together yet. But he is still lightly raced and I feel he will rebound off this race.
One thing we have learned is you always have to respect Maryland shippers, and once again we saw the reason why when Old Time Revival, coming off a neck defeat in the Miracle Wood Stakes, put quite a scare in everyone by opening a clear lead after turning for home in the Gotham Stakes and then battling back gamely when challenged by Enticed, only to give way in the final sixteenth. But he still finished four lengths ahead of Free Drop Billy in third. The plan now is to come back in the Wood Memorial on April 7.
Sitting just outside the Top 12 is Southwest Stakes winner My Boy Jack. Trainer Keith Desormeaux is confident in the colt’s ability and feels he is moving forward, but admits frankly that he, too, wonders if the muddy track at Oaklawn Park moved him up. What makes him confident, however, is that My Boy Jack works just as good on a fast track and he said he was pumped after the Sham Stakes when he ran third behind McKinzie after having to be restrained early. He said that is when he knew he had a serious horse. He had been contemplating a return to Oaklawn for the Rebel Stakes, but found out that it is not equal weights, so he began thinking of other options, and the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby with its 170 total points, compared to 85 points for the Rebel, and equal weights looked to be the better choice.
The chances of having a strong European presence at the Kentucky Derby increased dramatically when two horses who are nominated to the Triple Crown, Gronkowski and Mendelssohn, earned valuable points by capturing Derby preps in England and Ireland respectively, run over an all-weather surface. Both colts scored workmanlike victories in a manner that suggests they should improve in their final preps. Gronkowski, trained by Jeremy Noseda, is headed to the U.S. to compete in either the Wood Memorial or Blue Grass Stakes, while Mendelssohn, trained by Aidan O’Brien, will travel to Dubai for the March 31 UAE Derby to take on Godolphin’s Gold Town, who romped in the UAE Two Thousand Guineas and the Guineas prep in his first two races on dirt.
Mendelssohn, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, defeated stablemates Threeandfourpence and Seahenge, both of whom are also nominated to the Triple Crown.
O’Brien felt Mendelssohn, a half-brother to champion Beholder and top sire Into Mischief, was a bit rusty in his first start since October, but was happy to get him back to the races. As for Threeandfourpence and Seahenge, who both ran excellent races, there is the one-mile Burradon conditions stakes at Newcastle in England March 20, which is worth 30 points to the winner.
Two days before Mendelssohn’s victory in the Patton Stakes at Dundalk, Gronkowski, who had scored by 4 ½ lengths over the all-weather surface at Chelmsford in November, earned his ticket to America by winning the Kentucky Derby conditions stakes at Kempton. Gronkowski, of course, is named after New England Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski.
With the possibility of also getting a representative from Japan for the Derby, it is conceivable that foreign horses could take up anywhere from four to five spots in the Derby field. That no doubt would cause quite an uproar from U.S. owners and trainers who have horses that normally would have made the Derby field, but are left out this year, as more and more foreign Derby preps are being added.
The points leader in Japan is Hyacinth Stakes (30 points) winner Sumahama, with Ruggero, winner of the Cattleya Sho and third in the Hyacinth, earning 16 points.
For anyone who believes Marconi has regressed following his fifth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and is not Derby material, he actually made a fairly big move forward on Thoro-Graph off his first three starts, and one more move forward makes him competitive with many of the contenders. We can’t really judge this horse until we see him go 1 1/8 miles, and not at Gulfstream. Right now, he would look to be a good fit for the Wood Memorial, where he has a first, second, and third in three starts over that track. No, he’s not the swiftest horse, but with the right pace and right distance he can just keep coming at you.
Dale Romans said he will run Storm Runner back in the Florida Derby along with Promises Fulfilled. As mentioned, Storm Runner received a dreadful ride, making a dramatic and premature move, as if were intent of getting the lead, when he was forced to steady and just seemed to lose interest after that. Had he gotten through, he would have taken on his own stablemate, Promises Fulfilled, which is the last thing Romans would have wanted. Romans still feels he is a very talented colt and deserves another chance in the Florida Derby, where he should run a much-improved race. Romans also said that Hollywood Star, who turned in that brilliant five-furlong grass work in :57 1/5 two weeks ago, will run next in Saturday’s Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park on Polytrack.
Bob Baffert will be represented in one of his favorite races, the March 25 Sunland Derby, by Restoring Hope, who is way under the radar even in the Baffert barn, but who looks to be a horse with a great deal of promise.
One of the top early Derby contenders, Mask, impressive winner of both his career starts, including a romp in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, returned to the worktab after suffering a setback, breezing three furlongs in :36 1/5 at Palm Meadows.
In addition to Solomini, the Rebel Stakes could attract top-class horses Sporting Chance and Combatant, as well as lightly raced up-and-comers Magnum Moon, Curlin’s Honor, and Higher Power, a horse on whom I have always been very high. I am also looking for big improvement from Combatant, who just needs a race that sets up for him more than his previous three starts. If l were looking for a huge bomb in the Future Wager I would love to have him at 57-1. If there are new stars ready to explode on the scene it very well could be Magnum Moon and Curlin’s Honor, both undefeated in two starts and both with bright futures. So the Rebel is shaping up as a very intriguing race. Magnum Moon showed his sharpness by breezing five furlongs in 1:00 3/5.
D. Wayne Lukas has both his Derby hopefuls razor sharp. Sporting Chance worked a bullet half in :47 breezing, fastest of 21 works at the distance, while Louisiana Derby hopeful Bravazo, winner of the Risen Star Stakes, went five furlongs in a bullet 1:00 flat, fastest of eight works at the distance.